Buck Fever

Buck Fever

Hunting is the avocation of most little boys that grow up in East Africa and I was no exception. At the age of ten I was given a .22 rifle by my father and taught how to use it. I started by shooting at paper targets mounted on termite hills and then moved on to shooting birds for the pot. But my big goal was to shoot a bushbuck. These beautiful antelope were secretive and although I frequently saw their splayed footprints in the damp soil, I never got a shot at one.

After several years of camping in tents overlooking Lake Victoria, my father built a primitive road into our area. Then with the road built it was decided to have a church conference.  Sukuma men walked in from the surrounding areas and temporary shelters were erected to house them.  The Dilworth family drove in from Butundwe so that Dick could help with the preaching.  Their son Norm came as well.  He was a couple of years older than me and was a real bush kid.  He had a khaki hat pinned up on one side and he was really good with his .22 rifle.  We hit it off right away, spending most of our time shooting birds in the forest. 

The men attending the conference needed to be fed.  They had various starchy foods like ugali, corn, and cassava.  But they also needed meat.  The only antelope in the area were the shy reclusive bushbuck. These antelope were often called harness buck because they had white spots and stripes on their red coats.  The females had no horns, but the males had twisted black horns with ivory tips.  These animals hid so well in the forests that they were able to live in close proximity to humans, coming out mainly at night to nibble on the gardens. 

My father decided to have a bushbuck drive so they could shoot a number of antelope, enough to feed the participants of the conference.  He chose a dense forested valley with large boulders at the bottom end.  The plan was for the hunters to take their rifles and hide behind these boulders. Then have a long line of Sukuma men were to march down the valley from top to bottom, making noise by yelling and whistling, and thereby driving the elusive bushbuck down the valley to the waiting hunters.  It sounded like a great plan and both Norm and I jumped up and down and asked if we could be part of the ambush using our .22 rifles.  At first our fathers refused.  They were going to be using large rifles.  There was the danger of shooting up the valley and hitting a beater, or even shooting sideways and hitting another hunter.  But we pleaded and begged and said we would be careful.  The men eventually capitulated and plans were made for the hunt.  There was only one problem.  Norm and I had been hunting birds all week and I only had four bullets left for my rifle.  I would have to choose my shots carefully. 

The day for the hunt was chosen and the Sukuma men hiked off to the top of the valley.  We carefully chose our boulders at the bottom end.  The men were kind to me and gave me the perfect rock.  It was about twelve feet high with a notch near the top and I was able to sit in the notch with a clear 180-degree view in front of me.  The area in front of the rock was open ground so any bushbuck stepping out of the undergrowth would be close and in plain sight – an easy shot with my .22.  I settled on to my rock with great anticipation. I was going to shoot my first bushbuck and I hoped it would be a big male with ivory tipped horns.  After a while I could hear the Sukuma beaters yelling and whistling as they made their way toward us.  Suddenly there was a rustling in the bushes and out stepped a black-tipped mongoose.  It was a long and slender like a giant weasel and his black tipped tail arched over his back.  It paused in the clearing and peered back toward the valley.  I quickly thought to myself, “I have never shot a mongoose before. Now is my chance.”  I aimed my rifle carefully and pulled the trigger.  The bullet hit the mongoose in the chest and it fell over dead.  Mr. Dilworth hissed to me from another rock.  “Did you shoot a bushbuck?”  I hissed back, “No, I shot a mongoose.”  He looked disgusted and whispered, “We are not here to shoot mongooses.  You can’t eat a mongoose.”  I felt ashamed of myself and immediately resolved to do better.  A few minutes later the bushes rustled again and out stepped an enormous male bushbuck.  The sun shone on his russet coat and his horns had two full curls and ivory tips.  He stopped right in front of me and turned his head away to look toward the oncoming beaters.  I held my breath and took careful aim at its heart. He was only about thirty feet away.  I couldn’t miss. I squeezed the trigger slowly and heard a dull thud.  THE BULLET WAS A DUD!  It had not gone off.  I quickly pulled back the bolt to eject the dud bullet, but it was jammed in the barrel.  I couldn’t pry it out with my fingernails. I needed a knife blade.  I quickly got out my penknife and feverishly worked to get the dud bullet out of the chamber.  I then quickly pushed forward on the bolt and injected a fresh bullet into the chamber.  I looked up to see what had happened to the bushbuck.  He had taken a couple of steps forward and then lain down on the ground to hide from the beaters.  But his back was still in plain view.  In my excitement I did not take careful aim, but hurriedly fired from the hip.  Twice.  I missed both shots.  The bushbuck never moved.  With a deep sinking sensation in the pit of my stomach I realized I had no more bullets.  For the next few minutes all I could do was sit there and look at that magnificent male bushbuck.  As the beaters came nearer the buck stood up and walked toward the next rock.  There was a booming sound and the buck fell to the bullet of Mr. Dilworth.  Seven bushbuck were shot that day and the conference was well fed.  The biggest buck killed was the one I let get away.  Mr. Dilworth gave me a hard time saying I had caught ‘buck fever’.  I guess I did.  But if only I had had one more bullet!  Those two missed shots still haunt me in my old age.  What a trophy that buck would have been for a small boy. 

(Story taken from “Drinking the Wind”)