One for the Road, AHG 23.1

It’s tempting to change the names in this piece to protect the guilty, but instead we’ll just go with Christian names and let the reader speculate. It all happened a long time ago — almost a quarter century — and those involved are dead for all I know.

There’s an old saying in America: “As serious as a heart attack,” and hunting Cape buffalo is every bit as serious. Sometimes, though, it’s a comedy of errors you look back on with sheer gratitude that you survived.

We were hunting buffalo on Mount Longido, near the Rift, got a good bull high on the mountain in a hair-raising escapade, and returned to our home base, which was a large flower and ostrich farm outside Arusha. A Texan named Jerry owned the farm with a consortium of friends, and was starting a safari company as well. He’d hired a couple of Rhodesian professional hunters to run it. I’d killed my bull up on the mountain with one of them, and now I was going buffalo hunting again, down near Tarangiri, with the other, a grizzled PH named Gordon.

Jerry and Gordon detested each other. Gordon, being a licenced professional of long experience, felt he should be in charge. Jerry, as the owner of the company, disagreed. He treated Gordon little better than a manservant, and this did not sit well with a guy who’d fought through the bush war in Rhodesia, and had been a PH for years before Jerry ever set foot in Africa. Gordon was also whipcord lean the way professional hunters were in the days when they walked almost everywhere, with sun-creased eyes that had seen too much, and Jerry’s well-fed Texan ways did not sit well.

Our trip down to Tarangiri encountered endless delays involving special licences, so one evening, with no prospect of hunting on the morrow, Gordon and I headed into Arusha for a good, old-fashioned pub crawl. We drank our way from saloon to saloon, down one side of the main drag and up the other, and around two in the morning found ourselves at the old Greek Club on the edge of town. That’s where everyone ended up when the other pubs closed.

Gordon said he was too unsteady to drive and assigned me the wheel, even though I had no idea how to get home and was just as unsteady as he was. But off we weaved. Every so often I’d shake him awake and ask which way to go. He’d point a finger and nod off again. Somehow, we reached the farm in the dead of night, and there we found Jerry, madder than hell, waiting up for us and brandishing a sheaf of licences.

“We’re going hunting,” he snarled. “We have to leave in an hour!”

An hour! Gordon staggered off for a nap, but I figured, with some convoluted logic, that if I was going to die, I wanted to die clean. I had a bath, then passed out on the bed for 15 minutes before being shaken awake with the beginnings of a hangover such as only over-strength East African beer, combined with gin, can inflict.

Jerry was still tight-lipped angry as he assured us the truck was loaded and ready to go, and off we went with Gordon at the wheel. How on earth he could drive, I’ve never figured out. In about an hour and half we got there, pulled off the tarmac and headed cross country toward the park boundary. We were going to hunt the edges, in the area that inspired Hemingway’s title Green Hills of Africa. Green they were, too, and extraordinarily beautiful in the early dawn. It was a good day to die, and I was rather looking forward to it. My hangover increased as we drove, doubling and redoubling every hour.

As we climbed out, we made two unwelcome discoveries. One, Jerry the Mastermind had forgotten to pack any water, and Gordon and I were both suffering a hangover thirst like I had never experienced before. And never since, as a matter of fact. Jerry, of course, blamed Gordon who “should have checked” the water supply.

The second discovery was that Gordon had neglected to bring his rifle, so off we went to hunt mbogo with a PH armed only with his little bag of ashes to check the wind direction.

“Don’t worry,” Jerry muttered, “he probably couldn’t hit anything anyway.” That was reassuring.

Traversing a sort of plateau, we spotted a half dozen bulls in the distance, and Gordon and I dropped onto our stomachs to crawl forward to a deadfall. Gordon was making the usual signs to keep quiet, keep down, stay out of sight. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, the bulls thundered away. We looked behind, and there was Jerry, strolling along, making no effort at stealth. If Gordon said something, he was going to do the opposite. Crawl? No way. From that moment, the two did not exchange a word the rest of the day.

We continued through the green hills, the day warming steadily, and thirst became all-consuming. We spotted all kinds of buffalo sign, and soon found ourselves flushing them like grouse — generally getting fleeting glimpses, at a distance. The grass was high, there was no way to stalk them, and taking random shots at departing bulls is not something your insurance company would approve.

At one point, though, as a big bull jumped to his feet and paused, Jerry shouted “Shoot! Shoot!” and like a fool, I did. He stumbled, disappeared into an overgrown donga, and reappeared a few minutes later on the far hillside, making tracks. I was about to take another crack at him — slim chance though it was — when Jerry grabbed the rifle out of my hands and started fumbling to put the scope back on, which he had insisted on removing earlier. Meanwhile, the bull disappeared.

Then began a memorable day of following the track of the wounded bull, mile after mile under the hot sun. Gordon concluded he was not badly hurt, and had probably suffered a hit in the foot. Don’t ask me, I have no explanation. But it allowed us to pick out his track from others we came across. And on we went, as my all-devouring thirst reached epic proportions and I began to hallucinate about icy mountain streams.

At midday, we stopped to rest in a dry riverbed, and Gordon began scooping a hole in the sand, hoping to reach water. About a foot down the sand became moist, and soon there was a yellowish liquid seeping in, forming a frothy pool in the bottom. From somewhere he produced a cup and an old handkerchief. Placing the cloth over the cup, he lowered it into the yellow muck, allowing the handkerchief to filter the water as it dribbled in. He handed me the cup with a flourish.

“Warthog and buffalo piss, mostly,” he said gallantly, “But it should help.”

I managed to gag down about three mouthfuls while trying to imagine bubbling brooks or bottles of Perrier. As he predicted, my thirst magically disappeared — for a minute, at least. I then went off into the bushes. When I reappeared, Gordon leapt to his feet, pulled a knife and came for me. Thinking thirst had driven him mad, I was looking for my rifle when he dropped to his knees and starting frantically scraping my pant legs with the blade.

“Pepper ticks,” he said. “You’re covered with them! God, what did you get into?” I looked down and sure enough, my khaki pants looked like a well-peppered potato. Ticks! Ugh!

And that, dear readers, right there, was the highlight of the day. The peak. The summit. We choked down a few more mouthfuls of the alleged water, resumed the trek, and trailed after the buffalo for a few miles until he crossed into the park, at which point we turned back for the truck. It was between five miles and ten miles away, Gordon estimated. It may have been less. It felt like more.

The slow, lurching drive back to the tarmac took an eon. The Greeks took Troy. Rome fell. Columbus discovered America. Time crept by on thirst-tortured, trudging feet. Finally, the pavement. We hit 50 miles an hour.

“How long to a ducca?” I asked.

“Half an hour,” Gordon replied. “Got any money?”

Well, no, I hadn’t thought to bring any, since we were hunting buffalo and I hadn’t expected to buy one, or leave a tip. In fact, no one in that Toyota had so much as a shilling. We searched the glove box, down behind the seats, all the usual places where coins migrate. Not a sou.

Finally, we reached a roadside duka and pulled over. Gordon looked hungrily at the watch on my wrist, then my Swarovskis on the seat. Without a word, he picked up the binoculars, disappeared inside, and reappeared in a few minutes with an armful of bottles of orange squash and warm beer.

My first bottle disappeared in a mouthful. My second — a warm Tusker, and warm Tusker never tasted so good — was half gone when I stopped slurping long enough to ask.

“Don’t worry, we’ll come back for your binos tomorrow,” Gordon said, and we resumed our long, gulping draughts of frothy, malty, bubbling elixir of the gods.

Finally, Gordon came up for air.

“You know,” he said, “I think tonight I’ll give the Greek Club a miss.”