If you had told me when I was growing up that, one day, I would be asked to make the keynote address at the annual dinner of the South African Hunters & Game Conservation Association; I would not have known what you were talking about. You see, no one in living memory in my family had ever hunted. In fact, no one in my family, in living memory, had ever owned a firearm, despite the fact that my Dad and all my uncles fought in the Second World War for six years.
If it hadn’t been for farming friends and the Afrikaans boarders at my school, SACS, in the Cape, I might well have followed in their footsteps and my life would have been so much poorer as a result because hunting has shaped my life. It gets me out of bed every morning to exercise so I can be fit enough to hunt. It dictates the books I read, the art I buy, the places I visited, the things I do and the friends I make. Without hunting, my life would have been a pale shadow of what it was, is and, I hope, will continue to be.
But, when I looked back with the crystal clear vision of hindsight, I see that, over the 56 years I have been hunting, I have trodden a well-worn and almost predetermined path established by the thousands and thousands of hunters who have gone before me and who have gone through what I have come to recognize as the five phases of a hunter.
In the beginning, during the first phase, all you want is for the big people to give you a chance, any chance, just so long as you can hunt anything, anywhere, any time. Those were my pellet gun days and, to be honest, I was a callous, little bastard and shot any bird that moved regardless of whether I could eat it or not, although the kransduiwe that were my main target did make a delicious pie. I simply didn’t know any better. I did not belong to a hunting association like this and no-one taught me any different except my one young farming friend who told me that kwikstertjies were royal game.
For me, the key to the second phase, the one that really opened Pandora’s box, was my maths master, Mr. Vlok, who coached our high school shooting team which, in those days, provided the majority and, in some years, all the members of the Western Province schools shooting team. Most of the members of our team were borders from the Karoo and it was their invitations to their family farms in the July holidays and the springbok shoots organised by their parents and friends during this time that gave me my first real opportunities to hunt and hunt regularly. I say “hunt” but, of course, what we were really doing was lying in the veld, culling springbok driven towards us by farm staff on horseback but, in those days, I did not know the difference between culling and hunting and I can honestly say that I never heard any reference to hunting ethics of any kind until I was in my late teens and even then it largely just confused me.
It was around the dinner tables in the farmhouses that I first heard of men hunting animals such as kudu and vaal rhebok on foot, on their own, in the hills and mountains and I could hear by the way they were discussed that there was something different about them. “Hulle was die ware jagters” and people spoke about them with a hint of awe and respect in their voices. So, as I grew older and the novelty of culling wore off, I started to ask if I too could be given the opportunity to hunt on my own.
Ever so slowly, the number of different species I had hunted successfully began to grow in number but it was not until I moved from Cape Town to Johannesburg that things developed more rapidly. I became friends with three other young hunters and we would take turns to organize hunts. Typically, we would leave Johannesburg late on a Friday afternoon, drive to our destination, hunt all day Saturday and Sunday morning, then handle the meat and hurtle back home in time to dispose of the pre-ordered carcasses of the animals we had shot – friends getting the head and neck shot carcasses and the rest those that had not been shot so well. Yes, although I was more and more interested in hunting different species in different habitats, I was still, at heart, a meat hunter because it was the healthy, cholesterol and anti-biotic free meat that funded my hunting and provided the biltong, droe wors and fresh venison we and our friends loved to eat.
The third phase of my hunting began in my late twenties. By now I had hunted most of the more common species of plains game and my friends and I talked incessantly about raising the bar and hunting buffalo. Eventually, we settled on four buffalo packages offered by Londolozi in the Lowveld and, after much training, shooting range practice, reading every hunting book we could lay our hands on and talking to anyone who professed to have any experience in hunting buffalo, we set off on our first major hunting adventure. My friend, Derek Carstens (the recently retired director of marketing at FNB) and I, hunted with John Varty. I would like to say that his reputation as a film maker was matched by his ability as a professional hunter but it wasn’t. He was absolutely hopeless and not only shot and wounded a buffalo unnecessarily, but instructed me to shoot a small, 32 inch, young, soft-bossed buffalo which, had I known then what I know now, I would never have dreamed of shooting. Nevertheless, the massive, mouth drying, heart thumping, adrenaline rush was something I had never ever experienced before and, after the hunt, all I wanted to do was experience it again and again and so, for at least the next 10 years or so, my hunting was dominated by buffalo and, even after the initial obsession began to fade, I still carried on and hunted all five subspecies of buffalo over and over again.
They also gave me a glimpse, for the first time, of my fallibility as a hunter and my vulnerability as a human being. In the mid-eighties, drought ravaged the Lowveld and I was asked to help with the culling program on Timbavati – not because I had developed into an ace hunter with sharp shooting skills but because I was a good friend of the chairman’s son. Even when it comes to hunting, it is often more important who you know than what you know! We started by helping to cull some 300 impala a month and, when that was no longer enough, we were instructed to move on to buffalo. In one day I shot six out of a herd of 13 bulls and it was the last one that gave me my wake up call. The colours were already beginning to change as I shot the bull behind the shoulder. I had been on the go since five o’clock that morning and was tired, hungry, thirsty and thinking more about an ice cold beer than paying attention. It did not occur to me, after the bull tripped over a log and fell, that it had gone down much quicker than any of the others. Secondly, I did not wait for the obligatory half hour but walked up to it quickly from behind and, carelessly shot it in what I believed was the brain but which was, in fact, only the boss. I then compounded my initial errors by failing to reload my .458 and, in my fourth and nearly fatal error, walked around the front of the bull, crouched down and spread my hands out to admire his huge, 43 inch spread. It was then that the bull opened his eyes.
I have no clear recollection of what happened over the next few seconds other than that I found myself up a knob thorn tree minus my rifle and minus a lot of skin from the inside of my knees and elbows, shaking like a country outhouse on a windy hill and looking down at the back of the bull as it rested its head against the tree trunk.
By now, I had begun to make a little money and, one of the first things I did, was buy myself a stainless steel, 7 ½ inch – don’t forget the half inch – barrelled, Ruger Red Hawk .44 Magnum, which I wore in a harness around my shoulders, as I had developed a deathly fear (after all the books I had read), of being knocked over, losing my rifle and having to face something which wanted to stand on me or chew me, without a weapon at my disposal. It took me quite a while to bring my shakes under control and, when I did, I shot the buffalo five times in the back of the neck and shoulders with a weapon I thought could stop a runaway freight train but which had no noticeable effect on the beast beneath my feet. I have never bothered to take a handgun with me on a hunt since and my beautiful Ruger has sat unused in my gun safe for over 30 years.
The bull eventually died at around 21h00 and I eventually found my way back to camp in the early hours of the morning but my tracker took three days to return. When I asked him why he had taken so long, he said that it had taken him two days to stop running and one day to hitch hike back.
The buffalo eventually led to other members of the Big Eight, the Five we all agree on plus hippo, croc and hyena but, to my amazement, I started to hanker for something more, something I could not even explain to myself.
Not having a relative or even an experienced friend to guide my hunting, I read avidly and particularly books by the early hunters such as Selous, Bell and Taylor and I started to develop a wish – a need – to visit the areas where they had been, to see what they had seen and hunt what they had hunted. But it was a book by one of the early East African white hunters, J. A. Hunter, that finally pushed me into the fourth phase. I remember reading that, over the course of 30 years, he had tried to hunt a bongo in Kenya but without success. What amazed me was that someone as expert and experienced as him could hunt anything for that long without success and, secondly, I had absolutely no clue what a bongo was. I had never heard of such an animal. Up until then, I thought that bongo was one of the many corrupt and incompetent dictators of a small West African country who flew his barber in from Paris once a week accompanied by a bevy of call girls.
What I did learn about the animal, however, amazed me and I inhaled everything I could lay my hands about these big, beautiful, bright tan members of the nine species of spiral horns. I have never trained so hard, for so long, for any hunt before or since. In the last month prior to the hunt, I was running 48 kilometres per week, cycling a further 48 kilometres per week plus daily gym exercises and fortnightly practices with my .416 Rigby on the Durban Deep shooting range. After tracking a solitary bull for 10 days and sleeping on his tracks on the ground, in my clothes, without food or shelter on the ninth night, I shot the bull through a tree trunk on the morning of my tenth day on the tracks. I lost 22 pounds on the hunt but I gained a belief in myself. A belief and hope really that, if I kept on in this way, one day, I might become a good hunter.
And so I entered the fourth phase. I hunted, like many before me, for those rarities of Africa. Those animals that were rare, not because they were few in number but because they were challenging to hunt and rare in hunting collections. The bongo hunt had also taught me that, what I lacked in natural, in born skills and talent, I could, to a large extent, make up for with the four Ps – practice, preparation, patience and, most importantly, perseverance.
But, when I look back at many of those hunts for amazing animals such as Lord Derby’s eland in CAR – it took me 19 days to find my first bull – or mountain nyala in Ethiopia – it took me 33 days to shoot my first one – the word “enjoyment” does not spring readily to mind. I simply put too much pressure on myself and my hunting team to perform. I was on a mission, originally to hunt a member of each of the nine member spiral horn antelope family, then, later, a second member of the same family and, finally, one of all 26 subspecies of the spiral horns available on licence today – only four are not – western giant eland, Kenyan bongo and Shoan and Somali bushbucks. I was driven by a single-minded determination to complete my quest, to prove to myself that I could be the hunter I wanted to become. And, to be perfectly honest, I don’t think I was an unadulterated joy to hunt with in those days either as I drove myself and my hunting team too darn hard. We hunted every day for 21 to 28 days non-stop from before dawn to after dark and I took a secret delight in proving to my professional hunter and his team that I could do whatever they could.
I am not sure exactly when this phase left me. I think it was a gradual progression as I started to realise that hunting was no longer the joyful experience it had always been for me, that I have become a pain in the butt to others and I resolved to change. While I still carried on searching for new hunting destinations and species and subspecies to hunt, I began to realise how blessed I had been in so many ways. From my wife, Jane and children, Lisa, Troydon, Richard and Eileen, who always encouraged me, to special friends who hunted with me, to the professional hunters, trackers and camp staff who looked after me, to my maker and saviour who kept me safe.
At the risk of boring the non-Christians among you, I would like to relate just one such story. That particular Sunday morning, Richard called my wife from Johannesburg and said he felt it was important that they prayed for me and my safety that morning as he felt I was in danger. Later at church, the pastor asked everyone in the congregation to turn to their neighbour and pray with them. When the young girl sitting next to my wife turned to her, Jane asked if they could pray for me. At precisely the same time, I was in the middle of the Cameroon rainforest when, from a mere 12 paces in front of me, the green on green curtain in front of me parted and, out of the gloom, a reddish tan dwarf forest buffalo appeared running full tilt at me and my two companions.
I have no recollection of mounting my rifle. I have no recollection of aiming or pulling the trigger or, as one infamous American professional hunter apparently likes to ask the buffalo at these moments, “How would you like to die?” I do, however, remember seeing the head in my scope and the next moment it not being there. As it was, I missed the buffalo’s head altogether. The shot went through her left ear and struck where the neck meets the body. But for the fact that I was using a .416 Rigby loaded with 400 grain Swift A Frames and dwarf forest buffalo are a third of the size of Cape buffalo, I do not think the shot would have stopped her. When the dust settled, she lay stone dead at my feet, a mere four paces from where I stood.
While I had for some time tried to give back to hunting and hunters a little of what hunting had given to me, whether via teaching youngsters to hunt, contributing to conservation causes, making films about conservation and hunting or writing books and articles on these topics, this fifth phase of my hunting career began to assume more and more importance as I was confronted on almost every hunt in Africa by the wilful neglect of, if not outright intentional damage to, wildlife habitats and wildlife by the corrupt and incompetent governments that, almost without exception, ruled the 17 countries in Africa where I have hunted all but nine of the 129 species and subspecies of game available on licence today.
I began to realise that wildlife and wildlife habitats were in real danger and the future of hunting was threatened not only by these governments but also by the animal rightists. While in the past I had been aware of this latter group, they had been more like an irritating background noise – like a moped buzzing up and down the street outside your house late at night – than any real danger to the peaceful enjoyment of my home. But that is no longer the case.
I produced the documentary, The South African Conservation Success Story, in the hope it would interest and enlighten primarily non-hunters. I started to write, not so much about defending hunting but about promoting it and became unhappy with the lack of a clear and unified strategy by our different hunting organizations and their seeming inability to recognise that they were not so much losing the battle for the hearts and minds of people in South Africa but were not even participating in the war.
And this is largely, I think, how I come to be here this evening because, for a whole number of reasons – and there are a whole number – I have become convinced that SA Hunters is on the right track. It has the right leadership, the right strategy, the right management team and, in my opinion, may be the only hunting organisation in the country that has the wherewithal to do something about it. And there is no time to lose so, the more of you who reach the fifth phase, the sooner the better, because your organisation and hunting in this country needs you. Thank you.