Out of Africa

Ever find yourself in a situation and wonder, “What the heck am I doing here?

That’s what I was thinking when I awoke at 4 a.m., dressed drowsily, slammed a quick cappuccino, and trudged out in the dark to sit in a camouflaged bird blind awaiting  sunrise in the flight path of unsuspecting ducks…

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Or when I was charged by a warthog who came barreling at me along a dusty path as I sat on a collapsible chair, over-heated in the afternoon sun, wedged between thorny bushes awaiting approaching guinea fowl…

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Or when  I found myself in a desolate Grapes of Wrath situation as I sat in the middle of a barren dusty field and the unrelenting buffeting wind nearly blew over the canvas blind protecting me, swirling red sand clogged my nostrils, tenacious grit filled my mouth, and whirling decoys spun wildly to attract pigeons.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Remember when Meryl Streep adopted yet another accent and uttered the opening line, “I had a farm in Africa”.  Well, I now know where she was.  Last week, I found myself deep within the inside triangle of South Africa, an unforgiving barren landscape of threatening thorn-tipped plants, red dessert sands, desperately dry farms, and copious wild birds.  It was here that I traveled with a group of avid bird hunters to watch lines of Zulu “beaters” corral wild guinea fowl, duck, and pigeon.

The landscape was primitive, but the accommodations were luxurious.  We arrived at an old restored station in Pretoria where we were serenaded by a string quartet as we sipped champagne and boarded the Rovos Rail.

This whole shooting thing was a first for me.  I am proud to announce that on my first day in the field, with my first shot, I managed to hit my first bird.  In a Lord of the Flies moment, my forehead was anointed with the guinea fowl’s blood as part of my initiation into the bird shooting world.  It was all downhill from there, and I was mostly a spectator in this new sport arena.

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We created our own version of “farm to table”, as every bird or wild game shot down provided a meal for the beaters and their families as well as our entourage.  We dined on guinea fowl, duck, pigeon, sable, and gemsbok –all elegantly prepared in gourmet style aboard the lovely Rovos Rail.

Overall, I learned that the best part of bird hunting is lunch.  Each day, we would find ourselves in a cozy haven carved out in the field, woods, or bush.  Here we sampled traditional African BBQ, sipped champagne, and enjoyed good company.

Jeff enjoyed the bird shoots, but his true passion was the opportunity to shoot wild game on a local preserve.  He reconnected with his inner child, the boy who enjoyed shooting deer with his father once upon a time.  Move over Bambi….I am now the proud (?) owner of two wildebeest busts and an oryx bust!

I preferred the game drives where no rifles were present.  I did my best shooting behind a camera lens and took in the sights as zebra, giraffe, elephant, sable, wildebeest, cheetah, ostrich, warthogs, lion, rhinos, countless flamingos and other African animals roamed before me.  I never get tired at admiring these magnificent animals in their natural habitat.

As always, it is the people, not the place, that define the experience.  Perhaps I have been primed by my life in London where, as an expat , I am always looking to meet new people.  At the beginning of the trip, we knew one couple out of the 16 participants.  I loved the week’s progression from awkward and polite conversation in the beginning, to mutual experience and admiration in the middle, to mass bonding and genuine friendship in the end.

Black tie dinners, themed costume attire, train travel, shooting war stories, early mornings, sloe gin, shared meals, superb vintages, and overall congeniality made for a memorable trip…

…with or without the birds!

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