Lieutenant General Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell (1857 to 1941), later first Baron Baden-Powell, collected more honours from his own government and others than many people have had hot breakfasts. He is well remembered by South Africans as the man who held off the Boer forces during the siege of Mafeking during what the British call The Second Boer War but which my grandmother, who detested the English, referred to as The Second Freedom War because, as she correctly pointed out, it was the English who started the war to steal the diamonds and gold of the two Boer Republics and not the Boers (literally meaning farmers in the Afrikaans language), who started it.
Amongst his many achievements, the rest of the world probably knows him best as, not only the founder of the Boy Scout movement – the first scouts’ camp was held in 1907 – but, with his sister Agnes, the man who also founded the Girl Guides. It is the motto of the former that is known throughout the world – Be Prepared!
I was being driven from the undulating, grass landing strip, delighted not to have lost my breakfast after an extremely bumpy, low level flight from Arusha to the Serengeti, with my PH, Nicky Blunt, who looked quite as green as me after the landing. My luggage and gun case were in the back of the Landcruiser driven by our hunting camp manager, Carsten Heger, and I was so grateful to be back on solid ground in one piece that, I confess, I was not concentrating.
The rolling plains of Serengeti unfolded past the sparkling clean windows of the vehicle like an old fashioned silent movie and, as my friends would have said, my mind was in outer space and my bum in neutral.”
And then I saw it! “Stop, stop the car!” I yelled at Carsten who seemed totally non-plussed by my shouted instructions. “What, what?” he queried as he slowed but did not stop. “Stop the car” I repeated loudly. “Look at that!” I exclaimed, pointing out the window at the biggest impala ram I had ever seen. “But it’s only an impala. It measures about 27 inches. You are going to see many like that,” he added nonchalantly.
At the time, there were three subspecies of impala recognized by Rowland Ward’s Records of Big Game – Aepyceros melampus petersi (the Namibian black-faced impala, minimum 20 7/8 inches); Aepyceros melampus melampus, (the Southern impala, minimum 23 ½ inches); and Aepyceros melampus rendilis (East African impala, minimum 26 3/8 inches). While I had shot decent, Rowland Ward quality Namibian and Southern impala, I had never laid eyes on a proper East African one and the unworried ram now sauntering away from the Landcruiser’s dust was the biggest by far that I had seen alive to date.
But even had I wanted to hunt it, my rifle was snug in my locked aluminium gun case in the back of the Cruiser with the bolt removed and its ammunition in a separate locked suitcase. I was not prepared. I had been taken unawares. And not for the first time either. When was I going to learn that wildlife did not obey the practices and habits of us humans. That they marched to the beat of a different drum and one that I could not hear unless and until I caste off human, urban ways and started to try and live and think like an animal.
My worst such experience was on my first western bongo hunt in CAR. It was late afternoon. We had been hunting steadily on foot since dawn and were now wearily trudging back to camp, still a good few hours away. As far as I was concerned, the hunt was over for the day. I had the plods. My head was hanging, eyes focussed on the ground and putting one foot in front of the other. I was not alone and the rest of our hunting crew – PH, head tracker, assistant tracker and baggage man were all gobsmacked. A few metres after entering the bako – which simply means forest in the local Sango language but is used by French PHs to describe a finger of forest on either side of a watercourse extending into the savannah – a bright searchlight of sunshine illuminated the dramatically beautiful, tan, black and white head of a bongo drinking at a tiny rivulet meandering through the bako. I can still clearly see the diamond drips of water falling from its muzzle.
Antoine, our assistant tracker, extended a long, sinuous, tightly muscled arm holding my .375 by the barrel. I took it from him in slow motion not daring to look at the bongo. Agonisingly I eased the bolt back inch by painful inch and flicked a glance at the magical animal. Miraculously, it was still there, a mere 70 paces away, watching in amazement at the human still life tableau frozen into immobility in front of it.
I held my breath as I eased the bolt forward and nearly had a nervous breakdown at the metallic sound of steel bolt on brass. It was too much for the bongo and, in one elegant, sweeping movement, its head turned converting its body into a curl of cashmere and then, faster and faster, its powerful haunches hunched once and, with a flick of its white undersided tail, flowed into the thick, enveloping, green on green forest understory. Gone!
As the bolt closed, I heard the PH behind me hesitantly say, “I think, I think it may be a female,” which did much to cushion the crushing disappointment and total embarrassment at being caught so unawares. What an amateur mistake! The PH might have been right but, as the days unfolded, I became increasingly concerned that this might have been “my” one and only bongo as, back in those days, before the advent of hunting with dogs, the chances of a successful bongo hunt were round about the 50% on a 21 day hunt. Over the next nine, fruitless days I vowed repeatedly not to lose concentration, not to lose focus ever again when hunting. I had been taught an invaluable lesson – things, both good and bad, could happen at any time while hunting!
One of my first and blessedly few, totally unexpected and near terminal experiences was while being poled mid-morning down a hippo trail in a mokoro through Botswana’s Okavango Swamps. It was a very narrow opening and the boat brushed the feathery capped reeds on either side. The sun was out. It was a wonderfully warm day winter’s day. Blue sky. No clouds or wind. God was in his Heaven and all was well with the world. I felt good. Relaxed. At peace. Delighted to be hunting in what I still think of as the eighth wonder of the world.
I was wearing my normal swamp hunting gear – baseball cap, T-shirt, elasticised gym shorts and running shoes without socks – holding my Brno .375 with both hands between my legs while resting my forearms on my drawn up knees. Suddenly, something fell onto my arms. To my unspeakable horror, I looked down on the sinuous, greeny-grey back of a six foot long serpent – I thought it was a green mamba judging by my close-up view of its coffin shaped head – that had fallen out of the trees or reeds that we were brushing past. The snake was quite as startled as me. Its head was up at a 45 degree angle, mouth parted and it did not move.
I wanted to fling the mamba off me – I knew the snake bite kit was back at camp a good three hours away – but could not move. I knew if it bit me, I was a dead man. I was completely paralyzed. So much so that I could not speak. My friend, Johann, sitting behind me, dined out on the story for years and swears I turned a parchment white colour but, throughout the whole exercise, he never uttered a sound or made a move himself. It was only when the snake relaxed, coiled itself down my left arm and leg and left my body that my lips could form words. As the snake slithered between the legs of the man poling in the bow, I yelped a warning. Silly man! Bayete, our poler, immune to paralysis, leapt from the smooth bottomed boat, which promptly capsized and we all ended up in the water together, snake and all!
One of the first times a wild animal showed me its uncanny ability to appear as if from nowhere, without fuss, bother or alerting noise, was when culling as young boy. I had been lying out in the 3 000 acre camp for over an hour. I had seen nary a sight of the horsemen meant to be moving the springbok and blesbok in the camp towards the culling guns. I had grown tired of peering through my binos trying to make out any game movement and rested my head on my arms for just a moment, or so it felt, when something woke me from my reverie. Maybe it was just a change of air, a rustle of the Bitter Karoo shrubs that surrounded me, a pebble rolling over against another but I looked up. There they were, conjured up out of thin air, a mere 30 to 40 metres away. They were looking back the way they had come, a herd of about 30 springbok, alert but relaxed in my presence. I was taken completely by surprise. My borrowed Brno .243 lay on its side, its barrel resting on a shrub to keep it out of the dirt, its magazine full but no cartridge in the chamber. I had thought that, given the flat, open terrain, where the highest bush was the calf length Bitter Karoo shrub, I would have lots of time to prepare myself for their arrival, heralded no doubt by the presence of the herding horsemen. No such luck!
I tried the slow motion recovery of the rifle and tensed as I eased the bolt ever so slowly backward wincing at the inevitable metal on metal sounds. No good. The movement and sounds immediately alerted the buck and, by the time I closed the bolt on a round, the springbok were skittering away in a tight bundle to the opposite side of the huge camp. I had not been prepared.
I remember unloading my rifle as the camp came into sight after a long futile morning on eland tracks, which we lost at a large waterhole amongst a plethora of other game tracks of various species which had come to drink during the course of the night and early morning. I was tired. The pre dawn rusks and strong black coffee had long since worn off. My blood sugar was low, my concentration not what it should have been, as I had not yet learnt to take a snack along in my rucksack. I had the plods.
The soft finger clicks of my Venda tracker took a moment or two to enter my consciousness and I looked up to see him pointing. My eyes followed the point and I eventually made out the radar dish ears, moist black nose and questioning eyes of the kudu bull peering at us through a white thorned Acacia horribilis. Never venture, never gain and I tried the old silent loading routine again with little or no expectation that, once it was completed, the bull would still be there and, of course, he wasn’t. Only the tracker’s accusing stare, far more expressive than words, told the sad story. I was not prepared. Again!
As I became more experienced, I stopped making some of these amateur, elementary mistakes but each new hunting environment brought its own unique challenges. For example, I learnt not to pull logs out of the wood pile for the nightly fire with my bare hands – scorpions seemed to really enjoy these places and came out to hunt at night. I learnt to shake my boots out in the morning before putting them on to avoid being bitten like my friend was, the late Don de Keiffer. I learnt not to walk bare foot over the well swept, sandy camp surrounds to avoid jiggers laying their eggs, which developed into black worms under the skin and, even more painfully, under toe nails. I learnt to check the camp staff had ironed my shirts with a hot iron to kill any fly laid eggs on their warm, moist and inviting surfaces. I learnt not to drink water on a hunt unless it had been boiled and filtered if I did not want to waste days laid up with jippo guts. I learnt to take a medical kit with me containing all those remedies that, like Caltex CX3, worked for me. I can go on and on.
Probably the most important lesson I learnt over the many years of African hunting on literally scores of safaris across 19 African countries for all the animals recognized by Rowland Ward’s Records of Big Game and available on licence at the time, barring some nine in total, is that things can change quickly and frequently when hunting in the huge, unfenced wildlife habitats that still remain in Africa and usually in ways and at times that are completely unexpected. When we hunters are fortunate to spend time there, we need to tune out our often urban lifestyles and tune into the rhythms and life of the bush and its inhabitants.
And the corollary to this, is that we need to realise we cannot dial a buffalo or rent a herd unless we are prepared to engage in those horrendous canned killing exercises that still masquerade as hunting.