Weird disasters in the hunting field

By Herman Labuschagne

When you think that nothing else could possible go wrong – you will find out that you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. – Murphy’s Law


Disaster is a funny thing. It nearly always strikes when it is least-expected, and generally when we are quite thoroughly ill-prepared for it. And for some strange reason, disaster and hunting sometimes seems to have an affinity for one-another. Just do a bit of asking around and you’ll quickly be told: hunters know about disasters.


We all know a disaster when we see one, but just to make sure, let me remind you that a disaster is a “crushing misfortune; especially, an unexpected and ruinous event.” They knew that 98 years ago already – at least, according to my momentous old “A Standard Dictionary of the English Language,” which was published in the distant year of 1902. One would hazard to conclude that disasters have been around for a long time and that there is nothing new about it. There are different kinds of disasters. Natural disasters are probably the best example. They just happen to anybody without prejudice. But then you also get other forms of disaster, like disasters caused by stupidity. These are incredibly common in the hunting field, and evolutionists may argue that this is often just a natural-selection attempt at ridding the human gene-pool of faulty genetic material. But one also gets the plain, old fashioned bad-luck disaster variety. Of the kind that happens to everybody whether they’re looking for trouble or not. One thing about disasters, though: Although they’re usually unpleasant to experience, at least they do make for great stories later on. 


One of these is the tale of Bonaparte. Great-great grandfather was one of those old pioneers fortunate enough to have lived in South Africa when it was still a young and untamed country. At a time when the big herds roamed freely across its dusty plains. Having grown up during the momentous Great Trek and fought in the great kaffir wars, he certainly knew about disaster. In fact, I happen to have been named after him, while he in turn, had been named after the best friend of his father, Herman Potgieter – a man who had been skinned alive by Mapela and Makapaan near Makapaanspoort, and who died only after having had his entrails dragged out of him.


One of great-great grandpa’s  more noteworthy experiences with disaster, involved a horse whom he loved dearly. Bonaparte was famous for being able to outrun the swiftest horse in the district, and for being a superb hunting animal. Until one night, when great-great grandpa rode home through the wild old Marico district after a hunting expedition. He couldn’t avoid the shadows altogether, and it was in one of them that the lions were waiting. Bonaparte might have been fast, but at close-quarters he still was no match for the African lion. The crumbling letter I have, still conveys a note of sad irony as it described how great-great-grandpa had to spend the rest of the night in a tree, listening to the crunching sounds as lions devoured his poor, beloved Bonaparte below. How he must have lamented the loss of his muzzle-loader lying somewhere in the tall grass near his hunting companion...


Writing about bad luck disasters bring back scores of other disaster-memories. Some disasters were big, and some were little, but all were memorable and added to the nostalgic memory of distant adventures. Even little ones like fixing the broken bearings of a boat-trailer on a hunting trip in the Zambezi Valley, or making a wild, death-defying trip down the steep Lebombo mountain pass. When the brakes on grandpa’s old Dodge truck failed and sent us howling around the bends and finally harmlessly into the veld, with a big Jurgens caravan-trailer bouncing all over the scene behind us like a huge frisky calf. 


Sometimes, everything just seems to go completely and utterly wrong from beginning to end. Like Dad’s miserable hunt in Zambia a few years ago. When he and a friend were cheated by an unscrupulous operator who took their money and vanished, leaving them stranded near Lake Benguela, with a broken-down landcruiser, an airfield where no aircraft could land, a trunk full of food in which everything had been impregnated by the unique taste of mothballs, and where the hunting itself turned out to be miserably poor. Not to mention the fact that they eventually had to help themselves by hitching a ride back to the airport with a kind-hearted Indian. As dad described it: “Hell is when you have three big men, squashed into the front of a dilapidated landcruiser, who have to listen to one single audio cassette of whining Indian music being played over-and-over, non-stop for nine hours of torturously bumpy kilometres to Lusaka.”


And then there are those accidents conceived by stupidity, incubated by ignorance, and finally born in a spectacular moment of explosive disaster. Here too, there are little ones like the group of young men who came to hunt and camp on one of our ranches one year, and tried to force their inadequately-built fire to burn by pouring copious quantities of gasoline onto it. Of course, as can be expected, it took only so long for the flames to make the transition from cap to container. Like my good friend, the doctor, always says: “That’s when the situation degraded rapidly.” 


The container went flying, gasoline spilt everywhere, and finally a significant part of the camp went up in roaring flames. Our young heroes got burnt too. Not terribly badly, but sufficiently to dampen the rest of their spirit for adventure and so that they will remember this little disaster a long time.


There was even the case involving a particularly big man, who shall remain anonymous, out of kindness, even though he has long since passed away. It was on a hunting trip in old Mozambique, when the homemade pit latrine gave way under his tremendous weight, and sent him down into the hole – a bit like when you were a baby and accidentally stepped into the chamber-pot at night. To add insult to injury, he had to suffer the indignity of having to scream for help, since with both legs and arms sticking out, he was unable to extricate himself without the assistance of his hunting buddies. – Perhaps a minor disaster, but decorated with a note of sheer hilarity.


Yet, one of the most classic disaster tales that leaps to mind, is one that happened on a fishing trip in North-America. When some unthinking fishermen left their bait and food inside their floatplane, while they went to pursue adventure elsewhere on the lake. Adventure turned into disaster when at their return, they happened to find a big brown bear next to what had been quite a nice plan, only a few hours earlier. The bear had just about torn the machine apart completely in an effort to get at the food inside. I can just imagine a handful of very angry fishermen...


But the granddaddy of hunting disasters comes from a couple of fellows who is said to have shot a moose on a hunt in Canada. When they tried to load all of the meat into the aeroplane that afternoon, the pilot objected severely, due to the fact that the plane would be grossly overladen and wouldn’t be able to clear the mountains ahead. But common-sense ultimately gave way to peer-pressure. In a moment of sheer madness, he sealed their disaster by eventually agreeing to make the attempt. Despite his best attempts, the plane just couldn’t quite make it. It struck the mountaintop about fourteen feet from the summit, and instantly disintegrated into a creative mixture of snow, aluminium and moose-meat. To everybody’s great relief, however, it was found that nobody had gotten seriously hurt.

But the pilot’s relief soon turned to blind anger when one of the hunters slapped his knees out of breath and exclaimed: “Bob, I must tell you, you’re one hell of a pilot. We tried the same thing here last year, and that damned pilot crashed a hundred feet lower than you did.”


I shall not vouch for the authenticity of this last tale, but perhaps I could add that it was personally told to me by a big evangelist. Mine is not the task to separate true fact from fiction in this instance – only to tell a good story. You judge the facts. Yes, in the world of disaster tales, there are undoubtedly many lies, legends and distortions. But the real-life disasters can be as dangerous as they are exiting to talk about, when you’ve weathered them intact. A few days ago I received an e-mail from a man who had just returned from a hunting trip in Zimbabwe, and who had had to kill an elephant which had trampled a local. These kinds of disasters do happen all the time, and after we’ve had our chuckle at the funnier side of some disasters, there remains the pearls wisdom learnt from these experiences. Hopefully some of us will remember them next time we head for the hunting fields. Good luck to you.