Some forty plus years ago, we were hunting on my then partner’s unfenced game ranch, Denstaadt, on the banks of the Limpopo River, out of a very rustic camp – a few thatched rondavels with holes for doors and windows, on a low slung, sports car of a ridge overlooking the big, dark green, wild, fig trees fringing the banks of the great, grey-green, greasy one at this point. I say partner, which is true, but I was the newest and most junior partner in the law firm and David, the owner of the 5 500 acre ranch, one of the most senior ones. He had agreed to let three friends and me hold what was to become our annual meat hunt there because he understood the importance of hunting to conservation, despite his wife’s vociferous opposition. So, we all knew we had to be on our best behaviour so as not to provide her with any ammunition to strengthen her opinionated and emotional response to all things hunting.
On arrival, we diligently sighted in our rifles, in my case a borrowed Tikka
30-06, using bog standard, 180 grain, PMP factory ammo. It had been lent to me by a kind friend who had also lent me his small Toyota panel van to bring back the anticipated venison. It was only my second hunt after a long, self-imposed absence from hunting of nearly ten years.
My first hunt had been a couple of months previously, not far away on Peter Knott’s Wildplaas near Alldays and, although we slept on newspaper covered ground in our army sleeping bags, with only a cold water tap for all our water uses, I had thoroughly enjoyed it. I had hunted and shot well which, for me, meant that I had killed all my five impala rams with head shots as per my original springbok culling days – I was still to learn that this was a sub-optimal shot for the bigger and more robust lowveld animals – and, more importantly, there had been no wounded animals. At least not by me.
The same could not be said about one of my hunting companions, who I met for the first time on the hunt organised by a man who was to become, in time, my best and longest standing friend, the late Derek Carstens. The hunting companion was very English and more than a touch pretentious, something I was and still am allergic to and I found his overtly loud, wah, wah English accent off-putting. Let’s just call him the Busker. But I was a guest and said little that first night around the campfire as Derek braaied some juicy, lamb neck chops over the glowing coals.
Derek had a rough map of the property showing the dirt tracks which roughly divided it into four and, the following morning, allocated each of us a designated portion to hunt over. The Busker was to hunt the portion to my right and off we went. It was not long before I heard a shot to my right and then a lot more, one after the other. I counted 13 altogether that first morning and, as we were close to the Botswana border and there had been incursions across it recently by the ANC military wing, started to wonder if I should be concerned.
Back at camp for brunch – a cholesterol bomb of fried eggs, bacon, sausage, fried bread and fried tomatoes – followed by ‘moer koffie’, made by throwing a handful of freshly ground coffee beans into a pot of boiling water and letting it murmur away for a few minutes. It was so strong it just about ate the metal off the communal spoon we used to stir in the three spoons of sugar and condensed milk we all liberally added to our enamel mugs, while lighting Texan plain cigarettes off the coals. Aaaah, now that was really living!
When I questioned him over the meal, the Busker denied he had fired a shot and, not knowing the property or the surrounding ones, I wrote the shots off to neighbours culling. The afternoon, however, followed a similar trend and, on the way back to camp as the sun started to set, my guide and I came across human footprints well into the portion of the ranch set aside for me to hunt. We carefully followed them back to camp uncertain and not a little nervous as to whom they might belong and, lo and behold, after a cautious approach to camp and watching it from cover for a good few minutes, we learned that the one set clearly belonged to the Busker. When I asked him why he had entered my designated section – a potentially dangerous thing to do – he airily waved away my concerns by telling me he had to follow a wounded impala and that took precedence over my concerns which, of course, it did. So, where was the impala I asked as he had yet to produce one, while Derek and I had shot three each that first day. Oh no, they had to throw in the towel when the blood spoor dried up because his guide was useless and could not track. Hmmmm.
Before the guides left us to return to their respective homes, I cornered the unhappy looking guide who accompanied the Busker and asked him if he had heard the shots coming from his part of the farm. He looked at me for a long while and then the flood gates opened. “Die baas, hy es befok! Hy siene die bokke. Die bokke is nog vêr maar hy skiete. Die bokke, hulle hol weg, maar hy skiete na die bokke en skiete. Ek dink party is gekwes maar hy will nie gaan kyk nie. Hy sê daar is baaie andere bokke. (The boss is mad! He sees the buck. The buck are still far away but he shoots. The buck run away, but he shoots at the buck and he shoots. I think some of the buck have been wounded but he will not follow them to make sure. He says there are a lot of other buck.)” Hmmmmmm.
The next day, his guide did not appear and the Busker used this as an excuse to spend the day in camp, which is where we found him at midday smelling of booze and reading the Sunday Times he had bought after a trip into Alldays.
Needless to say, neither Derek nor I ever hunted with the Busker again.
On the Limpopo hunt, the four of us all knew one another and, while not experienced hunters – we were all learning and still had a lot to learn – we got on well together and all pitched in to do the chores around camp to keep everything neat and orderly, something I liked even back then. I thought, then and now, that it took much less effort to run a tidy camp than it did to run a messy one. Derek was not as fastidious unless prodded and prompted when he too did his bit, although we gave him some leeway as he usually did the cooking.
Our shooting range was a flat piece of ground ending in a conveniently large, tree bedecked, snakey looking antheap with little round, mystery holes disappearing in amongst the roots and against which we rested an empty cardboard box with a crudely drawn, blue ballpoint pen cross. We marched off 100 yards and carried a chair, table and blanket from the camp to use as a shooting bench. Those sand filled, suede covered rests for the front and rear of the rifle were still a thing of the future, as were distance measuring binoculars and turret mounted, adjustable, telescopic sights. My borrowed 30-06 was crowned by a fixed, four power, Bushnell scope as were most of the other rifles. Variable scopes were just gaining in popularity but we all thought a fixed four power was all you needed in the Lowveld and less likely to give trouble. The other three rifles consisted of two 30-06s – I remember one was a Musgrave – and one, a much lusted after, Winchester, pre-64 .270, which we all agreed, however, was not ideal for the shorter range bushveld conditions – 50 to 150 yards – and considered it a meat waster at those distances, but it was all Phil had.
We also did not know much about reloading or how accurate rifles could or should be but figured if we could group three shots inside two inches at 100 yards, that was good enough and most of us were there or thereabouts.
It was during this hunt that I experienced my first ever bout of buck fever. I had never hunted blue wildebeest before and, when I was taken by surprise by the sudden and unexpected appearance of a big, shaggy bull – they provided the biggest bang for the buck when it came to price per kilogram of meat – from behind a small spinney of butterfly leaved, green mopane trees, I decided to shoot it. There was no nearby rest so, no problem, I eased down, sat and rested my elbows on my knees and tried to steady the crosshairs, first on the bull’s head – but then I remembered the talk around the camp fire and changed my aim to where I hoped the heart was situated – but just could not steady the rifle. My heart had started pumping furiously, my breathing became ragged, I was perspiring, my limbs felt jittery and weak, the crosshairs would not behave themselves and had acquired a life of their own. I remembered the lessons of my old shooting instructor at school, picked my head up off the rifle, breathed deeply, looked up at the green leaves of the nearby trees and tried to aim again. If anything, I was worse than before. At last, in desperation, I yanked at the trigger as the crosshairs jitterbugged over the front half of the patient bull still grazing peacefully some 80 yards away on the still damp, early morning, dew covered, winter grass.
Totally discombobulated as I was, I was still sufficiently compos mentis to hear the bullet whine and clatter through the leaves and twigs overhead and see the bull light the afterburners and head for pastures new as if the Devil and his dogs were after him. The fact that the bull was not wounded was the only good thing to come from the entire, sorry episode.
As the shot went off, something whacked me against the forehead and I had involuntarily rejoined the halfmoon club. I say ‘rejoined’ because it was my second scope cut and, unfortunately, not the last. There was still one more to come – a proper one – from an offhand shot taken at a flat out running dog baboon in Botswana’s Okavango Swamps with a .458. That one should have had stitches but, in the absence of a doctor, micropore had to do the job, although the scar lasted for a long, long time.
As Gerhard Viviers once described Naas Botha, the South African flyhalf in a Curry Cup rugby final, I was ‘gerattled’. Quite simply I had never experienced anything like it before and did not know what was going on with my body. I had absolutely no control over it. It was so bad that I stopped hunting and walked back to camp. I returned to our improvised shooting range but missed the entire cardboard box at all of 50 paces. There was nothing for it but to stop hunting – I was a menace – and so that is what I did. After talking it over with the guys that evening, they explained I had suffered an acute attack of buck fever and suggested that the next day I go hunting but only try for impala and, only once my confidence and steadiness returned, try for anything else. And so this is what I also did.
But it was not the end of the matter. I noticed that, for many years afterwards, whenever I hunted a new species for the first time, especially one that was important to me, I had to take care not to let buck fever overwhelm me and, although it was never that bad again, I did not manage to escape certain of its consequences.
I cannot remember when all these symptoms left me for good but, certainly for the last 20 years or so, if anything, I was perhaps too calm on the shot, as I think that feeling of excitement, the adrenalin coursing through your system, all your senses working at their peak, is a good thing provided you can control it and not the other way around. It helps keeps you alert, concentrated and alive.
But why do some, if not most, hunters suffer from buck fever at one time or another and is there anything that can be done to remedy the condition?
First question first. We are all a product, to a greater or lesser extent, of our experience. I say to a certain extent because there is a big part of each of us which we have inherited via our genetic make-up. The hoary old question of nature versus nurture and which is the more important.
We have been on this one, small, blue planet we inhabit for about 200 000 years in more or less our current form. Agriculture was only invented some 10 000 years ago, so we have hunted for roughly 95% of the time we have been on earth and, for most of this, with only sticks and stones as weapons as the first recorded use of a firearm took place a mere 660 years ago. Many of the things we hunted could and did stand on us, chew us and generally made either mince meat or a meal of us. No wonder then that, being wary, if not scared witless of wild things, has been genetically programmed into us. It’s in our nature!
I believe the only thing which helps us to overcome this genetically imposed condition, is repeated exposure to and positive experiences in hunting wild animals successfully – the nurture if you like – and something I try and drum into the young kids I teach to hunt. Start slowly. Build up your confidence and experience. Rome was not built in a day. Start small. With duikers and springbok, impala and warthogs, for example. As you become more confident of your abilities, then and only then, graduate to bigger, more challenging game and, long before you even think about game like buffalo, which seemed to be on every kid’s menu. I often wonder whether failure to do so, to give nurture the chance to play its vitally important role, is not the main reason why so many first timers who insist on going from nought to a hundred in eleven nano seconds in the hunting world i.e. from hunting little or nothing to the Big Five overnight, so often come a very deeply unpleasant cropper.