One for the Road

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One for the Road
By Terry Wieland

REFLECTIONS OF AHAB

Who knows what strange elixir acts upon a hunter, to make one particular animal his personal grail, bête noir, or outright obsession.

It seems that every hunter who goes to Africa more than once or twice finds himself, on later safaris, concentrating on one beast and one only. It may be an animal he has never succeeded in taking, but more likely, it is one that he took the first time, and again the second. Eventually, somehow, some way, he finds himself connected to that animal by an invisible wire that keeps drawing him back.

In hunting literature, the most famous example of such a connection is Ernest Hemingway and his quest for a greater kudu in Green Hills of Africa. Some might call it an obsession, but I prefer to reserve that word for genuine psychological disorders. Melville’s Captain Ahab was obsessed, in his search for Moby Dick; Proust’s Charles Swann was obsessed, in his pursuit of Odette. Hemingway was not obsessed. In fact, the more I read Green Hills, the more I wonder if maybe the kudu wasn’t a literary device. Also, Hemingway did not return, over and over, to keep hunting them, although he may have done so in his mind.

By contrast, look at Robert Ruark. Through the 1950s, Africa became Ruark’s second home, and the animal he found most fascinating of all was the leopard. Although he hunted everything at one time or another—including all the Big Five, more than once—Ruark was drawn to leopard hunting like a man under the spell of Marlene Dietrich. In his later years, he would even argue with his professional hunter about how and where to put a leopard bait, and how to build the blind. He even stated, in print, that he now knew more about leopard hunting than most professionals. Years later, Harry Selby complained to me about that very thing.

At one point, hunting in India, Ruark was badly mauled by a wounded leopard, but that neither caused the fascination, nor ended it. He had no explanation, and neither do I.

Ruark’s contemporary, Jack O’Connor, hunted Africa a dozen times, and killed practically everything. He had a close call with a Cape buffalo, but buffalo never got a grip on him. Instead, his favorite was the lion. He even went so far as to say that he wanted his epitaph to read “He hunted the lion.” Whether it does, I can’t say, but I can think of worse epitaphs.

It doesn’t seem to matter if you have had a close call, a bad scare, or whatever. Guy Coheleach, the great wildlife artist, had the closest of close calls with a bull elephant while he was filming it, back in the 1970s. He was deliberately annoying the elephant, provoking false charges for the camera. The elephant finally grew tired of it and came for him — for real. Coheleach was on the ground with the elephant trying to get his tusks into him when his professional hunter, drawn by the noise, placed a shot just right to distract the beast. At the time, Guy was an experienced elephant hunter, having killed several. The experience did not turn him into an elephant fanatic, although it certainly made him more careful. Now in his 80s, Guy still goes to Africa regularly, but his particular animal is the Cape buffalo. He is, he told me last year, still “queer for buffalo.” They just do it for him, and have for 40 years.

Professional hunters do not seem to become quite so afflicted as amateurs, but some become particularly associated with one animal or another. J.A. Hunter, between the wars, was particularly noted for his lion expertise. In Botswana, Willy Engelbrecht developed almost a mystical bond with lions, and once told me that he simply loved them.

This did not stop Willy from hunting them, or originating the method of hunting that became most associated with the Kalahari. He liked to track a lion, pushing it relentlessly until it got fed up and came for him. He did the same thing with leopards, with the clients following in the safari car. Ideally, the cats would lie in wait and then go up over the hood (bonnet, to you Anglophiles) trying to get at the people up top. This was nothing if not thrilling.

In India, Jim Corbett came to feel the same way about tigers, but his was a completely different situation. Although he is best-known as a hunter of man-eaters, he did kill normal tigers and cattle-killers early in his hunting career. The last innocent tiger he killed was the Bachelor of Powalgarh, in 1911, a huge male that every tiger hunter in India had pursued for years. After that, he hunted only man-eaters. As he saw tiger habitat increasingly encroached upon, he refused to kill tigers for lifting cattle, too. He figured the farmers had it coming, since there was little else for a tiger to eat as the jungle was turned into plowed fields.

Casting further afield, I can remember reading of men who, having hunted elephant, became quite contemptuous of hunting anything else. “Lesser” animals became, to them, just meat on the hoof and not worthy of their attention. In this way, human hunters can connect with other predators. Quite often in Africa a big male lion, or pair of lions (usually brothers) will become Cape buffalo specialists, disdaining lesser game as unworthy of their attentions. These are the Doc Hollidays of the animal world.

One time, hunting Cape buffalo in the Okavango, we were creeping up on a herd and, before we could get into position, they would bolt. We kept on tracking, creeping through the sand and thorns. They kept bolting, for no reason we could figure. Finally, in the heat of the day, we gave up and turned back to the safari car, miles distant. Along the way, we walked out into a dry pan and there was a lion and lioness. The lion was stretched out in the sand, tired and frustrated. He lifted his head and gave us a look that would wither grass. Apparently, they’d been stalking the buffalo from the other side, and we had systematically ruined each other’s hunts. I hope they ate that day.

After Hemingway’s well-publicized book, the greater kudu became an icon of Africa, and its spiraling horns have appeared on logos, labels, and letterheads ever since. Today, however, I doubt if anyone would develop an obsession with greater kudu. They are now a commodity, raised on game ranches throughout southern Africa. The days of hunters making safari after safari in Tanzania, looking for a big pair of horns and shooting nothing, are a thing of the past. Pretty much the same can be said of leopards, where a hunter can visit a game ranch, pick which of the feeding leopards he wants (depending on the price) and be assured of a shot. We won’t even mention the canned-lion situation.

Casting my mind back over decades, I can’t recall anyone writing about similar fascinations with animals such as bongo, Lord Derby eland, sitatunga, or mountain nyala, even though those are rare and often extremely difficult to hunt. Jay Mellon, author of African Hunter, became almost possessed in his quest for a bongo on Mount Kenya. Finally he got one and decamped from the cold, dripping forest “never—I say, never—to return.” Anytime I find myself thinking that a bongo head would look nice on the wall, I pull African Hunter off the shelf and re-read that story. Usually does the trick.

A hunter is often asked about his favorite game animal, or his greatest experience, and I’ve always found that difficult to answer. There are three experiences I consider my most memorable, one of which involves a Cape buffalo. And if I had only one last hunting trip, where would I go? What would I hunt? The answer to that one is easy: The Great Rift Valley, for Cape buffalo. If there was one last time, that would be it. Not Moby Buff, perhaps, but close enough.