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By Rick Batten
My first plains game hunt in South Africa was a good one. It must have been, right? Why else would my mind refuse to consider caribou in Alaska or red stag in New Zealand? Why else would at least a portion of every day be spent homesick to see red dirt, or to hear the continual call of a laughing dove? No, I had to face the truth. I was hooked, obsessed, ruined for life. Cynthia Stockley once wrote a novel entitled, “The Claw” which spoke of how Africa could get her claws into a man’s heart and soul. And as an impala in the grip of a lion, to struggle would be pointless for me; she had me.
If anything, the tug at my heart to return was only getting stronger, her alluring call louder and more demanding. And so it was in the fall of 2011 I more or less took over the wife’s computer and began to search. Like a drug addict for his next fix, safari number two simply had to be booked. I knew I wanted to hunt dangerous game: a buffalo like Ruarks, a lion like the one Capstick had to shoot off the thatch roof of his hut in the night, a hundred pound elephant that any porter would be proud to bear. It’s just about here that reality sets in, and come to find out Mrs. Batten simply doesn’t make enough money for yours truly to bag hundred pounders! Undauntedby this minor setback, I remained diligent in my cyber probe, determined to plan an outstanding second experience on the dark continent. I was going to go big, or stay home. And I wasn’t going to stay home!
They say the cream always comes to the surface, and the more I googled, a certain P.H. / outfitter kept winding up on the monitor in front of me. So with limited funds and at least a thousand questions, I contacted Mr. Henry Griffiths of Henry Griffiths Safaris. I had a few doubts about Henry at first. For one thing, where was the leopard banded well stained safari hat that had seen fifty years or so hard service in the bush? And also absent the mustache thicker than the bristles of a thatch broom used to sweep out the fire pit. And for that matter, no chest hair pushing up from under the collar or eye patch courtesy of the wounded leopard followed up like a real P.H. on a moonless night. Oh well, I though, let’s give him a chance and see what he has to say.
With the understanding that I was on a budget, and greatly to my delight I might add, Mr. Griffiths informed me that while I couldn’t retrace Roosevelt’s steps, I could indeed pursue a nice cape buffalo cow, lioness, a good gemsbok that I’ve been wanting for some time. Throw in a few cull animals and all the jackals and baboons you can handle and you have my attention. One thing I wanted most of all was lots and lots of time just to enjoy the country. Yes, Henry offered it all, and at a price tag that didn’t cause a divorce. So I let the chest hair thing drop, and booked with Henry and Tanya his wife for May 2012.
The eighteen hour flight from southern Missouri (twenty one if you count layover in Atlanta) was uneventful yet still makes old men sore. (So I’ve been told.) We landed right on time only thirty eight minutes late. Hey, any landing you live to write about is a good landing. Oliver Tambo airport hadn’t changed much in the three years I’d been away, and other than a name mix up on the Afton Guest House greeting sign, it all went fairly smooth. If you haven’t stayed at the Afton, I highly recommend them. Aneleise is a real dear, and puts up well with us Yanks from across the pond, and all of our strange ways.
True to his word, Henry showed up bright and early on May 1st. We were off to Hoedsprit in the Limpopo province for cape buffalo. I suppose travel days are not very high up on a normal person’s list of things to do, but then again being normal never really appealed to me anyway. Like a golden retriever drooling with his head out the window, we crossed mountains, waited for road work, traversed banana plantations, and I enjoyed every mile. After a late lunch of oxtail at the Safari Club it was time to settle in at the lodge, and take a drive around the ranch to see if this place really had any buff. Yep, that big mean thing trying to ram the truck is a buff alright, either that or someone’s mother-in-law broke loose, but I’m pretty sure it’s a buff. Note to self: hang on next time so you don’t embarrass yourself in front of your new P.H. He did at least help me up. But on day two, payback would be sweet. After several failed stalks and close encounters, we found ourselves glassing a herd of about fifty animals around a water hole. A couple of nice old cows on the fringe presented a good shot opportunity, but of course I had to be difficult in wanting a huge cow right in the center of it all. The thing is, her horns weren’t any better, and maybe not even as good as one of the other cows we saw, but what a head! I may live to hunt, but I do taxidermy to live, and I know a good cape when I see one. Perfect color, great size and shape on that noggin, no rubs or bald spots. Little by little the herd drifted and thinned until at last my Browning .375H&H x-bolt spoke up. One more for insurance and my first buff was in the salt.
Time to travel again on day three, this time to Phomalong reserve in the North West Province, home base to Henry Griffiths Safaris. The plan was to settle into the tent camp at Phomalong then hunt culls for a few days prior to my lion hunt. It was nearing a full moon the first night I bedded down in camp. Tent flys open, moonlight drenched across the bush velt, all the night sounds of southern Africa welcome to ebb in. It was enough to make a God fearing man praise his Maker and an atheist reconsider.
Only two things got in the way during my cull hunt. The first obstruction turned out to be a bush, deflecting the 150 grain soft point launched from my Remington .308. You can shoot bushesor blesbok, but not both at the same time. The blesbok seemed happy! Obstruction number two arose one day when we rounded a bend in the road and came face to face with the widest impala ram I’d ever seen. Yes dear, I know I already have an impala, but honey, I don’t have an impala like this impala! Truth is, I never asked her. I just said to my outfitter, forget the culls; let’s hunt this ram. Next day. . . ram in the salt.
The lion hunt went well. We found her in a thicket laid up for the day. Or rather Casper, professional hunter #2 says: I see her. Henry, professional hunter #1 says: Yes just there. As rookie lion hunter yours truly reaches for the Nikons to verify professionals #1 and #2. P.S. Try not to go number two on yourself when lion hunting. Mathematically you should feel safe with five people on the spoor, two trackers, two white hunters and me. But it was big! And it was a lion! She was about 30 yards at such an angle as to make the shot almost impossible, especially in such dense cover. After a quick consultation, (I just listened) the decision was made to throw a rock in hope that she would stand and present a better target. Tracker #1 was sure we were going to get eaten. Tracker #2 pleaded no rock throwing be done, lest she go even deeper into cover where tracker #2 really had no desire to track. But the rock got thrown anyway. So much for the element of surprise. She politely stood up, moved a bit to the left, turned around, and laid up again in a good position to keepon eye on these rock throwing, would be lion hunters. The message was unmistakeable, loud and clear. This is my thicket, and if you would like the chance to use up your entire life time supply of band aids all at once, please come in. I could see her through the binos, right eye glaring around the stem of a bush, on the other end tail twitching as she waited. The ball was in our court as they say, so I moved forward about eight feet. Eight feet can be a long way! Craddled my .375 across some limbs, and put a 300 grain trophy bonded bear claw through both lungs. Three roars later, and I had my fingers in the fur of my first lion, no band aids necessary.
During my stay at Phomalong, Henry had an away trip planned into the Kalahari with some meat hunters. And though he didn’t have to, I was extended an invitation to tag along. I did want a gemsbok, and the Kalahari is a good place to get one, I’ve been told. And besides, this excursion offered me a chance to see a part of Africa most people never get to experience. So on the 14th we loaded everything in the buckie and headed northwest. Before noon saw us at the gate of Geelhount hunting lodge, a little slice of heaven on earth as I would soon learn. In fact, next morning as we bumped our way along in the safari truck drinking coffee and solving the world’s problems, the conversation got cut short when Henry abruptly injected, “Gemsbok”! Naturally, I hadn’t seen a thing, but Henry seemed certain, so off we went. Sure as shootin’, after a short tracking job there he stood, browsing away! I gave him every chance to surrender, but when he refused to get in the truck, I was forced to shoot him. The tape on the old bulls’left horn said thirty nine inches and a smidge. Those numbers nearly sent my white hunter into convulsions. All I was thinking is I’m glad professional hunters have good eyes.
Time and space just won’t allow me to share all the details. There was a day trip to Pilansberg Game Reserve where we managed to upset a bull elephant. An ongoing chess game between hunter and jackal. (I did win once or twice!) Baboon sniping, warthog killing, great food and hospitality. But I will say this: If you ever find yourself with time on your hands and don’t know what to do, I know a pretty good way to spend twenty four days in South Africa.