“You will love Africa; it will become part of you, and every day that you are away from her you will sit silently pining away for your mistress. She will control you, and yes…she may kill you… she tends to do these things, for she is both loving and paradoxically cruel at the same time. For this you will embrace her. When you leave you will glance down from your airplane window struggling to figure out how you can return.”
I remembered this missive as I crawled along the red dirt in KwaZulu Natal. It was day five of my safari, and I was hunting kudu. Somewhere, hidden in the acacia trees, were at least three bulls we had spotted earlier: two juveniles, and a mature beast with spectacular spiral horns… and, yes… he was quite aware he was being hunted.
Not everyone is a hunter. This is not a pejorative statement. We come from two distinct genealogical lines. Some of us, millions of years ago, began the process of growing our own food; others continued along the path of hunting animals for protein. These ancestors of ours intermingled, intermarried, and, in some instances, just procreated for fun. Regardless, we have come down the line with some of us more “hunting-oriented” than others. To force a non-hunter to take an animal for sport or sustenance is as much an abomination to nature as preventing a hunter from doing the same.
I am a hunter, though. I am a Bwana.
I had always considered myself more of a “North American” sportsman than an international hunter. I was quite content to regale myself in the mega fauna that present itself here in the States.
African hunting was intriguing, but scared the piss out of me.
I had read Rurak and Capastik, and while there was a certain romanticism in the 1960’s prose these two authors crafted in their stories, I was not yet sold. Then I watched the Ghost and the Darkness with Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas and became truly terrified.
But there was something, something that lurked in me, and ironically came from an exceedingly artificial place. As many of you know, and as I have written about before, I spent my formative years as a Jungle Cruise skipper at Disneyland. These daily sojourns through the darkest rivers of Anaheim did spark a slow kindling interest in possibly, one day, going on safari. But, to say that I was “chomping at the bit” for the opportunity would be wholly disingenuous. I was interested, but the interest was tempered with a healthy trepidation.
In my early twenties I became a member of Safari Club International, which, in essence, is a hunting organization. Many of the members are longtime Africa hunters, but there were many members like myself, who had never taken a rifle out of the country. It was during one of our fundraiser dinners I found myself the unlikely winning recipient of a safari in Africa, specifically geared towards taking a nyala.
After it was announced I won the hunt, I was approached by a very serious international hunter, who had coerced the outfitter in Africa to donate the hunt to our chapter. Lou was significantly older than I, and had been a hunter his entire life. His adventures ranged from South America, to Africa, to Mongolia, and he was the one who spoke those prosaic words to me that appear at the beginning of this blog.
I was grateful for the opportunity, of course, but not entirely sure that Africa would provide the transformative experience he suggested it would.
Sandy would be traveling with me, and much like myself, had never really harbored a deep burning desire to travel to Subsaharan Africa. But she is a trooper, and together we began the process of preparing for our trip.
Fast forward a few months and I am on my stomach making my way through the fallen acacia branches and their infernal spikes, slowly making my way towards the group of kudu, my .375 Holland and Holland on my back getting snagged in the foliage.
By this point I had already bagged a couple of impalas, a zebra, and, of course, my nyala… but this was to be the “big one”. The kudu is called the “Grey Ghost of Africa” and the moniker exists for a reason. They are supernaturally large, somewhat similar to a clydesdale, grey with a white chevron on their face, and exquisite black horns that spiral from above their ears outwards, each tip counterbalanced with ivory contrasted with the ebony base. They are also 100% silent. These giants move through the forest with a delicacy and stealthiness that would give pause to the most accomplished ballerina of the Bolshoi. They are elusive and wicked, and they are well aware of it.
Suddenly we froze in place. 50 meters ahead of us a single kudu stared intently at our progress from between two branches. The only part of his body he presented to us was his face. Those black eyes and that white chevron rigidly fixed on our position. His horns were obscured by the trees… and he knew it. We knew there were three of them in the vicinity, but only one had large enough horns to mark him as quarry. Was he the “one”? We had no idea, and he knew we had no idea, and he relished in our dilemma.
For over an hour I watched him through my scope, waiting to see if he would dip his head and present his horns for verification before I shot. I could feel the warmth of the African June causing sweat to form on my neck, and I was beginning to see my vision blur from dehydration.
I was not a “viewer” of nature; I was a “participant” of nature. I was an apex predator, claiming my position on the food chain, and before me stood 1400 pounds of protein that would feed the Zulu Village (who controlled this territory and would be receiving the meat from my kill) for almost a week. This was not “sport” as many would have you believe, there were real life consequences for both success and failure.
Suddenly, and without warning, the kudu dropped his head and revealed itself to be the patriarch. Massive horns came into view. I moved my finger to the trigger, but it was too late. He was gone. Disappeared. Without a sound.
I placed my head down on my rifle and chuckled, so did my guide. Two and a half hours of our hunt had just come to an end, and no shot was fired. We slowly began the arduous process of retracing our crawl.
As we arrived back at the safari vehicle, tired and blood dripping from our scratches, Sandy looked down on us from her perch in the seats mounted above the cab. Camera in hand she told us that just minutes ago three kudu came barreling out of the forest, ran across her path and disappeared into the brush on the other side of the road. She could not hear a sound as these massive creatures ran just a few meters in front of her. You could still see the look of awe in her eyes.
Contrary to what many think, hunting is not killing. Killing can be a part of hunting, but it is not a foregone conclusion. This hunt, this glorious experience, still remains one of my three all time great adventures, and not a shot was fired.
True enough, a few days later Sandy and I were in an airplane that had just departed from Johannesburg en route to Dulles by way of Dakar. As I looked down from the window, I saw the red soil of Africa slowly moving away from us as we gained altitude. The only thing I could think of was how and when I would return.
My old friend and fellow Bwana was right… Africa is a mistress you cannot help but fall deeply in love with.