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Local man finds adventure in Africa

An Ellsworth man, who put money aside for years and invested it to pay for his dream trip, enjoyed the adventure so much he went again.

While his 2005 trip to South Africa included both photo and hunting safaris with his wife and another couple, this summer Pat McLaughlin went back alone for two weeks to hunt the seven animals he wanted to fill out his collection of mounted heads.

McLaughlin, 60, said he began saving $10 a month in 1984, hoping to some day afford an African safari. That wouldn't have been enough, but McLaughlin said he invested the money and the investment "turned out really well."

In 2005, he, his wife Edee, her sister and sister's husband spent several weeks in South Africa going on photo and hunting safaris and sightseeing.

The trip, the country, the people and the animals were amazing, said McLaughlin, a retired funeral home director.

"You don't have to have a telephoto lens," he enthused, going through an album of pictures he took himself. "They don't tell you (the animals) get that close to you."

Sometimes "that close" is too close for comfort.

On one expedition headed for a river, the guide motioned for them to look, whispering "don't move, don't talk."

He was pointing at a leopard.

"It was 36 inches from my wife, and we had walked right by it," said McLaughlin.

"And then we found it can leap 14 feet from a dead stop," he said. "That really introduced us to Africa."

The safaris were led by professional hunters, who are a breed apart, said McLaughlin.

He explained professional hunters, "PHs," are licensed and regulated by the government.

"Not every Tom, Dick and Harry can be a PH," said McLaughlin, comparing them to FBI special agents. Most, he said, are British, Danish or Welch.

Much of the land is privately owned and the PH arranges with the owners for hunts. In exchange, all the meat--except what is eaten by the hunting party that day--is turned over to the landowner.

The hunters can take home the horn, heads and hides.

The 2005 trip included a side trip to Zimbabwe for a photo safari.

"They don't drive in Africa. They don't have any infrastructure, so you fly," said McLaughlin of traveling. He said each time the party went to another area, they went back to the airport in Johannesburg.

Last year, McLaughlin brought back 10 trophies.

"I'm a big conservationist," he said, insisting he wouldn't shoot an animal that is endangered.

"The problem in South Africa is there are too many (of some animals)," he said. "They are overrun."

Animals that are plentiful include kudus, elephants and impalas, he said.

On the first day out, the party saw a herd of 150 impalas. While the Americans were impressed, the PH dismissed the size of the herd.

"He said they're like squirrels," said McLaughlin.

He was at first skeptical of the professional hunter's suggestion it would be a challenge to shoot a zebra.

McLaughlin said he wasn't sure he wanted to kill anything without horns and thought zebras would offer no challenge. But he was wrong.

"They're mountain animals, and you can't see them," he said. "They're invisible.

While people usually think of zebras as black and white, they're more brown and white and blend into the foliage, said McLaughlin.

When the head tracker spotted eight zebras on the side of a mountain, McLaughlin couldn't see them even with binoculars.

"He said, 'Why they're standing out there in the open by those trees'," recalled McLaughlin.

This past June, he headed back to South Africa with a list of animals he wanted for trophies.

"Everything went perfect," said McLaughlin.

"I shot this incredibly monster kudu this year," he said. While it made a good trophy now, it was an old animal and probably wouldn't have lived another six months, said McLaughlin.

This year, he also shot a white wildebeest, a white blesbok, a male gemsbok, a duiker, a steenbok and a red hartebeest.

Again, the meat stayed in Africa.

African grocery stores sell venison the way American supermarkets sell beef, said McLaughlin. Hamburger is made by mixing two-thirds kudu meat with one-third lamb.

"There is no wild taste to the meat. It's delicious," said McLaughlin. "Wildebeest is as good as any black registered angus in this country.

"I fell in love with the country," said McLaughlin. "It's a beautiful country, but it's screwed up in some ways."

Since the end of apartheid in the 1990s, blacks are no longer confined to particular areas and as many as 200 may live on a large ranch, where the landowner is required to provide food and jobs for them.

But, said McLaughlin, segregation is very real.

"Blacks are talked to like in the 1800s--like slaves," he said. But while blacks and whites won't share a meal, while McLaughlin was there a ranch owner and his wife traveled to the city to stay with a hospitalized black ranch worker.

"Blacks won't sit at a table with whites," said McLaughlin. "It's not acceptable and they won't do it."

He said visiting South Africa is an experience he's glad he has had--and one he plans to repeat if he can.

McLaughlin had every bone on the left side of his body broken in a 1990 motorcycle accident. He survived and walked again despite warnings he might not, but he is in constant pain.

He said he rationalized the most recent trip, saying in another five years he won't be able to travel that much.

"Maybe this is the last trip I'll take," he said. But then he rethought that statement: "Maybe next year will be the last trip."