I am 67 and there are days when I seem to hear the ticking of Father Time’s clock especially loudly. All those things they told me would not be possible after 40 have been a reality for many years and the cliche, “old age is not for sissies” no longer wrings a wry smile from me. I have discovered they are all true and I am not sure yet whether I fall into the sissy or non-sissy category.
In my forties I thought that, if I remained fit and strong enough to hunt until the age of 55, as I always have, on foot, carrying my own rifle and able to keep up with the professional hunter and his tracking team, day after day, every day, on a long hunt, I would be well satisfied and prepared to curtail my current hunts in favour of less strenuous ones. But I’m not.
I confess I have been less than gracious in accepting that my knees have more miles on them than most ’48 models and the knee specialist says I require major surgery on the right one. The back I broke in two places after the machan collapsed in Tanzania has healed well but it is not what it was before the accident. At 6 feet 2 inches and weighing 200 pounds, I am not exactly overweight, it’s just that the distribution has changed along with my shape and I now take pills daily to control diabetes, cholesterol, gastric reflux and an arrhythmic heart beat.
So, is it all over? Is my hunting to be confined to comfortable game ranches with unstressed small game? Is there anything I can do to extend my innings? Or do we older hunters have to accept the inevitable effects of anno domini and retire ‘gracefully’?
I suspect that, for each of us who asks these and similar questions, there will be slightly different answers and I have a shrewd idea that they will depend upon a person’s passion. On how much you really want to hunt the way you always have.
In my case, I have tried to box smarter. For example, I do not listen to my body before I start my daily exercise routine or else I would probably never do any but I do listen to my body while I am exercising to prevent myself aggravating an injury. To take the pressure off my knees and hips I use a rowing machine and, when I run, I do so on a well sprung running machine using good quality running shoes with special orthotic inserts designed to support my feet, ankles and knees.
I have found that I lose condition faster than a speeding bullet and I take forever to regain fitness. If I am prevented from exercising (usually due to illness or injury) and gain a pound or two, that seems to become my new base weight unless I work extra hard to lose it. The answer seems to be to never stop exercising but, if I have to, I re-start slowly. In my impatient youth, I often injured myself by trying to regain fitness too quickly. Better to start slowly and increase the exercises incrementally. If any muscles are stiff the next day, it’s probably because I am doing too much too soon.
When I hunt these days I let a gun bearer or the baggage man carry my rifle and my rucksack. I stop for regular, short rests – roughly ten minutes every two hours works well for me. Longer than this seems to allow my muscles to cool down too much and I find it is difficult to get going again.
I drink lots of water. If it’s hot – and I perspire a lot – I add a re-hydrate to my drink to replace lost body salts. When do I know that I need this? When water no longer satisfies my thirst and I have no energy even after a good, long rest.
During these short breaks I also eat a small snack that I have packed in my rucksack. I suffer from Type 2 diabetes and these snacks are an important part of keeping things under control. On the one day I forgot to take along my rucksack we ended up walking all day after a wounded giant eland and, by 18h00, I was so far gone that, every time I tried to swallow the non-existent saliva in my mouth, it felt as if my tonsil were being ripped from my throat. My hands were also dancing to the beat of a hidden drum and, had we come across the eland then, I would have been incapable of making the shot. Never again!
After a series of long, intensive days on the tracks, I have learnt to take time off to rest and recuperate properly – both physically and mentally – usually by no later than every seventh day of the hunt. Some hunts can be mentally taxing and I have often said, for example, that, if you hunt an elephant with your feet, then you hunt difficult animals like bongo and forest sitatunga with your head. I believe it is important to keep both body and mind as fit as possible, particularly on a long hunt.
I use these R and R times to clean my equipment, write up my diary, take photos of camp life, go for a drive to film game and so on. Pacing myself properly has become increasingly important. I know you cannot shoot anything lying on your camp bed but nor can you when you are injured or exhausted. In addition, lack of concentration due to being over tired can not only lead to a missed shot opportunity but can be downright dangerous when loaded firearms are part of the equation.
Pacing myself also applies to food and drink. I remember sharing a camp in Zambia’s Luangwa Valley with a man who wanted to both hunt and party. On his first night in camp he drank an entire bottle of vodka on his own. The next day he felt terrible. He rose late, missed the best part of the hunting day, became dehydrated and shot pathetically as his hands shook like a country outhouse on a windy hill.
Because I am not as mobile as I once was, I can no longer cover as much ground as I used to. The law of averages says that, as a result, I will have fewer opportunities. Therefore, I need to make those that come my way count.
I believe that what works for us older hunters in these circumstances is experience. I try my best to use it. For example, while the PH is judging the trophy, I get ready to shoot in case he gives the O.K. I find a rest, remove the scope caps, get comfortable, get steady, check that the rifle is loaded, safety catch off and aim. Often you only have seconds to make the shot when you get the word. Standing there gawping at the animal through my binos, my unloaded rifle hanging over the gun bearer’s shoulder, trying to second guess the pro, is not going to win any prizes.
Make the shot count! Call on your experience to remain calm and focused. Go through the drill that you’ve been through thousands and thousands of times before to ensure an accurate shot. Allow your muscle memory to work for you and trust it. You know not to pull the trigger unless you’re sure. You know not to fire unless you can clearly see the precise spot on the correct animal selected by you and your pro. The young or over-excited first timers often forget these things. And, of course, there are only three things you need to do before you go on the hunt: practice, practice and practice in all positions – sitting, kneeling, standing and lying, with and without a rest – at distances from 50 to 300 yards.
I try and hunt smarter. I plan my hunts as carefully as circumstances will allow. Obviously it is better to go to the best area, at the best time of year, with the best professional hunter, than the other way around. In Africa, the best time is usually over the dark moon period towards the end of the hunting season when the grass is low and the water has dried up thereby concentrating the game around the available wet spots. The downside, however, is that it is usually hot and everything that can fly, creep or crawl is usually doing so with the object of removing your bodily fluids in the process. Be warned and be prepared.
One of the few things that has improved with advancing age has been my three Ps – patience, persistence and planning. I am not into spur of the moment hunts for the major prey species I still am looking for. The odd social hunt, yes, that can be a lot of fun but not a major two to three week African safari for an animal I’ve been dreaming about hunting for years and, for example, I paid my deposit on a forest sitatunga hunt in Congo for June 2016 some months ago. Why June when you have just said the end of the hunting season is best? Well, for rain forest game you need to hunt when there is regular rainfall – it wipes out old tracks and makes the game move to open areas to dry out – and this is usually the best time.
My eyes are definitely not what they were and, although I only use glasses to read, this state of affairs will not continue much longer. My eyesight is not only deteriorating but at an ever faster pace. I take two pairs of glasses on safari with me and use the best quality binoculars and telescopic sights that I can afford, plus I take along spares for both. The late Dr. Lucas Potgieter coined the phrase, “only a rich man can afford a poor telescopic sight” and he was absolutely right.
I find however that, as a safari goes on, my eyesight improves. I spot game more easily and am quicker to identify what the trackers or PH point out. I know that this may sound a little over the top but try it and see. I have found that if I actively exercise my eyes before I leave on safari, it helps speed up the acquisition of my “safari sight”. I try and train myself to really look, not just glance at things, as we normally do in our day to day lives.
Being older, I have fortunately passed the stage where I found it impossible to resist each and every newfangled gadget and giftermagoy. My hunting clothes are old, comfortable and worn. My boots fit me like the handshake of an old friend as do my gloves. I carry one small, sharp skinning knife, an all purpose tool, a pair of binoculars-come-range finders and ten rounds of ammo on my person. My cameras, knee pads, rain gear, spare boots and socks and the rest of my kit go in a small back pack or rucksack which my gun bearer carries. I take personal responsibility for training him to remain within arms length at all times unless he leaves the pack and rifle with me.
If I feel my feet becoming hot or developing a tender spot as can happen when, for example, your hunt takes you in and out of water and your water softened feet rub, I do not suffer in silence. I stop immediately and change into fresh boots and socks. Blisters, particularly ones that burst, can put a stop to your hunt at worst and make it very uncomfortable at best.
Another thing that has changed for the better is the amount of discretionary time that I have. I try to use some of it wisely to research and plan my hunts as thoroughly as possible. To properly check the majority of references I have been given and not just one. I am absolutely convinced that careful planning and preparation are the keys to a good safari. In this regard, I have also taken to booking longer, as opposed to shorter, safaris. The shorter a safari, the greater the pressure on you, your PH and his team to perform. The greater the pressure, the greater the propensity for sub-par performance, not to mention the odd catastrophic mistake.
Besides, the remote areas I most like to hunt often take two to three days to reach and, especially if a charter flight is thrown in, the cost of travel can be expensive. The additional expense of an extra few days, even a week, is not nearly as tough on your wallet as having to go back because you did not find what you were looking for. Or, almost as bad, you ended up shooting a poor specimen because you were pushed for time and now it haunts you from your trophy room walls where you hung it to remind you not to make the same mistake again.
If you have been in this situation before, you will know that time pressure detracts hugely from the enjoyment of the hunt. You also start to hunt differently towards the end of a safari when you have not found what you came for. Standards often drop. Shots are hurried. Sometimes the shot on offer is too far, the animal partially obscured or at an unfavourable angle and the result can be disastrous. For me, the only thing worse than a wounded animal is a lost wounded animal and there is nothing, and I do mean nothing, worse than that.
At the end of the day, it is important to recognize that, eventually, we will all be forced to stop hunting, whether we like it or not. I dread the day. To me, however, the most important thing will be for me to recognize when I am no longer up to it. Only I can make that decision. I don’t know yet when that time will come but I suspect it lies just around the corner. Certainly, when I can no longer make clean, quick, one shot kills on a regular basis and I start wounding the wonderful animals I pursue, then it will be time to hang up my rifle and seek solace in remembering the good times, the times that were. In the meantime, by practicing what I preach, I hope to delay the evil hour for another year or three.