If things go according to plan, you're not in Africa

First Night in Africa

By Andrew Wilson

After going more than 30 hours without sleep, it was difficult to focus on what the PH was saying.  My mind was drifting in and out of consciousness.  He was wide awake, was excited about the coming week’s hunt, and spoke rapidly while he drove.  His South African accent lulled me asleep, but I desperately tried to hang on to his every word, determined to learn all I could during my time on Safari.  

At 6’4” and a veteran of the apartheid wars, Hennie was the scariest person I had ever met, even though he was well into his 50’s with a bald head and white goatee.  Leaning between us in the back seat, our tracker, Hennie’s right-hand man Jacob (pronounced Ya-Cup), rode silently. He was the epitome of an African bushman: short, sinewy, and keen-eyed.  Jacob was energetic with a genuine smile. He spoke very little English.  I was astonished when Hennie told me he was nearly 70 and one of the last of the true African trackers. I had guessed he was maybe 40.  We were coming back from an evening hunt for impala.  It was late, and the highway was pitch dark. The headlights of our SUV made two tiny pools of light ahead, and as I dozed off, it was easy to imagine being deep under the ocean in a submersible, coming from the city the day before, or two days back? My jet lag was so terrible I couldn’t keep track. In any case, it had been a long time since I’d seen a night sky as dark as the one found in backcountry, South Africa.  

It had been a stressful journey from LA to South Africa. Getting my rifle through security frayed my nerves. I didn’t sleep during the flight. The layover in New York was a nightmare. Again, the gun posed a massive concern for airport police. They decided the best thing to do was escort me from one gate to the other, which nearly made me miss my flight.  Again, I rested uneasily flying from New York to Johannesburg. The only thing that kept my mind off the stress was reading Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa and various travel guides.  It was Hemingway’s book that had motivated me on a plane to Africa, serving as both the inspiration and standard for how an African safari should be conducted.  Never mind, the world operated a little differently than when Hemingway chased kudu.  Plus, my Safari was on a much smaller budget.

A year before my safari, I was looking forward to getting married and had saved a little money for a honeymoon, but when the engagement fell apart, I was aimless and left wondering what to do.  Having been fascinated with hunting, and after reading Green Hills, I suddenly surprised everyone in my family and decided to use my savings to go on an African hunting safari.  Just saying this out loud sounded funny, but it was time to shake things up after the catastrophe of my breakup.  

Despite having never shot at big game before, I felt I needed this trip, and I mentally blocked out that the only hunting I had done was for pheasant.  Call it literary delusion. I knew I could do it. Reading works by Ruark, Capstick, and Hemingway sent my imagination soaring and gave me false confidence.  Plus, I wasn’t totally without gun handling experience. I was pretty handy with a high-powered rifle.  My dad, crazy about range shooting, always brought me to NRA vintage military rifle competitions where I got pretty good with an 03 Springfield – the same rifle Hemingway used on his first Safari.  So, I knew I could shoot off-hand, kneeling, prone, rapid-fire at paper, but could I shoot a large game animal on the wooded savanna of South Africa?  Was hunting Safari’s still a thing in 2013?  Everyone I spoke to told me they indeed were not, and if, and only if, you were allowed to shoot animals in Africa, it would be a canned hunt where you weren’t even allowed to leave the truck, shooting from a secure platform.  Various armchair quarterbacks described horror stories they heard of hunters spending thousands only to be carefully driven to a corral where they were allowed to shoot a sad, helpless buffalo from a safe, secure distance. They assured me the African safari was dead and gone.  But was it really?  Despite the naysayers, I pressed ahead, and for six months, planned and communicated with an outfitter in South Africa via email.  I did as much preparation as possible from a computer screen with only limited funds, but nothing can prepare one for Africa.

Johannesburg International felt like any other airport up until I had to get my rifle from security.  The officers were uncooperative and angling for a bribe.  The only thing that broke the stalemate was when Hennie (who I had met moments before) barged his way behind the counter and started throwing papers around, demanding to know what the hold-up was.  Armed officers scurried away. Clearly, we were not in America anymore. My eyes bulged with astonishment when his act of intimidation worked, and my rifle case popped out of the claim window.   Making a ruckus is one way to get things done in South Africa.  

Hennie had us in the SUV and on the highway outside Johannesburg quickly, and the landscape reminded me of central California. It was winter in the Southern Hemisphere and everything was brown.  It wasn’t until I started seeing unknown bird species that it began to sink in that I was on another continent.  Then we started seeing the unplanned townships with thousands of black Africans living in makeshift huts of cinder blocks and scrap metal. There were hundreds of individuals walking along the highway with baggage and items on their heads.  This was Africa for sure, but what jolted me was seeing a baboon walking alone in a field just off the road. It was mean looking—methodically walking along with a grimace, not a friendly zoo creature but a real live wild animal trying to survive in the border area between civilization and the bush.  I think if we had stopped and I got out of the car, the baboon would have ripped my head off just out of spite. It was the first time I had seen an animal that genuinely looked mad. 

Arriving in camp was a relief. Finally, I could take a breath and set my bags down. The cabin I was staying in was deluxe, had a thatch roof, and a deck that overlooked the Limpopo River.  Adjacent to my room was the dining room and kitchen, and just outside was a firepit. The camp was situated inside a game reserve, and the area surrounding was a mixing of ranches and farms. Just to the East was the Kruger National Park.  

I met Jacob, the tracker, and Leonard, my butler.  A butler!  I would continue to be amazed by the value you get in Africa for the money.  As far as hunting trips go, Africa is probably the best bargain globally if you can stand the travel times to get there.  Before I could appreciate my surroundings and the vervet monkeys climbing the trees around my cabin, I was back in the SUV with Hennie, now with Jacob, and my Sako 7mm mag and ammo box at the ready in the back.  There would be a quick sight-in session and then off to find impala.

 “We are hunting my man!” Hennie bellowed as we rumbled out onto the highway to another reserve an hour away.  

Driving the SUV into the reserve, we started to see animals, first sable antelope with their long-arced horns, then warthogs, and a giraffe!  Weaving through huge hedges of toothpick trees, with their huge thorns, we made our way to a hilly area near a stream.  It was time to get out of the car. Seeing my boots in red dirt and with a rifle in hand, I felt like a dream had been realized.  Following Jacob and Hennie, we walked silently in a line, the thorn bushes catching on my sleeves.  We spotted a kudu on the hillside with trophy horns through a break in the trees, and Hennie and Jacob were beside themselves with excitement.  They repeatedly asked me if I wanted to shoot it and that I would never see one like that again.  Firstly, I couldn’t afford a kudu (you pay per animal in Africa), and secondly, I hadn’t been hunting for more than two hours, and it felt a little too quick.  In retrospect, I realized years later, after getting some experience, hunting can happen fast like that, but in any case, I wasn’t ready to shoot anything.  

Following a path through tall green grass, we worked along the edge of a ravine filled with a dense brush. It was dusk and light was dimming.  Jet lag had put me in a stupor, and I was operating on adrenaline when Hennie spotted two impalas close to the bottom of the ravine, their orange bodies and white rumps standing out against the green grass.

Hennie arranged the shooting sticks, and I put the rifle up against my shoulder. They were about a hundred yards away and were trophy bucks, but I didn’t know that at the time. Hennie whispered, “shoot the one on the right in the ass.” Controlling my breath, I put the crosshairs where I was told.

“Shoot my man.”

But I couldn’t do it. I didn’t like it.  I didn’t want my first shot at an animal facing away from me. I wanted a classic broadside.  If I knew how many sweaty hours we would be spending in the next few days trying to find another animal and chance at a shot, I probably would have taken advantage of that first opportunity, but it felt too quick, too rushed, too easy.  The pair of impala caught our scent and bounded into the bottom of the ravine.  Seeing my query and putting them in my sights was a real rush.

It was late, and there wasn’t time to keep hunting.  I explained to Hennie I didn’t want to shoot animals in the ass, and he chalked it up to my American sensibilities, which he said was fine, it was my hunt, and he would make it happen (in fact, I was never once coerced or ripped off in Africa).  Years later, I realized the hunting style is different in Africa, you can wound an animal and still find it. After all, that’s what Jacob’s job was.  Hunters aren’t satisfied in America unless the animal flops over in its tracks, stone dead with one shot.  It’s a mortifying proposition to track a wounded animal in America. We’re much nicer about the whole thing and demand a quick, merciful death.  In Africa, if you can hit the animal, then you ought to.       

While walking back to our truck, we startled a man walking with a bicycle.  He was wearing a suit, barefoot and bare-chested under his jacket. He threw his hands up and said, “Don’t shoot!”  He was terrified and skinny. I could see his ribs.  After we reassured him and left him on his way, Hennie explained he was probably cutting through the reserve, and as a tribesman, their habits are hard to break. They prefer walking through the bush even though he wasn’t supposed to be there. 

But afraid of being shot?  

Hennie explained he was scared of repercussions. The animals were carefully protected from poaching in the reserve, and he didn’t want to be mistaken for a poacher.  It was an interesting encounter and revealed the tense relationship between white and black Africans.

Between airline traveling and hunting, the day had been intense, my brain and body were dead tired, and my nerves were raw.  Getting into the SUV, I looked forward to a hot shower and the big bed back at my thatch-roofed cabin by the river.  I already imagined the sounds I might hear during my first African night.  

Would the jackals sing tonight as Hennie foretold?  

Little did I know, my first day in Africa wasn’t over yet.  

Driving down the highway, I gave up and drifted asleep while Hennie discussed the differences between .30-06 and .308 rounds.  I figured I’d wake up when we got close to camp.  Suddenly, I was zapped awake by Jacob yelling, only to glimpse a dark cow running in front of the headlights. Hennie slammed on the brakes, but it was no use. We skidded into the animal, and the sensation was of our car hitting a giant water balloon.  The cow sailed upward with the impact and was carried out of the reach of the headlights. Not being able to see the descent, it appeared the cow was carried away by aliens.

It took a moment to compose ourselves and tumble out of the car. Hennie was concerned I might be hurt, but I assured him I wasn’t.  The front of the SUV was smashed entirely flat, radiator fluid was pouring all over the highway, and the hood was folded.  We were stranded in the middle of nowhere with not a single light source in any direction, only the orange glow of the SUV’s broken running lights gave us something to stare at.  Hennie was angry and embarrassed, explaining nothing like this had ever happened before. Jacob seemed unconcerned and examined the dying cow found 30 feet from the car.  Fascinated with its condition, he tried the utters to see if they produced milk.  Hennie began making calls on his cell phone, and I noticed I was cold for the first time.  It was dark, and winter and I was only wearing my khaki safari shirt. I should have brought a jacket. 

The cause of the accident was a break in the barbed wire fence along the highway. A cow decided to escape just as we came down the road.  Hennie lit a cigarette, smoked, and was pissed. We would have to wait for the police to make an official report for insurance purposes.  I was completely frazzled. All I wanted to do was sleep, but I was very nervous and began to take stock.  My passport and even my wallet were back at camp!  How could I be so dumb?  All I had was my hunting gear and rifle in the back seat. It was then figures started to emerge from the darkness.

How did anyone know we were out there? I have no idea; maybe the screech of the tires gave it away?  Tribespeople (the kind wearing tracksuits, not headdresses) who must have wandered over from a nearby township came by to see how we were getting along.  The cow, which was now entirely dead, was of the most immediate curiosity, and I felt it would be parted out soon.  An old, dented jalopy sedan that was somehow still running pulled up with grinning tribesmen inside.  They looked like they were emulating the style of a rap video, wearing floppy hats and sunglasses.  Chuckling at our stranded condition, their presence became menacing, Hennie who quickly had enough of the rubberneckers, threw his cigarette at the driver, sending a shower of red embers in the dark, and boomed, “Get the fuck outta here!” The car rattled off with the occupants laughing.

Convinced we could be robbed at any moment, I stood close to the open door of the SUV within arm’s reach of my rifle but doubted if it would be of any use or if I had the guts even to use it. I had no idea how to gauge the situation, but I felt extremely vulnerable.  Everyone was chattering in Afrikaner, and I had no idea what was going on.  Soon the police arrived, and Hennie was arguing with them until he whipped the clipboard out of their hands and started to fill in the forms himself while they flaccidly stood and watched.  Another PH, Nico, from the outfit showed up with a Land Rover. The crowd of onlookers dispersed, and I began to feel better.  A chain was fashioned to the front of the broken SUV, and I was put in the passenger side of the Land Rover with Nico while Hennie controlled the braking of the towed vehicle. I can’t remember where Jacob went, but he must have stayed with Hennie.  

Our caravan inched along the highway, the steering of the SUV in tow was mangled, and our progress was painfully slow, and it seemed like hours before we got back to camp.  The Land Rover doing the work was from a different era, and my seat had no headrest. Every few moments, my head would flop forward and jar me from rest.  All I wanted at this point was to sleep.  When I got back to the cabin, I felt like a giant exposed nerve, so much had happened, and I hadn’t been able to process it all.  As I lay down, I wondered what my next day in Africa would be like, acknowledging that the naysayers were wrong. I didn’t feel like I was on a canned hunt. In the coming days, there would be more wild adventures chasing impala, wildebeest, and blesbuck, all of which would confirm, hunting in Africa was as authentic as ever.

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