A few days ago, a good friend emailed me a photograph of an excellent, 12 year old bottle of cabernet we both enjoyed. He had found it in a village off the beaten track and been allowed to buy it at a bargain basement price. It reminded me of the time I stayed in a little hotel in Hofmeyr in the Eastern Cape when culling springbok with my good friend, Derek Carstens, for Clive Phillips, the local butcher in nearby Steynsberg.
As my memory serves me, at that time, 1980 I think, the hotel had eight bedrooms and none of them had a key. Returning to the hotel, starving hungry, hot and tired after a day lying out in the weather all day shooting driven springbok in the head – or at least trying to – supper was very much at the top of my agenda after a hot shower and a couple of ice cold Castles, still my beer of choice.
It was always a variation on the same theme – some flour thickened vegetable soup – just enough to cover the maker’s name on the thick, unbreakable, white, hotel crockery, with freshly baked white bread and chilled yellow, farm butter rolled into neat, little balls; followed by a three inch square of mystery fish covered in some glop; and then Karoo lamb chops and vegetables boiled into submission, which was what the supper was all about.
On my first night I asked the young waiter if they had any wine. “Ja, meneer, ons het baie wyn.”
“Watse soort wyn het julle?”
“Ons het wit wyn en rooi wyn, meneer.”
“Ja, maar watse soort is dit?”
“Meneer moet maar self kom kyk.”
No sooner said than done and I followed the young man through the kitchen – I have a memory of steamy heat, bustling cooks, white tiles and stainless steel tables – out the back door, across the courtyard and into a large, double garage. I came across dusty, cob-webbed cardboard boxes, some battered and empty, others with one or two bottles and then one full box caught my eye. It was labelled, Alto Rouge, back in those days one of, if not the, best cabernets you could find, an iconic wine. It was the 1969 vintage.
How much would this cost I asked the waiter? He will ask and let me know. One rand a bottle came the answer – because it is so old, he said. I bought the case there and then and asked for it to be delivered to my room. I was taking no chances. Each night, for the rest of the week, Derek and I shared a bottle of nectar per night over dinner. Miraculously, the wine had somehow escaped being boiled over the summer months, something which only occurred to me after I had bought the case.
And while we are on the subject of drinking, after supper I decided to try whiskey, something I had never drunk before being a strictly wine and beer man, but I thought that, as I was becoming older, I should try to drink something more sophisticated, something that older men like my Dad drank, even though the one or two times I had drunk it, I didn’t like the taste that much. Neat, it burnt my tongue and I knew enough to know that, if you were going to add Coca Cola or some other mixer, you might as well drink a cheaper spirit as you couldn’t taste the whiskey at all.
Derek, a much more adventurous drinker than me – I have still not had the courage to order a martini – suggested I start at one end of the bar with the first whiskey I saw. It was Tullamore Dew, a gentle, mild tasting, Irish whiskey, which I quite liked and then, over the course of the week, progressed across the selection to the right. I can’t remember most of the ones in between but do recall the last one I tried, a Glenfiddich single malt which was way too sophisticated for me.
It was during the culling for Clive that my journey from meat hunter to a more all round hunter began. While at Hofmeyr, I was introduced to a local farmer in the bar by a retired member of the Brixton Murder and Robbery Squad we had met earlier. I remember the latter telling me how wonderful life was in the little town where there was quite a competition amongst the widows for his attention. “Tonight” I remember hm saying the one night, “I had the choice of waterblommetjie bredie or vegetable soup or skaapboud.” But I digress, the farmer mentioned that there were fallow deer on his unfenced sheep farm and, when I asked if we could hunt one, was taken aback when he burst out laughing and said we could come and shoot as many as we liked. He then added that men had tried for the past ten years or so to shoot one but without a single success.
Daunted by his reply but seduced by the thought of free venison – and fallow deer, introduced into the Cape in 1822 By Lord Charles Somerset, was and is in my humble opinion the best venison that can be found in South Africa, the small amount of fat in the meat making it that bit more tender and juicy than springbok, my second favourite – it was not long before we pitched up at his front door.
Talking to his staff, it became clear that our predecessors’ lack of success was primarily because they drove around the flatter parts of the farm in a bakkie and never walked in the koppies and mountains on the farm’s western border. We discovered this more by accident than design. Firstly, we did not have a bakkie and my wife would have killed me if I had driven across the veld in her car, which we had used to drive from Johannesburg to Hofmeyr. Secondly, we were both tired of lying in the veld culling driven springbok and needed to stretch our legs. We walked up into the hills and mountains on a recce and, it was coming down a steep, ironstone clad slope covered in Karoo shrubs – an ankle sprainer at the best of times – that, at the foot of the hill, I saw my first three fallow deer in the Karoo.
I was using a 7mm Rem. Mag., at the time – which ‘Silver Bill’ Ritchie from Krugersdorp had converted from a Brno 7×67 – a slightly unusual culling weapon as most people used lighter calibres. However, I was not recoil shy and, secondly, lying behind the Harris bipod attached to the reinforced front sling swivel of my rifle, seemed to reduce what recoil there was. There were additional benefits. The bullets seem to be less affected by cross-winds, something the Karoo could produce in spades especially at the change of seasons. Secondly, even if you missed the brain but hit in and around the head, which could lead to a wounded animal if shot with one of the lighter calibres such as the .222s, .223s, or .243s, which many of the local farmers used to cull – I have seen many more than one springbok with a bullet through the nose while still on the run – the 7mm absolutely floored the springbok and blesbok, which were my usual target animals.
It was a long shot. I did not have a pair of distance measuring binoculars in those days so cannot be sure but they seemed a long way, possibly at my maximum culling distance of 300 metres. In those days I used to mark out 100, 200 and 300 metres with toilet paper at the four points of the compass around my culling spot – which was a cleared area on which I could spread my square of canvass – and refused to take shots further than 300 metres. Not only because I hated to wound animals but, back then, if you shot the animal more than a palm down from the ears, you paid for the carcass.
At any rate, as the fallow deer were free and we had no chance of stalking closer, I lay down behind my bipod and aimed about a foot over the head of the closest buck facing me. Derek did the same but didn’t have a bipod. I counted to three. At the simultaneous shots, my deer on the right dropped to the shot but Derek missed. Just. However, the shot striking the rocks behind the deer caused the remaining two to run in the opposite direction to the sound and that was straight up the mountain towards us. At almost pointblank range I shot the leading fallow deer in the chest and killed it outright and, somehow, in the excitement, Derek also managed to get off a shot and killed the other one. We were very chuffed. Three down on the first morning.
After carrying the gutted deer to the farm house – the farmer was out and we had no help – we went for a well earned swim in a little, windmill fed, concrete dam – it was hot for a winter’s day – rested for about an hour and headed out again.
We walked higher into the mountains and found that was where the fallow deer hung out on the farm. No wonder that no-one had been able to shoot one for so long by merely driving around the plains. We continued to adopt the same tactics to the one we discovered by accident. They worked a treat. All told we shot ten and could have shot more but four each with one for a local relative and one extra for the farmer was being greedy enough for one fairly hard day’s work. My only disappointment was that the one and only black fallow deer stag, which I am sure I shot, was claimed by Derek and it took me many years before I was able to find one on the late Robin Halse’s orderly and profitable game ranch outside Queenstown, which has since been expropriated and allowed to go to rack and ruin.
It was while we were up at the top of one of the highest mountains on the sheep farm that, far, far away in the grey blue distance, I made out some Omo white spots that seemed way too white to be sheep at this time of the year. Looking through my pocket Leica 10 x 25 binos, they seemed to be animals, possibly buck, a fact the farm owner subsequently confirmed. They were white springbok on Mr Bowker’s farm and, the following year, my visit to his farm produced two white springbok and I realized there and then that I wanted to add a black springbok to the collection and, unwittingly, my feet were started down the trophy hunting path.
A lot of people seem to think that black springbok were part of the Ponzi schemes which produced artificially and genetically modified wildlife with exaggerated horn lengths and/or artificial colour variations, which has caused so much damage to the hunting communities in South Africa, but they are not. Research has shown that they are a separate species of springbok, which come from a time when the Karoo was a huge inland sea and which probably accounts for their longer hooves, They also have different dentition apart from the obvious colour differences and, of course, their habits are different to common springbok. In the former case, when threatened, the herd breaks up and the black springbok head off in different direction, whereas the reverse happens with the common variety which coalesce into bigger and bigger herds.
I still hunted for meat of course. In fact, I only stopped doing so when, at the age of 70, I stopped hunting completely. Every May was my own personal culling time to fill the deep freeze for another year and make enough biltong and droê wors to last another 12 months. Our PhD educated, game ranch, fallow deer were always on my preferred list destined for the deep freeze.
All the game culled on our ranch were shot in the head at night with a spot light and, importantly, had their throats cut and were left to lie on the side of any available slope for at least half an hour to bleed out. The insides were removed and the carcasses hung on hooks in our butchery and left to age for between four and seven days depending on the weather before we worked the meat. Venison for the table could then be cooked like any other domestic livestock meat.
Interestingly enough, game culled like this showed almost no signs of stress the next day, as opposed to animals left behind after a live capture exercise which, for months afterwards, were skittish to say the least.
The black springbok duly followed and my sights turned to other species, first in the Karoo and then elsewhere. In my thirties I started to hunt the Big Five and they consumed my life. How to save enough money to hunt them, where to find the least expensive hunts, the excitement, the disappointments, the research. One thing led to another and I began to understand the older hunters who talked about the six stages of hunting.
My researches led to books by older hunters who had travelled across the length and breadth of Africa. They mentioned animals, places and people I had never heard of and it awoke something in me which all but ruled and enriched my life for the next 30 years. Over that time, my beer consumption waned to almost nothing. Wine and its delights have remained a source of pleasure and fascination and whiskey drinking, still only an occasional pastime, has been much improved by a trip to Scotland.
I may also stand accused of being a trophy hunter, a collector, a recreational hunter, a sport hunter, a conservation hunter. Whatever. I could be found guilty of all these offences but, what I am at heart, is just a plain and simple hunter, no more, no less. I do not believe we are defined by what or where or with whom we hunt. We are defined by how we hunt, especially when we are on our own and there is no-one there to judge our actions but ourselves.