The Palit Journals

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

South Africa Day 1 - The greenhorn hunts

Jet lag is a bitch.

Jittery from lack of sleep, my confidence in my archery skills is now blunted by an uninspiring 6:30 am warm-up session. What was a 2 inch group at 30 yards at the range is now a 4 inch group at 20. Where is that god-damned rifle..?? I ask myself for the umpteenth time. But it's time I stow my misgivings and quit grumbling. I try not to let apprehension show on my face when our professional hunters pick us up for the first morning of hunting.

For the next two weeks I get my own PH - Mecheil is all of 21 years. One of the youngest African PHs. It's going to be his job to teach me to hunt, African style. You have no idea what you've signed up for kid... We get dropped off at a blind a few miles into the hunting area. A watering hole lies 17 yards away. Guinea fowl blanket the ground. A number of Kudu wander by, a few small bulls in the herd. We leave them alone to enjoy their teenage years unmolested. During downtime, Mecheil and I sort out the rules of engagement. When to shoot, when to draw down. What makes a trophy and our follow-up strategies. What kind of hunting style suits me the best. Bowhunting from a blind seems like a nice way to wake up. Yeah, speak for yourself, grumbles the wolf. I'm hungry. How long do you want me to polish my nails and chew on stale gristle?


Some ornery warthogs scuffle in, to be followed by small numbers of Impala. Warthog are the most comical animals in Africa. They waddle, not walk. They root through the mud, with none of the elegant grazing habits of the horned antelopes. Yet they present the most challenging of hunts. Mecheil and I laugh silently at this trio. They decided to play with the old rubber bucket near the blind. They play for a while, then disappear where they came from. I snap some video, the whirr of the camera sends a few skittish roebuck back into the bush.


And oh the Roebuck.. Compact, elegant, proud, words fail to describe what it feels like to get within 25 yards of these splendid animals. They are nervous wrecks near a water hole. Jumping at errant gusts of wind. A Kudu barks. They disappear. Not easy to bowhunt. But then, there isn't a game animal on the planet who doesn't present a challenge to the bowhunter. I let this young ram pass by. He still has years left in the herd. I take lots and lots of pictures. My other weapon is a Sony Rebel xTi digital SLR.

The first day is uneventful for me. I drink in the pure air. Savor the quiet hot afternoons, the clear sky. Even the dusty barren winter landscape has an unspoilt, untarnished beauty to it. I lean back in the blind and let the warm African evening wash over me. I don't draw my bow on any animal. You have two weeks and I'm barely awake, so cut me some slack, grumbles the wolf. Where's my coffee?

6:00 pm. Crackle, spit, fizzle. The radio erupts with choppy Afrikaans, shattering the quiet. John just shot a black wildebeest at dusk. When the land rover picks us up, we meet up with John & Morne. Light is fading fast. The wildebeest is in the bush, wounded and dangerous. We decide to give him some time and head back to the ranch house for a simple dinner. And here, I'm being a bit facetious. There was nothing simple about dinners at the ranch. I could devote entire posts on the menu - kudu steaks, warthog sausage... But this is a hunting story, so back to the wildebeeste.

Better to not leave the bull to die alone, muses Morne over the fireplace. Too many jackals. Besides, there are at least two leopards in the area. He could be stripped clean by dawn. We look at each other. Lets go find him.

The wolf bares his teeth. Now *this* is finally getting interesting. He pads on unseen feet next to me as we prepare for a risky night search.

We drive to the blind where John had made his shot from. A 100 grain broadhead, 700+ grains of arrow from a 70lb compound bow will do a lot of damage. But this *is* a wildebeest. They are tough as nails, known to attack when cornered, and not easy prey for even the big African cats. Tracking one wounded through the dark bush at night is not exactly safe. We follow tracks and a blood trail. Or to be more precise. Morne follows the tracks and trail with Papi and Mecheil, John and I try to stay out of the way. I'm clutching a flashlight and trying to stick close to at least one person with a rifle. Papi is a tracker and skinner extraordinaire. More about him later.

I learnt a lot about pattern matching that night. Blood dries on the sandy African soil in an instant. Look for small brown stones, advised Mecheil. Then touch them to see if they crumble in your fingers. It's likely to be blood.

Papi and Morne catch up to the bull. By this time we are over a 1000 yards from where we started. It felt more like a million. The tracks weave and disappear, then reappear out of nowhere. They backtrack, and we follow. Like Sherlock Holmes chasing an African mystery-man. Like an episode of CSI - Thabazimbi that will never be filmed. The bull has found a quiet place to lie down. He's finished. Papi, Papi... STOP, STOP, STOP! Get DOWN!! Get DOWN!! Morne yells as he squeezes a shot from his .308 into the animal. BOOM. It turns out it was the right thing to do. Papi was about to walk right on top of it. We like Papi to stay unharmed and I'm sure Papi shares that sentiment.

Snarl.... the wolf blinks. He turns and looks at me with one eye, grinning. Feed me! I look away.

It's almost anticlimactic after that. We drag 1000 pounds of animal through the forest and load up the truck. John pitches in enthusiastically. He's caught his third wind of the day.

10:00 pm. I'm in my room. Exhausted. Exhilarated. Happy that John found his wildebeest. Tomorrow, it's my turn.

About freaking time. The wolf yawns and bares his teeth. I'm bored. Are you going to hunt, or take pictures all day? Wimp!

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South Africa, Day 0 - First Impressions

The 16 hours from D.C. to Johannesburg (Jo'burg to the locals) is best left out of this story. Cramped coach-style claustrophobia; and nothing else.

Airport looks modern enough, were my first thoughts off the plane. No thatched huts, no strutting guards with automatic AKs, no 60's era hand-me-down technology. This should teach you to listen to geographically challenged friends and their myths about Africa..! No, really..! Our host and head PH Morne Coetzer met us at the gates. Our SAPS paperwork was pre-approved, which meant we didn't have to stand in line at the police station filling out our firearm permit. Yes, you beat the system, you wise and thoughtful dog, you.. Well, not really. My rifle didn't make the journey to Africa with me. AWOL. Stuck in airport hell at D.C. I decided I didn't really care. The bow made it in one piece. John's Encore came in as well. Morne assured me I could use his rifle if I needed to. I decided I really didn't care. I was here to hunt. I could hunt just as well with the bow. Heck, give me a knife, a bit of obsidian flint...

The drive to the Uhuru ranch was quite memorable. We left the airport and headed for Thabazimbi, threaded our way through a maze of highways that could be confused with any urban setting in the United States. Is this the Africa that blankets seemingly all media coverage out of this continent? European and Asian automobiles jostle for space as Morne's little red jeep threads its way out of the urban jungle. As the sun sets, the African bush peeks through the slim slice of civilization that is the road. Brief glimpses of unidentifiable antelope in the distance. Blesbok herds fading into the tall grass. Tantalizing hints of Kudu disappearing over a distant ridge.

Then the bush closes in. Dense, clumped and immense swaths of forest. Paved road thins out as we drive on. The headlights of the jeep overpower the dim light of the waning moon. Hunting's going to be good, Morne grins from the drivers seat. I nod uncomprehendingly. I've no idea what that means. What does good mean in the context of an African safari? All I can think of is this; I'm in Africa. I'm *IN* freaking Africa. No way! Yes way!...

Abruptly, we turn into a dirt country road and a short drive later, we drive into the Uhuru Hunting Lodge. I'm dirty, smell like I've been stuck on airplanes for 20 hours. No time for a tour, even less for pleasantries. I'll come get you guys tomorrow at 7:00 am. Stretch your muscles, check your bow, settle your nerves down. With that, Morne bid us good night. I walk into my private cabin and a date with a hot shower.

You're in Africa. The voice in my head is giddy with excitement. No I'm not. I'm somewhere else, suspended between continents. I'm worried about work, wife, the dog. My garden might wilt. I pause to check the stubble on my chin, and decide shaving is optional for the rest of the week. So shut up already and get some sleep. Tomorrow you hunt. Don't make a fool of yourself. Try not to be such an obvious greenhorn. Despite the tiredness seeping into my bones, I feel a shiver of primal excitement. It's time to strip the flimsy city slicker sheen off. Let the wolf out

Wonder what he's like. You know, the wolf. Does he howl? Is he blind like a newborn? Is he a terrible shot with the rifle? Will he trip over the bowstring? Fumble every stalk? Will the wolf walk away from the kill? You'll find out soon enough. The voice smirks disquietingly.

Last thoughts as I drift off to sleep. Hope the thatched roof is thick enough to repel the curious leopard...

My cabin at the Uhuru Hunting Lodge; and yes, the two feet of thatch are quite cat-proof.

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Thursday, August 2, 2007

For the want of a screw, the hunt was nearly lost.

The rifle for this Africa hunt is my Tikka T3 in the ever so reliable 308 Winchester. I am a one-rifle man. I believe a man should own only one rifle at any point in his life. He must learn how to shoot dime-sized groups blindfolded. He must feed it the right ammunition. He must keep it clean and well oiled, like a newborns, umm, rump!

He must try very hard not to do silly, maudlin things like naming it after a girl. So of course, I use nothing but my own carefully weighed and well-tuned handloads for Buffy - she of the unerring aim and, er, undead-slaying skills. With180 gr Hornady Interbonds, 42 gr. Varget, Federal 210 primers in Lapua match quality brass, she can do sub-MOA at a 100 yards.

Buffy also lost a trigger guard screw a few days before the hunt. Now mind you, this is a screw that keeps the stock attached to the action as well. This is not a good thing to happen days before the hunt of a lifetime. Certainly not a very respectful thing for a man to do to his rifle. Tsk.

Disaster, quite naturally, comes with company. What happens when you take a Finnish rifle, imported by an Italian company into the United States? Give up? You get a spare parts nightmare. No one has these strange little screws in stock. Not Brownells, Midway or any of the many online retailers. A frantic trip to the local Gander Mountain yielded nothing more than some very sympathetic gunsmiths. Finally, my hunting partner and good friend John manages to find someone at Beretta who has these screws. A few phone calls, credit card charges and one overnight package later, I now have a spare set of the worlds most expensive screws.

Buffy lives, and the hunt is saved.

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Butterfly, meet tummy

A few more hours. A few more sleepless, bed-turning hours, and if all goes well, I will set out for the Dark Continent. Africa. The Highveld is where I'm headed, for two full weeks of plains game bow and rifle hunting with Uhuru Safaris, a small, family run outfit. The more I read about hunting the continent, the less I feel I understand. It's not tree stand hunting for deer at the edge of Illinois cornfields, that much even a novice like me has figured out.

This is going to be like nothing I have ever experienced. Imagine, if you will, waking up at the crack of dawn. Stealing a march on sunrise, and heading out into the wild, open country on a beat-up land-rover. Stalking stately Kudu as they glide through the mist. racing to catch up with herds of Blue Wildebeest, or creeping up to the Gemsbok - desert warrior. Alright, I give up - I cannot. It's not registering. I'm going to Africa, I'm going to Africa . Say it again - AF-RI-CA!! The mind reels, and refuses to comprehend the enormity of what's about to happen. My wife notes that I've been rather quiet all evening. Preoccupied to the point where I messed up our ritual Chipotle dinner order. Got the salsa mixed up, put guacamole on the wrong order. This never happens to me. I could barely taste my dinner. I'm thirsty and my heart keeps racing for no real reason.

Hello butterfly, meet tummy.

The wait is killing me.

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Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Pardon us, for we are French

While large French Angel sightings are relatively common, it is unusual to see more than one or two congregating in a natural setting. We were greeted towards the end of one of our dives (at Vista Blue) with a group of four of these large, graceful and yet prissy fish who were really quite friendly. Maybe it's a Pavlovian response to big bubbly creatures who bring food in their wake.

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A turtle, my regulator for a turtle!

After two trips to Bonaire with no turtle sightings, this year finally ended the drought. We saw turtles on at least 4 dives that week. Some were juvenile hawksbills, which is always a rare treat. This little guy was cruising the reefs of "Something Special" (one of the more unimaginative dive site names at Bonaire). As usual, pictures were taken by the wife, who is a natural at underwater photography and a faster swimmer to boot (all the better to chase "Crush" with, heh!)

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The first kill

Mid November and there I was; muzzle loader in hand with 3 feet of snow on the ground. My feet freezing, two day stubble gone hoary. Skin numb to the touch. As near as I could figure, he was a year-old spike not entirely sure how to cross a fast flowing creek of snow and icy water. I tracked him through the scope as he walked through bullet-busting brush and dense tree cover - hesitant to squeeze the trigger until I had a clear shot.

He paused at the streams edge, looked up and away from me. The rifle roared, the world grew silent, and the sulfur smell of burnt black powder singed my nostrils. The deer jumped, cleared the stream in a single bound and disappeared from sight.

Shit, shit, shit...! Your first deer and you missed, you imbecile!

I gathered my shaking wits, folded up the little swivel seat, slung the now useless muzzle loader on my shoulder and crept the 80 yards to the waters edge. Feet of rubber, hands shaking. Funny, my face feels hot, I said to myself.

The fresh white snow was drenched with the spatter of blood. Got him..!

He was piled up less than 30 yards away in a tight clump of trees. A blind man could have tracked him, I suppose. I turned him over, still warm to the touch. Shaking hands went for the camera phone. Idiot that I was, the nice camera was in the car. I was tired hunting a few weeks in a row, and had decided that the minimalist approach was the best. Gear not directly related to killing a deer gets left behind. Ah well.

Field dressing was quite the interesting experience. I was already sweating in twenty degree weather. It was 4:00 pm. Darkness not so far away. I took off my jacket, vented out some of the heat, wiped as much sweat from me as I could. I slipped on the dressing gloves, got out the knife and twine. Then I went over the instructions I had so meticulously practiced in my head. It was a complete blank. Idiota...! Working with the fading light, I had to improvise. Okay, have to get the guts out, cannot puncture any of it and spoil the meat. Then I need to cool the meat down. Okay, okay, thats all I need to know... and so I got started.

Surprisingly easy, once you get the hang of it. Like unzipping a coat. I cut the esophagus, then pulled the all the organs out with relative ease, cutting away every so often at the connecting tissues. The rest was easy. Plenty of snow on the ground, which I packed the cavity with. After cleaning up, tying the carcass up to a harness I was off to my car.

Not so fast!

Two miles of snow covered trails are in my way. So I start dragging 100 pounds of deer through the ground. Not a trifling task, let me tell you. That next turn in the path looks easy enough when all you are packing is a 6 lb rifle. Getting my deer back to base camp took over an hour.

Finally, it was over. Wrapped in a tarp in the back of the car. My first deer. My first kill. I remember howling at the gray sky. At the moon hiding from my grinning face. At everyone who had snickered at the city boy who thought he could teach himself to hunt. This is my deer, my meat, and you better ask me politely if you want some.

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Feeding Blue Tang

They move like they are one, swoop and swirl and writhe like a sea-serpent. This was off Leonara's Reef, a dive site on the northern side of the main island of Bonaire. Better done by boat than as a shore dive - pesky things like sheer cliffs get in the way. I recall these were filmed towards the end of our dive, around 35 ft. It's always amusing to see other fish species flocking to the Tang - as they coral-hop their way around the reef.

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Bonaire Blue Wrasse

Off the eastern coast of Klein Bonaire, not much more than a little pile of rock, coral and sand, lies Mi Dushi. Part of the fringing reef around Klein, it never fails to surprise and delight. This day we were rewarded by what is one of my favorite sights. Schools of blue wrasse traveling with the current - feeding along the way.


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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

A Test Post

A new template, a new account, the old site is archived - by all accounts, a new beginning