For the last many years, I have tried to limit the ‘If Onlys’ in my life with greater and lesser levels of success but, more’s the pity, never entirely succeeding. I think we probably all have ‘If Onlys’ in our kit bags. Some lucky ones have very few and none of them serious but all of us will have some. From the relatively minor, ‘If Only’ I had left home five minutes earlier, I would not have been involved in the fender bender, to the much more serious, ‘If Only’ I had spent more time with my kids and less at work.
Some of my worst ‘If Onlys’ come from my hunting days and those terribly embarrassing, unmissable missed shots or, worse still, the ones that wound the very animals we care so much about. How did I manage to do that?! If only I had waited for my breathing to slow/to find a steady rest/for the animal to stop/been more patient.
In the early days, shooting in front of other people made me nervous and a nervous shooter is an unsettled shooter is an inconsistent one. I think this was partly why I liked to practice alone on the shooting range and sight my rifle in at the start of a hunt in private. Of course, as I started to hunt with professional hunters, I soon found out that the sighting in tradition was the time when your PH and his tracking team assessed how good or bad you were and this could have quite an important effect on how hard they worked for you. If they were confident of your shooting and ability to handle your firearm competently and safely, they often worked that much harder to secure the quality of animal on your wish list knowing that you were unlikely to make a mess of things at the 59th tick. If they felt you were a poor shot, what was the point in breaking their backs if you were continually going to muff the shot.
I found three answers to my nervousness and to try and limit the ‘If Onlys’ – practice, practice and practice some more. It definitely helped and, in the one year I was not able to go through what had become my usual shooting drills at the start of the season – beginning with my silenced .22 and working my way steadily up to my largest calibre, at various times a Brno .458, a customised Brno .460 Weatherby Magnum, a custom made .416 Rigby, an Army & Navy .500 double to a Holland & Holland .475 Royal double – I had a terribly poor start to the hunting season, characterized by unimaginable misses and, worse still, woundings.
This gave rise to some of my worst ‘If Onlys’ and, for years after, the lost but not found column of animals from that year frequently walked through my head in the early hours of the morning and the only good thing about the times they chose was that it was dark and people could not see my deeply embarrassed, red cheeks. I resolved after that terrible year, never to begin a season again without the comfort and confidence that thorough pre-season practice gave me.
I remember the next year being asked by a Lowveld game ranch owner to guide him on a kudu hunt on his own property. It was the end of May, the kudu were in the rut and the big bulls had come out of their hiding places looking for company. Before we set off, I asked the owner whether he had sighted in his bog standard, Musgrave 30-06 and was surprised to hear him say, no. I suggested that we do so there and then. He replied, “I never sight in my rifle before a hunt because, if I do, then I have no excuse if I miss.” If you can follow the logic of his reply, you are a better man than me Gunga Din.
The last verse of Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, Gunga Din, written topically about British soldiers fighting in Afghanistan many, many years ago, reads as follows:
‘E carried me away
To where a dooli lay,
An’ a bullet come an’ drilled the beggar clean.
E’ put me safe inside,
An’ just before he died,
’I ’ope you liked your drink, sez Gunga Din.
So I’ll meet ’im later on
At the place where ’e is gone –
Where it’s always double drill and no canteen.
E’ll be squattin’ on the coals
Givin’ drink to poor damned souls,
An’ I’ll get a swig in hell from Gunga Din!
Yes, Din! Din! Din!
You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din!
Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,
By the livin’ Gawd that made you,
You’re a better man than I am Gunga Din!
But I digress. I was too young, the owner too old, rich and confident and, in my youth, I thought, when in Rome…and carried on with the hunt. Mid afternoon, we bumped a really good bull in a stand of Mopane trees. The sun was behind us and the steady breeze across our front. The bull had other things on his mind and we easily stalked to within about a 100 metres without alerting him. I put the owner against a tree trunk as a rest and watched with my fingers in my ears as he shot the sideways bull neatly in the middle, centre Mrs Venter! After an hour on the tracks he was done and I had to return to fetch his new Landcruiser station wagon before the tracker and I could continue alone and until I made a lucky shot as the bull turned to run in the late afternoon. I wonder if that ever became an ‘If Only” for the owner but, somehow, I doubt it.
As my practice sessions became more regular and intense – sitting kneeling, standing, shooting off sticks as well as the bench, not only did my shooting improve but also my calmness over the shot and my confidence. So much so that, in later years, I was able to practice at public shooting ranges. I’ll never forget the first time it happened to me. I was wearing adjustable, noise cancelling ear muffs, which not only blocked out sound once it went above a certain decibel level but, at the same time, acted as a listening device. Turned up high, you could hear people talking from some distance away.
As I readied myself to shoot and crouched over the concrete shooting bench, I was aware that people were standing behind me. Their conversation went something like this:
“Is dit nie die man wat vir jag tydskrifte skryf nie? (Is that not the man who writes for hunting magazines?)”
“Nee, man, dit kannie wees nie. Hy’s te oud. (No, man, it can’t be. He’s too old)”
“Ja, maar kyk sy keppie. Is dit nie wat hy altyd in die kiekies dra nie? (Yes, but look at his hat. Is it not the one he always wears in the photographs?)”
“Kan wees, maar kyk sy ou kak geweer. (Could be, but look at his old shit rifle.)”
‘Wat is dit? (What is it?)”
“Kannie sê nie, maar lyk na ŉ groot kanon. Ek meen, kyk daai patrone. Jislaaik! (Couldn’t say, but looks like a big cannon. I mean look at those cartridges. Hells bells!”
“Dink jy die oomie kan dit skiet? Hy lyk a bietjie to oud vir my, maar kom ons kyk. (Do you think the uncle can shoot it? He looks a little too old to me, but let’s watch.)”
And so it went on until I fired the first shot from my .416. Then:
“Jitta, wat die fok was dit?! (Hell, what the fuck was that?!)”
“Het jy gesien wat die recoil aan die oomie gemaak het?! (Did you see what the recoil did to the uncle?!)”
And so on until I eventually turned with a grin to the one and asked him if he would like a turn, at which he smiled sheepishly and turned away with his friend.
Some of what started as one of my ‘If Onlys’ were recoverable in the sense that I could fix them. Sometimes it was as simple as a sincere apology. Other times it was expensive, as when I forgot my wife’s birthday, a never to be repeated mistake, helped by the fact that she now kindly reminds me at regular intervals from about three weeks beforehand. She even hints at the kind of things she would welcome as a gift, which is helpful, although I still love giving people like her surprises.
Unfortunately, some of them were unfixable, if there is such a word and remain one of those ‘If Onlys’ which haunt me. Like my hunt along the Sala River in eastern Ethiopia, across the Plains of Death as they are still called because of the total lack of any water for many miles. An interesting region for me because my much loved uncle, the late Charles Holloway, a Signals officer at the time, crossed them when the Allies invaded the country to repel the Italians in WWII. What fixed his story in my memory was the shock I felt when he mentioned, quite casually, that it was there they machine gunned a herd of eland to feed the troops and how the heart, lungs and liver had to be placed on top of each carcass to be inspected before the meat could be handed out as rations.
I was there to look for Neumann’s hartebeest, the local oribi (which I was sure was a different subspecies) – and my major quest – what was then known as a Nile buffalo and which has been renamed an East African buffalo by SCI at the request of Jason Roussos of Ethiopian Rift Valley safaris, essentially given the size difference between the Ethiopian buffalo and that found in Uganda.
I was hunting with Jason’s father, the hugely experienced Nassos, although Jason was also in camp. The hunt was also memorable because the people in the region were cannibals. I know, I know, there is no such thing today as a cannibal other than wierdos like Jeffrey Dahmer, the Milwaukee Cannibal, who lured people to his apartment, drugged them, killed them, chopped them up and then ate at least 17 of them. But, if you read the early hunter/explorers’ accounts, cannibalism was rife in many tribes primarily across both sides of the Equator.
Ewart Grogan, he of Cape to Cairo walking fame, writes in the book – entitled quite simply, From the Cape to Cairo, written by he and his partner for some of the trip, A.H. Sharp and published in 1902 – about one of his camp servants returning from a visit to his nearby family with what looked like chalk marks across his body. When asked what they were, he explained that his parents had incurred debt and had sold him off to be eaten. Once all of his body parts were taken – hence the chalk marks – he would be killed. Try as he might, Grogan was unable to persuade the fatalistic young man to escape and, in due course, he met the fate he himself had outlined. If that was not enough, Grogan also wrote about entering villages near the Equator and finding human limbs being cooked.
Around our camp there were two kinds of cannibals – one tribe ate only their relatives when they died, so the relative could live on through their survivors; and the other tribe ate only their enemies. Nassos deemed it politic to employ one member from each tribe for every position in camp and we had no trouble while we were there. But I did sleep with a cocked and locked .375 on its bipod next to my bed, especially given the evil looking, sharp, filed teeth of the one tribe.
We picked up the tracks of a small family herd of Nile buffalo with what looked like two decent bulls before lunch and, by late afternoon, just as the colours were changing, came up to them as they were head down, grazing in amongst a small, broken spinney of trees and bushes. The herd had split up but Degino, our head tracker, suddenly grabbed my arm and pointed to a good bull which had entered a small clearing diagonally to my right. Nassos, also to my right, beckoned me over and, after I had tip toed to him, bent double at the waist, all I could see was the torso of the bull, its front and back hidden by vegetation. Resting on Nassos’s shoulder, it was a matter of seconds before the crosshairs of the 1 ½ x 6 Zeiss Diavari Z clamped on the shoulder of the bull no more than 50 metres away and the shot flowed smoothly from my steady Brno .375.
The bull took off like only a heart shot buffalo can, with Nassos and Degino in hot pursuit as I reloaded. I could hear them circumscribe a half circle around my position, then a shot from Nassos and then silence. I cut across the semi-circle in which the buffalo had run and came across the two of them standing with bowed heads, in silence, next to the bull. Except it was not a bull but a cow.
To this day, neither Nassos nor I can explain what happened. Initially, when we discussed the matter around the campfire after dinner that night, we thought the cow must have been standing unseen behind the bull and the 300 grain Norma solid had penetrated through the bull and killed the cow as the former ran off wounded. So, before dawn the next morning, we were back at the spot. Four hours later we caught up to the small herd only to find all the bulls and other members hale and hearty.
The only thing I could think of then was that the cow was indeed behind the bull and parallel to it. During my move across to Nassos, the bull must have grazed forward leaving the cow exposed in the exact spot just vacated by him and neither Nassos nor I noticed the fact.
I had to write a detailed letter of explanation and apology to the Game Department and pay a $1 000 fine, plus Nile buffalo was removed from my license, which cost me another hunt to Ethiopia to find one, this time with Jason and in far more hazardous circumstance in the Dati Swamps up against the Sudanese border, although there were no cannibals there.
If only I had waited to see the entire buffalo before squeezing the trigger!