I woke up from a solid sleep. I wasn’t sure what woke me, but something had. Lying in the darkness, eyes peering at the roof, not moving a muscle, I listened intently to…nothing. All was graveyard-quiet in the African night. I reached for the flashlight hanging from the corner of my cot. The beam illuminated the white veil of mosquito net and surrounding thatched walls. Everything seemed in place. My shotgun was next to the cot; my safari boots placed next to it. But something had definitely brought me out of slumber. Then I heard it, low and guttural, floating across the river–a lion’s rumbling call… .
It sends shivers down your spine even behind steel bars in a zoo. But this wasn’t a zoo; it was wild Africa. In fact, it was very wild Africa, with a long and storied past. We were within walking distance of the Tsavo River and had visited the infamous bridge that very afternoon. Perhaps we had awakened a ghost.
Tsavo bridge was plagued by two man-eating lions with a penchant for Indian and Chinese food. Immortalized in print by J.H. Patterson, chief engineer and their hunter, and later in the movie The Ghost and the Darkness, these lions killed an estimated 135 people in a reign of terror that lasted nine months.
I didn’t know what I expected to find, but the amalgamation of steel and mortared rock spanning the muddy breadth of the Tsavo River somehow seemed smaller, less impressive than the image my mind had conjured. There was no plaque or monument, not even a roadside sign told of its history. Maybe Kenyans wanted to forget the tragedy that occurred there, or maybe the event was common enough to not warrant a tourist marker.
They say life is cheap in Africa, and they are right. My sleep-wrecking lion grunted again before moving off into the darkness. I switched off the light. My nerves were on edge, and it was hard to imagine sleeping, but I was beat tired from the long days of bird hunting. Rational thought would suggest remaining awake–one hand on the flashlight, the other on the shotgun–but in Africa one develops a sort of laissez-faire attitude about life and death. I drifted back to sleep.
A Classic Safari
When I woke, the sun was filtering through ancient baobab trees, speckling the camp with rays of light. The fire had burned down in the night, leaving a bone-white ring of smoldering mopane ashes. I could smell coffee brewing and heard the chatter of Swahili coming from the cook tent where breakfast was being prepared.
There’s not much left of the classic safari anymore. Permanent lodges and high fences have replaced much of the adventure. Plains game, not dangerous game, have made it more affordable. Daily nonstop flights from Atlanta to Johannesburg have removed some of the mystique of the Dark Continent. But there are still a few places where Africa is wild and unfettered. Sipping my first cup of coffee, looking at the croc-infested muddy river where the lion had strolled by in the darkness, I realized Kenya, where safaris originated, is still one of those rare, wild places.
You can no longer hunt big game in Kenya–and haven’t since 1977–but you can still hunt birds, and oh, my, what bird hunting they have. It’s long way to go, involving over 24 hours of travel and requiring stops in far-flung places such as Istanbul, Turkey, but for the chronically afflicted wingshooter and those who still want to see hundred-pound elephants and hear lions roar in the night, it is well worth the jet lag.
Bird Hunting Across Africa
I have hunted birds in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia. For the most part it was a civilized affair of organized beaters pushing guinea fowl to the end of a crop field where the hunters waited for them to flush. Lunches were on picnic tables covered in white linen, and Land Rovers circled the field edges to pick up and drop off hunters. Substitute pheasants and Dodge pickups and for all practical purposes you could have been in South Dakota. But Kenya offered something different. Two types of sand grouse, two varieties of doves, francolin, spur fowl and two types of guinea fowl: the common helmeted variety hunted over much of Africa and the very uncommon vulturine guinea fowl.
Possibly the most majestic looking bird in the world, save for their head, vulturine guinea fowl are a mixture of iridescent blues, purple, white and black with long thinly tapered hackle feathers forming a crown around their neck that cascades to their violet breast. Long of leg, they are built to run and run fast.
They were the rarest of our mixed-bag safari, and our crew of Layne Simpson, Jeff Johnston, Bob Williams, Steve McKelvain, Joe Coogan and I loaded up the first day in a Land Cruiser intent on finding a flock before doing anything else. We were soon to discover that finding them is no easy task.
After looking unsuccessfully for a couple of hours, we drove into a small clearing in the bush and were surprised to see a flock of 50 trot out the other side, nervously clucking and calling back and forth. We quickly devised a plan. We decided to split up in the dense acacia thorn bush and try to circle around them, essentially one group pushing them and the other group blocking. This plan might have worked if there was any natural terrain feature to help funnel the birds, but the country was tabletop flat and featureless, covered in a sea of 20-foot-tall, densely growing thorn bush, stretching for miles in every direction.
We did our best to circle, but the nervous chattering and clucking 100 yards ahead of us told us the gig was up. As we tightened the circle, the guineas with brains the size of peas outperformed our supposedly much larger brains. They ran out the side before flushing wild a couple hundred yards away. Well, so much for that plan–we needed to come up with a new strategy.