Days in Africa begin when there is just enough light to see your surroundings. Unlike your typical American hunt where you might be up hours before first light, Africans don’t like to rely on flashlights you could say. This is a practice I wish we could adopt, but unfortunately, I don’t believe it will happen.
I awoke early on this day in Africa and headed up the path to the main lodge. As we did not have any hunters in camp, I was unsure what this day would bring. I grabbed a piece of fruit and some toast in the kitchen on my way up to where our informal morning meetings happened by the vehicles. It was chilly that morning and the trackers Mario, Alberto, and Thomas were bundled up in a couple of layers of clothes. I think I was in shorts and a long sleeve t-shirt. They always wondered how I never got cold so I would tell them stories of hunting in the snow. Needless to say, they were very content in their current condition.
Today, we needed to do a fence check. Fence checks need to be done periodically to check for animals who have broken parts of the wiring and to look for signs of poachers. This area along with many other regions of Africa have a big poaching problem. The day before our neighbor had run across a poacher and was able to turn him into the authorities.
I headed up towards the small barn where the trackers were sharpening their machetes. Their method of sharpening the blades was a sight to see. This process involved Thomas holding a grinder between his legs. He then put the edge of the machete on the grinder as to sharpen the blade, and while squinting, he proceeded to sharpen a few machetes for us. I jokingly asked if this was our anti-poacher weapon. Thomas answered, “No, Hayson, Yoga protector.” (With Thomas’ ascent, my name sounded more like Hayson instead of Jason. I found out that day that “Yoga” in Afrikaans means “snake”) I was pretty sure he was joking, but then again, he could have been serious. It is Africa after all.
So now armed with a machete with no handle, a bottle of water and an orange, Thomas and I started our trek to the North end of the property. We followed the road for a few hundred yards then cut down following a game trail towards the base of the large rock mountain. To our right was a large valley that was dense with a canopy of trees all the way to the bottom off in the distance. The pace was fast as moved through the thickets of the forest and towards the cliffs in front of us. A couple of climbs brought us to the backside of this rock mountain and into an area where the trees created a tunnel for us to walk through. While walking through this area, Thomas stopped and pointed at scat laying on the trail.
Not many leopards made it through this area, but nevertheless, it brought about a slightly eerie feeling knowing that a cat might be watching us.
We made it out of the natural tunnel and into the long grass. The countryside reminded me of New Mexico with vast rolling mountains, but with very dense forests. Ticks were prevalent as I at one point had over 100 bites on me, but that is another story.
After about an hour of hiking, we started walking along the fence in grass that was 2-3 feet in height. We had walked a short distance when Thomas turned around. In broken English and some Afrikaans, he told me that this was the spot where a black mamba came at him many years ago.
“Hayson, BIG MAMBA”
He described how he saw the grass moving as the snake came towards him. In a very comical manner, he reenacted jumping over the fence and saying he ran to the horizon. Thomas always made stories sound very funny when in fact many of them were life-threatening. This is coming from the man who killed a 9-foot mamba with a slingshot.
I don’t remember a day where Thomas and I did not share a laugh together.
We lost some elevation in our hike and quickly gained it back as we came to the “Christmas tree” corner. Here, Thomas took a quick smoke break as I drank half my water. After the short break, we started heading south along the fence. Soon enough Thomas started moving with purpose as he looked closer to where he was stepping. He pointed out a spot in the grass and said “Poacher.” I asked him if it was from this morning and he said yes. We moved a couple hundred more yards along and came to a small branch in the fence. Thomas noted this and moved a couple steps farther along then like a hound dog picks up a trail, he turned into the thicket as I followed. We walked through this thick, thorny area very slowly and after 50 yards made a discovery: a wire snare.
A makeshift snare made out of scrap wire made a large circle across a game trail. The purpose of this was to grab hold of an animal. When the animal, in turn, walks through the snare, it tightens down around the head, neck or body of the animal. Fear quickly overtakes the animal and death is slow.
We removed the snare, and I put it in my pocket. (The snare made the trip back to Texas with me) We hiked back out to the fence and continued on our journey south. We made it over the next rise and cut off towards a small bluff. This spot had a perfect tree for shading and was Thomas’ designated napping rock. We sat down and looked out over the vast expanse. We did a quick scan for wildlife and found some blesbuck were off in the distance feeding. After about 10 minutes of rest, we heard small footsteps just below us.
A massive porcupine showed itself to be the owner of these small footsteps. Thomas jokingly motioned for me to go grab a quill to which I told him I would if he did. Neither one of us made an attempt on that porcupine that day.
The rest of the hike was uneventful as we hit the south fence line and turned west. It was a steep descent down to the valley floor. We soon saw Alberto who was making his way down the opposite side of the valley. We met him on the valley floor and proceeded up the road as we started clearing brush to a bow blind that was in the area. After a while, we heard the bakkie approaching, and that was our cue to head back to the road. We all piled in the back of the Landcruiser and began the journey back to the lodge.
On the last part of our hike, Thomas had pointed out a tree. The tree had knife markings all up and down its trunk. He said that he had made a mark on that tree every time he passed by it. The tree had quite a few knife marks on it as Thomas made one more.
That tree will not see another mark from the knife of Thomas.
Thomas took ill in November of 2018 and passed away during the night at the end of January of this year.
I was fortunate to spend 45 days in the field with this man. I knew when I left Africa, that I would most likely not see Thomas again. I have many lessons learned from Thomas that I will use in my own adventures and will pass on to others.
This picture shows Thomas and I on the Elefantes River on my final day in Africa.
Hamba Kahle my friend.