February 14, 2012
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...€Š.
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.
The Guinea Runners
After regrouping to lick our wounds, Jeff said, "I have a plan. The next group we get in sight, let's just sprint right at them. If we try and walk them up, they will just keep walking in front of us until they get well clear and then flush. But if we rush them, I think they will panic and flush wildly giving us a shot." We had nothing to lose. We didn't drive far before we could put Jeff's theory to the test. We caught another large group of guineas by a dried-up waterhole. We slammed to a stop, and Jeff, Bob and I piled out of the truck, loading guns as we went. For this run, I grabbed a Franchi Instinct SL over-under. I figured the slim action and the super light weight would be perfect for the mission at hand. Jeff, on the other hand, reached for a Franchi Affinity 12-gauge autoloader. A tad bit heavier, but the five shells it carried sounded reassuring as they snapped into the magazine.
By the time the trucks were stopped, guns uncased and shells fed into a magazine, the guineas were clucking and trotting off through the dense whistling thorn and wait-a-bit bush. One tracker took off after them, and we fell in behind. What started off as a fast trot quickly escalated into a full-blown run.
Jeff, Bob and I fanned out in the brush, staying in visual contact with each other as we hurdled deadfalls and tried to avoid thorn trees. The sprint lasted a quarter-mile. When the birds finally got tired of running, they flushed en masse, great black blobs slowly rising skyward providing an easy shot, but I emptied both barrels on one bird before bringing him down. As I broke the gun to reload, late flushing birds flew around me and escaped unharmed. Through the brush I could hear Jeff's Affinity working its way through the magazine. As I fought to catch my breath and went to retrieve my solitary bird, I realized my legs and arms were bleeding from approximately 47 thorn rents. I went over to Jeff; he was panting considerably less and reloading, with a stupid grin on his face. Three birds lay at his feet. "That was a hell of a lot of fun, wasn't it?" he said.
Running full tilt through the African bush is a hell of a lot of fun. It is also crazy, exhausting, miserably hot and dusty, but oh so addictive. Crashing headlong into an angry rhino, bull elephant or cobra is more than a possibility: It is inevitable if you do it long enough.
The Other Species
With vulturines in the bag, we moved on to other species for our Kenyan slam. We crouched by waterholes in the morning, getting barrels hot on the endless flights of doves and sand grouse. Spent hulls quickly covered the ground. At two dollars a shot for dirty, foreign-made ammunition, the price was steep, but it made you pick your shots and concentrate much more. In the afternoons we hit grass patches that looked like prime pheasant cover back in the states. We spread out, with red-cloaked spear-carrying Masai between us, to flush francolin and spur fowl. The action was like good pheasant hunting, with birds flushing sporadically throughout the afternoon. On our final day in Africa, under the shadow of cloud-wreathed Kilimanjaro, we witnessed a rare spectacle.
A flock of helmeted guinea fowl had been spotted along a dry riverbed. The Masai jumped out of the Land Cruisers and formed a line. We repositioned ourselves a mile up the dry river course. The Masai worked their way toward us, half running, half jumping, continually chattering, grunting and whooping in their native tongue. The guineas did what guineas do, they ran from the Masai, flushing in one large group over our party. A volley of gunfire ensued, and we brought more than a dozen of them to the ground.
As the evening drew to an end, we returned to camp. The fire was built-up and illuminated the surrounding scene. We sat together, drinking gin and smoking Cuban cigars. The Masai brought their wives and children from the village. They danced, they sang and then the competitions began. Sprinting, long jump and spear throwing for distance as well as accuracy was on the menu€¦we didn't stand a chance--and, of course, they wanted to compete for a few dollars. We obliged but with the feeling it was the last time we would see that money. While Johnston nearly beat them at the long jump, as they say, close doesn't count, and most of the events weren't even close.
Finally Jeff and I decided to engage them in something we were more adept at--collegiate wrestling. Luckily, I had the biggest Masai by 50 pounds, and Jeff had skill on his side. Dusty, but satisfied, we regained a bit of our lost money.
After the bush games, TreeBay began in earnest. The Masai hung up their belongings in one thorn tree by the fire, and we raided our own duffel bags and festooned another tree with trading stock. And then the bartering began. We swapped Levis for spears, sunglasses for beadwork and modern folding knives for handmade swords--laughing, joking and finally shaking hands when a deal was struck. When it was all done, both sides felt they had got the better part of the bargain.
Later, sitting around the fire trying to communicate with the Masai and pantomiming the day's hunt, I realized that this is what a safari of old must have been like--tents pitched under the shade of acacia trees, illuminated by the flickering firelight, surrounded by proud Masai warriors sporting self-inflicted beauty scars and looped earlobes. Somewhere off in the dark under the moonlit, watchful gaze of Kilimanjaro, a lion prowled. As much as the world has changed in the last decade, it is good to know that some things have remained the same.