Monday, December 21, 2009

Lions and Rhinos and Crocs, Oh My!

Man, I haven't done a book report in years, but I just finished reading one that was so damn enjoyable that it would seem awfully selfish of me not to share it with you folks.

One of my favorite readers and friend of this site, Josie, hit up my Wish List a couple of weeks ago and sent me a copy of Death in the Long Grass by Peter Hathaway Capstick. Now, I've never been a hunter by any stretch of the imagination--besides random roadkill, the only things I've ever dispatched to the hereafter were water bottles, grapefruit, and an ill-advised potshot at an I-thought-it-was-empty propane tank. Hunting was something that other people did. It never appealed to me, and the thought of an African Safari has never been on my radar, no matter how much money I would ever somehow stumble into.

But first, let's hop into the wayback machine for a bit. One of my best friends from the ASU days, Flint, used to always be up for a weekend camping trip or a trek out to the desert to make grapefruit explode at a hundred yards, courtesy of a .270 Winchester. Granted, there were cheaper ways to shoot, and we always had plenty of surplus Russian 7.62 x 39 on hand to run through our AKs and SKSs. And as challenging as it was putting a smiley face on a grapefruit at 50 yards with a scoped .22, nothing was more fun than watching one explode into a fine pink mist with a single well-placed shot.

Not only did Flint have a pickup truck and a couple of nice rifles, his parents lived in the middle of a huge grapefruit orchard way the hell out in the middle of nowhere, about 15 miles from civilization at the far southeastern corner of the Phoenix Valley. I believe my friend Julia once remarked, as we were heading to his house one day, Shouldn't the letters BFE be painted on the side a mountain somewhere around here? So not only was it a great place to go shooting--no neighbors to disturb--but there was an endless supply of free exploding targets to be had.

Anyhow, back in the early-to-mid 90's, one of our regular weekend activities was to load up the truck with about 3,000 rounds of ammo, six or seven rifles, three or four handguns, a bag of grapefruit, and as many 2-liter bottles full of water that we could carry, then head out to the desert and go all Red Dawn for the afternoon. My buddy Mike, an avid shooter and gun collector (and Julia's husband), and Reverend Dave, who has an unexplainable affection for square, plastic guns, would also join in the festivities.

One fine autumn Saturday, I had the three of them over at my house, and they'd all brought three or four firearms each. We spent the morning having a cleaning party for our guns, and the plan was to go out to 'the pit' and blow through several thousand rounds of ammunition. The Pit was a huge bulldozed area out in the middle of the desert towards Apache Junction that served as an unofficial gun range to all the local rednecks. It was a couple of acres of war-torn junkyard covered in shot-up appliances and road signs, old furniture, brass casings, spent shotgun shells, and thousands upon thousands of scorpions, the only wildlife hearty enough to live there. Even the snakes were like F*ck this--I'm outta here!

Anyhow, once all the guns were cleaned and all the equipment was gathered, we started moving everything out to the vehicles parked in the driveway. Being such a nice day, my neighbors were outside doing chores--the husband working on the car with the hood up, and the wife tending to the flowerbeds in front of the porch. I didn't know them at all, but they watched with a curious eye as we loaded up several boxes of ammunition and about a dozen rifles into the back of the truck. We were all wearing side-arms at the time (open carry being legal in Arizona), and before we got in the truck and drove away, everyone racked the slide on their handguns, checking the chamber. To the uninformed movie-watcher, it looked an awful lot like we were all getting ready to shoot something, or someone.

Just out of habit, I asked out loud--We got everything? and without missing a beat, Reverend Dave said Make sure you all have your ski masks! The three of us cracked up laughing, but the neighbors dropped everything and quickly made their way indoors...

We still laugh about that, even now.

Anyhow, Flint up and got himself married to a gal that hates camping, hates the outdoors, and didn't much care for his friends, either. So we lost touch. But one time when he was still single, we were sitting around the campfire under the stars telling stories, and he told me of a great book that he'd read--Death in the Long Grass. He was an avid hunter, and sharing a few anecdotes around the safety of the campfire made it sound pretty cool, so I filed it away into my memory banks.

Fast forward fifteen years or so, and there I was stumbling around on and that title jumped off the screen at me. I fondly remembered that night at the campsite as I read the description, so I put it on my Wish List. Not being a hunter or a having a huge interest in Africa, I doubted I'd ever buy it for myself, but just in case I changed my mind and needed some adventure, I went ahead and added it to my ever-growing list. Just a few days after that, Josie went Christmas shopping, and the rest, they say, is history.

So the other day, when I finished the previous book I was reading (By the Dawn's Early Light, the ninth and final volume of the Prelude to Glory series), I was ready to pick up another book and dive right in. It was a cold day outside, and I needed some entertainment to go with my pot of coffee.

I read the foreword, thinking, So far, so good, now I know where he's coming from, and then started with the first chapter, Lion.

Basically, the book is a collection of stories, not memoirs or just one long narrative about life as a Great White Hunter in Africa, as I thought it would be. He devotes a chapter to all the big things in Africa that actively try to kill you, not just the things that can kill you (and the author makes it clear that there is a huge difference). He asserts that there are innumerable things in Africa that can eff you up, but only a handful that will go out of their way to do so. It's an interesting perspective, and one that I never considered.

I figured that a chapter about lions would be right there at the top, but he also talks about leopards, rhinos, elephants, snakes, crocodiles, hippos and the surprising one, the Cape Buffalo. Scary creature, the cape buffalo. I had no idea how dangerous and downright mean they can be. Hell, even lions don't fark with 'em unless they get one all by itself and they outnumber it about three or four to one. And who can forget this famous video?

But getting back to the book--it is a certified page-turner. I could not put it down. Not only does the guy tell it like it really is, but he completely blows up the current crap being spewed by the Discovery Channel and their ilk about all these wild animals being misunderstood and not wanting to harm humans. I've always thought that was a load of complete horse shiat anyways, so I found myself subconsciously nodding my head as I read. (This crap is especially evident during Shark Week. Some numb-nuts may swim with tiger or white sharks with no cage and get away with it a few times, but just ask the Grizzly Man about how living amongst wild animals turns out. Oh that's right, you can't--he got eaten. Enough said). The book is full of first- and second-hand stories of human vs. animal encounters where the humans came out on the short end. And a lot of it is written in gruesome detail, more graphic than any true-crime potboiler.

As graphic and bloody as the narrative can be, a lot of it is laugh-out-loud funny. Especially if you pretend it's being vocalized in one of those understated British colonial accents. For instance, this passage of a leopard hunt gone wrong is one of my favorite in the entire book:

John used to hunt in both Botswana and Kenya, safariing in one when the other had rains. A hunting party was on safari in, as I recall, Block 53, where one gentleman was indiscreet enough to stick a small bullet, a .243, into a big leopard with inconclusive results, the cat vanishing into a horror of thick thorn bush and grass. The professional said his prayers, loaded his shotgun, and went in after it as both the law and hunting morality demanded he do. Ten minutes later he reappeared at the edge of the bush looking like a tattered khaki bag full of corned beef. The client and the gunbearer got most of the major holes plugged and carried him back to camp, where they were able to raise Nairobi on the safari radio, ordering up a rescue plane, posthaste.

Heh. That right there is a colorful metaphor if I've ever seen one. And the book is chock-full of little nuggets of goodness like that, from hair-raising tension to downright disbelief, and everything in between, such as the time he burned down a latrine after coming junk-to-face with an angry black mamba.

The best parts of the book, to me, are the detail-laden accounts of the different hunts he led, from trying to outsmart a very clever crocodile that had killed a native washer-woman, to the time he and a companion were treed by a herd of angry buffalo, bent on trampling them both. You can almost feel the beating sun, the ever-present dust, and the eye-stinging sweat as he patiently stalks his prey, all the while knowing that his prey is stalking him.

The book was written in the 70's, but aside from the disco-style typefaces on the chapter headings, there is a timelessness about it. He takes on the all-animals-are-fluffy-and-sweet philosophy with dead-on accuracy and real world knowledge. You will come away with a different outlook, especially if your only knowledge of the Dark Continent comes from Disney or watching Animal Planet. Once finished, you'll understand the paradox that, just like fires are good for the forest, hunting is essential to conservation. Don't ask me to argue the point--I can't and I won't. But if you read the book, you'll know what I'm talking about and it'll give your mind something to gnaw on.

I have to admit, I was a little skeptical at first--I wasn't sure I'd like the book, but as soon as I got into it, I truly didn't want to stop reading. The author has a very easy-to-read style, and is a master storyteller. As soon as I finished, I immediately ordered another volume of his, Death on the Dark Continent, and added the rest of his books to my Wish List. That should tell you exactly how much I enjoyed it. It was that good, especially for a subject that I wasn't sure that I'd like. But if you're in the mood for a great armchair adventure, you can't go wrong here. Even if you've never bagged anything more dangerous than a grapefruit.


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