I’ve seen Africa with my own eyes. Three times, now, I’ve journeyed to the Dark Continent, and each trip has left an indelible image burned into my brain, a scene seared into my soul. I’ve seen carved-from-stone crocodiles on the banks of the Sabie River standing guard like gray gargoyles over muddy brown waters. I’ve watched warthogs bang heads in the Pilanesberg Game Reserve. Maybe the most enduring memory I have of Africa is the tufted tail of a teenaged lion silhouetted against an insatiable sunrise in the Kruger National Park.
I saw Africa first, though, through the eyes of another. Bob Eckles hunted all over the world and made multiple safaris to the Dark Continent, but he always returned home to the ranch he owned in Hughes County, Oklahoma, where so many of my memories were made. My dad killed his first whitetail on Eckles’ place, as did my brothers and I and countless others. A year ago, Bob returned to the ranch for the last time. He died last August.
Everything about Eckles fostered adventure in the heart of a young boy. Hats didn’t hang from hooks in Bob’s house; they hung from the horns of rhinoceros. Four wheeling Land Cruisers never hesitated to test the limits of verticality with Bob behind the wheel, and a BBQ lunch was flown in on Bob’s helicopter every year on Opening Day of Oklahoma’s rifle season.
Eckles continued to stoke that fire of adventure through the years when he’d stop by our deer camp, our deer camp on his ranch, to eat a bowl of my mom’s venison stew and drink a cup of my dad’s coffee. The stories told around those campfires were truly legendary. Bob once shared a sundowner with Hemingway near the Ngorongoro Crater. Both were hunting elephants; Ernest with a camera and Bob with a rifle. We never heard who found them first. On another safari a few years later, Eckles sat while others stood, at the whispered insistence of his professional hunter, when a man walked into the bar surrounded by muscles and machine guns. Bob said if he’d have recognized the man as Idi Amin, the infamous Butcher of Uganda, there was no way he would’ve stayed seated.
Eckles probably wasn’t the kind of role model parents choose for their children. Not my parents, at least. He didn’t have to be on safari to enjoy a sundowner or two, and he was the first man I ever met that could stretch a four-letter word across three syllables. But he’d take us out to eat on Saturday nights and order me the biggest steak on the menu just to see if I could eat it. And he’d waste boxes of ammunition making tin cans dance with a pair of pearl handled revolvers, all so he could watch my face light up.
So here’s to those who share their adventures with us. And here’s to the landowners that graciously allow us to chase our dreams across their fences. Here’s to Jimmy and Danny and Larry and Cory and Kent, to John and Julie and Chandler and Brooke. And here’s to Bob Eckles. May his hunting grounds be happy ones.