By Patrick Hemingway Adams
Editor’s note: This is a long-form piece originally printed in Field Ethos Journal 2022 Volume 1.
We’ve been in South Africa a few days now, and things are getting weird. I’ve traveled thousands of miles to the Eastern Cape with very little idea of what to expect in order to join one of those Field Ethos hunting trips wherein they won’t tell you what to expect. We were let into this country without any trouble, but the way we’ve been carrying on, I’m wondering when we’ll be asked to leave.
Jet lag is a dog from hell and he’s eating my lunch. I’ve been using gin to treat this misalignment with time and space because we ran out of the bourbon that we started drinking when the rum went dry. You never feel like drinking beer in the evenings here, it just doesn’t cut it for those that love the African nightlife—or like to boogie. I have this theory that the proper application of gin and tonics can soothe the soul particularly well in Africa, and I’ll refer any detractors to the hundred years or more history of traditional colonial consumption. My actual findings have been inconclusive so far, but adventure is its own reward. …
But on this particular day, things started getting extra weird; I had accidentally taken too much Tylenol PM the night before due to your author’s inability to read instructions in the dark after being failed by first the generator and then my headlamp. This means that reality is soft and janky around the edges while I’m in the back of the truck feeling foggy and trying to write some kind of nonsense on my phone while we bounce around hunting Vaal rhebuck, or “greater horned greyhounds” as they have come to be known to our hunting party.
While we drive and scout and I pretend to write articles in the backseat, I am suddenly struck by enough existential purpose and suggestion to stop a runaway city bus. Through my long distance traveled and late-night party-addled eyes, I spy black and white stripes divinely framed by thorn trees in the distance.
I hear one of those record needle scratching sounds in my head and it finally hits me: I am in Africa on the hunt—and for the moment there is no purer experience I’d like to have than the pursuit of those stripes that seem to so personally epitomize what it feels like to be on this continent. We don’t stop for long, because we have bigger rhebuck to fry; but that fleeting glimpse of zebra through the trees haunts me with sobering clarity for the rest of the day.
Sometime later at the lodge, following a series of doomed cocktail experiments at the self-serve bar, I sheepishly bring up the brief zebra encounter. I try to explain to the group why it felt so meaningful, that it stood out even in the context of this place where everything is beautiful and adventurous. My words fail me, despite my attempt to tap into a long spiritual pedigree of pontificating ancestors who put in their African sundowner time and have been falling out of safari chairs for generations. Nevertheless, the group is in agreement; there’s just something special about zebras.
In fact, we unanimously agree that they’d make a striking addition to our yards back home. Maybe even the kids could learn to ride them? No, we decided; by every indication they’re meaner than all hell and a poor substitute for a pony. OK, so the kids can’t ride them, and may only look at the backyard zebras from a distance?
Sometimes, I think I am hilarious when I’ve been in the cups, so without properly vetting my thoughts, I blurt out: “Exactly! They’re just lookin’ ponies.”
Riotous laughter follows and I begin to realize that my fellow hunters have been fighting their own battles with jetlag and alcoholic self-medication. I guess “lookin’ ponies” is going to stick for a while, and I can’t help but feel relieved that we have already assigned nicknames to the group members. My dignity mostly intact, I decide then and there that I have to bag a lookin’ pony on this trip.
Fast forward a few days and the trip is wrapping up. We’re all feeling a skoach more in touch with the environment and have acclimated our body clocks. The guys in our party have made sure to report the locations of any zebra they’ve encountered throughout the week, and today is the last hunting day. I inform my PH that I will not be checking the last remaining plains game off of my dance card after all: We’re going after my great black and white striped whale-horse. The current has changed, and we can all feel it.
Field Ethos Director of Recreation & Entertainment John Hill suggests we all don pith helmets, shorts, and sunglasses and rendezvous at the lodge. The weather is sunny and warm for the first time. I remove the antique Holland and Holland .375 rifle from its elephant trunk sheath and confidently proclaim to my friends, the little tracking dog and a few of the kitchen gals cleaning up last night’s bar mess that I will shoot that mythical bush stallion with iron sights!
Again, riotous laughter. I am really hitting my comedic stride out here, if you ask my hunting buddies.
I would later be told that zebras are known to be skittish, possess otherworldly vision, and can be extremely difficult to sneak up on. Well, that’s why I have this colonial camouflage pith helmet and a magazine full of 300-grain pony punchers. Not to be dissuaded by such perfidious attitudes, we load the Hilux and set sail for glory. A good pith helmet is more of a confidence booster than you might suspect.
By compiling and analyzing the zebra sighting reports from throughout the week, we triangulate the likely location of the herd. However, we are completely wrong and spend most of the morning searching the green hills and valleys. Our professional hunter, and notably the only nighttime beer drinker in camp, eventually saves the day with some strategic offroading up a mountain. From a high perch we finally spot a herd of zebras frolicing in the bottom of a wide open bowl at the base of the valley. We’ve got the drop on them from our elevation, but they have wide open sight lines in every direction. Pretty much the situation I’d been warned about, and why zebra are often taken at long range.
Yet none of these negative thoughts occur to any of us, as there are no cowards or quitters in my truck. The PH grabs my shooting sticks and I throw my sunglasses onto the dash. I feel compelled to do this the old-fashioned way: hungover and righteous. I try to carefully remove the long Holland rifle from its case in the back seat, but it feels a bit like walking through a revolving door with a put-together fly rod. Surely, my ancestors would understand that the compact rear cab of a Hilux comes with its own quirks.
We creep quickly along in a single file crouch up to a rocky outcropping to look down into the bowl. With just our heads peeking over the rocks, we glass the herd below and watch the zebras stomp around frantically. They seem unaware of us, but their behavior is a frantic circle pit of chaotic movement that wouldn’t be out of place at a West Coast punk show. Scarred and roughed up stallions slam-dance along the outside of the herd, scraping each other with their bizarre fangs while trying to get in close to the mares. I’ve never seen horses act like this, these creatures are truly something else entirely.
The distance is a bit hinky for my comfort with iron sights at about 160 yards, but we set up on the shooting sticks and I feel pretty stable with the 12-pound rifle nestled in the buffalo skin crook of the tripod. I’ve still got the damn pith helmet on, and I can’t help but notice that my lightly complected ears are perfectly shaded from the sun and the front brim neatly frames my sight picture. This Bombay bowler is not a bad holdover tradition, but I don’t know about the safari shorts; I can feel my freckled calves turning the color
of Maker’s Mark bottle wax.
The PH points out the meanest-looking stallion on the outside of the mass and we wait for him to give us a shot, which he graciously provides in the form of perfect broadside as he turns to throw shade at another male. I silently ask the ghost of Teddy Roosevelt to shine his light down on me, and the crisp trigger break surprises all of us. They just don’t make rifles like they used to.
That old .375 bullet smacks that zebra with so much purpose that a cloud of dust lifts off the hide. We hear the impact, and it sounds like bad luck caught up with the old boy, but my heart sinks as he shakes it off and runs in the direction of the fleeing herd. Shit, I bitched that up. Hit him too far back, I’m thinking as I rack the bolt and settle back down on the sticks.
Now he’s limping and we can see that I hit him pretty good near the heart. He slows and stops, the PH calls out a range of “two-twenty,” and “hit him again!”
I’ve got the front sight buried as deep in the rear V as it will go; stable as a table and dead to right, but again the shot surprises me. Luckily, this one hits him in nearly the same spot, sending him rearing up on his hind legs and spinning in a sort of graceful pirouette. Somehow it reminded me of the way a marlin dances on top of the water while it comes to terms with being hooked; a wild creature celebrating its last moment with a graceful and defiant act of beauty.
That lookin’ pony laid down in the dust and lifted his head one last time, seemingly prepared to send us a one-hoof salute, but then calmly gave up the ghost at the bottom of the sage-covered bowl that wasn’t really covered in sage. I don’t know if they have sagebrush in Africa, but it looks pretty close.
Recoil and the winds of destiny have blown the pith helmet off my head. I noticed for the first time that my friends have set up the scoped .308 on the bipod next to me for back up. Boy, am I glad that vote of confidence wasn’t necessary. I take the biggest breath I can to calm my nerves with my support hand shaking just a bit on the sticks from watching that zebra dance.
The old stallion is remarkably handsome and quite dead from two bullets to the heart; but still his black and white stripes stand out brilliantly against the verdant hill. That was one for the books! I’ll have to find a way to thank all those ghosts and ancestors for their assistance. A toast, perhaps!
We drink cold beers in the warm sun, but they run out quickly. I swear they only fill the bottles up halfway in this country.
Much later in camp, the owner of that old rifle compliments me on the zebra shot, and asks if I used the flip-up long distance peep sight?
“Uh, what flip-up long-distance peep sight?” I say.