F&S Adventure: City Girl On African Safari

It was our 10th wedding anniversary, and my husband, Jock Grundy, and I wanted to go somewhere warm. But the thing is, we get bored lying on the beach all day. Friends had honeymooned in Cape Town and along South Africa's Garden Route and recommended it highly. We liked the idea. But if I were going all the way to Africa, after nine years of working at Field & Stream and reading about grand adventures and the excitement of the chase, I could not visit that continent without going on a hunt. I went straight to the expert: David E. Petzal. Did he think it was possible for a native New Yorker to go on a safari? I mean, I'm such a subway strap-hanger that I don't even have a driver's license. My only rifle shooting experience was with a .22-caliber rifle at a local range, where hipsters try out the "exotic" sport in a Manhattan basement. Dave's eyes lit up. He knew just the man to guide me: Clive Perkins, the owner of Sportsman's Safaris in South Africa. Dave had hunted with Clive and knew he would take excellent care of me. And Dave had seen me shoot sporting clays and trap. With practice, he thought I could be a good rifle shot.Jock Grundy
Luckily, Dave was also willing to give me free shooting lessons. And as it turned out, Clive had openings during my visit. Jock, bless his soul, though he had no desire to hunt, was willing to come along to observe. More help came from strangers; the folks at Sporting Wood Creations made me a set of takedown zebrawood shooting sticks customized for my height. Shooting sticks, Dave told me, are de rigueur in Africa to provide a steady rest above the grass and thorn bushes. After tutoring me for several Saturdays, Dave thought I was ready.Donna Ng
After suffering through over 15 hours in the air, it was nice to finally meet Clive, who picked us up at the airport. Four hours later, we were at Sportsman's Safaris camp, right on South Africa's border with Botswana. Our bungalow overlooked the dry bed of the Limpopo River. Jock and I collapsed in exhaustion, hoping we'd be able to summon energy for the next day. In the morning, we awoke to some tapping on the glass door. Peeking through the curtain, we discovered that a red-billed hornbill had appointed itself to our welcoming committee. Soon, fueled by nervous anticipation and a hot shower, we were ready to go.Donna Ng
Clive (right), who's been in the safari business since 1990, introduced us to Teuns Pretorius (left), who would be my professional hunter, or PH. Clive was recovering from a bout of malaria, so he'd mostly act as our host. After a hearty breakfast, Jock and I set off to the shooting range with Teuns and Shelly, the trackerJock Grundy
During my lessons, Dave had been a stickler for wearing proper ear protection. I'd never really heard the report of a centerfire. But when you're hunting you need to hear your PH, so you don't wear earmuffs. I didn't even think of it as I sat to sight in the .30/06 that Clive had loaned me, but when I pulled the trigger, the noise was so deafening that I flinched. Because of that, it took me a few tries to get on the paper. My confidence was shaken.Jock Grundy
Still, I was looking forward to getting out in the bush. In Africa, because the distances involved are vast--Clive owns about 11,500 acres and has access to 150,000 acres on various properties--hunting is mostly done from trucks. You sit in the back of the pickup, where two elevated seats afford a view of the grasslands. The PH drives around and everyone keeps an eye out for game. When you spot the animals you're after, you stop, climb out, and stalk them. That's if they don't spot you and run away first. Yes, there are fences around the perimeters (the government actually mandates them), but on these vast properties, the principles of fair chase are still in effect. I absolutely did not want a "canned" hunt, where the animals may have no fear of humans and no way to escape. The rainy season had begun early, so everything was lush and green. The brush was dense. Thorns were everywhere, and you constantly had to bob and weave to avoid getting a faceful. You also had to watch for airborne giant dung beetles, which, with a wingspan of over 5 inches, could knock you silly if one collided with your noggin.Donna Ng
I was after impala and warthog, and perhaps a blesbok, a lovely brown antelope with a white blaze on its face. These were some of the most inexpensive trophies available, ranging from $350 to $450 each. We were paying for this hunt with our vacation funds, and I couldn't afford big-ticket animals like kudu and gemsbok. You pay a daily rate for room and board and your PH's services, plus trophy fees for whatever you kill. Under this system, South African game has thrived because of its economic value. That first day, as we drove around the ranch, we saw over 20 different species: a variety of antelope including gorgeous eland, galumphing blue and black wildebeest, swift red hartebeest, dainty steenbok, and graceful impala; a family of giraffes, a herd of orange-tinged zebras, vervet monkeys, small wild cats, hares, ground squirrels, a mongoose, an ostrich, guinea fowl, and more.Donna Ng
The kudu, with their magnificent spiraling horns, tended to lurk under the trees, stock-still, staring at us as if they were invisible. (Can you find the one in this photograph?) Or perhaps they knew that they were out of my league. The impala might have sensed that they were in my league, because as soon as we spotted a group of them, they'd turn and speed away. This went on for pretty much the entire first day. We returned to camp at noon for lunch, a cold beer, and a snooze, then went back out around 3 p.m., this time with Clive in the driver's seat and Clive's Jack Russell terrier, Spike, in the back. Spike clearly loved to go hunting and knew not to bark at the game, although he jumped around the truck bed like a pinball bouncing off bumpers.Donna Ng
We slowly drove along the river bottom. The Limpopo was actually underground here, with no water visible except for isolated puddles. Clive stopped when we spotted a bushbok not 10 yards away. Through the cab's back window, he asked if I wanted to take it. "He's huge for a bushbok--like a 130-, 140-class whitetail. What do you think? He's only $800." This is a man whose clients generally don't blink at spending thousands upon thousands of dollars on a trophy room's worth of game (not including taxidermy). I looked at the bushbok, and he looked back at me. Regardless of whether I could afford him, I didn't think I could shoot an animal so close and looking me square in the eye. I declined. Clive drove on. At last, toward sunset, we saw an impala standing under a tree about 100 yards away. He stared at the truck but didn't flee. Clive got out and told me that he was a shooter. If we climbed down to go after him, though, he'd take off. The way the impala had been scattering on sight all day, this might have been my only chance at getting one. I wasn't thrilled with the idea of shooting from the truck, but I had heard that this was a common practice. I rested the fore-end on the cushioned top of the cab. When I put my cheek to the stock, however, I couldn't get a clear sight picture. Instead of impala in the scope, I kept seeing flashes of black. I jiggled my face back and forth, trying to find the right hold. "You're taking too long," Clive whispered. "He's going to run." After what felt like an eternity, I got the animal in my sights, and miraculously he hadn't moved. I settled the crosshairs on his vitals, put my finger to the trigger, and squeezed. The impala raced away.Donna Ng
Spike started barking like crazy, and Shelly and Teuns went to look for blood. But the way the impala had reacted, it didn't seem as if he'd been hit. If the men found even the slightest drop of blood, they would begin tracking, and the way it works is if you wound an animal that isn't recovered, you still have to pay the trophy fee. I was praying that it had been a clean miss because it clearly wasn't a killing shot, and I had no desire to leave an animal suffering. Shelly and Teuns came back, shaking their heads. Not a trace. I sighed with relief. Could I blame my unfamiliarity with the gun and a scope that didn't have the proper eye relief for me? Had I flinched, subconsciously remembering the painful bang I'd heard while sighting in? Or had I just choked when it came to actually shooting a living creature? I didn't know. We headed back to camp. Over dinner, we dissected the day's events. "Tomorrow," Clive said, "we could go to a property owned by a friend of mine where we could find blesbok." They were easier than impala. In fact, they were so dumb that they wouldn't even run from a hungry cheetah. I needed a confidence booster. It sounded like a plan.Donna Ng
In the morning it was about 80 degrees when we set out. The parcel we'd be hunting was near the Mogol River, about an hour away. We parked the truck and borrowed an ATV from Clive's friend. The blesbok weren't far. Clive found the dominant buck in his binoculars and pointed him out, perhaps 75 yards away. "He's a good, old buck, real nice. Just wait for him to turn and take the shot when he's broadside." Again, I had trouble finding a clean sight picture in the scope. I held my breath when I thought I had the proper aim and fired. The herd startled, and the buck began to stagger in circles, then he swayed back and forth. Clive grabbed my hand to shake it, saying, "His lungs are filling with blood--see how he's red at the muzzle? He's going down. You've done it." At last he dropped, and the other animals milled about. One of them nosed at the buck. When our group approached, they trotted away. Feeling shaky and sad, I walked up to the fallen blesbok and petted his warm flank. He was beautiful, and I had ended his life. But though I found it hard to smile for the camera for the typical trophy photo, I felt I was experiencing something profound. I love to eat meat, especially game, and now I knew in my heart the significance of attaining it. It wasn't just a neat little plastic package, but the end result of a chain that began with a life, and death.Jock Grundy
Soon, I'd watch as Shelly reduced the buck to hide, head, guts, loins, and the rest of the carcass. The landowner's dogs watched, too, dashing in to snatch a chunk of innards or to lick the blood pooling by the drain. Every bit of the animal would be put to use: The landowner would keep the meat, except for a portion of the loins that Rosie would prepare for our dinner. His staff would get the offal. And I'd have a shoulder mount made to commemorate the day.Donna Ng
That afternoon, the plan was to sit in a ground blind by a water hole and wait for a thirsty warthog. The blind was on Teuns's property. On the way in he stopped and gathered cow dung to build a fire that would cover our scent. The temperature had reached the mid 90s, and it was hot and stuffy in the small, green mesh structure. I had time to think. My impression of Teuns was that he was a patient, gentle man, confident and dependable. He wasn't big on telling stories of his exploits, but I was certain he'd seen and done plenty. It was good to be in his company. The hours passed slowly as I watched brightly colored songbirds flitting around and glassed for movement in the surrounding brush. Finally, we saw three warthogs approach, scenting the air. They smelled the cover fire, but thirst outweighed caution. Teuns looked them over through his binoculars. "No good," he whispered. "A female and two young males. Small." One was about a year away from reaching trophy size. He had a broad, flat face and a shaggy mullet mane. The pigs came to the water's edge and dropped to their knees to drink. The female plopped down and rolled around in the mud, which amused me. Satisfied, they trotted off. We sat.Donna Ng
Around 4:30 p.m., another warthog came in…a big one. "Take him," Teuns said. I aimed through the shooting window, thinking, Don't take so long this time. Get in the vital zone and shoot. He was 20 yards away and broadside. Blam! The warthog ran. It was another clean miss. I couldn't believe it, but Dave told me later that kind of close-range miss is not uncommon. It still made me feel that I'd let him, and Teuns, down. Teuns said there was a chance the hog might return. That sounded like a pretty stupid move, but I guess warthogs aren't as smart as Charlotte's Wilbur the pig, because when we exited the blind after waiting for 15 minutes, he was coming back. Spotting us, he turned tail.Donna Ng
Our best option now, according to Teuns, was to follow his tracks and keep a sharp eye for the warthog or any other game. I did my best to make as little noise as possible, stepping where Teuns stepped, stopping to glass when he did. After about half an hour, he spotted a lone impala. My heart started racing. I could make the buck out through heavy thorn brush, 100 yards away, but I didn't have a clear shot. We had to get closer. Little by little, we worked our way to within 45 yards. Now I had an opening. Trying to forget about my poor shooting so far, I settled the .30/06 onto the sticks. I found the impala's shoulder in the scope and fired. This time it was a clean hit. Teuns congratulated me on making a successful stalk.Jock Grundy
We'd gone about a mile from the water hole. There wasn't much daylight left, so after a few quick photos, we double-timed it to the truck, dragging a trail so we could find the buck. Teuns stopped by the cluster of buildings near his ranch house and called for a girl named Sara to get a wheelbarrow. She came along to help. By the time the impala was in the truck bed, the sun was setting. The skies were resplendent and matched my mood. I felt enormously relieved. I was actually happy that I'd missed the warthog because that led to the stalk, which was the kind of hunting I'd dreamed of doing. For dinner that night, we ate some of my blesbok. It was tough since it hadn't been aged, and as if I hadn't already killed it, Rosie had gone and cooked it to death. Her gemsbok sloppy Joes were tasty, though.Jock Grundy
On the third and final morning, Teuns, Jock, and I hunted some meadows near the river bottom, hoping to see warthogs. Something was poking above the knee-high grass in the distance. I looked through my binoculars and guessed that it was a steenbok. I pointed it out to Teuns, who confirmed my ID. It was a nice male. Did I want to take it? I considered this. In the FOR column, it was affordable. A mount of this small antelope would be the perfect size for our low-ceilinged New York apartment. Plus, I spotted it on my own, which would make it a worthy accomplishment. In the AGAINST column, it would be a tough shot, as I'd have to estimate where the animal's shoulder was through the grass. I shook my head no, and we walked on. It would be my last opportunity.Jock Grundy
Later we returned to the blind, but only a troop of monkeys and some young warthogs came in to drink. It had been gray all afternoon, and now thunder tolled, and we headed back to flashes of lightning against a blazing sunset. It began to rain. In this parched land, I took it as a sign that the Gods must be happy. I know I was.Donna Ng