A Day in the Bush with Thomas

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.

“Leopard, Hayson.” 

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.

September 22, 2016- A day on the mountain

We departed KCLL (College Station, TX) with our destination KMTJ (Montrose, CO) plugged into our navigation system at 4:00 pm.  Just thirty minutes before, I had been sitting in class doing my best to finish up a lecture on hospital administration.  Spending 6 hours in class with the allure of the mountains and an elk tag in my pocket seemed almost unbearable.  Fortunately for me, my father had an elk tag burning in his pocket as well so he was as motivated as I was to answer the call of the mountains. 

With our mid-afternoon takeoff, storms throughout the mountains were in store thus giving us a winding, ducking, and rising route as we began to pass through New Mexico.  We cut west towards Albuquerque missing a storm off our right wing then headed North towards Alamosa.  Dad was left seat with me to his right monitoring radar, frequencies and keeping a visual on storms and mountain peaks.  We crossed into Colorado and had to make a decision to head NE or NW.  At the last second, we saw a break in the clouds at our 10 o’clock so veered the aircraft towards that opening.  We reached an altitude of 18,700 which in an unpressurized aircraft can be exciting.  We had our oxygen bottles at ready but soon descended to a lower elevation once we topped over the clouds.  We had just crossed the high peaks of the San Juans mountain range and now found ourselves heading due west with the Blue Mesa Reservoir beneath us.  A 100-knot crosswind was coming off the right side of our nose requiring heavy rudder action by both dad and me to keep the plane on course as we descended towards the Montrose valley. 

We landed safely and taxied over to the local FBO.  I believe my mother was the happiest out of all of us to be back on earth as she was passed out most likely due to lack of oxygen during the last part of our flight.  A long dinner ensued with a stop at the hardware store and the grocery store.  With gear packed, we headed off into the mountains.  Arriving at midnight, I was quick to unload my equipment and begin packing my pack for a particular area I had planned to hunt.  By 3am, I was loaded up.  With a fresh cup of coffee in my hand and a headlamp wrapped around my head, I loaded my pack into the cruiser and started the drive towards the backcountry.  A 30-minute drive brought me to the end of the road and the beginning of an adventure.

 I began my hike at 3:40am. 

My route was just under 2 miles to an area that would serve as my basecamp.  The trail begins with some incline and switchbacks.  I noted how “tame” this trail seemed now compared to the places I had been just a few weeks before.  As my headlight began to show my terrain changing from a steady incline to a trail passing through a thicket of willows, I was greeted with the sound breaking limbs.  My assumption was that I had startled a moose, but I did not stick around long enough to confirm this as I began a long sprint up the trail to put some distance between myself and whatever creature I had disrupted with my presence. I reached the 2-mile point with no other exciting occurrences.  Light sleet had changed into light snow by the time I had reached this point.  I waited at this staging area for 30 minutes listening for bugles up the mountain and to gather m thoughts on where I should start my hunt. 

The snow continued to fall as I headed deeper into the wilderness.  Right at first light, I found a small group of cows feeding off to my left as I was sneaking through a group of evergreens.  No bull was present in this gathering of elk, so I slowly passed them in hopes of finding a bull in an upper basin.  My search in the upper basins showed me no success in spotting any animals, so I changed my course to head back above the area where I had first located the cows.  It was mid-morning now, and the snow was now 6 inches in depth making my ascent through the fallen trees and rocks somewhat tricky.  I made it to a good glassing point that would allow me to see a north facing slope along with an upper part of the valley, but to my dismay, the clouds that had brought in the snow had other plans.  I worked my way up the valley cow calling using the snow to my advantage through still hunting.  At noon, I finally received an answer to a bugle that I had let out.  The bull was much lower in elevation, so off I went back down the path I had just made.  My gloves proved pointless as they were soaked through.  I had also grown tired of my long hair the week prior to this, and as a result, I had very short hair.  Going from a head full of hair to hair that is short in length makes a shocking difference in how warm your head stays.  Neither the less, I trudged on through the snow that was rising ever so fast.  I worked my way towards the bull.  After going back and forth with him in a “bugle battle,” I soon saw my prey and saw that he was a very young bull.  Much too young and small to receive an arrow.  He had no other compadres with him, so I gained some elevation back and made a small camp to get out of the snow and eat some jerky. 

After a delicious meal of some stale jerky and a smooshed sandwich, I packed up my scattered gear and headed farther up the valley in search of another bull.  Some glassing and calling presented me with no opportunities in seeing or hearing an elk.  I had planned on staying in this drainage for 2 days, but with the lack of elk, I decided to start the trek back to the road in search of an area that would produce more sightings.  I arrived back at the truck a few hours later with icy hands and a halfway frozen pack.  My gloves proved to be worthless and were soaking wet within the first hour of daylight.  I cursed myself for the inconvenience I had created and vowed that when I got back on a computer next week that I would purchase a set of insulated, waterproof gloves. 

I threw the pack in the truck and headed towards the high country to make the most out of the hour or so I had left of light.  Fortunately for me, the snow created a perfect backdrop for locating elk, and I was successful in finding two beautiful bulls high up on a ridge.  I watched them as they worked their herds with the colorful aspens and fresh snow in the background.  I had the seat warmers on as I was still trying to defrost my hands which would end up staying swollen for the next 10 days. 

The sun set over the crest of high mountains to my back as the elk fed in the snow-packed meadow above me.  Once last light had come and passed, I packed up my optics and began the slow ride back to camp.  A short but very much needed night of sleep awaited me as I would be chasing the sound of bugles come first light the following morning. Slowly but surely, I made my way out of the high country and another day on the mountain had come to an end.