This is not a hunting story, properly. It is, however, a story about hunting. There are no detailed descriptions of thunderous impacts, flat trajectories and fine optical instruments; not that there is anything in the least wrong with those things, but to speak of these things as being hunting is similar to focusing on a jockey’s boots and calling it horse racing. Both are necessary, but there is so much more to the endeavor to experience. When I recall a hunting trip, it comes back to me in bits and pieces, and the chronological stream is often interrupted or forgotten. Much of the logistics and tedium is glossed over, and what remains are the pillars that support the experience, the foundation; the heart of things. The Bookends.
* * *
It is June, two weeks shy of July in fact, yet the light that filters down through the rustling, dry leaves has a decidedly autumnal slant to it. The air is dry, and cool, and there is an underlying smell of dusty-dry vegetation that is familiar to any North American who has spent time in the woods on an early November day. Despite the almost crushing fatigue born of a long travel, I am anxious to hold a rifle; to shed these traveling clothes and get out of the city.
For now, though, I am content to be able to sit in the sun, with my legs stretched out in front of me in the comfortable hostel chair. I see the vehicle of my Professional Hunter, (or "The PH", as he jokingly refers to himself) pull into the parking lot, and we are off to meet the rest of the family for dinner.
* * *
I am crawling in the clean iron-red sand of the Kalahari, and taking a fair amount along with me, from the feel of it. The PH and I hug the treeline to keep the herd of Gemsbok from spooking, as they have already done multiple times today. In fact, earlier we had decided to stop stalking a particular herd and just quietly backed away to start over with another group. The animals are too wary, too gifted in eyesight and sense of smell to give you more than one or two chances. Even now, despite our best efforts, we find ourselves pinned down once again, unable to continue our progress without spooking the whole herd. So we lay, prone in the sand and hoping for something to change.
Making a fist, I rest my chin on it and think about what I have experienced already; the tiredness and pains and uncertain feelings that come along with the moments of elation and accomplishment. Everything around me reminds me that I am not at home anymore, but 20 hours of hanging in the sky, and 10,000 long miles away.
As if I need another reminder, I see a white something in the sand, just inches from my face, with big pincing mouthpieces affixed to an over-bulked head. I can’t tell if it is too cold to move, or dead, or maybe just sleeping through the Namibian winter, dreaming of warmer days and wood to chew.
I am thinking about termite mounds and tall horns when I drift off to sleep, and if I dreamt, I don’t remember.
* * *
The air is just as still as it could be, and with only the quiet hiss of the fire, you can almost talk yourself into believing that the heartbeat in your ears is real, and not just your imagination.
The moon is already up, and bright, but even before the daylight light completely fades you can see Acrux starting to show, faintly, then Mimosa, and you know that by the time the bright fire burns down to red, smokeless cooking coals, you’ll again have the Southern Cross overhead to remind you where you sit in the world.
Now that you’ve taken the edge off with a jot of Scotch, as smooth and smoky as the Camelthorn fire, you’re ready to strip off boots and socks, and work your tired toes deep into the cool red Kalahari sand…now you have some home-grown massage therapy while you enjoy your “bushman TV.” You let a small bit of self-awareness ruin the scene for just the tiniest moment, and try to focus on the now. You know there come a time in the future when you will remember, and miss these scenes almost bitterly…but that time is not now, and now is so very good that it is enough.
In slowness of African time, you realize that the fire is low and your glass is empty, and probably has been for some time. If you stir now from your warm, drowsy perch, you have time for one more drink before the air turns to nirvana with the smells of your meal, so under the peaceful light of Crux, with sore legs and a catch in your back, you stiffly wobble off to find the bottle.
* * *
It feels like an extravagance to have a dirty rifle, with still more hunting to come in the upcoming days. Even though I know that the piece is plenty clean to work just fine for a few more days, it is cleaned and wiped down if only to placate myself. Shooting is really just a mind-game waged against our own muscles, bones and joints, and I’ll take any advantage, real or imagined, that I can muster. Just like a clean automobile’s motor seems to purr like a contented kitten, a rifle that has had a few pats from an oily rag and fingerprints rubbed off the stock, and perhaps a dry-patch or two through the bore, will group better by half over one that has not.
For the most part, we hunters are creatures of habit; this was the way we were raised. Heaven forbid we try to fall sleep with a wet rifle standing in the corner, and sand in the action grates not just on the steel of the rifle, but also on our soul. It is a mind-soothing thing as well to know everything is taken care of, and to those that say a rifle is just a tool, the meager sum of its parts, or a lowly machine? Bosh. Mine at least are well-loved combinations of wood, steel, glass leather and rubber that I can feel in my empty hands upon closing my eyes to sleep, the night before the hunting horns sound.
Though I am too fickle to limit myself to one or two, or even three or five, each has their own personality and manner, and I know them complete from crown to toe.
* * *
High on the rocky slopes of the Khomas Hochlands, I am grateful for many things…not the least of which is the fact that I find my weary self on the back of a horse, rather than under my own power, for the trip back to the ranch. I am no real equestrian, but I find a slow sway to match the cadence of the steps of my mount that is comfortable for me, and hopefully the steady mare as well.
The sounds of shod hooves on the shale is soothing, and I find my head hanging, and I have to remind myself to stay in the saddle, fighting to keep my eyes open. Luckily the mare under me needs no direction from her rider, and I am happy enough to leave the choice of path up to her discretion.
The pace, too, is fine enough for me, but slightly slower than the others, and I look up to see the tracker turn around in his saddle, frowning at the space between us. "You must punish her", he says, pointing to the leather strap hanging to the rear of the saddle while making slapping motions with his arm. I am a guest here, and I make to do as I am told and loosen the strap from the loop and preparing as if to give the horse a snap or two on the flank. The tracker, satisfied, turns back around in his saddle.
The gentle swat I deliver could only be punishing to the mare’s ego, but the pace does quicken, and I soon find myself joining the rear of the group again. I begin to notice, however, that the previously ample berth I was afforded around the Camelthorn trees and hook-barbed acacia has now shrunk, and hat, shirt and skin are all in danger from the sharp nettles spiking the branches. Touché, and well-played.
Bending down to pat the neck of my mount, I whisper, "point taken", and declare a truce, vowing to leave the pace-making up to the sure-footed mare from then on.
* * * I saw the Kudu in the yellow afternoon light before the PH did, and it was a matter of a long session with the field glasses before we decided that it was a good enough animal to warrant a closer look. "If we can get close enough for a good shot, and it is a good bull, I want to take this animal" I said, already feeling that this was my bull. I ran the bolt on the big Mauser, quietly working the long brass and copper cartridge into the chamber; an action that always felt like a statement to the effect of, "things just got serious" and I felt the first effects of adrenaline and taut nerves start to set my heart racing. I double-checked the safety catch, slung the rifle and set off after my fluidly-moving guide. We worked our way carefully, using what cover we could find and placing our steps carefully as the big animal continued to feed. Finally we managed to close the distance that afforded a better view of the majestic antelope. I knew the PH beside me was focusing on the overall quality of the animal, particularly the spiral horns, but beside him through the glasses I couldn't help noticing the striking markings as well. Vertical pale stripes on the sides and flank of the kudu served to perfectly hide the animal in the shadowed light of the plains, and the stripes running from below the eyes to the bridge of the nose gave the animal a majestic and striking visage. I fine mane sprouted from the ridge of both the bottom and top line of the neck, and the tail ended in a superb fly-swatter of another bundle of darker hair. Then, of course there were the horns; thickly-coiled and tall, divergent and widely spaced at the tips. I am no judge of trophy size, for as with most unfamiliar with the animals, they all looked big, but this was a beautiful specimen. There is something special about the long-horned grey bulls, and even for those who have hunted them over and over, there is something about sighting one that causes your breath to catch in your chest. "I think that you must shoot this Kudu" the PH whispered after further examination through the glasses, saying the words I wanted to hear. "He is good." I only nodded in acknowledgement, for I was already getting set on the rifle. Over the sticks, I heard the safety catch click forward, and then the world shrunk, contracted, was drained of sound; narrowed down and was distilled into only a silent sight-picture and a long, slow squeeze of the trigger. The big .375 crashed, and we were too close to hear the kugelschlag if there was one. The great, grey bandit was running, and I was busy working the bolt and trying to push the crosshairs ahead of the shoulder this time. When the rifle crashed again, it did so seemingly of its own volition. The lead was good, but the bullet passed over the back of the animal, but in just a few more long strides it stumbled and passed behind a low group of acacia bushes and fell to the ground, raising a big cloud of dust in the dry air. "Better to take a second shot and not need it, than to need one and not take it", I thought to myself, as my pulse pounded in my neck and my hands began to shake. "It is down...it is down" said the PH, watching the dust drift downwind. He did not whisper this time, but still spoke quietly.
Alone now with the kudu, my rifle and thoughts, I waited for the PH to return with the truck. There would be pictures, handshakes, and congratulations, for it was a fine animal. Crouched beside the still bull, I traced one finger along the perfect curl of the long ivory-tipped horns of a mature bull, while resting the opposite hand on its neck, feeling the warmth still there under the bristly short coat. It is an odd feeling, to be so still after so much noise and adrenaline, but it seems to be a fitting finale to the whole event, this quiet space after the hunt. The day was warm, but not hot, but still the breeze was welcome. I turned into it, and pushed back the brim of my hat and let the wind caress my face, and cool the tears on my sunburned cheeks.
* * *
Even at the end of a long day of hunting, there is always enough energy left for one more stalk, should the quarry be of a sufficient measure. The PH and I were returning to camp after a successful impala hunt, and with the trophy care, butchering and incidentals taken care of, the walk in the red sand was a pleasant and relaxed affair, with none of the stealth and care that a stalk demands. We talked of past hunts; triumphs, defeats, oddities and excitements, and as this is Africa, and in Africa one finds animals that do not necessarily run at the scent of man, the conversation eventually drifted to the topic of lions.
The hunting camp we were returning to is situated only a few hundred meters from the wildness of the Kgalandi Transfrontier Park, which is a natural and ancestral habitat for the big cats. Days ago, with dark pressing in on the flickering light of the campfire, the PH had told stories of how the big cats would continually cross the border, looking for greener pastures and perhaps a bit of mutton to go with their usual diet of nearly everything else that roams wild in the veldt.
He told of the times that the roars had been so close in the night that they were wary in the early morning to venture out the door, and of finding large tracks in the sand all around the camp only meters from the thatched-roof buildings. Between the PH, his father and father-in-law, the numbers added up; certainly 30, probably 50 and maybe even over 60…each of those numbers representing another nightly marauder, a killer of livestock and threat to family. Blood on the sand is the only way.
So, with this in mind, walking back to camp, and spying my wife reading with her back turned to us on a high perch that overlooks the Botswana border, we decided that we could muster one more stalk today. Crouching and stepping carefully to be quiet, we silently tried to reach a spot of cover within earshot of the perch. Beginning our stalk, the had PH assured me that he could, on demand, roar like a particularly fierce lion, and so we worked our way closer, behind bushes only some 50 meters from where she sat. With a wide smile plastered comically on my tired face, I whispered to my guide that I hoped she had not loaded the rifle I left in the cabin. The smiles widened. Just a bit closer...
Suddenly, with the mental equivalence of air being released out of a balloon, our faces simultaneously fell, and we were met squarely with defeat, stripped of all pretense and wit, hearing the singsong words of challenge and condemnation from my wife that rained down on our heads, through the Kameeldoringboom to the bushes behind which we hid:
* * *
It is the first night in hunting camp, and as we walked to the Botswana border for something to do in the small amount of light still left to us, I found an old empty cartridge case uncovered by our plodding steps. The others continued on, not noticing me stop and stoop to pick it up. It was obviously old, smooth and almost weathered to a flat black.
As always, when I find an old tarnished case, I wonder of the hunter’s circumstances and the details of their day: Was this a shot fired in the heat of the chase, or only a practice shot to hone the eye and trigger finger? Did the bullet fly true, or was the action of the rifle worked with a disdainful shake of the head and a silent promise to do better with the next shot?
I wondered, too, if the shot was taken by one of the representatives of the three generations of proud Boers with which I walked, or if it came from a visitor or friend, not born and bred of the red sand. There was really no way of knowing, and so I made up my own tale with my own preferences, and slipped the case into my pocket for good luck for my own hunts to come.
Later, when I meant to take out the brass again from my pocket and found it missing, I couldn’t keep my irrational mind from wondering if I had never really held the old cartridge case in my fingers after all, but instead had found only a fragment of some old memory, or perhaps a leftover ghost from someone else’s past hunting tale.
* * *
The rooster had crowed, and pulling myself from bed I made my way to the sink to rinse the sleep from my tired eyes. Looking beside me through the partially open window, the full moon still stood in the slowly strengthening light; reigning over the Kalahari sands like a big heart in the morning sky, bringing to mind one of the few poems I can recite from memory complete:
In the sky,
Breath of juniper,
If I should die,
While in your grace,
Eject my soul,
Into the place,
From which it came,
An empty book,
I’ll praise the time,
My journey took.
* * *