My African safari started and ended with a fish.
In 2000, when I was wildlife editor at Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine, I got an e-mail from this weirdo in South Africa, a professional hunter who was trying to save the dusky kob, a marine gamefish. He’d seen my name in a copy of the magazine given him by some Texas hunters and thought I might put him in touch with Texas fisheries biologists who could tell him how Texas had saved the red drum from being wiped out by overfishing–primarily commercial netting, though sportfishing played a part.
I did what I could, idly inquiring at one point how much it would cost to go hunting in South Africa. I was surprised at how affordable it was. But alas, out of reach nevertheless at the time.
Six years later, I was e-mailing Bruce Truter with serious intent, and a few months later, my wife and I were headed to South Africa for our first safari and what he said would be his last. He’d had a mild stroke and did not intend to renew his license.
The story of that hunt follows, but the remarkable ending should be told “now now”, as the South Africans say, not just now, or in a little while.
On our last day in South Africa, Truter took me fishing in his little home-built fiberglass boat, Rocket, all of 9 feet long, 35 years old, and powered by a mighty 8-horsepower engine. In a remarkable display of South African frugality and ingenuity, he’d used a rowboat as the mold, forming the fiberglass on the outside of it.
We went out on the Kowie River, in Truter’s home town of Port Alfred, and the one fish I caught was a kob, the very fish he had first contacted me trying to save. A healthy 5-pounder, it served as the fish course at dinner that evening, followed by bushbuck steaks from a ram I’d taken a few days earlier.
I remarked on the fact that it was fitting that the fish that had brought us together also provided the culmination of the visit. It was also a sobering reminder that we hunters go to Africa for the express purpose of killing the very things that take us here. There is no conflict between the two. Without the one there would not be the other. The dollars we spend help conserve the resources we consume.
I hope that my first safari does not prove to be Truter’s last. And I hope that as long as the tides of the Indian Ocean wash the shores of South Africa, they bring kob to swim in the Kowie. If not, Truter will have somebody’s hide.
Now, let’s go hunting.
* * *
I have always known and accepted the fact that I am a coward, and therefore I had no need to go to Africa to shoot dangerous game to prove otherwise.
“I don’t want to shoot anything I can’t kill with my .30-06 or my 12-gauge,” I told Truter. “And I don’t want to hunt anything that will hunt me back.”
Truter generously offered to let me use his .308 to hunt the animals we settled on—kudu, black wildebeest, impala, and bushbuck—and it proved more than adequate for all. A Sauer 80 stoked with hand-loaded 165-grain Nosler Partition bullets, it proved to be extremely accurate, as Truter promised. When checking zero using a shooting bench and sandbags, the three holes touched. It took five shots to take four animals.
But hunting is about much more than shooting, and that was why I half-dragged Truter back from the brink of retirement to take me hunting. It was obvious from the many e-mails we exchanged during the months of planning and preparing for the hunt that we shared many views.
Mainly, we are both opinionated old bastards who do not find much to like about the way many people hunt today.
“I can’t think of anybody who doesn’t hunt out of a vehicle,” Truter said.
“I don’t want to shoot anything from the window of a truck, and I want to suffer some myself before I pull the trigger,” I replied. And so we hunted the Truter way, parking at the edge of our hunting area and then walking in, often having to make a circle of a mile or two to get the wind right. We walked miles every day. For the first three days my legs and feet cursed me for putting them through such misery, but I reminded them it could be worse—I’d shed 25 pounds before coming on the trip, so they could be carrying a lot more gut and butt.
Truter stands better than six feet tall, but when he turns sideways, you can’t see him unless he is puffing on his pipe or sipping a cup of tea. Fortunately, he is always doing one or the other. He has been a professional hunter—among other things—for 35 years, and I talked with people who sincerely wished they might someday be lucky enough to know half what he knows about animals and hunting and the bush. Hunting with him is a lesson in patience, in taking the roundabout way to a goal rather than the direct approach, and in stalking close enough to the animal for a reasonably certain shot instead of flinging lead over great distances hoping luck will guide it home.
It is fair chase hunting in pure form, not to be confused with driving around until you see an animal, then sneaking off a ways through the bush before taking the shot.
We find another kindred spirit in Truter’s wife, Annette, who sets what must be one of the finest tables in South Africa and is a gracious hostess whose ability to make one feel welcome would put the Queen of England and her keys to the City of London to shame. Anyone who can make warthog taste as good as Annette can while putting up with a curmudgeon the likes of Bruce is a national treasure. As an added bonus, Annette is also keen on birds, which is what my wife, Zoe Ann, came to South Africa to see.
Hunting in South Africa is, for the most part, on private property. “It’s not darkest Africa,” Truter observed wryly. Most of our hunt was on the 15,000-acre ranch owned by Charlie and Liz Ayliff, near Middelburg, in the northern part of the Eastern Cape Province. Charlie knows the heart of a good hunting camp is the campfire, and every evening we return from hunting to find a cheery blaze making coals for a braai and radiating warmth for our shins, for while sunny South African winter days lie on the skin like old brandy on the tongue, nights in the Karoo are as crisp as new apples.
Talk around the campfire of an evening avoids—by mutual agreement—politics and religion but ranges over everything else, from Zoe Ann’s daughter away at school and Bruce and Annette’s son Edward sailing across the Pacific to slow Internet connections to how to deal with a pack of jackals taunting us from a nearby koppie before heading out to reduce the Ayliff lamb crop.
We marvel at stories Liz tells so matter-of-factly about pet porcupines and aardwolves while fending off the attentions of the current family pest, Jenny, a donkey who had been raised in the house with the Ayliff children, sleeping on their beds and sprawling on the floor to watch television with them. Now too big to be allowed in the house, she consoles herself by mooching tidbits from plates around the campfire. And the feasting is good, from the boerewors from the Ayliff’s freezer to a fine fish curry to a savory potjie of mutton and veggies.
It is good to hear the friendly jabs traded among old friends and find ourselves able to slip a knife between the ribs on occasion, which always elicits a hearty “Yoh!” from Charlie or a quiet “Good one!” from Liz, while Truter snatches his pipe from between his teeth and gives a hearty laugh if the joke is on him. We find much in common with these hard-working people and part feeling improved for having known them.
Naturally, we also wish we could have seen the Africa that was, the Africa made famous by movies like Out of Africa and writers like Hemingway and Ruark and Capstick and all the rest, the Africa the outfitters and tour operators still try to make you believe you can see if you give them enough money.
And yet the real Africa is still here—it’s just not the one you see in the television documentaries filmed in Kruger National Park, any more than the real United States is the one in the films about Yellowstone National Park. If you want to believe the myth, you can still see it in those places and go home happy, convinced you have seen the real thing, even though it may be only a percentage point or two of the whole.
As Africa and the world have changed, so has hunting. People come to hunt for a week or ten days; they’ve paid their money; they want results. If you simply want to go kill some animals in Africa, any professional hunter worth the name should be able to take you out in a truck and accomplish just that on schedule and on budget. If you want to do actual hunting in Africa, find someone like Truter, who understands it is the prelude to the shot that constitutes hunting, not the shot itself. “Talk to the PH you will be hunting with, not the outfitter who books your trip,” Truter advises. As in everything else, caveat emptor is a good rule to follow.
Whatever your choice, remember that you yourself are not hunting. The PH is doing the hunting. You are just doing the shooting. Do it well. You will make yourself proud, you will show respect for the animals, and you will amaze your PH.
As I write this, I’m sitting on the porch of the hunting cabin on the Ayliff ranch, in the north central part of the Eastern Cape Province between Cradock and Middelburg, looking at a koppie 2.5 miles away. On the other side of that koppie, about five hours ago, I shot my kudu.
“My kudu.” Right now, I think those are the most beautiful words in the English language.
After three days of hard hunting, walking many miles over rocks and hills, it all comes down to no more than five seconds. Two cows and a bull pop over a saddle—a neck, they call it here—in a ridge 80 yards away to the right, running slowly. I see them first; Truter is looking off to the left. I am not about to shoot without his blessing, so I hiss twice, then bark his name. By then he’s heard their hooves on the rocks, and as soon as he swings his head toward them he shouts, “Shoot that bull!”
As the bull reaches a clearing in the brush the crosshairs find its shoulder, and I slap the trigger like a shotgunner. It is too close to hear a bullet impact separate from the gunshot. I think I see the bull hump slightly in the one bound he makes before disappearing into the bush, but I can’t be sure.
“Come on, come on!” Truter is shouting as he motions me to race across the rocks so I can get in another shot if the bull races up the hillside opposite, but I see nothing moving.
We have not heard the bull fall, but we have been running as well. Still—had I missed? After three days, during which we’d seen kudu and taken a black wildebeest and an impala, had my aim been true? The afternoon before, we’d resighted the rifle, and later I took an impala ram at 120 yards with a shot through the shoulder—“spot on,” Truter said, so I knew if I had missed, it was not the gun’s fault.
Still—it had all happened very, very fast.
Truter posts me on a rock where I can take a dead rest while he searches the area where the kudu had run, looking for spoor. Once he finds spoor, he will look for blood. After half an hour he calls me to come down and shows me grayish marks on rocks where kudu hooves had struck. But there is not one single drop of blood.
Truter looks in the direction the kudu had gone, then turns to me. “Are you sure you hit it?” he asks. At the same time he takes my hand and shakes it. The impish twinkle in his eye and the broadening smile stretching beneath his white mustache should tell me that something is up, but I reply, “Yes. I’m sure.”
“Are you sure?” he asks again, and this time I look past eyes the color of faded denim and into the eyes of my kudu. It lies in the shade of a bush not ten feet away, blending in almost perfectly.
The bullet had broken its left foreleg, passed through the top of the heart and the off leg, and lodged under the skin.
To continue on to part two of Larry Hodge’s African safari story, click here.