The Grey Ghost of the African Veld
by Enrique del Rosario
(Beaverton, Oregon, USA)
At 69 years, John had almost given up on his dream to hunt Africa. He had watched my coming and going on safari to that Dark Continent but did not think that one day he would be doing the same.
We had spent many days and nights in the mountains and woods of the Pacific Northwest and the rivers and tundra of Alaska pursuing our dream hunts over the last 20 years but one place we had not hunted together was Africa.
But unlike some of my hunting friends who are old, not in years but in mind-set and physical-neglect, John remained mentally and physically active, and a curiousity that urged him to see for himself what lay over the crest of the hill or around the bend, and beyond.
And then one day, I was trying to talk him into joining me on an African hunt and I was drawing some similarities in terrain, vegetation, weather, and hunting conditions between the high desert of Oregon and the savannah of the Kalahari. That peeked his interest.
I reminded him to remember the photos of a plains game hunt that I had recently taken with my 12 year old son: the kudu trophy, the hartebeest running unbridled across the veld, the Himba women, the beautiful sunsets.
"John", I said, "I think a kudu head would look nice next to your elk rack. What do you think?" I could see gears rotating in his head while he envisioned the possibility of curling kudu horns set next to the fine Roosevelt.
After a long moment of contemplation he asked, "When are you going back to Africa?" He had taken the bait.
"Next March. Wanna go?"
"Yeah, I think it's time."
"I'll drink to that."
We raised our drinks to seal our pact and then went back to watching a gyrating dancer on stage take off her top.
From about 600 yards John could barely make out the animals that the tracker was pointing to. Armin, our professional hunter, had also seen them long before John and me and had already determined that there was a shootable one in the bunch. They glassed the kudu herd a while, talking to each other in Afrikaans, comparing their observations.
Armin came up to John. "There's a big kudu bull down there but he's out in the open where it'd be tough to get close to him. Also he's surrounded by females so you'll have to make sure you don't shoot until you get a clear shot. It'll be a tough stalk. It's up to you, John, if you feel up to it."
John studied the bull for a time with his binoculars. "I want it. Let's go for it."
The Greater Kudu, the grey ghost of the African veld, six- to seven-hundred pounds on the hoof, massive spiraling horns borne regally by this lord of plains animals. It was the trophy that John had dreamt of. Now, in the heat of the day, beneath the wide African sky, that dream had become a reality.
First the tracker, then the PH, followed by John carrying his .338 Winchester Magnum rifle, and lastly me with the cameras. Armin told John to chamber a round and to put the rifle on safe.
With the wind blowing almost behind us, about a 7:30 angle, we cut slightly to the right of the kudu, toward a 1:30 or 2 o'clock angle, so that the wind would not carry our scents directly to the herd. The bushes, normally almost devoid of leaves, were filled out green because recent rains and we could walk upright between them unseen by the kudu for 300 yards.
Now and then our clothing would be caught by the hooks of the black thorn acacia, the "wait-a-moment-bush", slowing us only slightly.
The herd was grazing next to a high grayish termite mound and it made it easier to bear on them again after ducking through the underbrush. Occasionally we would stop to check the wind direction, watching the swaying grass or feeling how the breeze blew over our sweaty hands and face.
A pair of plovers explode from cover ahead of us, their shrill "kee-wheet" sounding the alarm to all creatures below of impending danger. We would stop, keeping still, waiting for the birds to alight and the animals to relax their guard.
We moved more carefully as we got closer to the animals, keeping lower than the top of the brush. The tracker would stop us, peeking cautiously over or around a bush, then motion for us to follow. When we were about 200 yards, the wind came across from about the 9 o'clock angle, taking our scents safely away from the kudu.
Still the big bull did not present a clear target and Armin told the tracker to get us closer. The tracker reached a bush that gave adequate concealment and a small window view of the target bull but for John to get there he had to low crawl on his belly over ground that had only sparse knee-high grass. Before he crawled out into open ground John whispered to me, "I don't care if I have to crawl a hundred yards on my belly, I'm going to get this kudu." He wanted this kudu bad.
Finally, all four of us were behind the bush. We were 125 paces from the kudu. Armin took the sticks from the tracker and planted it solidly into the ground. "He is walking slowly to the left, John. When you get a clear shot, take him."
John put his rifle on the bipod, took off the safety, and waited for the bull to show itself through the tiny opening in the brush, then he squeezed the trigger - CLICK! John did not have a round in the chamber!
A bit of panic seized everyone as John fumbled to load the rifle. To everyone's surprise, the kudu had not detected John's blunder and was still strolling peacefully, feeding with his harem of lovely ladies.
John, again, placed his rifle between the sticks and realigned the crosshairs on the lower third and just behind the front legs. This time, after what seemed an eternity, the rifle barked and sent a 225 grain bullet into the bull. With one shot the bull's reign was ended.
We've been back from Africa a month now. Yesterday John came over to look at my trophies from an earlier hunt that had arrived a couple of weeks ago. Inevitably we relived the last hunt, of the Oryx that was his first African trophy... of the Warthog that charged me... of the Wildebeest that took 3 shots from my .375... the Kalahari... the skill of our trackers... the tongue clicks of the Damara... the mystical Erongo Mountains... the quietness of the Namib... and the cool clear nights under the Southern Cross.
"I'm having a .470 Capstick built, did I tell you?"
"No, for what?"
"I don't know.....buffalo maybe, I dunno, but I know it's going with me on my next trip back."
I didn't have to say back to where. There is only one place a gun like that belongs.
I didn't have to hear from John to know what was going through his mind. He was looking out the window, his gaze on the contrails of a jetliner flying eastward.
I knew that Africa had gotten a hold of him, as She had gotten a hold of me, and everyone else I knew who had ever hunted there. In his mind and in his heart, John was again in Africa.
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
~ Dylan Thomas
Enrique del Rosario