Read an Excerpt
Peter Capstick's Africa
"Through the back of the head," whispered Gordon Cundill in the tiniest of tones.
Keeping my eyes locked on the hazy outline of the huge lion, I eased the .375 H&H Magnum to my shoulder. Even through the low setting of the variable scope, his head looked like a small townhouse with excess shrubbery, just a peripheral halo of mane and mass, facing nearly away from me. With an imperceptable snick, I flipped the magnetic scope post into position, held as best I could through the heat waves reflected by the searing Botswana sun that would have staggered a Venetian glass-blower, and leveled at the spot where I reckoned his head met his neck. High, I would take the base of the skull; low, and the spine wouldbe shattered. Either way, a record-book lion for the wall.
If I pulled the shot aside on a horizontal angle, however, both Gordon and I knew what would happen.
After five and a half days of tracking and two close encounters of the worst kind, I could only see a long, grass-shielded impression of the Tau entunanyana as he is so pronounced in Tswanajust his head; one ear and the curve of his skull. I knew he was accompanied by a female, with whom he had been doing what came naturally but at a rate and frequency that would astonish any human. (How's about a roll in the hay every twenty minutes? Maybe you, brother, are up to such acrobatics but I have had back problems recently.) I lined up the sights, knowing the 300-grain Winchester Silvertip would have to bull through considerable bush and grass, and aware that a deflection was not only possible but probable. I eased off the trigger of the custom Mauser anyway.
That was a major and very nearly fatal error.
Whether through bush deflection, lousy shooting (for which I am not especially known), or simple bad luck, the tremendous lion jumped fifteen feet into the air, swapped ends, and came down in what was most certainly our direction. I believe that he charged the sound of the shot, rather than Gordon, Karonda the gun bearer, and me, as our cover was as good as his. With more than five hundred pounds of male lion coming at us as quickly as he could manage, however, the matter was academic and fast becoming immediate. Unfortunately, he had to clear some heavy cover, mostly mopane scrub, before we could take a second whack at him and have, even in African terms, a relatively clear shot.
He broke around a clump of mopane some ten yards from where he had been lying with his paramour, in company with two fully grown but nontrophy-sized lions. When I tell you that he charged, I use the term not lightly. He wanted us. Badly. Later, we were to discover one of several good reasons was that he contained a not inconsiderable amount of buckshot in his guts, about the American equivalent of a Double-0. They were old wounds but had still made a clear impression on his future attitude toward humans.
As he rounded the clump of bush, you can absolutely bet that I had one thing on my mind: putting as many 300-grain bullets into that bastard as soon as possible and before our acquaintance became any more intimate. I had been knocked down by lions seriously intent on biting me on a couple of previous occasions and was not especially eager to repeat the scenario.
I found out later (although I do notremember hearing it at the time, so intense was my concentration in trying to kill the goddamn thing) that he was roaring fit to blow the leaves off the trees and the calluses off your right foot. Lord, but that was one awfully angry lion. (I suppose that had I just caught a .375 Silvertip at the base of the neck, I would have shared his sentiments.)
I shall never forget the gleam of his amber and anthracite eyes through the scope when he got into thinner cover only a few yards away. They glistened and glimmered in the hot sun above the crosshairs and post of the Bushnell scope like uncut gems, radioactive orbs centered on one thing:
I have no idea why everything tries to eat me. Maybe it's my breath. In any case, this was becoming a rather serious matter, especially when I heard a very strange sound just off to my left: a click, followed after perhaps a second and a half by a tremendous boom! I knew, of course, that it was Gordon firing his .500 Westley Richards Nitro-Express double rifle in a rather fervent attempt to keep the lot of us alive.
The only problem was that his ammo was defective and, after four attempts, Gordon had had three hangfires and one complete dud. It was a rifle worth more than a fine sports car (one of three he owns by noted craftsmen/manufacturers), and it had to be just our luck that when our lives were on the absolute line, his big borewhich should have been the precise item required to keep us all paying taxesfailed. Or, to be fair, at least the ammo did.
I shifted my sight to adjust to the fact that the lion was coming in at a five-degree angle and smashed a bullet right where it should have counted, smack in the middle of the chest. Okay, I knew that a .375 H&H Silvertip right through the engine room of anything less than a Tyrannosaurus rex was going to have a very negative effect on the chances of your becoming a grandfather. Gordon and Karonda knew the same thing.
The lion didn't.
He at least swerved at a few yards, and, with a dexterity I thought long gone, I worked the bolt and got a fresh round up the spout. As he turned, I thought, Aha! Gotcha!
I have not yet had the chance to examine the skull of that grand beast, but I can tell you with a dozen witnesses, three of whom were on the spot when the incident occurred, that I shot that bloody lion exactly behind the base of the left ear. Precisely what the damage was has not yet been determined, but it sure as hell wasn't enough. He spun and came straight for usand when a lion does that from a few yards, you had betterhave the ammo belt in the Maxim if you want to see the home airfield again.
Gordon's .500 Nitro slapped me again as I heard a peripheral clickboom! Another hangfire!
To say that this lion had me highly motivated would be an extreme understatement. There have probably been men who have worked a Mauser bolt-action faster, but I am inclined to at least give myself the benefit of a tie. I claim not the record, but I will tell you that there was a fourth round in my chamber in an astonishing hurry. As the lion continued his spin, I smacked him up the butt in an attempt to smash the pelvic girdle. Although the bullet hole was not more than an inch from his evacuating mechanism, I might as well have missed the bastard completely. It just made him madder and, trust me, he was mad enough to start with after my first shot.
I heard the snap of Gordon's striker on the .500 again, but this time there was no report at all. Meanwhile, the bloody thing was damned near on us, so old Karonda, the eighty-year-old Subiya gun bearer, decided to have a go at him with the spare .375 he was carrying. I saw it blow a clump of turf into the air some six feet behind the lion, though he later swore he had shot it through the hips. (There was no such bullet mark, more to our bad luck, as Karonda had once saved Gordon's life from a highly imminent lioness under very similar circumstances.)
I believe high-school boys have a term for the position we were now in but it is not for family reading.
I was carrying nine cartridges, all 300-grain Silvertips, and had thus far shot that cat twice through the head, once through the chest, and again up the arse. Gordon, through what I consider magnificent shooting, considering his hangfires, had to date placed at least one big soft-point through his guts. It's not the kind of shot that does much to break a lion down but, let's face it, it must be to some degree discouraging.
Having by now clearly seen us, the brute finished his turn and came straight for us. He was one hell of a lot bigger than the lions you see on television, at the circus, or in the zoo, and I want to tell you he was most definitely on a kamikaze mission. I slammed him again in the chest, which, according to all the textbooks as well as my own work and experience, should have cooled him down considerably. This was, however, not a cooperative lion. I don't think he could read.
You must understand that all this sort of thing goes on in a matter of secondsif you're that luckyand it is pure reflex that keeps you alive or gets you killed with amazing rapidity. You just don'tfool around with wounded, charging, record-book lions. Not very often, you don't.
I had now shot him four times, as I said; twice through the noggin, once in the chest, and once more in unspeakable places. Gordon had by that point gotten at least one 570-grain soft-point into him andit all happened so fastperhaps a second. (Hitting a running lion at that speed with three hangfires and a dud and connecting with two of the three rounds that actually fired is an amazing feat of marksmanship and shows the kind of, shall we say, intestinal fortitude with which Gordon Cundill is gifted.)
I carry a custom Mauser-action, Blin-dee-barreled, bolt-action .375 by theContinental Arms Corporation of New York. I had it made to hold six cartridges. If one loads directly from the action, however, there is always the risk of breaking the extractor, which is precisely what you don't need in the middle of a safari, let alone a lion charge. I therefore carry four rounds in the magazine and one in the chamber with the hammer down. My last shot was in the chamber of the barrel.
The lion finished his spin and resumed his charge. Gordon was off to my left and Karonda just to my right. As the beast whirled around, I stuck the last round in the rifle into his shoulder and aimed for his spine. It was the only lousy shot I made, just an inch high. It could have cost us our lives. No two ways: I blew it.
My rifle was now empty. Gordon's insurance gun, his dinosaur-stopping .500 Nitro-Express double, didn't work. It very much appeared that my career at the typewriter and the Mauser would both be coming to rather dramatic ends in the next few seconds ... .
The tarmac of Jan Smuts Airport turned from coarse pavement to flowing black velvet as our plane gathered speed. I was sitting on the aisle, my wife Fiona in the middle, and Paul Kimble next to the window. One of the better-known South African photographers, I had "engaged" him for the trip. There would be others to follow.
Our destination was the Smoke That Thunders, the magnificent Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, where SAA flight #40 landed in fine style. Paul, Fiona, and I were met on the dot by Keith Essen, representing Hunters Africa, who whisked us through Customs despite our guns and the other paraphernalia sometimes queried by authorities in any country.
Our final destination was not Zimbabwe, howeverwhere I had spent time in the Matetsi region as a professional hunter during the bush war in the bloody days of the seventiesbut Botswana, and this was the easiest route.
Curiously, while at Vic Falls Airport, I ran into Eric Wagner, whom we wereshortly to visit. Eric was, at the time, the head of the Safari Club International Conservation Fund. He had, as Fate would have it, acquired the rights to Matetsi Unit #4, precisely my old stamping ground, and promptly invited our party down for a stay, provided the lion Gordon and I were about to assault did not do me first. Fair enough. I accepted, especially when I discovered that Eric had employed Stuart Campbell, my friend of some seventeen years, as his general manager.
We drove from Victoria Falls Airport (which I could barely leave with a dry eye, having met so many wonderful friends and clients there in the past) and turned off onto the old hunters' road to Pandamatenga. Our destination was Kasane, in Botswana, where we would take a flight by light aircraft to Saile airfield, only a few hundred yards from Saile Camp.
It seemed as if nothing had changed on the old Pandamatenga Road I had traveled so many times before. As Keith Essen expertly maneuvered us along, I even recognized individual trees. We had, however, a slight problem looming ahead.
Not many hours before, the South African Defence Force had carried out a preemptive strike against several strongholds harboring African National Congress terrorists in the capital city of Gaberone, way to the south. Now two of my party were holding South African passports, and I was wondering if there would be an international incident at Kasane that could possibly sabotage my safari plans.
I think that what is about to come is technically called a digression, but I shall do my best to deliver it accurately. Should you be going on safari, I hope you will take it as gospel. Africa today is not that of Robert Ruark in the early days. To highly (but not inaccurately) simplify matters, it seems there is now just one element that matters, especially in so-called emerging nations: power! Individually or on any other basis, it is the cornerstone of all black African society. When you enter Customs, as I shall vividly demonstrate later in this book, you may or may not understand precisely what I am saying but you will soon catch on. My observations are not intended as racial slurs but, as I have said in previous works, are a function of culture and of my personal experience.
The immense majority of Customs and Immigration officials are charmingly helpful in most emerging black African countries, especially those I visited for the purposes of this book. One does, however, run across the "new man" who is most anxious to obtain promotion byputting somebody in jail. That was bloody nearly me, and I have a low threshold for incarceration, especially in countries where the man on the street doesn't do very well feeding himself, let alone the poor bugger in the slammer. Spare me Third World slammers ... .
With all this chasing through my mind. we were promptly and without incident delivered at Kasane, which is the border post between Zimbabwe and Botswana in the far northeast of Botswana. I was sweating blood as well as more urgent juices as we approached the tiny concrete-and-corrugated-steel hut that housed the formalities of Customs.
No problem. My American passport as well as the South African documents were hardly glanced at. Honestly, in retrospect, I don't think that word of the strike on parts of Gaberone had reached Kasane yet.
After a brief stop at the Hunters Africa office in Kasane, we were then driven to the airstrip, accompanied by Peter Hepburn, Hunters Africa's manager there. Our pilot, a Frenchman called Luc, was already on hand, and it was less than an hour later that we landed as smoothly as pancake batter at the airstrip close to Saile Camp after a delightful flight in perfect weather.
Gordon was there in person to meet us, along with his entire African safari staff the damndest collection of charm and talent I've ever run across. Well, that's Gordon. If you're not the best, you don't work for him. Not for long you don't.
If you have spent any time in Africa, you may flatter yourself that you have a feeling for the people of the more remote tribes. In my case, considering the years I have spent in several African countries, my self-flattery is probably accurate. I have always had a rather indefinable affinity for the men I worked with, especially for those to whom I owe my life.
Gordon's personal crew consists of Mack, a Masarwa Bushman with classic peppercorn hair; Jehosephat, also a Masarwa and a very handsome, slenderly built man; Otesetswe, a member of the baYei people from the Maun area, farther to the south, and a fellow who could, I am sure, track a leopard up the vertical side of a basalt cliff; and Karonda, who truly has one of the most outstandingly striking faces of the "Old Africa" I have ever seen. He is a Subiya from a village north of Maun but whose ancestors lived in the Caprivi Strip for generations. (The Caprivi Strip is a slender tongue of land on the northern border of Botswana, facing Angola and part of Zambia, which was obtained as a concession by the Germans in 1880 when the present SouthWest Africa/Namibia was German South West Africa. Germany's idea at thetime was to find access to the sea.) I would have been proud to have had these men on my safari team anywhere.
The really interesting personality, however, was Karonda, the man who later stood his ground when the lion charged and proved that there was more between his legs than his loincloth. Nobody really knows how old Karonda is, including Karonda. Rural Africans often tend not to reckon age in the manner of whites, but are inclined to relate their births to one or another well-known happening. Karonda appears to be old enough that nothing of any particular import came to pass during the year he was born, so the exact date is lost. Gordon, who has spent his entire life among black Americans, reckons that Karonda is probably a shade over eighty, yet he can walk you and me into the ground and carry both our carcasses home, one over each shoulder ... an amazing man. (I was present once when Gordon asked Karonda if he remembered the First World War. The old man replied in dialect that as far as he was concerned, the whites were always fighting among themselves and he really couldn't keep their wars straight.)
If you spend any time at all with Karonda, you'll soon notice that he has but nine fingers; his left index is missing. Now there's a story worth telling.
During the mid-1970s, Karonda had a particularly good season as Gordon's gun bearer and one November he found himself with an exceptional amount of salary and clients' tips. Being a good hunter in every sense, he immediately concluded that he should dispose of such lucre in aid of the local economy, particularly in the acquisition of some cattle and a new wife, transactions he promptly went about securing.
He found and engendered the favor of a local lass, delivered the lobola of cattle, and went on his presumably merry way to his wedding bed. There was soon, however, some or other monumental difference of opinion, and the relationship was terminated when the new wife nearly severed Karonda's finger with the brilliant expediency of her teeth.
As I have observed elsewhere, everything in Africa bites. Karonda would agree.
You must understand that Karonda is not just another chap when it comes to the structure of his society. He is a senior headman in his home village, Shorobe, just north of Maun. This is no small position to hold in a culture as highly sensitive and ancient as his. You just don't bite the boss, and that point was made clear by Karonda with a large stick before driving his new ex-wife back home some two hundred miles on foot to her father. Oncethere, Karonda reclaimed the bride price cattle, promptly turned round, and then herded them back over the same two hundred-mile stretchall told, about four hundred miles on foot.
It was then that Karonda noticed he had a slight problem with his finger, and that some sort of infection was in fact proceeding up his hand and into his arm. It turned out to be blood poisoningand not an especially cheery case, at that. Doctors were able, after another hundred-plus-mile walk by Karonda, to save his life. His arm and hand, too. The finger? Forget it. It was only the old man's natural resistance to dying that pulled him through. Should you meet him one day, never ask about that missing finger. Point of honor, I suppose.
Gordon, after reciting the epic of Karonda to me, wandered off in search of a bourbon, muttering one of his usual Kiplingisms: "Which just goes to show that the female of the species is more deadly than the male ... ."
We drove from the airstrip in spotless hunting vehicles the few minutes to Saile Camp (pronounced Sigh-EEE-lay) and arrived in grand fashion as Gordon sorted out Paul, Fiona, and myself as to the peculiarities of how he liked to run things in camp. Somebody would say something original like "knock-knock" at the most inconceivable hour of the morning, there being no walls or doors to actually knock on, since we were using classic safari double-fly tents. Upon arising, the choice was then coffee, tea, or in my case, a cold beer, since I take medication that dehydrates me and precludes caffeine. Beer's more fun, anyway.
Saile, while not being an especially attractive camp, nevertheless has great charm. It lies directly on the Linyanti River, which is heavily vegetated with tall reeds, and is northeast of the Linyanti Swamp and southwest of Lake Liambezi not exactly Coney Island on the Fourth of July. Across this marshy, reed-filled river is the Caprivi Strip, which is controlled by South Africa. The camp itself, with its huge shady trees set amidst this wildly beautiful region's unthinkable variety of fauna, made the spot one of the most pleasant places I have huntedhad it not been for that bloody lion.
We spent the first afternoon outside the camp, rechecking the zero of the scope of my custom Mauser. At one hundred yards it shot five rounds within a half-dollar, whereas it normally placed as many within the diameter of a dime. Well, I put it down to inflation and decided to charge on.
Satisfied that the rifle was doing what it was supposed to do, and with evening falling fast, we headed back to camp. I normally keep the scope at about 31/2X-to 4X-power, but when we saw a verybig boar warthog jogging across the plain at a distance so great and in cover so thick that I will not relate it here lest I be accused of literary perfidyand when Gordon said, "Take him. We need camp meat"I switched to 8X-power.
I swallowed twice, stalked some three hundred yards from the vehicle, and caught a glimpse of the boar as he put things into overdrive. It's all automatic anyway, but I suppose, given his speed and distance, I held my sight a couple of warthogs ahead and across the level of his back. The sear of the Mauser broke and the firing pin fell. To the astonishment of everybody (including, I am positive, the warthog), he crashed into everything but flames, nailed just behind the ear.
When we got up to him and I saw the perfect running shot, I lost nothing in my reaction at Gordon's slap on the back. Mack was so excited at the prospect of meat that he put his lit cigarette backward into his mouth, reacting as might be imagined. Gordon and the whole crew collapsed with laughter.
"Sonofabitch," said I. "I was shooting for the earhole! The bloody shot's a good half-inch off." Disgusted, I stomped back to the vehicle with the flash of at least a few eye whites from a couple of the crew who knew some English. In any case, we had dinner.
If you have ever been on safari, you are aware that your status in the bloodshot eyes of the staff depends largely on the result of that first shot. If you luck into a spectacular performance, such as I had with that warthog, you're made. If you bugger up that first shot, however, through nerves, booze, or carelessness, it won't matter a damn to the gun bearers and trackers what you do afterward. You're a loser. If you can't shoot, you can't perform what to them is the essential function: putting meat on their table. You may, in their full sight thereafter, brain-shoot fleeing humming birds offhand at five hundred yards, but it will never be the same. Whether you can shoot or not, in their opinion, depends entirely on the initial results. That is, nyamameat. The fact that I later had to shoot my big lion so frequently and quickly meant nothing. It was the single round behind the warthog's ear that really got their attention.
Perhaps the essential reason that I chose Cundill to hunt with was his sense of ethics. Neither he nor I believe in shooting from cars or carrying on a safari in any manner other than traditionally. Dangerous game is taken up close and personally or it ceases to be dangerous game. It sounds hambone, but we both believe that honor comes before all. In sentiments such as these lie our personal and professional reputations and the maintenance of such. If you don't do it honorably, or if you take a step backward, you're no better than a bullfighter who runs or a kamikaze pilot with ninety-sevenmissions. One can hunt dangerous game or one can kill dangerous game. Both arrive at the same conclusion of the adventure, but the gulf in morality is immense.
When one considers a man of Gordon's cut, one must be careful not to let personal impressions color the actual man to anything but the true hue. I can simplify that by saying he is one of the three best professionals I have ever been in the field with, either professionally or as an amateur. When it comes to lions, I know of nobody better; and, as extraordinary company around a campfire, you would be hard-pressed to match him.
I had known Gordon for months before I learned that he was a Rhodes scholar with a degree in international law from Oxford University, so modest is the man. And this trait carries over into his business. Cundill is the "quietest" of the really good professional safari operators. He runs an absolute empire yet is as unassuming as you can imagine, despite being chairman of the board of the largest safari conglomerate in Africa. He is a hard but totally fair man whom I am proud to call my personal friend.
Gordon, as you can see from the photographs in this book, is well over six feet tall, stronger than a couple of Cape buffaloes, and able to walk your arse off from here to northern Ethiopia and back (if that's what they're still calling the place). He shot his first lion on what I secretly believe to have been his fiftieth birthday, which would have been some time in 1948. He is reputed to have been involved in the taking of another simba sometime in 1957, but this remains unconfirmed.
The curious thing, for such an "intrepid" lion hunteran adjective much favored by earlier writersis that he actually has people who care for him, despite his constant state of disarray. His sartorial splendor in the bush isto say the leasthighly individualistic, typified by his ever-present monocle. A glance at his lovely wife, Leslie, would knock out your master eye, and his three kids are straight out of Central Casting. Considering Gordon, it really is phenomenal the abberations that genes will cause.
As you will likely guess, Gordon and I are very good friends, which is also why I worry about him. He is far too casual around dangerous game, a trick few get away with for very long. I shall elaborate on this later, but it is my most fervent hope that he doesn't get what will most obviously come to him in a great rush if he continues to follow, unarmed, the tracks and spoor of the stuff that gets even. You see, Gordon has a habit of leaning out of his vehicle, noticing something interesting, and setting off for half a mile or more with nothing but his canine teeth as cover. If he keeps this up, he's going to get nailed. Lion, leopard, buff, hippo ... whatever. Sooner or later he will bump into something that will bite him. That he is very good is verified by the fact that he took his first license as a professional at the age of seventeen in what was then Tanganyika, and has in fact never gotten caught by one of the bad ones. Gordon bears no scars, which is more than I can say of myself.
I will baldly state that Gordon Cundill, though the odds of your getting him as your professional hunter are virtually nonexistent, is one of the absolutely most competent men in the field and, as the British say, full stop.
The lead-lined curtain of the African night dropped like a fisherman's cast net, leaving nothing but the sequined sky, as bright as any I have seen since my old British Honduras days. Satellites and falling stars lazed by, and the hippos, in obvious proximity, made their territory apparent. The primordial fire glowed dully, and the smell of mopane and leadwood smoke mixed with the aroma of Gordon's Old Granddad to summon up a whole smoldering pile of emotion that I had been yearning to experience again since 1975, when I quit shooting for active safari to concentrate on my writing. I had a frosty beer at hand, as did Paul, and Fiona seemed pleased with her medium sherry. I spoke to the horrid parasite that lives in one of my bush jacket pockets, my voice-activated microcassette tape recorder, having walked away from the party to record the events of our departure and arrival while taking great care not to fall into the croc-infested river. Short, the headwaiter, resplendent in his Jaegermeister uniform with its crimson sash and fez, was so kind as to reaccommodate me, when I rejoined the group around the fire.
We finished our drinks reasonably close to eight o'clock, and were then summoned to dinner, where we attacked a succulent proliferation of roast chicken, preceded by a hearty buffalo tail soup and trailed by a gourmet's delight of vegetables (obtained and transported at no slight trouble), and culminatingin the literal middle of the bush, goddamnina feast of genuine ice cream. As we went back out for something to settle our spirits around the fire, I had a chance to speak with Gordon about his own background as well as to inquire about the status of the local lion population and conditions in Botswana in general.
African campfires are generally memorable, and this one was no exception. We had a brandy and a couple of beers while Gordon told me, as a Botswana citizen, of the local state of affairs. Off to our left, the hyenas had pulled down an impala or some other luckless beast whose time had come, and they were having a hell of a wonderful time processing its essential salts and protein into whatever makes the grass grow. It was coldvery coldand we were all wearing down jackets. (One of the basic and uniquely crazy enjoyments of the African campfire lies in the fact that your shins roast like well-bastedspare ribs while your back freezes.) It all centers around the campfire: the arguments, the compliments, and the lies. Every now and then a dribble of truth seeps in, but it is, as a rule, largely avoided.
A giant fruit bat practically skimmed my ear as Gordon assumed the classic bum-warming position before the yellow tongues of flame. I had the .375 with solid 300-grainers close by in case of the uninvited appearance of hippo, several of which were demonstrating loudly a bare fifty yards away in the reeds. As I have espoused elsewhere, I hate hippos and would have ample opportunity to reinforcemy dislike during this trip. The moon was not yet up but promised to be reasonably full. The beer we were drinking was equipped with the now standard flip-top container, which caused Gordon, upon picking one off the ground with a muffled curseunder no circumstances having been dropped by me, I might add to utter what I have come to consider as a "Cundillism": "The canned container is the most ubiquitous evidence of man, particularly of the ubiquitous Albion and all his descendants."
Gordon actually speaks in this fashion, and, in this observation, I agreed with him.
The moon appeared at the propitious moment, and Paul Kimble went into raptures as he trapped the fool thing between reeds and through trees, like a small boy with his Double Nitro-Express camera in Paradise. His excitement was so intense I thought we would need an extra washing of his shorts, but in fact he took a truly lovely sequence of the essence of safarithe campfire, one's companions, and that essential but indefinable substance of the African night.
Night in Africa is not like night elsewhere, especially not while you're on safari. There really are things that can and joyfully will eat you. No kidding. After an American TV diet of Joy Adamson and so much of the crud that has been spread around about dangerous game, one is no less than a pure, undiluted idiot if he or she goes on safari without learning the true facts of life in the bush. You, my dear boy or girl, are nothing but protein, which will be happily ingested by anything that eats meat. You are meat. I shall shortly tell you of some who learned the errors of their ways without opportunity for correction.
The Botswana night is now a miasma of shadow and sound. Hyenas. A damned big lion off to the right. An answering call from a lioness. Hippossoon to become far more evidentand the trumpet of an elephant that has somehow escaped the AK-47 automatic fire on the other side of the river, where his cousins' bones lie stacked in homage to the dubious skill of clumsy but efficient poachers.
Fiona has long since gone to bed, soon to be accompanied by me and the .375. Gordon, his bum presumably warmed to the proper temperature, is preparing to quit the scene. Paul has toddled off to whatever photographers dream about. Gordon, armed with a weak flashlight, paraphrases Kipling half under his breath as he wanders into the night: "Send me somewhere east of Suez where a man can raise a thirst ... ."
My thoughts could only revert to my own slim knowledge of Kipling: "They're 'angin' Danny Deever in the morning, You can hear the quick-step play ... ." I wonder, listening to thecarnivora in the immediate background, if there were any Deevers swinging from the branches of my own family tree.
It is now nearly two in the morning, and my soul has at last burst free of the bondage of commercial writing. Again, at last, I have the smells, sounds, and actual vibrations of the Long Grass, the Africa I have loved for so many years. I have the fire, dying in a blaze of blue glory; the smell of fresh biltong drying on the white man's wires; still the soft Tswana gabble of sleepy conversation; the sluggish gurgle of the river; the swirl of a croc or hippo; and the cold caress of the relentless Botswana winter night wind.
I am home.
Actually, it was a damned lucky thing that I chose that night to sit out until four in the morning, since the following evening was not quite as cheerful. I must, however, tell you of the following day ... .
The verbal "knock-knock" came at a quarter to six, as predicted by Gordon, so, after less than two hours sleep, I was something less than "bushy-tailed." The hours alone, however, had been worth the loss of sleep, even had they been paid back in solid platinum. I had relocated my spirit. It had been missing for about a decade, so far as I know, but it had come back with a grand rush the night before. And it was further cemented when I smelled breakfast: mealiemeal, ground corn mush, which is the staff of life in most of the southern part of Africa and which is one of my favorite dishes.
In celebration of my resurrection, I even ate a couple of fried eggs, probably the first two in over a year. Hell, but it was pure muti to smell the early mist of the swamp, the incredible carryings-on of the doves echoing in my muzzle-blastdeafened ears.
The evening before, Gordon and I had discussed his most pressing thought: that of the future of game in Africa in general and in Botswana in particular (although he has operations in many other areas). I was highly impressed by his knowledge of the ecological situation in Botswana as well as with his practical field skills. He's goodpossibly because he has so much to lose. In any case, before the lot of slackers went to bed, I had the chance to discuss the situation with him.
The key is cows. As in cattle. And Gordon obviously knew his stuff. He pointed out that the basis of all currency from Roman times (and certainly considerably earlier) was cattle. The Latin word pecu meant cattle, money. This developed into the concept of pecunia, money, originally "riches in cattle." It all went back to the value of a relationship of cattle to people and the relative perception of such.
The curious thing about the status of cattle in Botswana, as in much of Africa, is the fact that the quality of cattle owned has no relevance to others' views of the owner's wealth or status. Sheer volume is what counts. This fact, along with the indiscriminate spraying of nonbiodegradable insecticides in Botswana, is really at the root of the problem.
That cattle and game are clearly at odds, because they both take up space, is well illustrated by the fate of the tsetse fly. When I was hunting in Botswana some sixteen years ago, the tsetse would grab your carcass and then argue about whether to eat it on the spot or take it home to their young.
The point is that where there are tsetse there is no domestic stockno chickens, goats, sheep, or, more importantly, cattle, which are in direct competition with game for grass, browse, and sheer acreage of habitat. The absence of tsetse implies an absence of game. Or, as Gordon put it to me in his Oxfordian English, "Cattle has status, game does not. Further, there is no thoroughgoing educational program to clarify the value of game to the Botswana economy."
He took a healthy slug of Granddad, stared into the fingers of fire as a Scops owl played his tune in the tree above, and continued. "The survival of wildlife in this and other African countries depends entirely upon its economic relevance to the country involved. Operations like Hunters Africa must survive because they are economic private enterprise and produce the foreign exchange absolutely vital for imports. Botswana, which is roughly the size of France or Texas, yet is the most thinly populated of the emerging African countries, needs food, fuel, vehicles, and the rest of the imports that proper utilization of game can provide. Through firms like ours, and under careful biological supervision, game can provide the American dollars, deutsche marks, and Swiss francs needed so desperately to keep the economy viable."
He stood up, backed up to the fire, and tossed off the rest of the bourbon. I killed my beer deader than a hand-wrought nail. Pouring a replacement, I listened to Gordon continue over the honk of hippos, which sounded as close as if they were in my back pocket.
"Take, for example, a zebra. A guy can buy a zebra license for the Botswana equivalent of about fifty dollars and resell the license for about a hundred and eighty. That's a lot of money in the Okavango Swamps. Of course, he must be a Botswana citizen to do so, the basis of said transaction being that the Botswana citizen feels he has a traditional, hereditary right to kill a zebraor divest himself of the license at highly capitalistic rates. In fact, despite the concession feeswe pay, some seventy percent of the game is allocated to local hunters."
I knew he was right, since, at the time when I was there, a general license, which would literally include tons of meat, was available to citizens for not more than the equivalent of $1.50. Huge flatbed trucks would pull up with a load of local people and one or two professional hunters, who would shoot out their licenses for them. Exactly what the percentage arrangement on the sale of the dried meat or biltong was, I never knew, but it was generally embarrassing when one had clients in the field who were under the impression they were on the edge of a firefight.
"Now," said Gordon, "Botswana is a capitalist country. But consider, however, the American or German safari client who comes here for a minimum of twenty-one days, unless he's just fishing or bird shooting. At the moment, this would cost him one thousand American dollars a day. Now that doesn't count the additional game licenses and other fees, all of which are put directly back into the rural economy. I must have fifteen men working in this camp alone, and it's one of our smallest. How could they earn a living beyond mere subsistence, were it not for us? Hell, Peter, we have two cooks, two waiters, men who make up beds and tents, people who do nothing but carry firewood and water, people who wash the clients' clothes and iron them fresh every day, skinners, trackers, gun bearers, mechanics, drivers, andmost importantlythe barman. Which reminds me ... ."
It would be my own observation after my years of exposure to the more remote areas of central Africa, that if game is tosurvive, it will only be through the economic expediency of their value in international currency. Even Gordon, who is actually a Botswana citizen, must pay all fees generated by his firm in foreign currency, not in pula, the local denomination. Bear in mind that a warthog only costs a local citizen about seven and a half pulaless than four American dollars. Perhaps it is indeed morally true that the citizen of a country such as Botswana does have the innate right to take game at ridiculous prices. But then, why are times so tough? Why all the international foreign aid when the country is quite capable of generating huge amounts of exchange merely through the intelligent use of its wildlife as an asset?
Well, I for one can do nicely without being persona non grata in Botswana and have no personal interest in any interference in the official policy of any country. My intention is simply to bring to the forefront the economic value of wildlife to Africa.
Perhaps political expediency is the same in all countries. Whatever the case, I wish to make it immaculately clear that the views I express above are purely my own and certainly not those of any other party. I believe they are accurate and, in fact, financially valid. I want game to survive, but it will not unless a more realistic attitude toward it is adopted throughout Africaand fast.
Obviously, this can best be achieved with the cooperation of the African governments themselves and the applicable agencies. With equal obviousness, this includes the various game departments, parks boards, and such, as well as the rural inhabitants of game areas. This is not a book about ecology, but the relationship between domestic stock and game cannot be underestimated. You can have goats or game. Take your choice.
I am very strongly reminded of an incident that took place a couple of years ago in which I was asked by an old colleague to visit him in his bush camp. It seemed he had a break between safaris and thought it would be a good time to test our elbow tendons. This was not in Botswana; in fact, I shall not mention where the incident took place for fear of some reprisal on my pal's memory (he was killed in an aircraft accident in America not too long ago).
It was a particularly rude dawn, my atmospheric observations possibly being linked to the fact that we had indeed tested our fortitude until about three that morning. I was half-awake, trying to come up with some excellent ornithological logic why we should not venture off bird shooting at such an unsporting hour when I was levitated six feet above the camp bed by a burst of automatic fire not more than three hundred yards down the road from camp. I instantly recognized itas coming from a Soviet-bloc AK-47 assault rifle. I grabbed the shotgun and, wrapped in a kikoy, dashed in the direction of my pal's tent. He was standing at the camp entrance next to a dirt road as a battered Land Rover pulled up in an angry cloud of dust.
Yup. Here we go again, I thought, as four ragtag locals piled out and demanded some beer. Since one was carrying the AK with a fresh banana magazine, another had an old Cogswell and Harrison .375 H&H Magnum, and one of the remaining two was toting a .458 Brno bolt-action, they got their beer. Good and cold it was, too. The fourth member of this merry band was unarmed but wore the remnants of an olive-drab uniform.
"And how are the valiant members of the game department faring?" asked my pal. "Why don't you gentlemen have a smoke with us as you finish your beer?" A pack was produced and depleted.
So far so good, thought I, as I saw the AK resting on a piece of firewood. I eased the shotgun full of five loads of buckshot against my chair but kept it within easy reach. Then I noticed that the man in the tattered uniform was looking at meand had been all this time. I was most definitely beginning to wonder what he had on his mind.
"I know you," he said flatly, in the tone (it seemed to me at that moment) a survivor of Auschwitz would have used if he had bumped into Adolph Hitler at a cocktail party. I looked at him hard. There was something about him that seemed familiar. But what? He answered the question by breaking into a tremendous grin and stepping across to embrace me.
"I am George. I worked for you fourteen years ago. You advanced me some wages for a bride price. I will never forget that. I now have many children by that woman."
In fact, I did remember the incident from my professional hunting days and it certainly was the same man. Considering that his initial purpose in visiting our camp was extortion, I breathed a mental sigh of relief.
His armed pals looked confused, but a scowl from George showed pretty clearly who was in charge. We exchanged the usual pleasantries until my friend had a chance to interject that he was going to have a "slash." I reckoned that to be a capital suggestion. We excused ourselves effusively and went to the cliff at the edge of his camp, where peeing was as much fun as drinking what caused it.
"Listen chum," said the professional, "we've got to get rid of these guys. They're motherless on palm wine already and although you and George are some kind of red Indian blood brothers, if we don't bribe them off, they may well stripthis place down to the contents of your underwear. I know George. He's very heavy in this district. You seem to have a romantic rapport, so see what he wants or sure as the Lord made elephant droppings, a lot of items are going to turn up missing."
I didn't answer beyond a casual nod as we walked back to the fire, which had now blazed up pleasantly from the previous night's coals.
"George, old friend," I asked him in dialect, "where are you off to now?"
"Hau!" he replied in delighted exclamation. "I am going to see a certain lady with some meat. By luck, there was a large herd of impala just outside your camp. As chief game officer of this area, I decided to crop some, since they are far too numerous for the good of all."
That explained the automatic fire that had given me the heart attack earlier. But I knew they were a dead tame herd that always hung around camp, and George knew it, too. He, of course, wanted the meat to purchase the extended favors of a local tart. "Meat for meat" is one of the oldest African expressions, which led me in an earlier book to observe that prostitution is most definitely not the oldest profession: hunting is.
"Ah," said I, with a knowing wink, "then you will want to be on your way before your meat, taken for the good of the people, spoils. Might ten liters of petrol not bring you and this comely lass to a practical agreement, with more time for you to bargain before the sun is high? It is how I would handle such a matter, old friend." My pal stifled a smile despite his pet herd having been machine-gunned.
"Twenty liters would get me there even more quickly. There might even be time for a buffalo. Could you let me have some .458 cartridges? I am rather low."
I apologized, explaining that I was only shooting birds and that I didn't have a .458 or the wealth of Solomon in ammo would be his for his selfless duty among the savage beasts of the bundu.
We warily haggled among ourselves and finally settled on a gift of twelve liters of petrol, worth its weight in bonded bourbon. At last, the rickety vehicle rolled off to pick up what was presumablyan extra man keeping the vultures off the impala they had sprayed with the AK. (Later, the camp staff found the pools of blood where five of the by then literally dead tame impala had lain. There were several more blood spoors, but though we followed up as best we could, only one animal could be found. The others were either lightly wounded or else something had got to them before we could.)
As we settled down to a light breakfast, far off in the distance came another roll of automatic fire from the AK. I guess they had no .375 ammo either.
The preceding is by no means an indictment of the game department of any African country where I have spent time. It is merely the recitation of an incident that impressed me, because if this sort of thing continues, not only will you and I be the poorer, but more immediately so will those subsistence-level nations who so badly need correct utilization of their hereditary natural resources.
Dawn seemed to me to resemble the candlelit curtain-raising of a Shakespearean first performance. I eventually found myself at the delightful breakfast. We left late that first day, as one must appreciate the stowing of rifles, ammo, Paul's photographic equipment, and the determining of just who would sit where. As it turned out, I had Fiona and Paul sit on top of the open rear, since there was a raised seat and they would enjoy observing from that vantage point better than I would (I don't shoot from vehicles). Anyway, I wanted to get to know Gordon, who would be driving, a lot better.
Besides we mlungu, there was old Karonda, Jehosephat, Mack, and Ottie, as well as chop boxes, axs, high-lift jacks, ropes, towing cables, and what seemed like enough stuff to outfit an Italian regiment in the field. Gordon's riflethe perfidious Westley Richards, or at least the rifle with what would prove to be bum ammowas stowed in a special rack behind the cab roof. I sat in the front left-hand seat with my rifle butt balanced against the top of my instep. It was not particularly comfortable this way, but I had always given some consideration to the thoughts of old friend and international pistol and rifle shot Bill Jordan, who believes that resting the butt of a rifle on the floorboards of a hunting vehicle will sooner or later knock the scope out of zero simply through constant thumping.
We were after lion. The news that one of Gordon's pros, who had had no client with him at the time, had seen sixteen of the bastards on his way past a waterhole some fifteen kilometers from camp came as a rather mixed blessing. I wanted a nice lion of my very own, despite the number I had shot on previous official duties, butI had been fouled up with big prides before and never left the scene of combat with more joy than terror. A lot of lions can do a lot of damage, especially if one has to stop them in one or another mass charge. Not recommended.
We soon found out why they had been watering so early in the morning: not far off was the recently killed carcass of an eland, a pretty fair meal even for sixteen lions. A big bull eland can weigh nigh on a ton.
We were essentially reconnoitering, and we eventually came to the conclusion from the various spoors we covered that the big pride had moved off but that there was still no shortage of lions in the area. There were at least two "satellite" males in the area with paws the size of tennis racquet heads, big chaps that would, through their very size and intimidatory capacity, stay on their own and only visit prides when a female was in season (which can be any time of year, depending on where you are).
We shot a zebra later that day, the skin going to Paul as a gift, and then decided which of the big gentlemen lions we would follow. We settled on one that ranged a territory about ten miles away, through thick thorn and low to medium mopane scrub. Since we did not have the personnel right there to load the carcass of the zebra, we took the hind legs as well as the skin and then pushed off in full dark, back to camp. It would prove to be a most interesting night.
We dined on the warthog and, despite my usual tenacity at the campfire, I decided on this occasion to sack in at about midnight. I had the .375 stoked with solids lying along my leg, keeping in mind that there was just a single layer of green canvas between me and the rest of Africa. At two in the morning, it would prove to have been good judgment.
I had heard the hippos tearing and munching at the grass along the Linyanti River. Having very nearly cashed in all my chips with that species on several previous occasions, I was on my guard. Fiona is my guard: unlike yours truly, she is not nerve deaf from years of muzzle blast. Of course, you would had to have been completely without hearing, considering what began a little after the small hours of two. First, there was the god-damndest uproar of bellows, grunts, bass screams, and curses since Wall Street crashed. Gordon boiled out of his tent on the far side of ours as the camp seemed to go completely beserk. Not unwisely were the indigenous upset: two mature hippos, one certainly a big bull, had burst upon the scene in hot pursuit of either a reluctant female or another bull concentrating on the same favors. It was pure bedlam or the Houses of Parliament, depending on how you viewed matters. The second thing that happened, as Gordon wouldsay, in the fullness of timea couple of secondswas that the big bull stepped with geometric precision into the huge pot of scalding water kept for mixing with the cooler stuff for the clients' showers. Apparently, he did not like this, since he then attacked the campfire with no less accuracy. Standing about in the coals just worsened his general attitude, which he articulated with remarkable vocal ability. Even I could hear himall two and a half tons, and just twenty yards away.
As I stepped out of the velcro-sealed tent dressed as originally issued, I heard the thunder of the two hippos turn toward the sound of Gordon starting his Toyota Land Cruiser. This pleased mehalf to death as I had no intention of repeating my several personal although memorable relationships with hippos, especially at night, when I knew that if I flicked on my flashlight it would probably provoke an immediate charge.
Gordon, unbeknownst to him at the time, was armed with the defective .500 ammo. Thanks above he didn't get into a jam, as he could well have had the course. Badly.
Cundill, madman that he is, actually bumped one of the hippos as they headed at top speedand that ain't slowtoward the quarters of the crew. Later, we found tracks smack over the middle of Ottie's blanket (he having been busy inspecting the night-blooming aspects of certain substantial upper foliage at the time). With a stomach-turning crunch, one of the animals slammed into the employees' chimbuzi, or drop-hole toilet. Happily, it was unoccupied, or a dead man would for sure have been fished out next morning.
Most things, if you give them long enough, do go away. So did our hippos, and we returned to bed. All in all, it was a most unsuccessful raid on their part, but they just as easily could have come through Gordon, Paul's, or our own tent with a lot less trouble than it took to demolish that outhouse. What if Gordon had been forced to try to stop a determined chargeor share his front seat with a love-lorn bull hippoand found that he had lousy ammo? The mind boggles. All I could think of was, "Christ, but what happens to my safari deposit?"
I was by now bloody tired for reasons of my own doing, and recalcitrant hippos didn't help matters. Yet I felt that although staying up late certainly made the going in the morning a lot tougher, I still could not resist that inexplicable campfire mystique. I could live forever in a house, but there were only so many days of true safari and I was getting younger in not much of a hurry. How many of these nights were left to me? I knew not, nor did I want to seriously speculate. I just knew that however many there were, not a possible, physical instant of such a magic time and place should be wasted ... .
We picked up the spoor of the big lone male where he had crossed the dirt track about eight miles from camp. I had been up since well before dawn, walking silently with Gordon to what might remain of the previous day's zebra carcass, left where it was as baiting is illegal in Botswana and this certainly was not our point. Flesh, nevertheless, brings flesh eaters, and we could have walked into just what we were looking for, however coincidentally. Curiously, not even a hyena had touched what we had left, let alone a lion. The wind was very funny,though, as it so often is in the Botswana winter. This would be further confirmed as we sought the big Tau after breakfast.
Mack and Jehosephat started off on the spoor, but a sideways glance from Gordon spoke volumes of frustration. One second the breeze would peel the Vitalis off what was left of my hair, and the next it would blast our scent over most of southern central Africa. It was most definitely not lion-hunting weather, and the lion had realized this and put about four area codes between us.
We never even saw him, although his spoor was still so warm you could light a soggy cigar off it.
It was hot. If you think Botswana gets cold at night, just try to follow some fool lion around at midday. The humidity was so low you didn't notice yourself sweating, just a thickening layer of dried salt on your light bush shirt. Only then did you realize that you were oozing precious body fluids at a scary rate. After six and a half hours of this nonsense I realized I was in trouble.
I'm not Death in the Long Grass age anymore and, as I said, I take two prescriptions daily, both diuretics. These, together with the charming combination of scalding sun and nonstop walking, suddenly gave me the poignant realization that unless I got rehydrated in a reasonable hurry, it might be me that was carried back lashed to a hardwood pole.
Thankfully, the lion had cut a three-quarter circle that drew us back quite close to the hunting car. I drank the warm Cokes and swallowed the remaining beer. Of water there was none, since I had drunk most of it myself during our hike. (That Gordon does not suffer from such physical inconveniences is well demonstrated by the fact that he once followed a lion for fifty-four miles over twenty-four hours without a break. Got him, too.)
As many of the staff in camp were of the Zionist faith (not related to the Jewish religion) and wore a badge backed by a small piece of forest green cloth, they would not eat pork. This automatically dealt out the warthog, so something else had to get the deep six or our people would be mighty hungry. That "something else" appeared to be a wildebeest standing in the relative open, facing me.
The distance was a hundred and ninety paces, and I held just above the eyes with the .375 on full 8X power and resting on a low antheap. I stuck a round precisely between the nostril holes, and he went down like Judgment Day, never twitching as the bullet passed smack through his thinker. There followed great rejoicing in the land as the men butchered him, and we proceeded on our merry way.
Camp was a dull glow through the bush as we pulled in. We were all tired but I was the only one not in the least hungry, my main sentiment being the imminence and frank hope of a quick death. Whew! But I was as sick to my stomach as I can ever remember. It was apparently part of the dehydration I had experienced during the long tracking and all the liquid I had taken to try to correct the situation. In any case, it will give some idea of the acuteness of the situation when I advise you that a full hour passed before I could keep down a beer. I did, however, get the hang of it and the local breweries would have awarded me with their Order of Merit. Around the campfire that evening, we discussed the latest developments. Gordon thought the lion we had been spooring was the same one he had seen four times before, a huge bugger badly in need of a haircut. Unfortunately, as he was one of the two satellite lions in the area, he was extremely used to being hunted. The closest Gordon ever viewed him was at a range of about four hundred and fifty yards as the beast watched him and his client from the relative obscurity of a termite heap. It was far, far too distant for a shot, but there was, on the other hand, a helluva big male in company with a lady lion and, at various times, one or two fully grown but not well-maned lions. We were to find out just how true this was that night, in fact, in the early morning hours when the lions reversed the roles of the hunters and the hunted.
The roar was one of those things that are never forgotten. It was instantly picked up by the female and the younger chap until Saile reverberated as if it were the inside of a bass drum. I could hear the classic challenge of the lions overwashing every other sound, but the one that interested me most, given a certain poetic license, was the deepest in tone, the one about ten feet outside my tent flap. I think the Crusaders had the right idea when they built their walls thick and high. A green canvas tent is not much in the way of a psychological reassurance, particularly if you happen to be inside it.
As was the case with the hippo invasion the night before, I again wondered what the hell to do. I didn't want to walk into one of Gordon's .500 slugs and I didn't want to get in his way either, since I could hear him shouting things I doubt he had learned in the hallowed halls of Oxfordor perhaps that's exactly where he picked them up. They may not have impressed the lions but they certainly astonished my sense of the impressive use of forceful language. The man really has vocal talent when it comes to lions and perhaps his finest performance was that one, in the bush of Saile that night.
Well, I reckoned that although I had a very large male lion a few yards away, it was probably better not to press matters. If the damned thing tried to come into the tent, I had in immediate stock enough buckshot to stall a panzer regiment. I would be able to tell where he was trying to enter and could nail him more easily than I could wandering around au naturel in the dark with a torchor, as I have almost forgotten to call it, a flashlight. So, I stood in between the beds and listened to this chap perform. What had happened was that the big male, which had been playing the dating game with his true love, had apparently caught the smell of fresh meat from the local quarters and had figured on a bit of shoplifting. This may well have included one or more of the staff, as throughout the country Botswana lionsappear to be particularly aggressive. The following quote from the Durban Daily News of October 23, 1985, bears this out:
LIONESS KILLS CHEF NEAR CAMP'S DINING TOURISTS
JOHANNESBURG: A lioness has killed an assistant chef a few metres from where tourists were having their evening meal at the Santawani camp in Botswana's Moremi game reserve.
The tourists heard the screams of Mr Frans Galeshiwe as they walked from the dining area to the campfire to have coffee, according to reports reaching here.
The camp manager, Mr Bruce Muller, grabbed a rifle and torch and ran to the scene. He shot and killed the lioness.
The next day game rangers shot another lioness that apparently had been injured in a fight.
A large number of lions, all thin from lack of food because of the drought, are reported to be in the Moremi area.
Last September a lion dragged an 18-year-old West German girl from a tent in the Okavango swamps and ate her. The girl, Karina Broums, had been camping with a party.
It had been at least the third attack in the Moremi area by lions in the past year or so. Two of the attacks had proved fatal.
And it was precisely the area where I used to operate.
As I was to learn at breakfast, Gordon had again put on the Disaster Drill, still without knowing he was carrying dud ammo. He burst out of his tent with a suitably genteel oath that reflected heavily on the heritage and general upbringing of lions, tucked his .500 Westley Richards against his leg, jammed himself against the car door, and started to break up the party.
His first major action on the way to the Toyota was to nearly fall over the very big but especially well-tonsured Tau. This had the effect of scaring the religion still clinging to Gordon's rather scarred soul somewhere to the far west. Happily, it did the same to the big malein front of my tent, as well as to the female that remained in the murk.
The younger male ran at top speed through the dark and disappeared into the papyrus of the swamp while the big male who was considering me as a potential midnight snack also wandered off. Lions don't especially like horns and lights, but you never know. There had been several killings not that far south in the past few months, and nobody ever knew who was who in the lion department, especially on a moonless night in the middle of camp.
Gordon was plenty red-eyed that dawn and I assure you the cause was most certainly not Granddad. "Let's go and get that big bastard," he said, emphasizing bastard as if he really meant it. The spoor was obvious, and I took particular interest in the fact that the large male had been lying something short of nine paces from our tent. So obvious were signs of the threesome that we even took time for breakfast, Paul stuffing down enough assorted eggs, toast, orange juice, milk, muffins, and whatever to keep a small Yugoslav partisan unit in the field for a month, while Gordon forked in enough to maintain a full regiment of the same, including their guard dogs. (If you want lessons in the art of volume eating, by all means consult Cundill. For a man of even his considerable but certainly not overweight size, he puts away more skafu than anybody I know.)
Meanwhile, I looked over the spoor and determined that there were only three lions; Gordon reckoned on four. I'm not certain I agree with him entirely, but he may well have been right in thinking that there was another younger but larger male that had hung back on the periphery of camp.
As we were finishing breakfast, Gordon and I got wandering through the subject of lions and lion hunting and how it is done honorably. That Cundill, after a night of chasing lions around in the dark on the edge of a swamp, could still be retrospectively accurate is an indication of his nature. Few things perturb him, except for Brewster's patent, the disposable beer or soft drink can top aluminum ring, the playing of a radio in camp on a commercial band, or the perfidy of absolutely anybody.
I felt I was back in college as I listened to his views on the species.
"The attitude towards lions remains the same as it did in the time of the Greeks, Romans, and anybody else who kept cattle. If anything, the lion is even more prized now as a trophy than he was in those days."
He paused to shovelwith great relishanother measure of eggs into his maw.
"Lions are successful because they educate their young in the same way the leopard does. Young lions are taught not only how to hunt but what to hunt. In this matter is included the Tsavo bunch as well as the gang George Rushby had to sort out in Njombe that took several thousand people in the years they operated.
"Don't tell me that people are not natural prey for lions, taught by their mothers to hunt man as normal prey; there are just too many precedents to counteract this notion. And let us never forget the unique relationship between predator and predator, as exists between man and lion."
As I said, Cundill actually speaks this way.
I was also to later find that the same relationship, in practical terms, exists between leopard and lion. The hyena, of course, fills every other notch. It's just like Wall Street. All predators eat other predators.
Cundill also told me of the time Karonda saved his life, or at least his complexion, and the tale is good enough to go down as one of the first lion tales in this book ... .
The incident took place during the safari of the first man to fly the Messersch-mitt 262, the first jet fighter produced by the Germans during World War II. At the time, it was the gentleman's seventieth birthday, and although Gordon reports that he shot a damned fine male lion, and shot it well, the thing didn't fall dead. For reasons that will never be known, he simply took off into the long grass, crossing a small river on his way, and slunk into an impossible tangle of scrub, where he remained, obviously waiting for his pursuers.
Mack, Cundill's other gun bearer, spotted the lion after climbing a tree and signaled to Gordon where he was lying up. The lion charged from the grass almost instantly and Gordon pasted it in the chest. But it was so hyped it didn't waver an inch.
Gordon got down on one knee to get a good raking shot with the second barrel from the Wilkes .500 Nitro and let the cat come. As he fired, he noticed with not inconsiderable interest that a four- to five-inch thick Longicartus tree sagged over, blown practically in half by a 570-grain slug. He was now empty and the lion almost on top of him.
As Gordon himself said of the incident, "When the animal comes in a full charge, the shooter is not aware of obstructions in the immediate foreground. Thus, I partially defoliated the area. The charge," he continued, slicing off a chunk of biltong before the orange light of thefire, "was a touch oblique. It was, however, no longer so when I hit him with that first barrel and he located me."
There was no possible chance for Gordon to reload the double. Karonda, who was no kid at the time, was not in the least fazed and promptly shot the creature through the brain with a spare .375 just before it was on Gordon's immaculate body.
Cundill has since had a lot of time for nine-fingered Karonda ... .
Breakfast over, we took off on the tracks of what had now become a threesome. If, in fact, there had been a fourth lion, he had left the proceedings and wandered elsewhere. We had the whole team in tow: Gordon, Paul, Fiona, Ottie, Jehosephat, Karonda, and Mack, all tearing our shins to shreds through the low thorn bush.
The track meandered for some miles, but we kept up until the cover thickened and we got into more mature mopane forest, made very difficult by an under-scrub of thorn and lower growth. After about four hours of trekking, we were close enough to be able to practically smell them: the big male, which was stopping frequently to mate with the female, and a lone, younger chap that was surely the one Gordon had damned near kicked the night before.
Finally, in the scalding heat of midday, we came upon an obvious lying-up place for lions, a termite heap with two trees growing from it, a large one roughly in the middle and a smaller one off to the right, the side we were on. The tracks seemed to lead behind the large heap and we all presumed that the big boy and his lady were mating while Junior stood by at a respectable distance, possibly picking up some technical points.
To say that we tiptoed would be a huge understatement. Maybe we should have made a bit more noise, though, as the first thing I was aware of was the rear end of a lion sticking out from behind the smaller tree. I instantly covered it with the .375 and noticed that it was standing almost broadside to us, its chest covered by the tree but its eyes looking right into mine from about five yards, which is uncomfortably close when speaking of lions.
We could all see that it was a young male, and one that would be a good trophy in another year or two; but there was no way we were going to pat him on the head and saunter around that antheap where the other two were presumably procreating. Keeping him covered, we were able to back off without a point-blank charge. Gordon and I figured on going around the left side of the heap, where we hoped to find the big boy and his tootsie. No such. We got another tenyards away from the youngerI do not say "little"lion and tried to edge around the mound, knowing that it would be a direct confrontation.
I didn't have a chance to count the white knuckles, but you can bet there were plenty. The young lion, realizing what we were and what we might represent, buggered off into the shadow of mopane in a highly creditable disappearing act. Still expecting to rub noses with the mating pair on the other side of the hill, we sleuthed around the corner without the benefit of tracks, all of which came in from the right. That the pair had in fact slipped away and were doing their thing about eighty yards away behind impenetrable cover and under the shade of another big mopane was impossible to detect from where we were standing.
When suddenly there was a thunderous thumping of rapid exodus from the area coming from a cloud of dust and dirt that obscured the pair of lions, I thought we had startled a herd of buffalo that had been lying up in the shade. There was no way for a shot.
Never, in all my years of taking lions, have I heard a couple make so much noise! The ground in the Saile region is generally part of the Gussu Shield, which is the northern limit of the Kalahari ground structure. Yet this bloody lion was so big and heavy that he literally could be heard galloping off for several hundred yards, despite the muffling cover.
Cundill, with his usual charm, cushioned his head on the nearest large elephant dropping and, with the casual comment that we ought to give them a while to calm down and get their act in order, promptly went to sleep.
We tracked those lions for miles through snagging, barbed-wire wait-a-bit thorn, getting almost into range before the damned wind would shift. Dejected, we finally had to turn for home. On the return trip I shot an impala, if for no other reason than we needed camp meat and our morale was at stake.
With the fire greeting us, along with a cold Lion LagerI did not miss the ironyI reflected on our companion for the day: a single fork-tailed drongo, a coal-black flycatcher that takes his prey in flight. We had flushed most of it for him grasshoppers and other assorted goggas which he nailed with the accuracy of the tail gunner of a Belfast milk truck. He had become so tame in following us around over the course of a couple of days of lion hunting that he would almost sit on your finger and let you touch him. Another few days and I believe you could have stuck him in your breast pocket. He was a great added charm to the venture, and we marveled at his increasing tameness. I have always loved flycatchers and bee-eaters of all species,their aerobatics never ceasing to astonish me. At a leopard bait, you will always get a collection of drongos and, especially, Little bee-eaters feeding on the flies and other insects attracted to the bait. Their performances always remind me of an aerial Bolshoi as they flash, chandelle, split-ess, and soar, generally appearing to be the most mobile birds in the air.
Gordon and I discussed the events of the day over the fire and a few rounds of those additives created to give lion hunters strength and courage. The best we could do, we decided, was to play it by ear. How else could it be handled? Lions could not be baitednot that I would have under any circumstances wished to have hunted them that way. True lion hunting is a matter of man and lion. Gordon certainly feels the same.
Our chance came on the fifth day, largely owing to Gordon's sense of timing. There was a strip of land, probably not fifty yards across at its widest point, which ran between the parallel roads of the Chobe National Park and the Saile Concession, controlled by Gordon. Fire and the anticipatory control of the same is a major factor in the modern perception of African ecology, although I've not yet determined that I agree with the conclusions reached by people with impressive American and British doctoral degrees. To me, fire and its relatively light aftermath, depending on the bush and grass, can be highly beneficial; on the other hand, when areas are badly damaged by Old Jumbo, fire can be a great threat to the general ecology, since the flora cannot be reestablished as it used to be. But then, Africa is always changing, this being the great lesson I took away from this exercise, which also nearly took my life with it.
In any case, the strip between these roads had to be burned, and under supervision. Since one of the tenets of my deal with Gordon was that I would largely be working with permanent employees of Hunters Africa in order to avoid the additional cost of professional hunters, who were paid by the day (and who would have to have been paid by me), this was just nifty. Right. We go and burn a road strip. My lions could wait.
We pulled out of camp at a purely disrespectable hour, my having spent the small hours of the morning inspecting the heavens, the state of the fire, and the timbre of the hyenas until such time as I could not read my wristwatch. Knowing I would catch a fine collection of used buckshot from Fiona if I arrived unannounced at our tent, I had to signal my presence in low terms before the inside brass hooks were released. Fiona is very handy with buckshot and not very shy about using it, either.
It took four grown men and a boy to get me out of bed, but I was finallyroused by Gordon's promise of a cold beer if I came along quietly. That's an offer I find hard to pass up. I had a quick shower that froze me to death and actually shaved before witnesses. In fact, I felt pretty reasonablebut nobody could ever have felt sufficiently decent for what was to come that day.
I had heard the tractor-pulled flatbed truck go by at dawn, carrying the men who would be stationed for a few days at the twin roads to the west in order to supervise the burning of the strip between the roads as a firebreak. Africans are noted for a great many talents but quietude at reasonable hours is not one of them. As they were moving slowly, we caught up with them and passed them about eight miles out of camp. It was then that we noticed steaming, fresh lion spoor in the roadthe same bunch that had come by a couple of nights before and which we had spent the previous day tracking. There was the clear spoor of the big male's track as well as the female's, accompanied by Junior. There was also another track, that of a malethe fourth that had also apparently joined the blue-movie cast. They must surely have heard our vehicle a few hundred yards away, as the recentness of their departure into the dense cover lining the track was obvious. Lions are a relatively soft-footed animal and love to travel along sandy hunting tracks. Not that they won't hang around rocky places, but there is a lot to Gordon's observation: "If you want to find lions, take off your shoes. They don't like thorns any more than we do when traveling a territory."
Clearly, they were close. But they knew we were, too. We inspected the tracks and decided to give them a couple of hours to settle down. After five minutes, noting which way they seemed to have gone, we resumed our drive toward the strip to be burned. Gordon left one of his men behind to warn the lagging flatbed of thirty pyromaniacs, as Gordon called them, not to disturb the area and to just keep going, which they did.
It was about ten in the morning by the time we arrived at the burning zone and got everybody squared away with torches and shovels. At about eleven we headed back along the track to follow the lions. We pulled up roughly a mile short of the point where the spoor had left the road, and Gordon, Karonda, Jehosephat, and I pushed into the really hairy stuff, knowing that there were four lions ahead just waiting for us.
I badly wanted pictures of the hunt, but the bush was simply so thick it would have been criminally negligent to have brought Paul or Fiona along. Paul probably wouldn't have gotten a frame off anyway, since he would have had no field of view at all, judging by the way things were looking right off. In fact, it was awise decision; the smaller the party, the less noise we were likely to make, and the better our odds of collecting the big boy.
The question of the female was also not one to be considered lightly. Traditionally, the female will charge either before or alongside the male, especially if he is hurt. There was just no way that I was going to permit Fiona to be exposed to such danger. In heavy or even relatively light cover, there's no telling which member of a hunting party a lion or lioness will choose, as many cameramen have found out to their everlasting woe.
The tracking was magnificent, not the least of which was by Cundill, through a thick amalgam of mopane in all its degrees of height and developmentbig ones, shady and dull sea green, shorter stuff, and the scrub that prevented a hunter from getting down low in the event of a lion charge. It was one of the finest stalks I have ever been on. How can a sportsman achieve anything more classic in hunting than a big Botswana lion in heavy cover? Give me an answer and I'll send you an ice-cream cone by parcel post.
We had left Fiona, Paul, and Ottie in the Toyota Land Cruiser pulled off into a shady grove, giving them an extra rifle just in case. Following Gordon and our trackers, I took the right, rather unusual for me, as I'm right-handed and prefer the left position so my muzzle is always pointed away from the party at port arms. We went at least two miles through the thick stuff, the tracks of the lions wandering oddly, as if they knew we were on their spoor. We followed them in semicircles and came across short lie-ups and other kinds of rather unusual behavior, but for a change we had one definite advantage: the wind. It was blowing directly in our faces, which was rather odd, since lions will normally move across or downwind when they suspect they're being shadowed. Well, sex has gotten the better of many a chap less ardent than that big lion, and such would ultimately prove to be the case.
When I tell you it was thick, you will just have to trust me. We knew they were there, although I don't think the reverse was true. Brother, it was simply one bush to the next, never having the slightest idea when the tracks would end at the bottom of a lion's paws. It was one of the greatest compliments to Cundill that when the trackers lost the spoor, it was he who recovered it: just the tiniest scratch in the hard, drought-stricken earth; Gordon, in a small whisper, tearing the collective tails off the trackers.
Not that I would in any way intimate that I am in Cundill's class as a tracker, but there was a time when I was considered reasonably competent. He, however, is really outstanding. But then, Gordon is really a white Zulu, having been raised among those people and having obviously learned a great many of their skills in the bush.
We walked in the classic stalking manner, putting the outside edges of our feet down first in a sliding motion so we would be sure not to break a twig or small stick. The spoor was not twenty minutes old, as we could tell by the erosion of the edge of the spoor in the softer patches of sand. These chaps were close.
I was not tracking, but rather covering the other three with my rifle in case of the Big Surprise. Yet I happened to be looking to the left when Gordon, before the trackers, saw the outline of a lion in the shade of a fully-grown mopane off to our right and gave me the hissssss that started the artillery.
I have an old habit from my .470 Nitro double rifle days of always carrying extra rounds between the fingers of my left hand. As I have written elsewhere, I'm so used to it that I can eat a sandwich without even noticing they are there. When my .470 Evans was stolen in the States, I felt half-naked without extra rounds between my fingers and continued the habit when using the .375, despite its much larger magazine capacity. Damned good thing I did.
As Gordon said later, that bloody lion was dead eight times over and just didn't realize it. Small consolation.
Let's pick up the charge where we left it in the book's opening pages. When I left you, I was down to an empty rifle with four rounds of ammo left, three in my left hand, with which I was performing minor miracles trying to get them into the magazine. Happily, I had hit the lion badly enough with what Gordon later termed "the same sustained fire that saved the day at Omdurman" to slow him down.
Gordon had another hangfire, which missed the target, and then he was down to solid ammo meant for elephant and buff, which was not his idea of the ideal load for lion. To the great joy of us both, he never had to fire another round. I got lucky.
I jammed the three rounds from my left fist into the magazineunquestiona-blybreaking the Olympic recordjacked one up the chamber, and continued to belt the lion as frequently as I could. I stuck the first two in his chest as he charged again. The last of my eight shots had made him turn, taking out both his shoulders and his major pipes, which is why I'm probably writing this and Gordon is still in the safari business. There was one cartridge left in the ammo holder in my belt, but I had decided that unless the sonofabitch was actually chewing my shoelaces, I would not fire it. Once I did ... well chum, that was it, and I am very poor at thumbing lions in the eyes. (I know. I've tried it. It's murder on the cuticles up to about your elbows.)
The lion swerved at my eighth shot and fell a few yards away, behind a scrub mopane tree, not dead but unable to eatus. As he already had more holes than a spaghetti strainer, and as I was down to my last cartridge, I was not anxious to further increase his extensive ventilation. It took him twelve minutes before he finally died. (As I nearly did, with the scope tipped off and pointed at the base of his skull for the same amount of time. Try holding a rifle of that weight in position for that span of time and under that stress and you'll get my point.) Finally, he gave a sigh and relegated himself to my wall.
Observing the end of our lion hunt from a nearby tangle of mopane scrub was the drongo.
I was instantly mobbed by back-slapping trackers shouting all sorts of indecipherable congratulations at the Great Slayer of Tau. Hell, yes, boy. I was hot stuff!
Actually, it had been a very close item. Let me give you a few examples of how Murphy might have interfered and how things, as usual, might have gone wrong.
First, it took all our firepower combined to stop that grand beast, and for Gordon's .500 to choose the middle of a lion charge to pack up is nearly too incredible to write. But it happened. If the female or one of the younger males had come with him, we all would have "had our chips," as they say hither, because there was no possible way we could have stopped the pair, and somebodyperhaps memight have had an acute attack of dying.
I've spent forty-six years avoiding that eventuality and things seem to get less promising as they proceed. There was also the technical matter of Cundill's semi-antique ammo. When he pulled or squeezed the trigger, he didn't know if the goddamn round would go off at all, let alone when. This meant that he had no indication, especially in the case of the dud, if it would fire when the action of the double rifle was open. If his head was in the waythe laws of physics being rather immutablethe heavy brass case might have been driven through his face or head had it been in line with the breech. That would have been purely charming, on top of everything else rather close at hand.
This was not the first time I had had firefights with lions, which are reputed to be light-boned and fairly easy to kill. I have written to this same conclusion myself, but I'm changing my opinion as I get to know lions under field circumstances over more and more years. The sheer quantity of punishment they can take is simply astonishing. This particular chap, which went most comfortably in Rowland Ward's, weighed over 500 pounds, and I suspect that most of it was heart. He took eight .375 H&H Magnums, all but one of which was correctly placed, plus two 570-grain .500 Nitros in the guts anddid not quit until I broke his shoulders with my last shot. That computes into just about 42,000 foot-pounds of bullet energy expended on a 500-pound lion. Tell me more.
Tell me no more of lions that drop to a single shot from a light caliber rifle, unless its bullet is precisely placed. If a lion has been mating or otherwise has his blood up, you'd better watch the back end of your navel, my friend, or it may not be there when you get back to camp for dinner. To quote Carl E. Akeley, the Father of American taxidermy, who, in one way or another, got stuck into something like fifty lions, as well as killing a leopard unarmed:
Another test of a lion's strength is his ability to stand punishment. I have seen a lion charge with seven lead bullets from an old .577 Express rifle through his shoulder, and only finally succumb to the eighth bullet in his head.
Hell, I had shot this one three times through the head with a lot more modern stuff than the old black powder .577 with no better results. There was no problem with bullet performance, since, as you can see by the photographs, each mushroomed with textbook precision. I have no idea why these shots were not more effective, except that the lion had determined he wasn't about to cash it in without taking at least one of us with him. Had his lady come along for the trip, he would have, too.
Lord above. Imagine paying money to do this!
We examined him closely before loading him into the back of the Toyota (a feat rather akin to carrying a 500-pound plastic bag full of water). Fiona, Paul, and Jehosephat, who had led the hunting car toward the spot of the kill, had by this time arrived with Ottie at the wheel.
Actually, the goings-on at the car had been interesting enough. in themselves. When things had calmed down and we had had a chance for a smoke without the very good possibility of a lioness charging out of the thickies, I heard what hadgone on a couple of miles back at the car. Paul and Fiona were half-asleep at the beginning of the war, dozing in the shade. Ottie was completely out, as only a bush African or a medical student can be by merely closing his eyes. As the barrage of .375 and .500 fire opened up, Paul swears that Ottie came four feet off his blanket. Fiona, a professionally trained linguist with a feast of languages at her command, asked him what in hell he reckoned was going on. The best he could guess was that we had run into a major pride and were in the process of shooting our way out.
When the firingeleven shots, including Karonda's valiant attempt to stem the leonine tidehad died, Ottie rightly figured it was about time to see if there were any walking wounded. Only, the car wouldn't start.
Dutifully and happily, Ottie, who had some remote idea of what made a hunting car go in the first place, figured out that either the plugs had somehow become fouled or that the points needed replacing. I never got into it with him, nor did Paul, who is no mean mechanic. In any case, the peanut gallery was in situ after meeting up with the unarmed Jehosephat, who had come to show them the way.
I was as pleased as double rum punch, even though we had missed a chance at some charge pictures. It was not the sort of situation that was worth a photograph in any book at the cost of a man's lifeand it could have very damned well been any of ours. At least we were prepared to defend ourselves. Paul was not.
After a cold beer, we examined the waterline of that bull lion. How he stayed afloat for so long and got so close is to this daynot that long afterwardquite unbelievable. He was shot almost between the eyes, a bit high by me over the right eyebrow, behind the left ear, through the back of the head, three times in the chest, again the poor spine attempt (but he was really rolling along), and again by my rifle just a touch high over the heart proper, which is exactly where I wanted to break him down. He also had my shot a postage stamp in width from his bum, as well as the relatively accurate results of Gordon's fusillade with the .500 Nitro. Both these slugs had torn through his guts as he had spun after catching some of my hardware at the very second Gordon's rifle decided to fire.
We went through the usual photo sequences and walked Paul and Fiona through the scenario. At one point, Gordon and I stopped and gave each other a sidelong look that would have filled volumes. Mmmmm. Very close.
We were now both worried, considering the blowtorch heat of midday, that the bloody thing might slip some hair before it was skinned. We had to get itback to camp, which we promptly did, and although I have not yet seen the pelt, I believe it will be fine. I want Peter Becker, my old friend at Botswana Game Industries in Francistown, to just tan and felt-back the hide without sewing up the marvelous and quite interesting collection of bullet holes. They're really what that lion hunt was all about, and I am far more interested in them than in the cosmetic appearance of the cat.
We drove into Saile, refusing offers of sainthood and senatorship, past the hippo-ravaged chimbuzi, and into the skinners' camp. Skinners occupy rather the same social status as do head cooks orsenior gun bearers like Karonda. They are the elite. But who, of all bloody people in Africa, should have stepped out of a grass kaia at that moment but Stomach, of whom I have written before in other books and who was my skinner when I had the camp Daryll Dandridge and I built in 1970 on the edge of the Okavango, now called "Splash." Stomach, so named because of the intestinal growlings his body was constantly making, was one of the best men with a knife in Botswana. When he saw me, he actually embraced me.
Quite possibly only God has any idea of Stomach's age, and, if so, He's not telling. What that man can do with a knife, however, would make a butcher blush. He was the skinner chosen by the Denver Museum on a fairly recent expedition to collect rare birds for their galleries. Stomach, I'm told, did an absolutely first-rate job on this immensely delicate task. With that in mind, I called for three chairs, and Fiona, Paul, and the Great Slayer of Tau sat for a couple of hours and watched the art of skinning at its best.
Essentially, I am an economic idiot. He was the fattest damned lion I ever saw, absolutely layered in lard, which alone would have almost paid the cost of that safari. Lion fat is considered to be great muti (black magic medicine) throughout central and southern Africa, among other things reputed to be a cure for gonorrhea, syphilis, and arthritis. Had I had it rendered down, I could have sold it to one of the many muti shops in Pretoria and Johannesburg, where you can buy just about every item seen in the first scene of Macbeth. Ah well, financial considerations have never been my forte.
Stomach, actually, is most likely partially demented. As I remember him in that old camp on the fringes of the Okavango, he spent most of his time actually growling at people. Whether this was some sort of mental aberration or just pure fun, I have never been able to decide.
As Stomach skinned out that huge lion, I made him the offer of one pula, thelocal currency, for every bullet he found. I was most interested to know what those Silvertips had done and how they had performed. As it turned out, he came up with a considerable amount of scrap metal, consisting essentially of my own rounds and a dosepossibly both barrels of buckshot that, judging by their penetration, had been fired broadside into him as a youngster from some forty-odd yards (there was no obvious external evidence of the wounds). Perhaps he had wandered by somebody's tent and put on the same performance as he had for me not long before he reached his quietus.
In any case, by the time we were through with him and he with us, he would have never gotten through an airport security metal detector.
I salute for all time the gallantry of that marvelous animal, as I am sure does Gordon. It was him or us. Period. Yes, we started it, but he damned near ended it. And if, things had gone his way, I would rather have been killed by that Saile lion, I think, than by any other animal I have ever confronted.
We only found a couple of the mushroomed Winchester Silvertip slugs; exactly why so few were found I am not sure, since at the rate of one pula each, you can bet old Stomach was digging around in guts until the moon went down. Gordon's rounds that went off bulled completely through the lower body cavity and were not recoverable, although they made one hell of a pair of holes.
The twilight dropped and the riverine papyrus turned from green to dark amber. A rather unusual invitation was issued to my wife, Paul, and me to visit the staff campfire, which we did forthwith with a congratulatory stipend of tshwala in hand. A hell of a lot more than a merry time was had, as everybody who had been on the scene acted out the hunt and the immense prowess of the hunter and Morena Cundill. It was as charming as imaginable and a great honor to be asked to visit. I was hugely flattered, since, after all, most of the participants were not armed, except for Karonda, who couldn't hit a barn with the doors locked from the inside, anyway.
Well, maybe not so, according to the story Gordon told me later. We were partaking of something a bit more potent and distilled by a far northern race when Gordon mentioned the item I brought to your attention earlier, that of the lion that had tried to eat him, and damned well would have, had it not been for Karonda and his highly skilled or very lucky shot.
I might note at this juncture that Cundill is purely an African. He took the last vertebra from our lion and threw away the same of the previous onealways kept in his pocketin whose killing he had been involved. Everyone has their personal talismans, as, indeed, I do. Gordon's is especially unusual. Don't ask me why he does it; I didn't ask him.
In fact, come to think of it, I did.
"I just do, old boy," quoth he, and the matter was laid to rest.
"Out of the sack, mighty slayer of lions! Here's a cold beer to hold body and soul amalgamated. Ina! Vuka wena! Manje!" I suppose it is not polyglot Fiona's fault when she says "move" and one is inclined to do so.
My head didn't really feel like the prize pumpkin at a world's fair exhibition, but I suspect it might have taken third prize. Fiona, who does not drink, smoke, or do anything else reasonably disreputable, had been up before dawn, watched the sunrise, and eaten an amount of bacon and eggs that would have shamed the Green Bay Packers. It was almost campfire time on my Tahitian paradise, but not before Gordon and I did very rude things to some francolin and guinea fowl along the edge of the swamp.
During our absence, Fiona and Paul packed up and got things ready for the trip down the Linyanti River to Linyanti Camp, there to enjoy more assorted goodies.
And goodies they were. Run by Mike Hissey and his incredibly competent wife, Daphne, Linyanti is more of a sight-seeing camp than one for hunters, and I have never in all my years seen one so "jacked-up" as it was. Great Deities! Flush toilets! Unlimited hot water! The bloody place even had an expansive lawn in immaculate condition!
But it is with huge sadness, as this is being typed in January of 1986, that I must inform you that Mike died of a heart attack earlier this month. With his demise passes a hunting era. I am indeed grateful, however, that I had the chance to spend several memorable days with him and Daphne on safari.
Soon after we had settled into camp, Cundill was, as mildly as I can put this in a book intended for a general audience, highly disturbed by the electronic presence of a raucous shortwave radio receiverlocally known as a "wireless"that was blasting out British cricket scores. Now Gordon, at something around six feet two inches and a hundred and ninety pounds, is nobody to fool with. Take it from me. I have seen him in the field. Why he did not hit the proverbial grass roof, I don't know, but he is not without wile in camp politics either, so whoever was playing the set was spared what might have been a ferocious scene.
I happen to agree with Gordon. Clients don't come all that way and spend all that money to listen to some bloody shortwave cricket scores when they might be listening to hyenas, lions, and leopards. I have never permitted a radio in camp unless the owner agreed to listen to it with an earplug; my sentiments remain the same to this day.
People come on safari only peripherally to hunt. Safari is the pure experience of itself. The wood smoke of seasoned mopane, the sweating beers and otherrevivers, the soft chatter of the staff, the hyenas in the background, the white ants or termites around the Cadac pressure lamps, the brilliant clarity of the night sky as one may never have seen it, the distant roaring of a pride of lionshopefully quite distantthe smell of cordite and the aroma of freshly shot guinea fowl or francolin for lunch in the bushthese are what safari is really about: hardly the killing of animals which, with a true sportsman, is at least tertiary.
I can remember coming back to the States after a season of standing around leadwood and mopane fires and opening my suitcase. The residual smell of the bushveld smoke, so alien to America, was actually enough to dampen my eyes with nostalgia and make me wonder what in hell I was doing away from there.
In camp with Mike and Daphne were Daph's brother, the well-known East African and Botswana professional John Northcote, as well as two of his clients who were soon to figure in something of a reasonable drama involving Gordon.
Mike, who had earlier been the manager of the Galana Scheme in Kenya before everything shattered hunting-wise there, had been the famous Elmer Keith's favorite professional hunter, and I seem to recall that Elmer dedicated a book to Mike. Elmer, a dear old pal of mine, also wrote for the Petersen Publishing Company in Los Angeles and contributed to Guns & Ammo, as do I from time to time.
In any case, we were a happy crew who, among ourselves, knew just about every manor womanwho had held professional hunting licenses in our rather extended times. In comparison with the modern crop of professional hunters, we had between us decades devoted to the bush. Hissey? Don't ask me. He had been out there hunting when black rhino was a common feature on a hunting license. Today, most of the young professionals have not even seen a black rhino in the wild, let alone have a client take one.
The first night in camp at Linyanti there was an amazing confrontation between Gordon and his company's clients, who were due to fly out at the crack of dawn the following day. One of the gentlemen was a French-speaking white Senegalese, the other a Sicilian, who was as charming as the Senegalese was rude. They had been hunting with John Northcote and apparently couldn't hit the proverbial bull in the butt with a bass fiddle. Oh, yes, they got some stuff, especially the Italian, who took a very fine buffalowhich irritated his compadre into the first sentiments of a hunting "accident" that dropped as dead as the Rock of Gibraltar with his first shot, further stirring the ire of his companion.
Protocol, being what it is, is rarelyaimed and fired. The Senegalese jumped on Gordon as soon as he had figured out who he was. His French was full-cocked and loaded with invective of the Double-O variety. Gordon, not speaking any French or Italian, roped in Fiona to interpret the tirade around the table, and she ate them alive. Interpreting exactly what was being said, as is demanded by the interpreter's credo, Fiona conveyed the following statement from the Senegalese to an astounded Gordon:
"In any safari camp with any self-respect, there are always fresh lemons. Why are there no more fresh lemons in this camp? How can you run safaris without fresh lemons? We grow lemons all over the place in Senegal."
"Lemons?" asked Gordon.
"Lemons," answered Fiona in English.
"Fiona," said Cundill, "please indicate to our guest that this is Botswana, and a remote corner of Botswana at that. We supply enough lemons for a British sailing ship for each safari. They are transported at great cost from hundreds of miles away. If our guest has priced fuel in this country recently, he'll have greater clarity as to what I am saying. And please inform the gentleman that, my being little conversant with the agricultural potential of Botswana from the lemon point of view, I am at a loss as to why lemons are not being grown all over this country too. It would ease our logistics problems. Now ask our guest if he would, in conclusion, join me in having one of our truly superior Cape brandies."
The Senegalese pouted at the prospect of a substitute for "the real thing," cognacfrom France, of course. He was being a plain and simple garden-variety bastard, but such was Cundill's grasp of the man's mood that it was not long before we were all being showered with invitations to Senegal, where life was really plump and the proper wines and brandies could always be foundas well as lemons.
This, of course, is a precis of the conversation, the Sicilian sitting and looking on, rather like a nicely tanned version of Kermit the Frog.
The next morning, the two hunters had gone, proving that we do have a Fairy Godmotherat least as far as the Senegalese was concerned.
Essentially, we had gone to Linyanti because we had already taken the lion, and Gordon now wanted me to enjoy some bird-viewing and fishing on the Linyanti River from Mike's special pontoon boat. An added attraction was the table set by Daphne, surely one of the best in Africa.
Paul was using an 800mm lens, and he got some really good shots of bee-eaters and monitor lizards. As we cruised alongfor some hours, coming within arm's-length of exotic birds on numerous occasions, a rather fascinating thing came (as one would say in biblical parlance) to pass.
There was a piece of flotsam a couple of feet wide floating down the river, and perched upon it was a francolin, or crested quail, chick only a couple of weeks old. Cundill immediately called the boat to a haltto the astonishment of the driver who, I think, had foreseen great joy in swamping the little thing with the boat's wash but did as he was bloody well told.
When John, the driver, mismaneuv-ered the pontoon boat, I don't think I've ever heard such a skinning of anybody.He came back upstream and put Gordon into position to try and catch the little bugger with a landing net. Unfortunately, the chick was more frightened of us than of the crocs, of which there were plenty in the Linyanti, and swam the few yards to shore. Naturally, it chose the thickest wait-a-bit thorn bush and tried to hide in the middle of it, with no small degree of success.
Oh well, once Cundill gets motivated there's little that can stop him. He more than likely picked up more scars in the next fifteen minutes than in fifteen years of lion hunting, but he caught the chick, his forearms and legs pouring with blood. Gordon then had John put him ashore, where he walked a full hundred and fifty yards into the bushthick stuffunarmed and tucked the chick into the bottom of a leafy bush, safe from hawks in a place where his mum might hear him cheeping.
Not that I wouldn't have done it too, but I had to ask Cundill his motives. "Why the hell did you go to the trouble and blood of saving that little bastard when you shot five of the same species last evening?" I inquired, seeing that he was still mightily irritated at the boatman.
I got a Cundillism: "In the first instance, by no method of ours, this little thing was stranded in the middle of the river and had no chance to survive; and in the second instance, it then took itself off to what little security it did have. I don't know, just a matter of fair play. Probably the same reason we track lions rather than poison or trap them."
Fair play. Get the drift?
This is probably the appropriate time to mention that baboons, for some reason absolutely unknown to this writer, are completely protected in Botswana. That's why there are so few game birdsall the eggs and nestlings are eaten. There is nothing remotely like the numbers of game birds I knew when I was a professional hunter there. What would prompt the authorities to completely protect the baboon, whose depredations are infamous, and to declare the various subspecies as protected, is well beyond my understanding. In areas like Linyanti, they are rife ... and bloody cheeky, too. Theyare a positive menace not only to children and local crops but even to adults, especially women. I am not speaking of old wives' tales, but of the genuine danger that has arisen in places like Kenya, Zimbabwe, and South Africa.
A bit later, I shall describe in greater detail my personal campaign against the Vlackfontein baboons. But before leaving the subject, I would mention the huge lone baboon written of by Pretorius that killed a number of local people in Central Africa and then ate their brains; a remarkable creature that caused entire villages to be deserted in the Ruvuma region of what is now Tanzania.
It was the twenty-fourth of June, my having shot the impala for camp meat for the "pyromaniacs" burning the strip that morning. Before we arrived at Linyanti, we drove past the turnoff to see King's Pool, the camp where the current King and Queen of Sweden had enjoyed their honeymoon. It was now Gordon's personal camp for himself and his family (and later to become mine on a return visit for back-up photographs with Dick van Niekerk, another excellent professional who filled in when Paul was unable to continue with us).
The track goes through some eight kilometers of a finger of the Chobe National Park. We pitched up to inspect the construction of Gordon's camp. It was a perfectly beautiful spot, a comma in the Linyanti River that curled back, filled with a hippo herd that appeared oddly docile and, for some reason or another, didn't invade the camp at night. I immediately liked it. Not that I liked the black mamba that swam ashore from the Caprivi, but the shotgun was packed away and it was in the grass before anybody could do anything.
We didn't stay at King's Pool that night or on any other during the trip, but went on, as mentioned earlier, to Linyanti a few miles away to hang our bags with Mike, Daphne, and John, who were about to have an empty camp for a few days after the memorable departure of the Senegalese and his companion. The cruiseup the Linyanti and then down to the papyrus and rush dam some distance downstream revealed magnificent riverine life and provided a welcome break from the dusty conditions of lion hunting. It was also pleasant not to be losing pints of blood every day, so to speak, struggling after lions. Far more enjoyable to be adding cold beer to one's system. And Paul found a soul mate in Mike Hissey when it came to fishing. The sun, peace, and clean air were further perks, on top of the grand company and superb surroundings of Linyanti.
It was the same day, June 24, 1985, that we heard heavy-bore fire from across the Linyanti in the Caprivi Strip. In fact, through my Trinovid binoculars, I could clearly see the dying smoke from the fire of the hereditary chiefs' professional hunters on the other side. Many wounded hippo, as Gordon told me, had come to the Botswana side before now to die, as had elephant in similar condition.
Each Caprivi chief is granted six hippo and eight elephant. As Gordon put it in his uniquely succinct way: "The tragedy stems from the attitude in the mind of the rural African people that wildlife is just food ... . Now, if wildlife is to survive in Africa, these people, especially their leaders, must be led to understand that wildlife is one of their resources, no less valuable than the diamonds at Orapa or gold. More so, wildlife is a replenishable resource, a net foreign-currency earner if properly utilized.
"The aspect that is so often lost sight of is that sport hunting has already solidly proved itself in Europe and the U.S. as a superior form of conservation, and in Botswana, certainly, hunting companies provide the income that goes toward the maintenance of the national parks and their staff. They also, through their concessions, provide the reservoir area in which animals can survive, this also being true of Zambia and other game-rich areas.
"It is my opinion that when education will have reached down through several decades and generations to determine local attitude toward wild animals, there will be no more time to further educate rural Africans in this sense. At the moment, we can only deal with the contingencies of convincing his leaders of the importance of utilizing wildlife as a foreign-currency resource."
Cundill is dead right. While this is an adventure book about hunting big game, the foregoing subject is so inextricably tied to the sport itself as to be obvious. If all the animals disappear through poaching and agricultural overexpansion, and the accelerated introduction of goats, cattle, and donkeys into game habitat, what do you expect?
Where I used to hunt in Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, the tsetse were rife. They're largely gone now, and so is one hell of a lot of the game. There's still plenty, but not in the same places. We can get into the elephant situation and enhance any conclusions, based upon my lengthy campfire conversations with damned near everybody from the chief conservation Officer of Botswana to the man in the field.
"Get your posterior out of that rack, Capstick!" bellowed Cundill in Oxfordian tones. Only Gordon would say "posterior."
"The good lady at breakfast as well as your host have demanded a Cape buffalo. We have a meat crisis and the sepoys are upon us. Nyama, Capstick. Now! You will place a large hole in a narri as soon as possible." More's the loss that Cundill was born too late for the Indian army.
I inquired with my usual politeness what they would want with such a smelly thing, Paul echoing my sentiments while hiding behind a Lion Lager.
"The gentlemen up at King's Pool haven't seen meat since the original Bastille Day," intoned a clear-eyed Cundill, a rare enough sight to get my attention.
"Why don't you go shoot one while I get my notes together?" I asked.
"I'm afraid of them. They bite," said Cundill. "Anyway, I want to see if that lion was an accident."
"You're goddamn right it was an accident. Yours. They bite, too. Listen," said I, turning to Paul, "don't forget to get plenty of pictures. This light won't be right for my profile for at least another two hours."
Slamming Paul's instep, I gently suggested that he would have no chance of decent footage until the sun as well as our spirits were considerably higher.
He happily agreed.
"Right. Into the truck!" You don't argue with Gordon when you have a hangover and he is pure. A rare state of circumstances; in fact, I can't think of another instance ... .
Gordon's grandfather was a transport rider between the coast and the diamond diggings during the last century when it was one of the toughest and most dangerous occupations in early Africa, and where things tended to bite even morethan they do today. Apparently, there is some sort of residual gene passed on to transport riders' grandsons.
I stoked the Mauser with 300-grain Remington solids (meant to penetrate rather than mushroom), gave a hand up to Fiona to the rear of the hunting car, and off we went, looking for buffalo spoor.
Actually, there are a hell of a lot of buff in the Linyanti area, and they tend to be less than truly spooky, since there is not too much poaching. Typical of Botswana buffalo, they tend to stay in large herds, with bunches of up to a dozen bachelors on the periphery. Some of these are real whoppers, and to my eternal regret, I didn't pop one I saw that went at least forty-nine inches across the spread, Rowland Ward mannera real beauty. I had just shot a zebrato have the skin around and perhaps to have some artifacts made from itbefore spotting a bunch of bull buff, including this really big chap.
Now, I've shot over a thousand of the blighters, either on a personal basis or on official duties with one or another game department, so I didn't spoil my shorts since I have seen better. I'm sorry now I didn't take him, but then, that's hunting. (The next day, second-thinking the matter with Paul, we went back. I might as well have tried to find the Titanic.)
In any case, I was expected to shoot a buffalo for the crew down the road who were refurbishing King's Pool, as well as for the staff at Linyanti and ourselves. I had no great desire for a buff as a trophy, because they tend to dominate a room by their very size when shoulder mounted.
We came across a herd of bulls the next day, however, and it was decidedby whom, I'm not surethat I should take a shot. (After all, our guys were hungry.) It was a very bad setup, and I almost could have predicted what would happen. And happen it did.
There was an old bull about a hundred yards from us, across a relatively open area (meaning scrub mopane only five feet high). I took a rest on my thumb and hand against a handy tree and sent an airmail .375 solid. Owing to the recoil and subsequent loss of the bull in my sight, I didn't know what had happened, but that bull was hambile, gone. Uh-oh. The hold was right, but the bush wasn't. Before I could get another round into the bastard, he had turned and fled.
This was still very thick stuff, mostly scrub mopane and conbretum. I was shooting at an outline that rather resembled a steer Angus in a field of corn. The slug had hit a branch, been thrown off course, and smashed through two mopane stems as thick as your wrist, wailing away in one direction as the buff bellowed off in the other. Because of the ringing of the shot in my ears and the recoil of the .375,I had lost any reality with the situation. Yet the testimony of the gun bearers that they had clearly heard the bullet "singing" made me feel a hell of a lot better. Bush deflection. No thick stuff out of which we would have to root a sick and highly angry Bos kaffir. Hopefully no wounded buff at all. Still, because of the possible consequences if the bull had been hit, Gordon, Paul, and I combed the thickets so that nobody would walk into a wounded buff bull.
It took two hours during the hottest part of the day just to be sure. We, of course, had no idea whether the goddamn thing was waiting behind the next clump of crud, sick and mean, with us directly on his mind. There was no blood whatever, and we found where the bullet had struck a branch midway before tearing up the two mopane trees. Satisfied, we moved on. We still needed meat.
The sun, a molten orb in a cerulean sky, was sliding away when we found the next bunch. We were all parched, and even the prospect of taking on another buff was not as intimidating as it should have been.
It was rather a large herd, perhaps a hundred and fifty animals. I noticed, since I wasn't particularly interested in a trophy bull but more in some fresh red meat, that tail-end Charlie seemed eminently qualified for our needs. He was a big bull and brought up the very rear of the herd; an old chap who would probably have worms in his liver as well as in his stomach, but who would taste just as good as any of the rest of them. Just as he spun and began to thunder away over the drought-parched earth, I decided it was getting too late to fool around. I stuck him.
He was going at an angle of about twenty degrees off to my left, so I didn't have to hold off much. I put the solid just in front of his right rear thigh, shooting to take the big pipes or lower lungs and perhaps break the left front foreleg. Even at sixty yards I could hear the hollow thump of the solid as it hit right where I wanted. I was trying to rake him, slow him up, so he would be sick enough to drop out of the herd and cooperate. Happily he did, and I waved Paul (who is an ex-combat photographer) forward as the buff turned sideways in an open area. Paul got the shots of my shoulder-shooting the wounded buff.
It is quite extraordinary in Africa the way vultures, marabous, and other scavengers assemble when they see meat. I have actually put out a pure red bandana and drawn a swarm of the critters. (The old-timers used to tie a white rag to the feet of an upended antelope to keep vultures away.) By the time that buff hit the ground, the air was nearly black with birds. They didn't have all that long to wait, either, since our trackers and gunbearers left mighty light pickings by the time we were finished.
I mentioned that I've shot four figures worth of buffalo, but I had never before seen one with such a collection of parasites. His paunch, full of fodder, contained at least an equal amount of red worms of a type I didn't happen to be particularly familiar with. If Gordon knew what they were, he didn't mention it, either.
Jehosephat, Karonda, Mack, and Ottie made quick work of the carcass, leaving only a little guts and some well-stripped bones. I sent Paul off to get a few shots of the scavengers, which he did with awild, screaming charge into the midst of them, camera clicking on motor drive. For a minute, I wondered just who was going to get whom, but a ragged Paul reappeared, nicely spotted with vulture what's the polite term?guano. (On the way back to camp he rode in the back. The far back.) In the meantime, we had lunch in the shade of a mopane, Gordon's old East African chopbox producing its usual wonders. I'd trade you something very dear to my soul to own that box. Solid teak, it almost seemed to exude the essence of the Old Africa. How many hundreds of thousands of miles it had done were unknown, as was its age. Even Gordon has forgotten where he originally picked it up, but bear in mind that he started his professional career as a kid of seventeen in Tanganyika and is now somewhat older! Knowing Gordon, I very much doubt that he purchased it new, either. Hell, the Sultan of Zanzibar might well have used it as his lunch box, as there was plenty of room for a loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and even thee.
I might add here that some slightly more exotic items than the simple tastes of Omar Khayyám were enclosed therein, among them a thing called "ice," which I saw so infrequently in Africa I almost always forgot how to spell it. There was cold francolin, a good jar of Dijon mustard, and various chilled meats from such ho-hum fare as warthog and impala. (You know, the sort of thing you regularly pick up at Burger King or the Explorers' Club Annual Dinner.) There was evendamnice cream. Vanilla.
Actually, it would be unfair and probably dastardly to infer that all of Hunters Africa's camps do not have ice. Hell, you could chill a hippo into a state of hibernation in the middle of the bush with the amount of ice the company's modern conveniences produced at their camps.
But back to the buffalo. I had noticed Jehosephat looking at the thing with a rather intense stare. When I mentioned this to Gordon in the Toyota, I got a pretty good answer.
It had been the year before, Gordon explained. Cundill had had his young son along with him as well as his usual crew and a good personal friend. It was terminalia country, very thick, and they came across a herd of some four to five hundred narri. I have been in that area and if there is a place you don't want to try to sort out a wounded buff from some half-thousand, that spot would rank pretty high. Terminalia is some five to seven feet tall and stops bullets like a regiment of sandbags.
In any case, the man shot and the buff was obviously hit, but not hard enough or in the right place. To make matters worse, there was no visible blood spoor because of the dust of the other five-hundred-odd narri.
The bull disappeared into the herd before Gordon could break it down with his .500 Nitro (or, knowing him, a large stick). The hunting party skirted the heavy cover ahead and climbed a termite heap some hundred yards further on. Despite a lengthy search with binoculars, there was still no sign of that particular bull, and Gordon figured that, with so many animals, he'd better send for the vehicle to see if any blood could be picked up at the edges of the herd's spoor.
There was small clump of terminalia upwind past which the party had to go, the trackers/gun bearers leading the way as Gordon and his friend covered them.
The trouble was that Mack and Jehosephat ran straight at Gordon with the wounded buffalo right behind them, narrowing the three-point gap to the extent that Gordon couldn't fire without hitting one of the men with a 570-grain solid. The buff had been shot too far back, through the guts, and was rapidly gaining ground on the fleeing men. Experienced as they were, they should have known enough to zigzag and offer their cover gun a field of fire, but the buff was so close they completely forgot their instructions. (Can't much blame them, personally. Charging buffaloes definitely scare me, and I carry a rifle.)
Mack finally pulled a J-turn, while Jehosephat completely lost his head and continued straight toward Gordon, the buffalo almost at his heels. Gordon's only impression in the seconds that a buff charge takes was of flashes through the bush. And there was still no way to get off a shot without hitting Jehosephat, who was breaking all Olympic records for out-running wounded buffalo.
The buffalo, according to Gordon, actually caught Jehosephat just as he reached an elephant-damaged piece of bush, a mopane that had been knocked down but had survived to spend the rest of its life at a sixty-degree angle. Jehosephat went flying from a vicious thump of its horns, and there was a sickening smashing sound as the bull hit the tree at full speed. Jehosephat, either by luck or design, had managed to fall behind it. As Cundill ran forward at top speed there was one hell of a commotion as the buff tried to sort out Jehosephat. And try mightily he did.
As Gordon came up to the spot and the buffalo saw him, he immediately forgot Jehosephat and charged Cundill. Gordon gave the buff a permanent prenasal drip up the nostrils and got down on one knee with the thing only a few yards off. Sure that Jehosephat was dead, he saved his last barrel of the .500 Nitro-Express Wilkes for when it would really matter.
The buff took the second dose from a couple of feet away. He crashed at Cundill's feet and never twitched. As Cundill told me in his inimitable accent: "When you have an animal charging like that, you must let him come to the point that you are positive you can kill him."
Remember, by his own testimony, he was only able to see patches of the action through the heavy bush. Yet he made the additional comment that, "In open cover, as this was, when I shouted him off Jehosephat, this becomes very personal, especially with an animal as fast and as dangerous as a wounded buffalo."
Yes, I would agree it is highly personal, having had a couple of dead buff pulled off my carcass. They're very heavy.
"I went back to find what might be left of Jehosephat and discovered him behind the rather substantial root system of this tree. Although he had several cracked ribs from the initial impact, these were all the injuries he had sustained. This was my eight-year-old son's introduction to buffalo hunting."
Gordon continued in agreement with me that Jehosephat, who seemed to have no fear spooring lion or other dangerous game, was just too brave and would more likely sooner than later get permanently hammered, either by buff or lion.
We spent an Elysian week with Daphne, Mike, and John Northcote, which was, however, capped by an incident that might well have been deadly for all concerned. But before this, we photographed Mike's giant kingfishers, a very rare species, which were nesting downriver but would come to camp every day, where Mike would catch minnows to feed them. There were also two pairs offish eagles, which look much like the North American bald eagle, their call even sounding similar: an eerie wail that seems to echo off any reasonably sized body of water. We were to see more and get better photographs on a later trip to the Okavango main channel, but these initial encounters were just further soul regenerators for me. Little bee-eaters, one of my favorite types of birds, swarmed the Linyanti, as did the white-fronted, another lovely member of that tribe. But birds were in fact the reason we damned near got somebody killed.
They were all professionals in that camp at LinyantiGordon, Mike, and John. There was also me, no longer holding a license in hopes of living a longer life. We had decided that, despite the depredations of the hordes of baboons, perhaps a bit of roast sand grouse might go nicely with the rest of Daph's Ritzian offerings, and had arranged to enjoy a spot of wing shooting one afternoon.
Mike told us about a waterhole, or "pan" (as such pools are locally called throughout most of central and southern Africa), nearby that was reputed to have more sand grouse drinking from it at dusk than businessmen at a Third Avenue bar. Conveniently, it was quite near the airstrip, probably not five hundred yards away. (Now, when I say airstrip, I mean a place where trees do not currently grow. Of course, that is not true of the internationally famous Capstick Airport, located in the strategic Mupamadzi Valley in Zambia, but sheer modesty prevents me from rendering the details concerning that huge honor until a later point. Trees do grow there, however, and you must dodge them a bit unless you want to bend the wings of your charter plane, a minor matter in any case.) We selected two vehicles, piled everybody in, and headed off toward the pan.
I have commented elsewhere that to my great personal loss as well as that of his family, Gordon will get nailed by something ugly if he continues to climb off that hunting car and wander for hundreds of yards unarmed to follow lion spoor or buffalo tracks or heaven knows what else he discovers with his clever little nose. As I cannot emphasize enough, if it bites and you can't bite back, you're out of business. The gun back in the hunting car is not worth a goddamn if you're a hundred yards away and you've got a lion atop of you.
Well, I knew better but had gotten lulled into the pattern, too. We arrived at the site near the Linyanti airstrip, the pan being something around an acre and a half in size but apparently fairly deep. Gordon emerged from the cab as did I. Paul helped Fiona down as Karonda, Mack, and Jehosephat piled off. I presumed Ottie was in the other vehicle.
Gordon assumed his classic position, monocle wedged firmly in his eye socket, hands clasped behind his back, bent over looking at the spoor of the hundreds of buff and God-knows-what-else that had been drinking there. He muttered the occasional "ummm" and "ahhh" as one or another spoor came to eye. But he was unarmed. As was Fiona. As was Paul. As were, unfortunately, the rest of the men and I.
I, at least, knew better.
We had walked completely around the pan in, by my best guess, something like seventeen minutes, and were waitingfor Mike, John Northcote, and Ottie to show up. (They had, it turned out, taken a few minutes to sort out some shotshells and were about ten minutes behind us. Just as well.) When they didand it was a minor miracle, since Mike's driving made Mario Andretti look like a tricycle-driverI had just finished making the following statement to Fiona: "You know, this is, in my experience, exactly the place a badly torn-up bull hippo that's been fighting would come to save his bacon. I've got an eerie feeling without a rifle."
I had no sooner got out the quotation marks when all hell broke loose. Or, to quote Gordon: "In the words of William Charles Baldwin, esquire, 'Behemoth appeared.'" Personally, I'm astonished he didn't quote Chaucer or, at the very least, Kipling. Maybe Kipling wasn't into hippos.
But we sure as hell were.
The middle of the pan absolutely erupted with the power of a depth charge, as probably nigh on three tons of bull hippo, bleeding and rampaging, burst upon us. And, nobody had a rifle. It was one of those moments that, in a lifetime of professional hunting, lasts less than a minuteif you are very lucky and clever. Better still to be fast on your feet.
I nabbed Fiona by the collar, stuck her face into mine, and simply said, "Run! Now!"
She couldn't see it, but she's no fool and was on top of the cab in a flash, passing me with a speed that still makes me shake my head. If you want to talk about bush-busting, that's the girl you want to hire. Hell, if she'd charged the hippo, I would have put even money on the outcome.
My next concern was to correct my weaponless condition with the greatest rapidity. I ran like hell for the Toyota, where my .375, crammed with solids, was leaning on the front seat. If that sonofabitch hippo was right behind me, I didn't pause to look. I saw that Fiona was clear and devil take the hindmost.
We have all the time in the world to discuss hippos, but bear in mind that they kill more people than any other vegetarian. No, not buffalo or rhino or whatever you will. Hippos.
I was later very sorry to have met dear old Karonda at the door of the hunting car because he was between me and that .375 H&H Mauser. In my haste, I grabbed the poor chap by the front of his jumper and, with a strength I never suspected I possessed, picked him up off the ground and threw him one-handed through the air. Happily, I didn't hurt Karonda, nor was the hippo directly on my heels. I had that .375 in hand in one big hurry, though, and was running as fast as I could back to the water, having tipped the scope mount off and leavingthe open sights. Bulling through the bush, I passed Northcote, minus his gun, swaying in a treetop and caught up with Gordon, who was dunking solids into the Westley Richards .500. I hoped they worked better than the softs he had tried to use on the lion.
When it comes to hippos, that was a hippo. He was, without any doubt whatsoever, the biggest I have ever seen. I can't begin to imagine what the one that threw him out of the herd must have looked like! And Jesus, but did he put on a show! The first time he emerged, he came a whole body length out of the water not twenty yards away. That was for practice.
Presuming, quite correctly, that we were impressed, he carried on with the performance. He false-charged a dozen times, Paul being so unfortunately pie-eyed at never having seen something like this before that he neglected to photograph most of the dramatic moments. Ah, hell, that's safari. The bloody thing sure had my attention.
Karonda, or somebody else, had brought Gordon's side-by-side shotgun, and Old Hangfire decided to have some fun trying to drive the hippo out of the pool.
Now, you don't do that with injured hipponot without provoking a charge. Gordon, as the photos that did come through show, did not actually shoot at the beastie, but merely laced the water to its bow and stern. It didn't like that very much.
At one point, with the thing about ten yards away, me with the .375 and Gordon with the .500, it looked as if it was really coming. No kidding coming. He was actually pushing a wake at least two feet high in front of himself and blowing a wave six feet around the periphery of the pan. I had thought our lion had been slightly out of sorts, but you should have seen that hippo! When he was within thirty feet, I asked Gordon out of the side of my mouth, "Shall I take him?" The scope was tipped off the Mauser and I had him dead to rights, in quite a literal sense.
"Oh, give him three or so more paces," said Cundill, the wash of the charge wetting his shoes.
To my surprise, he stopped. I covered him as he backed off just to be safe, there having been several fatal hippo incidents in the area in the past couple of years.
Cundill is one of the very cool ones. The distance would have been the absolute limit of proximity to that biting machine we would have wanted, as we would at that point have been well within his territory. The hippo might very easily have continued the charge. I'm not certain if Gordon was aware it was a rogue or if he was trying to provoke a charge, although he never shot directly at the animal, which most likelywould have done the trick. He was most certainly a very bad one, and had he come a-charging while we were on the other side of the pool and unarmed, there's not much question somebody very probably would have been killed.
Cundill was having a wonderful time trying to drive the bull out of the pool, but the water was most obviously his security blanket and it would take a missle-armed destroyer to move him out of there.
I was finally able to convince Gordon that we were hors de combat and that if we wanted any sand grouse shooting at all, we had better get our butts in gear and find some other place. It was Karonda who advised that a second pan that offered excellent shooting lay not half a mile away.
That one, I am happy to report, lurked not with behemoth. If it did, he had a much better lung capacity than the previous bull. We had about forty-five minutes of excellent shooting, in which I did not particularly distinguish myself, but it was sure pretty as can be. Although we killed quite a few doves, ring-necks, and the usual potpourri of minor African pigeons, the sand grouse were a bit late.
The cloudless late afternoon sky was transfusion red, freckled with hurtling flocks of birds, mostly double-banded sand grouse. Now, if a man can hit sandies with any consistency, you can bet he's pretty fair. The difficult part is that they not only change direction at what seems to be right angles, but, when they find a wind they likesuch as usually occurs at that time of daythey vary speed from feathered cannonballs to butterflies.
To my immediate left was Northcote (we'd gotten him out of the tree, although how an old bastard like that could have gotten up one in the first place without constant practice is beyond me). To his left was Mike Hissey, who had shot a couple of sand grouse in his time, you may be assured. Next was Gordon, who held down the left flank, while I held down the right. Behind me were Fiona and Paul, while scattered among us were the safari crew, ready to pick up those rare birds so unlucky as to arbitrarily collide with a charge of shot. They were not kept very busy on this particular afternoon.
I opened a few eyelids with a triple as the first bunch came in against the bleeding sunset, but it seemed to be all downhill from there. Still, we took a goodly enough number of birds (which are, interestingly enough, virtually never shot in most of central Africa, owing to the cost of shells. Francolin are mostly snared, along with the odd guinea fowl. Doves are killed with slingshots, or as they are known in British parlance, "catapults") .
Monday morning. Gordon had clear symptoms of cerebral malaria, no small problem in the bush. This particular form of the disease involves parasites that die off in the bloodstream, impeding the flow of blood to the brain through the veins and arteries. Gordon has had it twice, theonly man I know to have doubly survived it. I was worried as hell, even though I have always suspected some sort of brain problem with "Hangfire" Cundill.
Gordon does not take antimalarial pills or prophylaxis. According to him, it can mask the disease and blood tests will not show positive, even if you have it. In a cerebral malaria situation, hours are critical. As Gordon, who ought to know something of the matter, commented: "The problem with malaria is that the medication to treat and prevent it, readily available from drug stores or chemists in Africa, and on prescription in the U.S.A., recommends doses based on average body weights. Let's say the average man weighs a hundred and fifty pounds. Fine. The dosage is probably correct. If, however, he's the size of a Peter Capstick, he will probably need considerably more to either ward off or treat the disease. This is one of the major problems of these blood parasite diseases."
I am certainly no doctor, but when one lives for some years with the Big Threemalaria, sleeping sickness, and bilharziasisone does pick up a few tips. It is my understanding, from those who have had it happen to them, that some of the drugs used to counter malaria can block or mask sleeping sicknesstrypanosomiasisand possibly, but don't quote me, bilharziasis as well. Whether this is in fact true, I don't know. I take malaria prophylaxis every week practically by my wristwatch and, despite the extraordinary places in which I have spent large periods of time and where one or another form of the disease proliferates, I havetouch woodnever had it. But then, I have a lead-lined constitution, never even having had amoebic dysentery.
(There is, I regret to advise you, a new form of malaria, especially in the Zambezi Valley of Zimbabwe, as well as in some pockets of the Luangwa Valley [so I am told] which is absolutely immune to the "chloro"-based drugs that form the phalanx of resistance in the fight against malaria. Gordon advised me to take a particular product as a precaution, but I caught sight of a special notice in the Safari Club International magazine that gave a strict warning against the drug's side effects.)
We watched Gordon very closely with the SSB radio on in case we would have to fly him out, but, a strong man, he passed the attack and was back in the field in a day. Fortunately it had been an exceptionally mild episode that he overcame.
To slip back as smoothly as possible from the minor problem of bloodsuckers to the major nonmeat-eating mankiller in Africa, the hippo. Just nine days before these lines were typed, the following headline appeared in the Natal Mercury, published in Durban, the continent's principal cargo-handling port, on the east coast of South Africa:
MISSIONARY FLOWN TO SA AFTER MALAWI HIPPO ATTACK
I'll spare you a blow-by-blow account, but, if you live in rural Africa, such incidents are by no means rare. Sister Corrie le Gemate, a fifty-year-old Dutch missionary in Malawi, a country to the north, was mauled by a hippo on Christmas Day, 1985, while wading in a lake quite near her mission hospital. "The water," to quote the unfortunate woman, "was a bit muddy and warm, so I went in a bit deeper. Then I felt something heavy around my legs.
"I then felt something cut into my leg. I was surprised and fell back underwater. It must have bumped me then," said Sister le Gemate from her hospital bed, "because I was terribly sore."
She looked toward the children on the lake shore and saw they were all wearing expressions of horror. Turning in the water, she stared back smack into the face of a hippo, sex unknown, but most likely a bull. By lucky happenstance, some colleagues from the hospital at the CCAP mission came by and got her out.
"I was in terrible pain," reported Sister le Gemate. "I couldn't walk, so they put me into the back of a station wagon and took me to the clinic, but there were no painkillers."
Spare me rural Africa where there is rarely anything in the medical line. I carry my own kit and trust nobody else, despite some firms' claims to having full emergency medical facilities. In Africa, you look after yourself, me boy, if you are still able.
The missionary was indeed badly hurt. The ischial nerve in her upper leg, controlling all sensation and movement of the limb and foot, had been chomped through, her pelvis was fractured, and her foot lacerated by the saberlike edges of the hippo's teeth.
After the trip to a nearby hospital, where a doctor was eventually available, a preliminary operation was performed to stabilize her condition, after which she waited in great discomfort for four days before an aircraft was available to fly her to the Tygerberg Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa, and more sophisticated surgery was performed during a five-hour operation. She is now in a plaster cast up to her waist and is recovering. She came very close to dying in that lake.
Should you think that the hippo data I have been spouting for the past ten years and more is a bunch of crud, have a look at recent newspaper clippings, which are just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, since hippo attacks tend to leave few victimsalive. Of course, the hippos themselves don't eat them, but for bloody damned sure the crocs do.
I have already written in Safari: The Last Adventure of the American safari client who had the horrid misfortune of emasculation in October 1982 near my old camp on the Luangwa in Zambia. Hippo. It was an unprovoked night attack right in camp, which makes me think of the uninvited little bunch that dropped by ours at Saile. You may not, however, have heard about some of the other horribles that don't make the "SAVE BAMBI" U.S. press. Let me throw you a few.
From the Pretoria News of June 30, 1983: HIPPO ATTACK: MAN LOSES ARM. That happened in Zimbabwe. Or the item in the Natal Mercury of Durban: WAYWARD HIPPO SHOT DEAD AFTER MONTH OF KILLING. That happened in Zululand. There is also the report in the Pretoria News of August 8, 1984, telling of a man who had to have his leg amputated after a brush with hippo in Lake Amu, Kenya. A little closer to home there's the incident reported by the Daily News Africa Service on March 12, 1983: YOUTH DIES IN HIPPO ATTACK. That was in a river in Botswana. Just for the record, the youngster's skull had been penetrated by a tusk.
The foregoing is only a small slice of the melon because, considering the remoteness of most areas where hippos happen to exist, nobody is likely to pick up a telephone (a what?) and report that sub-chief whoever got his chips from a hippo under the following circumstances. Part of life in rural Africa.
End of thought.
It was the twenty-fifth of June, 1985, when Fiona, Paul, and I flew back with Gordon to Kasane and cleared Customs at the airstrip before flying on to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. Gordon, with his usual panache, pointed out the splendid sight of the confluence of the Chobe and Zambezi Rivers below, then gave our pilot explicit instructions to do a series of rather daring passes at various angles over the falls themselves. The thundering waters, ravines, and rainbows seemed to bear out Fiona's statement that they truly are the eighth wonder of the world. Paul thought he was back in combat as he rapidly changed lenses and position to get as much as he could of the roaring action.
At Vic Falls Airport, we were picked up by Keith Essen with his usual efficiency and taken to the renowned Victoria Falls Hotel to check in for the night. It was another homecoming for me, as I had picked up many clients there in the past. The doorman, a giant of a man named Ordwell Makamure who is probably emblazoned with more pins and badges than anybody on earth, was righton hand to greet us. He grinned in delight upon recognizing me and asked me why I had taken so long to come back. Every hotel of note should have a Makamure. It makes you feel good.
It was real tagatimagicto be back at the Vic Falls and be reminded of days past. Paul had taken Keith up on his offer to go down to the falls for some spectacular shots up close and on foot. As mentioned earlier, I had bumped into Eric Wagner on our way through Vic Falls Airport when we were headed for Botswana, and he had invited our party down to the old Matetsi Unit #4 where I used to hunt. That was where we were going the next day.
Fiona and I were relaxing on the expansive terrace, under those fine, shady trees, to the sounds of the famous marimba band after a buffet lunch, when whose rather impressive outline should appear on the horizon but that of Stuart Campbell, one of my friends of longest standing. I cannot give you Stuart's story precisely, not having all the details, but I do know that he was for many years the chief game officer of Zambia's southern province and that he fought with distinction in Burma during "the Big One." Stuart is generally and specifically one of my favorite people.
Stuart bellowed a greeting from the upper terrace that would likely have put any resident members of the cloth into shock. The marimba band was playing but that never slowed down Campbell. You really had to hand it to the kids at the giant marimba. They never lost a beat. A few minutes later, Eric Wagner and his departing safari clients pitched up on the famous terrace and we all partook of some sustenance, if not exactly of thesolid kind. (Well, olives are solid food, aren't they?)
A bit later, we packed off down the road to Matetsi Unit #4. I had been immensely impressed with the service and attitude of the Victoria Falls Hotel staff, where people fell all over themselves to be of excellent service. My personal congratulations to the Zimbabwe government for maintaining the very high standards of such a great landmark and its immediate environment. Everything was immaculate, the staff was courteous as well as efficient, and it was a real treat for an Americanor anyone else, for that matterto return after so many years. To go to southern Africa and not visit the Vic Falls would be similar to visiting Rome and not seeing St. Peter's.
We drove down the A-5, on our way to another of my African homes. I was truly touched at still being able to recognize individual trees along the way. We turned off at the familiar crossroad for Matetsi Siding and continued on the corrugated dirt until the left turn that led up to Geoff Broom's old place, which was on top of a hill named Mongu after the small stream that ran in the vlei below.
Well, it wasn't the same, but it wasn't that different, either. Although a touch more tattered for not having been lived in for several years, it was still a fine headquarters for a safari operation. When Eric Wagner had moved in, in March 1985, there were dead owls and all sorts of deceased mammalia strewn hither and yon. He had had the place cleaned out and disinfected, got the garden and sprawling lawns going in fine style, and was even building on extensions to an already rambling thatched home. I was delighted to be back, and to have the chance of not only getting to know Eric better but to spend some time with Stuart Campbell.
Speaking of Stuart, he was possibly the first man to operate safaris in Zambia, together with Lou Erasmus. By all appearances, this was some time before Norman Carr and Peter Hankin set up the outfit I eventually worked for, Luangwa Safaris.
There's a fascinating story of how Peter Hankin (tragically killed and partially eaten by a lioness on September 2, 1974) and Norman Carr (author of several books and a hunter and game warden) met. It was during World War II in Ethiopia at some remote place, as I remember the story from Peter over the years. They were seated next to each other at what might have passed for a bar drinking arrack, a local brew capable of peeling the paint off a tiger tank. As might be expected, both men being British officers, they got to talking.
It soon came to light that these two men had spent years of their lives avoiding each other. Hankin was reputedly thetop ivory poacher in the Luangwa Valley of what was then Northern Rhodesia, and Carr its first game warden. It almost became a joke, with Norman working out elaborate ambushes while Peter thought up equally devious evasions. They would even leave notes for each other in obvious places in the bushsuch notes having been delivered by the faithful localswedged in a cleft stick so that the perspiration of the runners did not soil the paper. Norman never caught Peter, but they did join forces after the war to create their safari firm.
At any rate, before Fiona, Paul, and I arrived at Matetsi, Stuart had told the household staff that "A prince is coming, a man you will know." Lord above, the whole of Zimbabwe was abuzz with such tidings! I don't know if they were expecting Bernhard, Andrew, or Charles and Diana. They could have been most heartily disappointed at the arrival of the old bwana of eleven years back. Still, they had had it firmly graven on their brains that I had somehow achieved princehood.
I discovered the extent of these proceedings upon the arrival of the first evening's dinner, when a really magnificent impala pie was carried in. Across the top of the crust, in finely whipped mashed potato, was emblazoned WELCOME PRINCE. Oh, well, my own ideas of princehood are rather vague, so I reckoned it would do no good to ruin anybody's party, especially considering the trouble the chefs and staff had gone to. We toasted Prince Peter I and his princess. As the real item would undoubtedly have observed, a jolly good time was had by all.
On asking the name of the elderly chef so that I could express our appreciation, I was rather amazed to be told that his name was Nick Campbellnot a typically African name. It was simply too much for Fiona's curiosity, and she wormed the story out of Stuart. Apparently, the chef had been in Stuart's employ for some twenty years, and such was the rapport between the men that the African had gone to considerable legal trouble to change his surname to that of his employer. It didn't stop there. The chef's eldest daughter had been named after Stuart's late wife, Joy, and the man's youngest son was named Stuart. Needless to say, this anecdote reveals a great deal about my old pal from the Luangwa days.
Before going any further, however, I must tell you of an amazing change that had occurred at Matetsi #4.
When I was there as a professional hunter, years before, I never saw even the spoor of an elephant. Now, however, the place is crawling with them. Matetsi adjoins the Hwange (previously Wankie) National Park, which had scads of the critters, and upon which large helicopter cropping programs had been implemented. You would have thought some elephant would have strayed over into Matetsi. No. Although we had no elephant quota whatsoever, it certainly was not a matter of hunting pressure or of poaching. They just stayed out.
I am not absolutely sure, but, in speaking with the chief game biologist of Botswana during a later safari, I may have gotten a hint as to why elephants appear and disappear in an area the way they do. But more of that further on.
While on the subject of elephant, I have a tale I must be extremely careful in relating. I acquired the court documents and medical reports through Eric Wagner, who served as an expert witness on the case. I choose not to use names for obvious reasons.
In 1982, an American woman was horribly mauled in Zimbabwe by a bull elephant that hadn't read the rules and that came in a full-out charge from a hundred and ten meters (or seventy-eight meters, depending on whom you want to believe); there was no shortage of witnesses. Now that's a hell of a long way for a jumbo, possibly explained by the fact that he had foot-long parasites up his trunk and was not very pleased with things in general. There are many versions of the incident but here is what happened, as best as I can determine.
The elephant, a very good one whose tusks weighed sixty-one and seventy-seven pounds respectively, was being photographed from what I personally consider a prudent distance. But when it winded the party, it spun and charged. All the people present agreed that the charge from that distance took no more than eight seconds. To give you an idea of how fast an elephant on a mission can move, the humans were able to cover a mere five yards before it was on them. The major problem was that nobody immediately handy was armednot the professional hunter, the assisting "learner-hunter" doing his apprenticeship, or the client. A game guard in the car was armed with a 7.62mm assault rifle.
It chose the woman.
She got behind a mopane tree that was later measured and found to be eighteen inches at the base. The bull broke it as easily as I can break a matchstick and neatly dropped the tree on top of the woman, breaking her leg severely. The bull then proceeded to pick her up with his trunk and tried to tusk her, but he couldn't seem to get his act completely together. The game scout, who had nomoss growing on him, got into action and shot the thing twenty times, including nine metal-jacketed bullets in the head. The elephant dropped the lady and fell back on its haunches, very badly wounded.
At this point, the professional's tracker came up with the express rifle, according to most accounts a .458 Winchester Magnum, and he fired two rounds at the animal as he approached the unarmed party. The pro finished the jumbo.
In shock and terrific pain, the woman was put onto a contrived stretchershortly you will see why. I have in front of me seven medical reports detailing her injuries. How she is still alive boggles the medical imagination. Her injuries, as ascertained by this gaggle of physicians, were as follows:
1. After a trip of some six and a half hours by car over some of the worst roads this side of Afghanistan, shock had reached the point where her blood pressure was 80/60. She never lost consciousness, which, of course, made matters all the worse for her. She then endured a traumatic flight crammed into a light aircraft that finally landed near a hospital.
2. X-rays showed a transverse fracture of her right femur as well as a displaced fracture of her pelvis. Both breaks, although multiple, were set the same day, after which she was given intravenous fluids as well as five pints of blood, not exactly the replacement for a shaving nick.
3. At that point, they almost lost her. She went into pulmonary edema that evening and required days of intubation and ventilation. Worse was to come.
4. Two days after the attack, the woman also had a cardiac arrest. Complete heart stoppage, one of three in all, although she did live. For a time, she was a triplegic, owing to crushed vertibrae, which were not even discovered until a considerable time after her admittance to the hospital.
5. The woman had several broken ribs, which were further broken and driven into her lungs when efforts were made to resuscitate her from her multiple cardiac arrests. Add to this profound depression and you have some idea of the horror.
Now, I could go on with the woman's injuries for quite some time but I don't want this book to sound like a train wreck. I do not have the transcript of the actual trial, but the foregoing is, to the best of my knowledge, accurate. While I was not party in any way to the legalproceedings, it's sometimes curious how one gets involved in what seem to be unrelated matters when one writes books.
Eric Wagner told me, while we were out wing shooting at Matetsi, that a reference to Death in the Long Grass appeared in her husband's deposition, I believe. The woman had instituted suit against, as I understand it, both the husband and his or their insurance company for an astronomical sum of money. The basis of the suit was that the husband was responsible for her safety and did not perform the implied function. According to Eric, the gentleman's deposition before a considerable number of witnesses included the fact that he had read the elephant chapter of Death in the Long Grass and was aware that elephants were both dangerous as well as unpredictable. From what I gather, it convinced the jury and the woman was awarded the money.
Shortly thereafter, if my information is correct, the couple entered the bonds of legal disenchantment. Bad luck all round ... .
I also have before me a copy of a letter from the provincial warden, Matabele-land North, rather severely chastising the professional hunter in charge of the show. I have had nightmares of being in the same situation, and it is so simple and safe to second-guess a seasoned bush professional after a tragedy has happened. I shall not do so here. He had his professional license canceled for two years but was at least granted a "learner's permit" for the same period of time. It must have broken his heart, and I sympathize; but, goddamnit, you have to always be in a position to protect the client, no matter how unlikely the situation may appear at first appraisal. He failed to do this. Thus, he was up to his neck in boiling oil. The assistant professional as well as the gun bearer were completely exonerated.
The entire point of the story is the fact that the dramatis personae were entirely unarmed, and therein lay the infraction that led to the woman's hammering. And that is precisely the way the game department saw things.
No, the elephant should not have charged from that distance. But it did, and people got hurt. Sic semper Africanus.
Now, I really hadn't come to Eric's to shoot anything except game birds bent on attacking us with intent to inflict grievous bodily harm. As it turned out, we were attacked quite consistently.
The following morning, Thursday, June 27, 1985, Eric, Fiona, Paul, and I, as well as two gun bearers/trackers, went out looking for feathered trouble. Francolin and partridge of half a dozen varieties were absolutely all over the joint. We would drive along until we spotted a good covey, park the car, and walk in a couple of hundred yards, flanking each other. There were Swainson's, red-necked, and heaven knows what else, as well as some fine bunches of guinea fowl. I was shooting pretty well, but you have my guarantee that no flies were alighting on Eric Wagner's gun, either. He really shot magnificently on both days we went out and is clearly a pro, at least behind any kind of a long gun. I have never seen him shoot pistol or revolver, so I can't comment on that aspect, but I have no reticence in saying I'm not such a hot pistolero myself.
We were really just driving along the original track to my old home, Vlackfontein, referred to in the last book. It literally means "Spring on the Plain." After a couple of miles and a goodly number of birds, I noticed a figure in the path ahead. Sure enough, it was Rota, the assistant gun bearer under Amos, my num-berone when I had hunted there. We went through the formal as well as the emotional greetings, and he told me that Amos himself had gotten word that I was coming and was walking some phenomenal distance to see me.
Rota was always rather an odd kid by my lights, but he was an extremely talented sculptor. You could stop for an hour or so at a particular pan that had a type of clay he liked and he would always make the client an elephant that was an awfully long way from being a "primitive." Unfortunately, he knew even less than I did about glazing clay figurines, so I doubt any still exist.
Rota was anxious to join us, so he piled on the back with the other twosenior men, Alfred and Champion. Both were fine-looking chaps, tall and distinguished. I would guess they were Mata-beles, a northern offshoot of the Zulus. Rota was a black/bushman mixture called Masarwa in Botswana. His old boss, Amos, was a Karanga (or, as Amos and his people always pronounced it, "Kalanga").
We covered the remaining three or so miles to Vlackfontein, with wonderful bird shooting the whole way. This was rather strange, since it was now mid-morning; one would not expect to see many game birds at that time of day. Usually, these creatures are early morning and late afternoon feeders who spend the rest of their time hiding in thickets from smaller cats and baboons.
There is, however, a story behind this game bird explosion. I once did a two-part article for the National Rifle Association's publication, The American Hunter, in which I described in detail the reduction of baboons on the Matetsi Unit #4 through a personal war with a large troop of them that were resting in the Prince of Wales feather trees that grew in such verdant magnificence around the Vlackfontein house. The stench and carryings-on were unbelievable, and I was determined to sort things out after a big male had killed a child and mauled a woman rather badly. This was during the bush war, and I had acquired a 9mm MAC-10 minima-chine pistol along with nineteen clips and quite a bit of ammo as insurance. At last, I decided to "rev" this bunch and move them out of the area. It was never represented as a sporting situation, as I hate killing baboons; they're too bloody human. Whatever the case, it was the only article I ever wrote that brought cries of disbelief.
Before giving you a precis of the article, as many of you will have read it, let me point out that baboons have gone mad in the past years in various parts of Africa, Kenya in particular, due to chronic drought. They have been tremendously hard on the migratory herds of calving wildebeest in the Serengeti and elsewhere; they have more than decimated the game bird population of Botswana; and they have even taken to eating goats and smaller stock in East Africa, as well as the occasional child.
As I mentioned, this large bunch at Vlackfontein was roosting in the huge grove of Prince of Wales feather trees. Naughty fellow that I was, I contrived to have a shallow trench dug around the grove of trees, with only one escape route ... right past the point where my submachine gun and backup spearmen would be stationed. (One contrived such an excavation, at least in those days, simply by saying, "Do it.")
We waited until after dark, by which time the mabobojoan were pretty well settledin. I then sent a couple of men laden with cans of mixed crankcase oil and gasoline to thoroughly slosh the hard ground in the trench. At my signal, they took torches from three positions and ignited the works.
Well, results were not the problem. I had a flare fired so we could see beyond the fire, it being essentially a matter of slaughtering a man-killing colony. All the details of the ensuing battle, which entailed one hell of a lot of machine pistol fire, some spearing with assegais, and a large part of my ammo, are recorded in the article mentioned above. In any case, the result was one hell of a lot of dead baboons, as well as a tremendous increase in the game bird population over the next few years.
I really don't know if that's playing God or the opposite, depending on whether one happens to be a baboon or a francolin chick. I never let myself think on the matter too deeply. But when I returned with Eric Wagner to the outskirts of Vlackfontein, I carefully checked the same grove of trees. Still no sign of a baboon, and this about eleven years later! Compared with Botswana, where baboons are protected and the bird population is not, the difference was obvious. Needless to say, the wing shooting was phenomenal at Matetsi, and I am personally certain that the moving of that huge troop at Vlackfontein had everything to do with it.
It's funny how the different kinds of African stimuli hit one, even after years. For me, smells seem to be special. Whether it be the magnificence of fresh bread baking in a hole or the waft of fresh elephant or buffalo dung, the odors bring back memoriesand warningsall of which are part of being a professional hunter, and upon which your life may often depend. A pleasant aspect of this phenomenon occurred on our entrance into what used to be the Vlackfontein complex. Gone was the gagging wave of baboon excreta, but the reddish dirt still smelled the same. You could have put me in a bank vault in New York City and I would have identified it. Perhaps Africa is eternal after all.
Textures also greatly affect me, as do colors and tastes. One vlei is never quite the same as the next, whether hundreds of yards or thousands of miles apart. No two rivers are even remotely the same; no, not even portions thereof. Yet they fit, and as they have done so in my own experience, I have grown to recognize the vastness andmuch more importantlythe complexity and frangibility of the entire ecosystem. Africa is huge, violent, benevolent, savage, stupid, and, perhaps unknowingly, wise. It is mere chest-thumpingto try to figure her out. But there she is, and she am what she am.
I'm one of those rare foreigners who happens to like such African foods as fried mopane worms; I'd kill for a good biltong in its "wet" stage and could eat and have eatennot one helluva lot more than the corn mush called mealiemeal for months, through my own preference. Although born elsewhere, I suppose thatwhen it comes down to itI am an African.
There is no Africa per se. There are hundreds of thousands of them.
I had a curious sinking feeling as we came into sight of my old home. I knew it would have been damaged during the fighting in the area, but I really wasn't expecting the complete devastation our party encountered. I suppose you can look at the before-and-after pictures and make your own judgments. The roof was gone; the story, true or not, was that it had taken a couple of direct hits from insurgent 60mm mortar shells. From my own inspection of the house, I could see that it had been heavily scarred with automatic fire.
Okay, I guess war's war, but I hope nobody was home. I'm especially glad I wasn't.
In any case, it was a weird feeling that perhaps only survivors or refugees of recent wars would appreciate. Vlackfontein had been my home, replete with lions on the lawn, buff in the vlei next door, leopards up the garden trees; a whole fantastic menagerie that made living in such a remote area even under wartime conditions worth it. Yeah ... to a point. (Kindly be advised, any who are officially or unofficially interested, that I was not involved in the war. I was a professional hunter. Period.)
The lot of us took our time rooting through the ruins of Vlackfontein.
About all that was left was the bastion of a fireplace I had had built in the corner of the living room, which I guess hadn't been worth anybody's explosives to destroy. It had been one hell of a fireplace ... .
But it was late afternoon, and we were quite far from Mongu. Knowing how cold the vleis got that time of year, we elected to head for home. Eric horrified me by putting on a rock tape as loud as it would go, but I shortly made it clear that we couldn't enjoy conversation and the magic of twilight in the bush with acid rock blasting away at the same time.
The temperature was noticeably warmer as we climbed Mongu hill. The first person I saw, even before considering my initial cold beer and, perhaps, a wee touch of wine, was a crimson-jacketed Amos, waiting for me with a broad grin. We spoke of his children, cattle, wives, and fortunes, all of which appeared to be in pretty good shape. I gave him some money for old time's sake, which pleased him no end, and we chatted for some time about the old crew: Gladstone, and Jazz-Eye, the one-eyed Masarwa whose real name was Julius and who, despite being in charge of such matters, always managed to forget the water, the lunch box, the ammo box, the beer, or anything else physically possible to forget. (It was actually Gladstone, one of my favorites, who, when mending the chimney on a hot water "donkey boiler," breaking down and dropping bricks as he tore them loose, could think of no more appropriate warning to those below than that of the railway crossing at Matetsi siding: "Beware of train!" And believe me, those below did beware of train!)
Though by no means my best gun bearer, Amos was truly loyal, brave, and reliable. An incident in particular cemented the relationship between the two of us.
Knowing his skill at tracking, I used to lend Amos my Collins machete, telling him to hie off and find some bloody leopard spoor or sign. After three of these trips had ended in the eternal African shrug, I became suspicious and decided to remedy things. Obviously, Amos wasn't doing what I'd told him to do, as I had twice found leopard tracks myself in the same area I was sending him. Thus, one afternoon I sent him out again, only this time I tracked him to where he was lying asleep at the base of a tree.
Now, you may agree or disagree with what I did next, but my life depended on this man virtually on a continuous basis. So, I stuck what must have been the relatively cold muzzle of my .375 H&H in his ear and advised him that he mend his ways. He agreed most heartily and, in the guileless way of rural Africans, expressedadmiration at my tracking, since he had taken some care to cover his spoor. Apparently, it raised the value of my stock not inconsiderably, as there were later comments about my being the man who could always find Amos.
There was a fascinating incident that involved a pair of BSAP (British South Africa Police) leather leggings. Now, the BSAP were neither British nor South African but when Rhodesia chose to declare independence, the members voted to retain the ancient and honorable name.
And, so it was.
What I could not figure our was why, on one given day, one of my men would be wearing the leggings, which protected the shins from thorns and bush, and somebody else would have them on the next.
It turned out that the leggings were either stolen or won from a policeman. Whatever, they would daily change possession from one of my men to another unless one got lucky two nights in a rowand he would have the privilege of wearing them for that day or until he lost them at gambling.
Owing to failing light, we did not go past Vlackfontein after the next day's wing shooting and general exploration, but instead headed straight back to Mongu, where we enjoyed something more substantial in the line of liquid refreshment before the dinner gong sounded. It had been a grand day, capped by some of the finest wing shooting I had ever seen (and that includes one hell of a lot of territory, from northern Scotland to Patagonia).
The following day, I was determined to find the site of my old camp on the Dumba (mentioned in Safari: The Last Adventure). After more than ten years, I wondered what the place looked like. I hoped it bore no comparison to Vlackfontein.
It was as cool, gurgling, and graceful as ever, a poet's dream of paradise. The fig tree was still there, bigger than ever, and the mark of man was not upon the land. All signs of my previous tenancy had vanished. But the same green pigeons of which I have spoken elsewhere were still there, and though the banded cobra I had killed at the tiny pool upstream had left no apparent progeny, I nevertheless watched my step.
There was nothing left to see, except for the giant fig tree. Everything else had been burned years ago or taken for the thatch, wire, and seasoned poles. Well, at least nobody could have made snares out of the wire; it was too short and twisted. I saw to that ... .
(In those days, during the bush war, I carried a Ruger .38/.375/9mm revolverfor self-defense, just to keep international relations reasonable. It was with that revolver that I shot the cobra.)
We had shot a few guinea fowl on the way down to the Dumba, and one of these was duly roasted on a sharpened stick under the great fig tree, which formed the canopy that protected the campsite. I was astonished at how tender and thoroughly cooked it was, as guineas are traditionally rather of an anvil-like consistency, but this one was not only tender as butterthrough what black magic I don't knowbut it proved the centerpiece of one of the best lunches I have ever had, including chilled white wine preceded by beer and the entire schmaltz. Alfred and Champion should be awarded the gold medal of the Paris Cordon Bleu school.
After lunch, I started showing Fiona and Eric where things had stood. Not a mark remained. But then, suddenly, I thought of something that might in fact still be there.
I had gone to immense trouble, back in 1975, to build a really nice shower for my clients, which included a thirty mile trip to the nearest stand of giant bamboo. Apart from being beautiful in its own right, the bamboo stand was near an abandoned and totally ruined farmhouse near the Bembe River, which was said to have a mated pair of especially aggressive black mambas in residence. With some trepidation, I led the way with the shotgun as my men cut behind me. We collected enough staves to make a lovely shower floor that would permit the water to flow through into the catchment area and carry on down into the river. When I finally stepped back to examine my creation, the thing was truly a delight. But in order to be completely finished, it needed a concrete or cement slab for clients to stand on while drying off. This I duly laid, and through some whim, I inscribed my initials and the date by means of a stick in the wet cement. (Getting cement during the bush war years was like collecting gold dust, but I had managed to get enough.)
Right. I had been heavily into anthropology and paleontology at the University of Virginia at what seemed a couple of centuries ago, and I couldn't resist the challenge of trying to find the shower slab. After half an hour, Rota (who had been there when I built it and who had helped pour the slab) came up with something hard under the layer of leaves and eleven years of accumulated detritus. Aha! Fiona was as delighted as I was at the rather short-term "dig," and Eric even took an extended video of it. (You'll see pictures in this book.) To come across a piece of your own past like that was like finding your personal skeleton; at least, that is how I felt. Dumba Camp has always held a special spot in my soul.
The Dumba, a small stream with a relatively large pool in proportion to its width, looked much the same. Paul, a fanatical fisherman, had spotted some spinning rods at Eric's and insisted on dragging them along.
"Hayikona, Nkosi," said Champion and Rota almost in unison, as Alfred nodded in agreement. No fish in the Dumba. Paul took a small cut of raw guinea fowl meat, baited up, and, before their words had died on the breeze, had a magnificent carplike fish flapping on the bank, followed by many others. There were also barbel and an assortment of stuff I couldn't identify (I had spent all my time in that area hunting with clients and never had the chance to get to know the fishlife as I should like to have). My best guess was that it was one of the Cyprinidae that, logically, should be there.
With a bellyful of white wine, guinea fowl fresh off the fire, and ensconced under my favorite tree on earth, I decided not to waste the moment snoozing. Even Eric grabbed a rod. To the astonishment of Champion, Alfred, and Rota, we caught fish as fast as we could bait a hook. Okay, it wasn't the Miramichi, or Malangsfossen Pool, or Iceland's Hitara, or even the Owenmoore or Ballynahinch in Connemara, but we took a lot of fish, which was a welcome change in diet for the blacks. Even Eric got so excited hepractically wet himself as we caught the first fish just as the black staff were saying that there were no fish there.
Hell, I knew there were fish there as I had secretly lived there! There was also a croc about four feet long but, after ten years, I had no idea as to his size now. I didn't see him this trip and, in an odd way, I missed him.
Eventually, darkness started to fall and we regretfully decided we had better push off back to Mongu.
Copyright © 1987 by Peter Hathaway Capstick.