Africa Calling

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.’

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.

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