A Long Day in Masailand


I never planned on being a professional hunter, but being a white prosecuting attorney in a black country like Mugabe’s Zimbabwe was looking more and more like a frustrating way to go nowhere. After independence my country quickly followed the customary African line and disintegrated into a state of officially sanctioned corruption and lawlessness. One day, when I tried to do what I was paid to do, and bring justice to bear upon a minister’s bodyguard accused of armed robbery, the full force of the law—the real law—was aimed at me. Life became unpleasant. The writing was on the wall, but where was I to go, what to do?

I missed my life in the army, and strangely, I missed the war. The smell of cordite, the clatter of helicopters, and the memory of the blood brotherhood that few men other than soldiers under fire are lucky enough to know were a haunting memory. Rambunctious and reckless, we had thrown ourselves at the enemy determined to kill and conquer, but then, our battlefield had been a level one, for they too had guns, grenades, bayonets, and rockets. The rules were simple: the better, braver, and more skillful killers would get to go home to a cold beer, and they would live to fight another day. The vanquished would, well, be looted and dead. But that was another time, another place, and it was well and truly past.

Afterward, my mind had turned only reluctantly to the business of prosecuting the poor wretches who paraded out of the holding cells in the early mornings, heads down like lambs to the slaughter. Something did not appeal to me about applying intellect and a fine education to contrive the conviction and punishment of ignorant tribesmen. I sat in my office and looked forlornly at the pile of dockets awaiting my attention.

Then the phone rang. An army friend needed help setting up a hunting company in Matabeleland in western Zimbabwe. A short conversation and the thought of going back to the bush, well away from politics and unsavoury intrigue, was all it took for me to abandon the legal profession. I informed the attorney general of my decision and some of the reasons why, and he, being from the old school, understood and wished me well. My father, who had expended a significant sum in sending me to university, was less sanguine.

I had spent two years with my friend Trevor in Matabeleland when an offer arrived to move north to Zambia. During the next six years, it was my privilege to work various areas in the west of Zambia and then move east to the Luangwa Valley. It was a fabulous experience. The sheer wild beauty and the quantity and variety of game were for me a pleasure and a joy.

In 1989 my old pal Paddy “Bloodnut” Curtis, who had moved to Tanzania two years earlier, suggested a trip north to inspect the possibilities there. Immediately impressed by what I saw, I went to work for Luke Samaras Safaris in the Selous. Every day of hunting in that vast wilderness was a thrill and a pleasure. With so few wild places left on this overcrowded planet, I counted myself as one of a very few and very lucky. May that untamed tract of God’s earth somehow forever escape the destructive impulses of man.

And so it was that fifteen years after making the move from courtroom to country I found myself on safari in Masailand, northern Tanzania, seated on a camp bed in the overheated tent of Andy Wilkinson, my friend and fellow PH. He was racked with dysentery and malaria, and my limited medical skills were being called upon. I probed the bronzed skin with a needle, looking for a vein into which to run the saline solution that would bring back strength and life.

Hunting was out of the question for him, and his client, with his safari running out, had neither hunter nor buffalo. I had been hunting the parched and windy flatlands of Masailand in northern Tanzania for three months, and my mind was set on hitting the road and hastening into Arusha. There the beer would flow, and there was always the chance, albeit slim, of a passing beauty. But friendship and duty called, and Arusha would have to wait.

The rifles came out of their cases, magazines were recharged, unhappy trackers were stripped of their town clothes, and the vehicle was readied for an afternoon hunt. I figured this delay would be just for a day. My morale rose at the thought that, with a little luck, we would be done before sundown. We’d have only one more night in camp before we would dust ourselves off and then head for the Explorers Bar for lunch and lusting. All was not lost.

I went through a perfunctory briefing with my guest on the basics of buffalo hunting without labouring the subject. With little enthusiasm we fired up the vehicle and headed for the riverine thicket on the ever-dry Simanjiro, where buffalo lay up during the day. My hunting client was a young cattle trader by the name of Paul Hicks from Dallas, Texas. He was the type of American that Americans can be proud of—a thoroughly decent man, exuberant, energetic, and imbued with that classic American “can do” spirit. It is thanks to him that I live to write this story.

My tracker was Miragi, a small man with a sparkling smile, boundless energy, and most pleasant disposition. When I had arrived in Tanzania six years before with little idea of the language, local customs, or culture, Miragi had taken me under his wing. With his quiet but commanding decency, Miragi excelled at not minding me when it suited him, but his enthusiasm was always a tonic. As in most hunter/tracker relationships there were many times when I desperately wanted to wring his slender neck, but we inevitably muddled through and always found a way to have a laugh by the end of the day.

The exact time of day escapes me now, but we were moving slowly alongside a thicket, and the sun was on the wane, when a lone bull appeared out of the brush and stood in the open. Typically, it thrust its nose in the air and faced us. Miragi, as usual, was making too much noise and had to be silenced.

I whispered to Paul, and clutching the shooting stick, eased him slowly over to a vantage point to set up the shot. With his scoped .375 in hand, he positioned himself behind the stick. I told him to relax and wait until the animal turned side on, which would provide an easier shot. The range was approximately 150 yards, an acceptable distance in a situation like this. But a shot into the chest cavity, with the animal head on, would be risky. This would be Paul’s first crack at a buffalo, and it was important for his confidence that he get it right.

With the target before us, it was clear to me, though, that the excitement was getting the better of him. I told him to relax and hold his fire until the target changed position and then fire immediately, aiming right behind the shoulder about halfway up the body. He didn’t wait. The rifle barked, and a round appeared to rip into the buffalo’s brisket. Instinctively, I suspected a poor shot, one that was unlikely to be fatal. My annoyance was difficult for me to hide because it now seemed certain that I had a wounded animal on my hands—the very situation I had sought to avoid. Only two days previously I had dealt with a wounded buffalo in similar circumstances, so it was no secret what was in store for me—and all of it arduous. My chances of getting to Arusha by morning were looking decidedly bleak. I went into a sulk.

The vegetation lining the riverbeds was a nightmare of dense Combretum thorn, and the hard, rocky ground made tracking difficult and dangerous. The dense cover offered little visibility, making future encounters almost certain to be at very close range.

With Miragi alongside me, we set off to look for tracks; a government game scout, armed with an AK-47, and Paul brought up the rear. The specks of blood where the animal had stood brought bad news: It was a heavy red colour, which indicated the likelihood of a muscle wound. I had hoped for an aerated, pinker hue that would indicate a punctured lung and a mortally wounded animal. Now that was looking unlikely.

When we entered the thicket, we moved quickly and a little recklessly, but such was my mood. Caution was not foremost in my mind as I pressured Miragi to move faster, in the hope that we would succeed in catching up to and finishing off our quarry before dark. The little tracker was clearly battling the fear that comes with moving injudiciously through thick bush in pursuit of dangerous game, but he received no slack from me. Then, in the last moments of daylight, a solid black hump loomed ahead of us, but its exact nature was not clear.

Creeping closer we found that it was indeed a buffalo, but was it the wounded one? I felt very tempted to shoot first and “ground check” later, but I restrained myself and crept closer. Suddenly the animal sprang up and bolted away, and it was with complete dismay that I noted a pool of blood where it had been lying. My chances of bringing these proceedings to an end were gone. The following morning was certain to be long, grueling, and dangerous. I returned in sullen silence to the vehicle and drove back to camp. Poor Paul felt awful, and my sullen mood did nothing to help the strain we all felt.

On getting back to camp, we received the news that Andy had been taken to the hospital in Arusha. Concerned about him, and concerned for myself, I went to my tent, poured a strong whisky, and pondered. Then I opened my journal to record the events of the day, letting my irritation spill out. Flipping back through time to try to figure the number of wounded buffalo that had blocked my path, I was troubled to note that the number was far higher than I had realized. Perhaps the law of averages was closing in. I wrote, as it turned out somewhat presciently: “Looking back through the years, I’ve been bloody lucky. Wonder when one of these boys is going to get lucky and get me. Don’t feel good about this one—he’s frisky as hell.” That night I excused myself from dinner and, following a few more calming drinks, slept.

Early the next morning I explained to Paul that he was under no compulsion to accompany us; in fact, I urged him to remain behind. But he was most adamant about helping to finish the job. A client injured on safari brought with it the possibility of a lawsuit, and we had all heard the horror stories about litigation in the United States. But that did not seem likely here. Unlike many clients, Paul had an air of competence about him, and I felt that he would be a help rather than a hindrance.

Just as dawn was breaking, we arrived at the spot where we had left the spoor the previous evening, and without further ado we set off. We made good progress at first, but then the spots of blood appeared less and less frequently; it became increasingly difficult to separate our quarry from other tracks. Without blood sign we might be following any animal; it was imperative that we find those telltale spots of red.

It was beginning to look to me as if this buffalo had suffered little more than a flesh wound. The bullet could well have followed a trajectory between shoulder and chest cavity causing no more than muscle or ligament damage. But there was always the chance that the solid, carrying considerable penetrative power, might have raked down the body, missing the heart and lungs but tearing into the stomach. That would leave the animal in terrible pain and certain to die slowly of peritonitis. I wanted to prevent that.

The paucity of blood might be explained by the bullet’s failing to exit the body, leaving nothing more than a tiny entry wound in the buffalo’s chest. I needed another look at that buffalo before I decided my next move. Experience had taught me that it was unlikely that I would get another chance to assess the damage, particularly in the type of terrain we were now operating in, but hope springs eternal.

On we went, slowly and methodically, often on hands and knees, to find what might be a speck of blood on a blade of grass or a leaf. The sun climbed overhead, and its heat bore down with all its East African fervour. A sweat induced by sun and fear poured forth, and as the discomfort and exasperation increased the temptation to discard caution became more and more difficult to resist. Despite the increasingly slow pace, my exhortations to Miragi to move faster proved futile. It was approximately 9:00 A.M., we had yet to stop for a break, and we had covered very little ground in the three hours since starting out earlier.

On two occasions we discovered where the buffalo had been resting in the shade prior to being disturbed by our approach. The thicket was not widening a great deal, and the ravine on our right was in most places too precipitous to be easily crossed by man or beast. However, the wind was generally blowing up our backs, giving our prey a significant advantage. Buffalo, with a superb sense of smell, are virtually impossible to close with when downwind.

Taking all this into account, our present tactic made little sense. I decided to take a chance and walk quickly ahead of the rest of the party in the hope that my movement would flush out the buffalo, bring it to bear, and offer an opportunity to terminate this unwelcome hunt one way or another. The inherent dangers of my plan were obvious, but my frustration and determination to finish the job made me careless. Apprising the rest of the party of my intentions, I set off, asking them to stay as close to my rear as possible.

Taking cursory note of the tracks, I moved at a fast pace where the thorn and the denseness of brush permitted. With the safety on my rifle off, I worked hard to focus on the area immediately ahead. The well-known error of looking too far into the distance and missing the danger that lurks nearby occupied my mind. After about an hour I spied something black ahead. I halted instantly and brought my rifle to my shoulder, ready to fire. It was not clear to me whether it was animate or not, and I crept closer, eventually flattening onto my belly and slithering closer.

Just at that point, while I was transferring the rifle to one hand to move myself in closer, the blackness burst into life and crashed away. Furious, I leaped to my feet and followed. The vegetation was daunting, but I was determined not to lose this chance. I blundered forth with all the stamina I could muster, hoping that this buffalo would stop momentarily to look behind it, giving me a target at which to fire. My mind was made up: This was my buffalo, and I would destroy it.

To my consternation, the wounded animal wheeled left out of the thicket and into the open, compelling me to do likewise. I had to dig deep to find the energy to maintain the pace. The distance between us was too great for me to stop and fire. There was no option but to maintain my speed. Suddenly it veered right and crashed back into the cover of the Combretum. Eyes blurred by sweat and limbs quivering with exertion, I ran toward the spot with complete recklessness, gambling in exhausted abandon that I would get in a shot before it crossed the ravine.

As I burst into the thicket, the sound of crashing reached my ears. Exhilaration at the thought of ending this pursuit pumped me forward, and I wrestled through thorns that tore into my clothes and skin until at last I came to a standstill. Almost as if in a bad dream, I found myself motionless, helpless. Exasperated, I flung myself down and again tried to snake my way forward, slithering under the brush. Eventually I arrived in a small clearing with room to stand. I stood dead still, straining my ears and eyes for sign of my foe. All now was silence. Nearby the drop into the riverbed was too steep for the bull to have crossed to the other side, so it had to be close but hidden from view.

Glancing nervously down I saw the churned soil made by the hoofs of a running buffalo. All my senses silently roared at me that it was near, but where? Somewhere close the buffalo waited. The hunter and hunted were now committed to confrontation. But it almost seemed that our roles had changed.

A charging buffalo is very difficult to stop. It comes with its head low to the ground but with snout raised and eyes fixed. The point of aim that will drop one is just below the boss, that helmetlike covering of horn that forms where the two horns meet. In older animals it forms a barrier solid enough to deflect a bullet from a high-powered rifle of the type I was using. One can, therefore, not shoot high or low, and the bull’s-eye is a spot a little over four inches square. Hitting it is a demanding test of skill and control under pressure for even the most experienced.

To add to my woes, the wind was blowing gently but resolutely in the direction of the tracks—tactically this buff was making no mistakes; it would keep the wind in its favour, and it knew exactly where I was. I did not enjoy the same advantage. Despite my being armed, the odds were with the buffalo.

Summoning every ounce of awareness with which we humans are endowed, I moved very slowly forward, searching every bush and cranny for signs of life. The chase and the charge at the thicket had left me sapped of strength and energy, and my rifle shook in my hands. One shot would probably be my lot, and missing the mark would quite likely make it my last. I heaved air into my lungs and tried to breathe steadily.

Despite my most diligent efforts, I saw nothing of the animal until it crashed out of the thicket to my rear, charging straight toward my back. I had just time to turn and face the commotion when it smashed into my hip with fearsome power, lifting me off the ground and sending me flying into the air. The thought of firing into its back from the air briefly crossed my mind, but it seemed pointless. And so, in what is a testament to the skill and cunning of these grand adversaries, I failed to fire a single shot.

My return to earth was a thumping one, and in doing so I lost the rifle from my hand. Winded and helpless, I watched the great beast lower its head and, with extreme malice, run into me again. Everything was dust and thudding, sickening pain, and blow after blow, until suddenly I was airborne again, impaled upon the animal’s right horn. The point had entered my groin and thrust up inside me to a point just below my liver. I hung motionless in midair for a brief moment, and then with terrific strength the animal flicked me over its head, whereupon I took up a position face down on its back, my head close to the base of his tail.

It is bizarre what thoughts go through one’s mind at times like these. It occurred to me what a bloody fool I must look to anyone observing this altercation, and I thanked the Good Lord that the audience was a small one. I tried in vain to grasp the tail in an attempt to remain where I was, out of range of the horns, but the buff bucked around with terrifying speed, sending me hurtling back to the dirt. Now it came at my head. I lifted my arm in a rather pathetic attempt to ward off the blow and was treated to the sight of my left bicep being separated from the bone by a slash of horn.

I waited in total submission for the next stroke, knowing it would almost certainly finish me. Quietly I watched, transfixed, stunned, in awe. The big black head with the small, black, beady eyes and the killer horns swung back, prior to plunging in again, when a rifle shot echoed through the brush. Instead of boring back into me, the buffalo’s muzzle suddenly jerked upward. That shot saved my life. I looked on in helpless bewilderment as another cracked over me, and the great beast crumpled to the ground like a boxer dropped by a rabbit punch. At the moment the bullet entered its brain, the buffalo was standing astride me, and when it fell the full weight of the animal came crushing down on my broken body. The rich, rancid smell of buffalo sweat filled my nostrils, and I struggled for breath.

Paul sprinted into view, and I realized that he had saved me from certain death with a shot that a second later might well have been too late. In the panic the rest of the party had disappeared into the bush, and suddenly it was all very quiet. I struggled to come to grips with what had just happened, and what would happen next.

The pain from my stomach and groin was exquisite, and I felt warm liquid pumping down my left trouser leg. My mouth was dry and full of sand. Breathing was difficult as I forced my hand down under the dead weight of the buffalo’s rib cage and brushed past the area where moments earlier my manhood had been. There I discovered to my terrible disappointment that now there was nothing, and then I noticed a large hole slightly to the left, into which I inserted my hand. To my further dismay I felt it disappear into my thigh and finally come up against my femur. Concluding quite logically that my scrotum had been torn off and my femoral artery severed, I reasoned that I had just seen my last hunt. My time was short.

With a calmness that surprised me, I announced to Paul, with what I thought commendable aplomb, that I was sure I was about to die. I asked him to perform a few chores for me following my departure. I really felt for the poor man. Here was his first serious hunting outing in Africa, and his professional hunter was about to die in the line of duty. Tears welled into his eyes as I tried to ease his remorse. Somehow I felt completely at peace, and my death, now seemingly imminent, held no fear for me.

I searched my conscience, as I think most people must in similar situations. Throughout my hunting career I had grappled with the morality of how I earned my living. Like many in my profession, I had had a deep and sincere love for the animals I hunted, and the fact haunted me somewhat. Although to the uninitiated it must sound a ridiculous contradiction, the realization that I was soon to pay back with my life for what I had taken was a source of heartfelt relief. Every day that I hunted I had savoured the joy that came with the privilege of being able to make a living in what was left of wild Africa, in the presence of Africa’s last great mammals. I felt no animosity toward the animal that had savaged me—only admiration and enormous respect.

There was also solace from the thought that death was coming with honour. I had done my duty and followed the buffalo as a hunter should, if he wishes his profession to be respected. Taking stock, I found some comfort in the fact that the old bull had done me in during a tussle fought out in traditional terms, and true to the ethics of the profession. All that remained was to leave with dignity and, dare I say, a little style. Then I pondered a life without the “wedding tackle” and let the subject drop from my mind. ‘Twas indeed time to go.

My mind flashed back to the people most dear to me, and in particular my family. I had been blessed with devoted parents and wonderful siblings, and I gave Paul details as to how to make contact with them, express my thanks, and say good-bye. I thought of the many friends with whom I had shared so many good times, but there was no time to deal with them all now, so silently I wished them all well.

I cast my mind back to some of the wonderful women with whom I had had so many happy times and was sorry to think that our paths would not cross again. And then I thought of Mandy, the beautiful girl I had spent a few days with in London a few months before. I asked Paul to give her my love and best wishes. I was ready to die.

Paul asked to say a prayer. Although of no serious religious persuasion, I was happy to agree. I closed my eyes and tried to follow the words while preparing myself to meet my maker.

Well, it must be known that there is something acutely embarrassing about going to considerable lengths to die stoically and then not doing so because one fails to expire. That, however, was precisely the predicament in which I found myself. After about five minutes it became clear to me that the injuries could not have been as serious as I had self-diagnosed. A punctured femoral artery would have certainly rendered me unconscious, and I was very much alert. My prophecy of imminent death had been wrong, and the pain in my groin and abdomen was now growing exquisite.

Sheepishly, I opened my eyes to look straight into the face of a puzzled Paul. Feeling a little guilty and somewhat stupid, I asked him to summon the others and to remove the buffalo. The Africans were reluctant to touch it. They are deeply suspicious of being close to death, and so it was with some timidity that they approached. But on seeing me alive they hauled the animal off. My legs were covered in blood, but it was not as severe as I had first feared. Removing my gun belt, Paul wrenched it tightly around my upper thigh as a tourniquet to stanch the flow.

I instructed Miragi and the scout to disappear with all possible haste, collect my vehicle, and return to load me up. Then there was nothing to do but lie and wait and hope. The intensity of the pain and the fear that I had suffered permanent damage to my masculinity and internal organs still left me with no great fear of death, but if I had a chance to live I resolved to make the most of it. I was blessed in my plight to have Paul, who was a reservoir of great strength and inspiration. His exhortations rallied me to rise to the challenge of staying alive.

With time passing very slowly, I lay in the dust and blood with the now nauseating smell of warm buffalo persistently wafting over me. It made me want to vomit, but the slightest abdominal movement racked me with pain. The thought of being sick was a dreadful one. All the time I kept my ear perked for the sound of the vehicle that would provide the first leg in what would be a long and uncertain journey to find help. I had no firm plan of action, but getting back to camp to access a radio and raise the alarm was a priority. Still, it was a long shot. Most of the hunting frequencies were rarely activated during the daytime hours, but there was always a chance and the only one available to me. Of no less importance was to get to the morphine at camp, which would dull the pain that was hanging heavily on me like a curse from hell.

To my profound consternation, there came the sound of breathless men running and the return of a panting Miragi. He announced that the keys to the vehicle were in the top pocket of my shirt, and indeed they were. Immobilized and utterly exhausted by pain, I simply closed my eyes and resisted the temptation to scream. Keys in hand, Miragi ran off to try again.

It was about 1:00 P.M. when the vehicle arrived at the edge of the thicket. The scout and tracker commenced hacking out a corridor through which to bring the vehicle to my side, in order to keep the distance of my transfer to a minimum.

With much chopping, breaking of branches, and swinging of pangas, the vehicle was edged ever closer until it was alongside. I was lifted as carefully as circumstances would allow into the back of the pickup and laid down to brace for the bumpy journey ahead.

But that too would have to wait. After two weeks on safari with no tire problems, Miragi announced that we now had a puncture: The wheel would have to be replaced. Biting my tongue to avoid crying, screaming, or both, I told him, with liberal use of extremely profane language, to get on with it.

In his career as a tracker Miragi had certainly changed not fewer than a thousand flat tires, but the trauma of recent events was taking its toll. He was all thumbs. A nervous wreck, he found the simple procedure beyond him. He fumbled with the high-lift jack until eventually the vehicle dislodged itself and thumped into the sand, sans wheel. This, it seemed, was not going to be my day.

Knowing that he would now have to use the smaller hydraulic jack to get the car off the ground to the point where the high-lift could be reinserted, I summoned all my self-control and began explaining the steps through teeth gritted more now in anger than in pain. As he followed my orders the vehicle began to rise. The wheel was changed, and finally we were roadworthy again.

Despite the heat and all available garments and cloths, my body temperature dropped, and cold shivers coursed through my body as we traveled the bumpy road back to camp. My spirits soared as we entered and I saw the tents. It would now be my pleasure, if nothing else, to acquire the morphine that would make whatever ordeal lay ahead considerably more bearable. But Lady Luck spurned me again. Andy, on being evacuated to Arusha, had removed the medical box and with it the painkiller that I desperately needed. There was no point in crying, but it was an option that was worth serious consideration.

My discomfort was now advanced to the point where it seemed certain I would not survive the four-hour journey over rough roads to Arusha. What’s more, even if I did, the medical attention that awaited me there was rudimentary. My only realistic chance was to reach Nairobi in Kenya, and the only way to get there was by plane.

Aware that the closest landing field was at Simanjiro Mission, some forty-five minutes away, I told a member of staff to transmit an all-stations emergency message, broadcasting my name, injuries, present whereabouts, and intended destination: the strip at Simanjiro Mission. Anyone listening was asked to try to have a plane sent there to evacuate me. He did so immediately, and my ear cocked to listen for a reply. There was only a mushy silence. I told him to keep at it. With my morale in the doldrums again, I asked the driver to press on to the mission, where I could only wait and hope.

Upon arrival we placed the vehicle alongside the strip. Soon word was out that there was a white man in the back of the truck who had been gored by a buffalo, and that generated tremendous excitement. With children surging around the vehicle, trying to catch a glimpse, I was startled to see a long-legged gentleman spring with ease and grace into the vehicle. He alighted, barefooted, with a big smile and torn shirt and trousers. With glee he brandished a fist full of syringes of the old metal variety that looked like the type used by veterinarians for dosing cattle. Showing commendable confidence in his own healing skills, he announced to me and the now wildly excited audience that he was a skilled physician and well equipped to deal with the ailments I presented. It was now only for me simply to allow him to go to work, and he would soon have the situation under control.

I explained to him that I was grateful to him for his concern and for his offer of help, but that I would rather take a chance on making it to Nairobi. That was a view he found completely unacceptable and contrary to my best interests. He protested loudly, with acclaim from his audience, and insisted that he was an excellent practitioner of Western medicine and that I was churlish to refuse. Giving him my steeliest of looks I warned him not to touch me. With the crowd grumbling their disapproval, he reluctantly departed the vehicle with a long-legged leap and stormed off into the distance, gesticulating wildly.

With pain throbbing through my entire body and shivering despite the heat, I was in despair as the reality of my predicament reasserted itself. The odds against a plane finding me seemed to have lengthened. Maybe this bleak location would be the setting for my end. When the noise of a distant engine vibrating vaguely in the distance came to me, I refused to allow myself to believe that this might be the salvation from the sky that would give me a chance. Then I heard the chatter of voices in Swahili and words referring to an aircraft. They thought they could hear a plane, too. I looked at Paul, who had allowed a smile to cross his face. He still had the belt wrapped tightly around my leg, and he squeezed my hand as the excitement of knowing we might soon be on our way came upon us. When that single-engine Cessna 206 soared into view, I squeezed my eyelids tight shut to stop the tears that suddenly appeared behind them. My angel of mercy had arrived. I still had a chance.

Unbeknownst to me, a French lady working for a safari company in the port city of Dar es Salaam, some two thousand kilometres to the southeast, had by good fortune heard the distress call and put out an alert. While a flight rescue from Arusha was being mobilized, a young American pilot flying vaccines to the Masai as part of an aid program heard the request and indicated that he was close enough to Simanjiro to respond.

The casevac (abbreviation of “casualty evacuation”) from Arusha was put on hold while the pilot there awaited confirmation of the news that I had been unmanned. Cliff Cameron and I had, over the years, competed for the attentions of various girls, and he, being an irreverent New Zealander, expressed satisfaction at the thought that I might live but no longer be in a position to divert female attention away from him.

Then the roar of the aircraft engine was upon us, and another American was coming to my rescue. My personal indebtedness to that great country was growing rapidly. With slick efficiency and purpose he used my tools to remove the seats along the side of the aircraft to clear the deck for me. Now all that remained was to move me into my position on the floor of the aircraft from the bed of the vehicle.

This induced from me a scream I could not control as the pain reached a new level, and I felt and heard assorted body parts sloshing and cracking inside my broken body. Breathless with pain I lay upon the floor and tried to recover my composure. The vibration from the floor with the increased engine power as the pilot opened the throttles sent strong waves of hope through my entire body and eased the pain.

I was closer now, but there was still a way to go. The pain of the move had sapped my strength, and for the first time my thought processes became confused. A state of unconsciousness overcame me, but I was soon urged back to life by a reassuring Paul. My will to live returned as he urged me not to relent. Water bottle in hand, he kept my mouth and throat moist. With assorted materials piled upon me, I was warm and inspired.

On landing in Nairobi the door was flung open, and a large black gentleman in a starched white coat approached briskly with a syringe containing morphine. That good gentleman remains the only man I have ever really wished to kiss. The magic flowed out of the needle and into my vein, and the ambulance ride to the hospital with sirens wailing and lights flashing reminded me of a discotheque. Life had changed dramatically at the press of a plunger. Suddenly the pain was gone, and the future looked remarkably bright.

A very striking lady of Asian decent met me in the emergency room and grabbed hold of my hand, reassuring me that all would be well. I looked at her and quickly reminded myself that though alive, my days as a philanderer were over. It was not long before I seemed to be attracting a great deal of attention. I took heart from this, although I did not quite understand why. It was only much later that I discovered a rumour had gone through the wards to the effect that the actor Mel Gibson was in the building. There was later to be great disappointment, but at the time the misunderstanding assured me of first-class attention.

While Africa is a big place it is also a small place. The white community of east and southern Africa is tiny, and, although Zimbabwe is many, many miles away, it was my unlikely fortune to bump into an old friend in the most unlikely of circumstances.

Brian Behan was flying for an air cargo company that had contracts to convey freight to places where no one else wanted to fly. On the same day I was arguing with the buffalo, he was arguing with the air traffic controller in the tower at Nairobi airport. The controller was demanding an additional payment before he would send any stairs to Brian’s old DC8 so that the crew could exit the aircraft. Brian, being of solid Rhodesian stock, adamantly refused to pay the bribe. He argued, quite correctly, that the service was covered by the exorbitant landing fees, which had already been paid. When his protests did no good, he decided to improvise.

Parked under the fuselage was a pickup truck, and Brian had a rope that he estimated would be long enough to allow him to lower himself onto the roof, from where he would jump to the tarmac and proceed to deal with the troublesome air traffic controller. Fired up at the thought that he would soon have his hands wrapped around the man’s neck, he launched himself out the door and hung on grimly. All went well until he discovered that the rope was too short; at full stretch, he was still far from the cab.

What he also had not noticed was that the pickup’s engine was running, and that there was a man behind the wheel. At the moment he decided to jump for it, the vehicle eased forward and Brian missed his footing, hurtling directly to the concrete. He fractured his femur so badly that he was left looking at bone protruding from the side of his leg. At this point, his pain was superseded by a white-hot anger. He lay on the runway knowing that the man in the tower would have watched this whole escapade, and that he was rolling about on the floor laughing. So it came as no surprise to him when no help arrived. The controller was not finished with him. He lay in the sun for two hours before someone took pity and an ambulance arrived. By that time he was in agony, and upon inspection at the hospital they announced that immediate surgery was required.

Brian breathed a sigh of relief knowing he was in capable hands, and he was duly wheeled into the theatre. Then there was a hive of activity around him, and suddenly everyone was gone. This struck him as a bit odd, but he assumed it was a regular procedure until a nurse arrived to tell him that he would have to wait because a more serious casualty had suddenly arrived. It was Mel Gibson! This incensed him, but much to his disappointment he was pushed out as I was wheeled in. He cursed me loudly as we passed like ships in the night. As for me, I had great trouble making myself look anything but rather pleased with myself. It took him a while to see the funny side, but happily he did eventually regain his sense of humour. We both lived to regain good health and laugh about it.

A very skilled U.S.-trained surgeon went to work, and six hours later the damage had been repaired. Punctures in my intestine were sutured, and my bladder, which had been ripped completely asunder, was stitched back into place. Innards full of sand and dirt had to be scrubbed with a brush and soap and water before being returned to my belly. Swollen testicles, bruised and the colour of night, were recovered from deep within me and restored to their rightful place. My left bicep was sown back into place.

I was then wheeled into the intensive care section of the hospital swathed in bandages, with pipes and needles everywhere, and looked into the eyes of an extremely kindly nurse who smiled and assured me that all was well. She gave no details, though, saying that the surgeon would explain. Happy to be alive, I was, nevertheless, anxious to know the extent of the damage, for I harboured very real fears of being permanently incapacitated in some very awkward way.

No sooner had I fallen asleep than I was awakened. The good doctor who had operated was looking down at me. I stared hard at him, trying desperately to gauge from his face what sort of news he was bringing me. A faint smile crossed his lips. “Everything is going to be fine,” he said.

My heart was pounding and I think the look of anguish and uncertainty on my face was obvious to him, inasmuch as he then went into more detail. He explained that the horn had missed my liver by the narrowest of margins, which had been a crucial factor in my survival. Had it been punctured, death would have been a certainty. In the case of the leg wound, he again indicated how fortunate I was that the femoral artery had not been ruptured. He described the great difficulty he’d had in locating my testicles and then repositioning them but said they were back where they belonged. He recounted, at some length, the details of the large amount of sand and dirt that had been found buried deep within me, and he said that the cleaning process had been very time consuming. My prognosis was good, but only time would tell if all systems were working. I was hugely relieved, and it remained only for me to rest and hope for the best.

A serious threat, of course, was the chance of infection. In spite of the fact that my wounds had been full of sand and that buffalo are not famous for their high standards of personal hygiene, my chances were far better than those of the hunter who goes down at the hands of a big cat. Bites from the cats bring with them very serious risks of infection.

While pain remained a constant companion for some weeks, the knowledge that I was on the mend helped greatly. However, a minor drama needed to be played out. One of my frequent visitors, an old friend from home then living in Nairobi, constantly berated me about my inability to recover more quickly, and he even suggested that I was drawing out my situation longer than the injuries warranted. No amount of arguing would convince him that I was genuinely disabled. He was standing at the foot of my bed one day remonstrating about my alleged malingering, when I interrupted him.

“Hold on, John,” I said. “Have a look at this.”

With that I drew back the sheet to reveal what lay between my legs. My testicles were the size of baseballs and black as the ace of spades. I saw his eyes widen in disbelief, the blood drain from his face, and he disappeared from view as he fell to the floor in a faint. I heard no more criticism from him after that.

Every cloud has a silver lining, they say. Out of the depths of misery sometimes comes joy. The prompt arrival of family and friends at my bedside was a source of great pleasure and encouragement. The fact that so many people cared gave me a tremendous boost and inspired me to be strong and positive about my chances of making a full recovery. Also, the grand members of the Muthaiga Club, a famous old “gentleman’s” club in Nairobi, rallied to my cause and took excellent care of my family, who were complete strangers in town. The doctors, nurses, and staff were wonderful.

After three weeks in Nairobi I was well enough to be flown home. There I would recuperate in the comfortable surroundings of my old family home in Mutare, on Zimbabwe’s eastern border with Mozambique. There I was doing well, under the tender care of my mother and father, when my bladder burst, and so it was back to surgery and hospital for further repairs.

During this time a poignant and, to me, very touching sequence of events unfolded. My father was a medical doctor who had been practicing in the little town of Mutare since 1946. No bleeding heart—in fact, the very opposite—he always possessed of a deep-seated empathy for the plight of his black countrymen, and he ran a special practice to provide affordable health care for them. In that endeavour, he gained tremendous respect from the Africans, not only in the town but throughout the country as well.

One day during my recovery he came home from work, and it was clear that he was in a state of emotional disrepair. He was seldom one to show his feelings so openly, and it struck me as highly unusual. As such, it was a cause for concern, so I asked him to explain.

“Today I had three visits from African women,” he told me. “They had all walked in the region of thirty miles to get to me, paid the consultation fee, and then when in my examination room explained that there was actually nothing wrong with them but that they were very sad. I asked why, and they told me that they had heard of my son’s accident and wanted to express their sorrow and offer some help. It choked me up,” he said.

That had triggered a bigger response, and the Africans, completely of their own accord, placed a collection box at my father’s surgery to raise funds to assist me in my recovery. The fact that these desperately poor people insisted on digging into their meager resources to alleviate my plight was a profound and signal event in my life.

When I made it back to health, I took the contributions and doubled the contents, using it to help refurbish the waiting room at the little clinic. Unfortunately, I never got to thank personally those astonishing people who had so little and were prepared to give so much.

And so I lived to hunt another day, revitalized in both body and spirit.


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