by Nancy McDaniel
I was sitting on the observation platform at Nyamandhlovu, in Hwange National Park in northwestern Zimbabwe. It was in August 1995 and I was part of a group who was helping a scientist study elephants. We were counting and observing interactions between elephants and other animals at a water hole in a drought season. Fascinating work. Like a stationery safari, all day long, just watching hundreds of animals. I loved it.
Ol’ Blue Eyes
And then one day, I saw a man with the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen. Bluer even than Paul Newman’s. I heard the Zim accent as he talked to my colleagues about highly endangered Black Rhinos – something about the government entrusting him with some to care for on his farm. I wanted so much to talk to him but I was too busy. I was observing, “sexing” (not nearly as exciting as it sounds, but sometimes difficult to ascertain how many males and how many female animals there were in a group) and counting juveniles, sub-adults and adults and I just could not leave my post. Ah, the rigors of science! But I asked my friends who he was – oh, they said, a guy who has a big farm somewhere in Zimbabwe and is taking some people on safari. He said he’d be around for a couple of days. Oh good, I thought, perhaps there will be another chance to talk to him.
Setting the Trap
The next day I saw his vehicle approaching and decided it was time for a well-orchestrated, spontaneous break. I arranged myself in the sun on the stairs leading up to the viewing platform. I saw his penetrating blue eyes coming up the stairs first, followed closely by some really fine legs. It’s a strange thing but men from Zimbabwe, South Africa and Australia all seem to have great legs and wear really short shorts, unlike men in any other country I’ve ever been in.
And then there’s this thing about their eyes. Now, this is probably not too scientific but it seems to me that the eyes of the white Zimbabwean men are all blue. Not just any old blue: not gray blue, not medium blue but cobalt or indigo blue, the most intense shade of blue I’ve ever seen in eyes. Maybe it’s the contrast with their usually weathered, tanned skin from being out in the bush so much of the time, but whatever the cause, genetic or environmental, the effect is quite staggering.
Anyway, we started to talk and I found out that he was a professional hunter, with a game farm in central Zimbabwe and he was leading a (non-hunting) safari with two people from Australia. As we talked about the many rhinos that had been placed with him by the government for safekeeping, my anti-hunting eyes opened up to the fact that many hunters are truly ardent and passionate conservationists. We had a wonderful talk and discovered that he and his clients were staying in the same part of the park where my colleagues and I were. So we said we might meet for a drink later in the evening, after dinner. I found him fascinating. And quite exotic to my Midwestern sensibilities – a cobalt eyed professional hunter who cared for rhinos!
The Adventure Begins
My roommate and I cooked dinner for our other colleagues and I got all “dolled up” (as much as one can with limited clothing and makeup supplies, bad lighting and a shower in the ablution block down the path.) I was, of course, the brunt of much joking, wondering who I was going to meet, was he single and all that. But I was ready for an adventure and off I dashed, flashlight in hand, to the bar in the center of the camp.
He was there with his clients, with whom we drank and talked for awhile before they went off to bed to get a good night’s sleep before their early departure the next day. Not us. We talked and drank and talked and drank. He told me stories of his best friend, also a professional hunter, getting killed by an elephant because he took a foolish chance. And how the man’s widow wanted this guy (we’ll call him Ted) to find and kill the elephant. Ted refused, saying that it was not the elephant’s fault, that the man had done something terribly foolish and it was the way he would have probably wanted to go anyway. Part of a code of ethics for hunters, I presumed. It was quiet an emotional story. When he finished the story, we held hands.
The Plot Thickens
Then the coup-de-grace: The story about his sickly mother who committed suicide one night with some potion of vodka and ground up sleeping pills, the recipe for which she had read about in a do-it-yourself suicide book. He and his brother didn’t know she was that desperate and, had they known, he said they would have sat and drank and talked with her until they all said good-bye. By this time I was crying and sitting closer to him. Who knows if it was even a true story but, wow, was the trap set for me then.
“Shall we go for a walk?” he asked. “Of course,” I softly agreed. And off we stumbled into the pitch black African night, along the unlighted path with only the bright stars to guide us.
We walked, then stopped to kiss, walked some more, kissed some more. He asked me, predictably, to go back with him to his chalet. I demurred, still hanging on to my senses by a shred, trying to maintain some semblance of propriety. Finally, he gently tripped me, pushed me onto the hard packed African ground, lay on top of me and things got a bit more intense. It reminded me of high school,trying to remember what “base” we were at, doing “everything but.” Lying there, alternately looking up at him and the stars, while trying to catch my breath, maintain some composure and keep some of my clothes on, I had several thoughts: What if someone comes by (they didn’t), do I really want to be here (well, I’m not really sure) and who IS this man really (never knew).
Finally, I gasped out loud, “Omigod, it’s a kudu!” as a 500 pound antelope slowly walked within 25 feet of us. It didn’t seem to bother this majestic, horned beast (the kudu, not Ted); he just stared for a minute, then ambled off into the night.
The Last “Straw”
Ted still wanted to go back to his chalet and I guess you can’t blame him for asking. The sandy, stony ground was pretty uncomfortable, after all. I continued to hesitate, seeming to regress to my always indecisive college years. Finally, in my extremely disheveled state, I tried to be ever so responsible – and evasive – by saying, “Maybe, but only if you happened to have….” And then, with a start, Ted abruptly stood up, reached into his front jeans’ pocket and, like a knight drawing out his sword with a flourish, he quickly drew out the tie-breaker and waved it aloft in triumph!
I wondered, just for a moment, do Professional Hunters share the Boy Scouts’ motto of “Be Prepared?”