Soon after buying our game ranch 20 years ago, I knew I wanted, no needed, a horse. Although it had been many, many years – 29 to be exact – since I had learned to ride as a teenager at Miss Blackwell’s stables in Plumstead, a suburb of Cape Town, I had romantic notions of using the animal of my dreams as a hunting horse. I had been ruined by those Malboro cigarette adverts and could picture myself and the handsome horse of my dreams high up in the Karoo koppies looking out over the vast plains of Springbok Vlakte. In my mind’s eye I could see myself standing next to him, my trusty rifle in a scabbard in front of the saddle, holding the reins loosely with my left hand while I drank the last of my bitter, black, manly, sugarless coffee out of a battered, metal mug with my right hand, the glowing embers of a small, smokeless fire at my feet as the sun edged over the eastern horizon.
Reality met romance when I bought Soldaat, a huge, ten year old, trained, gymkhana gelding, from my neighbour, Danie van Rensburg. The day I bought him, Danie took me on a test ride up the steep slopes of Spitskop on his farm to see whether Soldaat and I would get along. He had been a riding instructor in the South African Defense Force in his youth and, ever since, I have remembered him explaining that the art of riding was about keeping a horse between you and the ground. "Nothing bad happens until you hit the ground, so don’t" he said. "It doesn’t matter how undignified or silly you look. Grab onto anything that you can get a hold of – the horse’s mane, neck, part of your saddle, it doesn’t matter – just do not fall off!" he continued in his gentle but firm manner. Almost immediately I was required to put his advice to the test as, on the way down, a couple of low branches under which Soldaat and I were obliged to ride, threatened to sweep me off his back. I have followed his advice ever since and, to date, have never fallen off Soldaat’s broad, aircraft carrier like back.
And it was important advice. In the ironstone strewn environment of the Karoo koppies and mountains, any sort of fall could and probably would be a bone breaking experience. If you fell and hit your head, the end result could be even worse. So it was that for Christmas that year, my wife bought me a modern, hard shell riding helmet which, with its matt gray colour, looked for all the world like the head gear parachutists wore in the Second World War. I remember my dear old mom asking me at the time what it was for. The devil in me replied that, as I needed to parachute into the Central African Republic for my forthcoming bongo hunt, I was obliged to wear such a helmet. "Oh, my dear boy" she exclaimed, "Why must you do such silly things? Think of your poor wife and young children." And then, before I could answer, I could see by the expression on her face that an even worse thought had crossed her mind. "How," she asked in wonder, "Are you going to return?" When I explained that I would wear a harness, rigged to a wooden tower which allowed an aircraft trailing a hook to hitch me up and wind me in, I knew I had gone too far as she whirled around and urgently called my father for assistance.
Yes, Soldaat was a huge horse. A huge, gentle, smart and well trained horse. So smart and well trained that, in the beginning, I think I frustrated him terribly until he taught me. In the beginning, I wanted to show him who was boss. I tried to steer him, every step of the way, to my destination. There were times, before I learned, that he would stop and half look over his left shoulder at me as if to say, "I know where we are going, just leave me alone to find the best possible route." I think his irritation was compounded by the fact that he had a very soft mouth and needed to be led with only one, light hand on the reins.
At the outset, I tried to book some riding lessons purely to learn how to look after him. How to saddle, brush, curry and care for him as opposed to learning to ride all over again. In order to do this, however, I had to sign up for a beginner’s riding class and found myself in a weekly class with four newly married, young women whose husbands were all keen horse riders. None of them seemed too keen on the sport but seemed to have reluctantly agreed to have the lessons more to please their spouses. Everything went well until we changed instructors. Our new teacher decided we needed to learn how to balance on our horses. We had to sit with our legs crossed over our horses’ necks and trot in a circle around our training paddock. When the second young woman bit the dust to loud wails of anguish as much, I think, to impress her husband who had just arrived, as out of pain, all the woman abandoned the course and I waited in vain for new recruits so that I could carry on with my lessons. This never happened and, by then, I had already decided that there was no way I could spend a day in the saddle, posting up and down, as I was being taught in Johannesburg, as opposed to my normal farm riding style where I either slouched in the saddle at a walk or moved with the horse when he cantered.
In those days, my family and career took priority and there were many years in which, if I spent two weeks on the farm, it was a lot. My neighbour undertook to look after Soldaat provided he could be used on farming duties and this seemed a good idea to me. It was only when I took him back some nine years ago that I discovered how stupid I had been. My staff told me that, whenever any job needed doing, it was always Soldaat that was roped in and not my neighbour’s horses. He was regularly ridden all day, over rocky ground, without any horse shoes for protection. The frog, or the soft inner part of his hooves, were seriously damaged as a result and, although at first we thought he might recover with rest, he never did.
Yes, I still rode him over the less rocky plains and he would always carefully choose a path over the sandy bits. Yes, he still liked to gallop from the farmhouse down to the river when we set off on a ride and, when we crossed the selfsame river on our return, he loved to run full bore over the old, soft, sandy lucerne lands on his way home. I forgot to tell my new son-in-law to be, accidentally on purpose, of this habit of his and I have the clearest picture of Troy, out of the saddle, arms flapping, hat gone, hair blowing in the wind, eyes bulging out of his head, as Soldaat tore passed the farmhouse en route to his paddock.
For a number of years Soldaat went to live with a friend of mine who kept quarter horses near Somerset East. Some five years ago, John brought Soldaat and his own beautiful, pitch black stallion, Sparkles, to the farm in a double horse box so that we could ride together. I couldn’t help but notice how Soldaat seemed to be taking note of his surrounds as we rode. His ears were constantly pricked, his head move from side to side and I was sure that, despite the long absence, he recognized various parts of his old stomping grounds. Now Soldaat has always been an extremely obedient horse. Not slow and placid but keen to please and do as I asked. When the time came to leave, we naturally wanted to move Soldaat into the horse box first to set a good example for Sparkles who could, at times, be a little fractious. To cut a long story short, no matter what we tried, no matter what force we applied, what inducements we offered, including his all time favourite, apples, he simply would not enter that horse box and, in the end, we decided to leave both horses on the farm for the time being.
And that is where the two old friends remain in their retirement to this day. I confess that, for the last three years or so, every time I have returned to the farm after an absence of some months, I have immediately gone looking for Soldaat. He must be close to 30 years old by now and I dreaded the time when I would not see his familiar big, dark brown shape amongst the springbok, blesbuck and black wildebeest that are his constant companions, along with Sparkles and a new addition, Sandra, near the dam and windmill that they have chosen as their home. On the few occasions when they have wondered closer to the lucerne fields near the farmhouse and I have not initially seen them, my heart has sunk and I’ve not been able to rest until I have found him. On one occasion this took nearly three days and, during this time, I could not concentrate on anything else.
Soldaat is almost the same age as another good friend of mine. 32 years ago, on my 30th birthday, I bought my first big game rifle as we understand the phrase, "big game" here in Africa. It was a Brno, de luxe. 375 H&H and it cost me R550,00. To begin with, it was very rough as many Brnos were in those days. I was advised to take it to Bill Ritchie of W.J.C. Richie Gunsmiths in Florida near Krugersdorp. What a good bit of advice that was. Bill and his assistant, Vince, were Brno fans and, for a very reasonable fee, they converted this crow bar of a rifle, as rough as a bear’s bum, into a wonderful working weapon which has never let me down in over 30 years in the field. They smoothed the ramp, lapped the lugs, polished the bolt, replaced the set trigger with a Timney trigger and a two and a half pound pull, floated the barrel, reinforced the front sling swivel to take a bipod and gave me back a first class firearm which not only fitted me perfectly and shot an inch group at 100 metres but an inanimate object which has come as close to being a good, loyal and reliable friend as any animate object could ever be.
Most of my friends in those days used 30-06s, 7x57s, .308s and 270s, including myself but I think I was the first one to acquire what we all thought of as a serious, big game rifle. In the beginning, and before I became used to it, the difference in recoil between what my friends called Big Bertha and my 30-06 was so great that I thought I had made a big mistake. That was until I noticed the difference in performance out in the field where it really counted. The animals I shot seemed to go down much more quickly and this was particularly noticeable on our first trip to Namibia where four of us each shot a number of gemsbok for meat and biltong. In fact, it was on this trip that I crossed the Rubicon insofar as the .375 was concerned, helped in no small measure by my friend, Derek, who said half jokingly, half in admiration, as another good gemsbok bull bit the dust, "Enough now. Put that thing away and give the rest of us a chance."
I was still too young, however, to appreciate what a I had acquired and, as my finances improved, could not resist buying a whole variety of firearms. The same applied to all the gimmicks and gadgets with which I festooned my hunting belt and person and I look back on those days with a wry smile when I think how I have almost gone full circle. All that I carry now is a Swiss army combination tool, a soft, waterproof ammunition pouch which holds ten cartridges, a combined skinning and gutting knife and my rifle. To all intents and purposes, I have become a one rifle man although it is true that I still use a .300 Win.Mag. and .416 Rigby (both made for me by Bill and Vince many years ago) for those long shots at small game and close shots at thick skinned game, respectively. Having said that, however, I always take along my .375 as well and, if I had to choose only one rifle of all the ones that I have owned, including some very fancy, top quality, English double and magazine rifles, there is not the slightest doubt in my mind which one it would be and I am not the only one.
A few years ago I was hunting with Nassos Roussos in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley for lesser kudu. If I edit out all the excuses, what remains is the simple fact that I, firstly, missed a magnificent bull four times in a row on the opposite slope of a thickly wooded valley and, secondly, then ran out of ammunition for the .300 Win. Mag. I was using. But, true to form, Bertha was also there and, with my very first shot, I luckily killed the same bull which miraculously had given me a fifth and final shot at the foot of the valley some 240 meters away. Nassos, who by this stage had long since stopped talking to me, took the rifle out of my hands, cradled it to his chest and said in his thick, Greek/Cypriot accent, "This is a good one. I clean it and keep it in my tent. You only use this one from now on."
Some years ago I thought that Bertha’s end had come. Metal residue from a bullet had encrusted the rifling at the end of the barrel and nothing I, my gunsmith or gun shop could do was able to remove it and the rifle was hopelessly inaccurate. A local manufacturing company came to the rescue, re-bored the rifling, re-machined the crown and returned my favourite rifle to me in a state which, although marginally less accurate – Bertha now shot one and a quarter inch groups at 100 metres – was still more than serviceable. According to my best estimates, I have fired about 5000 rounds through the rifle as regular practice has become an essential part of who I have become as a hunter and the many shots I have regularly fired on the shooting range, often one after the other, have probably not helped to conserve the barrel.
Each year when I take my rifle in to be serviced at the end of the hunting season I wait with increasing concern to hear the outcome. Is there some hairline crack somewhere that I have overlooked? Is the rifling at the end of its tether? Thus far the barrel has been re-blued three times and the stock refurbished twice. For the last three or four years, each time I’ve taken the .375 into the field I cannot help wondering whether this is going to be my rifle’s last hunt. And so, in a way, Bertha, Soldaat and I have become inextricably interlinked in my mind. After my second heart operation in eight months, I guess the question must be which of us is going to bite the bullet first. Obviously, if it’s me, that’s the end of the matter but I cannot help wonder if it’s one of the other two, whether that will be the sign for me to draw my hunting career to a close as well.