The next story lacks almost all the elements of the previous Great White Hunter sagas. It takes place well after the Golden Era—occurring as late as 1999, did not involve a hunter who was even remotely great or famous, and does not include lions or elephants or other dangerous big mammals. The hunter is me—hereafter referred to as KDN–the present author; the events took place in Zimbabwe; and they did include some drama.
The story necessarily begins with the Rhodesian Civil War/Rhodesian Bush War/Second Chimurenga/Zimbabwe War of Liberation of 1966-1979. The conflict pitted three forces against one another: the Rhodesian white minority-led government of Ian Smith–later the Zimbabwe-Rhodesian government of Bishop Abel Muzorewa–the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army, the military wing of Robert Mugabe’s ZANU [Zimbabwe African National Union]; and the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army of Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union. Note that the civil war ended twenty years before the story about to follow and involves ostensible veterans from the winning side of that war.
There were no military victors; but nonetheless, cessation of fighting and a national compromise led to the implementation of universal suffrage in June, 1979, the end of racist white minority rule in Rhodesia, and the renaming of the country to Zimbabwe Rhodesia under a black majority government. The new order failed to win international recognition. The country returned temporarily to British control and new elections were held under British and Commonwealth supervision in March, 1980. ZANU won the election, and Mugabe became the first Prime Minister of newly renamed Zimbabwe on April 18, 1980, when the country achieved internationally recognized independence.
The elements of impending war included widespread civil disobedience against the racist policies of the all-White government and a rupture of any semblance of peaceful civil intercourse between Blacks and Whites, which persisted in forme fruste even well after the actual war. Very soon after Robert Mugabe’s ZANU government achieved power, he went forward to quash all political opposition and banned the NDP [National Democratic Party, headed by Joshua Nkomo] in December, 1961 and arrested NDP leaders. Nkomo was out of the country at the time where he formed the Zimbabwe African People’s Union. ZANU members formed a militant wing, the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army, and sent ZANLA members to the People’s Republic of China for training.
The war that ensued was extremely bitter and defied all norms of agreed upon international rules of war. The Rhodesian Security Forces initiated a Chemical and Biological Weapons [Biological agents included Vibrio cholerae–causative agent of cholera–and Bacillus anthracis –causative agent of anthrax–Rickettsia prowazekii–causative agent of epidemic typhus–and Salmonella typhi–causative agent of typhoid fever. Toxins—such as ricin and botulinum to kill guerrillas both inside Rhodesia and in external camps in Zambia and Mozambique]. The effort worked to eliminate guerrillas operating inside Rhodesia by using contaminated supplies. The Security Forces contaminated water supplies along guerrilla infiltration routes into Rhodesia, forcing the guerrillas to either travel through arid regions to carry more water and less ammunition or travel through areas patrolled by the security forces. Finally, they hit the guerrillas in their camps in Mozambique by poisoning food, beverages, and medicines.
Between 1976 and 1979, the Rhodesian Army laid extensive minefields along the country’s eastern and northern borders to prevent infiltration and resupply of fighters based in Zambia and Mozambique. The mines were laid in dense patterns—a Cordon Sanitaire. The Zimbabwe Government estimated that the minefields contained 2.6 million anti-personnel landmines. The rebels conducted extremely violent terrorist raids. Suffice it, there persisted a significant level of racial and political antipathy ever afterwards.
Enter KDN and his big game hunt twenty years later, in 1999: At that time, the Mugabe government was in trouble having driven the economy into a failed state whose currency was not usable anyplace else in the world. The government forces and the prime minister made Whites the scapegoats for the failure and began an active effort at genocide. The only successful farms and businesses were owned and run by Whites; so, Mugabe drove out all the “coloreds”—Indians, Chinese, and Indonesians—thereby worsening the economic woes. Outright assassinations and murders of Whites by so-called “veterans” fighting for their rights such as pensions were dispatched in hunter/killer/occupier squads to murder or drive Whites from the large productive farms they had run for generations. The slaughter included Black Zimbabweans—some who were actual veterans—indiscriminately. By then, the nation of Zimbabwe was a frankly failed state and a general pariah among civilized nations.
There were $1 trillion bank notes floating around; but even that was useless; the citizenry was burning paper money for fuel. Wide swaths of once fertile and productive farmland lay fallow and neglected with no human presence to be seen. Hamlets of mud huts were springing up all along the way—a result of people returning to subsistence farming, the only thing left for them.
I had finished successful hunts in South Africa; and my guides, trackers, skinners, and I headed into Zimbabwe. We drove to a 110 hectare farm owned by a tough Afrikaner family who had carefully husbanded their wild animal populations to maintain a large free-range area and population for hunting. My quest was to take a sable bull—the national animal of Zimbabwe—and a large Greater Kudu [spelled koodoo in the 17th century parlance of the Dutchmen of the fictional story].
On the evening of our arrival, we had a grand supper and sat down to talk and to listen to the CB radio reports of news from around the country. There was considerable angst among Whites we had encountered in our trip to the farm, and the family was understandably on high alert. There was no conventional telephone, radio, or television, services out there on the farms.
A CB [Citizens Band Radio] call came in from the far north from cousins who lived in the Zambesi Valley. The reception was fairly good, and we could hear both ends of the conversation. The gist was that the woman on the Zambesi end was screaming hysterically to tell her southern cousins that all the men in her family were being hacked to death with machetes, and two or three “veterans” were advancing towards her. She was able to blurt out that, “they’re coming for you next, Will. They know your name and the location of your…”
The last sounds were of hacking and of the woman’s death throes. Then silence.
Will, the paterfamilias, calmly stood and gave orders: Jacob—the Black foreman—”round up all the employees and get them to the hiding places in the forest”; John—the eldest son and chief hunting guide—”go out to the bunker and bring the three Suburbans and enough firepower for everyone her”; Trinity—the Black family cook and housekeeper—”fix quick meals for the families and the rest of us who have to get away”; Doug, Ryan, Rolihlahla, Nkosi, Silumko, and Mpilo—the hunting safari men—”take one bag, and your necessary hunting equipment and meet out front in five minutes.”
I walked out the back door and watched the ground open up from what might have passed as nothing more than a potato cellar. Three 1999 black Chevrolet Suburbans pulled out of the under-ground bunker and drove to the front of the farmhouse. I watched the orderly retreat of the entire Black employee staff head off in the direction of the forest as I waited my turn to receive a weapon. Will and his son quickly handed each man entering a Suburban a Belgian FN submachine gun with a terse and to the point explanation of how to work it.
Inside the vehicle was comfortable, but the walls of the car were thick—bullet proofed, as were the very darkened windows. We drove across a wide stretch of the country until we came to Bulawayo, the former capital city of the Zulus when they ruled the territory. We split up, and I was taken to a very backwoods section of the city over rutted dirt roads to a motel. To call it a “hole in the wall” would be pollyannaish.
I slept well because I was very tired. In the morning, I put on several layers of clothes because it was so cold out. At a ridiculously early hour, we and our artillery were picked up, we went to another cousin’s little café for breakfast. Afterwards, we kept to the back roads. Although Bulawayo is a fairly diverse and cosmopolitan city, we saw nary a White face. Even Black people were keeping pretty much out of sight.
We drove north and east for several hours until we pulled into the road of a farmhouse much like Will’s. While I was sleeping, Will and my South African guide had arranged for us to hunt for Sable on the large farm—ranch to you American Westerners.
The paterfamilias gave us a rough map of where to go to find the herd of Sable and some advice, “Take a little detour off road to a camp where “veterans” are staying. You have to get their permission, because they now own the farm.”
He had to grit his teeth as he said it.
We did as we were told. The camp was as rudimentary as they come. Just rough mats on the ground and thin blankets for defense against the cold. There were a few carcasses of rabbits on spits, but no other signs of food. There were four “veterans” of the war of two decades earlier, none of them older than about sixteen as close as I could ascertain. They were filthy with matted hair, no shoes, and ragtag tee shirts and short pants. Their eyes were hollow; their bodies gaunt, and their demeanor beat-down.
The guides spoke to them in a mix of Xhosa, and isiZulu full of tongue clicking. They were genuinely glad to have some adults around; they had no idea why they were forced by the government to come out into the wilds; and they were starving.
We promised to bring them meat as soon as we got some and drove off for the hunt. It was less than an hour away when we first spotted the large herd of Sable feeding in an open grassy area between two copses of thorn trees. We parked our vehicle, checked the wind direction, and made a circuitous approach to the herd.
Careful as we were, the sable became a little spooked and moved into a grove of trees and resumed feeding. My main guide and I crawled on our hands and knees into the edge of the trees where we could see our sable herd. In a matter of minutes, we both fixed our eyes on a magnificent bull who frustratingly wandered around the herd preventing any kind of shot. The sun was still up, but it was cold. I was glad I had put on as many layers as I did.
The herd remained in place, and the lead bull never showed himself alone to allow a shot. In Africa, there is scarcely any dusk. The daylight moved into darkness in a matter of minutes, and the temperature dropped twenty points. My clothes were not adequate then, and I shivered, and my teeth chattered through the sleepless night.
We awakened to the same song, different day’s verse. The bull still refused to accommodate us. So passed another day, and even another. We had brought water but no food because we knew we would be back to the farmhouse for a dinner of Sable steaks before dark of the first day. Wrong.
I was weak from hunger, when, on the third day of being cold, hungry, and exceedingly cramped and uncomfortable, my guide and I both saw our king of sables step out of the shadows and the crowd to bask in the morning sun. I set my .375 rifle on a tripod and took very firm and careful aim, working to control the shaking. I knew this was to be my one shot, and I concentrated, took a deep long breath, slowly exhaled, and squeezed the trigger. The sound was deafening; the herd evaporated into the dense thicket without a trace, and we scanned the ground for our quarry. The guide—whose eyes were considerably better than mine—saw it first.
“Good shot,” he said laconically. Words are precious, and he was a thrifty guy.
Besides, it was not much of a shot. Maybe 30 yards with nothing in the way, and the big sable highlighted in the soft light of post dawn.
Having heard only one shot, the tracker and skinner left the warm truck and hurried to where they had left us, knowing that one shot meant a clean kill. I was glad to help with the gutting and skinning. I am not at all skittish about blood, and the insides of the big antelope were warm. The only thing I did not think I was up to was skinning around the face and especially the eyelids, since this was to be a whole mount.
We wrapped the skinned carcass in a clean blanket and heavily salted and rolled the skin up for transportation. We were back at the farmhouse in less than two hours. Every member of the household was there to welcome us home—Black and White, dog and man. We were bringing food to people’s stomachs could not remember what meat felt like.
Children hugged my legs, big-bottomed women hugged me and swept me off my feet—literally. The farmer’s wife and three children wept for joy and relief. It was a joyful moment.
The farmer remembered his necessary bit of politics, “Ephraim,” he said to the headman of the Blacks, “please go up and invite the “veterans” to brunch.”
Ephraim drove the farm truck and returned shortly with the famished young “veterans” in tow. They willingly and enthusiastically helped the family and the employees cut off choice big pieces of brisket, backstrap, and hind quarters, into three inch thick foot long steaks. One of the “veterans” helped a farm hand dig a foot deep pit and set fire to a pile of acacia sticks and burned them down to glowing coals.
Every person—man, woman, child, Black, White, owner, former owner, and hunting team, took a piece of steak and threw it on the glowing coals and ashes. Then we all sat around the fire, huddling close for warmth, no matter what our status on that day, and feasted.
The farmer sought me out.
“I’m glad you got your sable, Mate,” he told me, “I have a favor to ask. Who knows when we will be able to harvest meat again. The so-called young “veterans” don’t care one whit about you hunting and are pleased as punch to have you provide some more meat. I know where there is a great bull kudu. If you agree, you could pay me the hunter’s fee and keep the trophy. That will give us money enough and meat enough to last the family and our new owners for a year. They don’t even know what money is. That should let us leave this extremely dangerous place and get to somewhere safe and with enough food and barter.”
I agreed, and that afternoon we went to the place the big kudu had been seen. Sure enough, it ran up the road ahead of us. I got out and made a 100-yard shot. We headed back toward the farm house. On the way, we picked up the “veterans” to let them have their choice of the meat, a little nod to good relations. We brought the kudu to the front yard, dressed, cleaned, and skinned it. Different from all other times, we did not discard the gut sack.
The “veterans” were overjoyed to have first choice at the pickings from the massive kudu. They quickly chose the intestines, kidneys, spleen, and a portion of the liver. There was some poorly suppressed disapproval from the household Blacks; they considered it unfair that they did not get their share of the best stuff. The bad stuff—steaks, chops, backstraps, and brisket—left to us was our lot, since the “veterans” outranked us. It was the only oppressive thing they did so far as we could see.
On the way back to the Harare Airport, we paused in Bulawayo to see what Will considered was the best emporium in Zimbabwe. The place was empty of customers. The owner and four black employees stood by yearning to wait on us. The store had a large amount of handsome cutlery, antiques, wood carvings, and stone head carvings. I liked several items, but I could not see how I would be able to carry such large and heavy things in my luggage.
The owner took me aside and told me, “This is our last day in business, Doctor. We need a sale that will give each of us—me and my four employees—to get bus fare and a little food to get us to the border. Mugabe is coming after us… he said so. We have to leave before closing time. Please have a look at something very valuable to us. I hope you will also appreciate it.”
He showed me a beautifully bound collection of African Hunting volumes—twenty in all. The lettering was vivid gold leaf, and the volumes were in perfect condition. He quoted a price for the entire set. I thought I could not afford it, but I could not be party to the man’s and his revered workers’ fate. I agreed.
He called his men together, and they were overjoyed. They told me that this would allow them and their families to start a new life.
“We’ll close the place down right now and take the set to the post office to send it to your home. We have time… barely, but we will help you, and then we can escape.”
He was as good as his word, and the books came to my home in Utah in about two weeks carefully boxed and with a small formal thank you card. I have never been able to contact him again, nor could I find the farm family with whom I had shared meat from an ashes pit.
Karl Douglas Nielson [1940-], B.S., M.D., F.A.C.S., F.A.A.N.S., pseudonym Carl Douglass