Back Page Column 22.2
August 13, 2016
ONE FOR THE ROAD
THE FOREST, THE TREES, AND MISSING THE BOAT
A couple of years ago, I was part of a group pheasant hunting in North Dakota. As with many of these gatherings, it was an eclectic crowd of writers, cameramen, and industry types. One of the cameramen was a young guy, starting out in the business, and ecstatically happy to be invited anywhere at someone else’s expense.
Much of his time was spent quizzing one of the older writers about his time in Africa. Now, this particular guy had been to Africa a half-dozen times, starting in the mid-1980s. He’d been to Zambia early on, for about a week, and later spent time in Zimbabwe and South Africa. I’ve known him for 20 years, and was interested to eavesdrop during dinner and see how he would present his experiences.
I should add that he’s from the Deep South, pushing 80, and retains some attitudes towards other races that most young people today would find highly questionable, if not downright repugnant. More than that, though, was his eagerness to push his impressions from several -light once-over trips to Africa as being deep insights into the realities of the Dark Continent. In fact, although he’d visited several countries, over about a 25-year period, he had spent no more than eight weeks total on the continent, and then had seen little more than airports and safari camps.
His loud view on Zimbabwe today was that it was, indeed, being mismanaged, but that conditions were not nearly as bad as were being presented. He’d been there, after all, and hadn’t seen any shortages.
Well, naturally not. Hunters being a serious source of very scarce foreign exchange, the authorities in Zimbabwe are anxious they not only be treated with some regard, but shielded from the realities of life in Harare and Bulawayo today. After this particular discourse on modern African history, I asked him for particulars about his last trip. How long? Six days. How much of Harare did you see? Well, none. My PH picked me up at the airport and we were in the bush that afternoon. And after the hunting was over? Straight back to the airport.
Obviously, modern life is different than life was 50 years ago. Travel is faster. Everyone makes a fetish of being constantly busy and unable to afford the time. In 1908, a safari lasted six months to a year; by 1938, it was three months, and in the early 1950s, six weeks was a long time. By then, though, air travel had already cut the time required to get there — and the early safaris were really long, not only because of the slowness of foot – or early motorized safaris, but because, having to spend three weeks or more on ships each way, just getting to and from, it made no sense to spend less time actually in Africa than you spent on the ship.
In his 1967 book on big-game hunting, Jack O’Connor presented his credentials for writing about Africa, and calculated that, from his first safari in Kenya in 1953, he had spent a total of six and a half months in Africa, hunting in East Africa, Angola, and French Equatorial Africa. Six months is a good long time. I calculated my own total, starting from my first trip in 1971, and it added up to almost two years. Granted, these were not all safaris. The first ones were straight journalism — four months in Uganda and the Sudan, three months the following year in Kenya and Uganda, and two months in 1976 in South Africa and Rhodesia. After that, whenever possible, if I was planning a trip to Africa I would build in as much activity as possible into as long a time as possible. I became, to all intents and purposes, a temporary resident of South Africa, Botswana, or wherever.
Looking back on all that time, I find that my most prominent and vivid memories were less the hunting — although some certainly stand out! — than the time I spent living in grass huts, mud huts, in the old Indian quarter of Kampala, with the Masai in the Rift, or among the highway workers paving roads around the Okavango. Two months on a remote farm in the wilds of the Orange Free State might not provide the most pleasant memories, but they are vivid none the less.
This is not to suggest that everyone should have the same experiences I have had. Obviously, that’s not possible. What bothers me, though, in the modern rush to “hunt Africa” is the common desire to get in, shoot as much as possible in as little time as possible, and then get the hell out with a minimum of inconvenience, unpleasantness, or exposure to the actual people who live there.
From his first trip to Africa in 1951 until his death in 1965, Robert Ruark would spend months at a time in Kenya, or on safari in Mozambique, Uganda, or Tanganyika. He developed a genuine love for many of the non-safari, non-hunting aspects of life in Africa, and it shimmers in his writing. Although he was not here as much, and he was always limited to depicting his experiences in magazine articles, O’Connor had much the same attitude. If he had been able to spend months at a time in Africa, I suspect his writing would have shown the same interest and insight as his many stories of hunting in Arizona and Sonora earlier in his life.
Obviously, modern life is not going to get any slower, but we all lead our own lives, and we all shape our own destinies. Some shape them deliberately, others passively allow them to be shaped by others, which amounts to the same thing. You can’t tell me that a man wealthy enough to fly to Africa for a two-week hunting trip cannot afford the time to build in an extra week to visit Stellenbosch and taste the wines, or take a few days in the beginning to visit Spion Kop.
Of course, to do that, you’d need to know about the attractions of sipping Pinotage, or the events that made Spion Kop a byword for military slaughter, only eclipsed, 15 years later, by the Somme. Too many people today make the trips, but the object of the game is not to see or learn anything, merely to show the people at home that they’ve been there, and to check it off their list.
More than any other single factor, it was reading Robert Ruark as a teenager that ignited my deep desire to see Africa and spend time there. As I mentioned, my first three trips in 1971, ’72 and ‘76, which totaled nine months in six countries, I did not hunt a single thing. When I was able to start hunting in Africa, in 1990, the focus became different, but then, so did the publications I was writing for. Still, the hunting was an excuse to go back to Africa; it was not a case of being forced to make the distasteful and inconvenient trip to Africa in order to put a kudu head on the wall.
At dinner on the last night of the trip to North Dakota, with which I began this tale, my Deep-South acquaintance was holding forth yet again, this time on the quaint practices of the Masai. He’d seen some at a distance on a four-day wingshooting trip to Kenya, and found them amusingly naive. Can you imagine, he asked, when they get some money, what do they buy? A cell phone!
Having spent some time among the Masai, it seems to me that a cell phone is a more useful acquisition than, say, a dress suit or an electric kettle. Who are they going to call? he asked, to uproarious laughter. Well, other Masai — like his brother, in his cluster of huts four miles away, who he could not talk to unless he walked over, and even then would have no idea if he was home. Eminently useful, a cell phone.
Sitting there, listening to this, gritting my teeth, I could see where modern writers are largely failing modern readers. In our anxiety to tell about the myriad kudu in this country, or the huge flights of sandgrouse in that one, or where the biggest elephants are found, we have forgotten the passion of seeing something new and exotic, and instilling that same passion in our readers.
Instead of writing about what it was like, we write about how long the horns were, which, when you think of it, hardly matters at all. In an era when technology would allow us to see so much more, we choose to see and feel so much less.