Best Laid Plans (Part III)

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

Finally Piet stood and snapped his fingers. The tracker rose and placed the sticks. I rose, placed the rifle in my shoulder and Piet growled, “There’s the bull—shoot!”

I settled the reticle on the animal’s shoulder, squeezed … and shot right over its back. I pulled my head out of the scope—I knew it when the shot broke. The distance couldn’t have been 140 yards—nothing I haven’t done before.

Piet looked at me in disbelief. I read his mind and wanted to snap, “Don’t look at me like that,” but again said nothing. And again my silence paid dividends later, though in hindsight I wish it hadn’t. We were driving a two-track scanning for tracks when Piet slammed on the brakes and asked, “You want a zebra, right?”

We piled out of the truck and rushed 50 yards into the bush to find a group of five perhaps 130 yards away. Piet stopped and set up the sticks. “There, between the trees—the male, he’s broadside.” I pulled the .375 into my shoulder and picked the stallion from the bunch. “

Quickly, Scott,” hissed Piet. The shot broke as the animal took a step. I worked the bolt, but there would be no follow-up; the herd bolted. “You shot while he was walking,” barked Piet. “He took a step as I squeezed,” I barked back. We found blood, a good bit of it. But I couldn’t call my shot. I knew I’d pulled my head out of the scope again, but I kept that to myself.

Explanations were meaningless now. We had work to do. We ran, found more blood, ran some more, then settled into a fast walk and finally into a deliberate track of a wounded animal. I was shooting poorly, and I knew it. The blood grew scarce and I hated myself. It was near dark when we caught up to them in a grove of low-lying trees. I threw the rifle to my shoulder and the herd left their wounded brother to die. I herd rocks clatter and realized the animal was stumbling. As I squeezed another shot I was acutely aware that the zebra simply stood there and awaited its fate. “What the hell?” I gasped when I approached it and saw the snare around its leg.

The poor thing’s leg was cut to the bone by what amounted to no more than a coat hanger tied into a slip knot. I’d assumed the rocks I’d seen piled into holes beneath the fence were put there to keep out warthogs. Now I realized they were meant to keep out poachers. I rarely refuse to smile when I pose with an animal; hunting is simply too much fun to look grim. But I didn’t smile that night.

■ ■ ■

Several guys were itching to drive over to Kruger National Park, which is considered by many to be the greatest national park in the world. We were, after all, within spitting distance. Park visitors are apt to see any of the Big 5—elephant, rhino, Cape buffalo, lion and leopard—along with numerous other species. It encompasses 4.8 million acres—that’s 7,500 square miles. To appreciate just how immense that is, consider this: Connecticut is just 5,009 square miles. One night around the campfire someone breathed, “C’mon, guys, it’s Kruger.” The words hung in the air like bait … . I’d faced a similar dilemma before.

In 2005, in Namibia, I was within driving distance of Etosha National Park when someone let fly with the same sentiment.
I surmised that I’d get to hunt Africa only so many days in my life, and I wasn’t about to give up an hour in the bush with a rifle in hand to become merely a tourist with a camera. Now, for better or worse, I convinced others in this camp of the same sentiment.

So long as I continue to experience events like the following I’ll never regret such decisions. On day six we sat in a blind and listened to birds greeting the day. With no game in sight I began to identify them; actually, that’s a stretch, I didn’t have a clue what I was seeing; identification came later, with the help of Piet and a guidebook in camp. There were blue waxbills, yellow hornbills, crimsonbreasted shrikes (which reminded me of orioles in Maryland) and red-billed queleas. There must’ve been 500 birds.

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