A cape buffalo stares over the leather sofa. A baboon is perched in a tree by the desktop computer, his eyes fierce and wild. A zebra grins by the television, and a hyena lurks in the corner of the living room.
It was 2003 when, Al Lewis of Myakka, Florida, took his first hunting trip to Africa.
“It was always a dream of mine,” said Lewis, whose opportunity to hunt in Africa came when a friend who was getting married at Victoria Falls invited him to fly in two weeks early for the excursion. For 10 days, Al and his friend hunted in Namibia, a 50,000 acre private ranch.
“My wife said I had to do it,” said Lewis.
The trip to Africa was Lewis’ first time out of the country, but by no means his first time hunting.
“My first time hunting, I was about 12 years old,” said Lewis. “My dad used to take me out in his truck and would read the newspaper while I went out with a bb gun.”
Lewis’s first trip to Africa was also the first time he would mount his prize trophy animals. He built his detached “office” as a display room because his wife and daughter didn’t want to see the animals in the house because they loved animals and raised horses. They especially protested shooting zebras.
“Zebras are mean animals,” said Lewis about shooting the striped horses. “They will chase you down and bite you. They are violent and will kill babies of other zebra. They are not as cute as they seem.”
Lewis mentioned another animal that can be surprisingly fearsome.
“There was a whole pack of baboons on the side of a mountain, and they all started screaming,” said Lewis. “It scared me. They can be ugly.”
Lewis’ second and most recent hunting trip to Africa was in Tanzania, 300 miles from the nearest road. Instead of sleeping in a house, he and his friends found themselves sleeping in tents built on top of termite mounds.
“The first trip, we stayed in the home of the owners of the outfitter. They were German, and every time you shot an animal, they wanted to toast you, so by the time you came back after shooting two or three animals you were half-toasted,” said Lewis. “We lived comfortably that trip.”
There was a big difference in the second trip not only because Lewis and his friend were sleeping in tents in the wild under the wide African skies, but because they had both lost their wives. The two went together for a hunter’s adrenaline rush—hunting the Cape buffalo.
The cape buffalo travel in herds, and if a hunter wounds one, the group turns to attack.
“When you are in six feet tall grass, every sound you hear in the bush makes you wonder if it’s the buffalo coming back for you. You realize a wounded buffalo could be right behind you, ready to attack in the saw grass,” said Lewis. “But you do not think about that at first. You think that you don’t want a wounded animal to suffer, and that you don’t want to lose it. It’s an adrenaline rush.”
Lewis was well aware of the risk and had seen on television where a group of 10 men on a hunt walking in a line were attacked by a cape buffalo that came out of the bush. However, hunting the buffalo, which is one of the Dangerous Five, was one of Lewis’ dreams as a hunter. The Dangerous Five include lion, rhino, elephant, leopards, and the Cape buffalo. Lewis has had the chance to shoot lion and leopard, but has never acted on the opportunity, and he says he wouldn’t shoot a rhino.
“To me, I feel like there are not that many of these animals around, and we wouldn’t eat the meat from it,” said Lewis.
Everything he and his friend shot, they ate, and it supplied food for the camp.
“We had a cook. He was a short African guy wearing a white chef hat like you would see in a restaurant, cooking on a wood-burning stove,” said Lewis.
Lewis sampled food items and meats that he will never get a chance to eat again.
“Sometimes I am thankful for that,” said Lewis.
For meat storage, natives hang the meat from strings from tree to tree and let nature dry it.
“If you and I ate it the way they eat it, we would probably get sick and die,” said Lewis. He said the same of the water, a murky brown creek riddled with hippos that ran behind the camp. Malaria and typhoid run rampant, so it was pivotal that Lewis had the proper shots and pills.
Some aspects of Africa were just as Lewis imagined it to be, while others were misleading.
“When I had watched T.V., I always saw the plains of Africa, with the heat rising off the plains,” said Lewis. However, parts of Africa are mountainous country. As they hiked up the mountains, the air was so thin they could hardly breathe, plus they were carrying rifles. And when Lewis woke up in Tanzania the first morning, there was frost on the ground.
“So much for the plains,” said Lewis.
He and his friend stayed on government-owned land with a government hunter to make sure they follow the rules and regulations and shared the camp with 13 other natives who served as trackers, skinners, cooks, and waiters. These people live in these camps in tents nine months out of a year in a fenced enclosure. The camp was also equipped with two guards from the Watusi tribes, tall with red sheets wrapped around them. They walked around the camp armed with a bow and arrows to stop poachers from coming in. If anyone is caught in the property poaching, the guards or the government hunter will shoot them. Poachers are people who kill animals on private hunts and steal the meat. He may also try to steal the lumber to take back on bicycles to sell in their village. In Africa, the government has the legal right to shoot these people.
“I don’t think they should have this right, but they do it. We were told that if we were ever approached by someone out there who showed aggression, we could shoot them,” said Lewis. “I would never want to be in that situation. They are just trying to feed families”
The game from the hunts is the primary food supply for natives who live in the camps, as there is no way to get in and out. The planes that bring in touring hunters also bring in bottled water and canned goods.
“If you get hurt or bit by a snake out in Tanzania, you are probably going to die because it takes so long to get to civilization,” said Lewis.
However, Lewis says that a hunt can be safe if you go with a professional guide and a good outfitter who knows the land and the language. Lewis said that it is a matter of knowing where to go and where not to go.
“A lot of times, I felt safer there than walking down streets in Tampa at night,” said Lewis.
The most harrowing situation that Lewis found himself in was admittedly his own fault. Africa is home to a wide variety of snakes, and one day when the group stopped for lunch, Lewis caught a glimpse of a cobra in the hole of a tree.
“I wanted a photograph, and I was trying to get it to flare up,” said Lewis. The snake got away, but he soon found out that it was a spitting cobra, a breed that spits venom. “If he would have gotten me in the eye, I would have been gone. That and the Cape buffalo were the two scariest moments for me. With the thick vegetation, you always have to be on guard,” said Lewis.
While in Africa, Lewis said that he gained a whole new perspective on his life in comparison to how the people in Africa live. Outfitting is one of the only sources of income for most African countries, other than diamonds, which is a dangerous line of work. Lewis regularly donates to an organization where he buys animals such as chickens, cows, and goats to be shipped over in order for people to get eggs and milk and raise the animals for food. This helps ensure they have sufficient livestock to provide for families to help feed villages.
Lewis hopes to return to Africa to shoot more wildlife, but this time not with a rifle. Another dream of his to go back for a photo shoot expedition.
“Even just for taking pictures, I love it over there,” said Lewis.
For the photo shoot, Lewis says he is planning on visiting Kruger National Park or the Serengeti for a guided photography tour, as thousands of tourists do annually.
“The dream is to see the great migration,” said Lewis. “Every animal in Africa is there at certain times of the year.”
Lewis recalled a moment in which people were sitting in a truck and a cheetah came and jumped right on top of it and urinated on the vehicle.
“You never know what you are going to run into,” said Lewis.
But for the natives of Africa, it is the only way of life they know; they were born and raised among the animals.
“If you love wildlife, there is no better place on earth to go. Everywhere you look there are animals,” said Lewis. “Anything you want to see is there.”