What Most You Fear

“From the [professional] hunter’s standpoint, the ideal customer is a man who is scared enough to be cautious but brave enough to control his own fear.” –Robert Ruark, The Horn of the Hunter

In ten safaris, I’ve gotten two real frights, neither involving animals. The first was at the old Jan Smuts Airport in Johannesburg when apartheid was in bloom. My visa carried a notation from the South African consulate in New York that said: “Watch this one. He’s a journalist.” The immigration people were not glad to see me, and I had visions of sharing a prison cell with Nelson Mandela. Nothing permanent came of it, though.

The other occurred as we were returning to camp by the Luangua River in Zambia, and one of the trackers pointed at a huge baobab and said, casually, “You know, there’s a big mamba living in that tree.”

You have heard the expression, “My blood ran cold”? Well, my blood ran cold.

I think we are all hard-wired to enjoy being scared somewhat. This is why horror movies and Hillary Rodham Clinton are so popular. Our stone-carrying ancestors probably lived out their lives in states ranging from constant anxiety to outright terror. It was how they stayed alive.

Fear takes some odd forms. Years ago, Bob Brister went on a hunt with a gun writer who, he said, was absolutely petrified both of the wilderness, and of being lost. Much later, I hunted with this fellow in South Carolina, where you are often left by yourself in the dark, in the swamps, waiting for a truck to come and pick you up. We were late collecting him, and he was indeed both furious and pants-wetting scared.

I once hunted with a PH who was terrified of elephants, and made no bones about it. He had once had to run from a herd of enraged pachyderms and was just a few steps ahead of an enraged bull when he literally dove off the trail and huddled under a bush, where he could see the trunk snaking along the ground, trying to pick up his scent. By a miracle—there is no other word—the animal did not, but the PH never got over it. When we were chased by a small bull whose dust bath we had interrupted, his face was a mask of terror. But as far as everything else went he was suicidally brave, and insisted on dragging me along.

In Alaska, on a caribou hunt, I ran into a guide who, a few days before, had nearly been killed by a grizzly. His client had shot a moose, and before they could get to the carcass a griz arrived and decided to contest ownership. It didn’t bluff or demonstrate; it put its head down and charged. The guide opened fire with a .44 magnum revolver, and the client stood his ground and cut loose with a .338. Between them they killed the bear quickly. If the client had not been a brave man and a good shot the guide would not have survived. Days later, the guide’s eyes were still pinwheeling in his head.

I think we tend to cherish experiences like these (if we survive them) because our daily lives take courage of a different sort. There is a quote (whose author I can’t recall) to the effect that we spend our lives engaged in a struggle in which we have no chance, and our reward at the end is a cheap funeral. There are no dramatic climaxes; no need of physical courage; just the gumption to get out of bed on one more day and do what you have to.

I’m not afraid of death by animal because I can’t imagine it happening to me. Craig Boddington wished me a glorious end under the hooves of a buffalo, but I’m afraid there’s as much chance of that happening as there is of my getting beaned by a near-earth object. Heart attack, stroke, cancer, texting driver, yes. Buffalo, no.

This I can tell you: If you should go to Africa, and shoot something dangerous that vanishes in the bush, and your PH says, “Well, bwana, shall we go sort it out?”, you have just been paid the greatest compliment you have ever gotten or ever will get. Swallow your fear and say yes.