Cockpit to Wait-a-bit

Wayne van Zwoll
2610 Highland Drive
Bridgeport WA 98813
File name: AHGjanifo16

From Cockpit to Wait-a-bit

“Can you leopard-crawl?” That’s not something you learn as a pilot. “Sure!” I said.

 — by Janice Ford, as told to Wayne van Zwoll

Women are getting much-deserved – and long-delayed – attention as big game hunters these days. I’m one. A woman. A hunter. I’ve been blessed to learn from men like my father, who early on introduced me, my sister Debbie and my twin sister Jennifer to the outdoors. We grew up in the heartland of North America, just outside Kansas City, Kansas. Besides shooting and hunting, we came to enjoy horseback riding and motorcycles.

I suppose with that background, our career paths shouldn’t seem odd. But when both Jennifer and I became commercial pilots, there weren’t many twin sisters qualified for the cockpit! I’ve been flying Boeing 777 aircraft internationally for quite a few years now, but the thrill of crossing the skies is still there. There’s nothing I’d rather do, no place I’d rather be – except, perhaps, tracking big game in sub-Saharan Africa!

That was a dream long deferred, as I moved to Florida to start flight training at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach. Florida proved a challenging place to hunt. Extreme heat made archery season a test of endurance. The vegetation is thick, game quite shy. Besides whitetail deer and black bears, Florida has king-size alligators and more than its share of surly water moccasins – the U.S. equivalent of the puff adder. I practiced with bow and rifle to ensure my follow-up treks into the thickets would be short ones!

One of my first hunts out of state took me to New Mexico’s mountains, for elk. What beautiful country! After hikes in drier, thinner air than I’d ever breathed in Florida, I got within 220 steps of a fine six-point bull. My heart was pounding loud enough to drown the report of my .300 WSM! But the bullet flew true, and the animal dropped. What could top this?

Well, Africa, of course. The dream became reality one day in 2012, as I boarded an Airbus in Orlando. It was the first leg of my route to Windhoek, Namibia. I’d traded in my pilot uniform and flight case for a set of Tag Safari hunting clothes and a day-pack stuffed with – well, everything I thought I might need in a place I’d never visited! Of course, the day-pack couldn’t hold it all, and I couldn’t carry sharp things or ammo in Coach, or more than 4 ounces of toothpaste or sunscreen in a tube or….. All of that, carefully sifted several times, filled a bulging duffel. It rode in Baggage, with the Remington Model Seven that had proven itself in New Mexico.

My field companions would be people I had never met before. Women from all walks of life and various professions had for several years been introduced to southern Africa as “Safari Sisters” in High Country Adventures programs conducted by Wayne Van Zwoll with licensed professional hunters in Namibia and South Africa. A noted hunting writer in the U.S., Wayne had started this program when a huntress he guided for elk in Utah lamented that there were too few opportunities for women of ordinary means to hunt with other women in new and exciting places.

Well, though I’d flown all over the world, Namibia was both new and exciting for me! And I’d soon learn about things unique to Africa. Like thorns as long as knitting needles, cat-claw that in some places is known charitably as wait-a-bit, grass awns that drive mercilessly through mesh in jogging shoes.

“Stay close to your guide,” Wayne had advised. “Imagine a yardstick – a meter-stick if you adopt the local measure – between your belt and that of your PH. That’s a good distance. It allows him a quick step back without bumping you, but keeps you near enough that if he spots game looking at him, you can fire without taking a step as he slowly sets the sticks.”

Those words would serve me well. I believe the Lord was preparing me for one afternoon hunt with PH Naude Alberts. We had not motored far from camp when, suddenly, the Land Cruiser came to an abrupt stop. “Look across the pan, to the right, past the tree,” said Naude. “You’ll see a gemsbok bull.” The animal, a quarter-mile away, came clear in my 10×30 Swarovski binocular. The challenge would be to slip through the almost featureless savannah, past a herd of at least 60 springbok, and reach a solitary canopied tree without the sharp-eyed bull seeing us.

As if I hadn’t already been eager to stalk my first gemsbok, Naude’s optimism left me no choice! I grabbed my Remington and tucked in behind him. When tall bush and grass ran out, Naude placed the shooting sticks above his head to look like an animal with horns. “Stay close,” he whispered. “Stay really close!” Any closer, and I’d have been in his back pocket! We kept very low and moved slowly. I felt muscles I didn’t know I had! We stopped only twice, to escape detection by the ever-alert springbok. After an eternity, we reached the umbrella-topped acacia. In its shadow, close enough to merge with its profile, Naude eased the shooting sticks into position. I steadied my rifle, centered the crosswire on the gemsbok’s shoulder and, my heart still hammering from the excitement of the stalk, took a deep breath. Steady, girl. This is it, your dream coming true, your first chance to shoot big game in Africa….

“Take your time. Fire when you’re ready,” said Naude. I thumbed the safety forward and laid my finger gently on the trigger. The reticle’s gyrations subsided to a quiver. I began the slow, steady crush.

The rifle recoiled. In the echo of the report I heard the bullet strike. But the gemsbok did not fall. It ran! “Another shot! Take another shot!” Naude urged. I chambered another round and fired offhand. The bull stumbled, then nosed into the Namibian plain. I was shaking. What an experience! And what tenacity this animal showed! I’ve since come to believe African animals are exceptionally tough for their weight. They must survive extreme environmental conditions, as well as parasites, predation and in some areas heavy hunting pressure. Drought that routinely affects many areas of sub-Saharan Africa puts many animals on starvation diets. On subsequent hunts I would see again this almost unbelievable tenacity, a will to survive as unequivocal as the land that has, over many centuries, come to require it.

Not many days after killing the gemsbok, I joined Wayne and another PH, Kamati, on a hunt at bush’s edge for red hartebeest. When we spotted a lone bull, he was, as usual, on his way elsewhere. But as we crept forward in tall grass, we slowly narrowed the gap. Near the shadow of thick thorn, he paused. Like Naude, Kamati seemed to bring the sticks up to just the right height in just the right place, just in time. But this hartebeest was not about to tarry. As soon as the crosswire steadied, I triggered the .300. The “thwuck” came back as the animal collapsed. I turned, with a grin, and cleared the rifle. Alas, my celebration was premature! The bull struggled to his feet and made off into the thickets before I could score another hit. We took the trail right away. Kamati’s tracking ability was simply amazing. He moved silently ahead, as Wayne cautioned me to stay ready and look to the sides as well. We’d not gone far when he went to his knees to peer under the bush. Something held his gaze. He signaled Kamati, who came back and at a glance confirmed that a small sliver of russet color was indeed our bull, bedded. A few tense moments later, I was on the sticks again. Take your time, girl….

That shot ended our chase. Humbly I knelt by the hartebeest, stroked its horns, marveled at the distinctive profile of its face, remembered its nickname: Kalahari Ferrari. Red hartebeests seem to float along the plain; but they’re one of the fastest of antelopes. Again, the fortitude of these amazing animals had impressed me as much as their beauty, grace and the remarkable way in which the Lord has adapted them to their environment. They’re part of what keeps me coming back to Africa. And of course, I’ve come back.

My next long flight in Coach put me in Durban, South Africa, jump-off point for a hunt with Andrew Pringle of Crusader Safaris. Again, Wayne had organized a trip into an exceptional area with wonderful hosts.This time Tamar and Cathy and I were after nyala, the striking forest antelope with the long-haired cape, white-spotted face and tall spiral horns. This area of South Africa is renowned for its nyala, and our Crusader camp was smack in the middle of it.

Not long into the hunt, Andrew, Wayne and I committed an evening to a nearby seam between forest and agricultural land. In fading light, we spied a group of nyala females shadowed by two mature bulls vying for dominance. Nyala males seldom use their horns in combat; instead, they circle each other menacingly – evidently smart enough to know intimidation is less costly than battle!

“Can you leopard-crawl?” asked Andrew. Well, that’s not something you learn in flight school. “Sure!” I said. We crept within rifle range as they postured, heads lowered, necks arched. We watched as each took a calculated step, leg jutting, hoof hitting the ground like a soldier’s in dress parade. This poetic dance lasted for what seemed like 20 minutes. We were all entranced. Finally Andrew whispered: “Time to hunt, Janice. The animal on the right is outstanding.” The crosswire found its shoulder and, steadied by the sticks, stayed there. When the trigger broke, the great bull collapsed. The rest of the nyala fled, the sub-dominant male suddenly heir to breeding rights.

Back at camp over a celebratory kudu pizza, salad and fine African wine, I asked Andrew about one of Africa’s signature plains animals, a Burchell’s zebra. I’d long admired it for its striking appearance – and the almost magical way black and white stripes vanish in shadowed greenery and dun-colored bush. Still, I’m incurably fond of horses, so could I shoot a zebra? He smiled. Like Wayne, he understood my reticence to kill. I’ve noticed that many keen hunters say killing is always a prerogative, only sometimes necessary. “I can’t make that call,” Andrew told me. “But if you decide you want to shoot a zebra, don’t assume it will come easy. You’ve just one day remaining, and zebras can make themselves scarce.”

Next morning, a cool wind in my face and the sun’s first oblique rays firing South Africa’s rolling grass hills, I breathed deeply to savor my last morning. Then, as the Cruiser lumbered to the crest of a ridge, a tracker hissed: “Tuck your head!” Clutching my camera, I bent double, grabbing my knees as I might for an emergency landing in a Triple Seven. The truck had come to a halt. “Zebra! Get your gun!” Remington in hand, I jumped off the bed and, checking the magazine, hurried to catch Rad, our PH, now well ahead and striding out. When I looked up again, he was kneeling, beckoning urgently, his other hand thumping the sticks, already set! Any reservations I had about shooting a zebra were gone now, and when the striped animal came clean in my scope, I was a zebra hunter! My heart thudding at jack-hammer pace, I talked myself into a deliberate shot. The Remington’s blast put the zebra into a death-sprint. Within 80 steps, its legs gave way and it skidded on its nose. This animal, so symbolic of Africa, has now made its way to Florida, where, as a pedestal mount, it joins other beautiful creatures I’ve been privileged to hunt.

Back in the skies now, I’m traveling frequently to Hawaii, when my schedule doesn’t take me to Europe or South America or the Far East. But I’m already dreaming of my next trip to southern Africa. Recently, I was offered a chance to hunt in New Zealand but decided to rejoin Safari Sisters and my other friends in Namibia for another plains game hunt. When asked why I keep returning to Africa when I can travel just about anywhere on a hunting vacation, I tell them Africa isn’t just a place. It’s a landscape with many places, and I’m going to a new area this time, as I have before. Also, I can get more for my hunting dollar in Africa. A trip to New Zealand, for example, would yield at best a tahr and a small red stag – but would cost as much as two multiple-species hunts in sub-Saharan Africa!

What I can’t explain, of course, is how I feel, how Africa has welcomed and accommodated this woman hunter and left the indelible impression that I belong there. “If you go, you’ll return again and again.” It’s true. There’s more to the bush than good hunting!

On my first safari, I shed quickly the culture of commercial flight, one of the great loves of my life. In its place I adopted, if temporarily, the way of people whose schedules were set by the sun and who walked to travel, who watched the earth slide by in all its intricate detail a few inches at a time, always within reach, always revealing something new to those willing to learn, willing to observe. On that hunt, each meal began with a prayer. Shyly, one of the cooks would stand by the table, hands together, waiting for self-absorbed guests to stop chatting about their hunts. In that first wedge of silence, she might say, in halting English: “For today’s meal, we have wildebeest stew and corn bread, vegetables and fruit. Enjoy!” She’d then retire with a smile, as pleased as if she were part of the group tabled up. I was touched by her – and the rest of the staff’s – kindness towards us, their sunny humility and their unfailingly fine service. Some Asian countries on my flight routes are known for their hospitality, but I find the African people serve with a joyful spirit, with a heart to please. They’ve become my friends. They compel me to return.

I will, shortly. I’m already packed. Under a diamond-chip Southern Cross, as campfire sparks flame out thousands of feet below the cockpits of airplanes I’ve piloted, I’ll enjoy once more the simple pleasures of Africa’s earth under my feet, kitchen chatter in Afrikaans, the night sounds and smells of the veldt, and stories and laughter of people who like me think the best places in a world of wonderful places just may be in Africa.                                                                                                                      END

Captions:

1 – As a 777 pilot on international routes, Janice Ford spends plenty of time in airports, here Frankfurt.

2 – Her father gave Janice an appreciation for the outdoors. She continues to enjoy big game hunting.

3 – On her first trip to Namibia, Janice kept a camera close at hand. This elephant wanted no part of it!

4 – The variety of wildlife in sub-Saharan Africa brings Janice back. “There’s no place I’d rather visit!”

5 – Hands full of gear as she and Safari Sisters ready for a hunt, Janice makes the most of every minute!

6 – Kamati coaches as Janice takes a careful shot from sticks, “a shooting assist we don’t use in Florida!”

7 – This red hartebeest struggled off after a hard hit. Trailing, Janice got another shot and made it good.

8 – The final day of a hunt in South Africa, Janice downed this zebra at 80 yards with her .300 WSM.

9 – Janice, center, poses with two of her Safari Sisters in the Umkomass camp run by Crusader Safaris.

10 – After sneaking within range of this eye-popping nyala, Janice watched it strut and bluff another bull.

11 – At home in hunting boots as well as in the cockpit, Janice eases along a stream, nyala country, Natal.

12 – Who wouldn’t claim this “first kudu”! Janice used her Swarovski-scoped Remington in .300 WSM.

13 – No PH? No sticks? On the western prairies of the U.S., Janice uses improvised rests for long shots.

14 – After a long stalk above and behind this pronghorn, Janice killed it at 100 yards with one bullet.

15 – This is Africa? Janice (center) and Safari Sisters relax at surf’s edge in Durban, on the Indian Ocean.

16 – At home in the cockpit, Janice likes to put her feet in hunting boots for treks in sub-Saharan Africa.

Previous articleHarry’s Hunt
Next articleCheetah