A THOUSAND DAYS

By Jeffery Belongia

 

I love waking up on safari. Of course, there’s no place like Africa, and even after 52 hunts in seven countries, I have never spent a day there – or even an hour – wishing I were somewhere else. Africa is our ancestral home.

I vividly remember tears running down my cheeks while standing on the northern bank on the Zimbabwe side of Kipling’s “great, grey-green, greasy, Limpopo River”, thinking that I might never be able to return. Vervet monkeys were scolding my presence, seeming to take delight in my imminent departure. It was at the end of my first and long-anticipated “once in a lifetime safari” to a land that I had dreamed about from a very early age. I had been influenced by the television series, The American Sportsman, and Wild Kingdom. I had just ended 14 whirlwind days of delight, adventure, and romance. I had fallen in love with the idea of Africa many years before, but now I had finally realized the dream.

In my state of self-pity I could not imagine, or foresee, the many future hunts for lion, buffalo, crocodile, hippo, elephant, lechwe and bushbuck, along rivers with evocative names like Zambesi, Luangwa, Munyamadzi, Kafue, Angwa, Okavango, Gwaai, Umzingwani, and so many others.

This was in the August of 1982. I was in my late twenties, and had borrowed money for the trip from my mother who had been widowed when I was almost eight years old. My Mom, having worked three jobs to raise four children (I am the oldest) mortgaged her house to provide the money for my dream. She had instilled in her children a supreme work ethic and a commitment to integrity. I was never late with payments in the following 36 months, while at the same time wondering how I could ever afford to return to Africa.

Importantly, there would friendships, friendships that would deeply enrich my soul in many ways. There would be the meeting of a kindred spirit, one who would enlighten me to the true fortunes of Africa, giving and sharing with me the greatest gift I have ever received. Kismet?

Maybe it was the tears that blurred my vision from seeing across the river to the Republic of South Africa and those future safaris. Safaris for all the Eastern Cape antelope. There would be the hunts along the southern bank of the Limpopo in the Transvaal, the many landings in Johannesburg, and six explorations of the famed Kruger National Park.

I would be one of the first Americans – if not the first – to lottery-draw a place on a foot safari along the Olifants River accompanied by a ranger from the Kruger Park. It was cameras only, but a safari nonetheless. The experience would put me within spitting distance of a full-maned ginger-colored lion pancaked in short grass, reluctant to flee because of porcupine quills imbedded in his left front paw. He was, however, able to roar, the reverberations sending chills up and down my spine. I captured him on video, and from that moment on I knew I had to find the means to hunt lion.

Years later I was enjoying breakfast at the Sea Cliff Hotel in Dar-es-Salam waiting for transfer to my charter flight south and west to the Kilombero region and the Selous Game Reserve of Tanzania, for my first lion hunt. This was East Africa, the birthplace of the modern safari. Puku antelope, the ubiquitous prey species were too numerous to count, yet the Game Department only allowed one trophy on a 21-day safari! There were herds of buffalo stretching for more than a kilometer, with the ever-present white cattle egrets circling or riding the backs of the black bovines, and the same license allowed three buffalo, a lion, an elephant, two zebra, plus other species.  I joked that Stevie Wonder could shoot a puku there.

The Luangwa River valley in Zambia is a magnificent ecosystem. The river has one of the largest populations of hippo and crocodile on the continent. Thornicroft’s giraffe inhabits its forests, and mango trees are everywhere. Fascinated, I watched people of the Senga tribe dismember my hippo trophy with precision and efficiency, every edible portion happily utilized. Fishing for and eating the delectable flaky white flesh of the huge catfish, Vundu, was a welcome break from prolonged chewing of tough-as-leather Cape buffalo steaks. Collecting a Chobe bushbuck with 18¼ inch horns was gratifying, and making a 93-meter brain shot on a 13 foot crocodile on the far bank of the river was impressive.

The road trip across the Northern Cape from Joburg to Windhoek provided new names for my African vocabulary. Names like Hotazel, Brey, Tosca, and Kuruman, a prosperous cattle and mining area on the Ghaap Plateau. There was the oasis of the Kalahari,  Die Oog (The Eye), a place of permanent water, the crystal-clear mineral water almost gin-like. I drank my first distinctly South African Pinotage at the Molopo Hotel near the entrance to the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park. It was a wine a cross between a Pinot Noir and Cinsault grape. I felt as though I had reached Nirvana.  I remember toasting those French Huguenots for remembering to bring the vines. I remember opening the boot (trunk) of the Mazda sedan to retrieve my suitcase and marveling at the heavy layer of micro-fine dust that had infiltrated during the 350 kilometers since we had left the tar road.

This 1800-kilometer trek would introduce me to Kalahari bushveld and camel thorn trees, acacia thorn, Tsama melons, gigantic nests built by sociable Weaver birds, Cape cobras, Nama and Damara people, and the magnificent giant oryx (gemsbok), perhaps the finest venison on the continent.

It is almost impossible to rank the vistas of the African bushveld in terms of sheer beauty or significance.  There’s the magic of a herd of oryx bathed in the rays of yellow light cast by the late afternoon sun, as they cross the Kalahari dunes, sometimes stopping to glance backwards, their H-painted faces and black rapier horns in sharp contrast with the red sand.

There would be many more trips to Namibia, many to the Etosha National Park, with images of flamingos on the pan, black rhino in the thorn bush, and, at the water during the cooling evenings, two huge male lions leaving a waterhole known as Gemsbokvlakte.

There would be an evening at Okaukuejo waterhole and rest camp with Peter Capstick, the American author of Death in the Long Grass and many other books recounting tales of African hunting and adventure. He gave me a .470-caliber cartridge developed and named for him – the .470 Capstick Cartridge. It sits in my trophy case along with photos of the two of us sharing a sundowner together.

In later years Namibia would give me my second lion. A huge male, pushed out of the Etosha National Park, was preying on the cattle on farms bordering the Park. Circumstance played a role in my being invited to join in on a friend’s attempt at hyena hunting, as at the time Nature Conservation was issuing a PAC to the farmer – a problem animal control tag. Sometimes Fate smiles!

There would be incredible days spent hunting springbok between the seemingly endless red dunes of the Kalahari. In years of good rain, the bright yellow, wintering sour grass carpeted the troughs between the crests of the scarlet dunes. The color contrast with the cloudless blue of the sky was breathtaking.

There would be that sweet taste of the koeksister pastries of Philippolis, a town in the false Karoo of the Orange Free State. That visit was the result of an invitation to shoot at a new friend’s meat hunt. I remember walking the quaint, almost deserted, Voortrekker Road, and a visit with history to the Dutch Reformed Church with its olivewood pulpit which was built without a single nail. I had my introduction to Karoo lamb and the making of biltong and the traditional boerewors (farmer’s sausage), and the unique experience of a traditional braaivleis, or braai (Afrikaans for barbeque). Fortunately, there would be many braais in the future, but it would take time.  I needed to earn them!

I would enjoy an introduction to the Johannes de Beer farm at Kimberley, the site of the Great Hole diamond excavation which can be seen from space, the entire digging being a hand-basket removal of millions of buckets of earth, and the capture of billions of dollars of gems. There was a day spent perusing the historic buildings and displays depicting life during those early diamond mining years.  Cecil Rhodes would use some of the wealth to carve out a political career, create an empire, and give birth to new pioneers and a new country called Rhodesia.

I had yet to experience the deafening silence of the Namib Desert, or the groaning sound of compressing sand as our Land Cruiser with deflated tires climbed dune after dune on a trek from Solitaire to the Atlantic Coast. To hand was a GPS and a Government permit in the kit, with enough water and provisions for the four-day trek. I was yet to see the azure blue of Sandwich Harbor and the pink string of flamingos that waded in the shallows as we crested that last dune and eased our way down the steep slope to the salt water waves lapping the golden sands. They were sands deposited over eons of time from the Orange River far to the south and swept up the coast in the waters of the Benguela Current.

There would be nights, just after the civil war, sleeping on the Mozambique beach of the Indian Ocean. We had no tents. This was a latrine-digging Spartan adventure. I woke in the warming rays of the rising sun, the grit of sand in my teeth, the smell of the ocean dank in my nostrils, as I pulled back my bedroll and rose to the cacophony of native voices…

I was intrigued by a large group of locals – men, women and children – going through their daily subsistence ritual of pulling a sein net in a large semi-circle through the shallows, while another mob attempted to herd whatever aquatic life they could into the approaching trap. I, too, would be fishing, but we had brought a boat from Nelspruit in South Africa, crossing the border at Komatipoort, heading east to Maputo and then north along the coast to Vilanculos, towing the boat the last few miles across a sand track shaded by a forest of palm trees. The sand track began at the end of a bombed-out, pock-marked tar road lined with burnt-out tanks and military vehicles, all civil war relics. There would be a fishing safari for dorado and kingklip, an invitation from a South African “cowboy” I had met at an SCI show in Las Vegas.

Each time I return to Africa, I have a sensation that says, “I am here where I ought to be.” There is a magic to Africa, a deep-seated, gut feeling that is life-altering. When not in Africa, never has a day gone by since that first trip that I do not think of it. I miss the people, the sights and sounds, the smells, and the feel of Africa.

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I am nearing 1,000 safari days as I write this. The 31 days I have booked for this year will put me over that threshold, not that it was ever a conscious goal.  Those will be days filled with excitement, laughter, wonder, expectation, adventure and surprises. Those days will be here and gone before I know it. The anticipation of this trip is nearly as enjoyable as the realization will be. It is always that way.

Famed author and lover of Africa, Karen Blixen noted: “If there were one more thing I could do, it would be to go on Safari once again”.

I know exactly what she meant!

 

Bio:

A 65-year-old Municipal Securities Banker, Jeffery shares two grown sons with his understanding wife of 35 years, Betsy. He grew up (sort of) in NE Wisconsin. Realizing at a very early age that his eyes faced forward for a reason, he spent most of his non-school hours chasing and catching all types of edible creatures.

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