I read somewhere, it’s when you’re young and before the brain gets too cluttered -somewhere between 5 years and girl chasing age – that people you meet and things you experience, influence your values, character and behavior from then on. Therefore my parents, various relatives and friends, but especially my Uncle Pat, have a lot to answer for.
Pat grew up in a rural environment in South Africa during part of the depression. He found that the simpler pleasures in life like hunting and fishing, not only put food on the table, but also encouraged an appreciation of the incredible variety of nature.
Despite working and travelling widely in Southern Africa, he always came back later to the same small town he grew up in. Pat was not a complicated or pretentious man and everyone who knew him, liked him. He had a wiry build, a dry sense of humour, bushy eyebrows and whiskers that grow high up his cheek bones, giving him a slightly rakish air. He also had an enormous network of farming friends who were only too happy to let him fish and shoot on their farms. Apart from the fact that they enjoyed his company, he stocked their dams with bass, gave them some of the game bag, reported on the general health of their wildlife and complimented the farmer’s wife on her cooking in return.
My luck was based on the fact that Pat resisted all advances of marriage until the respectable age of 48, when a woman managed to get him to rise to the prospect of living with a wife who likes fishing more than he does – the fact that she was a former beauty finalist probably had less to do with it.
During his bachelor years, he took a keen interest in his nephews’ and nieces’ development, never once forgetting anyone’s birthday – this changed the moment he got married, which says a lot for the distractions of women. In his successful attempt at sowing the seeds for my future appreciation of the mysteries of angling, I received a trout rod and reel for my 9th birthday.
Then there were the books. Pat bought and collected books on hunting, fishing and natural history over the years and saw to it that I was the recipient of various magnificent books about the avian population, to incubate the interest that I was beginning to show in bird-egg collecting. Egg collecting is illegal today because habitat loss and too many people, have pushed many bird species’ numbers to a point that no small, egg-collecting schoolboys could ever have done. At that time however, many happy kilometers were spent walking through the veld, or wading up to the nostrils in some oozing vlei for the thrill of finding a new species’ nest, keeping us fit and igniting a life-long interest in birds.
Living so far from Pat’s town, meant that I only got to do the really exciting stuff on the odd school holiday, but it’s funny how a few things stick so vividly in the memory of a small boy; on a visit to Pat one winter holiday, it was announced that it was time to take me rabbit hunting as my grandmother ‘needed’ to taste a game pie again. The night before this important expedition I could hardly sleep, knowing that I would be carrying the .22 rifle, despite the fact that it was nearly as long as I was tall. Pat said he wanted to give his little Belgian-made .410 ‘side-by-side’ an outing, seeing as we would be near a river and that maybe an ignorant duck would be flying low enough on what turned out to be a clear, cold day.
Hours have a habit of moving really slowly for a boy awake since the milkman set the dogs barking, waiting for the afternoon and for the adults to realise that lunch and endless pots of tea should be wolfed down, not savoured, in order to get to the important stuff.
We finally did see a rabbit that day, and when Pat hissed ‘Get it!, I put down the .22 and tried to run that rabbit down – I didn’t realise I was supposed to actually use the rifle, thinking rather that I was merely to be the trusty gunbearer. I don’t think Pat had laughed so much for a while and how he managed to shoot that high-flying duck while sniggering and wiping tears from his eyes, I’ll never know.
It seems like yesterday, going off to the ‘lock, stock and barrel’ farm auction where the smell of fat cattle and dust mingled with the odour of sweaty bidders standing in the sun, while the women pored over the contents of the kitchen. There was an old, broken-down ox-wagon behind the auctioneer’s table and it was piled with all sorts of useful looking equipment. Sticking out from under a dusty tarpaulin, were two slightly scuffed, polished leather cases with buckle straps undone. I managed to lift the top one’s lid high enough to glimpse sleek twin barrels, a burnished dark, warm, wooden stock and to just get that smell of ‘adventure’, before the auctioneer got going and I was asked with an empathetic grin to move away from behind him. The books Pat had his eye on came up under the hammer before those two leather cases did, so we left early but to this day, I have a feeling that we missed out on the bargain of a lifetime.
A few holidays later, we were staying on my Mother’s cousin’s farm, close to Pat’s town. This farm is one of Pat’s favourites and seeing as the bird season had opened, it was decided that it was time for me to be initiated into the art of guineafowl shooting. In winter, these gamebirds form flocks that can number in the hundreds and when so sociably associated and not distracted by the urge to impress the opposite sex, their many eyes look out for predators very sharply and they are not easily surprised. They are also one of the gamebird species that are not very effectively hunted with dogs, since they have the habit of heading for the nearest trees, from where they cackle down abuse at the canines while often ignoring the hunters. It is not considered very sporting for grown men to shoot them sitting in trees!
This all means that it takes more strategising than Napoleon had to do at Waterloo, to figure out a way of getting them to fly over or past the guns. They like flying downhill, but like flying with the wind even more and they don’t like flying over you if they can see you, so there are always a number of variables to consider. If an initial successful flush is achieved, it can be a much easier job of following them up and flushing them out as singles or small groups, but the first big flush is the most exciting as they take off with a concentrated, muffled rustling of massed wings. If they do come over you as planned, it takes an enormous amount of disciplined concentration to pick only one bird at a time, when the sky seems dark with them.
The farm supported a relatively modest number of birds that year, due to a reduction in the acreage of maize being grown, but we reckoned we knew where they would be that early winter morning.
Sure enough, as we quietly crept through the dewed grass towards the maize land at the bottom of the old apple orchard, we could hear their metallic ‘chink-chink’ call as they sociably picked their way across a bare piece of land between their roosting spot and the field, with us positioned directly in their path. All that needed to be done then, was to wait a short while for them to get closer and for me to have a go at them with the .22 on the ground (acceptable since I was a beginner), which would put them in the air for Pat and his 12 bore side by side. The trap was perfectly set.
The trap was sprung when the herdsman, Elias, and his skinny dog came whistling down the track on his way to move the cattle. If it had been Elias alone, the guineas may have just hesitated a while, but they took one look at the mongrel and flew off in a flurry, to a clump of wattle trees about 300 meters away. That dog must have seen something in our expressions as we rose out of the grass, because it took one look at our faces and headed off to less murderous places.
After a short session of re-strategising, we decided to try the direct approach and headed straight for the wattles; two guns were not enough to surround them and the wattle patch was on flat ground with no nearby cover. It was a desperate plan from the start, because the birds already thoroughly alarmed, saw us from miles away and peeled out cackling in one’s and two’s. By the time we got there, it seemed to be round one to the birds.
It never pays to be too hasty though, because as Pat lit a thin cheroot and I looked mournful, we spotted a lone bird that had decided to attempt an invisible pose, skulking high in a far tree. Uncle Pat unexpectedly took the .22 from me, thrust the 12 bore into my hands and whispered softly, ‘Shoot!’ I don’t remember aiming, I don’t remember the bang or the shoulder-thumping recoil, but the sight of that guineafowl toppling out of the tree, the smell of burnt powder and the ‘thud’ as my backside hit the dirt, remain as clear as a trout stream to this day.
It was a very proud boy who arrived back at the farmhouse, where everyone agreed that it was probably the biggest guineafowl they had ever seen; in fact judging by the size of its crest, a trophy in all likelihood. The next evening around the dinner table, it was also agreed that it was extremely well shot because there were no pellets to break your teeth on. Thinking back now, maybe it died of fright.
Two days later, in the absence of Elias, we ambushed the guineafowl coming out of the maize land again. I missed with the .22 but watched the rest of the plan unfold properly, as Pat took a high left and right – the birds fell within seven feet either side of him.
The .410 and the 12 bore are on permanent loan to me now. Every time I admire them, I am reminded why I love the sound of guineafowl calling in the evenings, fishing for speckled trout and the reason why I am ever searching for scuffed leather gun cases.