It was 1961. I was 13 years old. We were in Knysna for Christmas and staying at the Beach House Hotel near the Knysna Heads. When the tide came in, you could jump straight into the sea off the hotel’s concrete veranda. When it went out, acres of greyish sand were exposed and it was here I met a group of young girls. How I summoned up the courage to go over and say hello I will never know but, somehow, I found myself sitting amongst the attractive group and, before I went back to the hotel that afternoon, they invited me to a party in someone’s garage that evening.
The girl I fancied didn’t fancy me, which was fairly typical and I ended up dancing with a slim, trim, blonde haired, sharp featured girl, whose name has been permanently erased from my hard drive. As the evening drew to a close, she asked me to walk her home and, on arriving at her front door, to my absolute amazement and surprise, she grabbed hold of me and kissed me. Properly. It was my first kiss by a female outside my immediate family and I had not the faintest idea what to do, especially as I suddenly found her tongue in my mouth.
I genuinely can’t remember how things ended but I was so embarrassed by my ham fisted behaviour and inexperience, I avoided the group of girls for the rest of my holiday and I am sure I caught them sniggering at me more than once when I walked past in the distance.
Since then, embarrassment has become and remains one of the emotions I like least. I mean who likes to feel stupid, awkward, self-conscious or ashamed, particularly when it is caused by your own behaviour? So, when embarrassed, my first instinct is to put distance between myself and the situation/person causing me to feel this way. Worse still, the feeling of embarrassment changes me and, being a shy person to begin with, turns me into a complete introvert, a characteristic from which I find it difficult to escape.
It was 2000. I was 52 years old. I was in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley for the first time, hunting lesser kudu after a failed safari for this elegant, founder member of the spiral horn club in Tanzania, where I made the mistake of buying the safari from a young South Africa PH who had promised much and delivered less than nothing. I was also after Abyssinian greater kudu, Abyssinian bushbuck and other plains game from the region but lesser kudu was my priority in the Omo, followed by mountain nyala in the Munessa forest, south east of Addis Ababa, in a few days’ time.
I was hunting with that doyen of the Ethiopian professional hunters fraternity, the famous and iconic Nassos Roussos, at 56, at the peak of his not inconsiderable powers. I was not inexperienced but in awe of the man ever since he interviewed me over breakfast at a SCI hunting convention to find out whether he would take me on as a client. His outfitting business, Ethiopian Rift Valley Safaris (ERVS), was then fully booked for three years in advance and I had waited a long time for my first of four safaris with he and his son, Jason, one of, if not the, top, young, African PH.
Prior to this important hunt, I had trained really hard, running and cycling almost a hundred kilometres a week and gyming every morning. I was fit, which was just as well as the hunts were conducted mainly in the Wollatey Hills in the middle of the Valley and, when you were not climbing up the steep, thigh burning hills, you were trying not to lose your footing on the slippery downhill bits, plus in December that year it was hot. Really hot. So hot that, at night, it cooled down to the mid to high 30s and the only way to sleep was to stand in the shower in your PJs – running shorts and a T-shirt in my case – with your bed sheets and a towel. You then spread the sheet on the bed, climbed onto it, spread the towel over you and hoped you fell asleep before the towel dried. Of course, once it did and you woke, the best thing was to repeat the shower, wet sheet, wet towel trick.
I had also spent a lot if time practising with my new, custom made .300 Win. Mag., built by the late ‘Silver’ Bill Ritchie using a Brno action married to a Walther barrel and a 2 ½ pound Timney trigger, set in a hand carved stock, which fitted like a Saville Row suit, and topped by a 2.5 x 10 Zeiss scope. I had taken my old, deluxe, customised Brno .375 topped with a 1 ½ x 6 Zeiss Diavari Z scope along as a back up but did not think I would use it much as most of the shots were from one valley wall to the next and 300 metre shots were going to be the norm, or so I thought.
We had battled to find game in the Valley primarily because the hunting concession, which the government had leased exclusively to ERVS for 35 years, had been invaded by cattle and goats owned by local politicians and no-one in authority was prepared to take steps to remove them. The livestock were everywhere and the kudu had moved away from the riverine areas up into the hills and, even there, we found the livestock and their herders whistling, shouting and generally clambering and clamouring around. Nassos was a ball of impotent fury and, to be honest, I was not overjoyed myself.
On this morning when, as usual, we left the little Suzuki 4 x 4 jeep, in the charcoal grey of early dawn, Admasu, the chubby, friendly and helpful game scout, picked up my soft gun bag with my .375 and two ammo slides, while I carried the .300. Or so I thought. It was a long, sweaty, tortuous uphill slog to the top of the hill – more mountain than hill to me – we stopped and I waited for the sweat to dry so it didn’t steam up my 10×40 Leica Geovids and glassed the opposite slope until it felt as if my eyeballs were being sucked from my head by the binos. Nothing. Down the other side and repeat the exercise over the next set of hills and then the next.
Nassos didn’t seem to perspire and was never even out of breath, despite puffing on his pipe intermittently throughout the day. He was a machine. I was in awe of the man although, during the hunt, we hardly exchanged a word. And then, like the army, where there were days, weeks and months of boring repetitive work interspersed with moments of sheer terror, suddenly, the lesser kudu bull was there with his small harem of cows.
I’ll start making the excuses in advance. The bull was at the top of the opposite hill in amongst thick bush and shrubs. He was like a lighthouse – now you saw him, now you didn’t. I ranged the shot at just over 290 metres – 297 as my memory serves me. What made the shot more difficult than usual was that the ground we were on sloped steeply away beneath our feet and there was no suitable rest. The bipod attached to the reinforced front sling swivel of the .300 was ineffective, both because I could not lie behind it, the slope was too steep and because, even when fully extended, when the feet of the bipod rested on the ground, I could not crouch sufficiently low behind it to bring the animal into focus in the scope. This was a major blow!
So, nothing for it but I to shoot off my knees. In order to sight through the scope, however, I not only had to scrunch down low over the scope but had to elevate my knees by pushing up with the tips of my toes. Not a very stable arrangement and, to cut a long story short, I missed the shot. The bull, a real beauty, disappeared from sight into one of the thickets that dotted the opposite slope before cautiously poking his head out to see what the noise had been all about. I missed that shot as well and the next two, all the time pushing the bull fortunately lower and lower down the opposite slope and not over the brow of the hill, in which case it would have been good night Maryanne.
This was beyond embarrassing. Nassos stopped talking to me after the second miss. In fact, he ignored me and spoke about me in the third person to the trackers and Admasu. “He miss again!” “You think he can make this shot, hmmmm?” “No, I don’t think so. We wait. Maybe he give an easier shot.”
To make matters a lot worse, after the fourth shot, I asked Admasu for my ammo belts as the magazine of the .300 was now empty. He had not brought them as usual. So, all I had now was a 22 year old, battered .375 loaded with four 270 grain, PMP cartridges.
I was so embarrassed I had almost given up caring. How could I have been so stupid not to check that Admasu had brought the ammo belts? How could I have missed four shots in a row? I was past wondering what Nassos was going to say when we returned empty handed to camp. I had stopped worrying what the trackers would think of me, whether they would even bother to work for me in future seeing as I could not hit the proverbial bull in the arse with a base fiddle!
Everything was going from bad to worse. Adsmasu had also left the soft gun case with my .375 at the previous glassing spot believing that we would have to return that way. Another thing I had not noticed. So, we waited. Me in embarrassed and humiliated silence for him to go and fetch it.
In the meantime, the lesser kudu seemed to have become tired of people taking pot shots at him and had disappeared. Admasu eventually returned and handed the .375 to me. I checked the magazine – four rounds. I dared not ask Nassos what we were still doing there as he and Degino, the head tracker, were totally engrossed in their binos. Originally, I thought it was to avoid having to speak to me but I was wrong.
We sat like that and glassed for what seemed like an hour or more. Eventually I heard a murmured exchange between Nassos and Degino in Amharic and he motioned me over without looking in my direction. He pointed down to the bottom of the Valley, which I measured at 260 plus metres. “You see that round shrub”, he pointed. “The bull is in there. When he comes out, shoot him. He is a good one.”
Given that the bull was now below my feet, the angle of the shot was much kinder. I didn’t have to scrunch down over the rifle nor point my toes – altogether a much more comfortable position – although I did rest the rubber feet of the bipod on my Hitec boots to lift it a few inches. Even so, I almost dreaded squeezing the trigger and being greeted by another groan from Nassos but that was what I eventually did. To his and my amazement the shot from the .375 travelled through both the lesser kudu’s shoulders and pole-axed him. Down he went never to so much as twitch again. I don’t think anyone, including me, could believe what had happened. Nassos turned to me and said, “Give me that rifle, I will clean it for you tonight and keep it in my tent. From now on you use that rifle and only that rifle. You understand?” And he was as good as his word. Every night, my .375 went to bed in his tent.
An Abyssinian bushbuck fell to the rifle on the last morning in the Omo Valley just before the charter aircraft arrived to ferry us back to Addis Ababa and, before that, accounted for all the plains game I wanted except Neumann’s hartebeest and Abyssinian greater kudu, both of which had to wait for other safaris. More importantly, I think I had redeemed myself in Nassos’s eyes.
What interested me about myself was that, although I had been severely embarrassed by my own behaviour, I did not walk away from hunting like I had done previously from other situations when I was embarrassed. In fact, over the years, hunting has been a greater source of embarrassment than any other activity of mine and then by a quantum leap and yet it has remained an abiding passion. How can that be?
I think the answer lies in the fact that, for the most part, the person that has caused the embarrassment has been me and I have been able to apologise where my conduct has negatively affected someone else. Secondly, mainly through hard work and practice, I have been able to avoid making the same embarrassing mistake a second time. Isn’t that what Stephen King once said, “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me!”