Field and Stream

The Ghosts of Africa


In April 2016, I learned that David E. Petzal would soon be traveling to Zimbabwe to hunt Cape buffalo. I asked him if he would like to write a story about the trip, but he wouldn’t take the assignment until he came home—if he came home, he added.

He did come home, and he did have a story to tell. However, he warned me that if I was expecting some epic adventurou­s yarn, I was out of luck. “The killing of the poor buffalo was a textbook job after a masterpiec­e of tracking by parties other than myself,” he told me. “I can’t construct a thrilling narrative out of something that was almost a foregone conclusion. But I can make it interestin­g.”

To describe “The Ghosts of Africa” as interestin­g is akin to describing a search for a wounded Cape buffalo in the tall grass as dicey. The story is a collection of vignettes on all manner of things: trees and thorns and rocks; mud and crap; walking and stalking; characters and souls; life and death. “Every time I write on the subject,” Petzal told me, “I find myself presenting it in bits and pieces, because that’s how Africa comes at you. Like a kaleidosco­pe.”

Here is my favorite bit from the story. —Colin Kearns

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.

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.

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.

December 2017–January 2018

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