Looking at our desire to explore the planet with rifle in hand, Byron Pace contemplates the subjective experience of hunting and why we choose to participate in it
The chain-linked fold-down bed didn’t offer much comfort. Eventually, the constant symphony of clashing metallic noise and the rattling bounce of locomotive power became soothing. Sleeping was all but impossible. My anxiousness at being surrounded by so many people prevented me from drifting into anything more than a doze. Six beds, three a side, with a hair’s width between them was a little out of my comfort zone – I was more used to taking the sleeper to London. The musty smell of people lingered throughout the carriage, melding with the periodic and distinct aroma of wood-fired cooking as we passed by small villages heading north. My sparsely packed rucksack lay secured under my head as I tried to catch a little more sleep between the frequent awakenings.
In truth, I didn’t know what had pulled me to journey so far north by myself. I didn’t know what I was looking for, or what I expected to find, but I knew I had to go. There was something alluring, and as I would find, undeniably spiritual.
In the weeks before my pilgrimage of discovery, I had travelled through the Jim Corbett National Park, visiting some of the famous landmarks before pushing on outside the park, fishing rod in hand, in search of golden mahseer. I witnessed some true monster fish, but only claimed a small number of modestly sized specimens. Now, my destination lay somewhere in the foothills of the Himalayas, tracing the Ganges River upstream.
With a start I awoke, sweating and sticky. I looked down past my feet to the window just in time to see the weathered sign of Rishikesh, my intended stop, disappearing from sight. Scrambling my gear together, boots already on, I dashed along the carriage to the open door. Thoughts of jumping raced through my head as the train picked up speed. But at the point of taking the plunge, my aversion to risk took over, quickly calculating the difficulties I would face if I broke an ankle or otherwise injured myself in the jump. It wasn’t worth it.
I didn’t have any options other than to see when the next stop came. Given the limited stops and the final destination in the very north of India, I could end up a long way from where I needed to be. I sat by the open door, peering into the darkness. The morning light was yet to reveal itself on the horizon, and only the faint, distant flickering of early morning fires broke through the darkness.
I did manage to vacate the train 30 minutes later, hopping out of the door when the train stopped to change tracks. It took an hour to walk to the nearest village, where I eventually hitched a lift on a school bus in the direction of my intended destination.
Almost exactly six years after this happened, and only three weeks before this article was printed, I found myself returning to the foothills of the Himalayas once again, but this time from the Nepal side. Having spent nine days walking the mountains, I had been documenting what is probably the hardest and highest hunt in the world. It was the lure of blue sheep and the home of Himalayan tahr that pulled us halfway across the world, and it was an experience that will forever shape me as a person.
That story will have to be told another time, but it leads me to my point of contemplation for this article, which I sit putting the finishing touches to somewhere over Karachi. What is it that drives us to adventure with rifle or rod in hand? Where does this insatiable desire to hunt species half a world away come from? For some of us, this necessity wells up inside us so strong that much of the rest of what makes up our lives has to be content with coming in second place.
Some may even argue that this pursuit, often in less than desirable locations and situations, is a selfish act. That was much emphasised recently when British explorer Benedict Allen went missing for almost a week before being able to make contact again. With a wife and children left behind at home, he received much criticism for the level of risk attached to his escapades. The same could be said of hunting in certain locations.
Without a doubt, the hunt I am returning from now ranks as probably the most dangerous I have completed to date. That level of risk – crossing boulder fields, balancing on ledges with drops hundreds of feet down – did indeed weigh heavy on my mind. Yet I would turn around and do it all again tomorrow. I feel more alive; more of the person I want to be for it.
These kinds of hunts, across distant lands, are nothing to do with the provision of food. Well, not for us personally. The spoils of protein from such hunts, or anywhere across Africa for big game, do indeed play an essential role in feeding rural communities. But I think it would be a stretch to say that the motivation for we hunters doing what we do in those situations is to feed people. It is a by-product of the hunt, not the reason for being there.
So are we being trophy collectors, adding another species to a list of those already claimed? I can assure you that this isn’t the case for me. Indeed, on the recent trip to Nepal, I wasn’t even hunting with a rifle. I had only a camera in my hand. As for the other two hunters, all I can say is that you learn a lot about a person under the stress and strain of such a hunt. Neither were motivated by what would be seen in the public eye as the trophy of the animal. They were enthralled by the experience, consumed by the challenge and captivated by the culture and tradition of a distant land. Their trophy was the memory of what they had experienced.
Articulating what drives us to spend vast amounts of money and time in pursuit of creatures big and small half a world away is something we need to achieve. Explaining the importance of foreign hunters in places such as Tajikistan, South Africa, Botswana and Nepal is actually easy. The empirical evidence speaks for itself. The wildlife has to have a value for it to thrive, and this is often best achieved through the intrinsic value offered by hunting. Where we fall down is explaining why we desire to be part of this story as individuals.
To say we are doing it for purely altruistic reasons is likely in most cases to be insincere. We do it for selfish reasons, but those do not revolve around collecting another set of horns or antlers for the wall. They centre on what has driven the human race since the beginning of time: our wish to know more; to feel and experience more, in a way that is authentic. If you want to see what a country’s like on the surface, go as a tourist. If you want to see what it is really like, go and hunt there.
The story we tell as hunters needs to be just that: a story. Hunting is not a compilation of kill shots; it is a collection of experiences that shape the person we are and our understanding of our place on this planet. Yes, I hunt for selfish reasons. I hunt to experience more of the world around me. To understand more, feel more, enrich my knowledge of people and places and wildlife. Yes, it is for fulfilment of the self. But few of us would do it if our actions had a negative impact on the wildlife or environment, so this is intrinsically linked with the reason most of us hunt, even if we don’t fully realise it or understand it. We have a desire to participate in this world, and the most honest way we can do that is to strip our lives back to expose what we are. We are hunters, and always have been.