August 16, 2018
The moonlit banks of the Zambezi River is a long way from the neon of Nashville. There are no concerts, no posh tour buses, and no screaming fans pleading for one more song. But that was before Nick Hoffman arrived in Namibia with a rifle, a guitar, a camera girl and a hunting license for Cape buffalo. This is the story of one memorable stop along the ongoing adventure that is "Nick's Wild Ride."
The mingling herd sensed danger but struggled to make out the bobbing samba line of hunters as it inched through the lush grass of the Zambezi floodplain. Ideally, there are three or four hunters on a final stalk for dangerous game — the client, professional hunter, and a native tracker or two — but this was a special occasion. There was Jan, the professional hunter; Nick, the client clutching the three-seven-five rifle, a skilled Namibian tracker; me, just because I'd talked them into letting me tag along; and Karla, who manned the 4K video camera with little regard for her safety.
"It was as if we were a human centipede, the way we all slithered in unison!" I boasted to Jamy (pronounced Jay-Me) as he sipped his libation by the fire. But he already knew the story, perhaps without all the embellishment, as he'd heard the details from Jan (pronounced YAN) as soon as it unfolded.
It was a cool, clear night as usual during winter in the Namib desert, yet the fire cast orange warmth on everyone's faces like grinning jack-o'-lanterns. We were celebrating the end of the hunt — our last night in Africa — and Nick was strumming his Taylor Mini and offering it to Jamy between songs.
"Oh come on, Jamy!" goaded Nick. "Play it one more time." Yet suddenly the safari headman rose to his feet and strode toward his thatch-roofed lodge. Perhaps we'd pestered him too much, but that would be out of character for him.
That's because Jamy Trout is a professional unlike most other professionals. An NFL field goal kicker, for example, might get canned or even invoke the ire of a city if he shanks a game winner. But if Jamy loses it in his jungle workspace, someone may get delivered back home in a box full of small pieces and bloody ribbons. This unfortunate person perishes not in the mundane, lung-cancer-got-him kind of way, but rather the stomped-by-an-elephant, arms ripped-off-by-a-croc, bitten-by-a-cobra, shredded-by-a-leopard, or the mangled-by-a-Cape-buffalo style for which Africa is infamous.
At any rate, Trout's primary job as the owner/operator of Jamy Trout Safaris and the lead professional hunter — simply called "PH" — is to keep his clients alive from the time they step foot off the plane until they re-check through airport security. And make no mistake, Jamy's version of Africa isn't a park, and you won't find a PA system or an artsy tour map in his beat-up Toyotas. Things kill and eat other things here, and nobody blames them for doing so.
His other job is to ensure clients have a successful safari, and to entertain them while hunting, at camp, and all times in-between. When clients are focused on an animal ahead, he's watching for puff adders in the trail; when they're stressed, he's telling jokes; when they're pounding wine at dinner, he's topping off their glasses while only sipping his. He's the one who goes to bed last, gets up first, and never divulges just how daunting bush logistics can be when he might be overseeing a dozen clients at three different camps at once. Indeed, on a safari, Jamy is the client's very own eye in the sky. The man on the moon, if you will. And so it surprised us when he excused himself from the campfire early.
The Wild Ride Whomps into Camp
Nashville-ite Nick Hoffman's outdoor television show is somewhat like a lower-budget "Parts Unknown," but to my taste it's better than that show because the 38-year-old musician/hunter/TV host doesn't only show how his food transitions from the kitchen to the table as did the late Anthony Bourdain. Rather, Nick ushers his fare directly from the field where it was a living animal mere hours prior, through the skinning shed, atop the coals and finally on a platter facing Nick's fearsome cakehole. The whole metamorphosis normally involves a bullet and a little drama to hasten its journey.
When he decided to take his camera crew, aka, Karla Miller, to film an episode of "Nick's Wild Ride" in Africa, he didn't choose a high-fenced South African safari to snipe a few antelope and hustle back to the Four Seasons. Nope, there would be no easing a toe into the hostile African waters with Nick; rather, he chose a full-on dangerous game hunt for Cape buffalo in Namibia's Caprivi Strip.
The Caprivi is a narrow, 300-mile-long corridor of land that connects Namibia to Zimbabwe to the east. Bordering Botswana to its south and Zambia on the north with plenty of water provided by tributaries of the mighty Zambezi river, it's one of the more game-rich areas on the entire continent. The river is the region's lifeblood, but also its demon. It conceals countless 14-foot crocodiles and hungry hippos as it oozes along its chocolatey, 1,500-mile path. These animals kill local people who depend on it for fish, water, and travel.
The river's several mile-wide floodplain forms an evolutionary travelway for huge herds of wild game such as elephant, buffalo, and copious species of antelope as they travel to and from the drink. Batting cleanup is the procession of predators that follow them, including lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, wild dogs and anything else with teeth and a craving for flesh. Indeed, the Caprivi is where trails collide. And that's where I hopped on the Nick Hoffman bandwagon.
Where Trails Meet
I happened to join Nick on the tail-end of his safari because I couldn't afford to hunt a normal buffalo. (A safari for buffalo will cost you $20,000 plus airfare for a 10-day safari with Jamy's outfit.) But life, just like nature, can be generous and cruel at the same time. Somehow, something wounded a bull buffalo — likely another bull — and the locals have a tough time living in harmony with a wounded buff loitering near their huts.
So, knowing I was hunting plains game eight hours away in his mainland "Panorama" camp but assuming I'd rather be hunting buffalo in the Caprivi, Jamy called and asked if I'd care to "sort out" a little wounded buffalo problem. This is basically a way for a PH to knock out a few birds with one stone. One, it's a valuable opportunity to enhance public relations with the tribal authorities and local people by taking care of a public menace and also granting them any coveted meat; it gives the client an opportunity to come away from the safari feeling like a hero. Plus, it's the right thing to do for the animal. The only downside is that large and already dangerous wild game animals are especially good at killing folks when they are wounded. Though unlikely, what with our large-bore rifles and all the advantages afforded humans, it's possible.
"Okay," I croaked. And that's how I wound up in camp with Nick.
If you don't know Nick Hoffman, here's the printable version: I don't know what exactly the kid from Nowthen, Minn. did to win at life — and certainly things can change in the time it takes a buffalo to cover 30 yards so I don't want to jinx him — but he certainly seems to be winning at it now. I'm guessing hard work has something to do with it, as having picked up a fiddle once I do know that playing this ill-fitting instrument doesn't happen by putting the "Devil Went Down to Georgia" on repeat.
Hoffman moved to Nashville at 17 and soon became the fiddler for a little act known as Kenny Chesney. Evidently — according to just a few road stories I heard during my time with Nick — that's a good gig indeed.
But, as so many cliche lyrics have explained over the years, nothing lives forever and even stars burn out. I'm not talking about Chesney — for all I know he's going to reinvent country music after he retires from the beach life — but even so, band members must do what they can do ride the wave while the tide is high. So Nick, rather than continuing a sure thing in playing music professionally in Nashville, gambled and turned to his second passion: Hunting and the outdoors (and eating food and drinking beer). He sold the idea to sponsors, hired a talented camera woman, devised a loose script, and began filming "Nick's Wild Ride," which airs on The Outdoor Channel. Not being a huge TV man, I hadn't seen his show; but I had gotten wind that Kenny Chesney's fiddle player would be in camp. I just hoped he wasn't some tight-jean wearing, perfect hairdo, pop-country man-diva musician who didn't know butt from bore.
When I arrived to the banks of the Zambezi just behind a hovering cloud of our own truck's dust, I met Nick, and after drinking a Tusker beer with him while explaining the wounded buffalo situation, I realized he was none of those things. Soon Karla mic'ed me up to film the official-sounding "sorting out of the buffalo" segment, and no doubt my debut on "Nick's Wild Ride" would've been Oscar-worthy had it not ended extremely anticlimactically when we failed to locate the wounded buffalo. Likely nature sorted herself out, as she always does eventually.
But while we were hunting, we spotted an entire herd of buffalo feeding in a swale of the floodplain. After picking them apart with the Nikons, we discovered none of them were wounded, but there happened to be an ancient old cow among some younger bulls and calves. And this is also where I gained some respect for both Nick and Karla as hunters.
Shooting a cow buffalo is difficult to understand unless you fully understand the modern model of conservation. Certainly, safari hunters don't hunt because they are hungry; they do it for the adventure and the challenge and as an excuse to see planet Earth's wild places. But it never hurts that hunting, as counterintuitive as is seems, is undeniably good for the animal populations and their environments as a whole.
You see, a natural death by being eaten alive by a pride of lions is actually quite appealing compared to dying of old age. That's the worst. Most times death comes not by a heart attack while snoozing in the sun, but rather by slow starvation after the teeth are worn down so much that food digestion becomes impossible. For these animals, a bullet is a godsend, not that I'm implying that Nick or any hunter is doing the Lord's work. But if a hunter can cull an old animal from a herd, one that's past breeding age and even on its deathbed, everyone wins. The animal doesn't suffer. The community receives a significant portion of the funds from the license cost. The outfitter and the dozens of people he employs as well as their families win because they make a living; the herd wins because there is nothing more helpful to them than professional hunters patrolling the area for poachers who don't pay, but just kill everything for food and money with no plan for the future.
The hard truth is when game animals are made into a commodity, people work to conserve them. The natives win because the lion's share of the resulting meat must be distributed to them. And the hunter receives a trophy, a tangible memory and the knowledge that he or she actually contributed to the circle of life — unlike the typical animal rights activist who hasn't the dimmest of clue of how nature and humans can coexist in the real world where everything must eat. Yet, most hunters tend to desire any bull rather than a near-toothless cow. Nick wanted that cow, and I give him props for that.
So there we were: Jamy's assistant PH Jan leading the stalk; the trackers; Nick clutching the .375; me — hoping Nick would shoot it well; and Karla, filming the entire thing. We crab-walked through the knee-high grass and reached a point of cover where we could go no further without spooking the herd into the next ecosystem. We were 100 yards out, which is a fairly long poke on buffalo where the stakes of an errant shot are high.
Now, you might think that at this point, shooting the cow would be cake. I mean, who can miss a barn-door sized buffalo that's jet black and broadside amid a swaying background of green? But it's not that simple. You see, most buffalo look alike. At distance they really do. The best way to differentiate between adult animals is by an inch or two of horn length and shape, and that's all but impossible for anyone to discern except for those who look at them for a living. That's where the PH earns his money — that and saving the client's skin if the buff decides it has alternate ideas to cashing out peacefully. Add all that to the 200 sets of ears and eyes that are growing more suspicious by the moment, and to the fact that sportsman can't shoot until the buff clears the herd so a pass-through won't injure any others. Then you may begin to see how the task is daunting. If that wasn't enough, when filming, the camera must be focused on the right buffalo, too. And then there is the adrenaline in knowing the animals can charge and kill you. God, I love buffalo hunting!
Nick eased his Kimber .375 H&H on the shooting sticks while Karla kept the red light blinking. This is perhaps the toughest job here, as I've noticed that summoning courage is a hell of a lot easier to do if you're holding a rifle.
Most buffalo hunts end with no extra drama, and that's just how the PH wants them. If the hunter does his job and makes a clean shot, the animal perishes and everyone lets out a collective breath while slapping everyone else's backs. You celebrate afterward by eating buffalo back straps, perhaps drinking more than usual, listening to Nick play and sing until the fire and your eyes melt to embers, and finally you toast the man on the moon for making it all possible.
When Nick's rifle went crack, one old cow buffalo fell, and that's exactly what we did back at camp later on that night.
On this night, "Nick's Wild Ride" brought us all to a small campfire near the edge of the Zambezi River. Nick played "The Gambler" among other songs befitting the moment. And about that time, Jamy re-emerged with a dusty guitar in hand. (Rumor had it, he'd only played the old six string a few times over decades of campfires, and most of the camp staff had never heard him play at all.) Turns out, Jamy hadn't gone to bed but rather, like a great PH, was searching for new guitar strings so he could honor our request and entertain us with one more song.
Jamy played a little diddy called "Man On the Moon." Don't even bother Googling it; just trust me that his version is much better than the original performed by the South African band called Ballyhoo in the 1980s. Perhaps it was the scene, the new friends, the cessation of danger, the successful hunt, or just the beer that tasted cooler than it rightfully should have — but the song resonated in all of us. And there, under the glorious Namibian stars sparkling down upon the Zambezi like cell phone flashes in a stadium concert, we all became screaming, pleading fans; We pleaded for more time under that celestial African sky, all as passengers, and fans, of the ride itself.