Africa Calling

For ex-exec Judi Helmholz there was something missing in corporate life. She found it in the bush of Zambia.


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There is no movie theater near Judy Helmholz's place outside Livingstone, Zambia, but the corporate exec turned river guide and chicken farmer doesn't need the help of Hollywood. The set's right outside. There are crocs and elephants in her backyard-the Zambezi River-baboons after groceries in her truck and the occasional cobra lounging in her open-air kitchen.

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.'






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