Once in a while I happily veer of topic as I’m about to do now. I’ve just arrived back from a trip to South Africa. Most of my time was spent in the bush having a great time and trying to get reasonably good photos of the wildlife. I came back with great respect for the photographers in magazines like National Geographic. I quickly learned just how effective the animal’s markings are in terms of camouflage. They’re colored the way they are for a reason. It hides them well and it’s very difficult to get a photo where they can be clearly seen. Still, my habit of taking a ridiculous amount of photos in the hopes of getting a few good ones paid off. I thought I’d share some of my observations/experiences/thoughts along with a few of my photographs with you so you’d know what I was doing while I WASN’T at the gym!
If your eyes have already glassed over with boredom, never fear. It’s not like being trapped at Aunt Missy’s house when she pulls out her slide projector and you have to sit there on the sofa feigning interest in her God-awful trip. You can just navigate away from here during this saunter down memory lane. My next entry will be back to business as usual.
Taking a good photograph of a monkey is much harder than taking a good photo of the most impatient, camera adverse, refusing-to-stand-still child. Monkeys come and go (sometimes disappearing for days at a time) so having your camera ready is a must. Even so they are elusive little things. They flit about the treetops, making a racket way up high. It’s not like the rhythmic sound of the blasbock or haartbeast walking through the grass. it’s a riot of activity, branches banging together and leaves crunching in the treetops. They never stand still. They jump and wiggle and grab things off the trees and shove them in their mouths. They are constant motion…and they are wily. It’s a sure thing they’ll see you before you see them. They know you’re there and they go about their business with one eye trained on you, making sure you keep your distance and that you mean them no harm. In between the riot of activity and playing hide and go seek with the branches you have to get a clear shot. I learned early you also have to concentrate on the task at hand. When trying to take photos of the monkeys you must train your attention solely on the monkeys, otherwise you’ll never get that split second to get a descent photo….which is precisely how I missed a golden opportunity to get a shot of a rare river otter and a beautiful black bird with a bright red crest. Nature mocks the earnest photographer!
It occurs to me as I observe the native Africans that being a vegan has only two meanings. One, you’re a poor hunter, a poor farmer, truly a victim of the meanest poverty that life on Earth can mete out or rather you’re a sinfully spoiled eater, used to an abundance so overwhelming that you can righteously turn up your nose at whole food groups and still survive. It’s a way of being adopted by the indulged and only sustainable in a culture where a huge array of food is always at one’s fingertips.
Jacob and Norman are trackers. They (particularly Jacob) have expert skills out in the bush. If you want to find a particular animal, they will find it. They ride outside the buggy and scan for the animal or for clues that the animal is somewhere close. They look at everything; tracks, bends of the grass, broken branches, places where horns have worn spots against the trees, droppings. I’ve never once seen an animal before they have. As a matter of fact, I often can’t see them even after they’ve pointed them out. I have to stare and stare….and finally I catch sight of what they’ve seen long before. If I were lost in the bush, I’d want them looking for me. If I was trying to hide, they would be my worst nightmare.
Jacob and Norman are expert trackers but they are also skinners. I’ve never seen two men make such quick work of a kill. When a hunter brings in an animal, they hoist it up and set to work. They move with speed and grace, with experience that tells them just how deep to sink their knives, just how much pressure to use. Watching them in the midst of their work you see economy of motion and effort. They work quietly sometimes stopping briefly to sharpen one knife against the back of the other before returning to their task. I saw them skin and prepare a Cape Buffalo for eating in about an hour’s time. That night I got to taste the fruit of their (and the hunter’s labor). I had a bit of the buffalo grilled over brightly glowing coals taken from the fire. It was delectable. I also tried Haartbeast which was wonderful and some Eland. Eating the Eland was like trying to chew a bit of leather from a worn, old boot. I chewed and chewed and finally had to swallow my pieces whole. In the bush, you don’t waste. You eat what you take.
When I first got to the Bushveld, the guide told me that it’s common to get pepper ticks in the tall grass. He said they lurk around on the tops of the grass and get onto your skin as you pass through. They’re the size of the head of a pin, tiny, but you get many at a time. He said he gets them every year but only once and after that they leave him alone. A couple of nights later, I went to clean up and there on the back of my leg, I discovered a bright red, bumpy patch about the size of a half-dollar. I figured I had them. Earlier that day I was out looking for animals to photograph from the buggy with the driver and tracker. At one time they went on foot to look ahead, leaving me in the buggy which was fortuitous since I had to…how do you say it politely? I’ll just say I’d been drinking a lot of water. I had been contemplating how to ask them to stop but my chance came before I had to. I moved off just about a foot from the road for a teeny bit of cover. I’m not at all shy but was trying to keep some decorum around men I didn’t know…as much for their sake as for mine. While I was there, some grass brushed me and I figured that’s where the ticks came from. This set up an awful series of thoughts. I stood there in the dark thinking; The guide doesn’t react badly to pepper ticks but he’s an African. What if I have some sort of allergic reaction to them? Do those things carry diseases? How fast does tick disease take hold? I’ve heard some tick bites are really bad. And then I’d talk back to myself; The guide said they just itch for a day then go away, stop fretting! You’ve never once heard of anyone dying because of a tick, especially on a guided photo trip. If you die of a damn tick bite, you deserve it. You were told they were in the tall grass and you didn’t have to venture in there with your pants down! It was a classic example of my mind fighting itself. It’s a powerful adversary at times. Trying to stamp down anxiety that comes welling up from…where? It’s akin to trying to unwind a giant boa constrictor that’s wrapped around my body…squeezing. At any rate I decided to make sure the spot was scrubbed well, took half a Benedryl and covered the spot with vaseline which I heard long ago will suffocate ticks in the skin. Probably an old wives’ tale but I thought it couldn’t hurt. After that, I got into bed and did what I do when I’m really scared and there’s nothing physically to be done. I prayed to Jesus. After about 15 minutes, I hopped out of bed to take another look at the offending spot and do you know, there wasn’t a single trace of it. Nothing…only absolutely smooth, regular colored skin. I slept peacefully the rest of the night.
In the bush of Africa, nothing goes to waste. Hunters the world over are welcomed with open arms. Hunters have reasons of their own for coming to Africa. Some seek adventure, some want to hunt animals they can’t hunt in their own countries, some are looking for trophies. Whatever the reason, the Africans throw the door open for them. The hunters take the parts of the animal they want…antlers, the skull, the hide and the native Africans use/eat the rest. A single buffalo feeds a great many people. Besides that, the hunters pay a sizable fee for each animal they harvest. Some of the fee goes to the government but a large portion goes to the strenuous conservation and breeding programs that ensure survival of the amazing array of species to be found in this part of the world. These fees are single-handedly responsible for the preservation of both the elephant and rhino. Rhinos are particularly vulnerable and protecting them from poachers a full-time job. In the Orient they believe that the rhino horn can cure a man’s flagging libido….like Viagra only better and therein lies the rub. Native Africans can make money beyond their wildest dreams by selling just one of the rhino horns to these enthusiastic buyers. You take a man who is concerned where his next meal is coming from and for the price of one rhino horn he can be worry free. Problem illuminated. Even with the conservation programs firmly in place, poachers managed to kill over 400 rhinos in the Bushveld last year. To date this year, they have killed over 200. Without the breeding programs the hunter’s fees support it’s possible there wouldn’t be a single rhino left alive in the world.
This morning, Nikko, a local farmer joined us for breakfast. He had a pistol on his hip. When I was out and about later that day I was wishing I did too. Not for any particular reason, more to anchor a feeling of security. Two days ago I heard a story that made me cringe. The same farmer showed me a headstone out in the middle of the bush. It was the resting place of his father in law. Three years before he had been out walking and a sable had run him through with one of his sharp horns. It pierced his heart and he died on the spot. A sable is a beautiful animal and also lethal. It can kill a lion with those horns. Poor man didn’t stand a chance.
One night we were gathered around the fire and a PH (Professional hunter) joined us. During the course of the night he told a story about some United States Marines that had come to Africa to hunt. He said they were out for quite a while before they were able to spot any animals but after a time they saw some way in the distance. The PH told them they were much too far away to take from where they were but that he’d try to drive them closer in the vehicle and then let them out to stalk. Apparently the Marines judged the situation differently. They’d chosen the .308 from the available rifles to hunt with. They had binoculars and a range finder and deemed the animals well within range. They stood there and argued back and forth with the PH, the Marines insisting the animals were close enough for them and the PH trying to talk them into getting closer before taking the shot. Finally one of the Marines told the PH to “Shut the fuck up.” The two Marines proceeded to work as a team. One gauging distance, wind and calculating ballistic trajectory ( likely drop of the bullet over distance) etc and the other taking up a comfortable position to shoot. Lo and behold, to the shock of the PH they got the animal down with one perfectly placed shot. He said they “certainly shut me the fuck up. Those Marines were something else. Never missed.” He went on to say that they’re always happy to see American military men coming to hunt “because they can shoot.”
The PH’s liked to hang around the campfire at night and drink coffee and scotch. Late into the evening they would start to tell stories. One night a PH told us that he’d had a client that came to Africa to hunt. Over the course of his visit he took a total of 67 shots on animals. He only managed to actually shoot two. He also told us about a blind hunter who, with the help of a specially fashioned scope (that extended over his shoulder) and a friend who’d stand behind him and help, got 17 clean hits in 19 shots.
There was a boy, in 6th grade who came on a photo safari with his parents. The guide said he was frail and much smaller than my son who’s just going into 4th grade. The whole time the family was on safari, he refused to eat anything except plain white rice and plain pasta (no butter, sauce, cheese or salt). He only drank Coke, never water. He also had a smart mouth and behaved in a most petulant manner. His father was a surgeon but apparently exerted no power in the relationship with his skinny, picky, ill-tempered, little son. Toward the end of the visit the guide wrestled around with him a bit and pinned him. He told the boy that he’d only let him up if he ate meat at the dinner that night. He told him he’d see to it that he never got back to America unless he cooperated. While waiting for the boy to comply, the guide looked up, at the surgeon dad. The dad gave him a thumbs up. That night the boy ate something other than rice or pasta for the first time in months. The guide said he probably wanted to spit the meat out but he kept his eyes on him the whole meal. I laughed when I heard that story. All I could think of was that old saying of my Grandpa’s…Never underestimate the power of a good ass kicking! Hopefully his dad took note.
There was a farm close to where we were staying in the bush. On it was a massive tank of a Rhino with an enormous horn. The farmer had evidence that poachers were lurking around and along with other farmers in the area he was doing his best to have teams patrol at night. They had night vision goggles and were being as vigilant as possible. The day I left Africa the guide told me the bad news. Despite all the efforts to protect the rhino the poachers had been successful. They’d killed the big rhino just the day before. They took his horn.
Hennie is 6 foot, 5 inches of African man. He used to be a policeman but was involuntarily retired when the affirmative action plans were instituted in South Africa. He’s a PH now and has been for many years. He tells fascinating stories of hunts and of the clients he’s met along the way. For some reason most of the looneys seem to be from the US. His stories often start with “There were these guys…Americans…” One of his previous clients came over with his wife and daughter. He asked Hennie if he knew how many people Rambo killed with a knife. He was fascinated with Rambo and although he hunted with a rifle during the time he was in Africa, he made plans to come back and hunt a lion with a knife. Hennie said he’d go along but stand 100 yards back and film it. He wants to put it on YouTube. He thinks it’ll be a hit. Crazy American Who Was Eaten By A Lion.
One day a Ukrainian man came to Africa to hunt. He brought three hired women with him. The PH said he only came out of his quarters to eat. That’s it. He just stayed in there with the women all day and night. He handed a list of the trophies he wanted to the PH and told him to go get them and bring them to him. I’ll bet he told all his friends back home that he had actually done the hunting to get them. The PH said that by the end of the trip, the Ukrainian was looking rather gaunt and scraggly. Over exertion will do that to a person.
Here are a few of my photos. Most were taken in the bush but a few were taken around Cape Town on the coast.