Peter Capstick's Africa
PART ONESaile"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.It did.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 Tswana--just 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:Me.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 bore--which should have been the precise item required to keep us all paying taxes--failed. 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!Wrong again.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 us--and 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 click--boom! 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.Negative.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 seconds--if you're that lucky--and 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 and--it all happened so fast--perhaps 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, however--where I had spent time in the Matetsi region as a professional hunter during the bush war in the bloody days of the seventies--but 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 stretch--all 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 poisoning--and 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 hunted--had 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 perfidy--and 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, nyama--meat. 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 hunter--an adjective much favored by earlier writers--is that he actually has people who care for him, despite his constant state of disarray. His sartorial splendor in the bush is--to say the least--highly 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 culminating--in the literal middle of the bush, goddamn--ina 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 cold--very cold--and 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 curse--under 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 safari--the 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. Hippos--soon to become far more evident--and 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-blast--deafened 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 good--possibly 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.No more.The point is that where there are tsetse there is no domestic stock--no 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 zebra--or 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, and--most importantly--the 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 pula--less 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 Africa--and 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 me--and 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 rifle--the perfidious Westley Richards, or at least the rifle with what would prove to be bum ammo--was 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 time--a couple of seconds--was 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 him--all 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 speed--and that ain't slow--to--ward 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 charge--or share his front seat with a love-lorn bull hippo--and 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 Oxford--or 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 torch--or, 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 TOURISTSJOHANNESBURG: 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. Peter Hathaway Capstick is the author of many books on hunting, including Safari: The Last Adventure.