Our tracker was a saturnine fellow of zero words and less expression. Not once had he smiled, or hit really any note in the register of human emotion.
Words by: MICHAEL LUDERS
Our tracker was a saturnine fellow of zero words and less expression. Not once had he smiled, or hit really any note in the register of human emotion. But, he was damned good at his job—eerily so. To watch a tracker at work is to watch miracles unfold. In other times these men would have been burned as witches. I once saw him pick from a herd’s prints in the dust just which belonged to the zebra I had shot badly and follow it for hours until we found and killed it. That he got on well with Colin was further astonishing: years before they had tried to kill each other fighting on opposite sides of the war.
Here he was already on the track of my buck, the sun’s brow barely over the trees. It was chilly and a mist covered the ground. I chambered a round and followed him before he could disappear into it. Any shot, should the chance come, would be quick, an almost involuntary reaction to darting movement. The dense forest was surprisingly green despite seven years of drought and the only reason the bushbuck still flourished here. Much of the other game had been driven off, like the waterbuck, which needed the same wet habitat, just more of it.
We’d stalked an hour at most before I became aware my guide was uneasy. There was an over-whelming stench of a barnyard. It was not offensive, rather like damp, rotting hay. Our tracker halted us with his hand and stood and listened. Colin shushed me with a finger to his mouth. He pointed ahead, urging me to see what he saw. It wasn’t very thick in this section along the dried river, and the sun came through easily. If there were game here, I would see it. I had spent a lifetime chasing it, I knew how to look. Yet all I could do was shake my head. The tracker was still frozen and Colin insistent. He came over to me making no sound underfoot and said softly, “Elephant.”
I looked again, peering harder through the trees until those shadows became darker blacks. Nothing. I heard the sound of brush snapping, but it carried nothing like the thunderous cracking of limbs and trunks I imagined such an animal would make. I was told later they had been stripping bark to eat. “Pray they don’t wind us,” Colin said. “I’m in no mood to be trampled.”Pray indeed.
I looked for any break in the horizon to give a clue of an ear, a head, a tail, anything. And then I felt suddenly silly. I realized I had been looking at them the entire time, just yards in front of me. That darkness between the mopane scrub ahead was not that of light in retreat. It was elephant. They were so big that no part of them broke the horizon, they were the horizon. It was amazing to think it possible, that such a massive beast remained so very invisible. Yet here among us were ten or twelve and aside from the massive flanks I had mistaken for murky holes in the bush, I never saw one entirely.
And then they were gone. Except for the occasional broken branch and some steaming dung, there was little other sign. A mob of kangaroos might as well have passed through.
The morning was getting late and we were there to hunt bushbuck not elephant. The later we went into the day without seeing one, the less likely we would. We picked up the buck’s track and continued, the wind making it easy for us. It had been at our faces all morning. No wonder we came up on the elephant undetected. As we walked, I rehearsed my shot from every conceivable direction. I would have only seconds. I needed to be on automatic-pilot and this exercise kept me focused. So beautiful is this place, primordial—you imagine almost the earth’s pulse underfoot, that one is easily distracted. Every time I was taken in by the francolin flitting about on the ground, or the birds, impossibly colorful, in the trees overhead, I forced myself to run another loop of potential scenarios through my head.
A sharp BARK roused us to attention. I knew from Colin that this was the alarm call of a bushbuck, made when spooked. He saw it. So did the tracker. They pointed and I mounted the rifle. The safety was off, my finger on the trigger. “Shoot!”
But, where was it?
This particular scenario had not played during my imaginary practice sessions. The right ones never do. Deer come in from behind you, no matter which way you set up. So do turkey. The wind shifts just as ducks arrive at your decoys and they land out of range. Antelope. Stag. Goat. All of them baffle the logician, stymie the pro.
Later in camp, we sat at lunch and talked about the morning. Like every morning so far, it had been thrilling. This was Africa after all, and it had not failed to live up to its promise, the game—zebra, kudu, impala, warthog, the smells and sounds, the colors, all of it beyond description. The incredible beauty of the place, in contrast to its brutality—death was everywhere—was a constant reminder that I was in a special, very different place. A place known before me by those intrepid explorers who found no comfort other than in places that offered none.“So how do you like your bushbuck?” Colin asked.I smiled and cut myself another piece.
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