Part 3 Chris’ Story – Journey of a safari addict writing a new chapter
This is the last of the series of blogs by the “Three Amigos”. It is my story about my journey on my safaris, about friendship and returning to Africa to write a much-needed new chapter of my journey in life. And oh yes, it is about an amazing buffalo hunt.
The journey of friendship …
I met an incredible young man in 2007. He was our PH on our first safari. At the “tender” age of 24, he had already taken over the mantle of running the family’s safari business. I had children older than Carl van Zyl, and I couldn’t fathom any of them taking over and running a business as complex as John X Safaris. One thing for sure, his passion was both boundless and infectious.
They say that once you are bitten by the “safari bug” you can’t help but being drawn back to Africa. Carl was the major reason we came back the very next year to celebrate our 35th Wedding Anniversary on safari in 2008. From teaching my wife to shoot and hunt, to arranging fantastic photographic game drives for me, Carl was the consummate host in personalizing our experiences over the years. Simply put, we were not “clients”, we became members of the Van Zyl family.
Despite 30+ years difference in age, Carl and I bonded as friends who could talk about anything, including business. Very few young people in their 20s will listen to an “old guy” about branding and marketing. But Carl was different. He was open, hungry and enthusiastic. Over the next decade, we worked together on web sites, social media, safari books, and everything imaginable to build the John X brand.
From the very beginning, Carl had an uncanny instinct about what he wanted to create. He often quoted the statistics about the thousands of outfitters competing for “clients”. Carl wanted more than clients. Carl’s passion was making John X different by focusing on the total experience. Yes clients talk about their hunts, but the passionate remember the experience of being on safari and what they felt. For Carl, John X would become all about how you felt about your “experience”.
My return a decade later to see “vision come to life”
John X Safaris has been led by Carl for the past decade, but when the family bought their new base “Woodlands Safari Estate” at the end of 2016, Carl simply declared that I had to come back to see the latest developments. He wanted me to experience what had been built over the last decade, and his vision of where it will go in the next decade. How could I refuse a friend and family?
Needing to write a new chapter
After 35 years in my business, I grew stale. Simply put I was not having any fun anymore. I was dreading some of the upcoming life changes related to my retirement and closing down my business. One of my daughters sent me a motivational quote …
My daughter was right. I hadn’t written any new chapters in quite a while. Nothing like getting off the grid to do some “editing of life’s perspective” in Africa. With Carl’s compelling offer of a “life changing experience”, 2018 became the perfect time for a safari. I followed my daughter’s advice and decided I needed to write a new chapter. What better way to do it than to celebrate your 66th birthday in Africa on safari!
Fulfilling the ultimate challenge as a hunter
For me and my wife, 2008 was a banner safari year for some amazing plains game trophies. In typical fashion, I said that we were “done”, and that I was now going to focus on photography.
At one of those amazing campfire experiences on the 2008 safari Carl simply said: “My friend you are never done with Africa … you have not yet experienced all she has to offer. You must experience the “Tiny Ten”! And, you haven’t lived until you have faced “Black Death” on his turf – I will make sure that you will come back for cape buffalo!”
Carl was right. I had become a safari addict, and I did come back with family and friends. Along the way I managed to collect a magnificent eland, klippy and even the elusive blue duiker. Over the course of those hunts our friendship grew deeper.
Carl even acquiesced and participated in some of my passions for photography. In the spirit of creating the ultimate personalized photo experience, Carl personally drove me on a road trip of 13+ hours to the Kalahari to photograph the famous black mane lions of the desert.
When 2018 rolled around, Carl said that photography was all well and good, but that I needed to get my passion back for a real hunting experience. And since I had been talking about “new chapters”, he knew the perfect way to do that – cape buffalo hunting at Woodlands.
There is hunting … and then there is cape buffalo hunting.
The safari of 2018 was a decade of planning with Carl, but it was actually 6 decades in the making. I started bird hunting with my father at age 6. There is something about growing up in the outdoors with family that is difficult to explain. It is the culmination of all those experiences that form an incredible bond, and adrenalin rush to be in the field. Carl knew me all too well and said that I needed to get that passion back.
However, he also prepared me for hunting buffalo. He stared in my eyes and said …
“Chris, you must understand that hunting cape buffalo is serious stuff. You must be fully dedicated and focused. It is nothing like hunting kudu. When hunting buffalo, you will see me and the other PHs go into “another zone”. Buffalo are called “black death” for a reason, and we will be hunting them in the bush at maybe 20 to 50 yards. I am passionate to take you, but you must take this experience very seriously.”
Ok! Carl had my full attention. He spent serious time with me on the range with the 375 H&H I was to use. And I was dead serious about practicing what I needed to do. To say that it was a different hunt from the get-go would be an understatement.
I only had three requests of Carl:
I was certainly going to test John X Safaris moto of “catering to hunters of all ages and abilities”. Due to recent health issues, I’m not the nimblest of foot. Carl does not control where to find the buffalo, and they were in the deepest cover. But he was incredibly patient in helping make the stalks possible for me through some difficult terrain.
Day 1 – The Buffalo Encounter
Many of the hunting shows depict hunts across vast plains and savannah. Woodlands is entirely different. It is comprised of steep hills and ravines filled with brush. And the herds stay in the dense stuff. It took the better part of the first day just to find any buffalo. I’m told that many buffalo hunts in this area can require a minimum of 5 days or more to even have an opportunity.
On the first day we finally found buffalo in the afternoon. Carl was very patient and after a couple of hours stalking we were in a position above the herd about 110 yards away. The big bull was bedded down and all we had to do was wait for him to get up when the herd moved. After sitting in position for about 20 minutes a kudu cow rocketed out below us as the wind shifted slightly, busting past the herd. Busted … buffalo flew everywhere.
In retrospect, I’m actually glad it happened that way. It is classic to have something bust a herd. And somehow it would not have been quite the same intense experience of being over 100 yards away sitting on a ledge above them. Exciting, but not up close and personal as I had imagined.
Day 2 – Buffalo up close and very personal!
So you would think it would be easy to come back the next day and find the buffalo… NOT! It took even longer the next day to find a herd, and it was probably a different one. The stalk was even longer. Carl finally whispered to me sternly: “Stay focused – we are literally going to be in the herd!”
When Carl said “close” I don’t think even he realized how close. We could see different parts of buffalo through brush, no idea of telling how many. You could literally smell them! So in all of this mass confusion Carl had to determine if there was a shooter bull.
I don’t think either of us was prepared for what happened next. A young bull came out walking right toward us … stopping maybe 7 yards away staring at us! My heart definitely felt the pressure. Somehow Carl had the presence of mind to get the young bull to turn before he smelled us.
I don’t know how but he got us in position and me up on sticks. There was an opening of maybe 3 yards for a shot. Carl literally had to make the call in less than two seconds and I then had to make the shot. It was literally all a blur in slow motion … I managed to get a shot off before he disappeared. When that shot went off, buffalo literally flew out of the canyon everywhere!
Day 3 – Discretion is the better part of valor, and the power of teamwork
Despite my best efforts, the first shot was not where it needed to be … a bit too far back. Carl got us in the position for a second shot, but it was through some brush. Dust flew and it looked like he fell, but made it to a ravine. Carl made the right call: “It’s growing dark, he is dark black … and night is not the time to pursue him on his turf”.
While the adrenaline rush was incredible, the agony soon set in. How could I have missed the perfect shot at 25 yards? Will we ever find him? It is doubtful if I slept more than a couple of hours that night, and by morning light rain was falling on the roof of the lodge. So I was sure that all sign would be gone and the buffalo would be lost.
Carl assembled his best team the next morning, and everyone had their game face on. It has been mentioned many times, but to experience what trackers can do is amazing! They found the tracks where the buffalo had stumbled and followed him through all the other tracks of the herd. He actually hadn’t gone more than a couple hundred yards.
And then there was Bongo, Carl’s amazing Jack Russel. I have grown up with Bongo on safari over the years, first his dad, Jack, and now him. Despite his age now, he charged the buffalo and had him at bay in short order. It was such a relief made possible by an incredible team. Until that buffalo is down, there is no calm, even for an experienced PH…
Epilogue – The Power of feeling alive and writing new chapters
I could write more about my final hunt at John X Safaris. But suffice it to say that Carl arranged a very special hunt after the buffalo for a majestic sable. Just he and I together, alone like many hunts before. It was that special touch of a unique experience that would complete the bond we have built over a decade.
I would rather use the remaining space to share some highlights of how truly special the John X team is at creating an experience beyond expectation. Carl’s sister Lee runs a truly high class lodge, and she arranged a surprise birthday celebration that was most appreciated!
Special thanks to Lee for a special birthday on safari, and all that you did to make our safari a 5 Star Experience!
The John X PHs are the consummate professional with incredible hunting talents. They also become your friends for life! Stix (aka Ross Hoole) found out it was my birthday and brought his bagpipes to my birthday party, complete with full Scottish kilt. I cannot begin to describe the feeling of hearing Stix play the magnificent Scottish ballads on the pipes around the campfire!
And then there are the Lombards! We had never met them before arriving to hunt in their magnificent mountain camp. Louwrence was the consummate host. His wife Jeanette literally drove untold hours on mountain roads in order to have a bottle of champagne and flutes available to toast a birthday of a stranger they had never met! I will never forget these new friends and how I felt being toasted on my birthday at their campfire in the mountains.
Mission Accomplished – New chapter written and editing life my story as we speak
There are many reasons to go on safari, and hunting is certainly one of them. Carl has a vision of creating an unmatched safari that you “feel” when you experience it. He has already achieved his John X mission of creating a safari experience which is unmatched. I can’t imagine what he will achieve in the next decade.
I have completely written a new chapter in my life, with an indelible experience with my best buddies. As I was leaving camp I thanked Carl for my “last great safari”. He simply said: “Don’t be so sure my friend … there are new chapters to be written and edited.” Based upon my last decade with Carl, I would bet that he is probably right … my last chapter on safari has not yet been written. Thank you my friend for everything!
Trust the next chapter, because I know the author!
Chris, Admitted safari addict with a whole new chapter on the journey of life