Foreword by Mike Mistelske:
In this, his diary of a trip to Namibia, Chapter member Michael Engster captures many of the flavors of Africa. Michael’s writing style—the touch of his German “accent”—makes for delightful reading, and the reader can easily see and feel and taste Michael’s experience.
Michael’s diary is presented in three parts, starting with “Part 1” in the August issue of Safari Trails. This is “Part 2”. The full text of “Part 1” is included in our website: click here to read “Part 1”
Thanks, Michael, for sharing this with us.
We have in America The Two-Hearted River Tradition: taking your wounds to the wilderness for a cure, a conversation, a rest or whatever. And as in the Hemmingway story, if your wounds are not too bad, it works. But this is not Michigan, or Faulkner’s Big Woods in Mississippi for that matter. This is Africa!
I get up early and take a few pictures trying to capture the mood of an African sunrise. My next stop is the breakfast lounge where Michael Fechter and Martin are already waiting for me. Martin must be in a good mood and gets us laughing. Katrin who joined us too helps him while Jim Weber is sleeping in. We really get stuffed with all the good sausage, eggs, bacon, bread, coffee and fruit before we realize that we forgot one of the walky-talkies on the monkey mountain. Fechter starts up the truck and off we go. I know exactly where I left the damned thing.
Needless to say a big baboon is watching us when we get there, and needless to say we do not have a gun with us. Lucky baboon, I see you next time!
Back at the Auas lodge we get packed, load up our stuff and head south. Katrin is driving the “food” truck while we men drive the little Toyota 4×4 bus.
Stop at Rehoboth, the capital of the Baster homeland. The town is fairly clean, at least along the main road. We gas up and keep on trucking with Katrin leading. All the way through the Baster (bastard) homeland we see no game whatsoever. A few sheep, goats and cattle have replaced all native wildlife!! What a great conservation effort!
Our next stop is a settlement called Kalkrand, and what a place that is. The only persons working seem to be the guy at the little gas station and the barkeeper of the Kalahari Bar.
While Fechter and Katrin are getting gasoline, I take a peek into this bar and decide very fast to stay outside. This place is everything but inviting and the way the few guests look at me does not put me at ease. I back off.
We drive through the “village” and I am amazed how people can live on a dump site, and that is how the whole place looks like. Incredibly dirty, however all the people here seem to like it because nobody does anything but sit around small fires with a bunch of dogs, kids, goats and skinny horses running all over the place.
How they make a living remains an unanswered question. Fechter’s explanations will not be repeated here.
The landscape changes, we are getting closer to the desert and the horizon is getting further away. Everything is green and not brown or red like expected. We want to see the desert and there is no desert. The desert was flooded four days earlier by a “once in a century” rain that washed out roads and destroyed some of the few bridges, and now we are standing here and wait for a bulldozer to push enough dirt back on the “road” to make it possible for us to cross the Fish River. It is hard for me to keep my cool watching the black guys work the heavy equipment. If you are in a hurry – do not go to Africa!
We keep on trucking along a dirt road that is as straight as it is endless. I am in the middle of an ocean of grass. Never before have I seen so much of nothing except in the Navy while being out on the Atlantic. I always loved the ocean, and I love this. All my life I was drawn to the outdoors and hated the contrived living of cities and the claustrophobic connivances of civilization that drive me to the vastness of places like this to fulfill some need of basic simplicity in myself. I had to steal these words, but they explain how I feel. And so I keep staring out of the window into a landscape I have only seen in my dreams.
Fechter slows down to make a left turn. A rusty sign says “Falkenhof” which is the name of a more or less deserted farm that belongs to Fechter’s brother. “Too remote to raise kids, and too dry to make a living. My brother is here only for a few weeks per year.”
We cross a little stream, climb a hill and see another ocean of grass. “Three weeks ago this was all dry and red, not a leaf of grass on the ground. We did not have any rain for over a year, but now we are o.k.”
We have to cross the same creek again, this time with some difficulty. The water is at least four feet deep. We learn that this river is called Packriemen Fluss, a name that goes back to 1904 when the German settlers started to make a new beginning in Africa just like other settlers did the same thing in the New World called America.
There is no road any more, just some narrow trail. After crossing the river for the third time some buildings show up on a grassy hill. “That is Nababis; that is the place”. And then we drive through a gate into a big yard surrounded by some buildings and a lot of big cactus. This is the farm that Fechter’s grand-uncle Gottreich Hubertus Mehnert, officer of the German Protection Troops, founded 1904, and that is the place where he died in 1967 at the age of 87 years. I will find more German history surrounding this place.
Yet another desert river to cross the White Nossob
We are stiff climbing out of the car, some of Fechter’s black people walk up to us and we are greeted in good old German. It always amazes me to hear completely “uneducated” people speak German, Afrikaans, English and their own native language on top of it.
Some fat, friendly woman shows us our rooms in the main building which is the oldest of them all. The rooms are small and sparsely furnished. A little closet, a chair and a bed, a door that does not close, a springbuck hide on the wall and a candle on the window sill, and that is it. I guess we do not need anything more.
It does not take long until we are asked to meet on the porch where the table is set and juicy eland steaks, salad and wine is waiting for us. It is nice to feel treated like a welcome guest in the middle of nowhere.
Katrin, the woman who never seems to get tired, suggests to go for a swim in the river and that is what we do. Swimming in the Kalahari Desert – who is going to believe this one.
Well, it is a refreshing experience without crocodiles and snakes, and after sweating in the car for hours we let us soak in the “Packriemen Fluss”.
Back at the farm we get ready for an afternoon hunt. Fechter’s farm workers and their families are starving for red meat and they expect us to do our “job” and deliver. Fechter wants to shoot some springbuck and so we pack only the little guns with the long reach. A .470 N.E. is the wrong medicine for long range shots on springbuck.
And so we leave the farm armed with a CZ bolt action rifle chambered for a .223 cartridge and a Sauer gun in 30/06. James however does not let go of his Ruger No.1 in .300 Win.mag.
There are springbuck everywhere but I can only guess they know what our intentions are and take off as soon as we get into a 300 yard range. Fechter, who seems to be able to see which one is young, old, male or female, drives like a maniac. It is a solid understatement to say that we get bounced around. This is a wild ride to say the least. Now he hits the brakes again seeing what I do not see. “Shoot the one to the left. Aim high, two inches over his shoulder.” The springbuck is way out there hiding behind some sage colored brush. I fight the little gun that has a safety that works backwards, squeeze the trigger and nothing happens. You have to push the little lever back to get the gun into the ready mode. I have never seen this before, and needless to say the springbuck gets tired of posing and takes off. In the course of this pursuit that shakes our teeth loose, I miss the bugger three times listening to Michael Fechter’s instructions about aiming high etc., before I turn my brain back on, remember something about ballistics and shoot the elusive springbuck straight through the right shoulder. The animal drops at the spot and I feel semi-redeemed.
“There are springbuck everywhere….”
[and giraffe in the bush]
Fechter wants more meat, we load the antelope onto our truck and the race for meat continues. Deep inside I feel sorry when Jim misses with his first shot. We press on and Jim’s second shot takes a good portion of the springbuck’s neck off. These are all 250 to 300 yard shots. You have to get used to these distances and adjust.
Okay, we have another photo session with Jim’s animal, we have another round of warm gin, and Martin overshoots another springbuck standing in a valley 280 yards from us.
We decide to head back to Nababis. The Blue Hour is setting in and changes the colors around us like only Africa can do it. Warm, soothing, mysterious.
Our conversation dies down; we take pictures to capture the mood of the moment.
At Nababis the blacks are waiting for us and pull the two springbuck off the truck. Tonight the farm workers and their families are going to eat well and have a party. A while later we see the campfires glowing in the dark. Two big pots, one filled with meat, one filled with “I do not know what”, are the center of attention.
Our meal consists of oryx sausage, lamb roast, fried potatoes, salad and wine. Candles and a campfire supply the light and let wild shadows dance in the big pepper trees above us while all kinds of birds, bugs, insects and other unknown critters create the background music.
Our conversation fits the night. Nobody spoils the moment discussing politics, religion, taxes, crime or global warming. We are here among friends and stretch the moment as long as we can. These are moments of inner happiness. We are blessed, and everybody seems to feel it.
One more glass of red wine.
Fechter wakes us up while it is still dark. We brush our teeth by candle light and have a quick breakfast out on the porch where we meet Fechter’s brother Horst who is quite different then Michael. He does not strike me as a goal getter, and his farm “Falkenhof” which we saw on our way in looked kind of run down.
After the second cup of coffee we push of into the bush. Some black wildebeest appear on a far off ridge, blue ones however we do not see. Jim Weber wants to go after his special friends, the baboons, and we drop him off. His plan is to stalk along the river going back towards the farm. We wish him luck; he might need it. The baboons are very smart and not easy to be approached. Sometimes I am tempted to think they know if you are carrying a gun or not.
Well, Jim Weber is in pursuit of his monkeys while we are still trying to spot some blue wildebeest. Fechter, who else, detects a sizable herd of black wildebeest with two blue ones in the middle. We are still far away, and I wonder how he can see these things. I guess he is good at what he is doing. I respect this guy and his calm and friendly way.
He stops the truck. “Well Mike, are you up to some serious belly crawling?” Please note that this is not really a question but more like an order. “Hell yes, I was born ready. Bring it on buster.” I am excited, and I am ready!
Martin stays with the truck, while the sage colored brush swallows us. It is hotter than hell; the shirt is soaked in no time and clings to my body. I see nothing but brush, rocks and thorns and try to keep up with Fechter who obviously knows which direction to go. We hit a small clearing, and looking around I get my bearings back. From now on we do the duck-walk and I feel like being in boot camp again. Fechter drops onto his knees. We can hear them before we see them. The wildebeest must have noticed something because they are all lined up looking in our direction. Then they start snorting and growling kind of like dogs. Just think about it: You are sitting in the middle of nothing else but thorns in the middle of nowhere and about 100 big black beasts are “growling” at you. Awesome, just awesome! My heart races, this is all a hunter can ask for, this is an adrenaline rush at its finest. This is the real thing! This is the poor man’s buffalo we are after.
Two blue wildebeest slowly separate from the herd and move to our right. One of them is a very respectable old bull. We get into the super fast duck-walk, followed by the super fast regular walk, always trying to use the cover available to us. Sweat is running down my back, sweat is running into my eyes and makes them sting; my face is bathed in sweat, and sweaty hands hold the heavy rifle. My luck, this is by far the hottest day so far. The two bulls have stopped behind some heavy brush. They act nervous and might break into a run and be gone; however I do not have a clear shot. Fechter hands me his shooting stick. I am ready. Both bulls are looking at us. I have the crosshairs of my scope centered on the bull’s chest and try to find a hole in the brush to shoot through. The wildebeest moves slightly and my cape gun kicks against my shoulder while the soft-pointed bullet finds its mark. This is an eighty yard shot, brush or no brush, and I do not miss at eighty yards.
The wildebeest jumps up high, turns around, walks three or four steps and goes down. Waidmannsheil. Trust me; I do not care how hot it is when Michael Fechter shakes my hand. I am a happy camper, 100 degrees Fahrenheit or not. “Good shooting, old man. Let’s walk up to him and take a closer look.”
And so I get to see the first blue wildebeest of my life up close. What an animal. I am standing in front of a magnificent bull and feel elated and sad at the same time. This bull is dead but will be alive in my memory as a rugged and majestic animal as long as I live.
I look around me and see miles and miles of grass and brush that looks as endless as the blue sky above us. I feel small, great, happy and blue; and I wonder how many more of these moments I am allowed to have before the journey is over.
Fechter seems to feel what is going on inside of me. “If you ever have to get away from whatever you want to get away from, you can stay on Nababis as long as you want, and I mean for free.”
I shake his hand, mumble a thank you and walk away. My throat is tight.
In the meantime Martin has managed to get the truck through the brush and over the rocks and boulders. Fechter signals him towards us and like always, we have our photo session and a sip of warm gin.
Martin looks the wildebeest over to find my shot that left no exit wound. “Not too bad for an old man”. Hell, I feel young right now and have been called an old man twice within ten minutes. Something is wrong here.
After a short discussion we decide that this animal is worth a shoulder mount. If you look at the photos, you will know why.
This is not a cape buffalo, but today that is what it is for me. The value of a trophy can not always be measured in inches or pounds.
The “old man” bags a wildebeest
The spell this whole situation put on me slowly fades and reality sets in again. We have to get this animal out of the heat and so it gets loaded on to our trusted little truck. This happens to be another sauna session.
On the way back to the farm we try to locate James Weber. Doing so we see some spectacular country along the Packriemen River. I might have to think about Fechter’s offer after all.
When we finally pick up a worn out baboon hunter we get to know that James saw a lot of these monkeys without ever getting a shot at one of them. He still had a great time and enjoyed himself greatly. He too shakes my hand on a great blue wildebeest while Fechter does his balls-to-the-wall cross country 4-wheeling with the poor truck. And while the wildebeest definitely feels nothing any more, our teeth are getting loose from bouncing over rough terrain in breathtaking “Fechter speed”.
Close to Nababis we pass the huts where the black farm workers live. They are all sitting around a fire, men, women, children and some scrawny looking dogs. To me it looks like they are having a good time, at least they laugh a lot and I envy them for the basic life they are living. Three of them jump on the fender of our truck and start butchering the wildebeest as soon as the vehicle comes to a stop at the farm. I have field dressed and butchered many game animals and watch these guys with professional interest. They are good and that is a fact. It does not take long and the wildebeest is just meat.
I go back to the old farmhouse to take a shower with semi-warm water. Afterwards I am sitting on the porch and enjoy this extremely remote and vast land where only a handful of people try to make a meager living.
From my elevated location above the Packriemen River I can see a sea of grass that stretches forever to meet a far away horizon. To my left are some reddish bluffs overlooking the brownish waters of the river and the only tall, deep green trees that grow along the banks. Patches of yellow flowers, purple and silver colored bushes as well as all shades of green and brown add to a painting that only nature is able to create. Further away, behind the river, the land rises slowly to a rolling prairie with dark thorn bushes growing in the ditches; while the rest is grass and more grass with white tips moving in the wind underneath a blue sky speckled with some white clouds drifting lazily in the breeze.
Looking down the hill I see the graveside of Hubertus Mehnert, which looks like a small chapel. I think I know why he never left this place for long.
And then there are the sounds of all the birds, the soft wind in the trees and the beating of your heart, and you feel intensively alive and very small and insignificant at the same time.
Slowly everybody comes to the porch, Katrin, Michael Fechter, James and Martin, and now we all listen to Fechter’s monkey stories which are very interesting and sometimes strictly hilarious. I really like this guy, the way he handles himself and the way he treats his hunting guests. I like our conversations when nobody else is around and he allows a small look into his soul.
After a small snack prepared by Katrin and her black girls, we all try to take a nap which turns out to be more like another trip to the sauna. Remember: No electricity – no air conditioning. I guess as of today I have a better understanding why the first settlers in my home state Oklahoma lived in dug-outs.
Lying on my little bed I feel the sweat pouring out of every single pore of my body. I am soaked to say the least and try not to think of the upcoming Oklahoma summer.
We climb back on our hunting vehicle at about 1600 hours (4 p.m.) and drive through a huge area covered with silver leaf brush. The big warthog that we spot a little late disappears before we can get a clear shot. Lucky Pumba!
Another river crossing, but this time the water looks deep and Fechter is nervous about getting stuck in the water. It would be a long walk home. “Hey Katrin, can you take your clothes off and walk through. I need to know how deep it is.” Fechter must be joking.
“Sure thing Michael,” and she strips down to her underwear and wades through the river while all the men either sit in the truck or in the back of it.
And so we follow Katrin to the other side where she greets us with her big smile. “That will cost you a drink or two tonight, gentlemen. I hope you did not take any pictures.”
“We would never do a thing like this, plus we feel sorry that your cruel husband asked you to do a thing like that.” Laughter.
Katrin climbs back on the truck and the search for another springbuck continues. Martin has switched guns. A Sauer&Sohn bolt action rifle in 30/06 replaced his .470 double which is definitely too much gun for a springbuck.
After a few very long shots that only scare our prey, Martin stops listening to Fechter about holding high, puts the crosshairs of the scope in the middle of his target and we have a very dead springbuck. Waidmannsheil, we are done shooting on Nababis, load the little antelope up and drive back towards the farm .The evening colors are warm, and we have Fechter stop the truck various times to snap some pictures. Before we get close to home all the plains animals seemed to be lined up to say goodbye. We pass blessbucks, hartebeest, wildebeest, some kudus, warthogs as well as a bunch of ostriches while the baboons in the trees yell at us. What an evening.
The blacks are all outside sitting around their cooking fires, laughing and talking while the women stir whatever is in the pots, and the dogs are chasing the kids or the other way round. Two teenage boys get up as soon as they see us and jump on the truck. They want to butcher the springbuck—but more so they want whatever is inside like heart liver, lungs, kidneys and so forth. They eat it all.
And so we unload and let them get at it.
Soon afterwards we meet on the porch where one of the black women has a big fire going. Katrin and her girls prepare the food which is great like always. How they cook like that on an open fire amazes me.
Later on with candlelight and a dying fire setting the stage for stories and memories from the good old days I feel totally content. I do not miss the abundance of civilization we have to face every day and I do not miss all the entertainment we can have by just pushing a button not realizing that this kills our soul, dulls our brain and steals our imagination.
Here in the middle of nowhere I find peace.
After most of the wine is gone and only Martin and I are left on the porch we have a few father-and-son moments, priceless moments that allow us to let guards down and be who we really are.
Tomorrow we will be leaving this place and we might never see it again. Tomorrow we will drive back to the city with the crowded streets, the barbwire fences, the noise, the smell, the crime, the nice main road and the dirty, filthy slums. And by the way, there are no gleaming campfires in the city.
Tonight however the air is full of Africa, and we sit in the dark and talk.
Ponca City, OK
To be Continued…