The Dark Continent: On A Friday Morning

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In the morning I sit on my bed.

Sunlight blinds my left eye while the shadow of hummingbirds flicker like a silent movie in the window.

I read a book with my right eye and drink coffee from my cup.

Carl is next to me having his own experience of the morning. This is the quiet denial before the loud reality of daytime sets in.

Morning is the time of coffee and books and of writing stories in pencil.

“The things you like about me now,” I told him once, in the days before he was broken hearted, “will probably be the things you hate about me later.” By “later”, I meant now.

I don’t know if he was listening then but he seems disappointed in the way things turned out.

I know my time here is running short.

Life is waiting but it will not take me for its lover until I’ve had a shower.

I should get off the bed and go face the day but something I read this morning takes me back to The Dark Continent, where the cradle of life rocks back and forth to quiet its bitter children.

With star shine like sadness in the sky,
a lone beast runs with the thundering ghosts.

This is Africa now:
trophies and tusks.

On The Dark Continent a patient spider sits in the dwindling shade of a one leaf tree.

With eyes that see in all directions it sees itself; once a great predator, now a vacant exoskeleton.

A lifetime of bones and teeth fade into the dirt but from the mountain tops everything looks the same.

Tales From The Dark Continent: The Elephant

I have photographed Africa, but no one has photographed Africa like Nick Brandt. His work is breath taking and awe inspiring, it is all of those adjectives people use to describe something exceptional.

About a year and half ago, in August, I was visiting the Open Shutter Gallery in Durango. The day before, I spent nine hours riding in an open air coach behind a steam engine. The train went to Silverton, where it was greeted by a cardboard cutout of Bigfoot. Bigfoot told everyone to eat at Handlebars Food & Saloon, so I did. I had a big plate of rainbow trout, the quintessential mountain fish, and then rode the train back to Durango. It was a long day and, at the end of it, all kinds of black shit, train people call it soot, was stuck in my hair and even after a shower I was still digging it out of my ears. That’s what I was doing while walking around the Open Shutter Gallery: I was digging black shit out of my ear with my pinkie finger. It kept me occupied until I found one of Nick Brandt’s books.

I honestly don’t know how he gets his shots. They seem impossible to execute. He shoots from angles and at proximity to wild animals that can and should eat him alive or trample him flat. Somehow though, he is still with us.

I was looking at Nick Brandt’s book, page after page of miraculous photography, when I had what some would refer to as a spiritual experience. The gallery went away, as did the black shit in my ear, and I was back on the Dark Continent in a time before man. A thundering heard of wildebeests crossed the plains in a seasonal migration and crocodiles waited for thirsty zebras to venture too close to the water. Lions watched the sunset and leopards carried disemboweled antelopes up into trees. Giraffes ate everything they could wrap their tongues around while elephants walked with their families and buried their dead.

I wasn’t expecting all that. It caught me off guard.

I stood in the Open Shutter Gallery and was surrounded by Africa, quite unexpectedly. The Dark Continent was alive and well and I knew that it was better off then, in the time before us. It made me sad: the realization that the Earth was happier once than it is now. My vision was disrupted by a little drop of something that fell into the book, it was followed by another and, well fuck it all, I’m having a breakdown in a public place. I pulled my shades down over my eyes, preferring to look like an asshole than a lunatic who cries over books in art galleries. There were lots of other people there, looking at pretty pictures. The gallery housed the world like flowers growing by candlelight.

There was once a rouge elephant wandering in exile through the Kalahari Desert. It was a bull elephant that just happened to have a book written on it. Wrinkled pages told the story of a long life with a sad ending. In the next to the last chapter, the old bull was excommunicated by it’s family and it strolled through the sand leaving a path of destruction in it’s wake. This is what we were told.

I traveled to South Africa with an American hunter who commissioned me to photograph his safari. We had been working together for years and I wanted to see the world. Some places bring out the worst in people. The beginning of the end was well underway.

All days on the Dark Continent start before dawn. We were 12 hours from the Kalahari Desert and wanted to get there in time to eat dinner, sleep well and start the next day before dawn. We set out at 6:00am, driving across the Dark Continent on the wrong side of road. Sometime around noon, we passed a chicken processioning plant called The Fat Chick, no one else seemed to think it was funny.

A surprising amount of traffic crowded the highway. Our van was new and swift and we flew down the road like a rocket ship, weaving in between the taxis like a mild annoyance. Our Afrikaner hosts informed us that the overstuffed VW buses are referred to as chocolate boxes. We decided then, that it was only appropriate to call our van a cracker box.

The Kalahari Desert is not a very nice place. It’s hot, like Africa hot, and it’s oh such a dry heat.

Our host was called Frickie. He was the outfitter who would host the elephant hunt. Frickie was tall and broad, a perfect Afrikaner specimen. He was loud and drunk and my employer hated him. Frickie cooked our dinner over his stone fire pit and we sat around a huge table trying to look calm.

Most people don’t know that my employer had made a previous trip to The Dark Continent for the purpose of hunting an elephant, but he lost his nerve and came home two days later. He was very worked up this time too and the adoring eyes of his mistress were not making him any calmer. During dinner, Frickie called my employer an American pussy boy and informed him that this was not Disney Land. We were all terrified of Frickie so when my employer stood up and left the table, it was very awkward.

The guest rooms at Frickie’s place looked so adorable, from the outside. Little cottages with thatched roofs were arranged in a semi-circle like a village for African smurfs. It is important not to take anything at face value in a foreign country. At bedtime we discovered that the cottages lacked both air conditioning and windows with screens, forcing all of us soft handed Americans to choose between stifling heat and a very exotic vacation. Decorative little bug nets hung around the beds like a practical joke. The bugs in the Kalahari desert are as big as rodents, fly like army helicopters, and feed on human flesh with such voracity that, in order to survive the darkness, one must sleep fully clothed in a puddle of DEET.

After a sweaty, bug filled night, our crew arose before dawn and discovered that there was no hot water. You would think with temperatures already reaching 100 degrees, that the water would be hot anyway. It wasn’t.

The sun rose and a van full of tired, flea bitten, sweaty Americans, and a few perfectly happy Afrikaners, set out in pursuit of the elephant. After stopping at yet another lodge to trade in our van on a pair of safari jeeps, we raced through the desert, desperate to find the elephant before it crossed the boarder into Botswana. A helicopter and trackers on horseback were sent ahead to scout. The Kalahari Desert is an awfully big place.

I was in charge of still photography which apparently made me expendable. The whole camera crew was relegated to the back of the jeeps, armed with only two hands apiece to hold our gear and keep ourselves from flying out of the vehicle while thorny tree branches whizzed past our heads and great clouds of dust covered our faces and lenses.

I did not want to see an elephant die, I really didn’t. At the last minute it was decided that most of the camera crew would stay on the truck and only one videographer would film the hunt. I was ok with that. Hunting an elephant is dangerous business and hunting one with a Pedersoli 45/70 rifle is akin to throwing snowballs at a school bus. Even the good ole’ boys were worried.

We waited, but not long. Rifle shots rang out, 5 of them, and news came over the radio that it was done.

I will tell you a few things about the last chapter of the elephant’s book, just to prove that I was there. The old man lay on his side and his upturned eye was open and wet. Long lashes stood up in the sun and the eye did not yet realize it was dead. Before the old bull fell, he stepped on a baby snake. There behind the back feet lay a pale ringlet, just the size of a necklace. The snake was belly up and had pink eyes. It wasn’t as squished as you might think because the sand had absorbed most of the impact. The elephant’s head did not happen to fall into the ideal position for the photographs. The great tusks were turned away from the camera but all the men there put together were not strong enough to lift and turn the mighty head. A fork lift was brought out for the task. I suppose my employer felt brave and manly, having taken down the biggest and most dangerous of the Big 5, I imagine he felt that way, but he wasn’t sayin’ much.

After the official photos were completed came the time for moving the carcass back to the tanning sheds. It certainly wasn’t going to move itself. A Ford F-150 pickup weighs 4685 pounds. An African Elephant bull weighs 13,000 pounds. So, you see the problem right? We waited around while a very big truck, with a very big trailer and a crane were sent out to find us. There is no graceful way to pick up and move 13,000 pounds of dead elephant so they just wrapped some chains around the legs and began to hoist. The feet came up and the head fell back. The trunk drew pictures in the sand. The crane engine sounded worried and, when the elephant did finally become airborne, the chains tore into the skin, peeling it from the bones and leaving thick grey flaps to tell us which way the wind blew.

The last page of the elephant’s book said only: The End

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Tales From The Dark Continent: The Zebra

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When visiting the Dark Continent, you can order up animals to kill from a menu, like a do it yourself restaurant. When you think of it that way, it’s difficult to imagine going to a steak house and paying $14,000 to go hunt your own steer, even if you do get to keep it’s head, but whatever.

He killed a zebra. That’s right, my employer paid $14,000 to kill a zebra. A zebra. While technically not a horse, it’s pretty much a horse. John Wayne and The Lone Ranger rode horses. The horse is how the west was won. You know, Hi-yo Silver!, and all that shit. Girls love horses. I’ve seen The NeverEnding Story at least 100 times and still cry when Artax sinks into the Swamp Of Sadness. This zebra hunting business didn’t sit well with me. It seemed no different than hunting a dairy goat or a Saint Bernard. Horses, even if they are wild and striped, are a friend of man. Where’s the sport in that?

I wanted to tell him that zebra hunting was un-American but his mistress’s tongue was in his ear so he couldn’t hear me. After he shot the zebra, I heard him saying to the trackers, “Look how it’s fur glistens in the sun!” I looked down and saw I was standing in a little puddle of zebra blood. The clean up crew did their work; they wiped up all the mess and positioned the body like it was just taking a little nap, sunbathing in the African bush. I shot the photos, the ones that are now in magazines and on websites. When we were finished, some Africans were employed to scoot the stripey carcass on to a flatbed trailer. The trailer was 10 feet long so I don’t know why the zebra’s head didn’t fit, but they left it hanging off the end. While the good ole boys stood around congratulating themselves, I noticed that blood had begun to flow from the zebra’s nose and the soft skin around it’s mouth hung loosely, leaving the teeth naked and despondent. Drip drip drip drip drip. The boys were still pissing pretty pictures, one of them broke out a cigar.

We never ate any zebra steaks but a month or so later, back at the office, we ate some ham sandwiches. We sat around the glass table: my employer; myself; a girl who dropped out of homeschool because her parents, stating that girls shouldn’t put wood in their mouths, would not permit her to play the saxophone; and his mistress, who had come all the way from the Dark Continent and still didn’t realize she was the other woman. We sat there chewing on our sandwiches and it was during this meal that the International Hunter said the funniest thing ever. He said “You know what’s wrong with America? They don’t teach family values in school anymore.” I swallowed my food and said “You’re god damned right!”

He gave me a dirty look and I slurped on my juice box. It’s true what they say: knowledge is power.

An Unlikely Idea

I was going to write a story about a zebra. I still will, just not today. I’ve been trying all day to write this story about the zebra and, so far this is all I’ve got, which is to say that I’ve got nothing. The Dark Continent doesn’t want me to think about it right now, maybe Sunday is it’s day off. There’s nothing I can do about that.

I keep dwelling on a conversation that I got wrapped up in the other night regarding whether or not there is such a thing as a soul and further more, if there is, do animals have them? I’m an optimistic type and like to think that there is and they do, respectively.

This is a modern day dilemma, an acceptable topic for debate, but once upon a time there were people who had not yet begun to speculate what, if anything, happens after death. I was thinking about that and I can’t think of any reason why we should ever have wondered about it in the first place. I mean, it’s kind of an odd notion, that death is illusory. What would give us that idea?

People just take it for granted now, the notion that something happens when you die; the soul goes somewhere, and the disagreements over what happens next cause of a lot of conflict. It’s a concept that’s so ingrained in our collective consciousness that most of us cannot imagine what it would be like to be unaware of such an idea. Your opinion on the subject is not important, at least not to me but, what is important, is that you can’t un-know the debate. The existence of the soul is a viral idea that took off and spread like wildfire; enlightening or polluting the human mind, depending on how you look at it. To be human is to be polarized over the question of life after death.

But there was a time, once, long ago, when no one thought about it. We lived and died, just like everything else and then one day, someone had to go poison the waterhole.

Ancient men sat around the fire, getting drunk and waiting for their wives to cook dinner. They did this for thousands of years until one night in August, a big hairy fellow named Leonard says to his buddy, “Hey Sal, what do you suppose happens to us after we die?”, to which Sal replies, “what the fuck are you talking about?!?!”

And our fate was sealed.

Tales From The Dark Continent: The Hippo

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It seems weird now, seven 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 it’s head there on my wall.” No one wants to say, “Aren’t all these heads beautiful? I bought them!” Now that I think about it though, 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 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, dieing in the water as a final act of vengeance.

When your Hippo dies in the water, it’s a little bit of a fucking 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 gail 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, wrap some 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 actually 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 rays of golden 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 our 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 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!”

Tales From The Dark Continent: International Ass

South Africa is the queen mother of all brothels.

When you talk to a man with soft hands who claims to have killed an elephant, you have to wonder what reason a man with soft hands has for doing such a thing. Unlike Heart Disease and Type 2 Diabetes, elephants are not high on the 1st world list of threats to humanity.

My job was to portray the gentlemanly sport of big game hunting as genteel and aristocratic, which is not at all like it really is. What it is, is paying for pussy. I mean how else does a man with soft hands end up with an elephant head on his wall?

My employer wanted me to make him look important and distinguished. He wanted to make sure the world knew of his international exploits, so long as they met the first two criteria. My photographs of him have been published in prestigious hunting magazines that are read by tricks everywhere. I guess that makes me famous.

I did my job perfectly. He knew I would and this is why I got the gig, but I wasn’t happy.

My employer, who usually looked to me for council, had become deaf in both ears and was making an international ass of himself. An adolescent boy with a rifle; spending big money to kill big animals, running his mouth like a fool and fucking his mistress who was a carbon copy of his wife. I would have let all this slide, had he been nice to me, but seeing as how that was evidently not part of the plan I decided to show him what big game hunting looked like to me.

I shot his photos, the ones he wanted, and then I shot my photos, the ones I wanted him to see. For every one magazine ready portrait, I shot hundreds of gruesome images: tongues lolling from bleeding mouths, heads with lifeless eyes hanging from the back of flat bed trailers, pools of blood in the sand, ripped skin.

Tales From The Dark Continent: Smothering Silk

I was commissioned to photograph an ego maniac’s big game hunt in South Africa. It seemed like a bad idea, but it also seemed like a free trip to Africa.

What kind of idiot fool would say no to a free trip to Africa?!                                                                                                                                                           On the other hand, what kind of idiot fool would say yes?

It took 27 hours to reach our destination on the dark continent and, even though our crew rolled in at 4:00 in the morning, we were greeted at the lodge by a cheerful welcome committee. They presented us with snacks and tall glasses of a fruity potion that tasted like air freshener. I sipped at my Glade Hawaiian Breeze and thought of motel rooms with pineapple bed spreads and torn curtains.

Other workers gathered our luggage and toted it to our cabins. “Be careful walking on the lighted paths at night”, they warned us, “The light attracts insects and the insects attract frogs and the frogs attract Black Mambas, so watch where you put your feet.”

There were some other things our hosts failed to mention, like what to do about the palm sized spider poised directly over the bed. It was working a crossword puzzle and knitting a sweater while waiting for the perfect moment to repel from the ceiling. Spiders have lots of eyes so they are good at multitasking. Arachnid motives, however, are difficult to discern. This one wanted to turn my face into a cocoon, or maybe not.

“Cocoon” – a 6 letter word for Smothering Silk.

Too tired to care, I fell asleep and was not bothered by the twinkle of round lemur eyes peering through the window.