A Greybull in Africa

By Leon Viljoen

I recently penned a few thoughts on what it takes to be a child of Africa. The thoughts and emotions were formulated away from the rhetoric of politics and race, as I deliberately avoided getting caught in a topical debate that I do not enjoy. My thoughts and emotions were rather captured by an experience in July 2004 that not only has left an imprint on my soul, but also has left me feeling a better person.

The story that I am narrating had its beginnings in a rural hospital in Greybull, Wyoming. A remarkable young man, Nick DeWitt, has been battling leukemia for the last 13 years. A hunter in soul and body, he knew the rigors of fighting for what he wants, in his case it was a basic and simplistic quest - a normal day away from the smells and sounds of an intensive care unit. Our paths were about to cross away from the sounds and the smells of the hospital, and together we were to rekindle the feeling that hunting unleashes within our soul. This story is a ode to courage and triumph. (The original article appeared in the Greybull Standard of 5 August 2004)

I am a child of Africa. Her mountains, open veld, savanna's and rugged bush remain an integral part of who I am. The continent has shaped me and has left me with believing that there is a bit of Africa in every one of us. We all long to see the unspoiled, uncomplicated world where nature remains supreme.

It was with this philosophy in mind that I started the Hunting Network two years ago. My business philosophy is based on a realization of the privileged position that I have to be part of one of the most misunderstood of continents on the one hand, and our ability to share our world with a number of sportsmen and hunters from all corners of the globe on the other.

A few months ago I made contact with a non-profit organization called "Hunt of a Lifetime." Through our initial discussions and long-distance telephone calls we talked about sharing the vision of making near-impossible dreams a reality. I was mildly surprised when I received a phone call during May 2004 in which I was asked to facilitate and arrange a hunt for a young man from Wyoming.

To me, the name Nick Dewitt did not mean much, and at first he was just another client on our books. However with the first of our e-mails exchanged between Nick and myself, I came to realize that when life has dealt you a few dud cards, you need to play your hand when the cards have fallen in your favor. I came to realize that this was no ordinary young man, and after sitting down with my colleague, friend and professional hunter of the Hunting Network, Glaeser Conradie, we decided that we need to pull out all stops to make this African Safari truly a hunt of a lifetime.

The wheels were set in motion and we started wheeling and dealing to get a representative package for Nick going. The odd phone call here and the cashing in on long-overdue favors resulted in a structured plains package of game that we believed would provide Nick with a taste and feel for Africa.

It was with great anticipation that we awaited the arrival of the Dewitt family into Cape Town International Airport. After the usual customs and immigration paperwork we managed to get them all settled for their first night in Africa.

I met Nick at the guesthouse in the university town of Stellenbosch, and I was immediately taken back by his size. He was a small, compact young man and I thought that there is no way that he could be 18 years old. I was struck by his gentleness, sincerity and the appreciation expressed, while I kept thinking that I was the one who should be saying "thank you" for providing us with an opportunity to show him our world.

We talked about the hunt, the animals and the small things in life, and it was with these thoughts that I sent them onward, into the care of my colleague, Glaeser Conradie, at the hunting concession. I cannot write about the hunt itself as I was not the one who accompanied Nick. Unfair work pressure and deadlines to get a project completed meant that Glaeser had to do the hard work in the field.

As I stated in my opening line, I am a child of Africa and I know that in order to hunt the plains you need to be strong in mind and body. Nick rose to the challenge, and listening to the stories of his training on the wrestling mat, I had no doubt but that he would bring to the African hunt the same determination with which he would face an opponent on the mat.

Hunting the Karoo you need to be sure of shot placement and distance. A good guide will be able to keep the guess work to the minimum, but with the combination of low shrub and keen eyesight the game will maintain the advantage over the hunter. The cold winter mornings and hot midday sun all add to the mix of the hunt.

Springbok used to roam the plains in numbers over one million, and choosing a big male does take time and patience. Impala, on the other hand, are skittish in behavior and the slightest noise or movement will cause them to dart away from the perceived danger. We knew that this is the basis of what his memories of the hunt would be and we hoped that the challenge will be part of those memories.

A telephone call during the hunt confirmed the trust that I had in Nick's hunting prowess. Nick soon bagged all of his trophies with the exception of a Kudu. The old master of the thorn thickets did not present an opportunity for a clean shot and we decided to let the Kudu be this time around, and rather to focus our attention on a Black Wildebeest (Gnu).

It was an inspired choice as a well-placed shot meant that Nick is now the proud owner of one of the biggest trophy bulls ever shot on the Karoo plains. We are still awaiting the official results from the Rowland Ward Guild, but judged on measurements made in the veld, Nick's trophy cabinet can be prepared to make provision for a record.

Nick and trophy wildebeest

Reaching records and new highs tend to be part of his remarkable life. I could go on and on writing about him, but it would not do his life or the love of his parents any justice. I am struggling to find words that will describe my feelings as I reflect back on a memorable experience meeting a fighter and a companion.

I have four kids of my own, and they are blessed with good health. Looking at Nick I realized how much I take them for granted. Nick made my think about the gift of health and for that I am grateful. He might have taken a bit of my Africa with him, but he has left a lot of him in me. I salute you, my friend.

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Copyright 2004, 2016 by Leon Viljoen. All rights reserved.