Leading a team of three Australian hunters in Africa, Daryl Crimp encounters big cats, ancient art and a lost impala that they weren’t the first to find.
A big tom leopard padded across the path in front of us, its sagging stomach testimony to a recent kill. Massive shoulders undulated like a turbulent rapid but supported a broad head that was fixed and resolute, while the deep sweep of its tail tillered the cat in the direction of an unsuspecting Hennie.
The chirpy little PH was stalking a large gemsbok that had Rob Dines’ initials seared into its hide, so I knew where his focus would be. Rob and his son Norm had joined my hosted safari and were now revelling in hunting Africa; I could picture them hunched behind Hennie, eyes agog, quivering like spaniels, and totally oblivious to anything but the oryx ahead of them. The leopard swallowed ground with an easy gait.
I was never any good at maths but I understood what it meant for two lines to intersect and it didn’t take a degree in decimal places now to see that this cat was on a collision course with our hunters. Deon, our second PH, was quick to react:
“I’d best radio Hennie and warn him.”
“No,” I checked him, to the astonishment of the other Kiwi hunters. “It will be much more fun to see the look on their faces when feet meet paws.”
Deon smiled. He liked the idea. Daniel, my son, just shook his head, while Craig and Dave looked worried.
“Isn’t that a bit risky?” Dave stammered.
“Nah,” I shot back, “that cat has just fed.”
“So it won’t attack them?”
“It’s highly unlikely… that it will eat all three on a full stomach,” I replied!
Hennie and the boys appeared soon after, minus the oryx or talk of it. Instead, Rob and Norm chittered like monkeys, words tumbling and bouncing like balls in a lotto barrel, while we tried to interpret this new language.
It transpired they had met with Mr Chui in a quiet corner of Africa, whereupon the big cat had dissuaded them from taking any food from its larder; the gemsbok was off the menu.
The leopard pinned them with a baleful gaze from atop a rock and all sorts of fanciful scenarios played out in the minds of the Antipodean hunters. While raking claws, flying intestines, and heroic histrionics are the realm of Capstick, I’m sure a good deal of artist’s licence danced with their imagination as they soaked up the encounter with the big cat.
Excitement aside, there was never any real danger to the hunters because Hennie is a top professional hunter with acute situational awareness; he is so attuned to the environment, bird sounds, and animal behaviour, that he spotted the leopard in time to avoid a confrontation. Besides, in Africa, the big cats ‘choose’ to let you see them.
However, for Rob and Norm, the experience was a rosette indelibly stamped on the larger print that was their African hunt. While some might have been disappointed at not taking the large gemsbok, others weigh the knowledge gained, more than the kill.
To come away from a stalk having added something to your mind and spirit, if not the table or wall, is immensely rewarding.
Many who go on safari hunt only by the tape measure, with blinkers on, and the record book as their bible. But the reduction of an animal to just a number or statistic, I believe, is disrespectful to the creature, and the hunt. Africa is wasted on them.
The pursuit of old animals, past their prime, that have served the gene pool and lived full lives makes more sense to me.
They have avoided many predators to reach old age so, by nature, are wily; it requires discipline, skill, and perseverance to hunt them, and to take them unawares is the ‘holy grail’ of hunting.
The size, shape, symmetry, or weight of any memento taken as a reminder of the hunt is secondary.
A good safari, though, does not stand alone on the success of the hunt. Rather, it is a compilation of vignettes, such as the encounter with the leopard, that meld with the pursuit to form a satisfying whole.
And this safari wasn’t short of distracting episodes. The leopard was the second we’d seen that day, which was unusual because they are predominantly nocturnal.
However, Africa has her own set of rules and she’d now turned night into day. All manner of nocturnal creatures were roaming around in broad daylight: bat-eared fox, jackal, aardvark, African wild cat, and leopard.
During a break in the hunt, Hennie had us climb a large kopje overlooking the bushveld and there, in a narrow horizontal cleft in the cliff face, we found an ancient lookout of the san bushmen, complete with a deep basin-like depression worn into the rock, possibly for fire or sleeping.
From here they would scan the area for animals to hunt, which were run down by a relay of hunters, who could almost keep up the chase indefinitely because they had previously cached ostrich egg shells of water in the ground beneath prominent trees.
These small bands of hunters, numbering up to 20 or so, had great affinity with the animals their existence depended upon, especially the eland, which featured heavily in their rock art.
They even used the blood of a freshly killed eland, mixed with a highly prized bright red pigment called qhang qhang to make a special paint used in certain ceremonies.
Given these paintings were premeditative, it speaks to the bushmen’s great skill because the eland would have needed to be shepherded back to the site of the painting, then killed! The blood needed to be fresh so the pigment would soak into the rock.
Many of these san paintings are thought to be over 2,000 years old but the ones in Hennie’s lookout were much younger. One of the paintings featured an unusually tall figure wearing what looked to be a cowboy hat.
We joked that it portrayed early visitation by aliens, and we may have been uncannily close to the truth. The san traditionally did not paint day-to-day events in a journalistic fashion, but in a more symbolic, even spiritual way.
However, it appears they may have recorded an event so extraordinary that, to them, it was mystical – the arrival of white settlers. These slouch hat-wearing ‘giants’ must have appeared other-worldly to the diminutive san, but it does help us date the paintings in the lookout; the first settlers filtered through the area 400 years ago.
Ironically, Rob looked like a Boer trekker as he set off for the afternoon hunt, fedora set at a rakish angle as he and Norm Indian-filed behind Hennie.
Evening comes quickly in the bushveld but it is the perfect time to stalk. Africa is softer then: the air friendlier, the shadows sleepy, the ambience Aztec gold, and the sun spent of all anger and volatility. And animals are on the move, taking water and food before dark.
The hunters intersected a herd of feeding impala and, after a tortuous stalk, Rob took a shot at an old impala ram in the fading light. It melted with the fleeing herd and disappeared.
Doubt crept in with the encroaching darkness and we were radioed to help with the track and trace. Rob was initially confident of the shot but the absence of both blood and a telling thump of the shot hitting suggested a miss. Hennie, however, is a terrier of a man and would not give up the spoor until it became too dark to see.
A post-mortem of the hunt was held around the campfire that night but no definitive conclusion could be drawn. No hunter worth his mettle likes to leave a wounded animal to suffer, and in the absence of proof that the shot was a clean miss, it was decided to reinstate the search in the morning.
So under a canopy of southern stars, we all retired wondering, while the last tendrils of smoke from the leadwood fire curled lazily upward in the still air. Close by jackals yipped and yapped and, far off, a fiery-necked nightjar issued its distinctive cry, “Good Lord, deliver us!”
No trace of the impala was found next morning, so the safari resumed in earnest. Later that day, after lunch and a siesta, we headed from camp full of purpose.
We’d scarcely left the compound when our attentions were drawn to movement about 300 metres away; a handful of vultures were in a heated argument.
“I bet that’s your impala,” Hennie said, as he raised his binoculars.
We all thought he was joking because it was ‘miles’ from where Rob had taken the shot, but curiosity has been the demise of many cats.
“Bugger me,” Rob said, scratching his head as he looked down at the remnants of his impala.
The .375 had punched cleanly through it but low, and the ram had travelled over a kilometre before the jackals took it down. It was heading for water next to camp. All that remained were the horns and hollowed-out pelt.
“The jackals were calling to us last night,” I reflected, “but I never made the connection.”
Hennie smiled and lit a cigarette. “You should always listen to Africa,” he said as he expelled a long stream of smoke. “She has a habit of rewarding those who respect her!”
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