One for the Road

Hurry, Hurry!  Shoot! SHOOT!

 (And other helpful comments.)

 

Towards the end of his career in Africa, Robert Ruark had one particular tracker named Metheke without whom, he wrote, “I feel naked in the bush.”  He does not make it clear exactly who Metheke worked for when Ruark was not around.  Presumably, it was one of the Ker & Downey professional hunters, but Metheke always seemed able to detach himself to accompany Ruark, no matter who he was hunting with at the time.  Or so Ruark would have us believe.  He was Man Friday to Ruark’s Robinson Crusoe.

 

Ruark was very adept at creating ideal situations that embed themselves in your mind, making you seek out such perfection on every hunting trip henceforth.  Alas, perfection in hunting — and especially in hunting companions — is a very scarce commodity.  On rare occasions I have met trackers in Africa who compare favorably with the sainted Metheke.  Lekina Sandeti, a Masai who works for Robin Hurt in Tanzania, is one.  Cuno, who worked for Chris Dandridge in Botswana, is another; I never did know Cuno’s surname.  Nor did I know Charles’s surname, who was Clive Eaton’s tracker and always dressed in a shirt and hat more in keeping with a beach in Hawaii than on the track of a Cape buffalo.  His attire belied his ability, however, which was second to none when it came to finding game and tracking it.

 

Books and stories from old Africa often depicted trackers and gun bearers in less than flattering terms.  Some were outright racist to a point which, in this day and age, causes even the most non-politically-correct to cringe.  Even those who purported to like and respect the safari staff were often condescending in their treatment of native people and their foibles.  Most wrote about their trackers the way a wingshooter writes about a particularly gifted bird dog.  Ruark, I hasten to add, did like and respect them.  At times he was critical, but never condescending.

 

I don’t claim to be any less inherently racist — or at least, race-conscious — than other men of my age and background, but I have always tried to write about Lekina, Cuno, Charles, and the others in the same terms I wrote about the white professionals who headed up safaris.  Perhaps this is because, 20 years before I ever went on safari in Africa, I went there as a freelance foreign correspondent and spent long periods living in grass huts, mud huts, and, on occasion, refugee and guerrilla camps.  (Grass huts, by the way, are the most comfortable, and you become fond of the lizards that scurry around.)

 

In the course of that and later such expeditions, I learned enough Swahili to get by, or at least enough to show the trackers I was making the attempt, and this always seemed to put them on my side.  Earning the respect of your trackers is, of course, the best case.  Failing that, not incurring their enmity is something to be desired.  One time, I was told about a client in Botswana, hunting with some Bushmen, who made the mistake of treating them badly, constantly denigrating them and generally being a boor.  It has been my experience that people respond in kind, and that a little politeness goes a long way.  At any rate, the Bushmen determined on some revenge.  Knowing they could go long periods without water, while the fat American needed a drink every fifteen minutes, they took him out one morning and did a long, looping circle under the hot sun, with no water.  Hours later, dehydrated, hallucinatory, and almost dead with fatigue, they delivered him back to camp.  I don’t know whether he changed his ways, but the guides certainly got a bit of their own back.

 

Sometimes it’s not a matter of respect, mutual or otherwise, but simply competence.  For every superb Lekina or Cuno, I have met trackers and other staff that seem to have been hired at short notice out of the local saloon, and have no more idea about hunting than if they’d been hired to teach quantum physics.  One time, I was trying to locate a wounded wildebeest in the thick bush of Natal.  With no tracks or blood trail, going back the next day to search for it was like looking for the proverbial needle, but we had to try.

 

We split up, with the PH and one tracker going one way, and a tracker and me going the other.  By some miracle, a lone wildebeest bull appeared on an open slope about 200 yards distant.  We had no shooting sticks, and no convenient tree.  I was studying the bull in my binoculars while the tracker gesticulated wildly, insisting it was the wounded animal.  My only chance was an offhand shot.

 

“Hurry!” he shouted.  “Shoot!  Shoot!”

 

Already out of breath, nervous, I tried to place the dancing crosshairs somewhere near the shoulder, and yanked the trigger with predictable results.  The bull melted into the undergrowth.  My guide looked at me, practically in tears.  “Why you not shoot?” he asked, obviously thinking that killing an animal with a rifle required nothing more than pointing it in more or less the right direction and pulling the trigger.  The wounded bull — if it was our bull — was gone, then and for all time.  I should add that it was a hell of a head.

 

Guides like that make you even more nervous and likely to miss.  Others, like Lekina, know that their own chances of survival go up considerably if they keep you calm in a tight situation, and try to make things easier rather than harder.  Shouting “Shoot, shoot!” when the client is either not ready, or not in a good position to do so, accomplishes all the wrong things.

 

I’ve heard of, although I’ve never experienced, the extreme case of a guide running on ahead to try to spot a wounded animal, and then turning around and shouting to the hunter to “Shoot!” when he can’t even see it from where he is.  And, naturally, the shout then spooks the beast to make tracks.

 

On my first safari in Botswana, my professional hunter was a Tswana by the name of Patrick Mmalane, a Sandhurst graduate and captain in the Botswana Defence Force.  He had signed on as a professional hunter with Safari South.  Naturally, he being black as the ace of spades, I insisted on referring to him as my “white hunter,” which caused great mirth among the trackers.  Since Patrick and I both held the Queen’s Commission, we declared our end of the dining table to be the officers’ mess.  We became quite good friends, and I went back the following year for a four-week odyssey wherein we drove around Botswana, wingshooting, seeing the sights, and setting a number of local beer-drinking records.

 

Patrick eventually left hunting and rejoined the BDF, and the last I heard he was a lieutenant-colonel.  I mention all this because it was interesting to see his relationship with our trackers.  They were Bushmen, in whole or in part, and as at home in the bush as Patrick and I were on a drill square.  While Patrick was good with a rifle, and held command in an easy grip, he was not a tracker, and game spotting was not his long suit.  The trackers treated him with the same somewhat bemused respect that an experienced sergeant-major accords to a newly appointed young officer.

 

In the end, we all proved ourselves to each other — and earned whatever respect we had — through our own abilities, and by the end of the week, one Cape buffalo bull and several lesser species later, we all got along with a kind of easy familiarity.  Everyone did his job, no one screwed up, and we had a pretty happy ship.

 

It would be nice to be able to say that eventually I ended up with one tracker who did for me what Metheke did for Ruark, but those were other days.  A tracker/gun bearer/factotum of the Metheke stamp is either a distant memory or, more likely, an ideal that never really existed — certainly not for visiting client-hunters like Ruark, or me.

 

One of my most treasured memories of hunting in Africa, however, is when, on my second safari with him, Lekina Sandeti invited me to be a guest in his hut, and to drink a cup of the buttermilk-like concoction that is a staple of Masai life.  This was, I was told by my PH, a great honor.  Whether Metheke ever did the same for Robert Ruark, I don’t know.  As I say, those were different times

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