At dawn in the Swaershoek, the rising sun paints a watercolour across the plains as they set themselves out before you while you sip your morning coffee on the stoep. A kwikstertjie sings hello then flits to a treetop, its flight distracting your eye from the light caressing the land and warming the dawn’s cold hand. The sun seems to yawn as it shifts its light across the veld between your verandah perch and the distant pinkly-grey mountains, a wheaten brushstroke here, a shaft of heavenly oaten light there, a reminder that the brilliant orb has not been likened to a God for nothing. Here I am again, the sun seems to whisper; I was only gone for the night. You refocus your mind on the day ahead. It is time. It has been three years in the making, this day. It is the day of the hunt.
The day has not come easily. Were the Sun Gods hoping to dissuade you from this? By throwing pneumonia in your path as you thought you were heading to this day two winters ago; then doubling it up just to be sure? Then, a year later, a pandemic to hide from. No game hunt for you, the wordsmith who would see, hear and smell everything so that his writer’s pen can be primed.
You’ve long told yourself and anyone with an ear: if the opportunity were ever to come to you, you would learn to hunt, you would take up the challenge, because that would speak to your honest soul. You eat meat, you don’t apologise for it, so to experience a hunt yourself, to bring down an animal with rifle in hand, would underscore the honest soul in you. A deadly unspoken contract between man and beast. To be the one tasked to make the kill, human eye to animal eye. Ready, aim, breathe slowly, careful now, not too soon but not too late; right … squeeze.
When the day dawns, I awaken to Reveille trumpeting throughout the magnificent art deco house on Jakkalsfontein farm. You’ve gotta get up, you’ve gotta get up, you’ve gotta get up this morning… There’s nothing like a scene-setter to get the adrenaline going. The fates, or is it the Sun Gods, have brought me to my complex, hard town, and in the few years since we arrived here have bestowed on me a friend like no other in a long life, Billy Schoeman of Jakkalsfontein in the Swaershoek, and now he will guide me as I climb into the passenger seat of his bakkie having been shown how to make the rifle safe. It reminds me of the time I finally learnt to drive a car, at the age of 36, and I told my instructor: I am not moving this thing until you show me how to stop it. Knowing that the heavy, heavy rifle is safe, how to load it and how to make it safe once more, I feel secure knowing it is alongside me in the bakkie.
Your friend the grazier is acting as your PH today. Grazier is a term preferred by some sheep farmers. Your Professional Hunter, one who knows rather than is merely trying to find out. He is born to this; had to take over the family farm shortly before his 22nd birthday when his dad died suddenly. It’s a family thing and he doubts he will make 60 himself. The older farmers in the omgewing all admire him, except for that one, the one who lurks beneath yonder koppie, marring the world’s best view, but we all have a nemesis.
This is the first time I have seen the extent of the farm over which my friend is caring lord of all he surveys, the sheep, the cattle, the karoobossies, the water, the fencing, the bounty, the drought; whatever is thrown his way, he has no choice but to deal with it, for better or for worse. It has been delightful, after his recent six years of hardship thanks to the callous Weather Gods, to see him making wonderful strides of late, being able to invest again, and to see the old farm’s fortunes looking up once more; to see green on the vlaktes again, to smell the rain landing hot on the warm earth, and hear the water flowing down the waterfall again on the mountain. His mountain.
“Someone once asked my gran, ‘So what’s it like to own a mountain?’,” he remarks in typically wry tone. If you were to stand atop that mountain, you’d be gazing down at the Mountain Zebra National Park. You don’t want some of those animals crossing over and taking your stock, so you have to see to your fences all the time. And those springbuck might look cute, but they cause terrible damage to your fences, so they might be for the protective cull too. Because hunting isn’t just about hunters getting their sport: it serves a variety of purposes for the farmer, not least being food for pot and freezer.
You must have a PH if you’re a novice, because if you’re an amateur you’re not likely to make the kill clean no matter how ardently you try to do it perfectly, and your PH will be sure to climb in immediately if a shot creature is suffering. The coup de grace to end the pain. Nobody said hunting was going to be neat and tidy. Even though that is your intention. And anybody who says the hunter does not care about the prey is ill-informed.
Half an hour into The Hunt. To my left I spot something. It looks like the head of some or other buck. I tell the grazier. It is. It’s lying down, he says, excited, in a low whisper. Stops the bakkie. I wind my window down, pick up the rifle and steady it. He reminds me to load it. My mountain ribbok has risen, is loping off, unperturbed. I try to get the buck in my sights, or what I now know is called the scope. I seem to be more or less aiming for it but am unsure. I apply pressure to the trigger and the shot goes off.
Eina! There’s blood everywhere, on the tissue I’m dabbing at my forehead, running down my face. It’s the rebound of the scope against your forehead. None on the mountain rhebuck though, she’s off and far away, not looking back, untouched by my unlikely bloodlust. It’s barely 10am and she’s made a lucky and hasty escape, yet leaving an ironic wound on the face of the hapless hunter. You throw your head back and chuckle at the irony. Jy wil mos!, says your laughing PH, who you’ve been calling your gillie after the time you spent in a glen in the Highlands of Scotland north of Inverness with a gillie for a guide all those years ago; the scrunch of wet heather underfoot, the herd of stags, antlers seemingly intertwined like a legion of brother antelope joined at the horn; the bagpipes piping a birthday cake into the baronial dining room of the hunting lodge that night, to mark your 50th birthday. There was haggis, whisky, more whisky and laughter. And there will be whisky tonight, but first, the rite of passage of this 66-year-old man, taking up rifle at an age three years older than my father had been when he died at the age of 63, and 63 years after my big brother died in 1958, a boy’s life wasted. I must live my life, and wish they’d had more.
On a rise 50 metres away, we spot a trio of mountain rhebuck, having ignored the vaalie (a rarer and sought-after species of rhebuck) that he said was not up for grabs today. But they’re off in a flash. We climb out and proceed on foot, and at the top of the rise we scan every horizon and the terrain in between. Somewhere over that mountain lies one of the greatest national parks, teeming with bergkwagga and much more. There’s no sign of our hooved trio. Where could they have gone? We must surmise that we turned the opposite way to the direction they had scarpered off in. I’m starting to prepare myself for the humiliation that Tony did not manage it in the end; that the Townie (an in-joke) did not klap his first bokkie, as the vernacular goes. That he did not become a man today.
I become somewhat despondent but I try to hide it. After missing that first attempt at a kill, of one of the mountain rhebuck that populate this part of the farm, the realisation washes over me that this will not be easy. That there’s more to hunting than just pointing, shooting, loading the beast onto the bakkie and butchering it. There’s The Hunt. The Chase. Parking the bakkie and climbing out for The Stalk. Trudging over knobbly veld while trying not to twist an ankle between sand and stone. Each awkward step reminding you that you’re no longer young.
Half an hour on, now down the mountain and bumping and grinding over a track that makes a potholed road look desirable and a cinch, we spot a span of 14 of the same beasts. But another half hour of covering the terrain they must have escaped into on seeing us delivers nothing until we spot them heading in single file along a ravine and approaching a spring where they can water themselves. But these buck are well camouflaged. In among trees now, I can barely make them out at all while the grazier is still counting them. He has been seeing them all his life, and can easily see the bokkie from the trees. I elect not to take a shot, as success seems unlikely and I do not want to maim an animal for nothing.
Before going back to the farmhouse to collect what we’ve planned for lunch in the veld, we make a foray into a camp where his blesbok population hang out. “It’s crown game,” he’s told me, “but I’ve decided you can have one.” We see many sheep but no blesbuck. After stopping at the house, we braai in the veld, in a dry riverbed where he often stops for a midday braai when out hunting. Prawns. Yes, prawns. It is my thank-you treat for the farmer who loves them and never gets to eat them. He, the farmer who once went to a posh cookery school and worked at Ellerman House for a stint, melts butter with lemon juice and garlic salt in a braai pan, we braai the butterflied prawns on both sides for a few minutes, then tear off the shells with our hands. I’m wondering what the protocol is when you’re eating prawns in the veld. “Nah, just chuck them anywhere, Oom Jakkie will find them tonight.” Ah, Oom Jakkie. The jackal population that stalks his farm, after his stock. There’ll be sushi for Oom Jakkie and the boys tonight. Last night there’d been soutribbetjie which he’d prepared for three days; what a treat. I’m tasked to crisp it on the coals. It’s just sublime, its saltiness a joy, even the fat is crisp and luscious. He throws together a samp and beans bake with cheese, bacon, corn and toasted peanuts to accompany it. I help with the cheese sauce.
At lunch in the veld, the beers have gone down well with the prawns, only one for me, and we’ve been trundling along farm tracks for another hour and a half with me making game comments, preparing myself for failure if it comes to it. “Look, it’s not all that important to me; if I end the day with nothing, I can live with it.” Hoping, quietly, that it will not be too much of a disappointment for him, having gone to so much trouble and also having waited three years for my promised day to arrive.
We’re in the camp again with the lambs-at-foot to one side and the lambless ewes to our right. As the sheep part like the Red Sea to let the bakkie through, I grab the water bottle and ask him to slow down so that I can take a couple of sips. In that moment, he says under his breath, “Hey! Look!” And points. And there they are, a span of five or six blesbok about 100 metres away. I sigh. I can’t imagine pulling it off. But I have promised myself, and him, that I will do it if the moment comes. I won’t chicken out, promise. I’m going to do this. It is 4.30 in the afternoon. It truly is now or never. And it is important for this man that my day goes well, that I experience his life properly. I am in his world, and he’s proud to show it to me. He could have had paying guests on a hunt this weekend, and I’d offered to step aside, but he’d said firmly. “It’s your weekend.”
I’m out of the bakkie, leaning forward onto a cushion on the bonnet, facing the span. I aim carefully. I wonder about that rebound action. Twice earlier I’d tried shots at practice targets, during the midday prawn braai. And thrice the rebound of the scope had smacked into my forehead, more blood ensuing each time.
Careful now, line it up, I’m saying to myself. And in the scope the crosshairs are never perfectly still, and nor is the animal. I must aim for a spot just behind the shoulder blade, so that it will be a clean and quick kill and the meat will not be damaged. I squeeze the trigger gently. Thwack! The scope has hit my forehead for a fourth time. I’m dabbing the blood streaming down my face with tissue paper, shaking with frustration. “Did I get it?” I ask him, because I cannot see. “No,” he replies. “Sorry man.” The disappointment in his voice is palpable. Then: “Hang on… why’s that one lying down…?”
I had hit it, it turned out. Not in the best of places. A 10-minute stalk ensues once I’ve handed the rifle to him and he goes ahead of me to get it over with as quickly as possible. I’m out of breath by the time I’ve caught up to about 50 metres behind him when I see him raise the rifle and aim, and further beyond I see the blesbok in a clearing. He fires. The animal falls.
I’ll spare the details of all that happens next. The necessary but grim acts that follow the downing of a game animal. It takes both of us to load the carcass onto the back of the bakkie, a blesbok being bigger than both a springbok and a mountain rhebuck, or ribbok as it is more commonly called around here. Back at the farmhouse, I do my duty by taking the hose and washing the carcass out and I hook the hind legs onto the meat hooks in the small cold room where it will hang for a week until he delivers the meat to me, more or less cut up so that I can debone and portion the meat at home. There will be two loins and two legs, and the rest of the meat will be used to make fynvleis, the Karoo delicacy that fills those delicious game pies you can buy at many farm stalls. You must try those if you haven’t already. The muscles of the legs will be pulled apart to make into game biltong and will mark the first time I have done what will, I hope, become my latest trick in the kitchen. The grazier is bringing me his old makeshift biltong dryer when he brings the meat.
As the sun begins to go to where the sun goes at night, we settle on the stoep as the watercolour of the day dissolves and fades to black. Somewhere across the plains, the nemesis skulks into the ignominy of the night. Whiskys in hand, we talk of many things, the grazier and the scribe, of what it means to farm, to hunt, to be a grazier, to have responsibility for all that stock. His is a solitary life. He yearns to see Paris, Prague, London, the world. But it is unlikely he ever will. The demands of the farm, and the birthright, compel him to stay, work, sleep, work, repeat. There is your Prague, I say, as my hand sweeps the darkening veld before us. There, see? There is your London. If only in his books and his imagination. But maybe one day.
Wherever Billy Schoeman is, his digital speaker is never far unless he’s out on the lands. A man of books and letters, every inch the gentleman farmer, he has eclectic musical tastes. A trio playing sitar, tabla and bansuri flute blare evocatively into the dawn on the first morning, Mongolian throat singing greets the next day. It’s lump-in-the-throat stuff, hearing these sounds of the earth and the wind and the fire while immersed in these lands at first light. In the evenings LP records are flipped on the old turntable in the beautiful lounge or played via his cellphone. Etta James, Cesaria Evora, Wagner, Marty Robbins, Frankie Laine, and the anomalous croon of Jim Reeves singing Ver in die ou Kalahari. Later on I get to choose, and throw some Bowie and McCartney into the mix. The repertoire becomes stranger still. You haven’t lived until you’ve spent an evening with Bowie, Wagner and Jim Reeves.
There is so much I have learnt since coming to these splendid plains, mountains and valleys of the Eastern Cape Midlands. I learn that in the real world of hunting for game for the pot, the felled creature remains the property of the farmer whose land it is, who will go on to sell the meat in one way or another, or add it to the rations. There may have been an agent involved, who would have approached the farmer on behalf of the client. Money won’t have changed hands yet and only will if there is a kill. But farmers need a huge income to even begin to meet their massive monthly overheads, and each “kill” of buck or other designated animals on the farm has a price, to be paid by the client to the agent, and by the agent to the farmer. The farmer isn’t in it for the sport; it’s a living. And you can’t just randomly kill any animal you see. You will be told which animal is available to shoot and which not. Farming, like nature, is all about balance. Nature itself takes some of the stock out; the predator removes elements of species as part of the way of things; and the farmer plays a third role, culling what needs to be culled (which of course includes predators) for there to be balance and to protect his sheep and cattle. Good farmers or graziers see themselves as a part of the natural order of things. It is the way it is, and always has been, as long as there has been this awkward relationship between man and beast.
Then there is the ever present fear of drought; the eternal eye on the water, the dams, the sky. Imagine what calamity a drought brings, especially an extended one. When the grazing diminishes with every passing dry, rainless day. When some lambs don’t make it and their human master feels the pain in his heart and on his conscience. That the sheep farmer ultimately sends some of the beasts for slaughter does not mean he feels nothing for them. They’re his charges. He’s in the business of husbandry, of procreation, but of a species other than his own. The sheep is everything to him.
Every lamb at foot brings joy to the grazier. Whenever the bakkie slows while you’re trundling along fences on one of his farm tracks, eyes peeled for game but actually seeing more sheep than anything else, you can be sure Billy’s seen a lamb at foot that wasn’t there yesterday. “Look there, I am one lamb richer this morning,” he’ll tell you in a tender tone, admiring the new life. And he’ll separate out that ewe and the lamb at her foot into the next camp. The fatter, older ewes he’ll leave in their adjacent camp to feed on the now generous grazing until the next shear in September. The toothless old ewes, over yonder and keeping their distance from the younger animals, have little use left and must soon go to the abattoir. But this is not as callous as it might sound to the city dweller. They’re toothless … they can barely eat, even if given the pellets which must inevitably supplement the natural feed if nature has not supplied enough of it or if the Weather Gods have taken their toll on the land by withholding the rain.
As for the feedlot element of sheep farming, it is so easy for those on the sidelines to pass judgement without having true understanding. What is the alternative if nature has dried up the grazing by withholding the rain? For six years? Six years of the farmer trekking into town to buy and load 40 kg sacks of pellets to keep the stock alive? At a vast, crippling cost; a cost which has seen many farmers give up and leave their farm gates forever. Must he leave his sheep to die in the veld? Let the jackals at them? Or would it be more humane to pen off a camp so that he can corral them; installing troughs for pellets and others for their daily water? And then have to endure the city dwellers looking down their noses and saying, “Ooooooh no! Karoo lamb should not spend any time in a feedlot!” Right. They should die.
Every morning, seven of the 40 kg sacks of pellets are loaded on the bakkie and carried on his back to pour into the troughs in two adjacent feedlots. I’m given a task to sweep out the old water in the troughs and let them fill up afresh. There are 450 lambs, every one of them barely a hope in its mother’s eye only months ago. So beautiful, so timid.
Consider the grazier born to this piece of land. Our grazier is not a rich farmer. You get those but, like many throughout South Africa, his is a modest farm with only two staff and his own hard work, from dawn to dusk. Every night at 8pm he collapses into bed exhausted. At 6am he’s up and out. Repeat indefinitely, forever. Even at weekends. And the quest for balance reaches the bank balance too, as any freelance operator knows. The money comes in when it comes in; the first wool cheque here, the second one there, following each annual shear in the bullnose-dressed sandstone shed his great grandfather built and which was once hailed as the finest in the land, back in the days when the venerable old man had toiled to grow an extremely modest operation to one which, when Wool Boom time came in the 1950s when America needed wool to clothe its soldiers in Korea, became a farm of riches. It took 255 wagon loads of sandstone to build that shed; a masterpiece of masonry and a monument to a long-dead farmer’s vision and tenacity, now prized by the scion who has taken me on the hunt on this unforgettable day.
But riches are like the weather and drought, good years and bad. They come and they go. So that by the time Billy Schoeman found himself in charge, unexpectedly on his father’s death too-soon, he found himself in quite the same position his antecedent had confronted: a modest operation but with potential. I confess: I have never in my life wanted a man to succeed in his endeavours more than I do this Trojan of an individual.
What Billy had told me would transpire did transpire. You’ll find that there’s a strangely spiritual element to hunting, he had said. When you’ve ended the life of an animal you will feel an odd connection to it. A quiet and still respect. A sadness mingled with the primal knowledge that you have done something as old as life itself. The taking of a life for food. A connection I did and do feel, just as I am honoured when Billy tells me I am now part of the Jakkalsfontein story, connected to the land that produced my extraordinary friend. Whose fortunes I pray the Sun Gods will bless as they brush their heavenly watercolours across his land at every dawn. DM/TGIFood
Marie Curie’s research papers remain highly radioactive to this day.
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