A rite of passage

Kevin Thomas recalls the introduction he had to hunting as a youngster in Africa, and wonders if his sons will have been the last generation to experience it in the old way

Growing up with hunting, the handling of guns was never an issue in my generation of the 1950s. The first time I became familiar with guns and the smell of gun oil was in about 1957.

It was on my 7th birthday and I’d just been given my first gun – a .177 Diana Model 1. It was a break-barrel, with a blue tinplate action and a wooden stock. To load it you unscrewed a removable tube on the end of the barrel, and inserted the pellet. As the gun eventually became more worn from use you could see the pellet in flight.

At the time, we dairy farmed on the south-eastern border of the British Colonial Federation of Rhodesia & Nyasaland (now Zambia, Zimbabwe & Malawi) where I was born. The Diana was my introduction to gun safety, and to shooting on my own. My dad periodically hunted for the larder, kudu being the venison of choice. He had a WW2-era German 7x57mm Mauser Obendorf, but at my young age I wasn’t allowed to handle it, unless he was cleaning it.

Like most rural dwelling white kids of that era, I also had a ‘minder’ who was the son of one of our farm labourers. He was a few years older than me and of the Ndau tribe, a sub-grouping of the Shona peoples and his name was Makandende. He thought the Diana capable of dropping a duiker, or larger bushbuck.

Hamming it up at 12 years old with an Alro 12-gauge side by side, young Labrador Shandy alongside

Once, when we were walking to a field where my dad was working, we disturbed a magnificent bushbuck ram. It stood staring at us in the early morning mist, and then, as it gave a throaty warning bark and fled, I took a quick ‘plink’ at it with my trusty Diana Model 1. Makandende actually disappeared into the bush to search for blood! When he returned, he looked at me and mockingly remarked, ‘Wa posa’ (You missed).

Within two years of my receiving, and discarding, the by then shot-out Diana, my dad bought me a .22 calibre Falke Model 90. It was a superb German manufactured air rifle and the pellet gave me about 490fps. At nine years old I was in heaven, and spent my days shooting doves with it. It had been driven home to me by my father that I wasn’t to shoot anything I couldn’t eat. Once, and to test him, I shot an egret. He made me cook and eat it, and I didn’t test him again. Thus, doves and green pigeons were my most sought-after prey. The Falke also proved adequate on spurfowl.

Together with my tribal friends we’d endeavour to collect about 10 doves before making a fire and preparing our feast, plucking and gutting the carcasses, and putting them on skewers to lean over the flames. We even had salt – of the coarse variety carried loosely in my one trouser pocket.

Come evening, I’d sit on our lounge carpet in the light of a hissing Tilley lamp, and lovingly oil the airgun. Interestingly, Falke reputedly only made about 400 of the Model 90, and to this day I wish I’d kept mine. Truth be known, over the passage of time I can’t even recall what happened to it.

By the time I was 12 years old I had two guns, the constantly used Falke 90, and a hand-me-down Remington .22 long rimfire, known in Rhodesia as a ‘two-two’. The Remington, through hard use, had lost its blacking; it had belonged to my grandfather, and then my father. Although it was never really given to me, I just sort of ‘took it over’, as in removing it from the gun cabinet and using it – regularly. Despite being old, it was incredibly accurate and had a six-shot mag.

Kevin’s father shot a number of crocodiles, as they presented a persistent threat to both humans and livestock

Because I was a boarder, at the end of each school term and with the onset of our school holidays, my dad would buy me five 50-round boxes of Eley-Kynoch hollow-point for the .22 Remington. He’d also purchase a box of 500 Marksman pellets for the Falke. By the end of the school holidays there weren’t many left of either type.

Buying guns during that era in Rhodesia was easy. In Chipinge, which was the small village closest to where we lived, the gun shop and liquor store were one and the same. As you entered the premises guns and ammunition were on the left and alcohol on the right. In this day and age the police would probably have a fit if you bought ammunition and a bottle of Scotch in the same shop, and at the same time.

Over time, and using the .22 rimfire I shot a lot of vervet monkeys, which constantly plundered my mum’s vegetable garden. During that era, they were branded ‘vermin’. However, with wildlife conservation enlightenment animals plundering crops were reclassified ‘problem animals’, irrespective of species.

Using the .22 I also shot a number of common bush duikers, although there was no fair-chase involved. We needed venison, so on each occasion we lamped them, and I shot them from the back of my dad’s old Series 1 Land Rover at extremely close range. Often, I was sorely tempted to have a go at a bushbuck. However, it’d been drummed into me that the .22 was under-gunned, and a bushbuck if wounded is extremely tenacious.

For my 12th birthday my folks gave me an Alro 12 gauge side-by-side shotgun. When my dad bought it a few days before my birthday, I was in the shop with him but had no clue it was for me. It was a non-ejector of Belgium manufacture, and had a double trigger and 28-inch barrels.

By then, we’d relocated from the farm near Chipinge to the embryonic Chibuwe Irrigation Scheme in the Sabi Valley. It was wild and remote, an absolute Eden for a boy addicted to shooting. Our new house was on the banks of the south flowing Sabi river, the country’s second largest river.

Once, when out hunting monkeys during late afternoon, I shot an African wildcat. It happened in a dense riverine thicket, just as the light was fading. The cat had looked more like a card silhouette than a living animal. In the aftermath, a tribal youngster belly-crawled into the thicket to retrieve it, while I held back my excited yellow lab, Shandy. We noisily skinned it, made a fire and barbequed the hindquarters. Shandy ate most of it, and after experiencing the taste I never tried cat again (I also got chastised by the old man for shooting a species that did good).

Vervet monkeys were constant pests in Kevin’s mum’s vegetable garden

Hippo frequently plundered tribal crops, as did marauding elephant. Whenever this happened, Tom Orford, the government game ranger living upstream of the irrigation scheme, would arrive to deal with the problem. Throughout his lengthy service, Orford used a .505 Gibbs and it was he who encouraged me to pursue my post school career – initially as a game ranger, and then after political change in the country, as a PH.

Crocodiles were also plentiful and, because of their danger to humans and livestock, my dad was intolerant of them. He was an accurate shot and, not bothering to call a game ranger from far off, took a number of them using his 7x57mm Mauser.

The shotgun also added a new dimension to my hunting forays because Chibuwe and its surrounds had numerous huge natural pans. They attracted various waterfowl species in their hundreds. A .22 shot into the reedbeds saw clouds of wild ducks and geese suddenly lift off, blackening the sky. At that point the shotgunning exercise took over.

A fine trophy? Not for a young Kevin. Meat was the main object of Kevin’s youthful hunting, and ‘trophy’ wasn’t a word in his vocabulary

In time I soon tired of shooting bush duikers and longed to shoot something bigger. Impala were well represented in the surrounding mopane woodland, and they were a popular antelope with which Rhodesian youth attempted to gain their hunting laurels – I would assume not unlike youngsters being blooded on roe deer or fallow in the UK.

I guess geographical location has a lot to do with what species a youngster gets to shoot as an introduction to hunting. Across South Africa’s varying terrain, the choice would be impala, warthog, springbok, mountain reedbuck or blesbok. In Zimbabwe, the choice was narrower, mainly impala and warthog.

My chance to grass an impala eventually came about, and I killed my first one with a borrowed .22 Hornet. Using a heart shot, the 45-grain factory load at about 2,650fps ensured a clean kill. Not long after becoming a cadet game ranger in 1968, I bought my first .22 Hornet and over the next 46 years I always owned one, and using that charming old cartridge culled hundreds of impala and warthog.

Thinking back to my boyhood, it must have been quite a comical sight to have seen me and my entourage of tribal followers heading out hunting. Aside from my regular ‘bearers’ (who shared my sandwiches) there were always lots of unemployed ‘hangers on’. Quite simply, as we moved along the Sabi riverbed with the Falke 90, the .22 rimfire, and the twin pipe 12-gauge hunting birds and monkeys, young boys and men would stop fishing the pools and backwaters and tag along. Protein of any sort means a lot in remote rural Africa.

Hunting expeditions along the Sabi river often gathered additional members; protein meant a lot in rural Africa

Just to our east in the Chipinge ‘A’ Block, black rhino were still well-represented. They’re a distant memory now. The pristine canopy mopane forests are also now long gone. Back then too, when we hunted, the word trophy wasn’t in our vocabulary.

Our own sons were blessed with a similar boyhood – also rural, fairly remote, and among plenty of wildlife. However, it was during the new era, of high wire, game fences and game ranching. By age 12 our middle son Keith was not only hunting, but also handloading for a variety of calibres. And then, straight out of school, he moved to the UK to do his gunmaking trade with Rigby’s, and 24 years on, he has for some time now been a successful independent gunmaker. As a father, I’m truly thankful for the boyhood they had.

Sadly, Africa is changing – and rapidly. More frequently on the news now we read of elephant in Zimbabwe and Mozambique being killed by poachers with the use of cyanide. At times, entire cowherds. Cyanide is an organo-phosphate and doesn’t break down. As I write this article, 84 endangered white-backed vultures and a few other vulture species were found dead alongside a cyanide poisoned elephant carcass in Mozambique. Any animal that feeds on it will die – a terrible ongoing cycle of death and destruction.

As I grow older I appreciate more just how privileged I was to have seen the tail-end of the old Africa. My hope too, is that the sport hunter of today never takes for granted what is indeed a very special honour – to be able to hunt well-managed game on a sustainable basis.

As schoolboys most young sportsmen shot impala by way of an introduction to sport-hunting

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