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Sitting by Campfires with PHs at Cabela's

Sitting by Campfires with PHs

Author: Thomas McIntyre

Thomas McIntyre rekindles embers of memories from safari fires long since cold, in a piece that is typical of his tongue-in-cheek style. Anyone who has been on safari, or would ever want to go, will appreciate this article that examines the colorful lore that often surrounds a blazing fire in the African bush country.

At the recent Safari Club International Convention I ran into a friend of mine, Joe Coogan. Joe is both a well-known outdoor writer, and a professional hunter in Africa. Joe graciously offered to buy me a drink at the end of the day at his safari company's booth; and it would, of course, have been just plain bad manners to have refused.

So at 5:00 I swung by the "booth", which turned out to be a commissary-sized camp tent pitched in the middle of the convention-center floor. Joe was there, dressed in his going-to-town blue blazer and tie, as were all the other professional hunters.

"Professional Hunter" is the official title, like calling a cowboy a "livestock management specialist"; but professional hunters have always simply been "PHs," written in caps, and as a job description that has carried the same sort of panache as "PI", "DI", or "pirate".

One of the PHs who looked noticeably uncomfortable in a blue blazer was a bear-like, bushy-eyebrowed older man. He seemed somehow familiar, and when Joe introduced us, I understood why. I'll call him Eric. When we shook hands and he said he was pleased to meet me, I told him that we had met already.

"Really?" he asked, arching a thatch of eyebrow, searching his memory.

"In Block 60, in Kenya, in September, 1974."

"Good God, no wonder I don't remember you," he said, the flicker of a smile almost cracking his dour expression.

I had been hunting with PH John Fletcher in Kenya's hunting area, Block 60, and Eric was camped several miles from us, guiding a Danish hunter. One night we drove over to Eric's camp for dinner, and the tension between Eric and his client, who did not speak English, was palpable. It turned out they had had a leopard come into a bait late in the evening and there had been a bit of confusion, the client shooting before Eric could carefully judge the leopard. Worse, the client had only wounded the cat and it had gotten away, meaning that in the morning Eric would have to crawl into the bush after it.

The next morning, while we were out hunting, we again crossed trails with Eric and his client, driving back to their camp. We asked how it was going, and Eric said fine, though he appeared particularly closed mouthed, and his client just stared straight ahead. There was no mention of the leopard, until one of our trackers got into a conversation, in Kikuyu, with one of Eric's. Oh yes, Eric's tracker said, they had gotten the leopard. It was right here. In a sack.

Fletcher overheard the conversation and shot a glance at Eric, who slumped visibly behind the wheel of his Land Cruiser. So we climbed out and went to look at Eric's hunter's leopard, which turned out to be an adult, but very, very small indeed.

"As I recall," I said, "all Fletcher said was, 'Nice spots.'"

"No," Eric corrected me, pursing his lips, still chagrined almost 30 years later. "I remember exactly what he said: 'Very pretty.'"

Sitting in tents, or better by campfires, with PHs and listening to the old stories is at least 50% of the pleasure of going on safari. And the best stories are the ones in which something, sometimes most things (though never when everything), goes wrong. John Fletcher had his stories, all those years ago in Block 60. One of his was about hunting with a famous Mexican matador who wanted to kill a Cape buffalo with a sword. The first bull they ran into, though, ended up running through the barrage of fire they put up. Fletcher had his .500 Nitro Express broken open, trying to stuff two more cartridges into it as the buffalo swept past the matador who pirouetted with practiced grace away from the bull's horns, and as the bull went by, swung the muzzle of his rifle up and shot the buffalo in the neck. The bull was dead "in the air," but momentum carried him on into Fletcher, knocking him down. And there Fletcher sat, flat on the ground, a dead buffalo's head in his lap.

"And how is that," asked the matador, raising his hand in a flourish, "for a client?"

"Do you still want to try to kill one of these with a sword?" Fletcher asked, looking up.

"Absolutamente no," replied the torero.

Another PH I sat around a campfire with, many years later in Zimbabwe, was named, for the purposes of legal indemnification, Per, who was Scandinavian. Some years before, Per had been taking a hunter into tall grass after buffalo when a flock of tickbirds flared up ahead of them. Tickbirds live on big mammals like buffalo, but something seemed wrong to Per. And at that moment, with a sound like a tea kettle whistling, through the grass toward them charged not a buffalo, but a black rhino. Per stepped in front of his client and got off a shot from his .470 NE double, but the rhino kept coming; and before Per could get another shot, he was on the ground, the rhino butting him along with his muzzle. At some point that prehistoric flesh tank was going to start stomping on Per, so he threw his arms around the front horn, and wrapped his legs around the head as the rhino bucked up and down, trying to throw him off. Per's hunter ran in and shoved his .340 Weatherby into the rhino's ear and pulled the trigger, the bullet nearly kneecapping Per when it came out the other side. Except for a fractured pelvis, though, Per was fine, and went on hunting for the remaining four weeks of the safari, hobbling around on a hand-whittled crutch.

"So what do you think about when you're being tossed up and down by a rhino?" I asked. "Does your life pass before your eyes?"

"You know," said Per in his heavily accented English, "dat's a funny ting. All I could tink about when I was hanging onto dat horn was, 'By golly, dis one is long enough to make de record book.'"

Sometimes, the stories even have an odd confluence. Both Fletcher and Per worked as technical advisers on the movie Hatari! back in the early 1960s. Fletcher remembered how John Wayne really was bigger than life, unfazed by anything. One shot, as Fletcher told it, called for Wayne to face a charging elephant. All morning Fletcher and the other PHs worked to haze a herd of wild elephant into camera range while Wayne sat in his canvas chair, smoking, reading, drinking coffee. Finally the elephant were rampaging properly toward the camera, and an assistant director went up to the Duke and said, "Mr. Wayne, your elephant is here." At which point Wayne put down his book, picked up his .458, walked out, turned back to ask if he was standing on the right mark, and then shot a bull elephant head on as it was bearing down on him (if you watch the movie, you can see the scene, and it looks as if Wayne was using some kind of non-lethal round, or shooting over the bull, to turn him back). Wayne then coolly turned back to the director and asked, "That good?" and went back to his canvas chair.

Per's job on the film included wrangling actors and crew for each day's shoot, which meant his having to knock on hut doors or lift tent flaps at dawn. According to Per, "Dhere was never a morning when anybody was ever in de same place." Sometimes, things going very right can also make for a good story for a PH to share around a campfire. As Per told it...well, let him tell it.

"Tom," he said with a twinkling smile, thinking fondly of a time years before when he had been a young, unmarried PH, "do you remember de actress Elsa Martinelli in dat movie?" He paused, watching the flames, and with a sigh said, "Ja, dat was de finest t'ree months of my life." And like a true, honorable PH, that was all he would say.

Author Thomas McIntyre
Thomas McIntyre has written for Sports Afield magazine for nearly a quarter century. He is the author of four books on hunting and fishing, including the critically acclaimed "Dreaming the Lion", published by Down East Books. His newest book, "Seasons & Days: 25 Years of Hunting Stories", will be published later this year by The Lyons Press. Tom lives with his wife and son in northern Wyoming.

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