In October of 2005, I was commissioned to photograph a big game hunt in South Africa. I have elected not to share most of the photographs and names have been changed to protect the guilty. These are my stories.
It seems weird now, nineteen years later, to return to the Dark Continent for these stories. I wish I had never gone there but people wish for a lot of things. The past tense of wish is regret.
I was talking to my former employer the other day and he told me that he quit hunting and sold all his trophies, and by trophies he means heads. He sold them all. It doesn’t seem right to kill something just to put it’s head on your wall but at least you can say, “I did that. I killed that thing and now you see its head there on my wall.”
No one wants to say, “Aren’t all these heads beautiful? I bought them!” But now that I think about it, it really is splitting hairs to differentiate one statement from the other. When a white man goes to Africa to hunt a wild beast, a team of baby sitters take him out, track the animal for him, point his gun in the right direction and tell him when to pull the trigger. After that they wipe his ass and present him with an invoice that ends in six zeros. So I guess it really doesn’t matter how one acquires their African animal heads; one way or another, they were all bought anyway.
The first big score of our safari was the Hippo. They look docile but the 7,000 pound wickedly territorial sea bull is the undisputed king of the water. Even the crocodiles and venomous water serpents leave them alone.
On the first day, we went out to the Hippo pond and waited around, and around, and around.... My employer eventually got off a few shots, injuring his target which, when describing a Hippo hunt, means that he pissed it off and then it disappeared. To get a kill shot you have to shoot them right in the brain and that is difficult because they sit submerged in the water with only their eyes, nostrils and ears exposed. To kill a Hippo, you have to hit a target that is 50 yards away and roughly the same diameter as a beer bottle.
On the second day, a wild gun battle ensued. The injured hippo, having gone mad from it’s wounds, ran from the water and charged the camera crew. A few more rifle rounds to the ole noggin’ put ‘er down but not before it ran back into the pond, dying in the water as a final act of vengeance.
When your Hippo dies in the water, it’s a little bit of a problem. For one thing, it’s Hippo brethren just witnessed the massacre of their patriarch, which they find both frightening and upsetting. They’re not coming out and they stand guard in such a way that suggests you shouldn’t go in.
It was getting late, the sun was going down on the Dark Continent, and the Hippo I was supposed to photograph was at the bottom of the pond. I don’t know who thought retrieving it from the water with a helicopter was a good idea but, sure enough, a helicopter arrived all chop chop chop and gale force winds, to hoist the Hippo onto dry land. A discussion was held with the land owner, the trackers and the pro hunters who were actually in charge of this adventure, and it was decided that Crazy Barefoot Man would climb in his tiny canoe, that he paddled with his hands, and paddle on over to the fallen Hippo. He would then wrap chains around it’s feet and then hand the loose ends up to the helicopter. I never caught Crazy Barefoot Man’s name but he was there with his Crazy Barefoot Kid who probably called him Dad. Both of them were white and ran through the bush in their bare feet, somehow avoiding the giant stickers that carpeted the ground.
The sun was setting on the water and it looked lovely with all the ripples from the helicopter wind and the silhouette of Crazy Barefoot Man hand-paddling his canoe across the surface towards the family of Hippos, one of whom had sank to bottom.
The bulk of a Hippo’s 7000 pound body is not comprised of it’s brain and, because of this, they operate primarily on instinct. What little brain power they have is allocated to their senses, which are very keen.
This whole canoe scheme seemed like a bad idea but no one asked me and off he went. As the little boat approached the middle of the pond, the surviving members of the Hippo family saw, smelled and heard the intruder. They sounded the alarm and silent, angry water tanks mobilized in the direction of the hand paddled boat. I saw then that Crazy Barefoot Man could paddle backwards a hell of a lot faster than he had been paddling forward. He made a hasty retreat and the helicopter was sent home.
On the third day we left the lodge at 5:30am and sat in the back of a pickup for half an hour while we were driven back to the scene of the Hippo. During the night, the smell of death had permeated the water, choking the surviving Hippos until they forgot about being sad and grew more concerned over being grossed out. They were too disgusted to eat breakfast so they left the pond in search of greener pastures.
As the first golden rays of sunlight spilled over the horizon, we arrived at the pond ready to do battle, and by “we”, I mean an army of 15 Africans had been assembled to wade out in the water, tie chains to the now bloated and floating dead Hippo’s feet, and tow it back to the sandy beach where all the Americans and white Afrikaners waited patiently. Crazy Barefoot Man was there too but he didn’t bring his canoe.
Believe it or not, 7000 pounds of floating dead Hippo really doesn’t weigh anything. They towed it along effortlessly until it’s bloated sides started to drag the bottom and then 7000 pounds suddenly weighed a lot. A safari outfitted Toyota Hilux pickup, the same one we had just ridden in, was backed up to the shore and the chains were attached to the come-along winch on the back bumper. Moving dead animals is serious business in this part of the world.
Once freed from it’s watery grave, the carcass of the Hippo ceased to pollute the water and began at once to pollute the air, still seeking revenge for it’s untimely death.
The same team of men who were sent into the pond were now assigned the task of making the Hippo “photo ready”, which meant doing things like cleaning all the blood from it’s orifices, scraping barnacles and other unsightly debris from it’s body, prying it’s jaws open with a hydraulic car jack, thereby releasing a terrific stench into the morning air, and cleaning the swamp out of it’s mouth so that my employer could stick his head in there and tell me to take his picture.
I was supposed to wait until the Hippo was officially released from it’s hair and makeup chair to commence photography but I shot every detail of everything, all the while my employer kept saying “Just wait, you don’t need to shoot that.”
When the Hippo was finally deemed ready for it’s 15 minutes of fame, my employer knelt behind it, Pedorseli 45/70 hoisted over his shoulder. He looked straight into the camera and said “Isn’t it magnificent!”
I am DeAnna Vincent, fine art and portrait photographer in Los Lunas, New Mexico. These are the photos from my everyday adventures.