Death comes to the short-grass Karoo of South Africa just as it does to the long grass made famous by Capstick and others. That fact is poignantly clear to me as I sit on Anthony Gilfillan’s tombstone. The rugged terrain of the Karoo softens to my eyes as it falls away into a notch in the hills framing flat-topped Tafelberg and, farther still, a mountain named for the rhinoceros because of two horn-like peaks at one end.
Finding Gilfillan’s grave is totally unexpected. Professional hunter Bruce Truter and I have just spent an exhausting day walking atop the mountain behind me, hoping to find a kudu. Despite numerous tracks and droppings and limbs broken by bulls rubbing, we find none. We finally pitch off the mountain and work our way down a boulder-strewn 70-degree slope, and as we head back toward Bruce’s truck, we find the grave.
Bruce can tell I’m walked out, so he bids me wait there while he goes to fetch the truck still a mile or two away. No argument from me. The day is fine, the view is fine, my legs hurt, and I want some time alone to think about last night and what it says about life and death in the short grass.
Strange things can happen at night in the Karoo, and sometimes it takes a while to sort them out.
* * *
“These things happen about once every five years or so,” says Charlie Ayliff, shaking his head. Charlie and his wife, Liz, operate one of the ranches we’ve been hunting. A few days before, Charlie and Bruce had guided me to a magnificent gemsbok, one of the most strikingly beautiful animals in Africa. The ranch is managed by Johann Scheffer, and what transpired that night in the Karoo happened because Johann threw a party.
In many ways I think the South Africa of today is much like the United States of the 1950s I grew up in, especially in the rural areas. People still live off the land, seal deals with a handshake, and think nothing of dropping in on a neighbor totally unannounced.
It was during one of those visits to our camp at the Ayliff ranch that Johann invited us to his place–the ranch where we’d taken the gemsbok–for a party. And among the guests at that party was Antoinette Gilfillan–Anthony’s widow. Just three years earlier she had mourned her husband at the spot where I’m sitting, and something she said last night keeps running through my mind. The subject of anti-hunters had come up, and she had been puzzled by the fact that some people oppose the killing of animals. “Death is just part of living,” she said.
I wondered if her ideas on that had changed in the two years since Zoe Ann and I had first met her. Although we did not know it at the time, Anthony had been dead only a year when Bruce took us to her ranch for some bird shooting on our first trip to Africa. She met us in the hard-packed dirt yard surrounding the house, apologizing for the dogs threatening to tear us limb from limb. “That one belongs to my son,” she said, pointing at the one who seemed most likely to eat us alive. A few minutes later she and Bruce waded into the middle of a vicious fight between it and one of her dogs. By the time they separated them, all four were bleeding. Antoinette seemed rattled, and I thought she was upset by the rude reception we’d received. Only while sitting on Anthony’s grave two years later did it occur to me that she was still coming to grips with the task of running a large ranch in Africa on her own.
Death may be just part of living, but it makes a demanding house-guest.
* * *
Johann has the hands of a stonemason, the mind of an accountant, and the soul of a poet. He lives alone in a rambling stone house that an artist in Santa Fe would die for–recessed covered porch that runs nearly the length of the house, unenclosed slate shower, combination kitchen/dining room/sitting room with a fireplace and a cot, bedrooms off the porch, and endless views of the Karoo in every direction. Outside the entrance is a rack holding perhaps 20 pairs of worn-out size 12 shoes still coated with Karoo dust.
Outside the back door is a rock oven, the kind you heat by building a fire inside; the night of the party Johann roasts tomatoes for the pasta sauce in a pan over the fire. The tiled kitchen floor holds most of the cooking utensils. Ristras of red peppers decorate the walls. Basic and pared to the essentials, devoid of pretension and the claptrap of modern life, it nevertheless reeks of home–the home I grew up in half a century ago and half a world away.
The music is familiar, too. Johann has a portable CD player and a grand total of four CDs. The most popular one with the group is a mix of American pop music from the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Bruce is partial to–no, mad for–Dean Martin. Charlie likes big band music. Johann seems to favor the Beatles, though he and Antoinette dance to everything. Antoinette is drinking red wine; Scotch suits everyone else. Charlie mixes it with cola and water to the color of weak tea. Bruce normally has a Castle lager or two around the campfire, but tonight he’s drinking Scotch neat. Perhaps that’s why a good-natured shouting match arises every time a song comes on that doesn’t appear on Charlie or Bruce’s favorites list. Zoe Ann taps her toes and slaps my thigh in time to everything, and the room seems to whirl.
As befits his status as elder statesman and professional hunter, Bruce occupies the choice spot nearest the fireplace. Zoe Ann and I sit across from him, separated by just enough room for Johann’s big black dog to lie on the floor. Sometime into the second or maybe third bottle of Scotch, after or perhaps during one of the rowdy battles over whether to play Dan Martin or Benny Goodman, Bruce looks at me and says something that scares the hell out of me: “Someday you must write about this.”
In Africa you do what your PH tells you to do, no questions asked.
So ever since that night in the Karoo seven months ago, I’ve been wrestling with the question: How do you explain to someone who wasn’t there that a dog-fight and a kudu hunt and the deaths of a gemsbok and a man I never met and fire-roasted tomatoes and worn-out shoes on the porch and too much Scotch all make this place I’ve never been seem like a place I’ve always wanted to be?
It’s taken a while, but I think I’ve come to what explains it, at least to me. Years ago while working on an article on the Rio Grande for Texas Highways magazine, I had the privilege to visit Lucia Rede Madrid, one of the great ladies of Texas, in her home in the tiny hamlet of Redford, on the Rio Grande near Presidio. She taught in the school directly across the highway from the store and home she shared with her husband, and she had made her life’s work the enrichment of the lives of not only the children on the Texas side of the border but of the Tarahumara Indians in northern Mexico as well. She inspired the children she taught, as well as her own, to get an education. (Her son introduced me to the proper way to drink sotol, but that’s another story.) She got her husband to use much of the shelf space in his store for a library free to all. She collected clothing and used schoolbooks for the Tarahumaras.
“I put myself in the circle of their lives,” she told me, and remembering, I think I finally understand the significance of that statement, and what happened that night in the Karoo. Zoe Ann and I became part of a larger circle of lives.
* * *
We didn’t get the gemsbok on our first try. After a long sneak across rugged koppies to a saddle that funneled game between two open grazing areas, we had gemsbok in view and nearly in range. But before we could get set up, a lone blesbuck, spooked by who knows what but certainly not us, came running by and took the gemsbok with him.
It was a long quiet walk back to the truck.
Next day, after a discussion during which Charlie expressed doubt the gemsbok would still be in the area, we tried again. Following pretty much the same route as before, we made our way to the point we‘d reached the day before. Bruce stayed me while he and Charlie crawled to where they could see down into the saddle. Suddenly he was signing to stay low and come, motioning me to a hiding place behind a boulder.
And when I looked, there they were, 175 yards away and undisturbed. One was lying down, the other standing. “Take the one standing up,” Bruce directed. It was broadside, and the elk-sized animal looked huge through the scope. I put the crosshairs a third of the way up the body and right in the crease behind the foreleg and squeezed off the shot.
The gemsbok didn’t flinch, didn’t move, didn’t show any sign it had even heard the shot, though the one lying down got up. “Again,” Bruce said.
I did, in the same spot.
No reaction except to take a step forward.
I looked at Bruce. “I’m hitting it, aren’t I?” I hissed. He nodded.
I couldn’t believe it. Two solid hits with 165-grain Nosler partition bullets from a .308, and you’d have thought nothing had happened.
Then the gemsbok made a half-circle and laid down facing away from us. “Shoot it again,” Bruce said. I held in the middle of its back just behind the shoulders so the downward angle of the bullet would take it into the vitals and pulled the trigger. Finally, it rolled over.
Later, as Bruce field-dressed the gemsbok, he handed me one of the bullets. It had performed exactly as intended, the front section peeling back to form multiple cutting edges while the core remained intact to drive it forward. “Give that to Mr. Nosler with my compliments,” he said.
I was concerned that my point of aim had been off, but Charlie told me that was not the case. “I assure you there was major damage in there,” he said. “To me the gemsbok is the epitome of Africa. They are unbelievably tough and incredibly tenacious.”
I recalled what Bruce had told me about Charlie before we made our first visit to his ranch. He had been hand-digging a well and was preparing to blast rock at the bottom when the dynamite went off prematurely. He lost an eye and a good part of the muscle of one leg, but he survived.
That’s tough. That’s tenacious.
But like Africa, Charlie isn’t that simple. He and Liz love animals, and their children kept a variety of unlikely critters as house pets–porcupines, an aardwolf, Jenny the house donkey, and most recently Elvis the meerkat. One day as we were driving out to hunt, we saw some bat-eared foxes that seemed not too scared of us, and I remarked that I was surprised that Charlie didn’t have such a cute animal for a pet.
“There was a man once who had a bat-eared fox for a pet,” Bruce replied. “One day the fox bit him, and they had to kill it and send the head off to Johannesburg by train to be tested for rabies. The railroad lost the head for a while, and the whole family had to take rabies shots. When they did find the head, it tested positive for rabies.”
Bruce paused for effect. “That man was Charlie Ayliff,” he concluded.
Tough. Tenacious. Tender-hearted. Simple. Complicated. Charlie. Antoinette. Johann. Bruce.
The circles of their lives intersect with our own.
It happened one night in the short grass of the Karoo, where death comes to visit but does not triumph.