It’s a little after 6am on Friday the 31st of August, and Kim and I are standing in line at JFK airport waiting to check in for our 16.5 hour flight from New York to Johannesburg. We’ve just gotten off a less-than-enjoyable six-hour redeye from Seattle and neither us are looking forward to this thrice-as-long second flight. Rubbing my eyes and trying to will myself awake while the line slowly creeps forward I look across the people gathered with us in the terminal. That’s when I notice the hunting rifle cases. About five feet long and standing a foot high, they sit quietly on the terminal floor. As I focus in on their owners – a group of aging, mostly fat white men, many of whom are wearing camouflaged caps, some sporting hunting vests, all laughing and joking with each other as the line shuffles along – it suddenly dawns on me that we’re about to board a flight on our way to Africa, on our way once again to volunteer in the name of lion conservation, alongside a group of men who will be traveling there in the hopes of shooting a lion, if not several.
I learned that it is the weak who are cruel, and that gentleness is to be expected only from the strong.
And that’s how our return trip to Africa began.
We must first apologize for taking so long to begin sharing our travels with you. It was never our intention. That said, the aforementioned confrontation at JFK set a dark tone for the trip; one that got re-emphasized at different points during our almost four weeks back on the continent. To be clear, Africa is still the crazy beautiful place of magic we first fell in love with, and every day we long to return. But along the way this time there were points of frustration both big and small that gave us pause and made us reconsider what exactly it was that we should expect from our experiences there, and what it was that we really wanted to get out of it all. A subtle but important difference, and one that we’re still struggling to make sense of today. As our days rolled on we met and worked with some wonderful lions and people, happened across a six-month-old baby rhinoceros in the wild, were introduced to the Dambwa Pride and reunited with the Ngamo Pride, bottle fed lion cubs, basked in the stereophonic glow of lions roaring at dawn, and watched as an elephant stood guard over a dying friend. As well, I spent a considerable amount of personal time and expense focusing on a side project for ALERT. At different points both Kim and I fell sick, and at various times we found ourselves both flummoxed and frustrated by the unnecessary attitudes and actions of others around us. In the back of my mind throughout it all a simple statement kept nagging me: To what end?
So it’s taken some time to figure out how best to explain our trip, and to ensure that the pain points we encountered along the way don’t overshadow the beautiful people, places, and animals we were fortunate enough to befriend and experience. To that end, we will not be writing up a day-by-day account of our trip and back-dating the posts so the what’s match the when’s, as we did last time. Instead, we’ve decided to focus on a series of themes to share with you, accompanied by separate posts of pictures, videos, and sounds to compliment them. Some might be journal entries describing particular events or details, others field recordings of the lions roaring at BPG or the night sounds outside our river tent at Antelope Park, several will be photocentric with little or no written accompaniment, while a few might simply ask a question or two of our readers that we haven’t found the answers to ourselves. All will, hopefully, create a portrait of what we experienced and, even with the insufferable parts, help explain why we are still very much in love with Africa, and why it’s desperately important for people to stand up and make a difference when it comes to ensuring the survival of so many of her majestic species.
But before those stories can be told, the one I began at the start of this post needs to be finished.
I clench my teeth and quietly hope Kim doesn’t notice the hunters queuing to check in for the same flight we’ll be on. It takes about 10 minutes but she does, of course. I watch her aimlessly scan the terminal as we wait in line and then I quietly take note of the moment she sees the rifle cases, looks at the men, looks back again at the cases and finally makes the connection. Her eyes widen, her jaw tightens. “Do your best to ignore them,” I say. “There’s not a lot that can be done here.” It’s that last acknowledgment that angers us both the most.
After we check in and wait to board I see one of the hunters limping meekly through the terminal, suffering from what I can only suspect is an old hip injury. He looks pained and exhausted after walking 20 yards. In fact, none appear as if they could keep up a brisk walk for very long without having to rest, much less be able to outrun any the animals they’ll probably be hunting. What grinds on me the most, however, is that none of these out-of-shape, white, privileged, assholes would stand a chance against lion, leopard, cheetah, elephant, or rhino if it weren’t for their high-powered rifles and the guides they’ve paid tens of thousands of dollars for and whose job it is to get them as close to the kill as possible so they can get their “trophy.” Where’s the “sport” in hunting something that can’t defend itself? Where’s the challenge in something so unfair and stacked so obviously in your favor? These are endangered species whose numbers hover at a critically low threshold. How does killing them with such ease and without remorse make you a lord over beasts? How does it make you anything other than a coward with money to spend stroking your ego on some infantile fantasy intended to prove your manhood? Exactly.
On the plane as Kim and I settle into our seats I quietly hope that none of the hunters are seated near us, which of course is not to be the case. One ends up in the row in front of us along with his wife, and during the flight while watching a documentary on Born Free I glance between the seats to see him flipping through a big game magazine, salaciously looking over all the trophies he hopes to gun down and bring home to mount above the fireplace. No, dear reader, I am not making this up. And yes, the irony of what the two of us are doing in our respective rows isn’t lost on me. I spend some time after takeoff playing the “common objects as weapons” game, deciding that my shoelaces just might do the trick. Eventually, Kim gives me her “settle down” look. It’s going to be a long flight, and it certainly feels like a bad moon rising. What else awaits us in Africa?