Fowl play

Rimfire safari: The trusty .22 can serve you well even in the African bush

Left to produce some food for the pot in Zimbabwe, Byron Pace heads bushward in search of something with feathers

The unmistakable gring, gring, gring… ding, ding, ding reverberated along the dry water channel towards camp with an enticing ring. Having just arrived on site, the camp staff were busily unpacking the pick-up. Scouring a mottled, ragged map, Fred Ashwin and Ted Pace set about identifying appropriate measuring points along the river. Working for the Water Board Authority, it was Fred’s job to maintain water course measurement records as well as document unchartered areas across Rhodesia. Ted, on the other hand, had come along merely for the trip.

Fred’s jaunts into the bush were an enviable perk of the job, and Ted was only too keen to join his brother-in-law for the chance at a spot of hunting. A bushman at heart, he left his day job as a cabinet maker just after this trip to pursue a career as a professional crocodile hunter.

With the following day’s plan locked down, the next order of business would be to organise some meat for the camp. Sure, there was the supplies of bully beef, cans of corned beef and sacks of sudsa (known in South Africa as paap or maize meal), but fresh meat would be a welcome addition.

With Fred’s trusty Webley .177 air pistol close at hand during trip out, the usual chance to slot a couple guinea fowl from the roadside hadn’t presented itself. Fiddling out a battered old .22LR from behind the seats, Fred casually slung it over to Ted with a full clip of five rounds ready to go. “Well Ted, this is why I brought you along. You think you can manage a couple of birds for the pot tonight?” With a confident smirk, the younger Ted heartily accepted the challenge, heading off in the direction of the guinea fowl’s chatter.

Alternative quarry: Not the most majestic species but a welcome addition to a hunt

They approached a sharp corner along the washed out gulley. A crumbling cliff towered above Ted on the near bank. The evening sunlight exposed an intricate lattice of spider webs supported only by a network of roots woven through the sun-baked, henna-coloured soil. The occasional squabbling squawk told Ted that the bird wasn’t far away. Crouching behind the cover of a large boulder, he peered slowly around the corner, lying at ground level as he shuffled forward. There, right on the edge of the web-festooned embankment, half a dozen guinea fowl were making themselves busy stealing insects from the clutches of the arachnid’s lair.

Drawing a bead just behind the wing joint of the nearest bird, Ted steadied the iron-sighted .22 with the sling pulled taut over his elbow. The mild crack of the unsilenced subsonic round gave way to the satisfying thud of a good hit. One down, Ted dusted off his thick khaki shirt and wondered over to the twitching feathered body. The other guinea fowl had long since departed, but on approaching his prize, Ted caught sight of another fowl lying not 20 yards away on the opposite bank. With its head in the dirt, it didn’t look like it would be going anywhere in a hurry.

Ted curiously inspected the second warm corpse. Its shattered, bloody skull could lead to only one conclusion. With the bullet passing straight through the intended target, an unsuspecting bird standing directly behind had copped the spent lead in the head. What were the chances of that?

I remember being told this story many years ago, listening to the mesmerising tales of my great Uncle Ted. I longed to have been able to join them in these grand old days, and could only think we would have made good companions. A couple of years after being enchanted by stories of elephants, crocodiles and guinea fowl under the African sun, I travelled to Rhodesia – or Zimbabwe as it is now called – and had a chance to bag my very own.

In similar fashion to 50 years before, we were in need of some camp meat. Joining family friends on a farm outside Harare (which has sadly since been stolen by Mugabe’s regime), we were set for an afternoon’s bass fishing, followed by an evening around the campfire. Trusting the fishing skill of my companions, I set off for an armed stroll to see if I could rustle up a francolin or guinea fowl from the bush.

I traced a lush green tract of ground below the dam wall. The liberation of wandering the bush alone with a rifle washed over me, and flashbacks to the wandering stories I had read and heard played back vividly in my mind. As the eroded land fell away below me, my mind drifted back to Uncle Ted, and I daydreamed of the mighty man-eating croc ‘JoBurg’ he had defeated somewhere east of where I stood.

Food for thought: A brace for the braai makes it a successful rimfire excursion

The distinctive ring of a guinea fowl focused my attention back on the present. A fleeting movement just caught the edge of my peripheral vision. I was sure it belonged to the source of the chattering racket that had shattered the tranquillity.

Climbing to higher ground, I looked back down to the area of flourishing greens, thriving in an isolated pocket of damp ground surrounded by dead grasses and withered trees. Basking in the glory of this oasis, a dozen guinea fowl pottered between the foliage, snatching unsuspecting insects from plant stems.

Closest to me at just over 60 yards, two of the group lay apart, kicking dust through their feathers as they rolled in ecstasy among the dry dirt. I squeezed off a broadside chest shot, and the first bird slumped to one side in the dust bowl before thrashing in a final nervous convulsion. The moderated shot left the rest of the group startled and on edge, but as yet they were unaware of the impending danger. Bouncing across in jittering, wing-flaring anxiety, the dusting companion dashed towards the now motionless body. A second shot stopped the bird in its tracks.

No longer willing to stick it out, the rest of the fowl exploded in a crescendo of danger calls, taking awkwardly to the sky as they air-hopped out of sight and crashed through the undergrowth. With two birds in hand, I could return with my contribution to the braai fulfilled.

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