Father, son take trip of a lifetime

Wednesday, September 3, 2008
Mike Haislip and his son, Nathan, went on a safari in Africa recently.

Mondays through Fridays, Mike Haislip leads a pretty mundane existence.

A cost accounting engineer with Calsonic, the most exhilarating part of Haislip's day is battling his fellow Tennessee drivers during the commute from Lewisburg to Shelbyville and back.

But in July, Haislip and his son, Nathan, shared the kind of once-in-lifetime experience that most fathers and sons only dream about.

"Our daughter got a big wedding when she married five years ago," Haislip says, explaining how it all began. "So when Nathan graduated from Tennessee in May, we started thinking what we could give him as a graduation present. Cynthia -- that's my wife -- said, 'Why don't you and Nathan take a hunting trip?'"

When Haislip broached the idea to his son, Nathan eagerly agreed. Asked where in the world he'd like to go, Nathan's first choice was to go grizzly hunting in Alaska.

Reluctantly, Haislip had to squelch that idea. "Too expensive," he shrugs. "Just the permits cost, like, $10,000."

Instead, Haislip suggested they go big game hunting in Africa.

"Just as soon as I said 'Africa' his eyes began to light up," Haislip recalls. "He's really more of a photographer than he is a hunter. That's the way I tried to bring him up -- to enjoy the whole hunting experience and not just the actual shooting. I could tell that just the prospect of shooting photographs in Africa had him excited."

As a lifelong hunter, Haislip admits the idea of going big game hunting in Africa held a certain appeal for him, as well.

"I've hunted since I was old enough to follow after my daddy's footsteps," he says. "And I've always been fascinated by the idea of big-game hunting."

Father and son quickly discovered that hunting in Tennessee differs markedly from hunting in South Africa.

"First off, you have to be accompanied by a licensed professional hunter," Haislip says. "When you contact one of these game ranches, they send you a shopping list of what they have available, and you pick out what you can afford."

The most expensive animals to hunt are what Haislip calls "the big five": elephants, lions, tigers, cape buffalo and rhinos. Smaller animals are progressively less expensive. Haislip chose as his quarry an impala and a kudu: a large member of the antelope family that can weigh as much as 800-900 pounds. Nathan decided he would hunt blesbok and gemsbok, both medium-sized members of the antelope family.

Haislip and his son did not have to be told they were on foreign soil when the plane touched down in Johannesburg. They had only to look out the window.

"South Africa is a very poor country," Haislip says. "I know now why a lot of our churches send missionaries over there the need is just so overwhelming. And you can't help but notice the difference between blacks and whites. The whites have; blacks don't have. It's like two different worlds."

Haislip and his son saw literally thousands of blacks living in cardboard shanties, while many whites barricade themselves in homes surrounded by block walls topped with electric wire.

"I had never seen anything like it," Haislip admits. "It makes you really feel for the people who have to live like that -- and grateful for what we have in this country. It was an eye-opening experience for my son, too."

Once outside the congestion and blight of the city, father and son found themselves awestruck by the beauty of the South African countryside.

"It wasn't jungle where we were. It was mostly mountains and plains," Haislip says. "But there was some truly breathtaking scenery. Nathan was just beside himself. He must have taken literally thousands of pictures while we there.

"We went in July, and our summer is their winter -- so there were no snakes. I was glad of that."

While Haislip and his son might not have had to worry about exotic snakes, they did struggle with another omnipresent feature of the South African landscape: thorns. Lots of them, of a size and ferocity that Haislip had never previously encountered.

"It seemed like every bush had thorns," he says, shaking his head at the memory. "They even have this one bush that has thorns the size of fish hooks -- and are every bit as sharp. When it snags you, you're not going to get away. You're just not. You have to back up and untangle yourself."

Haislip missed his shot at a kudu from nearly 400 yards away and had resigned himself to having a less-than-totally successful hunt when opportunity unexpectedly presented itself. While Nathan was tracking his gemsbock, the hunting party jumped another kudu. The guide gave Nathan the go-ahead to shoot, and he promptly dropped the huge beast with a single shot.

"I've got it all on video," beams the proud father. "It was a wonderful shot he made."

Father and son followed their hunting safari with a photo safari of South Africa's Kruger National Park, renowned for its rugged beauty and extensive range of animals.

"You can't get out of your car," Haislip says. "But they drive you all around and you get pretty close to the animals. I guess we saw just about every kind of animal in the park. Nathan got pictures of all of them."

He even snapped several photos of the angry male lion that let out a throaty roar and charged to within 20 yards of their party.

"Believe you me," shudders Haislip, "that'll make the hair on the back of your neck stand straight up. But it was mating season and he was just trying to keep us out of his territory. So we took the hint and got the heck out of there."

With everything they experienced together, Haislip calls the adventure he and his son shared "the trip of a lifetime."

"You see these animals in zoos, but this was different," he marvels, choosing his words carefully. "It's just a different atmosphere to see them in their natural habitat. I mean, you're in Africa.

"And then to know that one of these days some of these animals are probably not going to be around anymore. ... I was just glad we got a chance to see it like this."

As exciting as their trip had been up to that point, the most memorable part for Haislip, as a father, was yet to come.

"We were at the airport waiting to catch our flight home," he recalls, "when I noticed tears welling up in Nathan's eyes. I put my arm around him and asked if anything was wrong. He said, 'Daddy, you don't know what this trip means to me. ...'"

Recalling that moment, Mike Haislip falls suddenly silent, unable to speak. He is fighting back tears of his own.