A Brother’s Suggestion, a Family’s Orders

“Let’s go hunting.” It was as simple, and complex, as that. My brother, Randy, and I had been chatting on the phone. I think he knew I was in trouble. Of course, he knew that I had received my diagnosis of Stage 4 cancer. He also knew that the prognosis was bleak. And, I think he knew that I was despairing of not living out my so-called ‘allotted time’ – not walking my daughter down the aisle, not ever seeing my grand-kids, not celebrating my 50th wedding anniversary…The list went on.

Honestly, I wasn’t despairing about not seeing another hunting trip. But, Randy’s statement sent a slight thrill through the body that had been cut open twice and, most recently, poisoned with drugs designed to kill the mutated cells. He was suggesting a trip to the Western US, a region we both loved. I thought for just a moment and then asked, “What about going to Africa?”

Though my brother had been on a Safari, I had never seen the continent where many hunters are said to find their dreams fulfilled. It took only the briefest discussion for us to decide to investigate whether a Safari was possible – financially for both of us, physically for me.

I first went to Frances my, [very] long-suffering, wife of 40 years. We discussed the financial cost, and then we discussed the big question – would I be able to handle the physical side of the Safari. This latter issue might seem like an odd concern for those of you who know that Frances and I had just spent 10 days in the Himalayas, trekking all the way up to ~16,000 feet in elevation. Also, just prior to my diagnosis, I had been a runner for 20+ years. So, why the discussion about being physically able to hunt?

The answer was that the treatment for my particular cancer had knocked out most of my endocrine system. This left me without the capability of producing the molecules needed to keep living, especially when in the midst of physically-demanding activities. But, there were medications that could help.

Shortly thereafter, Frances and my children used the Arnold penchant for sarcasm-in-love and indicated their vote for the Safari with this shirt:

Marching Orders from MY Family

So, Randy and I planned our trip, with my brother making the suggestion that we hunt with Blaauwkrantz Safaris out of Port Elizabeth, SA.

In the midst of the planning, I realized that I needed to let the folks at Blaauwkrantz know about my situation. I was a bit concerned that they might not be very excited about my particular malady, especially given that my prime species would be the Vaal Rhebok, an animal found only in mountainous regions.

My concerned message was met with “Mike, we will take very good care of you.”

Remembering my sarcastic bent, you will understand that I interpreted this to mean that they would send me out with a PH capable of carting my carcass out of the mountains when I fell off my perch.

That latter inference was accurate in that my PH, Arnold Claassen, was a former Rugby player. And, since he was capable of carrying whole Impala down hills, he could have easily handled my limp body.

1a) Loading up the PH

Fortunately, Arnold never had to test his human-body-carting capabilities on our Safari. Though, early in our Safari, as I struggled up the slope to find the Vaal Rhebok, he noted my gasping and asked if I wanted him to carry my rifle. I stopped, popped another Hydrocortisone tablet, and demurred.

We found our trophy, and Arnold didn’t need to roll me down from the top of the mountain.

5) Happy PH

You may be asking what the point of this post might be? Here it is. If you are facing a diagnosis that is dire, and you are a passionate hunter, consider going hunting.

No, I don’t believe hunting saved my life, thus far giving me almost three years of clear scans. I believe that is attributable to God and modern medical treatments.

However, my wife and children’s love, my brother’s love, and the care of Arnold Claassen and all those at Blaauwkrantz provided this cancer-challenged man with an adventure that lifted his spirits in a way that no other experience likely would have. The memory of that one adventure has continued to buoy my desire to fight this disease.

By the way, Randy and I head back to Africa in 2020 to share another Safari, this time in Mozambique – and Frances is going along for her first taste of Africa.

I intend to keep Kicking Cancer’s Ass.

1) On the Lookout

Quotes of Note – How Times Have Changed

During the latter decades of the 19th Century, Frenchman Édouard Foa traveled, and hunted extensively, from one end of Africa to another. The diversity of species taken, the extensiveness of his geographical and natural history observations, as well as his description of equipment carried, provides a wonderful journal in his After Big Game in Central Africa. For me, one of the most delightful aspects of Foa’s text was its historical setting. The following quote concerning his views on the newfangled piece of equipment he called a ‘telescope’, but we know as the ‘riflescope’.

“A telescope adjusted on the barrel [of his .303 rifle] is intended to magnify and consequently bring the quarry nearer; but I was never able to use this instrument, and I recommend you, if one is suggested to you, not to make this useless expenditure.”

On the off chance that the reader had not understood his point Foa added:

“As to diamond sights, telescopic sights, or others…which imaginative gunsmiths invent at every moment, the only object which they reach is, most certainly, the pocket of the sportsman.”

Duiker Love Whistle

On a recent Safari to South Africa’s Eastern Cape, I was introduced to a hunting technique reflecting an unusual skill of my Blaauwkrantz Safaris PH, Arnold Claassen. This technique involved the use of an inexpensive varmint call to lure Grey (Bush) Duikers into the open, thus allowing a determination of not only gender, but the horn dimensions on the males. On our first outing, Arnold successfully called in a number of Duikers, but none of the males reached his self-imposed minimum length of 4.5 inches. A number of times as I readied myself on the bipod rest, he would whisper, “we can do better”. I must say that I didn’t mind at all not collecting the beautiful little brown animal on this initial foray, captivated as I was by my first ever hunting experience involving calling. Watching the animals dashing across the landscape, from one patch of vegetation to another, as well as crossing large open areas, just to reach the source of the call was a highlight of my hunting life. Some of these pygmy antelope traveled several hundred yards in order to investigate the sound, at time coming within bayonet range of our stands.

The next morning found us again heading back into the East Cape Lowlands to try and call in a trophy Duiker. As we walked from the truck, we passed into and through the chaparral-like habitat that I had come to, if not accept, at least expect. We finally arrived at the target of our hike, an open hillside from which we had a commanding view of a valley and the hillside opposite. Arnold blew only twice through his call, or what I now referred to as a Duiker love whistle, when a crashing noise was heard in the brush in the valley.  Fortunately, I had already placed my rifle on the bipod before the Duiker bolted from the underbrush.  Arnold had his binoculars to his eyes in an instant and quickly whispered, “that’s your ram.”  As I aimed at the miniature mammal I asked, “How far?”  Arnold’s “He’s seen us, shoot him!” preempted any further queries from yours truly.  At the shot, the little form collapsed, immediately followed by  “Let’s go collect him” from my never-flustered PH.  As usual, the photos were carefully posed, this time with hunter and trophy ensconced in a handy bush. As I sat cradling the little ram’s chin, I realized that my PH and trackers had accomplished a transformation.  In the span of one Safari they had changed a neophyte African hunter into a glassy-eyed fanatic. I now understood Ernest Hemingway’s quip that his plan now that he was back from Africa was to make enough money to be able return again to this hunter’s paradise. (Adapted from “Small Sizes Count!” – African Hunting Gazette, Volume 24(4), pp. 72-79)

If you would like to see just how receptive the little pygmy antelope were to Arnold’s ‘Love Whistle’ check out this YouTube video. This diminutive female came within 50 feet.


And, they’re up…to stay!!!

I thought it might be interesting and useful to focus on the installation of only one of my trophies from the South African Safari, plus the final results from the installation of all the trophies. Otherwise, it will be very much like those excruciating encounters we have all had. You know, a friend asks “Do you want to see some photos from FILL IN THE BLANK (“our wedding, our kids, our dogs, our cats, our favorite vacation, our favorite tattoos”…o.k., so the last one might actually be entertaining…) and then you cannot get them to STOP!!!

One of the more intriguing, if not the most difficult (that dubious honor goes to the Vaal Rhebok) mounts to install, was the Kudu. I captioned the following photo, “I am certain that the Kudu had horns when I left him with the taxidermist in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.” Yep, that’s right. To reduce the the size of crate needed for the overseas shipment and thus the cost to the recipient, the horns were left off the bases installed by the taxidermist. Those bases are a part of the form used as the structure on which the skin is placed; they act as the foundation for the horns.

The first step, of course, was to select an area of a wall that was large enough to accommodate an animal that is equivalent in mass to a medium-size Rocky Mountain Elk. I made finding space more difficult by choosing to have all of the shoulder-mounted trophies prepared as ‘wall-pedestals’. This technique results in one of the shoulders being displayed to a greater degree (see following photo), allowing the viewer to see more of the skin from the animal’s shoulder. The shoulder skin on many African game animals is often quite beautiful. Wall-pedestals also help to add mass to smaller trophy species that might otherwise take on, for example, the appearance of a rat rather than an antelope!

After identifying the appropriate space, finding the stud necessary to support such a large and heavy trophy, inserting a 2.5 inch screw, lifting the heavy mount while standing on a ladder, slowly sliding the Kudu down the wall until the screw slid into the cavity in the back of the form, I slowly removed my hands while praying the mantra — “please don’t fall, please don’t fall, please…!”

The final step was to bring in our tallest ladder, crawl up near the top and ‘pivot!!’ the horns onto their bases – and, yes, much to Frances’ amusement, I attempted to put the wrong horn onto the wrong base. In fact, she asked if I wanted her to find a photo we had taken after I shot the Kudu to show me which horn was correct. I did not find that amusing.

By ‘final’ I meant the final step to the process of placing the trophies on the wall. After all the trophies were in place, Frances graciously offered to putty and paint where I had spent time ‘finding the studs…’

But, man-oh-man, the results were absolutely spectacular!

With the Kudu, Impala and Vaal Rhebok on one set of walls, with the Bush Duiker just below…

…and in the opposite corner (nearest to farthest) the Red Hartebeest, Klipspringer, Cape Grysbok and Mountain Reedbuck.

My desk faces these wonderful memory-makers, and even as I write these lines they each conjure a specific episode during a magical time spent on Safari.

Job Failure

You had one job, just one job!” hissed Arnold.  I suspect I looked a bit embarrassed, but apparently not enough for my young PH’s taste, because he followed his declaration with a disgusted shake of his head.  Hey, I knew that the little Common Duiker was beautifully, but precariously, placed atop the bush next to me.  However, as Arnold was about to snap the photograph with my Canon I noticed blood on the little guy’s lips.  So, to protect future viewers of the ‘trophy shot’ from any icky bits, I had reached my sleeve up to dab the Pygmy Antelope’s face.  That movement led to a slow cascade of antelope from bush-to-ground, resulting in the PH-reprimand.  I tried to be very small as Arnold and our tracker, Neville, repositioned the Duiker at my shoulder height.  I don’t think I breathed again until the session finished, but I could swear that Arnold was still muttering under his breath as we tottered back up the hill to the truck… (excerpted from ‘Arnold’s Class Act’; to appear in African Hunting Gazette)

Don’t Breathe!!!