I have been reading a book by Justin Cartwright, an ex Cape Town boy now living in London, called The Song Before it is Sung, a fictionalized account of one of the plotters who planned to assassinate Hitler and, after it failed, his terrible end strangled and hanging from a meat hook in a cellar. In the book the main character, Axel von Gottberg, was modelled on the diplomat, Friedrich Adam von Trott zu Solz. On returning to the family property in Pleskow, his wife wrote:
“… I knew that he would enjoy the ride back from the station and a chat with Wicht, the chance to breathe in his beloved landscape, and revel in the sense of arriving back home … catching sight of the house just before the road dips and you are lost in the trees for the final run to the park gates. There are certain places and certain sights in a life that raise one’s spirits. For forty years I have thought of this place every day. And I know that never a day went by without your father dreaming about the lake and the house and the woods. He once said that as soon as he entered the avenue of oaks planted by your great-grandfather, he felt true peace. In fact, I think he felt at peace as soon as he plunged into the lake, which was the first thing he usually did …”
The underlined words rang a bell with me. Many, many years ago I remember being driven up into a part of Bankfontein Game Ranch called Waterbank, which I had never seen, by the man hoping to sell me the property. I looked back and down to the plains below from the slopes of Boesmanskop (Bushman’s Head), at 7 000 feet the highest mountain in the region, and felt this tremendous sense of peace and wonder flood over me. I knew then and there I was going to buy it even if I did not say so at the time.
Waterbank was one of five title deeds that made up Bankfontein, a 3 500 hectare (7 700 acre) property in the Karoo in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province. It was hemmed in by Boesmanskop to the south and the Bankberge (Bench Mountains) to the west and north, forming a deep, deadend valley which was connected to Springbokvlakte (Springbok Flats) below by six big, reinforced concrete box culverts over a dried river bed in which I had never seen water until one fateful week when the Heavens opened and it belted down with sheets of rain for days on end.
By the end of the week we were stranded as the Fish River, which surrounded our home on two sides, with the Rooiberge (Red Mountains) blocking the other two, came down in flood and was completely impassable. I still remember being so thankful that one of our guests, Pete Kennedy, had been unexpectedly unable to make the trip as his appendix burst that weekend and, if he had been on the ranch, he would probably have died as no-one would have been able to rescue him and take him to hospital. No aircraft could fly and no vehicle or person could have crossed the river.
I climbed up the koppie behind the ranch house on the Monday and looked over the huge, flat expanse of Springbokvlakte to the west and it seemed as if it had been converted by the wave of a wizard’s wand into a sheet of glass. It was completely flooded. I remember talking to our ranch foreman, Alfie Borens, whose father, Koos, had been a foreman on the neighbouring property. He said his Dad had spoken about a similar weekend in his youth when they had to cut the internal, barbwire fences to let the cattle float free else they would all have drowned in the paddocks. Fortunately, one of the first things I did after taking ownership was to remove all internal fences and the domestic livestock had long since given way to game.
I remember after the water subsided driving or rather slithering around the muddy roads in my 4×4 Toyota Hilux to check on the damage and the game and arriving with some difficulty at the culverts over the no name spruit leading down from Waterbank. The six culverts that easily supported the weight of a heavily laden game truck, were gone and, apart from the remains of one a few hundred metres downstream, the rest were never seen again!
Waterbank became a place that drew me back again and again and again. It was an imposing valley with high mountains rearing up on three sides. The tree laden banks of the spruit and the folds of the mountains on either side dropping down into the spruit provided good cover for stalking and you had to be peculiarly insensitive not to feel the peace, stillness and quiet of the long valley with all its hidden nooks and crannies.
I would often wander up from the plains below with a rifle over my shoulder and, in time, used a bulldozer to build a circular, dirt track to provide access by vehicle. Many was the time that my wife and I would drive up in the late afternoon after work with a bottle of unwooded chardonnay and a packet of crisps and watch the shadows creep down the slopes to the east and the game on Springbokvlakte, far beneath our feet, as they calmly grazed in the greying early evening stillness.
In fact, we loved this view so much that, once we made the difficult decision to sell the ranch, we commissioned a local artist to paint this very scene and his work hangs in our lounge to this day. And many years before then, when Paul Augustinus, the world famous wildlife artist, visited the ranch, he too was drawn to this place and painted a small herd of Cape mountain zebra, some of those we had been allowed to capture and relocate from the Cape Mountain Zebra Park, at the same spot where Jane and I used to park but minus the wine and crisps.
Despite wandering frequently over the length and breadth of the valley with my .300 Win. Mag., (built for me by Bill Ritchie of Krugersdorp off a Brno action), and up and down its steep sides, mostly looking for signs of previous habitation by the Bushmen that had inhabited Waterbank according to old staff accounts, I think I only ever shot two animals there and guided one young woman to a waterbuck bull. And while I discovered more than one overhanging rock shelter with its roof blackened by ancient fires, I never discovered the coveted Bushmen paintings by these master early hunters that were the real reason for my searches.
I remember both hunts well. Easing over the rumpled ridge sloping down to my left into the spruit, I saw horn tips and knew that, if I carefully eased a little closer, I might just be within rifle range of a small herd of eland. Crawling over the ironstone koppies of the Karoo is not for the faint hearted if you do not have gloves and kneepads but, fortunately, I had learned the hard way over the years and was well equipped.
As I parted the rooigras (Themeda triandra), the high protein grass for which our koppies were famous, I saw my leopard crawl had not fooled anyone but, although the three eland bulls were on high alert, they were unsure of who or what I was on the opposite slope and had not yet converted their slow, ambled browsing on the besembos (Searsia erosa) – the only animals to utilize this bush and just about the only green plant left in the valley after repeated frosts in the depths of winter – into their ground eating jog trot for which they are rightly famous.
The biggest bull, with his short, heavy, baton-like horns, blue grey dewlap swinging gently to the rhythm of his walk, had already started to move downhill and into the ravine. Another 20 paces would take him out of sight and his two younger and slightly smaller, buttery yellow companions looked as if they were going to follow his lead. And then, for some unknown reason, curiosity perhaps, he stopped and looked towards me over his left shoulder. It was enough and, rock steady on the bipod attached to the front sling swivel of the .300, I took the three-quartering shot, aiming for his off foreleg.
The heavy weight boxer of a bull hunched his shoulders, went from naught to sixty in no seconds flat and was lost from sight in the blink of an eye. My IPSAS – Immediate Post Shot Anxiety Syndrome – kicked in and, as I watched the other two eland follow, I was already berating myself for having taken a sub-optimal shot! I needed to walk further up the mountain before I could cross over to the opposite slope but eventually followed downhill on the bull’s freshly gouged tracks. He had not run far, about a hundred meters or so and I found him stretched out on a small plateau, a few feet down from the top of the ridge upon which he had been standing.
It was going to be a longish walk back down to the entry to Waterbank to fetch the bakkie I had left camouflaged by an eight foot high, dense besembos, then a 16 km drive to fetch the staff to help me recover the bull but, as I stood up, I saw the wildebeest.
I am not a big fan of wildebeest meat. Unlike the wonderful, fine grained eland meat which, if shot, butchered and hung properly, cooks and tastes like A-grade beef, wildebeest meat is often stringy and tough, although it makes decent biltong and dried sausage. But this bull was a different kettle of fish. I had hunted for him without success on a number of occasions. He was a monster with good horn spread and, within seconds, the decision was made.
It was cold enough that the eland would not spoil and, within half an hour or so, I was climbing the opposite slope and keeping a wary eye out to avoid silhouetting myself as I carefully eased over the top of another ridge using a besembos again as cover. Then I was crawling, then slithering, then I ran out of cover completely. The shot into the vital triangle flowed smoothly and, as I recovered from the recoil, I was in time to see the bull vault over a low growth of shrubs to his front and disappear downhill and out of sight.
Tracking has never been my strong suit and, in the ironstone rock strewn Karoo – some of our hunters used to complain and say that the Karoo’s most prolific crop was rocks – and without a blood trail, I was almost lost. The tracks, however, led clearly to the low growth of shrubs the bull had vaulted but there was nothing on the other side in the direction I could have sworn the bull had been charging. What to do? Go for help.
The only available staff member left to help – the rest were recovering the eland – returned with my wife who had accompanied us to lend a hand. We walked through the thigh high shrubs and then worked back and forth in the direction the bull had been heading down the hill. Nothing. We walked as far as the spruit casting our net ever wider. Nothing. As the evening shadows lengthened, I was at my wits end. I don’t know what possessed me but, on returning to the original low shrubs, I wandered off at right angles to the bull’s flight path and there he was, a hundred metres or so away, stretched out on his side as if fast asleep, hidden by the tall grass and Bitter Karoo bushes. Despite the high heart shot and the pool of blood around the carcass, not a drop of blood had dripped off his shaggy, grey hide en route in his frenetic death rush.
Quite unexpectedly, a couple from our church asked me if I would meet with their 15 year old daughter. She had been badly bullied at school by a small gang of nasty girls in her class. So bad was the bullying, which the school could or would do nothing to stop, that her parents removed her from the school and were concerned she might do something terminally stupid. I was both taken aback by the request because it was my wife who was the highly trained and very experienced counsellor and concerned at my own lack of any knowledge but, apparently, the young girl had asked to see me. So began a three year phase of my life where the two of us would meet for coffee on most Wednesday afternoons. In the beginning, I was more than nervous that I would say the wrong thing and trigger something I might regret for the rest of my life but, slowly, talking over each visit with my wife, I began to relax and, eventually, came to enjoy the interaction with the exceptionally smart and sensitive young woman.
She passed her Matric exams well and entered university but some of the old problems emerged and she wanted to quit. What to do? I had previously taught she and her sister to hunt at an early age and so my wife and I suggested they might want to visit the ranch in their mid-year break and come and hunt. The invitation was eagerly accepted and one blustery, overcast Karoo winter’s day found us glassing Bankberge’s slopes from the top of Waterbank. We had already climbed up the left side of the valley along the flanks of Boesmanskop, so named because it was the site of the last pitched battle in the region between a force of soldiers sent up from the Cape and a band of reportedly some 400 Bushmen.
The icy wind that funneled up the valley had driven the game into thick cover and we had had no luck, the changeable direction of the blattering wind making matters even worse. Far down in the valley I spotted a small herd of waterbuck which, for some reason do very well on Bankfontein and our past clients had shot some exceptional trophies. “Do you want to try for them?” I asked my young hunter and received an enthusiastic nod from her.
Down we went into the covering growth on either side of the spruit dividing the valley. When I judged we were nearly opposite where the game had been, we climbed carefully up out of the dry river bed. There they were, much higher up the slope, about 300 metres and three quartering away from us. Keeping besembos and shrubs between us we closed the distance on a parallel course to them, the normal rumble of ironstone rocks beneath our feet hidden by the rambunctious wind battering the bushes, shrubs and grass.
Keeping a watchful eye over the rest of the herd to see none suddenly turned and spotted us, we kept an eye on the big bull that had caught our eyes from the head of the valley. When we were within what I judged to be about 150 metres, I found a flattish spot, cleared the worst of the rocks and set up my wife’s 7×57 Brno on its bipod and allowed my young guest to slide in behind it. As she snuggled the stock, I checked the line of fire. Oh, oh! Wrong bull! Quickly correcting that, I put her onto “our” bull.
After the preceding days on the shooting range, we were both confident she could do the job and the confidence was not misplaced. The fine bull dropped in its tracks and the beaming face of the young woman was ample thanks for a tough but rewarding day on Waterbank. And no, she did not drop out of university and, this year, will complete her B.Sc. Honours degree. Waterbank worked its magic!
Even today, years later and after selling Bankfontein, if I battle to sleep, if I am worried, if something is bothering me, I close my eyes and think of this magical place. I see myself at the foot of the valley and, in my mind’s eye, step by step, climb the first fold of land leading down from the shoulders of the Bankberge and start looking for the vaal rhebok that inhabit this part of the ranch. My shoulders drop. I relax. I am home. For me, there definitely are “certain places and certain sights in a life that raise one’s spirits”.