I couldn’t have been more astonished if my wife had told me she wanted a sex change. After 20 years together I wanted to think some of me had rubbed off but I knew credit for this directional change was owed to another factor. No matter, the thought that my best friend might help me pass on the legacy of hunting to our children was inspiring. Memories of time spent in the woods with my mom began to stealthily creep out from where they’d been hiding.
Three things—sustenance, security and sex—primarily drive humans. Almost everything humans do is to fulfill these drives. Next on the list of what drives our species is entertainment, and it influences the three primary motivators. If humans can flavor their acquisition of food, shelter and sex with entertainment, they’re happier humans. We’re driven by instincts, but gourmet cooking, fancy homes and various fetishes are the secret sauce that makes us smile.
Through our years together I’d never pushed Drema to hunt. I did encourage her to carry a gun; 13 years of chasing bad guys leaves no doubt in your mind about the importance of being armed. Finally she caved to my urgings, and she and my sister attended a defensive handgun course at Gunsite Academy. For Drema it was an empowering, life-changing experience. When I asked her about it, her response was not about how much fun she had. She simply said, “If someone was trying to hurt our kids or me, I’d shoot them to the ground.”
Shortly after, I introduced Drema to Linda Powell. Like my wife, Linda is a lady but Linda is also a hunter. They hit it off, and for three years they and several other ladies conducted an annual pilgrimage to Gunsite to receive shooting instruction. I mostly looked at their escapades as extended weekend retreats, and little did I know something else was occurring.
As Drema became more proficient with shooting and underwent repeated exposure to Linda’s stories about hunting all over the world, she began to find the combination to unlock the hunting gene embedded in us all. I think Drema realized her interests in prowling the aisles of grocery stores and continually searching for tasty recipes to enhance her desire for sustenance were nothing more than the hunter in her wanting out.
Arming Drema with a rifle, warm clothes and advice, I put her on stand for her first opening day of deer season. Within 30 minutes she had a close encounter with a mature buck. She did not get a shot, but she was bitten by the whitetail rush. The combination lock popped off the chains holding the hunter inside her at bay. She told me, “I don’t know how I’ll feel if I kill a deer but I want to.”
After deer season Linda called asking if I thought Drema might like to go to South Africa with us to test a new rifle from Mossberg. Drema was euphoric about the prospect but noticeably apprehensive. We practiced religiously prior to the trip. Boarding the plane I knew that, one way or the other, the next 10 days would change Drema’s life. Also, with euphoric anticipation, I realized instead of hunting with my mom I would be hunting with the mother of my children.
Gerhard “Gerry” Pretorius with African Arrow Safaris met us at the airport in Johannesburg. We drove straight to the lodge, just outside Lephalale, close to the green and greasy Limpopo. With an after-midnight arrival, it was noon the next day before we hit the bush. Gerry, Drema and I headed out to a waterhole. A hushed conversation with Gerry clued him in on Drema’s background. Grinning, he said, “No worries.” Still, knowing the importance of the event and the anxiety on Drema’s shoulders, I had several.
Few things are comparable to the wonderment of an African waterhole. Your ears take in a musical soundtrack reminiscent of the movie “Hatari!” and your eyes are awash with a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes. A red hartebeest cow and calf walked under our elevated blind. A waterbuck emerged from the bush to get a drink. Egyptian geese fed on the far bank. Drema looked at me, eyes wide like when they beheld our firstborn, and whispered, “Wow!”
The plan was to start out slow, let Drema take a sure shot at an impala or a warthog—and several were frequenting the waterhole. Gerry had her track a young impala with her rifle for several minutes. He and I knew it was immature, but we also knew time behind the rifle would ease the tension and ready her when the real time came. Moments later it did when two regally massive gemsbok marched into the waterhole. I whispered to Gerry, “That’s what she really wants to try for.”
Calmly, Gerry asked Drema, “Do you want to try for the gemsbok?”
Drema nervously grinned, like a kid who’d been offered her first chance to ride a rollercoaster: “Yes! Can I?”
Exhibiting true field-earned professionalism, Gerry nonchalantly told her to wait for a good shot and go for it. Later, he told me with that tremendous trophy within her reach, and knowing Drema had never shot at an animal, his heart was beating out of his chest. He said, “I knew if I let my excitement show it would be contagious, possibly inducing a bad shot.”
The little Mossberg in .243 Win. barked and an 85-grain Nosler Partition started its critical journey across the waterhole. For Drema, it was the most important bullet she’d ever fired. Her future as a hunter depended on its point of impact and performance. The bullet struck a third of the way up the gemsbok’s chest, straight above the leg. I knew it was over. Drema shucked the bolt like the Gunsite trainee she was, and the cow disappeared behind a tall stand of papyrus. She turned and looked at me with an expression that in 20 years I’d never seen on her face.
“Did I get it?”
Wiping a tear that had already appeared in the corner of my eye I said, “Yes, she is yours!” and pointed to the other side of the papyrus where the gemsbok had piled up. Drema had trouble speaking during the laugh-like cry bursting from within her. Tears welled in her eyes. I desperately fought to hold back mine, wishing her to see nothing but a smile. Gerry was congratulating her but I don’t think she heard a word. Visibly shaken, it was several moments before Drema could stand.
Gerry went for the truck and Drema and I walked the hundred-plus yards to the gemsbok. I watched her touch the horns and bury her hands in the mercury-colored hide. And, in her eyes, I saw the unmistakable look of a hunter. Yes, she could shoot an animal, and yes, she could kill it humanely. Drema was experiencing a Christmas morning sensation generally reserved only for adolescents.
The next day Drema took a close-range impala while I acted as her professional hunter. That evening, while hunting with Linda, Drema fired her final shot of the safari. Linda was after an eland when they stumbled on a herd of wildebeest. She suggested Drema try for one, and a stalk began. At 180 yards they ran out of cover and Drema, shooting off the sticks, sent another Partition on an even longer journey.
Drema then got to experience another sensation.
“There was very little blood and I was upset that I had only hurt him,” she said. “I know it happens, but I was not ready for it to happen to me.”
The bush was thick but a brief search turned up a massive bull only 30 yards away. “He was amazing! He just looked so massive and beautiful laying there,” she said. That night at the fire ring, Drema told her tale and we later enjoyed the wild protein she had procured.
Surveys and experts suggest more women are becoming interested in hunting. For some, like my sister who hunted with her mother, it’s a natural instinct. Her hunting gene was unlocked and nourished from birth. For others, the journey can be as far as from the West Virginia hills to the bushveldt of South Africa. All humans are predators: hunters. It’s why we have depth-perceiving eyes, teeth designed to chew meat and the intellect to help us outsmart our quarry. Those of us reared like lion clubs—by parents who hunt—are destined to carry on that instinctive tradition. Others need a helping hand along the way.
After Drema’s departure from South Africa, I headed south of Kimberly, to ground just north of the Orange River to hunt with my son. One night at the fire ring I heard a most profound statement. Geoffrey Wayland, who operates Fort Richmond Safaris, said, “You must take what Africa gives you.” Africa gave my best friend the key to unlock her hunting instinct. It gave me another hunter with whom to share my life. And, it gave our kids the opportunity to grow up like I did, hunting with their mom in a family that recognizes that’s what humans are supposed to do.
Footnote On West Virginia’s opening day of deer season during the fall following her safari, Drema headed out in the dark. She was on her own and had no assistance from me. A few hours and one shot later she had venison on the ground, and our two daughters and I helped her bring the protein home. When it comes to passing on the hunting tradition, moms matter. For the next generation of my family that tradition is now guaranteed to continue.