One of the first things that struck me when I found out I was going to Africa was the huge challenge it posed. As a quadriplegic, a trip that far presents the ultimate test: managing four days of travel which includes two 16 hour flights, bringing a rifle, securing the permits for said rifle, carrying ammo, updating passports, finding a place to overnight along the way (specifically in JoBurg), hauling two extra bags of Safari Care supplies in addition to the extra one I have to take for my shower/bathroom chair, and then the most important part of the equation of all… having an accessible lodge waiting for me on the other end when I get there.
My next thought was that I couldn’t wait to get going.
In the late summer of 2010, Safari Club Foundation chose me for their Pathfinder award for disabled hunters which comes
with a 10-day safari donated by Jan Oelofse Safaris in northern Namibia. It’s the highest achievement in this obscure field we know as ‘disabled outdoors’.
[It was also around that time that I found out about their Safari Care program where hunters going to Africa bring supplies to needy school children. I knew right away it was something we were going to do.]
In January, I met the Oelofse’s in Reno, NV, at SCI’s national convention, where I discovered they have one of the few wheelchair accessible operations in Namibia. They of course have a lot of experience hosting disabled hunters because of this, some even in power chairs. We set my safari date for early June, the beginning of winter in the southern hemisphere, and I returned home to prepare for the trip.
Arriving at Mount Etjo…
On the morning of June 6th, 2011, my lifelong friend, Greg Goerig, and I landed at Windhoek’s International airport, a place about as big as some of the remote airports I’ve been to in Canada. It lies 30 miles south of Namibia’s capital in the sprawling bushveld.
Fernando, our driver, stood waiting for us outside after we cleared my rifle and exchanged some American money for Namibian dollars. He and Greg loaded our suitcases and my chair in the van and off we went. It’s a four hour drive north to the Oelofse’s Mount Etjo lodge, most of which will be nothing but remote bush. Soon we’re crossing through the streets of downtown Windhoek, passing the open market and the myriad of people hustling about it. There are a few tall buildings, but not as many as one might expect in a capital city. In no time, we clear the structure of the city and enter the wide-open expanses of rolling bushveld. I count a grand total of two power lines and one rest stop along the way where a gas station, a convenience store and a small market sit where two highways intersect. There are no other signs of civilization.
Jan, his lovely wife Annette and the staff at Mount Etjo are waiting for us when we arrive. We settle into our accessible room where we’ll be staying for two days before heading to the hunt lodge farther up into the mountains. The Oelofse’s have made every adaptation for wheelchair access, complete with a stair-lift up to an elevated viewing room, a rear-entry lift into the game drive vehicle and a side-car lift on one of the hunting rigs.
Safari Care’s blue bag program…
One of the things Greg and I looked forward to the most when we arrived at Mount Etjo was delivering our blue bags to the school.
As soon I got back to Texas, I asked a friend of mine, Amber Hale, who teaches FCCLA classes at Midlothian High School where Greg works as an athletic trainer, if she could help with gathering supplies for our bags. Well, she and her classes took over the operation, and by May, they had collected over 150 lbs of stuff for us to take: soccer balls, footballs, jump ropes, school supplies, marbles, dolls, socks, games, books, fun things for young girls and boys, etc., and even some updated lesson plans from teachers in and around the Midlothian area.
When Greg told me how much we had, I told him he’d better get his mind ready to pack light, which he did. We wound up putting our clothes together in one suitcase so we could stuff the other one to the zippers full of care supplies. Miraculously, when we arrived in Namibia, we still had all five bags, my rifle case, our two carry-ons, my wheelchair backpack and Greg’s over-the-shoulder tote.
Visiting the school at Mount Etjo…
On the morning of June 8th, we made arrangements to ride over to the school. All the extra effort was worth it when we saw the kids gathering around the blue bags with eager anticipation of what was to come. It reminded me a lot of Christmas morning when Greg started bringing out some of the things we had brought from Texas. They “ooooed” and “aaaahed” with excitement every time he produced something new, even the teachers’ eyes brightened when he pulled up two huge binders that contained copies of lesson plans. They took us outside after we inflated the balls where the kids sang us some songs, included Namibia’s national anthem, before an impromptu recess broke out so they could put them to use.
We enjoyed the day as much as the children I believe. We even returned after our safari was over so that Greg could show the kids his iPad and some of the learning applications (memory game, spelling game, music & videos) he had on it. The kids loved that part; a few of them even knew who Justin Bieber was. Each one could hardly wait their turn on the iPad and we were glad to make another visit to the school before we left for home.
On to Elephant Lodge (hunting camp) – Day one…
A soft 5 a.m. knock at the door and a friendly “good morning” gets us stirring under our comforters in the night-chilled room. We’re supposed to meet in the breakfast room at six for a light meal before striking out. That’s where the PHs (professional hunters) and the hunters meet every morning to talk about the day’s hunt. My PH is Rudi de Klerk and our tracker’s name is Doctoro. (For this hunt, I brought over my new Sako A-7 rifle in 7mm-08 caliber. My optics are all Vortex, a 3X9X40 Diamondback scope and Viper HD 10X42 binoculars, and I’ll be shooting Federal Premium ammo with 140 grain Barnes triple-shock bullets.)
A light frost covers the grass as we pack the truck for our first morning. We ease out of camp a few minutes before the sun crests the mountains to the east; another crisp, clear morning lay over the hood of the jeep as we come down off the high ground toward the plains. It’s calm, but riding creates an instant wind chill, which doesn’t matter much to Greg or me because of the euphoria surging through our veins.
The Namibian landscape at dawn is, quite simply, spectacular. When the rays hit, the savannah grass gleams with the golden beauty of a mid-western wheat field before harvest. Everything seems to glow with the orange hue of early morning sun. Right off, we spot two jackals in the bend of the road ahead chasing mice in the tall grass. Rudi hits the brakes. It’s go time!
I’m reaching for my rifle when Rudi hands it over, locked and loaded. He kills the engine and we roll to a gentle stop as I steady the gun. Both jackals are too busy with the mice to notice us, which is going to be bad news for one of them. When my shot cracks, one jackal drops and the other high-tails it outta there as fast as he can.
When the report fades, the silence comes rushing back in. We pile out of the truck into the warm sunshine, cold air and a quiet you can actually feel in your ears. That’s one of the special discoveries in a place that’s so far removed from any sort of civilization. It makes you want to whisper as if you were in a church or some other sacred place.
We take our time taking pics and soaking up the sun’s warm rays before continuing down to the plains.
As we reach the edge, where scrubby acacia turns into open savannah, Rudi stops again. I can see he’s checking out a big blue wildebeest a hundred yards away, and the next thing I know, he’s handing me my rifle again telling me he’s too good to pass up. He positions me for a shot as I settle the crosshairs on his massive shoulder. With my second shot in Namibia I take my first big game animal, a beautiful wildebeest bull. We have two animals down and haven’t even been going an hour yet.
After dropping off my beest at the skinning shed at Mount Etjo, a nice gemsbok bull crosses the road ahead of us as we work our way into a new area south of main lodge. Rudi gets excited when he sees him so I know he must be a good one, but the bull never stops and disappears into the bush.
A few minutes later, we are heading toward a big lake to have lunch when I spot a set of hartebeest horns sticking up from the flowing grass (Namibia had twice the amount of annual rainfall this year so the grass is uncommonly tall) 200 yards away. As soon as Rudi turns the cruiser toward him, he’s up and gone in a blink. “That’s why they’re going to be hard to get,” he tells me as he heads back onto the road. We keep rolling until we reach the lake. That’s where Rudi and Doctoro set up a table and chairs for our first lunch in the bush. I could get used to this really fast! (We had lunch every day in the bush. These were some of the best times of the hunt. We’d spend two hours in quiet solitude and the shade of acacia trees, eating, sometimes napping in the sun, just being a part of the day as it passed by. The air is cool and sweet smelling during the middle of the day even after it warmed up. They were truly soul-soothing experiences.)
After lunch, we make our way back on the same trail we came in on. While approaching a wooded creek crossing, we spot some nice impala rams in the shade of the underbrush so we stop for a better look. Suddenly, Rudi points toward a gemsbok walking away from us on the other side of the creek and jumps up to get a better look at him. It’s our bull! As if he knows he’s been pegged, the bull starts to gallop, fading into the terrain (rolling hills thick with acacia trees) and out-of-sight. Instantly, Rudi turns the truck around. We backtrack to try to cut him off before he can get too far away where we can’t follow. When we get to about as far as we can go, we catch him crossing the slope across from us. This is going to be my only chance. There’s one opening ahead of him so I focus on that spot and wait. When the bull gets there, Rudi lets out some kind of antelope grunt (I think he knows the language of every animal out here) and sets him up perfectly for me. When I pull, he spins around and bolts over the hill, collapsing just over the other side of it.
[What a monster gemsbok! They all looked big to me, but Rudi said that a lot of hunters hunt a long time and never take one this big. That meant we had accomplished something very special.]
The nature of Namibia…
One of the neatest things for me, besides the actual safari, was getting to see so many of the animals that I’d up until now only read about as a kid, and to see them in the wild. A lot of the time, it felt like we were on two separate safaris at once, one hunting, the other a nature trip. We saw lions, cheetahs, hippos, both white and black rhino, elephants, giraffes, the wonderful bird life of Namibia, mongooses, bat-eared foxes, and an aardwolf, just to name a few. We even saw two of the rarest mammals in Africa to be seen during daylight hours: a pangolin, also known as a scaly anteater, and an aardvark.
During one of our early morning drives, a large herd of springbok swirled around the plains like a flock of birds, some springing 10 feet in the air with ease, as they worked out the excitement of a new day. In the sun, their little white and tan bodies shone like diamonds.
We spent most of the safari stopping, watching and taking pics. It was the greatest 10 days of my life.
On safari, day seven…
Another gorgeous morning breaks as we gather in the breakfast room. The small wood-burning furnace crackles in the corner as fresh cold air filters in through a crack in the sliding glass doors, which look out over a small lake, bushveld and then to the ever-distant mountains. We eat and talk of yesterday’s chases, some successful, some not, before plotting the day ahead.
One of the coolest things about being on safari is that each day is new and exciting. You wake up ready to go each and every morning because you never know what you’re going to see, or hunt. It makes you look forward to that five o’clock wake-up knock.
Another cold morning greets us as we leave camp wrapped in blankets to keep the chill off until the sun rises. Today, blesbok is on the hit list. And to be honest, blesbok, like springbok and impala, are not hard to find, not all that tough to get close to either. It’s finding a good mature ram that’s the fun part. Personally, I love going after these guys because you get to look over a lot of rams. It reminds me of pronghorn hunting back in the states. We’ve seen plenty of blesbok during the safari already. Today’s the day we’re going to take one.
‘Round about a half hour later, out on the savannah, we’re parked, glassing one of these ‘goat-looking’ creatures that Rudi said is a good “old guy” to take. Most of the blesbok rams, the older ones anyway, live solitary lives on the plains. And since it’s mating season, they have their territories staked out just like the springbok do. We have this guy nailed, but he’s not going to go down that easily. He takes off, making us follow (slowly) for a few hundred yards before he stops to take a longer look at us than he should have. Another well-placed shot and he’s ours.
After Doctoro field dresses him, (The only things not saved from all of our kills are the intestines. Even the stomach linings are kept from every animal except the warthog.), he and Rudi load him in the back and we start on our way to main lodge.
At 300 yards out, both Rudi and I spot him the second he clears the brush. Zebra! It’s a nice stallion and he’s all alone. I look over to Rudi to see what we’re gonna do, if anything. He’s as surprised as me about what we are seeing. The zebra is on the run and, more importantly, on the run straight away so we have to do make a decision now! A quick call to Jan makes it for us…
It starts to happen fast now. There’s a herd of black wildebeests to our left that is picking up speed and heading right toward our lone zebra. Rudi veers in their direction, he says if we don’t cut them off, they’ll sweep him up and we’ll never see him again. Meanwhile, I’m trying my best to keep watch on the stallion, the black herd thundering toward him and hang on to my rifle all at the same time. It’s one of those situations where you just know if you hit any kind of bump that everything is going flying. Well, we didn’t, and we make it in between the wildebeest and the zebra. We just have to catch up with him now. All I can see is a striped rump leaving us behind.
When we get back to within 200 yards, Rudi stops the truck and imitates a zebra braying noise when our boy looks like he’s slowing down. This is the one and only time Rudi gave me some tactical advice on how to shoot. He said, “Hurry up!”
Zebra don’t offer many chances to get a shot off, and as soon as I get on him, he wheels and is off again. Lucky for us, this stallion has been kicked out of a herd by another stallion and is looking for another to join. This gives us a good chance at him. The next time he slows to a trot, we’ve closed the gap to about 150 yards. I have my rifle up before we even stop this time and I can feel the energy building in my body the way it always does before a big shot.
He stops. He’s a beautiful sight standing broadside on the plains. All I need is five seconds; everyone in the truck holds their breath, bracing for the shot. I pin the crosshairs high on the zebra’s shoulder and touch off the bullet. The shockwave from my rifle sends him wheeling again and he rumbles off. Rudi watches his every move closely as the zebra stops, spins back around and comes back toward us before tumbling down, dropping out of sight as the tall grass swallows him up.
None of us can hardly believe what happened, but the excitement of the moment finally busts loose in the truck. It’s a special moment to share with my friends, especially when we roll up to him for the first time. It’s important to appreciate what a rare privilege it is to take a zebra in Africa.
When we finally get around Mount Etjo, Jan drives over to congratulate me on a wonderful trophy, especially for a disabled hunter.
It’s nearly 12:30 when we get back to the plains, looking for a place to park for lunch. The sun is high and there are four guys I know that are getting pretty hungry, me included. Hunting is about the last thing on our minds at the moment. None of us expects that lightning is about to strike again!
A group of warthogs burst from the grass along the left side of the road, crossing right in front of us as big as Dallas, a momma, two little ones and the biggest boar we’ve seen so far. On a dead run, they slip easily through the stalks on their way up the slope to our right. By the time Rudi turns toward them and hands my rifle over, they’re passing the 100 yard mark. “Just shoot him anywhere you can,” Rudi says. “We’ll find him.” When I find him in the scope, though, I can see the slightest quartering angle that I’ve ever thought about taking a shot on. Somehow you know when it’s going to be your one and only shot, there’s no time to think about it. My shot echoes with a thud and the big tusker rocks but keeps right on going. When the shot settles, nothing’s moving. Everything is still and the warthogs are gone, all of them. I have no idea what kind of shot I’ve made.
It turns out to be a pretty good one. There’s a big, ugly, muddy warthog boar lying dead in the grass 20 yards from where I struck him. It’s a day of days for me in the bush.
“Can we go eat lunch now please?” Rudi says when we finally get through taking pics.
The last road trip…
Greg and I reluctantly packed up our gear and left Elephant lodge for the last time on Friday morning, trying desperately to sponge up as much scenery as we could on the way down to Mount Etjo where Fernando was waiting to transfer us back to Windhoek. For the first time in twelve days, I was unenthusiastic about going. I knew it’d be the last time and I was sad to leave such a wonderful place. Greg and I had just spent two weeks in pristine nature, light years away from the hustle of the ‘civilized’ life that we left back in the states. We had no way of knowing what an effect it would have on us. (It’d be a month before I could bring myself to watch TV again.) We were all alone with the blue skies, nature and God where our spirits were appeased for a short while. Our only hope was that we’d be lucky enough to come back someday.