The Last Ivory Hunter: The Saga of Wally Johnson

The Last Ivory Hunter: The Saga of Wally Johnson

by Peter Hathaway Capstick

ISBN: 9780312000486

Publisher St. Martin's Press

Published in Sports/Biographies, Biographies & Memoirs

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Sample Chapter

Last Ivory Hunter, The
"For God's sake, Luis, help me! I'm dying!"
The Mozambican Shangaan looked at Wally with penetrating eyes, eyes whose quickness had saved lives time and again over the twenty years he had been with Wally, hunting in Mozambique. The head gunbearer's gaze was as bloodshot as usual, testimony to malaria, safari, and long hours after game. Though he was a good man--reliable as most to whom one entrusts one's life--he wanted nothing to do with this.
His patrão was going to cash in and he wanted no part in the proceedings.
"No, Baas, you're going to die. We have been together a long time, and I don't want to be there when you die. You must die alone. It is the way of things."
"My old friend of so much danger, help me! I don't want to die on a lonely road and the hyenas take my body. Help me! Vou morrer!"
"I can't, Baas. What if the authorities find out when you die? And you will die, because that is the worst snake. They will accuse me and the other men of killing you. What will I do then? You know they will then kill me ... ."
"Help me! You can do no less!"
Oh yes, he could do less. Odd chap, Luis.
On the day Wally was bitten by a massive Gaboon viper in 1957, it had been nearly a year since he had captured another snake, which he thought at the time to be a young python. He kept it in a wire cage and fed it mice, the snake apparently enjoying the easy life. Then, one day, Wally took it down to show his chums at the local sawmill. Much to his shock, the manager called him an unadulterated idiot and advised him that it was a Gaboon viper, one of the most feared snakes in Africa, and from whose bite only one person had been known to recover. Wally, however, told the manager that it was he who was the idiot. Clearly it was a young python.
"You madman! That thing is deadly poisonous! Are you some kind of nut?"
"No, man," answered Wally. "It's a python. I've even had my fingers in its mouth!"
"You've what?"
"Sure. No fangs [he not realizing that they fold up against the roof of the mouth and that the snake had somehow tamed down]. I keep it in a wire pen as a pet. Give it frogs and mice and stuff."
"Well, get it the hell out of here or I'll kill it. Now!"
The cocking clicks of his revolver were ominous in the silence, the other strong and able men having scrambled onto the dining-room table when Wally threw the snake on the floor for exhibition.
"Don't touch my bloody snake! You don't want him, I'll take him home."
And with that, he grabbed the snake by the back of the head and dropped him into a sack, the deadly reptile as docile as a pussycat.
But Wally was wrong. It was a Gaboon ... .
The Gaboon viper is certainly one of Africa's most dangerous snakes, possibly because of its lethargy, much like that of the puff adder, rather than because of great activity or aggressiveness. TheGaboon, happily, is a fairly rare snake. Its coloring closely resembles the colors of the Napier Clan tartan, the body pattern being a complex geometric of primarily tan, blue, and black, some colors having a white edge to them. It has nasal "horns" that, together with the striking colors, make it surprisingly difficult to spot in long grass. So Wally found out ... .
Bitis gabonica probably has the longest fangs of the vipers. It is a thick, short snake, the longest recently recorded Gaboon viper being from Sierra Leone and measuring 6 feet 81/2 inches. But it's one very bad bastard if it loses its sense of humor.
After several months in its wire cage, being ogled at by the local kids, the snake was found one morning with blood on its back, just as Wally was about to feed it. One of the children had jabbed the snake with a piece of wire and it died soon afterward. Wally pitched it into the bush and gave the matter little more thought. He should have.
It was almost a year later to the day when Wally was nearly killed twice. But let him tell you the story ... .
"I was down in the same area where I had caught what I thought was the baby python. I was staying for a couple of months to hunt for ivory, and I decided to take along a new cook my wife had just hired. The old guy had to leave for some reason or another and she got this new man. My wife insisted that he come along with me in the bush as I never seem to eat. She wanted somebody to look after me. She told him to pack up a chopbox with pots and pans, canned food, and anything else he thought he might need.
"Well, we got down to the spot within twenty miles of where I had been the year before, and I went out hunting with Luis on the first day we were there. As there wasn't much doing, I came back at about eleven in the morning. The cook didn't expect me back at that hour and hadn't prepared any food for lunch. I asked him what he had, and he said he was sorry that he had only expected me that evening.
"Patrão, look in that box there and maybe you'll find something I can cook for you, spaghetti or something. You must find something, patrão; there's a lot of tinned food.'
"He opened the box and I had a look through and pulled out a tin of spaghetti or bully beef or something. Then I happened to notice another tin there, picked it up, and found out it was a snakebite kit. My wife used to carry this outfit. She always had it at home, as she did a lot of gardening and was scared as hell of snakes. I turned to the cook and said, 'Hey, where'd you get this thing from?'
"'Na casa de banho. From your bathroom.'
"'But did the senhora give it to you?'
"'No, patrão. I just saw it and took it.'
"'Do you know what it is?'
"'Sim, senhor! Yes, I do. It's snakebite muti. I know about these things from the mission school.'
"'Hell,' I said, 'I'm going to be in trouble if the senhora finds out this thing is missing, because she doesn't like to be without this medicine in the house. Ah, on second thought, no faz mal. Don't worry about it. You did very well to bring the snakebite kit. I just hope that my wife doesn't notice you've taken it.'
'"Baas, you never know when you may be bitten by a bad snake."'
This book exists because of the forethought of that cook.
"While I was having something to eat, my headman and gunbearer, Luis, came to me and said, 'Patrão, can I borrow one of your rifles? I want to go down to the river to catch some fish. There are a lot of big crocs down there, and I'd like a rifle for protection.'
"'year, sure, take that 9.3mm Mauser. There are four shots in the magazine and one more in the chamber. Go ahead and take that rifle, but cuidado! Just watch out!'"
Luis went off and Wally was still eating lunch when, maybe ten or fifteen minutes later, he heard a shot.
"I thought to myself, well, Luis has seen some crocs. But then I heard another one, and in all, he fired off the whole fiveshots. When this happened, I thought, hell, this can't be a crocodile he's shooting at--with five shots, there's something wrong. I immediately grabbed my .375 Holland & Holland Magnum and started running in the direction of the shots, along the riverbank on the path.
"I hadn't gone very far when I saw some native women washing some clothes in the river and I asked if they had heard some shots going off just about where they were. 'No, we heard nothing.' I said to myself, hell, that's damned strange. Then I asked: 'Well, did you see a man come along this path with a gun--you know, uma espingarda?'
"'No,' they answered. 'We never saw a man with a gun.'
"That's goddamn funny, thought Wally. Seemed to be just about here somewhere."
Wally encountered the reluctance of rural women in Africa to speak to strangers.
"There was a deep little dry river that fed into the main river, a steep embankment that could only be done on foot if one ran at top speed down the near side to gain momentum that would carry one halfway up the other side. It was surrounded by the densest bush and grass imaginable. Call it a deep gully. I ran down the one slope as fast as I could and got about halfway up the other side before I had to slog it. I made the top, and saw a man coming along the other side and asked him: 'Say, have you seen a man with a rifle?'
"'No, patrão, but I did hear some shots just around here.'
"'Where exactly was it?'
"'Ah, close. It was just a little while ago.'
"So, I started shouting, and finally got an answer from Luis. Well, thank God he wasn't dead. He came running up after a few minutes and I asked, 'Luis, what the hell's going on here?'
"'Baas, where on earth have you come from?'
"'From the camp! Where else? What the bloody hell's going on, Luis?'
"Luis answered: 'These women won't talk to outsiders. I told them to tell you that I had wounded a buffalo. He's hiding rightdown at the bottom of this little river bed you crossed. Come here and I'll show you.'"
And there it was, a wounded bull buffalo back at the river bed Wally had run through. It was standing in the dense foliage not a foot from the track. Wally killed it with a single shot from his .375. The wounded buff, apparently, had been so astonished to see a man flash by so quickly--remember, Wally was running flat out to get up the other side--that it never occurred to it to charge!
Wally got past the hidden wounded buffalo through sheer surprise and luck. No thanks to the women at the river who could have warned him. But far worse was to come that day ... .
After Wally had killed the buffalo, he ordered the rest of the men who had followed him from camp at the sound of shots to butcher the animal for rations.
The sun, a molten bronze orb, was slipping lower and the call of the emerald-spotted tree dove washed through the bush as the men set to with their knives, taking the hind legs and the filets for Wally's table, carrying the heavy legs on stout poles between them. Wally was walking in third place, behind the first two carriers, when horror literally struck.
"We were only about a hundred yards from camp when all of a sudden the man ahead of me took a jump and the next second I felt something on my leg. It felt as if I'd hit into a thorn-bush. I looked down and saw a snake as thick as my calf with its fangs embedded in my left leg, just above the ankle. I gave a reflex kick and the thing went flying. I screamed to Luis and the other men to kill it.
"'Quick,' I yelled. 'What kind of snake is that?'
"They clubbed it to death with sticks and Luis came to me and said, 'Patrão, I'm sorry. It's the same snake you had last year. You are a dead man!'"
"Merda! I'll live." Wally, possibly rather foolishly, ran for the camp, which was only some hundred yards away, to get to the antivenin kit, the darkness flowing into the long grass like a rising tide. The shadows were lapping over his back and the sweetness of the new grass was still strangely strong in his nostrils.
"'Cook! Quick! Depressa! Bring me the snake box!'
"I had tennis shoes on and it was a hell of a job getting the left one off by the time I got back into camp. I had forgotten my knife and the knot in the laces had become so tight I really wondered if I could get the goddamn thing off at all. It was already hurting beyond description. Eventually, I was able to remove the shoe, but the pain and the swelling were so terrific I could hardly stand it.
"After what was probably only a minute or less, I had the snakebite kit in my hands. Now I was really sick, the pain almost unbearable and the swelling absolutely alarming. Especially when everybody handy was happily assuring me that I was going to die there and then!
"Well, I saw that the snakebite outfit had a little booklet inside. I'd never had to use a kit before and didn't really know how to work the bloody thing. So, there I was, just to the left of nowhere, and I open the booklet, one of the tent guys having brought me my reading spectacles.
"It was a most interesting piece of literature, obviously written by somebody who had never been bitten by a deadly snake. The first eight or ten pages were all about how they'd made the serum, where it was made and all sorts of other stupidities, except what you were supposed to do with the goddamn stuff. I could feel myself dying by the second, but this goddamn booklet wouldn't tell me where or how to inject myself. Lord, but I thought they'd never say what to do!
"Finally, I got down to the chapter that said that there was a sharp lancet in the rig with which you were supposed to cut a gash in yourself, avoiding arteries, then fill the syringe with one of the four ampoules of antivenin, injecting it into the wound.
"The booklet said to put one of the ampoules into the wound you had made on the bite and another halfway up your leg, if that's where you were bitten. The other ampoule should be put by injection into your stomach. Wonderful, the miracles of science.
"So I looked at this lot to try to find the lancet or razor blade. Nothing. It had been stolen.
"'Hatlisa! Hurry!' I shouted in Shangaan. 'Who has a sharp knife? I have to cut myself.' Finally, a bush type turned up withhalf a rusty razor blade he carried in his hair and probably had for several years. It was a lot of things, but sterile wasn't one of them. He gave it to me and I made two deep gashes in an X over the fang marks. The leg was so swollen and painful by that time I was doubly horrified to learn, on inspecting the ampoules of antivenin, that two were out of date and, according to the manufacturers, of little value. Cheery news ... .
"Blood was pouring out of these gashes and I got one man to suck on them, warning him to spit out the blood and venom. I'd still love to get my hands on the son of a bitch who wrote that pamphlet in the snakebite kit ... .
"Actually, as this chap was sucking on the wound, I had a chance to continue through the booklet and inspect the ampoules themselves. As I said, two of the four in the kit were more than two years out of date; the remaining two had a month to go before they were, theoretically, ineffective. Well, one tries to make the best of things ... .
"This was a polyvalent antivenin, good for just about anything except boomslang, the back-fanged tree snake. The pain was so terrible by then that I could hardly concentrate on the so-called literature. Yet I knew I would die then and there if I didn't do things properly.
"Well, I thought, what the hell do I do? I'd better take one of the good ones that had a month to go and put it right into the bite. I took the syringe, sucked up the antivenin and squeezed the whole thing in there. The pain in my leg was already so severe that I never even felt the jab. I thought now, well, I'd better take one of the old ones, out of date, and stick it in the calf of my leg, which I did. Then I took the last good one that had a month to go and I squeezed that into my thigh. I injected the last ampoule directly into my stomach, even though it was out of date. That one hurt.
"Now I was in terrific pain. I was in agony. So I said to Luis, 'Check the truck immediately and see that it has petrol. I must get to hospital as quickly as possible!'
"He refused, as I have already told you. 'No, Baas. I do not want to be with you when you die, which will be soon.'
"'I have no time to argue with you, filho da puta! Traidor!' Ilet him have it, calling him a treacherous son of a bitch and a lot of other things. 'Get me the cook, then,' I bellowed.
"'E-e, tatana,' said the cook in Shangaan. 'I can't go, Baas. They will blame me too when you die. They will say I killed you. Ndzi rivalele, tatana. I am sorry, Baas.'
"'Bring me a pencil and paper, quickly. I will write a letter to the authorities to tell them that, if I die, you are not responsible for my death. You can show them the letter with my signature, dig up my body and show them the cuts I made with the razor where the snake bit me. You have the skin to prove what kind of snake it was and that I had no chance. But I must have a man to go with me to try and reach the sawmill, where they will take me to hospital. Who is a real man here? Who of you is loyal? Or are you nothing but women?'
"I then wrote a brief note to my wife--I knew I was dying--advising her what to do for the future. I explained that I had been bitten by a Gaboon; I told her that none of my men was to blame if the authorities thought they had killed me for some reason. I said good-bye to her and to the kids, certain that it was the end. I told her what to do about the future. I was now sure I would not see them again and that the letter would be sufficient for the authorities if they suspected that the men had poisoned me or killed me. But I still had to try to reach the sawmill where I might get some help. I knew only one thing: If I stayed where I was, they would bury me the next day. Well, if they weren't too drunk ... .
"Finally, a man stepped forward who said he would come with me. A real bush type, he had been hanging around camp, helping cut up meat. I really don't think he had ever been in a vehicle before. This guy had probably been shanghaied through threats, as he knew absolutely not the first thing about motorcars. Still, I got him to wrap me in a blanket and carry me to the car and lift me up onto the driver's seat where I got the Toyota going. Happily, he spoke Shangaan and fair Portuguese.
"One of the big problems with this particular vehicle, which had been to hell and back, was that it tended to develop a fuel blockage and would stall. When this happened, I always had to crawl underneath the engine with a wrench or spanner andloosen the petrol line, blowing it clear with my mouth. It happened so often that I carried the proper size wrench on the dashboard.
"We were about eight miles out of my camp when a blockage occurred. Can you imagine! I was vomiting black blood and was crazy with pain. I explained to this chap what had to be done but, hell, he'd never even seen a wrench and a fuel pipe. They were utterly alien to him. He just couldn't manage. Realizing the whole thing was centuries beyond him, I had the guy lift me out and carry me to the front of the car where I pulled myself underneath. I was in such pain by that time I didn't even notice the burns on my hands from the hot pipes and engine. In complete darkness, I found the connecting fuel-line nut by feel and I blew it clear. The engine started.
"The trouble really came a couple of miles later. I was so doped up from the snakebite medication that I couldn't drive more than about five miles per hour. This wore the battery down as flat as the Kalahari. I, of course, had the lights on by this time and they were a constant drain on the juice box, which finally quit. Dead. Gasta!
"My God, now I'd really had it. What possibly could have gone worse? Dear Jesus, so this was where I was going to die. Well, it'd been a long road. I tried the starter a few times but got nothing but the characteristic zzzzzzz of a dead battery. I was in such pain from my leg that I couldn't even smoke my pipe. I thought about sending the meatcutter back to camp--ten miles by now--for a fresh battery. Then I realized I didn't have one there. He wouldn't have gone anyway, for fear of lions. So I sat for perhaps ten minutes behind the wheel, the pain getting worse by the second. Then I figured, what the hell! I hit the starter and, to my amazement, the engine turned over and caught!
"There was just that tiny bit of spark left to give it a kick. I revved the hell out of it to recharge and we were off again, despite my agony, at a better pace because I knew I was truly a dead man if that bloody engine failed again. It didn't, and at last the lights of the sawmill peered like leopard's eyes in the distance.
"I remember nothing until the next morning, and pain as pure as if it had been distilled in hell itself. I woke up on a bed with a lot of these sawmill people around me, giving me whiskey to drink as I told them what had happened.
"'Pôrra para isto, Wally! Don't worry, that's not a poisonous snake, anyhow. You'll be fine by tomorrow. Here, have some more whiskey ... .'
"So I said, 'For God's sake, get me to a hospital. [It was 120 miles away on terrible roads.] Listen, dammit. I was bitten by a Gaboon viper, one of the most poisonous snakes in Africa! I'm going to die!'
"Unfortunately, the German guy who was running the sawmill was away at the time or he would have sent me straight to hospital. So I pleaded and yelled for a long time in Portuguese until the bunch finally relented and sent me with a driver to hospital. I was just drinking water the whole way and vomiting black blood. We got there at two in the morning."
This part of Wally's ordeal reminds me of something I witnessed in the then British Honduras. I saw a man who had been bitten by the infamous fer-de-lance of Central America. Known locally as the barba amarilla, or "yellow beard," it is also a viper with essentially hemotoxic venom. God save you the consequences if it nails you.
I wrote a magazine article some twenty years ago about this incident, in which the victim vomited black blood and was in agony until a "snake doctor" was found through some kind of jungle telegraph. I photographed the entire proceedings, which entailed a collection of stuff you would hardly think could cure snakebite, especially from a fer-de-lance. Named after its lance-shaped head and yellow throat, this deadly viper is also locally known as the "jumping tommygoff"--a breed of trouble you don't need.
The snake doctor began by smearing very hot armadillo fat over the wound. There was no cutting or sucking of the wound at all. A poultice of tobacco leaves was bound over the bite and the man was fed a mixture of crushed peppercorns in warm water, which made him vomit up large quantities of more black blood.
He was back at work two days later, when most men would have been dead. Ask me not, brother, what that was all about or how itworked. I have no degree in herpetology or snakebite treatment, but work it did. I saw it with my own eyes. It appears to me, on a highly nonmedical basis, that hemotoxic viper bites seem to amalgamate the poison in the stomach. True? Damned if I know. I can just tell you that I was there.
Wally was still vomiting large amounts of black blood, which was considered a bad sign by the hospital staff. Finally, the doctor arrived and the first thing he gave Wally was a tetanus injection. Rather like giving an aspirin to a drowning man. But I hesitate to criticize the profession. They've done too much for me. Yet it still seems that a man dying from the bite of a Gaboon viper would not be terribly worried about lockjaw. Then the doctor topped up the antivenin and gave Wally a potent pain-killing injection to put the poor man out, as he was really suffering.
"I told the driver to get through to my wife, quickly, explain what had happened, and tell her that I was in the hospital. Then I went off to sleep and didn't wake up till nine or ten in the morning. I was still in great pain and was delirious when my wife arrived and said that she wanted to take me across the border to the Umtali Hospital in Rhodesia. This she did and I was admitted there. By that time, my whole side was going black; it was a lovely serge blue.
"My wife spoke with the doctors and they told her that there wasn't much hope for me. In any case, they did what they could, and I was delirious for three days. But, day by day, I was getting better, and as time went on, I knew that I was improving.
"I was there for several weeks, still in great pain. My left leg was twice as thick as my right, and it was so painful that I couldn't even bear to have anyone so much as look at it. I was getting on comparatively well, though, and the doctors said that I was out of danger. So, I figured, bugger this hospital business, and I went home with my wife, where I was laid up for about three months before I could hobble about on a cane.
"So far as I know or have been able to determine, there has been only one other person who has survived the full bite of aGaboon viper. I don't know who it was or when, but that person surely has my understanding. Lucky, weren't we?"
It was nearly a year before Wally could walk properly and hunt again. As I was to discover, it was truly strange how often snakes were a part of his career. He was never bitten again. Yet there were some odd incidents with African snakes that nearly made his heart stop.
"I was building a safari camp once, out of season. My wife was with me and we had no client. While this camp was going up, she and I slept on a large piece of canvas. I actually had a tent but never went to the trouble of putting it up. The magnificent Mozambique moon came up and the men were sleeping nearby. Sometime in the horrendous hours, my wife woke me and said, 'There's something in the bed. Between us.'
"'Well, it could be ants,' I mumbled. I felt around with my hand. 'Jesus! It's a bloody snake!'
"I couldn't tell in the dark what kind it was; may have been a bloody black mamba. There was only one thing to do: I grabbed the flashlight in my left hand and the snake's tail in my right. Not being restricted by a tent, I swung it around my head about five times and threw it into the bush, centrifugal force keeping it from turning back and biting me or my wife.
"My men were mad as hell, as they were sure that the damned thing would come back for them. They thought I should have killed it, but with what? All the men sat up most of the night, but, whatever it was, it didn't return. There were a lot of bleary eyes in the morning."
Wally had one set of particularly favorite safari clients, Gerry Knight and his wife (the same people who were later to save him from a buffalo).
"We were hunting in the Limpopo area, the border with South Africa, and had shot a zebra which we loaded onto the back of the vehicle. (No easy job if you've ever tried to lift areasonably small horse.) From there, we headed back to camp to skin it, as we weren't far out.
"On the way back, we had to pass a small depression with a layer of water still in it, despite the dry season. All of a sudden a tremendous black mamba reared up from the grass! It was some yards off and I grabbed my shotgun as the snake finally lowered itself and went up a tree, where I gave it a charge of bird shot in the head.
"I asked Gerry if he'd like the skin and, although it was really tough to get a skinner to take the hide off a snake, we dumped it in the back of the truck, with my men hanging on to the pipe rollbars as if it were still alive.
"We had a slight problem. It was!
"We'd gone about twenty minutes when the trackers and gunbearers started screaming. I swung around in my seat but could not see properly. Gerry's wife turned around and made a literal head-first dive out of the open windscreen, straight over the front of the car and the hood, badly scraping and cutting her legs in her haste to get away from the black mamba that was standing behind her neck. She had been inches away from certain death. Thank heavens the windshield was down, as I'm sure she would have gone through it!
"Everybody--rather understandably, as we had no cab on--jumped out. But I was able to grab a machete or panga and, with a wild swing, cut the mamba's head off. How it had survived that shotgun blast I'll never know, but in the end, we all laughed at ourselves. Really, there was positively nothing to laugh about. Mamba bites are no joke. It is locally called the 'three-step snake'--that's about as far as you can expect to go after being bitten. We were all goddamn lucky."
Obviously, after half a century in truly primeval bush, one is bound to run into a few snakes. One strange instance Wally experienced concerned a python and two American clients in Mozambique.
"It was a big bastard, and when I saw it I jumped out and grabbed it behind the head. The bloody thing then surprisedme by throwing several coils around my body. I talked my men, who loathed snakes to a degree no white person could ever possibly understand, into peeling it off me. They were nearly overcome with fear and revulsion.
"After the clients had taken the pictures they wanted--and it was one hell of a big python--I threw it into the bush at the side of the road and started walking back to the car. All of a sudden, the men started shouting at me: 'Olha, olha! Look, look!' I turned around and asked them what the hell was the matter.
"Todo fudido, patrão!' they yelled in unmentionable Portuguese as they wildly explained that the python had gone under the car!"
Wally got down on his hands and knees but couldn't spot it. He checked the tracks to see that the snake hadn't simply passed under the chassis, but there was no spoor on the other side. No, it's true, it wasn't a poisonous snake, but who wanted to share accommodation with a fifteen-foot python? They also bite, as I can guarantee you. And their teeth can break off, which creates hell's own fun digging them out of one's own meat.
At last, after a long search, Wally found the snake wrapped around the left front brake drum. "Ah, hell," he figured, "if I go for a hundred or so yards, the thing has to be thrown free." So he hit the accelerator and then stopped some distance down the road.
No go. The snake was somehow still there, and apparently had all intentions of filing for permanent residence. Wally decided to speed up, and when he pulled into camp, he handed the vehicle over to the staff mechanic. He had stopped earlier and seen that the python was no longer wrapped around the brake drum; it was completely entwined around most of the engine.
The mechanic came running and asked what should be done to the car. "I think there's something wrong with the engine; maybe the clutch," Wally told the mechanic, practical joker that he was.
"'Don't worry, patrão. I'll fix that.' He then opened the hood and pandemonium broke loose, as the mechanic gesticulatedwildly at the car and screeched in Shangaan, 'Nyoka, nyoka, nyoka! Snake!'"
The clients were also afraid of the python, since it was enormous, but by the next morning it had gone off into the bush on its own.
This snake story of Wally's reminded me of an odd experience I once had when I was a professional hunter in Botswana. It concerned a leguaan, or monitor lizard, a creature that can well exceed seven feet in length, and which has the bite of a bulldog. I was with two American clients when one of these relics of the dinosaur age dashed out in front of the Toyota. I hit the brakes rather hard, and as the local Africans have as much regard for lizards as they do for snakes, I knew that it would be up to me to see what had happened. (My crew told me that the leguaan had, by tradition, brought the message from Modimo, God, that man must die, whereas the chameleon, slower by far, had been entrusted with the divine message that man would never die. As the tale has it, the leguaan got there first; hence my crew's fear and loathing of the creature.)
Well, the leguaan surely had not been hit by the wheels, or I would have felt it through the steering shaft. But where was he? No tracks out the back, front, or side. That left one place. Pagati. Inside. Somewhere in the body works but, for the life of me, I could not spot it. The crew stood back. Nothing was getting them to go poking around for the creature.
I couldn't imagine how on earth that bloody thing could live. It was well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit outside, so imagine what it must have registered under the hood! How he wasn't burned to a crisp, I don't know. Maybe there's a lot more to the term "cold-blooded" than we think. The rascal was hiding somewhere in the chassis and was probably fairly well scorched, but he didn't jump out. We did not see him again, but the next morning his spoor led out of the engine housing.
Ah, well, I suppose it's damned tough thumbing a ride in the Okavango.
Wally recalls another snake incident from the old days in Mozambique when he was out with the well-known professional hunter Baron Werner von Alvensleben. I had met the Baron in New Yorkyears previously and remember his Heidelberg student dueling scars and his great reputation as a spearman on pigs and, I believe, Cape buffalo, using packs of dogs.
Werner was practically neurotic about poachers, and when he and Wally found a hunting car in the bush, they immediately suspected a sophisticated operation. They sat down and waited for the return of the owner to find out what was going on. It wasn't until dawn that the man came back. Werner was sitting on a hessian sack on the hood of the car. He was comfortable.
A white man appeared at dawn, and Werner and Wally asked him what in hell he was doing there.
"Catching snakes. My business. And you, sir, are sitting on one of them. They're very delicate, you know. Kindly get off that sack."
Von Alvensleben did a maneuver that would have won him a gold medal in any Olympic competition, the Baron bailing off the hood like a demented dervish. There, in the sack on which he had been sitting and sleeping, was a banded water cobra, Boulengeria annulata. Why it had not bitten him through the rough cloth is anybody's guess. Maybe just luck.
There is no known antivenin.
The stranger opened the bag and poured out the snake, which really put on a performance. In a second bag, he also had a black mamba, which he teased with a stick, somewhat to the discomfort of Wally and Werner. Finally, he put the snakes back in the bags, thanked the men for keeping an eye on his car, and went on what I hope was his merry way.
Wally did not come across too many snakes in that particular area, but then, snakes are never obvious. He does recall an interesting bet between two German clients. They had arrived at camp in the morning, and after lunch, Wally suggested they just have a drive around to become acquainted with things on safari. "We can start serious hunting tomorrow."
At lunch, one man asked, "But what about snakes?"
Wally said that there were hardly any around and that they were most certainly not a problem.
"Meine Herren," said Wally, "I haven't seen a snake for months."
"There you are," said the other client in English to his partner.
"Ja, but there must be snakes here. This is Africa!"
"Yes," said Wally, "but you never see them."
"Well," said the doubtful German, "you may be right, but I'll bet you a case of whiskey that we see a snake on this safari."
The second client accepted with the comment that he would most certainly enjoy the whiskey. "I'm damned sure we won't see one ... ."
The next day they went out hunting and were standing with binoculars looking at some impala. Wally suddenly yelled, "Look out!" as a monster of a black mamba came down the path right at them. "I thought you said there were no snakes here," said the first client.
"No, there aren't, but you'll enjoy your whiskey." He then killed it with his .375 H & H Magnum.
Let's flash back now to the early days, when Wally arrived in Lourenço Marques as a youngster. He had no idea that his destiny would be anything but that of a shipping clerk, confined to a desk in an office. The dangers, thrills, and high risks of big-game hunting and life in the bush were far removed from the teenager's mind as he set off for his first job in Mozambique.
Copyright © 1988 by Peter Hathaway Capstick.

Excerpted from "The Last Ivory Hunter: The Saga of Wally Johnson" by Peter Hathaway Capstick. Copyright © 0 by Peter Hathaway Capstick. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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