Limpopo Journal. PART I

Drawn to all things African since I was a kid reading H. Rider Haggard, I had wanted to follow in the footsteps of childhood heroes…


When I drove over the border into Zimbabwe, the country was barely nine years old, the signs of civil war still everywhere. Bullet-holes scored the outer walls of the farmhouses spotting the savannahs. The guards at Beit Bridge, the crossing, wore fatigues and carried AK-47s menacingly. I was in the Third World there was no doubt, this especially clear after paying a small bribe to ensure my guns would not be confiscated. I had been told by my host, Colin, to keep my mouth shut during the entire border processing. It took over three hours and despite the inherent suspiciousness of him answering questions that were thrown to me, looking back on it, I’m glad I didn’t have to speak. No doubt I would have blundered. We were doing nothing wrong, of course, but the setting – right out of a mercenary war thriller – and the characters, were such that we might the hell as well been. There was a game to be played and my host knew it better than I. Finally the boom was raised and we drove over Kipling’s “great grey-green, greasy” Limpopo River – with my guns.

I was here to hunt. Drawn to all things African since I was a kid reading H. Rider Haggard, I had wanted to follow in the footsteps of childhood heroes, men who left the rich comfort and safety of castles and country and ventured into unknowns. These men were eccentric, cads and frauds with pasts to escape, but they all were adventurers: men like Burton and Speke, Bell and Taylor, Selous and Sutherland, Scots and Englishmen who explored the Dark Interior, with all the myth and metaphor that it brought. I, too, wanted to stare down charging lions in the scorching heat, retiring later to impala steaks and bourbon by the campfire, hippos lolling and snorting in the nearby pools.

Of course this was all schoolboy romanticizing. I mean, really, can such expeditions be mounted today? Well, yes, actually they can. Not an expedition really, there’s nothing Dark about the Continent anymore and the source of the Nile has long since been discovered. But, one can still pack a steamer trunk and a gun case and spend a month in the bush shooting for plate and sport.

So here I was finally, the guest of a cool-headed, quick-witted bush pilot and professional hunter, himself the son of farmer-soldier killed in a plane crash during the Rhodesian conflict, sitting by a campfire with a drink. Was this the fulfillment of that romantic ideal? Certainly there were no hippo gamboling in the pool nearby, but that was because a kiln-like spell had dried it to sand. The hippowere long gone. But in every other respect, I felt as if I stepped into the pages of King Solomon’s Mines, or any of the other books that captivated me as a boy.

After dinner Colin and I set about a plan for the next day’s hunt: up before dawn and after a bushbuck. We’d hunted several other antelope already, but despite being a cousin, the bushbuck presented an altogether different game. Its preferred habitat isn’t the open savannah, where glassing and stalking is the method. It is more comfortable in riverine forests, dense and verdant cover that borders water. The cover is so thick at times usual tactics are fruitless. Instead one walks quietly, mindful of the wind, looking for spoor and then estimating its freshness, the size of the animal, following it up, hoping, of course, to bump it and make a shot.

But, of course, it’s never that easy. The bushbuck is mostly nocturnal and extremely shy. It darts quickly in the shadows, giving momentary glimpses of itself, sometimes only because what sun that manages to get through the canopy, hits a spot of its hide, giving it away. You’ve seconds to sight, reckon and shoot. There is no time for any discussion of horn size or distance or any of the other things that go into a properly evaluated trophy shot – this is truly snap-shooting.

Oh, and one other thing. Unlike the impala or the springbok, the bushbuck tends to become very dangerous when cornered or wounded. Usually one thinks of Africa’s Big Five as the representatives of death in the bush. Animals that lie in wait, or double back behind the hunter, before stomping or mauling him to mush. But the bushbuck deserves honorable mention. Despite its lithe daintiness, it isn’t meek and it’s topped by two very sharp horns. They put up a ferocious fight against the cheetahs and leopards that prey on them and they’ve been known to charge from hiding and give right back to the hunter. Fair play as I see it. Though I was a bit nervous in anticipation of such an encounter, I was also very excited.