For ex-exec Judi Helmholz there was something missing in corporate life. She found it in the bush of Zambia.
Helmholz-who has been known to carry an AK-47 in the bush and has led Class 5 whitewater expeditions in Turkey, Zambia, Australia and Indonesia-has encountered all sorts of 'Wild Kingdom' situations during her tenure in Zambia. But as the former Californian says, 'That's Africa, baby. Things like that happen every day.'
It's not the sort of life she used to have as a marketing consultant in the San Francisco Bay area. Back then, she was on the fast track to, well, nowhere she really wanted to go. 'Achieve, achieve, pursue, climb the corporate ladder-this was what was drilled into me,' she declares. 'I had a great life in the States, but it wasn't necessarily my life. I was this corporate woman, very much a quintessential yuppie. I had my BMW and cellular phone-but I felt like someone else was the captain of my life.'
Like another woman who found the reins in the bush, Helmholz fell under the spell of Africa. 'As a little kid I loved animals,' she explains. 'Out of Africa was my favorite movie when it came out. I just always had this desire to come here.' She got the opportunity when her parents planned a safari in Tanzania. Struggling with a failing marriage, Helmholz arranged to meet them in Africa. While making her way across Kenya for the rendezvous, she fell in love with the wildness, the utter unpredictability of life in the bush. A few years later, the Dark Continent called her back for good.
Four years ago she and her second husband, Arthur Sonnenberg, bought a chicken farm 15 miles from Victoria Falls near the Zimbabwe-Zambia border. There, worlds collide to create an amalgam of Yankee industry and African tribalism. It's a land where witch doctors instill more fear than the government, where attempted coups rise and fall in the course of an afternoon, and where electricity and supplies are as predictable as the weather.
'This is the land of 'MacGyver,'' laughs Helmholz, who says that her husband takes after TV's fix-it man. 'In Zambia you have to make everything yourself. If you need new furniture, you have to build it. If you need a refrigerator, don't expect an icemaker. And if you need a stove, be prepared to shell out $1,000. As it turns out, the stove has become home to a colony of mice.
'There is no Maytag man out here,' she cracks. A broken compressor for the farm's industrial freezer took two months and an eight-hour drive to retrieve from Victoria Falls. And price is always a matter of lively debate. 'You bring in your car to get fixed and they give you a quote, then when you pick it up, it's 500 times higher.'
A couple of years ago, she came across a colonial farmer, a 60-something-year-old man who had been born and raised in Zambia. 'We asked him, 'How long do you have to be here before you can truly understand how things work in this country?' He said, 'I can't answer that. You'll have to ask someone who has been here longer.''
For almost 30 years Zambia was the socialist domain of Kenneth Kaunda, and it has only recently moved to a market economy. Its first democratic election, in 1991, replaced Kaunda with Frederick Chiluba, who's had his hands full lately with alleged coups and plots. He's threatening to put Kaunda, whom he had placed under house arrest, on trial. This former southern half of British-run Rhodesia is not yet a beacon of stability.
But that's okay with Helmholz, who prefers life on the edge. Her first college job was as a sound engineer for bands like the Outlaws and the Tubes. She graduated from UC Davis in communications/rhetoric and hopped the corporate train. By the time she was 27, she was a director of communications, successful-and bored.
In her spare time, Helmholz got involved in river conservation and trained to become a rafting guide for a company that served the disabled. She left the corporate world and plunged into river trips, storming down torrents around the world. She ran the Zambezi program for Mountain Travel-Sobek, and has captained or led other commercial excursions on the Ayung in Bali and the B?o B?o in Chile. A couple of serious brushes with death led her to leave the river business for a while. I felt like I'd played the rafting wheel of fortune and won, she says. 'But I just didn't want to push my luck.'
Over the next few years, her first marriage would dissolve but her next life would begin. She was invited back to Africa to join a reconnaissance safari and decided to stay for good. She renewed an acquaintance with her future husband, who was working for Sobek Lodges, to develop a camp within Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park. The two wound up patrolling poacher-ridden parks together for the Honorary Wildlife Police-Helmholz becoming one of the first female members of the force in park history. Her job is to help protect endangered wildlife within the bound-aries of Mosi-oa-Tunya, serving on the front lines with anti-poaching teams.
The work has presented some harrowing moments, like a night patrol in search of Zimbabwean poachers on the Zambezi. After the smugglers were surrounded on an island in the river, shooting broke out. 'It was dark and there was a lot of shooting going on, and nobody was sure who was shooting at whom. In the end, they got away. It was a very uncomfortable situation.'
With Victoria Falls and nearby game parks such as Zambezi National Park and Chobe National Park, Livingstone has become a hub of tourism-and of more and more appetites, which Helmholz decided to satisfy with chicken. Thus was born Zambezi Nkuku (Zambezi Chicken, in English), purveyor of poultry to safari lodges and tourist-related businesses as well as to local shoppers. 'As chicken farmers, we're like rock stars,' says Helmholz. 'We get such a wonderful response from the community. The Zambians love chicken.'
What they really love, though, is Smarts and Parts-leftover pieces from the 50,000 chickens that pass through Zambezi Nkuku each year.
'We were trying to figure out what to do with the chicken heads and intestines from our automated processing,' Helmholz adds. 'So we packed them together in kilo bags and called the new product Smarts and Parts. It's so popular that we can't keep enough in stock. Go figure!
'Sometimes I feel like my life has been a little wheel of fortune that spins and lands on different opportunities. Only something so random can explain all the wonderful and unusual experiences I've had. I believe you can wait for things to happen, or you can take what life gives and create something.'
Some of her colleagues back home, she says, might think her leap from marketing meetings to an African chicken farm a bit odd. But, she adds, 'I haven't lost the plot. I don't feel so much that I have to prove myself or justify to the outside world that what I'm doing is rational. I feel like I have a lot more freedom now. It's no longer this pressure to live a certain way. Life is good.'
FromEscape(July 1999). Subscriptions: $18/yr. (4 issues) from Box 462255, Escondido, CA 92046.