The Africa Diaries, Part 1

“Everything in Africa bites, but the safari bug is worst of all.”
— Brian Jackman, author and travel writer

“Inyahti!” our master tracker, Judea, exclaim loudly in his native Ndebele tongue as he banged his hand on the roof of the battered Toyota Land Cruiser. Translation: Cape buffalo. From a high-mounted metal bench above the cab of the truck, the grizzled 50-something man had been scanning the roadside dust with deep-set, eagle-sharp eyes in search of fresh spoor as we jounced along the rutted byways that wind endlessly through the vast Zimbabwe bush-veldt. After days of hard hunting with him, I recognized the tension in his voice. The track we’d crossed was hot.

Professional hunter Bud Rummel pulled the Cruiser to the side of the road and parked it in a gap between the acacia thorn-bushes that dominate the southern African landscape. “Game time,” he said, re-setting his Stetson low on his head and unzipping the elephant-skin case that housed his magnificent double rifle chambered in the formidable .470 Nitro Express. Slipping a pair of cigar-sized cartridges from the loops in his belt, he broke the gun open and readied it for action.

The big rifle slammed shut with a heavy metallic clack as I got out of the Cruiser. Yanking them from the stiff leather loops of my own belt-mounted cartridge case, I stuffed 3 somewhat smaller rounds into the magazine of my .375 Ruger bolt-gun, then jacked a fourth 300-grain solid into the chamber and thumbed the safety on. I was trying to convince myself that my shivering was from the morning’s chill — not the likelihood that I might soon be kissing close to 50 or more of the world’s most dangerous animals on their own densely-foliated turf. It was game time indeed…

The bush on a misty morning.

The bush on a misty morning.

The Last Wild Place

Unlike our forebears, many of whom hacked their lives out of a hostile wilderness while facing down grizzlies, wolves, cougars, snakes, gators, Indians, outlaws, cattle barons and plagues, so few Americans in the modern age really get a chance to see what we’re made of. Other than some cops, firefighters, bounty hunters, commercial fisherman and a select few other trades, day-to-day life in the U.S. is relatively free of mortal strife for most of us. That’s one of the things we take for granted here in our Starbucks-and-Wal-Mart nation…

Not so in other places, like Africa. The Dark Continent’s got a thousand ways to kill you, in the bush or on the street, whether you’re asking for it or not. That’s why I wanted to go there — not just to test myself and to see the stunning beauty and breathe in the savage romance of one of the world’s last oases of wildness, but to experience a truly untamed, undomesticated place. A place where most still live unconsciously, day to day, by their own wits. A place where you might just have to fight for your life at some point, or many.

And I’m here to tell you: The African Bush changes a man. It changes everything about him. It gets in the blood, and in the soul. The skyscrapers and radio towers of home don’t look the same once you’ve stood high on a koppie (a small, rocky mountain) and gazed 50 miles in every direction, watching distant herds of eland, impala, zebra, wildebeest and giraffe foraging in the bush-veldt below…

The car horns and jackhammers and airplanes and iPods of urban life sound so different after you’ve heard the barks and screams of roosting baboons and the guttural growls and chillingly loud ooorrraaghh!, ooorrraaghh! of amber-eyed simba toms at night just outside of camp…

The mundane problems of the 9-to-5 workaday world we Americans bitch so much about seem meaningless when you see the tracks of a sprinting cheetah in the middle of a hundred-yard stretch of sandy road — ending in an explosion of scraped, gouged, blood-soaked Earth where some anteater or impala’s marker came due the night before…

The dangers of city streets, hectic highways and office politics seem laughable once you’ve hunted something that can quite easily kill you — even if you’ve already killed it dead as disco several times over…

That’s the thing about inyahti. Once these ill-tempered 1,700-pound beasts are hit — even when their hearts have been shredded into stew meat by hunks of hypersonic copper-jacketed lead — they can still come to settle accounts with you. That’s because they’re not running on blood and oxygen anymore, but on the copious amounts of pure adrenaline their over-developed endocrine systems pump into them. And the carnage and chaos they can inflict between the time they’ve been killed and the time they realize it is well documented. That’s what I was about to risk. Without life insurance or even a will…

Only a suddenly-too-small gun and a nerve of indeterminate proportions.

View of the veldt from a high koppie.

As Precious, one of the junior trackers, trod lightly ahead, Judea knelt down next to the maze of meandering spoor and beckoned me to him. “Mafazi,” he said, pointing to a streamlined, almost dainty looking cloven-hoof print. Female. Moving forward a few feet at a crouch-step, he stooped down next to another. It was larger, deeper, rounder and less symmetrical, with evidence of wear along the edges of the foot that made it.  He traced the outline of it in the sandy dust as a teacher would guide a child’s hand along an oversize letter written in cursive on a chalkboard. “Madota. Mikulu madota.” Bull, mature bull. Reflexively, my thumb came to rest on the .375’s safety.

Less than 100 yards later, we came onto fresh scat — greenish and mushy underfoot, not yet cold to the touch. Bud beckoned me to the front of the group. “You got solids in there?” he whisper-drawled. He already knew the answer, but was looking me in the eyes to gauge my nerve, like any good PH would. I nodded, jaw clenched, meeting his gaze as squarely and grimly as I could. Satisfied, he said, “Get ready.”

At one-quarter the pace of our last hour in the bush, we pressed on, Judea and Precious alternately tracking and scanning the brush, Bud and I fanning out on either side, peering at dark shapes farther away with our binoculars. A tree, a stump, a bush. A downed log 80 yards away behind some bushes caught my eye, and I lingered on it for a second. But why? It was plainly just a deadfall — yet something about it looked out of place, curvier somehow. Bud and the trackers had gotten well ahead before I saw the reason: The curling horn-tip of a mature cape buffalo cow showed through the bush, just above the log. It moved slightly, followed by the flick of an ear below it. “Ssssssss!” I hissed.

Everyone froze. Though I was green to Africa, Bud and the trackers had learned in the previous days of hunting that my eyes, excellent at spotting deer in the U.S., had adapted superbly to the bush-veldt. They slowly backtracked to me now, and we crouched down low to see underneath as much of the brush as we could. Like ghosts, first one buffalo appeared, then another, only parts of them visible at a time through the heavy acacia and mopani. A horn here, an eye there, a foot or the swish of a tail over that way. Three, now four of them altogether, moving unhurriedly through the bush at 75 yards or better, parallel to us. A long, drawn out GRROOOIIINNK! announced more of them — but behind us!

Judea spoke softly to Precious in Ndebele, the wide-eyed younger man shaking his head and motioning to the brush all around us, on both sides. I heard just one word: “Moyo.” Wind. Bud interpreted for me — we’d somehow stalked straight into the open end of a V-shaped group of around 50 buffalo. The slightest change in the wind would carry our scent to one column of them or the other. If that happened, the alarm would sound and the bulls and cows would cluster up around their calves like pioneer wagons in an Indian attack.

And as near as I could figure, the spot they’d all converge on was more or less right where we were sitting…

Cheetah track.

Where All the Wages are Hazard Pay

I can’t speak for all of Africa, but as wild places go, Zimbabwe has to rate far up the scale for pure savagery.

To hear the professional hunters talking in the lodge over dinner and drinks every night, I can imagine few places where a man would court danger as frequently. Like ER doctors who tell the stories of bizarre and gruesome occurrences that happen on their watch, the elite fraternity of PHs relate harrowing tales — with similar professional discretion, of course.

And although all of Africa’s “Big Five” dangerous game species — rhino, lion, leopard, elephant and cape buffalo — are well deserving of their place on that list, cape buffalo and elephant are the two most often mentioned by the men who guide for a living as the ones that run up the biggest body counts and highest medical bills among survivors…

One such PH, whom I won’t name, told me about the time he had to whirl and drop an elephant in full, ears-back charge with a brain-shot — by snap-shooting right over his client’s shoulder, inches from his head! He said that the elephant’s impact into the Earth was so hard that they both suffered cuts and bruises from the spray of rock and dirt the beast’s tusks kicked up. The distance: 22 feet. The client, though not mashed into pulp or ripped limb from limb by the pachyderm, was debilitated for several hours by the shock of the event. He wasn’t himself for two days, the PH said.

Another told me of the veteran buffalo hunter who’d taken four bulls a season for several years running who was ripped from calf to rectum and nearly killed by a charging bull. There were a total of four competent shooters on that hunt, including one PH and a seasoned apprentice — and even firing in concert they weren’t enough to stop the enraged buff from getting one of his wide hooks into the hunter’s flesh…

These are the things that danced through my mind every night after the generator was shut off and the bush-veldt belonged to the moon, the lions, the blazing southern cross and the still-unkept promise of blood — either mine or the inyahti’s.

Slowly, low and in single file, Judea led Precious, Bud and myself back out from the midst of the herd, all of us praying to our respective deities that the wind stayed favorable for an undetected retreat. The brush was too thick for a shot much longer than 20 or 30 yards — we’d have had very little time to react if any of them decided to get cheeky. After 200 yards or so, Bud and Judea paused to make a plan to hunt the herd another way. The morning was getting warm. I heard the word “munzi.” Water.

Bud broke free and walked over to me. “Based on the time of day and the direction they’re traveling, these buff are headed to a watering hole not far from here. We’re going to try and get ahead of them, but we’ll have to hustle.” We broke into a fast walk-trot for the mile or more we had to backtrack to the Cruiser. Once we got there, everyone piled on and Bud got on the gas, pushing the truck hard on the winding, rock-strewn roads to try and circle around to get ahead of the herd.

Several miles later, Judea banged on the roof of the Cruiser. “Stop here!” he yelled over the clattering of the diesel engine at high RPM. We skidded to a halt in the middle of the road. In a flash, all four of us were boots to the ground, striking straight off through the bush on a path Judea estimated would put us smack in front of the herd. If only we could get there in time…

After several hundred yards of trotting through slapping mopani branches and ripping acacia thorns, we stopped abruptly. Precious stood frozen, his hands cupped behind his ears. Listening. Bud and I looked at each other, catching our breath, neither of us hearing anything except the blood rushing in our ears. After a moment, Judea tilted his head to the wind as well. Another 30 seconds saw both of them pointing off to the left, over a small rise in the now forest-like landscape. We got low and began to stalk toward the down-sloping front edge of the ridge. I still could hear nothing except our footsteps on the ground, crackling in the fallen winter leaves.

And then, as we got closer to the rise, I faintly heard the now-familiar grunting call of mature inyahti. Grooiiinnk! We kept the low ridge to our left, trying to round the forward side so we could ambush the herd in the small valley that lay beyond. The bush was thicker on the backside of the ridge, and we took up a position on level ground at the bottom of the down-slope, the terrain a natural funnel that would force the herd to file right in front of us. Judging by sound, they were less than 100 yards away, yet we could see none of them because of the rise in the ground to our left. “Get set,” Bud whispered to me as we both stood peering over a screen of five-foot tall acacia bushes, Precious cautiously advancing into an opening between them, a step or two in front of us, scanning to the left…

And then they were there, almost on top of us! Instead of meandering through the small depression behind the rise, the first of them were holding tight to the ridge, walking almost on the off-camber base of the hillside itself. They were headed on a path that would take them not 20 yards in front of us, just on the other side of the screen of bushes Bud and I hid behind, and that Precious was now right in the middle of. We all got real small, real fast, Bud nearly toppling me over as he pulled me to my knees. If only these first few would pass without noticing us, the rest of the herd would file by, and we’d have our pick of them. The wind was perfect — straight away, and from the rear of the herd. All we needed to do was stay still. We could see their feet shuffling against the dust beyond the thick bases of the bushes we crouched behind. A cow, a pair of calves, another cow, a young bull. So close now we could hear them breathing, hear the thorns scraping the hide of their flanks. We could smell their pungency, musty and bovine.

I thumbed the safety of my .375, ready to flick it forward and off in a heartbeat, if necessary. And it almost was, in that very moment. For some reason, a large matriarchal cow had chosen to travel around the bushes we now hid amongst on the uphill side, instead of the easier downhill path the others had taken. Its wide-horned head now loomed over the bushes 50 feet to our left — and closing fast directly at us. “Don’t move!” Bud hissed…

But Precious was having none of it. He came unglued and jumped up, scrambling behind Bud and me to the relative safety of the higher ground behind the men with guns. The cow reared its head straight up, exhaling an astonished chummpph!, and glared at us, nostrils flaring, as though we owed her money. I heard Bud click the safety off of his big .470 and my gun came up, crosshairs settling squarely on the high center chest where the backbone dips down low between the shoulders. Not enough time for a heart shot to take effect — had to go for the spine. It was her move…

And she exercised the better part of valor, whirling and taking the rest of the herd with her in a thunderous stampede of dust, alarmed grunting, and crashing brush. All at once, they were gone, the four of us left to collect what was left of our nerves. Safeties were once again engaged, and pulse rates began to normalize. Bud was not happy with Precious for losing his nerve and spooking the herd. The young tracker knew it, too. “Sorry, Boss,” he said. “I am afraid of inyahti.” Bud looked him square in the eye for a moment, then cracked a smile. “That’s OK,” he said. “You only did what we were all thinking.”

As we headed back to the Cruiser, Bud asked me casually, “So, how do you like Africa so far?”

Inyahti (Cape Buffalo) bull with his game face on.

Thanks for stalking along with us today, folks, on my random thoughts and true-life tales of hunting and adventure in Africa. More stories, observations and pictures to come in Part 2 of this series. I hope you’ll join us. Plenty of high-caliber action on the way…

Shooting straight and tempting fate,

Jim Amrhein
Freedoms Editor,
Whiskey & Gunpowder

September 19, 2007

The Daily Reckoning