Monday, November 16, 2015

The Zebra Stallion

My trophy is finally on display...

Haven't had anywhere appropriate to hang my zebra in all the years since I brought it home from the 1997 hunt in South Africa. Must say it fits right in on the largest wall of my cozy little log home man cave high the Prescott National Forest. Putting it up was a two man job. Erik and I celebrated the completion of this task with adult beverages. Seems as good a time as any for a reprint of an older post.

The Zebra Stallion

This little memoir was published in the Journal of the Thompson/Center Collector's Association...

Our original plan had been to drive to the mountain and spend the afternoon glassing for game. Then, shortly before sundown, we’d stake out a fence line where Marius Moolman, my professional hunter, had seen Kudu and Gemsbok spoor earlier in the day. We were three days into our ten day hunt with Bush Africa Safaris in the Republic of South Africa. Somewhere between the main house and the mountain the plan had changed. Jason, one of our guides, drove the Isuzu for about an hour as Marius; Philamon—our tracker; and I—their first handgun hunting client, looked for spoor. We saw Impala several times, but I had taken a nice ram on the first day and we saw none large enough to warrant bagging another.

Philamon signaled “halt” to Jason and spoke with Marius. “Philamon says there are some Blue Wildebeest just over there,” Marius translated. He pointed to a dense thicket to our left, about 20 yards off the road. We got out quietly and quickly and crept into the brush. After a few minutes of sneaking around Marius turned to me, “Zebra,” he whispered through a smile. He showed me their horse-like hoof prints in the soft, red earth. The hunt was on. We tiptoed after them slowly and quietly, but after a few minutes we heard them run off.

We went back to the truck and drove a bit further. Philamon got out to track the herd. Jason drove ahead a kilometer or so to a spot where we could watch them cross a road. Then we would pick up their trail and track them on foot. After a wait Philamon came to the road before the herd, or so it seemed. Philamon told Marius the zebra had crossed the road before we had even arrived.

Philamon, Marius, and I took up their trail. We crept at times, then walked easily, then slowed to a stop while Philamon pointed and signaled that he heard something. We moved on slowly, trying not to make any noise, trying to avoid the thorns—especially the wicked, little ones shaped like cat’s claws. All the while I was hoping it wouldn’t be a noise I made that would screw up the stalk. Of course I was only person making any noise. I had doffed the chest holster in which I had carried my Thompson/Center Contender hunting pistol the first few days of the hunt. It was fast enough and very comfortable, but it was the noisiest piece of leather I’ve ever owned. When I had told Marius at lunch that was giving up the holster he nodded and said, “Good idea.” As I was the last man in our group I carried my .44 Magnum single-shot with its ten inch barrel pointing backwards, grasping the barrel and fore end in my left hand. The sound of the thundering hooves told me, without need for translation, that the herd had moved away again. We continued after them.

The nearest town of any size in this part of the Northern Province—until recently referred to as the Northern Transvaal—is Ellisras. Bush Africa Safaris is located about an hour’s drive southeast of town. It is owned and operated by Schalk van Heerden and his lovely wife Terina. They hunt on his farm, his Uncle’s adjacent property, and at Schalk’s father’s place nearby. Schalk has arrangements to hunt at other properties in the Ellisras area, and south of Johannesburg, as well as a concession in Tanzania. The accommodations at Bush Africa Safaris are modern yet distinctly African. The meals are prepared by Terina and served family style. Anyone who has hunted with a friend at a family ranch would feel right at home. While there are wilder places to hunt in Africa, there is a lot to be said for a first time safari that offers electric lights and hot water showers.

Philamon hears the striped horses when I can hear nothing. Marius would tell me later that Philamon could hear their footsteps; I was not missing their unmistakable vocalizations. They run off again after making a racket. This time we run and quick march after them. Marius tells me, “Philamon knows a clearing they’ve likely made off to.”

We come round a thorn bush and there, finally, I can see zebra! Several of them are milling about, a hundred yards off or so. Philamon sets up the “sticks.” Shooting sticks are a tool I had not tried until hunting in Africa. They come in very handy when hunting on foot in the thornbush, as tall grass prevents shooting from prone, sitting, and frequently even kneeling positions, and most of the tree branches one might use as an improvised rest are routinely thick with thorns. I try sighting on the largest animal, but they’re standing in a cluster. I can’t make out a single target—and I suddenly understand that the zebra is as well camouflaged as any game animal in Africa—and even if I could pick one out I wouldn’t shoot as there is likely another animal behind it. “No shot!” I whisper. Marius agrees, “Don’t shoot.” The herd moves off and we creep after it. There’s a large zebra standing in an opening in the thick brush; the rest of the herd can be seen moving about nervously in a clearing behind it. Philamon sets the sticks again. I take the sticks in my left hand and rest the pistol. It’s still too far.

The herd moves again with the big one trailing behind; we move even closer this time. Philamon sets the sticks in the thigh high grass. I move behind the sticks and everything in the world disappears but the big zebra, my Contender pistol, and me. It is standing broadside, with its head turned toward me, straining to determine who we are and what we are up to. I cock the hammer and put my sights on the zebra’s left shoulder. There is nothing standing behind it. “Shoot it,” Marius says to me from somewhere else. He later estimated the range at about 90 yards. The sights are dancing as my chest heaves. Excitement? Exertion? Both. “Shoot it,” Marius urges “Now!” The sights are dancing, but they remain centered on the chest and shoulder of my target. I continue to press the trigger...BLAM! That was loud. Hit? “I heard the shot,” I thought to myself, “I shouldn’t have heard the shot if I was concentrating enough.” It’s hit! It staggers a few steps, but it does not fall down. One of its front legs is obviously broken. Which one? Why? “Please don’t let me have screwed up the shot!” I wish silently to myself.

“Shoot it again!” Marius orders as the rest of the world returns. He raises his rifle as he steps up beside me. “No, let me finish this!” I remember thinking; I do not remember if I spoke the words aloud. Philamon is running. I follow him at a sprint as I break the pistol’s action to reload. The zebra is trying to run, staggering, stopping, struggling to stand. We’re leaping through thornbrush that tears at my clothing and my skin as I pass, jumping over aardvark holes, all the while hoping not to loose sight of the badly wounded zebra. I put the empty cartridge case in my pocket. I swear I did. I still have it. That’s what a handloader’s concern for recovering cartridge cases at the range will do to you. Let your cases drop to the ground when you practice. I insert another round and snap the action shut. We close in on the zebra. “Shoot it again!” Marius yells from behind us. I stop, cock the pistol, and put my sights on the wounded animal. It’s quartering away, at a distance Marius later estimated was about 40 yards. It pauses, looking at me over its right shoulder. I aim for the left shoulder—it will have to pass through the paunch to get there—and press...Blam! A red spot appears on its belly. The zebra staggers, steps forward, and crashes heavily to the ground. I reload as I trot closer. I put the empty in my pocket again. No telling how long it will take to deprogram this nasty habit. The zebra butts the ground with its head, as though challenging me to come close enough for it to take one last crack at me. I warily approach the fallen beast and come too close. It struggles to its feet for a few more steps. It stumbles and falls. It’s all over, but I want it done, right now. I put my sights on its chest and press the trigger at a range of 20 yards...Blam. It shudders as another scarlet spot blossoms on its hide; this one just behind the shoulder. Then it slowly slumps over and finally expires.

There are backslaps and handshakes all around. The zebra was male, the herd stallion. I had not known that until now, and I am glad to hear it. He is in prime condition, a fine enough trophy for a rifle hunter, but all the more special for a handgun hunter. The hunt has lasted over an hour and a half and covered over two kilometers since we last left the truck. What a great day!

Philamon set off on foot to find Jason and the truck. They return, along with one of my hunting partners, Greg Clemmer, an hour or so later. Greg hands me a lukewarm Castle Lager. I’ve never had a better beer in my life. The electric winch is on the Land Cruiser, not the Isuzu, so it takes all five of us to wrestle my trophy into the bed of the pickup. Back at camp the stallion is cleaned up and Marius, and Philamon, and I pose for pictures. I look at the photographs now thinking “Was I really that tired? Was I really that happy?” Ice cold Castles are passed all round. We watch closely as Jason, Philamon, Waynand—another guide, and Jan—the camp skinner, dress my zebra. We confirm that the first of the three 320 grain hard lead bullets struck a fatal blow, entering through the left shoulder without hitting bones, punching through the ribs coming and going, striking the front lobes of the lungs, lacerating the heart, then shattering the humerus in the right shoulder. The stallion would have died, but maybe not quickly, and certainly not painlessly. The second shot also found its mark, penetrating the paunch, coursing through the length of the left lung, punching out of the rib cage, and lodging in the left shoulder. The last shot penetrated the ribs coming and going as it pulped a path through both lungs. Any one of the shots would have killed my trophy, but it took all three to make him lie down and give up.

I experienced that special sort of mixed emotions hunters sometimes feel when the gravity of taking another life for sport—for the sake of the hunt—sets in. I’ve felt compassion for other game, starting with that indestructible little Gadwall that was my first waterfowl kill so many years ago; and for most of the game I’ve taken since then. This Zebra stallion was different somehow. It evokes memories of visits to the zoo, the black and white plastic animal in the toy chest, and the last page of my alphabet primer. I think about not using the pistol any more this trip. It was a close thing out there—using an iron-sighted, single-shot pistol on a Zebra—though Marius and Schalk emphasize that hits from .300’s and .375’s have not always done better.

Marius and I had talked about hunting while we waited for the truck that evening, as the sun set and the stars came out. We agreed it was important to ask ourselves “Why do we hunt?” We agreed the answer is probably as simple as the notion that hunting is not just something we do, “Hunter” is something we are.