6.25.07 Cape Town, South Africa
We were on our way back to camp talking about the legendary African Hunter Andres DeKock when we got ambushed my the lions. It had been yet another 12-hour day of blood, Tsetse fly swarms and sunburn and we were washing the dust out of our mouths with some cold Mosi lagers. The sun had dropped and it was a gray sort of half light that was a few minutes away from needing headlights. It was shiveringly cold without the sun. We hadn't seen much of anything all day and everyone in the Land Cruiser--the client, the professional hunters and the trackers--were all looking forward to a cup of Famous Grouse-spiked coffee and the bonfire when the bushes at the edge of the road exploded in a cloud of dust. I spun around so quickly that I almost knocked Cutter Banyan--the client--off the truck as he grabbed for his .300 Ultra Mag rifle. I can't say if the big cat roared or growled or made any noise at all, but I saw it lunge from the brush to take a huge swipe at the trackers in the back. The driver hit the brakes for some inexplicable reason and Boonie, our Professional Hunter, began to slam to roof of the Cruiser with his fist.
"Drive, you fucking bugger!" He yelled. "Drive!"
The driver hit the gas, almost sending Banyan out of the truck again, while the three trackers in the back started clambering over the seat to put some distance between themselves and the lioness, which was now charging. Deciding that I needed to make some room for the trackers, I started to climb onto the roof of the vehicle. I was halfway over when I saw another lion standing in the road ahead of us.
I must've screamed, because Boonie whirled around and racked a load of double ought buck into his semi-automatic 12-guage shotgun. Hanging off the side of the Cruiser with one hand and the shotgun raised with the other, he kicked the driver through the open window to keep him on the gas. The lion in front took a second to figure his odds, and then bolted into the bush. The lioness behind us was gone as well. Nobody said a word for a moment as we all settled back into our seats.
"The key," Boonie said almost to himself as he ejected the shell from his shotgun, "is to remain calm at all times."
And such is the world of professional trophy hunting in Africa: Twelve hours of abject discomfort and boredom followed by five seconds of absolute terror.
JOURNEY TO THE RIVER KAFUE
I met the Texans in a private hangar at the Lusaka airport on the 9th of June. There were five of them: Cutter Banyan and his wife Ginger, Dr. Dirk St. Diamond, his wife Kitty and their 18-year-old son, Screaming Chicken. All of them were from Houston. The object of this hunt had been explained to me the previous night at the Taj Hotel bar after I'd introduced myself as a close friend of "Bottlecap" McClusky, the beer salesman they'd met the previous week. Screaming Chicken had just graduated from high school and his folks were bringing him to Zambia to "take" a leopard. Banyan and St. Diamond had permits for several other animals for themselves--Hippo, Sable, Water buck, etc.--and Ginger and Kitty were along to provide moral support.
On the tarmac next to the 12-seat Cessna Caravan bush plane that would transport us to the camp were three heavy steel boxes, which had been opened so that the Zambia police officer could inspect the party's firearms. They had an arsenal in those boxes, everything from a custom-built .22 Ruger rifle to an Ackley .500 elephant gun that shot "Nitro" cartridges bigger than your index finger. While the cop checked the guns against the permits, the Texans and I exchanged wary introductions. I was very tired and slightly hungover from the previous night of carousing with an international contingent of hydro engineers at the only disco in Lusaka. Their river project is obviously thirsty work as they kept me out until dawn, putting drinks on the project credit card as African businessmen at the next table argued if it was better for a head of state to co-mingle his assets with the government coffers or send everything out to Zürich separately. Stoned, red-eyed teenage prostitutes staggered among the tables, looking for a mark. It had been a very long night and the airplane hangar was sweltering under the noonday sun.
"So," Banyan asked, "you want to come out and write a what?" Banyan is about sixty years old, built like a bowling ball with a short white beard.
An article, I said. A true description of trophy hunting. None of this romanticized Teddy Roosevelt, Denis Fitch-Hatton, Out of Africa blather.
"You're not one of those bunny huggers?" Dr. St. Diamond asked. A bit shorter than Banyan, St. Diamond sports a goatee and has a way of talking without moving his lips. "Gonna make us look like a bunch of yahoos out there smoking Bambi."
No, I promised that I was an "Objective Journalist." I would write the story as it happened.
"Shit, Cutter," Ginger Banyan said, coming over to offer bottles of Mosi and Chapstick, "Let him stay. He's kinda cute. And if he starts annoying us, we'll just ship him back on the first supply truck."
Banyan and St. Diamond gave me looks that said I'd be lucky to get a truck if I pissed them off.
Screaming Chicken was already sitting in the plane, watching Wedding Crashers on his PSP.
The Caravan is a roomy aircraft, so we all got our own row of seats and everyone except me napped for the hour flight to the Kafue River. I kept trying to take pictures through the window, but the landscape was obscured by smoke from multiple brush fires. The pilots found the airstrip and had to do three fly-overs to clear the impalas off the grass runway. We came in steep and I braced for impact as the trees at the end of the runway loomed up at us. We stopped ten feet short of the bush and the tires got stuck in the sand as the pilots tried to turn us around. There was no one at the airstrip to meet us, so we stood in the shade under the wing and started in on a cooler of bottled water and airplane nuts as the pilots dug the tires out.
The Tsetse appeared immediately. About the size of small bees, they are out for blood. Their bite raises ugly red welts on human skin.I asked if the Testes were dangerous. Would the Malarone I was taking for Malaria prevent them from making me sick?
"Malarone is for mosquitoes," Ginger said, shooting a blast of "Doom" bug spray at my chest. "You got your Sleeping Sickness shot, didn't you?"
Sleeping Sickness shot? My travel doctor hadn't mentioned anything about it.
"Oh, the Sleeping Sickness is the worst," Kitty St. Diamond said. "It'll kill you DEAD. You didn't get the vaccination?"
"We better get the racket," Ginger said. She called into the plane for Screaming Chicken to hand down her bag. The kid was still in there with his PSP and hadn't said a word all day. Ginger pulled a short yellow paddle about the size of a racquetball racket from her huge pink handbag. She flipped a switch of the handle and slapped a forehand onto my shoulder. There was a buzz and then the smell of burning hair. I felt an sharp zap. Ginger pulled the racket back and I could see the large fly sizzling on the electrified mesh as well as a warning on the handle not to use the device directly on anyone's body.
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"From now on," Ginger said, "you should consider me your protector."
"Yeah," Kitty added. "Without us you'd probably already be dead. Speaking of which, what the f-u-c-k is going on here? Where are the trucks from camp?"
Banyan and St. Diamond were screwing around with their rifles, so Ginger went over to the pilots and demanded to see the maps. After five minutes she had determined that we were on the wrong strip and we all piled back into the Caravan and went back above the canopy, where we made wide circles at 5,000 feet before spotting the correct strip. Waiting for us were three Land Cruisers, our Professional Hunters and a gang of trackers in olive green jumpsuits. During the 45-minute drive from the runway to the camp, Ginger must've wacked me 50 times with the Tutsie racket.