When I look back over the last 59 years of my hunting career, with the crystal clear vision of hindsight, I can see how inevitable it was that I would end up in my current situation. My Dad was English and my Mom was Afrikaans. She was concerned that I would grow up neither speaking her language nor understanding her culture. So, each July school vacation, from the age of nine, she would pack me off to stay with Afrikaans farming friends. Our friends were very kind and gladly adopted the little, blond, spiky haired hooligan that I was. They were, however, much older than my parents and, in fact, their youngest child was over 20. Not knowing what to do with me, they gave me a rifle and delegated an old family retainer to supervise me and set me loose in the veld.
This was my first such experience as no-one in our family had ever hunted. Not in living memory that is. It was the start of things to come however and, when I reached high school, I was naturally keen to try and make our high school shooting team. The school had its own shooting range and the coach was my maths master. Not only was he an excellent school teacher but an outstanding shooting coach and our school provided the vast majority of members of the Western Province provincial schools shooting team. In fact, in some years, all the members came from our school.
The best shots were borders who lived on farms far from Cape Town, where our school was domiciled, and a substantial number of the boys came from in and around the Karoo towns of Beaufort West, Colesberg, Richmond and Graaff-Reinet, to name but a few.
My first invitation from a fellow shooting team member to holiday on his Karoo farm coincided with the annual springbok cull. In those days, it was a big, annual, social event. Farmers would take it in turns to help one another cull surplus game and also used the occasion to repay and do favours for bank managers, postmasters, business associates, the local clergy and the like. Not everyone was a Bisley shottist and, certainly, my friend and I seemed to do a lot better when it came to one shot, head shot kills than anybody else.
This led to other invitations and, in time, culling became an annual fact of life. Initially it seemed almost too good to be true. That I could be so lucky! That someone would actually allow me, free of charge, to cull his springbok. How anyone could say no, particularly when the culling was combined with the warm and wonderful hospitality, food and friendship of my hosts.
In time, of course, all good things come to pass and I slowly began to understand that, what I thought of as hunting, was only shooting. Listening to anecdotes around the farm dinner tables after a cull, I began to hear stories of people hunting on their own – for mountain reedbuck, vaal rhebuck and, in the case of real experts, for kudu, in the hills, koppies and mountains fringing the plains. Still later, as the reality of the cost of travel and ammunition began to take its toll and the novelty of lying out in the veld all day shooting springbok began to wear off, the first breeze of boredom blew unexpectedly through my brain and I summoned up the courage to ask for payment for my services. What I asked was that I be given the opportunity to hunt an animal of my choice, on my own, on the property. It never occurred to me, however, to ask to keep the horns or hide as almost no one in those days retained any trophies. I may have come across the odd set of dusty horns riddled with desiccated horn borer beetles in a shed or barn but, try as I might, I cannot remember anything resembling a trophy in any farmhouse from those times.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, real hunting, as opposed to shooting, began to take hold. At almost the same time, the peace, tranquility, stillness and beauty of those vast Karoo plains, koppies and mountains began to crawl over my shoulders and hook themselves into a Half Nelson. Even today, when I conjure up an image of the Karoo in my mind’s eye, I see those selfsame mountains marching off to the horizon in paler and paler shades of blue and grey.
At an early age, as I explain in the chapter entitled “Oryx Odessey” in my first book, Heart of an African Hunter, I stopped hunting and did not take it up again until I was in my late 20s. My close friend, Derek Carstens, was responsible and I rejoined the hunting fraternity with gusto. Our hunting fields were the Lowveld of South Africa in and around Kruger National Park and the bushveld in and around Warmbaths and Thabazimbi. The vast variety of game, compared to the Karoo of yesteryear, was like letting a child loose in a sweet factory. There were duiker, steinbok, warthog, impala, wildebeest, zebra, hartebeest and kudu. The grass, trees, bushes and shrubs, as opposed to the windswept open plains of the Karoo, allowed you to stalk and move much closer to the prey. Everything was new, fresh and different and I revelled in the experience.
After exhausting most of the different types of plains game hunting opportunities in South Africa, the thoughts of my friends and me inevitably turned to the Big Five. This facet of my hunting life lasted the longest and, for at least 10 years, I trundled through South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique in search of the big and hairy and dangerous. Hunting buffalo became, albeit on another level, like springbok before it. It was an all absorbing pursuit and passion and, if you had told me then that I would ever tire of this adrenaline filled challenge, I would not have believed you. Over the years, I hunted buffalo in South Africa, Botswana, Cameroon, Benin, Zimbabwe, the Central African Republic, Ethiopia and Gabon.
Then the inevitable process which guides our lives as hunters forced me up the next wrung of the ladder. By now I had stopped pretending to be anything other than a passionate hunter. Hunting pervaded my entire life. All the books I read related to hunting. All the artwork I bought depicted wildlife. My daily fitness regime centered on developing the necessary stamina to walk eight to ten hours per day, everyday, on a 28 day safari. My battery of firearms expanded to include no less than 14 firearms. From handguns to shot guns and, in between, every rifle calibre necessary to hunt every type of wildlife, in every type of terrain, available on the African continent.
The books I read, especially those by the early hunters such as Selous, Bell, Baker and Taylor, set fire to my already over-active imagination and I longed to walk where they had walked, to see what they had seen and, of course, to hunt what they had hunted. It was at this stage that I began to combine these desires with a wish to seek out the top African trophies such as bongo, mountain nyala and Lord Derby’s eland and to search out those animals which could still be hunted on the African continent and which I had not already hunted. It was at this late stage of my career that I began to realise I had become, almost inadvertently, a collector. A collector of adventures, places, experiences and game animals. I think it has always been in our family genes. Both my grandfathers were collectors – the one passionate about stamps, the other about coins. The ailment then seemed to skip a generation and was resurrected in me. I suppose my current trophy rooms have also had something to do with it. While “my animals” were all squashed into one trophy room in our home in Johannesburg, I was, to a certain extent, curtailed by available space. However, when I “retired” over 18 years ago, we decided to use our game ranch, on the eastern edge of the Karoo, as our base and I converted the old sheep shearing sheds and offices to a series of trophy rooms. This initial development has expanded into the current series of eight large rooms covering an area of about 500 square metres. At last my animals had room to breathe and I had space to spare. Setting them out like this made me look at the collection afresh and I could clearly see that I was missing certain subspecies. For example, I had a gemsbok, a fringed eared oryx and a scimitar horned oryx but not a beisa oryx. And so started a period of intensive research which culminated, after many years and many thousands of rands, in an interactive software program in which I computerized the entire Safari Club International Record Book of Trophy Animals. In a sense, however, this was more of a beginning than an end. I mean, in trying to establish which varieties of hartebeest I needed to complete a collection of all the hartebeest from those that were still available to be hunted on the African continent, I wanted to be sure that they were, in fact, distinct and separate subspecies, before I went to the time, trouble and expense of an African safari, the main purpose of which was to hunt one of these animals.
To my amazement, I found that there were substantial differences of opinion as to the various subspecies. For example, the two main trophy record books, namely, Rowland Ward’s and SCI’s, differed markedly. Secondly, zoologists and, particularly, the older zoologists, seemed completely at odds with one another and defined as separate subspecies animals which, from outward appearances, appeared identical or, alternatively, had such minor differences that they clearly did not warrant being classified separately. For example, the different horn shapes amongst syncerus caffer caffer gave rise, at one time, to no less than 12 separate buffalo subspecies. Even today, there are some purist geneticists who claim that, within a few generations of being moved to a different terrain, a group of animals will start to develop DNA characteristics different from the main body of animals from which they were removed.
In the beginning I found this all extremely confusing. Who should I believe? What should I believe? I became quite cynical about the different subspecies referred to in the various record books. After all, the more subspecies there were, the more revenue could be collected from us naïve and innocent hunters. I was also dubious about the classifications of the earlier zoologists and geneticists as it seemed to me that they were, perhaps, over anxious to have some new subspecies named after them or over eager to secure a medal from one society or another. Even well known early writers such as one of my hunting heroes, Major H.C. Maydon, critized these academics, very politely of course, as being too ready to classify an animal as a separate subspecies on the basis of scanty and unrepresentative information.
In the end, I had to choose between the splitters and the joiners and came down firmly on the side of the joiners. In other words, I applied simple hunting common sense to the problem. Unless there was a discernible and substantial difference between the so-called subspecies, which was widely repeated across an entire group of animals, in a sufficiently large geographic region, then I, in my innocence and stupidity, scratched it off the list of subspecies. For example, I could see no such differences in the various subspecies of greater kudu in Africa, whether they were defined as Eastern Cape, southern greater, East African, Abyssinian or western greater kudu. To me, they were one and the same. Similarly, although I have successfully hunted Cape, Lord Derby’s, Livingston’s and Patterson’s eland, I could see no difference between the later two subspecies.
Sometimes the confusion extended to the very names given to the animal. Hunters hartebeest or hirola was not a hartebeest at all but a member of the Damaliscus family to which all blesbok, bontebok, topi and tiang belonged. Similarly, Senegal hartebeest or korrigum were also members of the Damaliscus family. And while we are on the topic of hartebeest, let me say that, in my opinion, there are only five members of this clan available to modern day hunters, namely, Western, Lelwel’s, Coke’s, Lichtenstein’s and Cape hartebeest. Of other types, Neumann’s and Jackson’s are not, in my opinion, separate subspecies. Neither is the Kenya highland hartebeest which, in any event, cannot be hunted. The same goes for Swayne’s and Tora’s hartebeest. No hunting licenses are issued for these subspecies and that, as far as I am concerned, is that. I wonder if sustainable populations of Swayne’s and Tora’s even exist and, given the situation in Somalia, whether anyone will ever be able to hunt them again.
Many collectors, today, have developed a bad reputation and, having been the owner of a working game ranch for 20 years and part owner of a safari outfitting company for 12, I have met a number of these sad cases. I have seen them arrive on safari with a typed list of animals with the minimum horn measurement required to meet the minimum trophy standard typed opposite the animal name. The worst case I ever came across did not care about the hunt or the hunting experience. What he was interested in was ticking off the species on his list. His happiness, such as it was, was in direct proportion to the amount by which the horn length of the animal he shot exceeded the minimum trophy standard. He barely stopped to take the animal’s photograph and measure its horns before the inevitable question “What’s next?”.
There was no acknowledgement of or respect for the animal and, for him, it was the first time he had actually laid eyes on some of the beasts. As an outfitter, we were judged almost entirely on how many quality animals we could “tee” up in the shortest possible time. He read a book in the safari car. When we stopped to check for tracks or glass game, he would look up and ask what we were looking at. If the animal was on his list, we had his undivided attention. If not, he returned to his book. It was enough to make your stomach turn and, for me, a never to be repeated experience.
A number of collectors appear to have caught the dreaded “competition disease.” They compete for bragging rights with their friends. They compete to enter animals in record books. They compete for sashes, cups, pinnacles, pennants, grand circles, club championships and other awards. The worst of their kind are callous killers with little or no regard for hunting or wildlife. They give genuine and passionate hunters and conservationists (which latter two terms are synonymous in my view), a bad name and play into the hands of animal rightists who say that all hunters merely kill for thrills or pleasure.
I suppose it is these people who have made me so reluctant to admit, even to myself, that I am a collector. On the other hand, as I have grown older and more comfortable and confident in the way I hunt, I have begun to believe that there is nothing wrong with collecting provided, however, that I hunt the animal I wish to add to my collection in the same way and with the same consideration that I apply to any other hunt. And more importantly, when doing so, to ensure I do not detract from the enjoyment of the hunt or from the regard and respect which I have for the animal itself. As soon as I detect the slightest hint of, “tick, been there, done that, got the T-shirt” in myself I shall feel compelled to hang up my hunting rifles in the full knowledge that I have undergone a major personality change and become a schizophrenic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde character.
It was partly for this reason that I founded SHAC, the Spiral Horn Antelope Club, in order to create a forum where like-minded hunters could swap stories and advice and enjoy one another without the pressure of competitions or awards.
And I know I need to guard against the stresses and strains that collecting can bring. At the outset, I never gave myself the slightest chance of collecting all the spiral horned antelopes – in fact I never even gave it a thought – but, after I was lucky enough to be successful on a walk and stalk bongo hunt in the eastern side of the Central African Republic, my enjoyment of the ensuing hunts for Lord Derby’s eland and mountain nyala was reduced by the pressure I put on myself and others to succeed. I was almost catatonic by day 22 of the eland hunt and, I cannot begin to pretend that I enjoyed my first, unsuccessful 28 day hunt for mountain nyala in Ethiopia nearly as much as I did my second successful experience with Nassos Roussos.
This brings me to planning. I have found that collecting has improved my hunt preparation and planning quite significantly and I have included a chapter on this in my first book. It makes no sense to go through all the time, training, effort and money to visit some far off part of Africa only for your planning to let you down. Yes, I know planning is always important but, if the focus of your hunt is on only one animal, as opposed to a general bag hunt, then planning becomes that much more critical.
I suppose the reality check for me is that I still enjoy hunting the umpteenth mountain reedbuck as much as I did the very first one and they remain one of my favourite animals to hunt, not least because they taste sooooo good. And the satisfaction in shooting a black-faced impala in Namibia, on my third hunting day for this beautiful animal, was as much due to the five hour walk and stalk on the Kleine Waterberg plateau with my wife, as it was due to the fact that the magnificent ram comfortably exceeded Rowland Ward’s minimum trophy standards and completed my collection of the three different impala subspecies.
At the end of the day, however, collecting has given me a whole new hunting lease on life. On the one hand, the only thing I know for sure, is that it is highly unlikely that I will ever be able to complete a collection of all game animals available to be hunted on this African continent of ours even though, at the moment, I am only some ten animals short of the mark. On the other hand, it has given me a wonderful target to aim for and, instead of hanging up my rifles in the naïve and superficial belief that I had done it all or nearly all, and that a hartebeest is a hartebeest is a hartebeest, I now find myself planning trips that I would not have contemplated earlier.
The sound of Father Time’s clock is ticking ever louder in my head and I and others ask the question ever more frequently, “When are you going to hang up your rifles and stop hunting?” Hopefully, never. What can I say? I am a hunter.