Our plan was to walk up the east side of the hill, over the top and down towards the sunset, to meet Daudi, our driver. Jamie carried a rifle and a radio, and I had binoculars. Our clients were bedecked with an assortment of stout sticks, cameras and expectation. It was a perfect evening for a stroll and sundowners in the Masai Mara.
It only took fifteen minutes to reach the top. In the late afternoon light, the world below had become a sepia photograph: one of spidery thorn trees, charcoal shadows and a molten glow glinting off anything caught in the sun’s slanting rays – the coppery backs of impalas, spun-gold nests of weaverbirds dangling from branches, and dull pewter links of the river, coiling like a rusty chain beyond the trees.
I scanned the scene. Through my binoculars, a sudden movement caught my eye. A white vehicle, driving fast, trailing a cloud of dust. “Idiot!” I muttered.
Then I noticed three giraffes galloping along in front of the car.
The soft liquid call of a coucal – sometimes called the water bottle bird – rose up to meet us.
“Gurgle, glug, glug, gurgle…”
POP! POP! POP!
“Those were gun-shots!”
My stomach lurched, sickeningly. “Jamie – that pick-up down there… there’s a guy standing in the back with a gun…"
Transfixed, we watched the pick-up gaining on a giraffe, as it cantered in unbearably slow motion. The poor animal came to a faltering halt and collapsed slowly to the ground, crumpling in a heap. Two men got out of the cab; the third, climbing down from the back, rifle in hand, had shot the giraffe.
Jamie radioed Daudi to bring the landcruiser urgently. Then, passing me the radio he said, “Stay here with the girls. I’m going after them. Any of you blokes coming?” All three men in the party followed him down the hill.
Soon, they were racing across the plain. Over the radio, I talked them through the maze of stunted acacias towards the pick-up. In the time it took for Jamie to get there we witnessed the giraffe carcass change from a brown lump to a glistening white one, as the poachers skinned the animal.
“Jamie – they can hear you! They’re getting into the car and driving away. Turn right now – you’ll cut them off… I don’t think they can see you yet, they only heard your engine…”
“Hell, these guys work fast! The giraffe’s already been butchered, and half the meat loaded into sacks…” Jamie’s furious voice tailed off as he concentrated on tearing through the trees, until eventually he had the pick-up in his sights.
“Can you write this down?” he reeled off the registration number. None of us had a pen, so I used a twig to scratch the number on my arm.
Below, a camera flashed inside the landcruiser, now travelling neck-and-neck with the pick-up. Without warning, the pick-up driver swerved angrily, ramming Jamie.
“I don’t believe it! He just hit me!”
With that, the pick-up drew slightly ahead, slowed – depositing two occupants, who scrambled in opposite directions through the trees – then sped away.
With dusk falling it was now harder to see where the pick-up went; the driver wasn’t foolhardy enough to switch his lights on.
Eventually, Jamie radioed. “We’re giving up –we’ve got photographs of them all. I’ll collect you, and then go to the police. Stay on the hill till I get there.”
I was proud of my ladies. Despite it being dark, none showed the least sign of fear. Here we were in the middle of the African bush, with nothing to defend us, whatever animal should happen along. Somehow, nothing could be as awful as what we’d witnessed. An owl hooted mournfully, breaking the sad silence.
We’d eaten dinner, and were sitting round the campfire nursing nightcaps, when Jamie returned to camp.
“I need a whisky! Well – I’ve filed a report. It turns out the car belongs to the local butchery and the guy with the gun is a park ranger – authorised to use both the rifle and the ammunition…”
As we listened disconsolately to Jamie’s tale, macabre hyena giggles and whoops echoed in the distance – perhaps they’d found our giraffe carcass.
Months later, the case came to court.
The ranger lost his job.
The accomplice – a dim-witted fellow – claimed the others had forced him to go along with them. He was reprieved.
The butcher still has a thriving business.