National Geographic : 2014 Dec
154 national geographic • December 2014 “Fifty baguales, if they can get them,” I said— so money, of course, but also something harder to define. Mum got on the phone. She reminded me that she’d dragged me along on her cattle raids when I was a child, rustling cows on the Mozambique border during the Rhodesian bush war. “I re- member,” I said. “I was very brave.” “Rubbish,” Mum said. “You were a wimp.” I could hear Dad in the background interjecting that if I survived the bulls, there were a couple of crocodiles in the fishponds I could wrestle if I liked. The goggles might come in handy for that, he said. My parents dissolved in shrieks of laughter. I didn’t pack the goggles, but by the time I encountered a bagual in Sutherland, that turned out to be the least of my worries. The foliage in front of us crashed as if being felled by a bull- dozer. “Find a tree,” I’d been advised. But before I could move my horse, the bull pitched into view. Even with 30 dogs at its ears and heels, ripping at the soft flesh below its tail, the animal still seemed indestructible and bent on wreaking havoc. The bagualeros were nowhere in sight. The bull stood its ground, flanks heaving. It ap- peared to be taking stock. Anyone who thinks it’s foolish to ascribe emotions to animals hasn’t looked into the eyes of a baleful feral bull. I turned my horse up a bank toward a stand of trees. As a child I’d spent hours in the branches of a muscular flamboyant, where I had felt both invisible and more powerful. But I had long ago lost that magical thinking, and this bull looked more than equal to any tree I could get into, even if I scrambled up from the advantage of my saddle. “ The bulls will charge you,” I had been warned. “So climb high.” The night before, Abelino Torres de Azócar, a 42-year-old bagualero of inhuman ability and unflappable dignity, had told us a story from a long-ago expedition. “I don’t know if this bull was the devil, or what,” Abelino had said. “We placed traps, we shot him, we stabbed him, but he would never die.” One night the bull came into camp and attacked the bagualeros where they slept. “We heard branches breaking, but we didn’t have time to escape. The bull destroyed the whole tent with us inside it. We were covered in cuts and bruises.” At the time I had recognized the story as the sort commonly told around southern African campfires to pass the hours between supper and sleeping bag. The appeal of these stories— a missionary’s brother trampled by an elephant, a professional hunter shot by his own client—lies partially in the assurance that the misadventure won’t happen to you. But now this story did seem to be about to happen to me. Tough people had raised me to be uncomplaining and stoic, but unless tested, it’s hard to know the limits of your courage and endurance. Sebastián had assured us a ferry would come to Sutherland to collect the baguales, the dogs, the horses, and us, but it had been a difficult ride in. Instead of a day or two, it had taken a week, the vegetation having grown back with seem- ing vengeance since Arturo’s day. “We’ll get to Sutherland tomorrow,” Sebastián said more than once. But the horses kept trying to turn around, slithering on the rain-slicked ground. Twice a “Find a tree,” I’d been advised. But before I could move my horse, the bull pitched into view, flanks heaving. It appeared to be taking stock. Alexandra Fuller’s latest book, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, was a New York Times best seller. Photographer Tomás Munita lives in Santiago, Chile. This is his first Geographic story.