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Best Laid Plans (Part IV)

Nowhere else in the world provides the ups and downs of Africa.

I was enjoying my amateur status as an ornithologist when a male baboon wandered into my field of view. One moment I was deciding whether a bird had an orange or red bill, the next I was staring into the beady eyes of a primate at 10X. It was chilling. Gosh that thing was ugly, and its fangs were huge and yellow. It sauntered toward us, then stopped a mere 10 yards in front of the blind—there was no longer any need for the Nikon. We lost sight of it, then heard it scrounging around right next to us; actually, it was right next to me. It began to chew on something that sounded like a plastic milk jug. Chomp. Chomp. Chomp. I could hear the baboon’s teeth grind every bite. The roof of the blind was tin, the front plywood. But the back and sides were merely sheets of black plastic not much thicker than garbage bags. Without that I could’ve spit on the thing. The air was so still we dared to breathe.

Then the baboon farted. It was a long, whiny fart, the kind an old man slips out while eating a ham sandwich at the deli. “What, I should care what people think? I’m a baboon.” We laughed so hard, so silently my face hurt. I don’t know if Piet’s face hurt, but I did see his eyes well up.

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In four previous trips to Africa I’d never seen a snake and I was glad of it. But by day seven on this trip I’d seen two, a small cobra in camp a worker killed with a spade and something we stepped quickly around in the bush. (I didn’t ask what it was and didn’t care so long as it was behind us.) The python was the charm, though. “What’s that doing out on such a cold day?” I asked. “I don’t know,” said Piet. “Let’s have a look.” I hate snakes. I’d have been happy to keep driving. But I indulged Piet.

Heck, it was worth some pictures. The snake was perhaps 10 feet long and as big around as my leg. I was actually getting some good pictures of the thing until Piet threw a stone, which got the serpent’s attention. “Okay, that’s enough,” I said, and headed toward the truck. Piet chuckled, but he moved a bit closer to the truck, too. The snake didn’t move fast, but it did move with purpose straight toward us. I climbed into the back of the truck as Piet walked by briskly and opened the door. He looked back, still chuckling, as the snake stopped just beneath the rear bumper. Piet laughed louder when I pounded on the roof: “We can go now.” Like I said, I hate snakes. With little time remaining to hunt, I accepted the fact the hartebeest probably had the better of me and decided to chase whatever we encountered. And when another zebra appeared on day eight

I didn’t hesitate. We both saw it. Piet slammed on the brakes and muttered in Afrikans, “Load your gun,” which sounds the same in any language. We stalked, I shouldered the .300 and the animals moved. We stepped lively, and didn’t go far to find them again. It was a long shot, considering my previous blunders. But this time I was determined to redeem myself. I breathed, stared at the reticle and squeezed. The animal dropped, I worked the bolt, didn’t see it rise and prepared to walk over to my trophy.

I was surprised when we didn’t walk straight to it, but I said nothing. We took a path along the animals’ route of departure, and when Piet found no blood he glared at me—again. I said nothing but went over the shot in mind. I could see the sight picture when the rifle barked. I was sure of it, but we walked farther and I had to wonder until the tracker called out ahead. Piet smiled: “Thank you for making sure this animal died beside a road.” “Oh sure,” I obliged, “that’s exactly how I planned it.”

■ ■ ■

In fact, nothing on any hunt ever goes according to plan. Perhaps that’s why we enjoy it so much. I liken it to choosing to watch a rerun of a sit-com or a live football game: the former unfolds according to a script while the latter has never occurred before.

In America, hunters generally chase only one animal at a time. Often we encounter things we don’t expect, but the solitary pursuit of one species reduces situations to something we can script out, if only in our minds. In Africa we may encounter any number of situations and animals regardless what else we assume will happen. It’s the unexpected that drives me to hunt there. What I don’t expect to do is shoot poorly. When I do I feel as if I’m in a bad rerun, as if I’ve been locked in this script before, and I don’t like it. When this happens, I figure the best I can do is bear down and go at it again, and along the way enjoy the ride. I mean, if you’re in the field, you’re in the game, right? That beats sitting on the sidelines.

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