Memories of Africa

A herd of impala grazing in long grass in Tanzania.
Duncan Smith, aged 25, with a couple of African friends, taken 45 years ago.
Duncan, a plant pathologist with a strong interest in ecology and zoology, is hoping to carry out research on why kiwi on Whale Island and other offshore islands are not thriving.

I READ the news today — oh boy!

I opened the paper today, the headline read “Twelve-year-old girl shoots giraffe.”

“What? Why would anyone want to shoot a giraffe, for heaven’s sake?” I yelled at the printed pages.

I read on:

“Miss Aryanna Gourdin and her father were on a safari in South Africa to shoot various big game. They had already bagged a lion and a buffalo. However, this little girl’s heart was desperately set on shooting a giraffe.

“I’ve always liked the look of them,” she said.

“How sick is that?” I thought.

This immediately brought back memories of the time I went off to Africa for a six-week holiday with my college friend John. We shared a grotty student flat in Wolverhampton, England and were both studying for the same degree. It was raining and cold outside and we were both bored.

Out of the blue John said: “Do you know, that I’ve always wanted to go on safari in Africa and shoot some big game, like an elephant, lion or something, haven’t you?”

It was 1972 and we were both 26 and broke. He was bespeckled, strong as an ox and my best friend. His travels had never extended beyond English shores, but I’d been to Africa many times to visit my aunt Helen who lived there. She had a small beach hotel 25 miles north of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and a small island just off the coast. Whilst there I’d never considered shooting any animal just for “fun”.

So, in answer to John’s question I replied “Not really mate. I’ve only ever shot an animal with my camera.”

He snorted, “Not very macho Duncan.” I said nothing.

We often spoke about going to stay with my aunt one day after we’d finished our studies. Three years later we both got that chance and had managed to save enough to buy tickets to Dar es Salaam. We flew out a week after we finished our finals and arrived at Dar es Salaam 18 hours later. Helen met us and drove us to her home.

Over the next few weeks John and I relaxed, swam, scuba-dived and water-skied. We explored Dar es Salaam city and the surrounds to take in some of the sights.

40-acre island

We ventured over to Helen’s 40-acre island, called Sinda, and stayed for days in the house she’d built there. It sat on a petrified coral terrace overlooking a pristine white sandy beach. It was very simply furnished with an open lounge/kitchen and three small bedrooms. In the middle of the lounge was a scrubbed wooden table with a medley of rickety chairs. A panoramic window took up the whole of one side of the house, framing a turquoise sea cosseting the beach a few metres away and a sky so dark blue you could write your name on it.

During the day we lazed on the soft, flour-like sand and swam amongst brilliantly coloured fish that called the ancient coral gardens their home.

The sound of crickets at night were extraordinarily loud and insistent, almost smothering our evening conversations as we drank cold beers and put the world to rights. Moths danced around our heads and bounced off the smokey glass of our hurricane lamps.

Too soon it was time to leave Africa and return to England. John was sorely disappointed that it hadn’t been possible for us to go hunting and he would have to forgo his hunting “trophy”.

Helen had arranged a small farewell party for us at her hotel the night before we were due to fly home. We sat on the verandah under an inky black sky peppered with myriads of stars. Her guests included a white hunter, his very gloomy wife and her parents; two of Helen’s oldest friends whom she’d met when she first arrived in Africa in 1948; an older gentleman, with a handsome white beard, called “Hemingway”; and Dimitri, a portly, grizzled old Greek bachelor who owned a 5000 hectare sisal estate near Helen. Dimitri feasted on life in every shape and form and lived life like an 18-year-old.

We dined on steak and lobsters, fish and prawns fresh from the sea. We drank cold beers, brandy and ruby red port. The Indian Ocean sighed gently on the beach beyond the tall coconut palms and a full moon eased itself from the depths of the sea. Pale blue phosphorescence lit the surf and was thrown up onto the sand like scattered diamonds.

Three happy hours later all were very mellow and Dimitri, who was very drunk, turned to me and slurred: “You have good time Duncan, did you?”

“Yes,” I said. “John and I’ve really enjoyed ourselves. The only disappointment was that he wanted to go hunting but we never got around to it.”

Dimitri stood up so fast that he knocked over his chair, turned to John and shouted: “We go now and kill from my farm, yes? Come!”

“Yes,” John exclaimed and leapt from the table and followed a stumbling Dimitri to his Landrover. I quickly gave our apologies to Helen, who smiled broadly through a haze of booze and waved us away happily.

Driving like a man possessed

Dimitri drove like a man possessed, weaving from one side of the road to the other. Soon we reached his ramshackle house and he yelled out for one of his workers to drive his car. He disappeared inside his home and after much crashing and swearing from within, he emerged triumphant.

Smiling broadly, he had two ammunition belts over his shoulders, a shotgun in one hand and a powerful rifle in the other. His weather-beaten face had a demonic look and the corners of his mouth were edged with froth.

We took off at a horrendous speed towards his sisal estate, bouncing along deeply rutted tracks that criss-crossed his land.

His Landrover roof had two square “trap doors” cut into it that opened to enable people to stand up and look out. Dimitri yelled non-stop over the roar of the engine and the loud protestations of complaining car springs as we lurched from pothole to pothole.

“You go stand, look and shine spotlights. See game. Tell me. We stop. You shoot! Yes?”

“OK,” we shouted back, holding on for dear life, our legs shaking like coiled springs and our heads sticking out of the lurching Landrover.

“You forget guns!” Dimitri shrieked. “You forget take spot lights too, you stupidies! How expect you see animals, eh?”

We bent down and meekly collected our weapons and lights. John took the shotgun and I took the rifle. With spotlights in hand we returned to our jolting posts.

The driver slowed as we approached a small clearing amongst a tangle of tall, thick sisal plants. We stopped and scanned the area with our lights looking for the tell-tale sign of animal eyes reflecting back. No luck. The driver put his foot down and we careened off again to another clearing. Again no luck. We headed off at great speed again to another clearing. Still no luck. After two hours of bouncing and crashing over potholes, John and I were beginning to feel very tired. It was now three o’clock in the morning and we had to get up early the next day to catch our plane home.

Dimitri called out:

“This useless is, we go home now” and told his driver to turn around and return. Just as he did so John spotted a small herd of impala, about a hundred metres away, and transfixed them with his spotlight. We came to a slow stop and Dimitri whispered: “Duncan, you have rifle, kill, shoot now, shoot quickly, shoot, kill!”

Loaded and aimed

I loaded my rifle, while John held the animals mesmerised. I set the range and took careful aim. I slowed my breath and steadied my rifle at the heart of a large, handsome male, with beautifully curved horns.

“Shoot, quickly Duncan,” Dimitri hissed.

“I am,” I said through gritted teeth. As I gently took up the slack on the trigger a tiny voice in my head whispered:

“Are you really going to do this Duncan? Look at that beautiful animal. Are you really going to just . . . kill it?”

In that split second I quickly took my finger off the trigger, lowered the rifle and turned to John. He grunted and looked at me with an expression of disbelief.

“Well, are you going to shoot it or not?” he exclaimed.

I looked at him and replied:

“I just can’t do it mate. You have a go, eh?”

With a whoop, John gleefully snatched the rifle from me and I took his spotlight. The herd had gone back to eating grass again, seemingly unconcerned. I couldn’t watch, so turned to look at John instead. He was utterly transfixed and focused. I tried to understand why he would want to shoot this beautiful animal, just for fun. He steadied himself on the roof of the Landrover and took aim, fingering the trigger gently. His breathing slowed and I could almost hear his heart beating rapidly in his chest. I waited for the explosive “Crack!” of the rifle. There was none.

“Why for you waiting then? Kill, shoot!” Dimitri screamed in exasperation.

Time seemed to freeze. Then John quietly turned around, put down the rifle and just looked at me with a pained expression on his face. He didn’t need to say anything as we both knew what had just happened.

We sat in silence back to the hotel, apart from Dimitri who kept shaking his head and mumbling something to himself in Greek. John and I thanked him for the experience, had a nightcap and went to bed.

I READ the news today — oh boy!

I opened the paper today, the headline read “Twelve-year-old girl shoots giraffe.”

“What? Why would anyone want to shoot a giraffe, for heaven’s sake?” I yelled at the printed pages.

I read on:

“Miss Aryanna Gourdin and her father were on a safari in South Africa to shoot various big game. They had already bagged a lion and a buffalo. However, this little girl’s heart was desperately set on shooting a giraffe.

“I’ve always liked the look of them,” she said.

“How sick is that?” I thought.

This immediately brought back memories of the time I went off to Africa for a six-week holiday with my college friend John. We shared a grotty student flat in Wolverhampton, England and were both studying for the same degree. It was raining and cold outside and we were both bored.

Out of the blue John said: “Do you know, that I’ve always wanted to go on safari in Africa and shoot some big game, like an elephant, lion or something, haven’t you?”

It was 1972 and we were both 26 and broke. He was bespeckled, strong as an ox and my best friend. His travels had never extended beyond English shores, but I’d been to Africa many times to visit my aunt Helen who lived there. She had a small beach hotel 25 miles north of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and a small island just off the coast. Whilst there I’d never considered shooting any animal just for “fun”.

So, in answer to John’s question I replied “Not really mate. I’ve only ever shot an animal with my camera.”

He snorted, “Not very macho Duncan.” I said nothing.

We often spoke about going to stay with my aunt one day after we’d finished our studies. Three years later we both got that chance and had managed to save enough to buy tickets to Dar es Salaam. We flew out a week after we finished our finals and arrived at Dar es Salaam 18 hours later. Helen met us and drove us to her home.

Over the next few weeks John and I relaxed, swam, scuba-dived and water-skied. We explored Dar es Salaam city and the surrounds to take in some of the sights.

40-acre island

We ventured over to Helen’s 40-acre island, called Sinda, and stayed for days in the house she’d built there. It sat on a petrified coral terrace overlooking a pristine white sandy beach. It was very simply furnished with an open lounge/kitchen and three small bedrooms. In the middle of the lounge was a scrubbed wooden table with a medley of rickety chairs. A panoramic window took up the whole of one side of the house, framing a turquoise sea cosseting the beach a few metres away and a sky so dark blue you could write your name on it.

During the day we lazed on the soft, flour-like sand and swam amongst brilliantly coloured fish that called the ancient coral gardens their home.

The sound of crickets at night were extraordinarily loud and insistent, almost smothering our evening conversations as we drank cold beers and put the world to rights. Moths danced around our heads and bounced off the smokey glass of our hurricane lamps.

Too soon it was time to leave Africa and return to England. John was sorely disappointed that it hadn’t been possible for us to go hunting and he would have to forgo his hunting “trophy”.

Helen had arranged a small farewell party for us at her hotel the night before we were due to fly home. We sat on the verandah under an inky black sky peppered with myriads of stars. Her guests included a white hunter, his very gloomy wife and her parents; two of Helen’s oldest friends whom she’d met when she first arrived in Africa in 1948; an older gentleman, with a handsome white beard, called “Hemingway”; and Dimitri, a portly, grizzled old Greek bachelor who owned a 5000 hectare sisal estate near Helen. Dimitri feasted on life in every shape and form and lived life like an 18-year-old.

We dined on steak and lobsters, fish and prawns fresh from the sea. We drank cold beers, brandy and ruby red port. The Indian Ocean sighed gently on the beach beyond the tall coconut palms and a full moon eased itself from the depths of the sea. Pale blue phosphorescence lit the surf and was thrown up onto the sand like scattered diamonds.

Three happy hours later all were very mellow and Dimitri, who was very drunk, turned to me and slurred: “You have good time Duncan, did you?”

“Yes,” I said. “John and I’ve really enjoyed ourselves. The only disappointment was that he wanted to go hunting but we never got around to it.”

Dimitri stood up so fast that he knocked over his chair, turned to John and shouted: “We go now and kill from my farm, yes? Come!”

“Yes,” John exclaimed and leapt from the table and followed a stumbling Dimitri to his Landrover. I quickly gave our apologies to Helen, who smiled broadly through a haze of booze and waved us away happily.

Driving like a man possessed

Dimitri drove like a man possessed, weaving from one side of the road to the other. Soon we reached his ramshackle house and he yelled out for one of his workers to drive his car. He disappeared inside his home and after much crashing and swearing from within, he emerged triumphant.

Smiling broadly, he had two ammunition belts over his shoulders, a shotgun in one hand and a powerful rifle in the other. His weather-beaten face had a demonic look and the corners of his mouth were edged with froth.

We took off at a horrendous speed towards his sisal estate, bouncing along deeply rutted tracks that criss-crossed his land.

His Landrover roof had two square “trap doors” cut into it that opened to enable people to stand up and look out. Dimitri yelled non-stop over the roar of the engine and the loud protestations of complaining car springs as we lurched from pothole to pothole.

“You go stand, look and shine spotlights. See game. Tell me. We stop. You shoot! Yes?”

“OK,” we shouted back, holding on for dear life, our legs shaking like coiled springs and our heads sticking out of the lurching Landrover.

“You forget guns!” Dimitri shrieked. “You forget take spot lights too, you stupidies! How expect you see animals, eh?”

We bent down and meekly collected our weapons and lights. John took the shotgun and I took the rifle. With spotlights in hand we returned to our jolting posts.

The driver slowed as we approached a small clearing amongst a tangle of tall, thick sisal plants. We stopped and scanned the area with our lights looking for the tell-tale sign of animal eyes reflecting back. No luck. The driver put his foot down and we careened off again to another clearing. Again no luck. We headed off at great speed again to another clearing. Still no luck. After two hours of bouncing and crashing over potholes, John and I were beginning to feel very tired. It was now three o’clock in the morning and we had to get up early the next day to catch our plane home.

Dimitri called out:

“This useless is, we go home now” and told his driver to turn around and return. Just as he did so John spotted a small herd of impala, about a hundred metres away, and transfixed them with his spotlight. We came to a slow stop and Dimitri whispered: “Duncan, you have rifle, kill, shoot now, shoot quickly, shoot, kill!”

Loaded and aimed

I loaded my rifle, while John held the animals mesmerised. I set the range and took careful aim. I slowed my breath and steadied my rifle at the heart of a large, handsome male, with beautifully curved horns.

“Shoot, quickly Duncan,” Dimitri hissed.

“I am,” I said through gritted teeth. As I gently took up the slack on the trigger a tiny voice in my head whispered:

“Are you really going to do this Duncan? Look at that beautiful animal. Are you really going to just . . . kill it?”

In that split second I quickly took my finger off the trigger, lowered the rifle and turned to John. He grunted and looked at me with an expression of disbelief.

“Well, are you going to shoot it or not?” he exclaimed.

I looked at him and replied:

“I just can’t do it mate. You have a go, eh?”

With a whoop, John gleefully snatched the rifle from me and I took his spotlight. The herd had gone back to eating grass again, seemingly unconcerned. I couldn’t watch, so turned to look at John instead. He was utterly transfixed and focused. I tried to understand why he would want to shoot this beautiful animal, just for fun. He steadied himself on the roof of the Landrover and took aim, fingering the trigger gently. His breathing slowed and I could almost hear his heart beating rapidly in his chest. I waited for the explosive “Crack!” of the rifle. There was none.

“Why for you waiting then? Kill, shoot!” Dimitri screamed in exasperation.

Time seemed to freeze. Then John quietly turned around, put down the rifle and just looked at me with a pained expression on his face. He didn’t need to say anything as we both knew what had just happened.

We sat in silence back to the hotel, apart from Dimitri who kept shaking his head and mumbling something to himself in Greek. John and I thanked him for the experience, had a nightcap and went to bed.

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Tom Shaw (Old school chum of Duncan). - 2 months ago
Brilliant. I was beginning to worry until the last few moments.

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