The Child Hunter

In the time frame of fifty years so many things have changed.

Although this period from the 1950’s to the new millennium and beyond in which there has not been a world war, we have seen, by the default of isolated world events, a shift in attitude and political opportunism, which has given to a change in the perception of what is good for us as persons.

When I was a kid, guns were part of our lives. We used to hunt antelope for recreation (and utilise the meat), vermin such as rock rabbits, jackals and lynx to destroy and target shooting for skill and training. We were taught from an early age, by our fathers, and they in turn by their fathers and forefathers, how to safely handle guns and ammunition.

At the end of the Second World War many households had acquired an armoury of weapons. These weapons had been accumulated, just in case, of an invasion by an enemy. The weapons were locked away in cupboards and strongrooms. It was no big deal. But sadly today there is paranoia about gun ownership and the use of firearms.

My dad was a gun enthusiast. Pitting his reflexes and skills in target shooting and hunting. He was very good at hunting and had a knack of shooting antelope that were on the run. He represented South Africa in target shooting and went to Biseley in England to take part in a competition.

Our type of hunting took place in large acreage paddocks on sheep farms where antelope, especially springbuck were managed as a resource. The countryside was made up of undulating hills, shale ridges, conical shaped hills and flat top mountains. Numerous dry gullies and small creeks transverse the open spaces. The vegetation is made up of thorny Acacia, Karoo bush, Saltbush and a variety of succulents. Very few plants grew more than one metre in height. Trees, especially Australian eucalypts and pepper tree, are only found near watercourses and where they have either been planted or seed has been deposited by means of bird droppings.

The general idea was for the landowner to invite selected guests for a hunt during the day and always in winter. He would then place the various hunters in strategic positions in a paddock of around 2000 acres so that the shooters could not see one another. Then the farmer’s family or workers would ride out on horseback and get the antelope moving. Springbuck can run at 70 kilometres per hour. The antelope would then be chased in the direction of the hunter who would then proceed to shoot from behind a bush. Normally the farmer would stipulate that he wanted only rams to be culled that day and so one had to make sure that the animal was a ram by detecting the size of its horns through the binoculars. He would also stipulate to the hunter how many animals he would allow the hunter to shoot. As the antelope approached a hidden hunter and a shot was fired they would run off again in a different direction. The men on horseback would keep out of sight but will still be there to chase the animals on, hopefully in the direction of a hunter. If a hunter shot an animal he would then proceed to cut the animal open and remove the stomach and entrails. Then he would place the dead animal over a bush or in the shade. At around midday all hunters and their kill would be collected by truck and an engaging braaivleis would ensue and sometimes copious amount of alcohol would be consumed. A dangerous practise and against all hunting rules but to my knowledge no one was ever injured out in the veld as a result of some hunters over indulging. During this time the workers would clean up the animals killed in the morning hunt. The hunters would compare their skills at how clean a kill they had performed. This means if the animal was shot cleanly it was a head shot. Anywhere else apart from the neck was a bad shot as the meat would then not be good for consumption. In the afternoon the hunting would continue, more than likely in another paddock and with a fresh herd of antelope. By late afternoon the same procedure would eventuate and then hunters and workers alike would travel back to the homestead. The farmer would then donate a number of buck to each hunter and after a few pleasantries and a few more drinks everyone would disperse and return home. This could be between one and two hours drive.

In later years the farmers began value adding the antelope to their income and overseas markets were procured for venison. Professional hunters would then come and shoot at night and the socialised hunt became something of the past. Only on a special occasion would the farmer invite friends or business acquaintances over for a social hunt.

I started going out hunting with my dad when I was five years of age. Even though I was a sickly child my dad persuaded my mother that it would be a good for me to go with him and so my mother reluctantly agreed. We would leave home around 5 am when the air was still and the ground was frosty. Always in winter and I can recall a temperature of minus 12°centigrade. My dad was self employed and organised his work so that he could get away from the office for a day.

Somehow we always had a vehicle that did not have a heater fitted and extra rugs had to be taken along to keep our legs and feet from freezing. We would arrive at our destination around daybreak and after greetings a hot cup of coffee would emerge for all from the bowels of the kitchen. Soon we would be on our way out into the veld and into our hunting positions. I would get rugged up in my blanket, with a beanie pulled over my ears, a warm woollen scarf around my neck and another old blanket wrapped around my feet.

Then we would wait for the antelope to come. I had watched very closely what my dad did. Most of all, I had to be quiet and if I had to speak, then only speak in a whisper.

There were days when it was bitterly cold with the wind howling around our ears. I would try to amuse myself by looking out for ants and other ground dwellers that live beneath the multitude of rocks.

Sometimes on a quiet day you could hear the herd of antelope approaching. Their hooves clattering over the stones and hard ground. Then I had to sit as quiet as a mouse whilst dad got into a position to shoot.

BANG! and then BANG! again, and maybe BANG once more. In the confusion of the noise the antelope may mill around in a daze. This would offcourse be fatal for that animal which was within range. My ears would be ringing from the noise that the old .303 made as it spurted out its sluggish projectile towards the unsuspecting animal. “Come on son” dad would say, “I think we have got ourselves one or two”. Dad very seldom missed a shot. He was so good at hunting. Everything was done with precision and each kill was invariably a clean shot.

We would walk over to where the antelope was lying dead or dying. If it was not dead then its throat had to be cut quickly so as to put it out of its misery. Then dad would slit the stomach open and remove all the innards and then shake the body free of inner blood and then lay the animal over a bush so as to keep it away from ants. When springbuck die the fur on their lower back opens up and the most sweet smell emanates from there. Just for a minute or so and then the fur lies down again after the animal has died. Quite mystifying for a child who was then 5 years of age. Later in life I could not fathom why man could be so inhumane towards his fellow planet dwellers.

I went on many hunting trips over the ensuing years until the day when I was 8 years of age. Dad said that now that I knew how to handle a rifle, I may take my .22 and go and sit on my own. I barely slept a wink that night. The excitement was building up. When we arrived at our destination, Pampoenpoort, the farm of the Hugo Family, dad took Uncle Bertie, the farm owner, aside and asked if I could have a go on my own. He was agreeable and the these two adults concocted it so that I would be kept out of harms way and also that I would be out of the way in the event that I fire in the wrong direction. I must confess that there was not much chance of that because my dad had drilled the safety rules into my head so that I knew them off by heart.

I sat out there in the veld on that bitterly cold day where temperatures have been known to drop below minus 10 Centigrade and watched with excitement for the antelope to come. I checked my .22 rim fire rifle and the magazine. Dad had only allowed me 4 bullets and so I had to be certain if I was going to shoot.

Suddenly I heard what sounded like a thunder of hooves on the iron stone terrain. The antelope were coming !! I crouched lower behind the bush trying to be inconspicuous. But the antelope were running and they passed at speed left and right of me. There was no time to get an accurate shot off and I had to let them go. I sat down disappointed. All was quiet again, just the cold breeze rustling through the bushes.

Within a few minutes I heard another sound of hooves. They were slower and soon a Springbuck ram appeared, trotting at a steady pace. I sat down and took aim at the moving target. It was still trotting. I gave a low whistle and the buck stopped to look for where the noise was coming from. I aimed for the base of the skull at about 100 yards and squeezed the trigger. The buck dropped in it’s tracks. It was dead before it hit the ground. My heart was thumping and I had a rush of blood. I looked around for signs of any other antelope but there were none. I made sure my rifle was unloaded and walked over to where the springbuck lay. It was dead all right!! Now I had to do what I had been taught so many times. I had to slit the stomach open and get rid of the intestines and lay the buck over a bush to drain any blood that may accumulate inside the carcass. This I did with all the clumsiness of my youth with a pocket knife, which I had forgotten to sharpen before leaving home. But in the end the job was done.

I returned to my hideout and sat down behind the bushes again just bursting to show someone and to tell the tale of my conquest. The morning dragged on, and although I heard gunshots in the distance, no more antelope came my way.

Eventually a farm worker on horseback came by and praised my talent at being so young and achieving so much. My pride swelled to bursting point. Soon after the hunt’s utility vehicle came by with my dad riding in the back. My kill was loaded on the back. Praises were heaped upon me for my achievement and in the end I became embarrassed by it. But another young boy, whose dad was also a farmer, came along and told me that he had shot his first buck when he was seven!!! I came back down to earth.

It certainly was one of the best days in my youth.

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