Zebra: Act Two — Redemption

326a.JPGI was hunting at “my spot,” my favorite blind, not too far from camp. Nico and Eric were hunting kudu in the mountains. I would be my company for the day.

Eric cornered me at the fire-pit the night before. Evidently, Nico, our earnest, and loveable PH, was concerned that I was planning on hunting by myself the next morning. Being the professional that he was, Nico felt, as he’d spent the last few days in full career of finding adventure with Eric in the mountains, that he’d been neglecting me. While Nico was great company in a blind, truth be known, I enjoyed hunting by myself. Bowhunting, by its nature, or so is my experience, tends to appeal to people who are attracted to solitude. Truth be known, I relished the days I spent hunting alone in Africa.

There, I said it.

An hour after I was dropped off by Lucky, one of the African trackers, life began to unfurl from the brush. Guinea fowl darted about like a child’s out-of-control remote controlled car. Impala crossed a trail that was bordered by a line of trees. There was an impressive ram in the group. I glassed him with my binoculars; he had majestic sweptback horns, and I reached for my recurve, determined to shoot if he presented an ethical shot. At a Y in the trail he took a route that would keep him parallel to my position; fifty yards was the closest he would come, too far considering the limitations of traditional archery tackle. I smiled in wonder as I watched him simply vanish into the brush. Awesome.

Later, a group of waterbuck arrived; they stood alert for a time, relaxed, then got comfortable; the closest female a mere bow’s length from the blind, her brown body filling the entire window of the blind. From my perspective, this group’s proximity was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because their relaxed body language might calm other animals that were passing through. That was the optimist in me speaking. However, their proximity also meant that I was surrounded by animals that were alert to the point of schizophrenic. My every move, if I were to shoot, had to be silent and in slow motion.

Time went by unhurried. In silence I ate a lunch that consisted of a kind of hamburger made of a cold patty of kudu spiced with curry. There was a can of Coke Light in my lunchbox, but I dared not open it, as I was sure the hiss of carbonation would have sent the group of waterbuck into Botswana never to look back. On my knees and in slow motion I put the remnants of my lunch back into the box so I would not step on them later.

I glassed a line of brush in the distance and saw a herd of zebra. I counted six individuals. They were largely hidden, their prominent stripes serving them well as excellent camouflage. Thanks to the experience I gained through a botched zebra hunt a few days earlier, I was able to quickly identify the two stallions.

I slowly reached my bow, corrected some wayward fletching, and nocked an arrow.
The herd came in and began to water. One of the stallions stood quartering to and acted as the sentry for the herd. The second stallion was sandwiched between females as he drank. No shot; I would have to wait it out. This would not be easy, I quickly discovered, but nothing is easy when it comes to bowhunting African plains species, especially zebra.

A number of things needed to happen to allow me to take a shot: the stallion would need to be exposed broadside, drinking, with no animal on his opposite side. This concern I had for shooting an offside animal might seem a bit unreasonable, as zebra are a formidable animal physically, and considering that I was only using a #57 recurve. But the concern I had for shooting an offside animal was based on the performance of my bow and arrow combination thus far. I had killed a mature impala, the arrow passing through the animal and going another thirty yards. I had killed a large blue wildebeest a few days ago and my arrow was just coming out the opposite side. I did not want to risk injuring a second animal, however unlikely, even if it meant that I would never have the opportunity to release an arrow. The rules I imposed upon myself were simple: under 20 yards, broadside, drinking and standing alone.

The zebra that was drinking now took his position as sentry. The second zebra came in, paused, and began to water. He was broadside; he was drinking; he was 20 yards away, but there was a mare on his off side. I was in a predraw; tension formed on my shooting fingers. My legs were wobbling uncontrollably; I was sure that the zebra would see me shaking. Finally, the female on the offside moved off; the arrow came to anchor and crashed into the stallion.

Nico, my excellent PH, stressed the importance of shot placement on African animals–especially as shot placement related to zebra. As anyone who has studied the anatomy of African plains game understands, their vitals sit forward compared to their North American counterparts. This physiological difference, for the bowhunter, equates to the necessity of placing arrows in a near surgical manner. Fortunately, for the bowhunter, zebra have a built in bull’s-eye: the stripes from their head, front leg, and torso meet forming a triangle just above the front leg. “If you put your arrow in the triangle,” Nico told me earlier, “the zebra will not go far.”

The arrow hit the stallion hard, but penetration stopped as if it met a pile of wet newspaper. I was immediately concerned by the lack of penetration. The zebra reared backwards, then bolted. The stallion, my arrow still in his side, was running off, leading the herd; there was no hint that he was hurt–much less mortally. The waterbuck sleeping nearby must have bolted too, but I did not notice. I stuck my face out the shooting window, trying to absorb anything that might help in bloodtrailing. It was quiet.

Uncharacteristic of myself, I pulled off my facemask and flung it into a corner of the blind in a moment of temper; catching this, and thinking this outburst childish, I picked up the mask and put it in my pants’ cargo pocket. I began pacing the length of the blind like a caged lion. I went back to the shooting window, figuring I should put this considerable energy to use. I reconfirmed landmarks, remembering where the zebra was, where the arrow hit, and its direction of travel as it ran off.

I took a breath, trying to gather myself together. Tentatively, I picked up the radio, “Lucky…Lucky…Lucky….”

There was a baritone African voice speaking on the other end of the radio. I had no idea what was said, nor to whom I was speaking, “Hello, this is Jarrod…I just hit a zebra…” I said, not quite believing it myself.

“I think the hit is good,” I said, counterfeiting confidence.

Something inaudible came across the other end of the radio. Again, I did not know what was said, but I agreed anyway, “Yea, OK.” I put the radio down. I was still shaking, now worse than before.

326b.jpgA beat up yellow Toyota truck arrived with four trackers. I had met Lucky only briefly this morning when he dropped me off and helped me into the blind; he struck me as friendly, earnest, and enormously bright. Lucky, as was the fashion of many of the Africans I had come across, wore a wool stocking cap with the top pulled up, far above the head, in such a way that it looked like the nipple of a baby bottle.

I rehearsed what I was going to tell the trackers. “The zebra was standing there.” I pointed to a far spot of the watering hole. “Broadside.” I pointed into my armpit to show where I believed the arrow hit. “He went over there,” pointing to a trail that ran parallel to a line of trees. “Then they turned that way”, pointing to an opening into the distance.

Lucky was listening politely, nodding his head, only uttering a “Hmm?” every once in a while. It became exceedingly obvious to me that Lucky was listening to me only out of politeness. He did not need my account of what happened. The story was all there–in the dirt. I came to understand that Lucky, and many of the other trackers I observed in Africa, read tracks in the dirt the way urbanites read subway schedules. Unassuming plods on the earth carry connotations far past the aesthetic. It was a privilege to witness.

“Hmm…thank you,” Lucky said in his genuine manner. He then joined the other trackers at the spot where there was initial blood evidence. I had already learned how good the African trackers were, and I did not dare join them; I would only be in their way.

Lucky walked in circles for a minute; he pointed a few times and spoke to the other trackers; deferring to him, they nodded their heads in agreement.

“Iz’ goot blood,” Lucky said to me. Somewhat relieved, especially considering Lucky’s conviction, I took a deliberate breath.

Lucky, arms behind his back, holding a small stick, was looking down studying the tracks; he suddenly looked up and pointed in the direction that I had seen the zebra follow as they ran off.

“You hear noise?” Lucky asked.

“Yes. Yes.” I was embarrassed that I had overlooked so obvious a clue, “I heard a whinnie-noise from the zebra.” Pointing east, “In that direction.”

Lucky smiled sincerely and broadly, “Eez dead,” he said, making a slashing motion across his throat. His body language changed, seeming to understand this blood trail would be an easy one.

And it was. Lucky took to the trail with the other trackers in tow, the trail so obvious that I could have followed it. I watched Lucky, fascinated by his level of concentration. His body moved like the animal he was tracking; sweeping movements of his hand and arms were extensions of the animal’s own movements.

Lucky, I came to discover, was anything but lucky. I laughed considering the irony that was his name. I was convinced that Lucky’s name was simply Africa’s version of a misnomer like “jumbo shrimp”.

Following the trackers, I rounded a corner of tall bush to find them all smiling looking at me. Wondering why I should be the subject of such attention, I took another step to see the stallion. A young tracker patted the stallion on the shoulder and welcomed me forward with a motion of his hand. I kneeled becide the fallen zebra; I put my fingers through its mohawk of mane, ran my finger around the fuzz that surrounded its ears, and caressed its forehead.

I found where the arrow had hit. There, right in the center of the conspicuous triangular formation above the zebra’s front leg, was the hole from my broadhead. After the botched hunt a few days earlier, my second attempt at hunting zebra worked; somehow, luckily (and with no misnomer implications) I had pulled it off perfectly.

And by myself.

2010-01-25T00:00:00+00:00

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Robin Conrads

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