When I booked to visit the Imperial War Museum in London with my grandson at the beginning of the year, inadvertently I became a member and now receive their interesting newsletters. This month they had an article on camouflage and wrote as follows:
“During the First World War the proximity of opposing trenches and the advent of aerial photography made detecting enemy troops far easier. Armies on all sides needed new ways to see without being seen.
The pioneers of such techniques were the French, who were the first to create a camouflage unit in 1915. Camouflage comes from the French verb ‘to make up for the stage’ and practitioners were often called ‘camouflers’.
The British were always learning from the French and elected to set up a camouflage unit of their own. The unit was part of the Royal Engineers and was named the Special Works Park, an act of camouflage in itself.
Those with artistic skills such as sculptors, architects, artists and set painters were recruited for this new unit. Those with practical skills such as metal workers and carpenters were also enlisted.
By this time, the war on the Western Front had become bogged down into a stalemate. To break the deadlock, allied soldiers needed to be able to see the enemy and read their movements.
The solution was the camouflage tree, a fake piece of shrubbery with an observation post hidden inside. This would allow allied soldiers to monitor enemy movements from a concealed elevated position.
Putting the idea into practice, however, was extremely difficult. Enemy observers would be watching for any changes on their front line. For this reason, the fake trees needed to be identical to those they were replacing.
To ensure an identical replica, artists were required to sketch the target tree under cover of darkness. These sketches were turned into small models from which the full-size trees were produced.
Installation of the trees was even more difficult, with the original tree being cut down and replaced with the replica. Artillery fire had to be deployed to hide the noise. Once in place, the trees would remain in position for months, or even years … Yet the camouflage tree was just the beginning. As the war went on, many more ingenious designs grew from its roots.”
I remember attending a hunting show in Johannesburg and passing a store offering hunting clothing. A ghillie suit was at the entrance, which people passed without paying much attention until the person hidden in the suit stretched out an arm and grabbed a passerby. The effect was usually dramatic as the person grabbed levitated in surprise with much vocal accompaniment.
As a walk and stalk hunter myself, camouflage has always been a major topic of research, discussion and practical application over the years. What biologists once called ‘concealing colouration’ has existed for aeons in nature. Predators and prey both require it in their deadly hide-and-seek. The aim of camouflage after all is to alter the enemy’s perception, and the aim of deception is to affect their action: to make them do something – either the wrong thing, or perhaps just nothing.
As most of my hunting was initially in South Africa during the dry winter months when the veld was dry, desiccated and predominantly full of dull tans and browns, I wore regulation tan khaki shorts and shirts.
Then there was the phase where it was alleged that animals could not distinguish blue from green and an array of blue camouflage hunting clothing, which supposedly rendered hunters invisible to their prey, was introduced and became fashionable for a while. Personally, I was never able to find the research which scientifically established that animals could not make out blue clothing against a green background and wrote it off as a fad. I mean, if that was the case, why were there no blue animals? Besides, I could not help feeling slightly ridiculous walking through the veld dressed in the only blue, other than the sky, for miles around.
Grey was another good colour and our southern mountain reedbuck and grey rhebuck were invisible on the mountainside when still, lying down or even when grazing peacefully. And there were lots of other grey or greyish animals such as duiker, kudu and waterbuck to name but three.
Being a game rancher for some 20 years, I knew that our staff in their olive green khaki overalls were almost invisible in the veld when stationary and, personally, I settled on olive green khaki long sleeve shirts, longs and a cap (with a fold down neck cover modelled on what the German army wore in North Africa), plus gloves and a buff which I could pull up to cover my lower face leaving only a thin strip of skin visible between the peak of my cap and below my eyes. Initially, I had cartridge loops sowed above the breast pockets of my shirts until I realised how the ends of the bright bronze cartridge cases gave the game away, especially on sunny days.
More important, I believe, is the pace at which I walk through the bush and I have complained more than once to guides who set off at a cracking pace. I explain to them that, firstly, at this pace we are more likely to bump game than catch them unawares and, secondly, it is pointless arriving at alert game with me breathing like a runaway steam engine and unable to make a single, sure, kill shot, at least until my breathing settled.
It is almost axiomatic that your best chance when hunting is for you to be still while the game is moving, usually early in the morning or late afternoon. Next best is when you are both moving and the worst hunting situation is when you are moving and the game is still and usually watchful for one reason or another.
There was a time when I was in the midst of a southern greater kudu hunting phase and could just not connect with the big, plus 53 inch bull of my dreams, when I began to wonder whether they could read my thoughts or picked up the vibes of my intentions. I began to try and camouflage my thoughts by actively thinking about game other than kudu while I was hunting, simply because when I was not hunting them, I seemed to see them everywhere but, when I was, then nary a one. Sounds silly I know but desperation calls for desperate measures. As one of my Afrikaans friends says, “Angstige katte maak snaakse spronge (Anxious cats make strange leaps)”.
And have you not found yourself looking up for no apparent reason into the eyes of someone watching you who, of course, usually immediately averts their eyes. Various thoughts have gone through my mind on such occasions but the one that persists is, how did I know that person was looking at me? What visceral signal did my sub-conscious pick up and where, when and how was this developed and how much stronger might it once have been? And are more primitive animals not possessed of such abilities only far more acute? To know and help them escape, for example, when a stalking lion is closing intent on a kill and possibly emitting all sorts of aggressive, mental, lion signals.
I have also read that the contrary applies. That by trying to appear insignificant, not making eye contact, not adopting an erect and active posture and wearing dull coloured, worn, inexpensive and ordinary clothing, we can blend into the background, not attract attention and avoid standing out. It is why the unprepared students in my lectures at business school often hold their heads in their hands looking intently at their text books and refusing to make eye contact, especially when I am asking them about their pre-work. Of course, this is a dead give away and they are exactly the ones I quiz.
And yet most game does not seem that smart. I remember walking over the undulating, open Maasailand plains, all but devoid of cover other than knee-high, blonde grasses, with the late Nicky Blunt. Nicky called this a psychological stalk. We walked quite openly, swinging arms, talking and at a tangent to a herd of Grant’s gazelles. Of course, the game here was used to Maasai wandering the plains without bothering them and so it helped to carry a stick (to take the place of a spear), and wear red tartan cloth over your shoulder. Psychology entered the picture when judging when to stop. Too soon, the shot might be too far. Too late, and the game might run off before you could shoot.
The trick was not to try and move too close but to stop as soon as you were in range. You then needed to take the shot as the game became restive and usually moved off within seconds of becoming aware of your stationary and unnatural scrutiny.
No time to chamber a round, fiddle with the magnification of your scope, remove lens caps or argue about which animal you should shoot. All this should have been decided well before hand, including whether you were going to shoot lying down, sitting, kneeling or off sticks. The best was to shoot off sticks as you could move into position quicker and with the least amount of additional movement.
I followed Nicky’s instructions to the letter and was rewarded with a relatively easy 200 metre shot and a good representative ram.
Of course, camouflaging the fact that you were a human being and pretending to be something else could also be effective and Nicky also showed me how to imitate an ostrich with the use of an umbrella and a walking stick to represent the long neck and beak. Crawling on all fours, fossicking around and pretending to be a warthog – instead of walking hunched over, which fools no-one – can also help close the distance to your prey.
Nicky would construct a shield using local grass over a wooden frame and walk behind it towards game out in the open but warned me not to do this with the sun shining directly from behind as the shield then looked like a black or dark shadowed blob which, in turn, bothered the game. Walk into the sun if possible, he advised, as the shield’s colour then blended in with the surroundings.
We drove down from our camp high on a hill overlooking the Dati Swamps on the border between Ethiopia and Sudan. The swamps stretched as far as the eye could see and was predominantly home to East African buffalo – still called Nile Buffalo in those days – waterbuck and hippo. It was drizzling slightly and the trackers carried umbrellas as we proposed to hunt regardless of drizzle or rain.
Once down amongst the thick stands of papyrus, hidden rivulets, mud and hippo channels, the hunt started to take on a new dimension of difficulty I had not expected when glassing from the hill. And when I levitated the first time a buffalo leapt up and stormed off out of the papyrus a few metres to my left, my attention meter scorched into the red and remained there as this was not an isolated incident.
As the drizzle turned to rain, my guide, the hugely experienced and likeable, Jason Roussos and I nicked umbrellas from the trackers. Just as well as, moving to the edge of a huge papyrus stand, we could dimly make out a herd of buffalo through the dense fronds. What to do? Too far and too screened to make out individual animals, we would have to move closer and expose ourselves.
Leaving the trackers behind, we used Nicky’s ostrich trick even though there were none around. I walked close behind Jason, both of us out in the clear now, each carrying a big, open, black umbrella parallel to our bodies and facing the herd with which we were closing at a tangent. They stood in a halfmoon, some moving away uneasily before returning, some snorting and stationary. They were clearly curious. Unsure of who or what we were. Certainly, they did not see the round black apparitions as humans else they would have headed for the hills.
We stopped at a little over a hundred metres from the herd. I quickly sat on the sodden ground and shot off my knees at the shoulder of the biggest of three bulls standing three-quarters on towards us. Although the bull ran off and gave us a few anxious minutes, we found him in amongst a thick stand of papyrus, stone dead, about 150 metres away.
On another buffalo hunt in Benin with my friend and arguably the top French PH in Africa, Christophe Morio, I watched him imitate a buffalo’s call and stop a herd of red and black coloured West African buffalo belting towards the safety of the Pendjari National Park up against the Burkina Faso border. Not only did the herd stop at the calls but they walked back directly towards Christophe. In the end, only the thinnest screen of reeds separated me from a mature, reddish brown cow. I was hyper alert, my 30 year old Brno 375 H&H in the nook of my shoulder, the 1 ½-6×42 Zeiss Diavari Z scope on the minimum setting, with the crosshairs stapled to just above her nose, safety off and finger tightening on the trigger. One more step by the cow and a 300 grain Norma solid was going to be whistling towards her brain. This was way too close for me and but for Christophe’s regular assurance, I would long since have either retreated or killed the cow. To my huge relief, with a snort, she swung away and rejoined the herd some paces further back and, eventually, they wandered off their original flight forgotten. Phew! Big, deep breath! And again. So, can sound be camouflage?
Yes, because Christophe said he could only call buffalo when there were cows and calves in the herd. He believed the cows thought he was a calf they had left behind and returned to find it.
The worst give away for us pale males is our skin colour, especially when hot and covered in perspiration, which makes it shines like sun off a windshield. It is for this reason I wear long pants, long sleeves, gloves and a buff even when hunting in the Sahara Desert.
The late Derek Todd, on the other hand, an expert and superb specialist greater kudu hunter, would hunt bare foot, in shorts, T-shirt and hat in the dead of winter. He would toughen his feet by running bare foot on tar roads and then soaking them in methylated spirits. He would liberally smear stripes over all his exposed body parts with camouflage sticks, including his face and hands.
He was an incredibly effective hunter as the number of massive kudu shoulder mounts on his home and office walls testified and, if you have read his article in Hunting the Spiral Horns – Kudu – The Top African Trophy, you will have learnt how he often stalked to within a few paces of kudu bulls blissfully unaware of his presence. If the bull was not to his liking, he would often take mischievous delight in tapping softly on his rifle and revealing his presence to the unsuspecting kudu. I have seen some photos taken with his small, point and press camera and it is hard not to believe that the look on some of the bulls’ faces were not ones of startled and complete disbelief at Derek’s close and previously unnoticed presence.
Then again, it is pointless for you to be well camouflaged but your hunting companions to be dressed inappropriately and, for example, predominantly in the games’ danger colour i.e. white or off white clothing. Why white? Well, apart from the fact that it is most easily visible in the bush, have you noticed that, when game turns and runs, how often it is the white of the underside of their tails you see flaring or the white on their rumps or even, in the case of serval cats, the white stripe across the backs of their ears, which may or may not help their young offspring follow them through long grass or reeds.
Equally obvious is that, if you are hunting from a blind or other stationary view point, then you are able to go to far greater lengths to camouflage yourself and the position from which you intend to shoot. Over the years I have helped camouflage many leopard and lion blinds with the trackers and guides. An important thing to remember here is to make the blind look part and parcel of the surrounding bush but to cut the bits used for camouflage far enough away from the site that the noise will not unduly disturb your prey, which may well be lying up within listening distance.
What can speed up the process is by having the basic structure ready to hand, for example, in the form of hessian side panels and poles. Another thing to remember, especially if you are able to shoot after dark, is something to cover the roof of the blind because, on moonlight nights, the reflection from hands, heads and weapons seen from above, such as a leopard might see from the bait tree, will make you stand out like the proverbial dog’s family jewels.