Mike and Vicki Roden have been married for 26 years. Mike has hunted all that time, all over the world, even founded Granite Mountain Arms as part of his quest for the perfect .416 Rigby. Vicki had never hunted before in her life, not so much as a bunny, never even pulled the trigger on a centerfire rifle until a few weeks ago. My, how things change.
“In the early years of our marriage, I went along on a few of Mike’s hunting trips close to home,” Vicki Roden says, “but I never hunted, I never handled a gun. I shot a .22 once or twice and that was it. Back in those days Mike was hunting raccoons and that kind of thing, but as the years went by the critters got bigger. Bears, mountain lions, elk. It always pleased me that he liked something so much and was always doing it. It was fun just to be outside with him. We had hounds then, and that was a different kind of hunting. It was always just part of our lives.
“Then, eventually, Mike started going to Africa. Everything changed after that, from the books he read to the sparkle in his eyes when he talked about hunting. He would come back from Africa so excited, he had so much fun, enjoyed it so much. Every other kind of hunting he had done before seemed to pale next to that experience. Mike had gone and come back safely many times over the years before I finally said, Okay, next time I want to go too.
“When I said that I didn’t think that I would hunt. I just thought I would go along for the ride and enjoy being there. One day I went to the local shooting range with him to sight in some of his rifles. He had a rifle he wasn’t taking to Africa, a .243 Winchester, and I shot it a few times and actually hit the target. I discovered for the first time that shooting was fun, sitting on a bench with the target a hundred yards away, I really enjoyed that. It surprised me. And then I got to thinking about it and thought if I’m going all the way to Africa I really want to experience it. Mike doesn’t have a zebra and I thought maybe I’d like to get a zebra. And when I said that, I wondered if I would really be able to pull the trigger. Even up to the day when we spotted the zebra and it was my turn to shoot, even up to that moment I wondered, Can I do this?
“About a month before we left for safari I read Robert Ruark’s Use Enough Gun, trying to understand about safaris and what it’s like. That whetted my appetite. Especially hearing about Ruark’s wife on safari. I thought it was interesting that she was freaked out by the dust and the dirt but, by the end, when it was time to leave, she didn’t want to go because she had become so attached to it. She came to love Africa so much she didn’t want to leave.
“When Mike used to show me pictures of past hunts and tell me all about them it just didn’t seem like something I’d ever be able to do, I never dreamed at that point that I would ever actually hunt. And then the more I thought about it, I thought, You know, I want my own trophy. I can do this. Mike’s got all these beautiful trophies and I’d like to be able to say, This is the one I got.
“Well, I got the zebra. I had the gun on the sticks and the zebra in my sights and I was just trembling like a leaf and wondering if I’d be able to hold the gun still, take a breath and blow it out and squeeze the trigger. Just as Harry is in my ear saying, Shoot. Okay. As soon as I fired, Harry whacked me on the back and said, Perfect shot. I said, Really?
“I remember looking at my zebra through the scope as he was slowly coming closer to us. He was standing straight on and then he turned a little sideways. It was like he was saying, Shoot me now? Oh, you don’t like that? And then he turned a little more, Shoot me now? Go ahead, let me go out with honor.
“Now I have an answer for all my friends who ask me how I could shoot such a beautiful animal. Here’s this creature and I was kind of sorry that he was dead. But on the other hand, I thought, That’s okay boy, you’re going to come home with me. Something that Ruark said in his book was that it’s not that you’re joyful at killing something, but it’s taking that little piece of the whole experience and being able to bring it home and have it with you in your home and being able to look at it and recall all the little details and the exhilaration you felt on that particular day at that particular moment. I’ll certainly never forget shooting the zebra. It changed me. I suddenly had a whole different way of looking at things.
“After zebra day, every time we’d go around that particular bend in the road, everyone would say, Vicki, there’s Zebra Valley. A couple of days later, we were making plans for the following day’s hunt and a couple of options presented themselves. And I thought, I want to do it again. Maybe there’s something else I would be able to shoot. I’d noticed this one big bull gemsbok about three times, in just about the same area. I talked to Mike and we were trying to figure out what to do the next afternoon and Mike said, What about that big gemsbok, you think you’d like to get that? Really? I could? We talked to Harry that night and Mike asked him, Do you think you could get Vicki up on the gemsbok? Then Harry got all excited. Yeah, we can do that, we can get her there. So we went bird hunting the next morning and that afternoon after lunch we headed out to go after this gemsbok. Then I thought, Okay this is the real deal, this isn’t going to be this old zebra stallion just standing there, I’m going to have to work for this one. We decided that night to go after it and the next afternoon we were cruising along the roads and the trails and the guys were spotting and looking all around and trying to find that particular gemsbok. It’s amazing how they can recognize an animal from all the others that you see. All of a sudden they started snapping to each other and signaling, There he is, there he is, and the mood changes in the truck right away, the edge gets notched up very quickly. Mike loaded the gun, put three big cartridges in the magazine and said, If it takes you more than that, kid, you’re on your own.
“The entire Africa experience was a whole lot better than I had expected. We were hunting with Harry Claassens Safaris, the Mata Mata camp in South Africa near the Botswana border, primarily in the Molopo Game Reserve where Harry holds the exclusive rights to hunt. Harry is the consummate gentleman, he and Mike are kindred spirits I think. And then our Zulu trackers Mateo and Musa, and the Park Ranger Chris were just so thoughtful and were very kind to help you spot game and applaud your efforts when you saw something even though they’d seen it five minutes before. And the camp was fabulous, absolutely first class. Harry’s mom was the hostess and she did a wonderful job. I don’t know of too many vacations where I would willingly jump out of bed at five o’clock in the morning and hurry up and get some breakfast so I could be in the truck by six o’clock and on the way so we could be out on the reserve before sunup. It was like, Come on let’s go, we get to do this again today.
“I want to go back. I thought, Mike’s got several kudu, but I’d like to have my own kudu. That would be a good thing. One thing I came away thinking is I need to do some conditioning kinds of things to be able to run through the bush carrying my own gun without being so out of breath I have trouble pulling the trigger. I recognized that you really do have to be ready. Because the thing that would happen is that it would change so quickly. We’d be cruising along, talking about just anything and all of a sudden somebody would spot something just like that and suddenly the gun’s out of the case and you’re getting ready and you’re making sure you’ve got a bullet in your chamber and you’re ready to jump down and go and that could happen at any time which makes it all the more exciting. You never knew what you were going to see.
“I was worried about handling the rifle because the only shooting I had done before Africa was on a bench with the Lead Sled and a stationary target that was just paper. I could shoot well then, but I had never done any offhand shooting at all, never shot the .300 Magnum before. I’d never had the gun on those sticks before. I knew it was going to kick. When we arrived at camp after the 18-hour flight to Johannesburg and an eight-hour drive, we pulled up to the camp just before dinner time and Harry said, It’ll save us some time tomorrow morning if we sight in the guns now. So we all went over to the shooting bench and that’s when Mike told Harry that I wanted to shoot a zebra. Harry kind of looked at me like, Okay, but can you shoot? Mike set it up and said, Show him what you can do. Oh great, here’s this PH that Mike thinks so highly of and I’ve got to shoot in front of him and I’m just shaking like, Oh no, what if I can’t do it. The setup he had was different, there was a rest for the gun but there wasn’t anything like the Lead Sled to absorb the recoil. I fired once and I fired well, but it hit my shoulder hard and I thought, Oh no, that’s what it’s going to be like. I wondered how I was going to be able to do that, because it hurt, I knew I was going to have a bruise. I told Mike the gun kicked a whole lot more than I expected. I was concerned and afraid I wasn’t going to be able to do it.
“Then the day I shot the zebra I don’t even remember any recoil. I remember squeezing the trigger, I remember seeing the animal go down, but I don’t remember feeling any recoil. And then for the gemsbok, we tracked him a little bit, we had to crawl out of the truck very quietly and Harry was right in front with the sticks and I’ve got my gun and Chris and Musa were right behind me and we were going single-file through the bush and crouching down behind a tree and watching the animal. We sized him up once and he was in my sights and he turned and started walking away and I had to back off. And then we crept forward some more and watched the animal as it walked out from behind a tree and Harry stepped out and set up the sticks and said, Take your time. The animal was standing right there and I had him in my sights. I kept thinking to myself, Okay, deep breath. I’m trembling again and breathing hard from traipsing through the bush. I’m thinking, Just take a deep breath and blow it out and squeeze and you’ll be okay, but I couldn’t do it, I had to breathe again. The target’s moving all around. I just remember thinking to myself, You don’t have time for all this, just hold your breath. So I held my breath and I could see his foreleg start to move and I thought, He’s gone, I better do it now. So I squeezed, I hit him, and again Harry slapped me on the back and said, Perfect shot. I don’t remember the rifle hitting me, I just remember knowing that I’d hit that animal. I picked my spot and thought, I’m going to hit him right there, and that’s where the bullet went.
“I cried after the zebra. I was trembling and tears came to my eyes. It was an emotional thing. I couldn’t believe I really did that. But after the gemsbok I think it was more like, Wow, that’s a nice animal, that’ll be a beautiful trophy. I was excited and I was celebrating and it was different. The guys laughed at me because when we climbed up in the truck I was all excited with the adrenaline rush and saying, Okay, what’s next? and Harry and Mike looked at each other wondering what they’d got themselves into. Oh no, we’ve created a monster.
“Africa is a magical place. I’ve traveled a fair amount, to many of the countries of the world, but Africa is entirely different. There’s a raw edge to it. We were in big cities, Johannesburg and Pretoria, but even there you know you’re in a wild place. You know you’re in a place that’s unique to this earth. And then as we headed out into the bush and I saw how vast the country is, it’s just so big you can’t even imagine. As a child growing up you do your geography lessons and you know that the continent of Africa is huge, three times the size of the United States. Living in the Western U.S. you’re accustomed to open spaces. But in Africa it’s that and much, much more, just an incredibly big place. The thing I think I enjoyed most about the bush was the clear blue sky. It was wintertime there so the grass had a golden quality to it. The sun would hit it and the effect was amazing. And it’s so quiet. I’ve often said to my friends as I’ve been describing the trip, it was the kind of quiet that would just wrap around you like a blanket. I didn’t feel threatened by it at all. No airplane traffic, no car traffic, no other sound but the wind through the trees and the grass, and now and then you’d hear a wild animal. It was a magical time. It’s so different from anyplace I’ve ever been.
“The last night we were watching the sunset. We just stopped what we were doing and watched. It was so beautiful the way the sky would change color and the shadows would change and you would start to see more animals. And the last hour of the last day of the hunt we went on that wild kudu chase. We never caught up with that dream 60-inch kudu, but I’m definitely coming back to do that. As we climbed in the truck to head back to camp we were just trying to milk every moment out of that last day. I stood up and tears came to my eyes. I’m going to cry even now just talking about it, because I didn’t want it to quit. I did not want it to end. I did not want to leave.
“The timing was just right. During the early years when Mike was hunting we had two children to raise, there were other things to do, and it wasn’t my turn yet. It’s nice now, in this stage of our lives when our children are grown, that we can find something we can do together. Hunting had always been his thing, and I had other interests, but it was such a thrill for the two of us to be out there in the Kalahari. He turned to me about the second or third day out and said, You really like it out here don’t you. I said, Yeah, this is just way too much fun. It was really an exciting thing to be able to be out there with him and to have that shared memory. I was there when he got his magnificent eland, I was there when he fired his shot, I saw it come out of the air and go down. I had the privilege of being there and knowing exactly how it was. Now I understand when he talks about the people, the animals, the places, the adventure. I close my eyes and remember what it felt like to have the sun in my face, the wind in my hair, binoculars hanging around my neck, just waiting for whatever’s going to come next. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.
“I have to go back and get my kudu. I’m counting the days.”