by Berk Elliott
The greatest hunt, indeed the greatest adventure of my life was initiated by, planned by and shared with a novice hunter. Three years ago, my son, BJ (Berk Jr.) called me from his home in Plano, Texas and said, we're not getting any younger. Let's go do that African safari you致e always wanted to do?
While my long standing love affair with Africa is no secret to anyone who knows me, his invitation totally blind-sided me. You see, at that point in time, BJ was not a hunter. His mom divorced me when he and my beautiful daughter, April were small, thus I didn't get the privilege of raising them and teaching them the ways of the outdoors; ways that have so blessed my life.
BJ's sense of adventure led him to scuba diving. Though we often talked about hunting, such things as school, work and family always seemed to get in the way. When he wasn't too busy to get his Hunter Safety Course, it seemed there was never a class available. I had resolved myself to the idea that it just wasn't meant to be.
During his sophomore year at Tulane, BJ met the love of his life, Tracy Haymann. Tracy's family moved here from South Africa when she was a baby. My son made me proud when he married this brilliant and lovely young woman. No small issue to what was to come, they both love to travel and have done a good deal of it. Several years ago, they traveled with Tracy's parents back to South Africa to visit relatives. Among many other things, they did a photographic safari. BJ came home raving about Cape Town. I blew that off and focused more on their remarkable animal photography.
BJ and Tracy eventually gave me a fine grandson, Alex. When my son called about the safari, Tracy had just informed him that she was pregnant with the world's cutest granddaughter, Abby. The plan was to be back before she was born.
When I informed BJ that I couldn't afford the trip, he responded, that wasn't what I asked you. Get your bags packed.
BJ put his travel experience to good use as he planned our itinerary. I balked when he suggested a few days in Cape Town to unwind after the safari, reminding him that I'm just not a city kind of guy. He said, you'vegot to see Cape Town. He booked us for four days and three nights in the City Lodge near the V&A Waterfront.
For the safari, he settled on the magnificent Ozondjahe in north central Namibia (www.AfricanHuntingSafaris.com
). Once a working cattle ranch, the 75,000 acre concession abounds in plains game. In the interim, BJ took his Hunter Safety Course, navigated the mountains of associated red tape, bought appropriate clothing and gear and purchased an awesome Browning White Gold Medallion, chambered in 300 WSM. I got a great deal on a new Sako 375 H&H from Carter's Country in Houston and bought a pair of 3-9 Zeiss Conquest scopes. We were set.
The big guy standing in the middle of the air terminal at Windhoek, calling our names in that wonderful accent so common among men who converse more in Afrikaans than in English, proved to be Andries Smit, our professional hunter. On the long drive to camp we kept our host busy answering questions. At one point he mentioned a black mamba in the area around camp and we were more than a little fascinated by that subject. Deadly snakes aside, we couldn't help but note that much of the Namibian terrain looked like parts of Texas.
BJ is, by nature, a bit of a comic. He likes to make people laugh and he's good at it. He met his match in Andries. The two of them were going at it almost immediately. Together, they kept me in stitches throughout the trip.
The 塗unting camp at Ozondjahe was a total surprise. If the compound was any indication, my son had chosen well. It was like a small village surrounding a courtyard, featuring a swimming pool and a large garden. We were led to our respective bungalows to stow our gear and wash for dinner. It would have been comical watching BJ check every corner of his cabin for a black mamba, had I not been so busy checking my own.
At the main lodge, we were introduced to a tall, stately young native lady. Justene would be our hostess. We then met Lorato, dressed in the crisp white uniform of a chef. If the ostrich meatloaf hadn't confirmed his skills, the homemade ice cream would have.
From the time we pulled out the back gate the next morning, our fates were in the hands of three men we really didn't yet know. We were, after all, both novices to safari. Andries introduced us to our driver/tracker, Godfrey and our young apprentice tracker, a Bushman named Ronnie. Though they both spoke some English, most conversations were conducted in Afrikaans.
After a brief stop at a makeshift rifle range, BJ and I were awestruck as we eased down the track, standing in the bed of the hunting truck. The numbers and variety of plains game parading before our eyes could not be exaggerated. From the diminutive duikers to the huge kudu, gemsbok and eland, we were seldom more than minutes away from the next encounter. What's more, these were not the open plains where one could see animals five miles distant. These animals were darting across the track or bounding through the bush, often within 100 yards. BJ was beaming.
Andries had mentioned that all baboons were fair game. Apparently, they were causing some trouble in the area and needed to be disciplined. As we rumbled along, Godfrey suddenly slammed on the brakes and we slid to a dusty halt. In the edge of some distant brush walked a large boar. Andries tapped BJ for a very long shot at the moving animal and BJ missed, but not without inspiring the baboon to make a run for Botswana.
Part of my life-long dream for Africa was to hunt at least one of the 釘ig Five? When forced to choose one, I found my primary interest laid with the big predators, lion and leopard. The price for hunting lion is exorbitant. BJ had us booked for a leopard hunt, in addition to gemsbok, kudu, impala and some wing shooting. As we drove that first morning, we checked the three baits Andries had hung. The tracks around the bait trees indicated there were a total of five leopards investigating the free meals!
We finished our first full day in Africa by taking a stand overlooking a water hole. The procession of animals included one big old gemsbok bull. Though his horns were worn short, he was tempting.
Morning two of our hunt featured confirmation that a large leopard was visiting one of the baits. Andries called in a native crew who promptly erected and stacked brush around a blind, exactly 40 yards from the tree. After hanging a fresh bait, we were prepared to do business.
Our next couple of days evolved into a pattern of driving and stalking, taking stands near water holes and sneaking into the leopard blind late each afternoon. BJ really enjoys the stalk and he, Andries and Godfrey made several marathon treks after kudu and gemsbok.
In the back of my mind, I was still concerned about BJ taking his first animal. He is a strong young man, who is sensitive to the feelings of others and he loves animals. I wasn't sure how he would react to actually killing one of these magnificent creatures.
As we rumbled slowly along the track one morning, a massive kudu darted across in front of us. Godfrey hit the brakes, while Andries and BJ leaped from the back of the truck. The kudu bounded through heavy brush before hauling up and looking back at us. Finding a shooting lane through the blackthorn, BJ fired and the animal went down. Ronnie and I bailed out of the truck to join in the festivities. One look at BJ's face when we got there and I knew we had troubles. Hard hit, the kudu was trying to get up. Though it was obviously over, BJ was suffering with the dying animal. Andries explained, these animals are really tough and they go down hard. I'll be over in a minute.
BJ couldn't wait. He finished the animal with a second shot. He was quiet and clearly troubled for the rest of the day. He later explained that he had expected his perfect heart / lung shot to produce an instant kill. And, of course, it just didn't happen that way. At once, I was both concerned about the intensity of his feelings and totally proud that he had them. As he exorcized his demons, I feared he might never pull the trigger again.
Still a bit quiet the next morning, I thought I sensed a resolve in him to get back out there. We later found ourselves in a blind overlooking a water hole, when several impala females appeared in the edge of the big clearing. When a young ram stepped out, Andries said to wait. Arriving in small groups, probably 30 or 40 impala were in the open when the monarch showed up. He was one of the most beautiful animals I had ever seen. His rank in the herd was clear. He literally strutted.
The 270 grain soft point took him low on the shoulder, propelled him 10 yards through the air and unceremoniously slammed him to the ground. While my son was slapping me on the back, I didn't miss the irony in his voice when he offered, that's the way it's supposed to work.
During the middle of our hunt, BJ had a day scheduled for Andries to take us to the famous Etosha Pan for a photographic safari. (In Africa, a pan is a stock tank, a pond or a lake.) With the rainy season still weeks away, the namesake lake was dry, but several smaller pans were holding water. Unlike the rolling thorn brush of Ozondjahe, Etosha National Park offered little shrubbery amidst miles of sun bleached sand.
With water available, wildlife was abundant throughout the park. We saw elephants, giraffes, jackals and all manner of plains game. These animals were, in no way, confined or fenced, but they were clearly accustomed to tourist traffic. We stayed in a village compound which featured a fine restaurant, several small shops and flood lights overlooking a small pan. That night, we watched in awe as a pride of lions came to water while several rhinos drank from the other side of the tank. Many diverse species of animals seemed to declare a truce when approaching water in that arid land.
Etosha was a wonderful side trip, but I was pleased to note that BJ seemed eager to rejoin the hunt as we headed back south. Some of the best photographs of our safari came from our excursion to the park, but we were ready to get back to business.
Another day, we devoted a morning to shooting at flights of turtle dove and sand grouse over a small stock tank. We were joined for the shoot by our hospitable host, Jean-Charles, as well as Andries, some of the native staff and one of Jean-Charles fine bird dogs. It was a classic water hole hunt and we laughed as the birds made us both hero and human with the scatter guns.
BJ's transformation from novice to confident hunter was both rapid and dramatic. By this point, he was clearly enjoying every nuance of the hunt. His sense of humor served him well. He noted that Ronnie, as junior member of the staff, was taking quite a lot of hazing from the other natives. One day, he announced, if you keep messing with this Bushman, one of these nights you're going to get a poison dart in the backside!
For a moment, there was silence, then peals of laughter. They howled! Ronnie looked confused. When Andries explained it to him in Afrikaans, he fell off the back of the truck laughing.
During the rest of the hunt, whenever he saw Ronnie taking a bad time, BJ had only to raise his imaginary blow gun to his lips and puff for the entire staff to just roll.
As we made our way to the leopard blind one afternoon, we came across a fresh leopard kill. Scavengers had already picked most of the remaining black wildebeest carcass clean. With only two days left on our safari schedule, time for my leopard was growing short.
The next morning, BJ took the second big game animal of his brief hunting career and the big gold medal gemsbok had the common courtesy to be stone dead when we got to him. BJ was clearly satisfied. Jean-Charles had kindly offered me a management gemsbok and I took a gnarly old bull with horns worn short, despite massive circumference at the bases. Taking proper care of our trophies ran us late getting to the leopard blind.
Ten minutes after we crawled into the blind, BJ and I were stunned to hear Andries hiss, here's your leopard!
For the next 50, nerve-wracking minutes, we were witness to the actions of one of the world's most exciting predators. The cat made two unsuccessful stalks during that time. The situation came to a climax with the leopard striding toward us at 35 yards. With the shot, he fell, got up and ran. Then he went down to stay. While I slumped back in the chair to catch my breath and offer a reverent prayer of thanks, BJ raced from the blind to inspect the animal.
As we approached the back gate of the compound later, just at dusk, we noted how much earlier we were returning than usual. Justene and Lorato would be in the kitchen preparing our dinner. BJ told Godfrey to stop the truck and wait. We began to chuckle as he adjusted his blood-stained and thorn-torn shirt. We held our breath as he painfully dragged himself through the back door to the lodge. When the anticipated screams rang out from the kitchen, we were all gasping for air. Each time we got it together, someone would laugh and it would start all over again. That staff will never forget BJ.
From Namibia, we flew to Cape Town to unwind for a couple of days. Predictably, it became my favorite city on earth instantly, but that's another story.
BJ's a hunter now. His transformation is complete. He hasn't missed an animal since that first baboon. He's rapidly developing the skills of an outdoorsman and he's obviously fun around a campfire. He has taken three whitetails since the safari, including a recent heavy-horned eight point. He started late, but he's catching up quick.