The Ring of Fire

They looked like seconds from a KINGSFORD charcoal plant. John, Nico’s tracker, began constructing a ring of zebra dung just outside the entrance of the blind. The droppings were organized with great care into an oblong circle. I looked on with amused interest as John lit one of the droppings, and, cupping it in his hands, gently exhaled onto it. He would turn his head away from the dense smoke and sneak a breath, repeating this process until a corner of the dropping hissed and glowed red. John then placed this dropping into a two-layer circle of some 20 droppings that he had previously prepared. The product of his endeavor produced a gentle smoke that, even with the slightest breeze, continued to burn.

“The smoke from the zebra droppings,” Nico said, in his strong Afrikaans accent, “will cover our scent”.
I leaned my recurve into a corner of the blind, “You know, it’s funny–in a cosmic sort of way”, I said to Nico, pointing to the droppings, “–we are using the zebra’s own leavings as a tool to hunt it”.

Nico smiled politely, handing me my backpack, “Ja, funny”.

He turned to the opening of the blind, bringing in the last of our gear. Stopping, in mid-motion, his broad shoulders did not move for a beat. He turned towards me, eyes wide, seeing this ironic circle of life–as if for the first time, “Ja, very, funny!”

John collected the remaining unused droppings and put them into a well-used plastic grocery bag. As he was closing the hatch of the blind, he said something to Nico in his vowel-heavy native language. Nico replied to John in his own consonant-heavy Afrikaans, and then pointed at me. John smiled broadly, waved good-bye, and left in Nico’s truck. The sound of birds slowly replaced the rumbling of the truck which faded into the distance.

I leaned into a corner of the blind and put my hands in my jacket’s pockets. It was cold, July 5th was summer in America, but it was Africa’s winter; the frost on the grass that formed overnight was only beginning to melt.

It was my first morning bowhunting in South Africa; Nico, my professional hunter, and I would become acquainted by spending 10 hours together in a space that was about five-foot square.

The birds were the first to arrive. Guinea fowl, Africa’s chicken, darted, with homely-bald-heads, across the blind, their dark grey feathers generously dappled with white spots. Reaching for my bow, I whispered to Nico, “How do they taste?”

His face winced, “Very tough. One must cook them for a long time.” Deflated by this culinary fact, my bow remained in the corner.

312a.JPGIt’s an interesting thing: spending ten hours within a confined space, with someone you hardly know. We whispered, getting to know one another. He asked how much Americans made per year. I answered him as best I could. I asked him about the gestation period of gemsbok, “Nine months.” He pointed out the blind, “That cow is pregnant right now. You can see. Ya?”.

Indeed, I nodded, the poor cow looked like an over inflated tick.

The wind, for a moment, grew strong, then shifted. As a result, the space of the blind filled with smoke. Considering the fact that that everything I brought with me to Africa soon came to smell like zebra dung that was once ablaze, burnt zebra dung–I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit this–is not entirely an unpleasant odor. Being that zebra are primarily grazers, with a well-adapted digestive system, the smoke that surrounded us simply smelled like burnt grass. It’s not bad. Really.

Zebra, from the bowhunter’s perspective, as I had heard before coming to Africa, are regarded as the toughest of the plains-game species to hunt with the bow–much less a traditional bow. And, I must admit, this was a huge reason that zebra was high on my list of species to hunt while I was in Africa. But to limit my desire to simple challenge would fall short. For myself, hunting Africa was the opportunity to return to the cradle of civilization, the cradle of hunting itself, again, as a species, and as a hunter. And, for myself, there was no better personification of the entire continent than the zebra.

Time’s passage, in Africa, is measured by the rhythm of life. In larger terms, time is dramatically measured by the dry season giving way to the wet season. The passage of time is also marked by the daily events: the sun’s movement arching across the sky. The journey from sunrise: the sun, high in the sky at midday, and sunset. For now, however, time’s passage was marked by an elemental rhythm: a red-hot coal transferring its energy from one zebra dropping to the next. The sun sat high above us; half the droppings were now ash.

“Zebra!” Nico whispered. I moved from the window I was glassing and joined Nico. They were still over a hundred yards off; my heart began to race. Nico put his arm over my shoulder, “Zebra are very tough to hunt. We must remain silent. Ya? No talking from no on.”

I nodded in agreement. Nico gave me a look that told me that this was not information to ignore.
“You must shoot a stallion.” He also informed me. I looked around him, scurrying, as I tried to figure out which one was the male.

I had done my homework prior to my hunt. I had studied male/female characteristics as they related to species that had only subtle differences between the sexes: identifying the sex of a gemsbok, for example, may present a challenge to the fledgling African bowhunter. Males and female gemsbok have similar coats and coloring, but male gemsbok’s javelin-shaped horns are larger, typically. Females, however, often have taller horns overall, but their bases are smaller than the males. These are subtle differences, and they are easy to differentiate in a book, but more difficult, I was discovering, to do on the fly, and with any degree of confidence. Zebra, lacking horns, or an obviously exposed male sex organ, presented a similar set of challenges to me.

We both looked out the window; Nico pointed, and said in a whisper, “That one there. Ya? He is the stallion. The only one.”

I nodded my head again; I understood. I nocked an arrow.

“You can tell by the shape of the head and the neck.” Nico said.

The herd of zebra tentatively made their way towards us. My bow arm was outstretched in a predraw; my shoulder muscles tensed. I followed the stallion intently; the group was in a single-file line; the male was in the middle. They bunched up when they hit the seventy-yard mark, their otherwise conspicuous stripes, now turned them into an omnipotent blob of equid.

When they finally returned to their single-file structure, I had totally lost the stallion.
They were now 50 yards away. Not wanting to put an arrow in the wrong one, I started sorting through the heard one by one, “female…female…female….”.

312b.JPGThe herd hit the forty-yard mark. They broke into two groups, separated by a small briar. I had narrowed down the stallion to one of two individuals. Still 40-yards away, I figured the safest thing to do, considering both our concerns for not killing the wrong animal, was to ask Nico for confirmation. I could still hear Nico’s, “No talking” order, so I thought of the most succinct thing I could say that would communicate the question.

I leaned into Nico’s ear, and in the quietest whisper that had ever slipped through my lips (actually it was more lip-movement than anything; I pushed air only symbolically), “Right or left?”

The herd of zebra, still forty-yards away, spun and bolted. A puff of dust marked the spot where they had been.

Still in a pre-draw, my mouth was wide open, I slowly relaxed my shoulders, understanding that the herd, probably on their way to Botswana, would not be coming back. Ever. I stood there for quite a while, a rising cloud of dust billowed over a distant line of brush. I finally lowered my bow, not particularly looking forward to making eye contact with my PH, as I knew, in the most violent form, that I had screwed up. When I finally turned towards him, Nico had a “What did I just tell you!” look on his face. I apologized profusely, feeling very humble. He took my faux-paux in stride, only saying, “Zebra are very tough. Ya?” I agreed. And at that moment, I wondered if there had ever been such an understatement uttered within Africa’s borders.

Outside the blind, the fecal-ring-of-fire had run out of fuel; the smell of burning zebra dug began to dwindle.

Zebra 1.
Jarrod 0.

And that was fine by me.
For now.

2009-12-01T00:00:00+00:00

About the Author:

Robin Conrads

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