The camp stood in a clearing in the bush, wall tents surrounding a wall-less thatched-roof structure, with a bar and stone fireplace, where meals were both cooked and served. The wall tents added a specious air of genuine, old-fashioned safari, but they were as permanent as the dining room, set up on platforms with grass mats, zebra and impala rugs, tables, bureaus, and cast-iron beds that could only have been moved by Mayflower or Bekins.
The PH was not a laconic, gin-drinking Englishman with cold eyes. He was a stout, displaced Boer as big as Africa and twice as furry. Blond, glossy pelt sprouted from every pore, from his nostrils and ears, a large cinnamon bear in khaki shorts. When the little plane that flew us out into the bush – circling over a small herd of giraffes running in slow-motion – when it finally landed and we climbed stiffly out, disheveled and disoriented, in neither this time zone nor that, he was there at the foot of the stairs, arms thrown wide – “Welcome to Africa!” – his voice rumbling up out of the vast caverns of his belly.
“I am Dietrich Maartens, your PH. This is Jocko.” He waved a huge paw at a sandy-haired, fresh-faced boy standing next to him. “This is Friday,” a tall, delicately-built black man, “my assistants. Come. Staff will bring your bags and guns. Come.”
We climbed into one open Land Rover as staff, four silent black men in khaki jump suits, climbed out of another.
In my tent, unpacking clothes, laying out gear, I could hear the other American, his voice booming all the way from the far side of the dining area, telling his wife what a damn fine camp this was and what a damn fine safari this was going to be. Young trophy wife, pink and golden, starting to plump, diamond the size of a Peterbuilt headlight on her finger.
First night in camp is always the same: moose in Alaska, deer in Wyoming, safari in Africa, it makes no difference. You spend some time drinking, then eating, then drinking again, feeling out the guides, the other hunters, the whole operation that will be your home for the next week, two weeks, month, whatever.
There were four of us, plus the wife, and I knew before we got to the dinner table that it wasn’t going to be good. The other American was loud in his tent. He was louder after a few drinks at the bar, cruise director, font of wit and wisdom, self-designated entertainer, suddenly belting out part of some Italian opera for the benefit of the other two hunters. I thought the PH might shush him, but the big Boer seemed a little nonplussed, his blond beard opening to show appreciative white teeth at the wit, a deep concurring rumble at the wisdom, and a gape of stunned surprise at the opera.
The other two hunters were an Italian father and son, and at the sound of the aria there in the African bush, they both seemed to suddenly forget the excellent English I had overheard them speaking at the airport. They kept their eyes on their drinks and went right to their tent after dinner.
I went to mine, but the voice followed, filling the camp, the surrounding bush, all of Africa. It was going to be a long hunt.
In the morning, after breakfast, we went to a range near the camp to check our rifles. The other American had a custom bolt-action and a double that had been built as a set, with exquisite bulino engraving of zebra and gemsbok on one, cape buffalo and lion on the other. I wanted to ignore him and his guns, but he was too loud and the guns were too beautiful to be ignored. And he knew how to use them.
When we were sighted in, the father and son took off with Friday and two trackers in one Land Rover. Dietrich signaled to me to climb in with him and the other American. And the trophy wife.
Seated up front, in a chair welded onto the front of the vehicle, was our tracker. His name had a lot of glottal stops and vowels in it, and in spite of the temperature, already hot and getting hotter, he wore a blue woolen watch cap and a woolen surplus German Army greatcoat over his khaki jump suit. A flatbed with three more black men followed us, two of them standing up in the back, watching for game.
The other American immediately began a lecture, his voice rising easily above the sound of the engine.
“You know, of course, the best trackers in the world are the Bushmen in the Kalahari. Much better than these guys. And they don’t ride in the vehicle. No sir! They run alongside watching for tracks as they run, and they can go all day long, day after day. If you could ever get one of them to compete in a marathon, they’d win it hands down. The Ethiopians and Kenyans would get left in the dust, but of course those Bushmen don’t have any competitive spirit in them at all. They’re too goddamned lazy. They just do what they have to do to stay alive and that’s it. But they can track. And that Kalahari desert is hard to track in. I mean hard, literally. You’ve hunted the Kalahari, of course, haven’t you?”
He slapped me jovially on the shoulder.
“Oh. I thought a guy like you would have hunted there. Well, you think of the desert being sandy, right? But it isn’t. It’s hard-packed and rocky, and when you do find a place where it is sandy, a dry wash, something like that, it’s so dry that the sand just sort of spreads out under your feet, so it’s impossible to track anything. But those goddamn Bushmen can track an angel across the head of a pin. Amazing. Much better than these guys.
Since our tracker with the unpronounceable name and wool coat had said, audibly and clearly, “Hello, Mister,” when Dietrich had introduced him, I wondered what he made of this unflattering comparison. I didn’t find out. He never spoke again or even looked at us.
“I was hunting lion there one time…”
It was a long story about how his shooting prowess had saved the life of a less than competent PH from an attacking lion.
But, damn it, he could shoot. While I only had five animals on my tag – all I could afford – he apparently had a permit for everything that walked or crawled in that part of Africa. It seemed as if every few miles one of the staff would spot a herd of something the other American had on his license and off they would go while the trophy wife and I cooled our heels and drank copious amounts of water until we heard the inevitable shot and the staff would bring another body back, throwing it onto the bed of the truck.
I made the mistake of trying to talk to the trophy, but it was like talking to cotton candy. Intelligent cotton candy. She was no fool, but other than a mild desire to upend her, there was nothing about her that didn’t make me yawn until my jaw creaked. They were having their house redone and the decorator just didn’t understand the importance of blending English floral chintz with trophies. They had done it in their condo in Telluride and it worked beautifully. Not only worked, it was absolutely necessary to keep from being overwhelmed by the raw masculinity of all those trophies, which are beautiful, of course, but just so very masculine.
I idly contemplated overwhelming her with my own raw masculinity, but some of the staff had been left behind, presumably to ensure nothing of the kind occurred.
I put up with this for three days and then I took Dietrich aside.
“That’s it. Either I go off with Friday or Jocko or I’m going to add an obnoxious American billionaire to my hunting tag. I can’t take this anymore.”
“What can I do? It is two hunters for each guide. If I send you off with Friday, this is not fair to Mr. Rovarino and his son.”
“Dietrich, this is probably the only safari I’ll ever be able to afford. I came here to hunt and to have a good time. I’m not having a good time.”
“But just yesterday you took a wonderful red hartebeest, and the day before…”
“It’s not the hunting, Dietrich. It’s the company. It’s not going to look good on your record if I shoot this pompous ass. Let me go out with Jocko.”
“Oh, Jocko is only nineteen. He is only apprentice. He does not yet have full license. It is illegal.”
“Who the hell is going to know? I’m not going to tell anyone. You’re not going to tell anyone. The only way to get here is by plane. In the highly unlikely event that the government sends someone out to check on us, we’re going to have a little warning as he lands his plane.”
The next morning Jocko and I drove off by ourselves, no staff, no tracker, a cooler full of water and sandwiches in the back of a topless, army-green flatbed truck, and the sounds of Figaro echoing in our ears.
“Figaro, Figaro, Figaro, Figaro, FiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigarOOOO!”
I don’t like opera. I hate it at breakfast.
The only high-dollar animal I had on my tag was greater kudu. We hadn’t seen any sign of kudu in three days, but now, as if getting the hell away from the diva had changed my luck, we spotted a good one before lunch, over 50 inches, Jocko said. We sat in the truck and glassed him, half-a-mile off, standing in the sparse shade of some stunted, scrubby little tree.
“This will not be easy.” Jocko glanced briefly at me at me and went back to his binoculars. “Do you feel wind?”
I did. I felt the wind in my left ear. I felt the wind in my right ear. I felt it on the back of my neck.
“I don’t care about easy. This is what I came for. Let’s go have some fun.”
For a moment he sat, still glassing the kudu. Then he grinned and grabbed his rifle.
“Yes. We go have fun.”
Well, we didn’t get that kudu, but we did enjoy ourselves. The swirling wind kept pushing him out in front of us, but Jocko kept on him. It was an impressive job. He would point out tracks with the barrel of his Mannlicher-Schoenauer, a beautiful, battered pre-war 10.75X68mm I had spent the morning lusting over, and only then could I make out the prints. I wouldn’t have seen any of them if he hadn’t pointed them out.
At other times he would seem to stop tracking entirely and would walk very rapidly, 50 or 60 yards to some spot picked at random, as far as I could tell, and always there would be a track.
We went on like that all day. Three times we saw the kudu, a glimpse in the distance, a vague movement of gray in the scrub, gone as soon as it was noticed, until finally, just before dark, we stumbled onto a really good warthog and I took him as consolation prize. It was a hell of a good day.
The other American was celebrating heavily when we got back. He had shot a Cape Buffalo, a fine one that would put him high up in the record books, and he was louder than ever, holding forth at the bar and ordering drinks for everyone as if it were all going on his personal bill. After we moved to the table, while we were eating, the trophy put her hand – the one with the diamond – on his shoulder and purred, “Tell them how you shot it, honey.”
I could have killed her.
It was an interminable tale. He was already drunk and the more he drank the louder he got. Part way through the saga he got unsteadily to his feet to act out how he and Dietrich had stalked up on the buff – that was what he called it – slipping up to within twenty yards…
I saw Dietrich’s mouth open, but he must have thought better of it for he closed it again.
…but then the treacherous wind had swirled and the buff had spun to face them.
“Could tell the bastard was about to charge. Tell you something,” he was addressing all of us, the whole group, the quiet elderly black man in a spotless white shirt who waited on us, the cook on the far side of the building, the unseen staff, enthralled throngs in distant lands, “it takes brass ones, baby, to stand your ground when a buff’s about to charge.”
He grabbed his crotch. He actually grabbed his crotch in case no one understood which brass ones he was referring to.
Dietrich finally protested. “No, no, I don’t think he was going to charge. He was trying to locate…”
“Going to charge! He was going to charge, Dieter. When you’ve taken as many buff as I have, you’ll know, you’ll learn to recognize the whatdoyoucallits, signs.”
Dietrich’s eyebrows went up, like two small blond dogs jumping into the air, and he opened his mouth again, but then he just put food in it.
“Had the Rigby double with me – 470 Nitro Express, 500-grain bullet; handle anything, anything – stepped in front of old Dieter here …” He paused, his face flushed and furious. “…and… I… just… stood there. Stood there and looked the bastard right in the eyes.”
Well, it was unfortunate, but just at that moment I happened to look Jocko right in the eyes and both of us instantly became completely hysterical. He handled it better than I did. I had just taken a mouthful of rice which went everywhere, including up my nose, and I used that as a cover, staggering out into the cool night air, choking, gasping, howling, coughing. I choked and coughed my way back to my tent, put the pillow over my head and laughed until my lungs burned and my stomach muscles cramped.
Two nights later we were all sitting in the bar after dinner. The other American had missed a very long shot at a sable and either because of that or because he was tired, he was, for once, quiet. The trophy had already gone to bed and the two Italians and Dietrich were talking by the fire. I was nursing a single-malt whisky and a feeling of contentment. I had taken a good impala that afternoon so, except for the kudu, my tag was filled, The weather had warmed and I was enjoying the mild breeze that always seems to come with a full moon, blowing through the dining area, stirring the grass thatching of the roof.
I had swung around on my stool, leaning my back against the bar, when I saw movement in the shadows between two of the wall tents. A moment later Jocko stepped out into the moonlight. He was staring at me. He made a small movement with his head in the direction of the vehicles, then stepped back into the shadows and vanished.
I waited about a minute, then took another sip of whisky and walked out in the direction of my tent. I walked past the tent and circled around behind to the cars.
Jocko was sitting behind the wheel of the open flatbed, the Mannlicher-Schoenauer in the rack.
“Come. I will show you lions. They have made a kill, only a few kilometers away. Come.”
I climbed in. “Why the secrecy?”
“I am only apprentice. It is not allowed. And too, I like better not to have any brass ones come with us.” He grabbed his crotch and grinned at me.
We drove a long way through the bush on one of the rough tracks that meandered out from the camp in all directions. Then, abruptly, for no discernible reason, the bush ended, first on one side of the road, then on the other, opening out into a vast, grassy plain. In the moonlight it looked like another, better world, a golden plain of wheat and infinite possibility you might want to run through forever. We drove on for about a mile and then Jocko swung off the road and into the grass. He stopped the truck, took his rifle out of the rack and jacked a round into the chamber. Then he put it back in the rack and we drove on again.
“That’s a great rifle. Where’d you get it?”
“Oh, is he a professional hunter?”
“No, he is dead. He was farmer in Zimbabwe, but we lost our farm. He was also very good hunter, but only for himself, for my family.”
“Was he the one who taught you how to track?”
“Oh, yes. He was very good, my father.
“And is this what you wanted to do, be a professional hunter?”
“No, I wanted to be farmer like my father, but the government took our land, all the land of the white farmers. There.”
I had never seen lions before outside of a zoo. They were by a small waterhole, a perfectly round pond maybe fifteen feet across with a single tree growing beside it, as if both had been placed there by a landscape designer. Jocko drove right up, stopping thirty yards away.
It was a male and a female, crouched over a kill, a wildebeest, and in the moonlight their bodies, so much larger than I had realized, were the color of rich cream. They kept feeding, the male ignoring us, the female watching as she braced her front feet on the carcass and tore off strips of meat, jerking her head back and up. The sound of the frogs in the pond was deafening, but over it I could hear the wet smacking of the lions eating, the occasional cracking of bone.
A golden plain, a full moon, cream-colored lions feeding in a balmy wind. So, I thought, this is Africa. This is what they all wrote about, Hemingway and Roosevelt and Ruark, moments of paradise like this.
The female had never taken her eyes off us and now she rose suddenly and walked away from us, turning her head to look back over her shoulder as she went out into the grass. She walked away for about a hundred yards and then started to swing around in a large semi-circle on my side of the flatbed, the moonlight reflecting off her, a splash of cream in a field of butter, her face turned, watching us, always watching. When she walked past us I swiveled around in my seat to keep an eye on her. Finally I couldn’t take it any more.
“Jocko, I think we’re about to become the second course in this dinner party.”
He put the truck in reverse and backed up very fast, putting the lioness in front of us again. Then he turned quickly around so that she was on his side and we drove back toward the road, but I kept watching her as long as I could see her.
“My God, Jocko. Thank you. You just made this whole trip. I’ll remember those lions on my death bed.”
“Good. I am glad you saw them. Tomorrow, the male, he will be dead.”
I turned to look at him. “Why?”
“Brass Ones will kill him. He has a lion on his tag.”
“Does Dietrich know where those lions are?”
“No, but I will tell him.”
“It is my job. I would prefer that no one kills this lion. Most of all I would prefer not to have Brass Ones kill him. But this is what he pays for. This is what I am paid for. It is what I must do.”
It was my last day of hunting and I was feeling very ambivalent. I wanted to stay forever and go out after animals every day, to see the sudden, surprising variety and richness of Africa for the rest of my life, to tramp across the whole damned continent, shooting my meals as I wanted, discovering places never seen before, dozing at midday in the sparse shade of trees I couldn’t name, spending my nights in wall tents, warming my hands in the first cold of morning over a wood fire, becoming one with the land. Any good place makes you feel that way. Of course, what I wanted had ceased to exist long ago, probably before I was born, and I had a home and wife and children and commitments half a world away.
Jocko had decided to make a last all-out effort to get me my kudu. We left very early, driving out past where we had spotted the 50-incher to an area I hadn’t seen before. We stopped at the top of a low escarpment where the land sloped away into the distance, and we hunkered down in some rocks and glassed for a long time. I could almost trick myself into believing I was deer hunting in Utah or Colorado, and then I would see the heads of giraffes moving among the tops of distant trees, or a herd of wildebeest raising a cloud of dust, and once, a cow eland within easy rifle range.
What we didn’t see was kudu. We hunted hard, dropping down the escarpment into the open bush below and working our way carefully along the lower edge for a long distance, to where the ridge above us trailed off into nothingness. Then we hunted our way back to the truck and drove on, driving down into the lower plain and hunting on foot. We did this all day, driving, glassing, hunting, driving on again.
In the late afternoon we turned around and began to hunt our way back. We were driving along a rough track that Jocko seemed to know. He was telling me a funny story about his father and a pet zebra that belonged to a neighbor and terrorized everyone. We were laughing, we were both laughing, when he suddenly braked hard and backed up, looking off to his side.
“What is it? What do you see?”
“A truck has driven down here.” He pointed off into the bush.
Just like the kudu, once he pointed it out, I could see it, tracks of tires in the grass, curving away and down into the trees.
“Probably Dietrich. Or Friday. Did they hunt up here?”
He shook his head. “No one has hunted here.” He put the truck in gear and started forward. Then he stopped. “No. I go look.”
He backed up again and then drove slowly forward, putting the truck into the old tracks.
We dropped down into a shallow depression where the bush was thicker. When we had gone about a hundred yards the tracks curved sharply to the left and we drove into a crudely cut clearing.
At first I didn’t know what I was seeing. My eyes saw it, but my brain couldn’t compute what it saw. I thought for a moment that it might be where they, the safari company, processed all their animals, a sort of outdoor abattoir. First I saw the giraffe’s legs, five of them, wedged in the crotches of trees. I looked for the missing legs and saw parts of carcasses hung from the trees, wildebeest and hartebeest, others rotted beyond recognition. Hides and fragments of hides had been tossed casually into the branches. Impala legs littered the ground, hundreds of them, bones of other animals I couldn’t identify, a fresh kudu hide, lying amid Coke cans and beer bottles. Dried blood and shreds of meat too small to be bothered with were everywhere, as if the animals had been torn apart in some kind of monstrous orgiastic frenzy.
“What the hell is this?” I think I already knew, but my mouth still said the words. “What does this mean?”
For a long time he said nothing. Finally he exhaled, as if he had been holding his breath against the stench. “It means I come back tonight with my rifle.”
I turned to look at him. He looked old, older than any nineteen-year old should ever look, and his face was gray.
“I don’t understand, Jocko. Who did this?”
“Poachers.” His voice was small and distant.
We sat and looked. I tried to calculate how many animals this represented, to identify different species, to imagine the men who could have done this and how they differed from me.
“Was this for food? Are these people just trying to eat?”
At first he didn’t answer. Then he pointed to some of the rotting carcasses.
“They have no heads. You see? The heads have been cut off for trophy. Everything we shoot here, our hunters shoot, we give that food to local people. Everything. This is for money.”
I swung my legs over the side of the truck, but he grabbed my arm.
“No! No tracks. And do not speak of this when we get back. I will tell Dietrich, but no one must know. Otherwise…” He made a gesture with his hand. “Gone.”
He put the truck in reverse and backed carefully out, staying in the same tracks we had driven in on.
We didn’t even make a pretence of hunting our way back. We drove back in silence, and when we parked just outside the camp he sat, looking ahead, almost as if he were still driving.
“Do you have to go back there tonight? With your rifle, I mean.”
“We are the law out here. We must enforce the law. I will go back with my rifle.” He got out and turned to look at me. His color was better, but he still looked ancient and very tired. “I am sorry we do not get you a kudu.”
The other American got his lion. They had some kind of celebratory ritual, chanting and dancing, carrying him in a chair around the bonfire in the center of camp, but it all looked very silly and very choreographed to me, like one of those Revolutionary War reenactments with people pretending to be shot.
After they put him down he bellowed at me to come see his lion, but I told him I had already seen it. I didn’t tell him I had seen it before he had.
The next morning Dietrich and Friday said goodbye to me before they left for the day’s hunting. I gave Dietrich a tip for Jocko, but then, as one of the staff drove me out to the little runway, we passed him driving in to camp in the green flatbed. I waved to him as we passed each other, but he didn’t turn his head to look at me. There was something on the bed of the truck, covered with a tarp, and I wondered where he would take that load.