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SAFARI HOEK, NAMIBIA

Time to kill — but not mosquitoes

by Hugh and Midori Paxton

I am only an hour’s drive from my destination — the lodge of Safari Hoek, where, as promised in the last column, I plan to write up an “ethical” hunting safari outfit — when I inadvertently bag my first trophy.

A guinea fowl.

Big one, too.

Though I can’t see much prospect of stuffing it for display on my library wall.

The turkey-sized bird burst in mad flight out of thorn brush, thwacked into my vehicle’s bull bars, bounced up and exploded against the windscreen like a feathered balloon filled with cud and ugh! . . . all sorts of stuff. It looks as if Jackson Pollock has just chucked a bucket of yellow paint at me. With guts added for extra interest. And — double ugh! — the head’s still stuck by its neck to the radiator and staring at me over the bonnet!

A quick swerve dislodges it. The head (trailing ghastly streamers of gizzard and giblets) thumps into the windscreen, gives me a final reproachful once-over, then is caught by the slipstream and rises away.

* * * * *

The depressing aspect of having a guinea fowl spraying its most intimate details over one’s windscreen in a wild part of Africa is that you then have to carry on driving with your head stuck out of the window because the view through the glass is not just appalling, but obscured. Use the windscreen wipers? Forget it!

* * * * *

The Safari Hoek spread covers more than 8,000 hectares of forest and pristine savannah. It shares 22 km of its perimeter with the Etosha National Park — one of the best and largest national parks in Africa. To say that the views from the hunting lodge are magnificent is an understatement. The interconnected buildings, designed and constructed by the owner, Vitor Azevedo, are perched on a steep , boulder-strewn hill that overlooks the immensity of not just the Safari Hoek property but also the great Etosha plains beyond; all 22,000 sq. km of them.

While some poor sod scrubs my windscreen, Vitor pours beer, and wafts away a mosquito. He doesn’t kill them, he explains. Their lives are short enough. Only nine days. This strikes me as a strangely confusing if compassionate comment from a man who runs hunting safaris. But as I soon learn, Vitor is a complex character.

* * * * *

An Angolan national, he was the wrong color for the liking of the battling post-independence militias that were tearing that formerly wonderful country apart in their bids for power. Vitor, like many “white” Angolans — some of whose roots there went back half a millennium — was forced to flee for his life to the background crack of AK-47s.

In Vitor’s case, his family elected to cross the Kunene River delta on a jerry-rigged barge. They’d expected to find towns, gas stations, that sort of thing. Instead, they found themselves stranded on the Skeleton Coast. Read Wilbur Smith’s book “The Burning Shore” for a lengthy account of what that means. For those with insufficient time, here is a summary: “Hell on Earth.”

The refugee convoy attempted to drive south along the beach. Surge tides, cliffs, quicksand, dust devils, the occasional lion pride and brown hyena foraging for dead whales or seals (but open to alternative sustenance) soon taught them it was not the sort of place to tackle in a sedan.

The refugees were eventually spotted by some hard-case wildlife conservationists and rescued.

Then interned.

“For me, as a kid, it was really an adventure,” Vitor says.

* * * * *

At about 3 in the morning we are still talking when a lion starts roaring. Not very far away. A lot of hunting lodges and game farms hate lions. Many cattle ranchers around Etosha shoot them on sight.

But Vitor applies the mosquito philosophy. Lions climb over the ancient, decrepit Etosha National Park fence regularly. They seem particularly attracted by his best trophy animals, and eat roughly 50 a year. The cost to Vitor of this predation is sensational (see next month’s column for the wildlife auction, a price list — and the plateau that time forgot), but he deliberately does nothing to stop the raiders.

He could shoot them. But he won’t.

“This is my place, this is their place,” he says. “They’ve got to eat. I just wish they’d stop eating my best trophy animals. They killed an eland last week. That eland was a world-class trophy. The horns! I’ll show you what’s left of it tomorrow.”

* * * * *

The trophy animals that roam Safari Hoek are some of the biggest and best in Namibia. Which is to say some of the biggest and best in Africa.

There are springbok, kudus, giraffes, oryxes, waterbuck, gnus, lynxes, hyenas and leopards. There are black rhinos, too, and, not infrequently, elephants that smash merrily through the Etosha fence. These two latter species are off-limits to hunters. Vitor keeps the highly endangered rhinos as part of a successful breeding program. They are, he assures me, extremely short-sighted, vile-tempered and potentially lethal. Lions aside, they are the most dangerous inhabitants at Safari Hoek.

* * * * *

All fine and dandy. But rhino-breeding aside (and operating a mosquito/lion sanctuary excepted), where do the ethics come in?

No shooting is allowed from vehicles — but that goes for most hunting outfits? Only people who can demonstrate competence and “clean kill” shooting skills are permitted to hunt. Again, this is common, particularly in Namibia, where hunting is a major contributor to the economy and the regulations are tight. Meat from trophy animals is distributed to poor local communities — which is less usual.

But, no, what makes Safari Hoek that extra bit special are Vitor’s motives. He dreams of returning to Angola and establishing a huge nature reserve, which he intends to restock with the species that used to be there before poaching wiped them out.

This is the principal raison d’e^tre for Safari Hoek — a means of raising sufficient funds to restore a wounded wilderness.

* * * * *

“So you want to go hunting?” Vitor finally asks.

“I admire your goals, this place is one of the most marvelous places in Africa for its views, your hunter clients are delighted, you use solar power — but Vitor, I think I’ll pass. One guinea fowl was more than enough.”

“I can live with that. You want to kill another beer?”