Africa travel diary: a week of madness

They say time flies when you’re having fun. Well, I say it passes quickly when there’s flies, and you’re in the sun with a gun. That was our first week on Derichsveldt, henceforth known as The Farm.

Ricki is a patient man. He has to be, to be the caretaker of a massive cattle farm in Namibia. When he’s not helping the vet lady get her arm halfway up a cow’s arse to see if it has babies, he’s running around in the trees with a .300 or better yet, a 60 pound hunting bow, looking to pop a kudu for his dinner. Actually, that’s a lie. Ricki only eats meat three times a week, and his family are mostly vegetarian. He takes out trophy hunters for a price, but mostly he hunts to farm meat to sell to the butcher.

Trophy hunting and professional farming are different stories. Trophy hunters can take three kills in a day and call it a success. They’ll have blasted away most of the good meat using bullets of too-high calibre, and the butcher wouldn’t touch that stuff with a ten foot pole. Nobody likes finding tiny pieces of lead in their steak. No, when Ricki goes meat farming, he takes a pro hunter with him and together they ring in 50 odd kills per week, all clean head-shots. Dwell on that for a second; getting a proper head-shot means hitting a spot the size of a tennis ball at one hundred metres. Maybe you have a high-powered scope, but deer are moving targets and don’t stand still for long, nor do they bother to strike a pose with their brain spot exposed. No sir. So when we met Ricki, my brother Bren and I, we quickly learned to respect the man.

I mentioned kudu because they are big impressive creatures with spiralling-upwards antlers that could skewer an elephant, but the sad truth is that rabies has decimated the kudu population in recent times and Derichsveldt now hunted only oryx, hartebeest, wild boar and eland if you could find them.

Another factor to contend with was the weather. When city people talk about the weather, it’s because nothing else is going on. Farmers, on the other hand, take weather as a very serious topic. A long enough drought can drive a farmer to suicide – such was the fate that befell the old proprietor of the neighbouring farm, who recently shot himself. Even too much rain, as was the case when we arrived in Derichsveldt, can cause troubles.

“Hunting is a different story now, with the rains” Ricki said. “You can’t predict the animals anymore. Used to be, you could just wait out near the kudu dam and they’d have to turn up to drink. Now they just roam anywhere, following the wind. And the wind itself keeps changing. You have to stalk on foot, keeping upwind, playing a game of cat and mouse. It’s not easy anymore.”

So when I went hunting with Ricki, that’s what we did. And it was painful. Nothing like stalking a pack of oryx for an hour, watching the mums and kids pass through your scope because you can’t shoot them (farm rules, Ricki says to maintain the population), waiting for the big daddy to get his ass out from behind a bush so you can put some buckshot into it, and then the wind turns traitor and blows from the other direction, spreading your stink of man-sweat and sunscreen all over the herd, making them turn tail and run in terror (as they should) leaving Ricki saying things in German that I bet he wouldn’t repeat in front of the kids. We had no luck on the second day either. I had a square shot at an oryx, but the bullet misfired. My family didn’t believe me at first – they thought I’d chickened out and Ricki was covering up for me. But we showed them the bullet, with a clear puncture mark where the hammer had struck. “Maybe I was never meant to kill animals” I conjectured cheerfully.

The truth was, I cared little at first whether I bagged a beast or not. I was starting to enjoy the quiet walks in the bush, stalking animals, just drinking in the wind and the sun and the smell of the African bush. The flies didn’t bother me, and the thorns seemed almost friendly after a while. The actual act of killing an animal seemed brutal and unpleasant. Given my own meat eating tendencies and those of others, I felt that it was necessary to make my peace with the process, but that didn’t mean I had to enjoy it.

The first time I saw a freshly killed oryx, it was a shock. The blood was thick like pea soup, and such a bright red that it didn’t look real against the dry yellow grass. There was something obscene about the creature’s half open lips and its square yellow teeth, it’s glazed-over amber eye staring unblinking at the sun, even as flies danced directly on it. As we dragged it by the legs and tail up the ramp into the back of the jeep, it’s head lolling at a bad angle leaving bits of its brain behind, it leaked urine into a puddle that grew steadily during the ride back to the farm. The dog (a cute mixed-breed named Pumba) turned out to have a penchant for eating the shit of the freshly deceased, sticking her nose up to her whiskers in the thing’s rectum. It struck me as undignified.

I stayed to watch the skinning and gutting. Strangely, that seemed more proper – the corpse was hauled up on hooks, drawing it to its full height and restoring some of its grandeur, and even though the servants cut off every part, snapped its bones and peeled its skin, they did so under a constant wash of water to keep off the blood, with a precision and care that comes from years of practise, and with a certain respect given to those things that sustain and nourish you. They would be given the entrails to eat (I watched the small children with their shiny eyes and sharp knives slitting the stomach and turning it inside out) and the skin and bones to make furniture for their homes. I felt better about the whole thing, then. Pumba came to lick my hand and I shooed her away.

It was only after Bren bagged a hartebeest on just his second outing that I started to get competitive. No way was I going to let him be the only one who proved himself a killer on this trip. I dreamed of silently staring down animals far larger than me, with my glass monocle, fixating my crucifix crosshair on them and nailing them there with a bullet. I had done enough target practice to know I could give them a quick death at 110 metres with three seconds grace for aiming. That was not bad for a rookie. Bren had hit his a little off centre, but felled it like a sapling nonetheless. Only Dad had had an accident the day before, hitting his oryx with a terrible gut shot – partly because it moved, and partly because his knowledge of European hunting told him to aim at the edge of the leg line, which is wrong for African game. If Ricki hadn’t tracked that thing with supernatural precision and cut it down with a needling behind-the-horn brain shot from his own rifle, the doomed creature would have lived for days slowly oozing gut juices into its body cavity until it vrekked and got eaten by jackals.

Note to the reader: in Afrikaans, there are different words meaning `to die’ for humans and animals. `Vrek’ is for when an animal dies.

But let us not talk about that. The only reason that Dad was hunting that first day was because Bren and I insisted we needed more rifle practice with the 300, which was true, and it paid off in the end. I got my oryx.

I hit it a little high in the shoulder, but it was a quick shot, taken in the two or three heartbeats that Ricki bought me by making an animal call to distract the wandering beast, and it was low enough to blast a tunnel the size of a fifty-cent coin through its lungs (all internal of course, the entry hole looks barely bigger than a pea) and chip off part of its spine. It fell like thunder, I saw it shudder in my scope with the muscles under its grey and brown coat rippling like clouds reflected in a pool into which I’d just dropped a rock. But it kept rising, writhing and thrashing around in the tall grass in a most unnatural manner. Ricki made me stay well back because, he explained calmly, if you get close to an oryx with a spinal injury and it sees you it might get up and run another hundred metres before collapsing again, or better yet thrash around and hook you with it’s viciously long horns. So we waited and watched it wring itself out, the pink candy-floss of lung matter forcing its way out of the wound like a wet plastic bag, until it finally lay still. Eerily, a moment or two later, it’s hair began to stand on end. It was dead.

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