ghosts of AFRICA



He was very big, even for a Cape buf­falo (around 1,800 pounds) and very old (around 12 years) and very smart. But he was con­demned to death by his hooves, which were also huge and which left an un­mis­tak­able track in the sandy soil of the Zim­bab­wean lowveld. When you leave a sig­na­ture like this and have three peo­ple fol­low­ing you who can track the mem­ory of a ghost over hard rock, the odds are not in your fa­vor.

OR YOU COULD SAY that his death was caused by a book. In 1953, when I was 11, I read Killers in Africa, writ­ten by a pro­fes­sional hunter named Alexan­der Lake. It per­ma­nently scarred my youth­ful brain, and I de­vel­oped a fas­ci­na­tion with Africa that per­sists to this day.

And so, hav­ing been on 10 sa­faris, I de­cided at the age of 74 to go to Africa again. A great many of the peo­ple who go on sa­fari do so in late mid­dle age or old age, when they can fi­nally af­ford it, but when they are well past their prime. I know of two men who had only weeks to live when they made their last sa­fari. I know of an­other who had ma­jor back surgery and was wheeled di­rectly from the op­er­at­ing room to the air­port, pumped full of painkillers. I shared our camp with a 62-yearold who had seven ver­te­brae fused, and who could not stand erect with­out ef­fort; an­other hunter in an­other camp was 65, di­a­betic, had suf­fered a stroke, and could not com­pletely con­trol one of his legs.

They all came and they all walked, some­times a lot, and with great ef­fort, and some­times in great pain, be­cause this is Africa, and if you are an African hunter and if this is the price you have to pay, why, you pay it.

The Hunter

Why the hell am I here? My last three sa­faris I hardly pulled the trig­ger, and on one of them I spent three days sit­ting in a baobab tree above a wa­ter hole, sim­ply watch­ing an­i­mals and hav­ing a hell of a good time. I don’t need to kill any­thing more.

When I was in col­lege, I read War and

Peace, and my pro­fes­sor made us all take a blood oath to reread the book when we were 65 in­stead of 18. We would ap­pre­ci­ate it a lot more, he said. Per­haps that’s why I came back to Africa; be­cause at this age you don’t take things for granted and you’re run­ning out of time in which to take them in any way.

My friend John Woot­ters told me that the last time he got to Africa he smelled the woodsmoke, which is one of the con­stants of life here, and got tears in his eyes, be­cause he was back. John is gone now, so per­haps I’m here for him.

Or per­haps I’m here be­cause I’m part of the last gen­er­a­tion that will see some­thing like this. Drought, and poach­ing, and pres­sure from hu­man pop­u­la­tion will even­tu­ally drive the wild an­i­mals into zoos. In a na­tional park nearby, there’s a small pack of Cape hunt­ing dogs of which per­haps 200 re­main in all of Zim­babwe, and maybe 1,400 in all of Africa. Once they roamed in the many thou­sands, but dis­tem­per, and ranch­ers with ri­fles, took care of that.

Why Cape buf­falo? Be­cause there’s al­ways the chance that some­thing will go wrong. I think it’s the same with peo­ple who sky­dive or race mo­tor­cars or climb moun­tains. It’s the re­al­iza­tion that no mat­ter how pru­dent and care­ful and skilled you are, fate can in­ter­vene. I’m not afraid of buf­falo; if you have a pow­er­ful ri­fle and are backed up by an even more pow­er­ful ri­fle, the odds are all in your fa­vor.

What I am afraid of is an ac­ci­dent. On the first day I told my PH: “I’m a very ex­pe­ri­enced hunter. I han­dle guns all the time. But I’m an old man, and old men do dumb shit. Watch me.”

The PH

My PH was James “Buzz” Charl­ton, 44, a Zim­bab­wean with whom I had hunted in 1992 when he was 19 years old and an ap­pren­tice. Even that young, he dis­played a re­mark­able tol­er­ance for my non­sense, and I took an im­me­di­ate lik­ing to him. In 2016, Buzz was now a grown man and a sea­soned pro who had es­caped death three times.

The first time, he leaped from a ca­noe as a hippo’s jaws crashed shut where he had been stand­ing an in­stant be­fore. The sec­ond time, a black mamba struck at Buzz’s head from a tree as he passed un­der­neath and sank its fangs in a leather hat Buzz was wear­ing. If the snake had been on tar­get, Buzz would not have sur­vived. Buzz’s third en­counter with the Reaper came be­cause he de­clined to shoot a cow ele­phant with a calf. She showed her grat­i­tude by smack­ing him with her trunk, break­ing six of his ribs and hurl­ing him 30 feet down a river em­bank­ment, where he broke his coc­cyx on land­ing and lay there un­able to move as the en­raged mom screamed above him. Buzz re­al­ized that ei­ther the bank would give way and she would fall on him, or she would make her way down and fin­ish what she had started, or she would leave. She left. He lived. Buzz has a wife and two young daugh­ters. He is also a di­rect de­scen­dant of Lt. Col. An­thony Durn­ford, one of the Bri­tish of­fi­cers who was killed at the Bat­tle of Isan­dl­wana in Zu­l­u­land in Jan­uary

1879. Roughly 24,000 Zu­lus went up against 1,200 men of the 1st Bat­tal­ion, 24th Reg­i­ment of Foot, and no one wear­ing a red coat was left alive on that field. In 1979, a movie was made about Isan­dl­wana called Zulu Dawn, and Col. Durn­ford was played by Burt Lan­caster.


In the Age of the Tree­stand, Africa is one of the places where walk­ing is not only en­cour­aged but nec­es­sary. You won’t walk af­ter leop­ards—the only prac­ti­cal way to hunt them is from a blind—but you’ll walk af­ter ev­ery­thing else. If you’re hunt­ing buf­falo, you’ll walk a lot; you can fig­ure on about 6 miles a day. If you’re hunt­ing ele­phant, you will re­ally cover the veld.

A cou­ple of years ago Buzz guided a mid­dleaged client to an ele­phant, and in the course of a 21-day hunt, the man’s weight dropped from 160 pounds to 145. The next year, at the Sa­fari Club Con­ven­tion, the hunter’s wife ap­proached Buzz and said, “I’ve come all the way here to tell you one thing: If you ever do that to my hus­band again, I’ll kill you.” Then she turned on her heel and left.

Walk­ing in Africa ranges from dif­fi­cult and un­pleas­ant to nearly im­pos­si­ble and hellish. If you’ve ever hunted in African sum­mer, when the heat rises above 100 de­grees and the tsetse flies and sweat bees are open for busi­ness, you’ll be a changed per­son at the end. Lowveld Zim­babwe is mostly level, which is good, and where we were, in the Savé (Sahvey) Val­ley Con­ser­vancy in the African win­ter month of May, walk­ing is not the tor­ment it might be, but it’s far from merely putting one foot in front of the other.

Ev­ery bush, tree, and shrub has thorns— most of them quite long, and some of them quite barbed—and you have to shove your

way through with nearly ev­ery step. (I think of Shake­speare’s line spo­ken by Richard III: “that rends the thorns, and is rent with the thorns.”) You must also pay at­ten­tion to the muz­zle of your ri­fle, be­cause pru­dence dic­tates that there be a round in the cham­ber. And you must watch the ri­fle of the PH who is walk­ing ahead of you, his ri­fle un­slung. He shifts its 12 pounds con­stantly, and if you get too close you can get a cou­ple of pounds of highly fig­ured wal­nut in the face.

You must not step on twigs or trip on branches, and above all you must not step in crap—one of the con­stants on the plains of Africa. It ranges from old, dry, in­nocu­ous buf­falo crap to fresh, semiliq­uid buf­falo crap, which must be avoided at all costs, to newly minted lion and leop­ard poop, which is truly ter­ri­ble stuff and will prob­a­bly re­quire that you burn your boots if you place a foot in it. Ele­phant dung gives new mean­ing to the phrase fiber in the diet. Ele­phants like to push down trees and eat them—bark, branches, and all. There is poop all over the place be­cause an­i­mals go wher­ever they please. It’s one of the fringe ben­e­fits of be­ing an an­i­mal.

Then there is the heat. Dur­ing May and June, which is prime sa­fari time, the nights are cold and the air is of­ten cool dur­ing the day, but the sun is fe­ro­cious. The real heat comes at 9 A.M., and you’ll typ­i­cally have three hours of hik­ing in it. By noon all the an­i­mals have sought shade, and you get to go back to camp and take a nap un­til 2:30 or three o’clock when it be­gins to cool off.

When I be­gan hunt­ing in Africa, wa­ter was car­ried in a 1-gal­lon bag made of sisal fiber. This was slung over the ra­di­a­tor of the hunt­ing ve­hi­cle, and a tracker car­ried it when you got off the truck to stalk a crit­ter. Or he didn’t. Africans can go all day long with­out drink­ing or eat­ing, so some­times he for­got. Now, the wa­ter comes in plas­tic bot­tles, and one of the track­ers will al­ways have a knap­sack full of them. They are cold, and you’ll be asked over and over if you’d like a drink. I couldn’t get used to this and found my­self wish­ing for death by de­hy­dra­tion so ev­ery­one would just leave me alone about the wa­ter.

There are other signs that Africa is grow­ing soft. Time was, when you left the truck to track some­thing, you then got to walk back to the truck. That meant that a 5-kilo­me­ter walk would become a 10-kilo­me­ter walk. Now, Buzz car­ries a two-way ra­dio and a GPS, and Ed­die, his driver, stays with the truck. When the walk is done, Buzz calls Ed­die, who also has a GPS. They fig­ure out where he is, and we are, and the truck comes and gets us. At my age, I think this is sim­ply ter­rific.

The Hunt­ing Party

Track­ers are the guys who find what you want to shoot. They also do ev­ery­thing else, and Buzz’s crew ex­e­cutes with a snap and pre­ci­sion and élan that re­minds me of a re­ally good mil­i­tary unit. Buzz says that if he had to re­place them he would re­tire in­stead. On the line of march, we al­ways keep the same or­der: In front there is Cri­ton, a hand­some man who is well over 6 feet tall and was once so strong that he could pick up half of a butchered buf­falo cow and carry it off. Cri­ton’s for­mer PH was killed by an ele­phant, and Cri­ton was bashed pretty badly him­self, so he is not the same as he once was.

Be­hind him comes Ny­ati (“Buf­falo”), an­other 6-footer who tracks al­most as well as Cri­ton and has a stu­pen­dous pair of eyes. Ny­ati is a for­mer school­teacher who can tell you the name of any tree in the Zambesi Val­ley in Shona, English, and Latin.

Then comes Buzz, whom you have met, then me.

Last in the line of march is our game scout, Smart, who is that, and the qui­etest of the bunch. He is per­ma­nently as­signed to me and is never more than a few yards away. I have no idea what he’s sup­posed to keep me out of, or save me from, but there he is. A gov­ern­ment em­ployee, Smart is the only non­mem­ber of the team.

Ed­die, our driver, is a head shorter than any­one else. When not driv­ing, he rides on an iron plate welded to the front of the Toy­ota and hangs on to a T-bar. (Buzz calls this ar­range­ment Ed­die’s “of­fice.”) His job is to look for tracks cross­ing the dirt roads. Ed­die is a joy­ous hu­man be­ing—there is no other way to de­scribe him—and is ab­so­lutely pet­ri­fied of snakes, which is an­other rea­son I like him. Ev­ery morn­ing, when we start out, I hand him my cased ri­fle to put in the truck’s gun rack and he says, “Thank you, David,” to which I an­swer, “Da tenda, Ed­die,” which is Shona for “Thank you.”

Watch­ing the track­ers at work is to watch a bal­let that ul­ti­mately leads to some­thing dy­ing. Buzz, Ny­ati, and Cri­ton cir­cle one an­other con­stantly, bent for­ward slightly at the waist, hands be­hind their backs, flick­ing finger sig­nals that only they can read. Buzz, es­pe­cially, makes con­stant checks on the bush around us. Ugly sur­prises lie in store for those who do not keep tabs on their sur­round­ings.

These men track at a speed that is im­pos­si­ble for you or me, and they see things we never will. I can look at a thicket where there is a herd of 200 buf­falo and will see a patch of gray. Buzz will look at that patch and say, “Young bull, maybe 36 inches, boss not hard­ened.” Ny­ati will look at the patch and tell you what the young bull was eat­ing five min­utes ago by the slob­ber on his muz­zle.

Cape Buf­falo

Robert Ru­ark wrote, fa­mously, that Cape buf­falo look at you like you owe them money. Maybe they did in the early 1950s when he made his first sa­fari, but now they look at you in fear and loathing, and with good rea­son. Here’s an il­lus­tra­tion:

We were track­ing a trio of bulls, one of which was a big one, and got within 20 yards of them. Then the wind shifted, and quicker than you could say “Mother!” the three of them charged us; how­ever, it wasn’t a charge. They had got­ten our scent, pan­icked, and bolted right at us be­cause they hadn’t seen us. Then they did see us and did a change of di­rec­tion wor­thy of three cut­ting horses. The big one in the rear put on the brakes so hard that he fell for­ward and crashed muz­zle-first into an 8-inch-di­am­e­ter aca­cia tree, com­pletely up­root­ing it and no doubt crush­ing his nose in the process.

This is how they feel about hu­mans— but shoot one and ev­ery­thing changes. A wounded buf­falo is a venge­ful buf­falo, and the last thing many an African sees is old

ny­ati boil­ing out of the bush at him, ready to kill for some real or imag­ined in­sult.

Dugga Boys

Dugga is Shona for “mud.” A Dugga Boy is an old buf­falo bull that has been driven out of the herd by younger bulls, or has left vol­un­tar­ily be­cause he craves peace and quiet. He’ll find a mud­hole and make his home there, pos­si­bly ac­com­pa­nied by a younger bull or two for com­pany. Dugga Boys are cov­ered in mud. I don’t mean they’re spat­tered in it; I mean they are truly plas­tered. The body parts that are not coated in mud are cov­ered in crap.

Dugga Boys have come to be the pre­ferred tro­phies for en­light­ened hunters. It’s health­ier for a herd to have its prime breed­ing bulls left in peace and have the old-timers taken off to tro­phy rooms.

So, on the morn­ing of the sixth day of hunt­ing we cut the mon­ster track of a re­ally big Dugga Boy, along with two of his friends. But he was too clever for us, and con­tin­u­ally cir­cled around, us­ing the swirling wind to keep track of where we were. Af­ter an hour or so of dodg­ing and danc­ing it was close to noon, so we went back to camp to leave him alone and let him re­gain his in­ner tran­quil­ity and smear some more doo-doo on his nasty bits.

At 3 P.M. we picked up his track. There was no doubt it was the same bull. Now, the wind was blow­ing hard, but it was blow­ing in one di­rec­tion; the swirling had stopped. He was alone this time, but he knew we were af­ter him, and his tac­tic was to keep just out of sight un­til he fig­ured out where we were and then let out a basso pro­fundo grunt and go crash­ing off for a quar­ter mile.

We would cir­cle around to where we thought he would be, and al­most al­ways the track­ers were right about this. Fi­nally, it paid off. Ny­ati saw his name­sake in a patch of brush 110 yards away. Buzz said it was the right bull, and quite a good one. The buff would not stay where he was; if he moved to his right we’d lose him again, but if he went to the left there was an open stretch of ground where I would have a sec­ond or two for a clear shot.

He went left. Buzz yelled. The Dugga Boy paused and looked to­ward us to see what the yelling was about. I held on the lower third of his shoul­der and pulled the trig­ger. Buzz, who was watch­ing him through binoc­u­lars, later said that the im­pact of my .416 bul­let was so vi­o­lent it sent a cloud of dust off his en­tire body.

Buzz looked at me and asked, “Good shot?”

“Good shot,” I an­swered.

Then, I turned my scope from 3X to 1X, be­cause fa­tally shot buf­falo of­ten de­cide to get pay­back with their last min­utes of life, and if he was one of these he was go­ing to come for us very fast.

We waited. Dy­ing buf­falo have a dis­tinc­tive sound they make at the very end that goes MMMMMMMMMMMMMBAAWWWWW. We lis­tened for that, but what we heard in­stead were grunts and moans. It was his vale­dic­tory. Af­ter 15 min­utes there was si­lence. Buzz and I, ri­fles at the ready, went to where we had last heard him. He was stuck be­tween two trees, his rear to­ward us. He had run for 60 yards and in his des­per­a­tion had mis­judged the dis­tance be­tween them. Then he ran out of life. My shot had cut the top off his heart and shat­tered his lungs. He still lived for a quar­ter of an hour.

I shot him three times more be­hind the shoul­der be­cause it’s the dead ones that get up and kill you. He was a huge bull, the big­gest I had ever seen up close. He was also quite old, and if I had not taken him, be­fore long he would have ended with the fangs of a male lion through his nose as li­onesses gnawed at his spine. If the cats were re­ally hun­gry, they would have be­gun eat­ing him while he was still stand­ing. Prob­a­bly, a bul­let was bet­ter. Scat­tered through­out Zim­babwe are piles of boul­ders called kop­jes, which is Afrikaans for “rocky hills.” They are chunks of gran­ite that grad­u­ally be­came ex­posed as the softer rock around them eroded, and they date to the Mid­dle Stone Age, roughly 40,000 years ago. Kop­jes are beloved of co­bras, mam­bas, and leop­ards, and they have been look­ing on im­pas­sively since men hunted Dugga Boys with stonetipped spears.

Kop­jes will keep their silent vigil long af­ter you and I have de­parted. Hope­fully, they will still look down on Dugga Boys and men who hunt them.

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