Over the past few days, I’ve been putting a lot of thought into my time in South Africa. It is almost precisely ten years to the day since I stepped off the aeroplane in Johannesburg as a thoroughly naïve eighteen year old, little knowing that I was embarking on one of the steepest learning curves of my life. I had arranged work with a family I had never met, and while the trip was entirely due to their generosity, I am quite proud of taking such an abrupt leap of faith. It was easy to send out pleading emails asking for work and quite another to get on a plane and fly 6,000 miles away from home without any assurances at the other end.
I worked for a several months with a professional hunting outfitter on the border with Botswana, and within three days of touching down in the country, I had fired almost every calibre of rifle from a .22 hornet to a .458 Express, which punched a hole through a brick wall at my bidding.
Rifles were almost a universal fetish in this corner of the Limpopo Province, and friends met in the evenings and at weekends to compare notes on hand loads, shoot long range targets and have detailed discussions about rifle calibres. Coming at the situation almost blind, I had to pick up a huge amount of information very quickly. Within a couple of months, I had managed to prove some ability with a .300 Win Mag, and they started to take me more seriously. I like to think I held my end up at a surprisingly formal “Scotland vs RSA” long distance rifle championship, responding to the Afrikaans jeers when I borrowed one of the first ever .243 WSSMs, and used it to wipe its proud owner’s eye.
Although I was initially despised as a rooinekke, the Boers soon became keen to take me out shooting in the long, mild evenings as sand grouse flitted overhead and duikers emerged from the bush to browse amongst the terracotta sand. I saw at first hand the very skills which had decimated British officers during the Boer war – these men live and breathe rifle shooting, and they can casually hit a mark at six or seven hundred yards while the smoke from a roll-up trickles up their cheek and into their eye, and they balance a Castle Lager can between their knees.
We guided clients across the Limpopo province, and took others to the frosty high veldt near Sun City where the springbok and swartwildebees gambolled in the long grass. My knees knocked at Kruger as the buffalo milled and the oxpeckers dashed out of town, then I lost my heart to the kudu bulls which carried vast heads and seemed to swim through the seikelbos. And all the while there were silent leopards, nyala rams and a nagaap which pinged between the boughs above my cottage in the gloaming. I watched a stand-off between a swartkwasmuishond and a caracal, then flighted sandgrouse and doves for the pot as the crickets roared. The tracker Joel showed me how to follow the scruffy tangle of an ietermagog as it moved through the red sand, and we followed the wonky line until it came to an abrupt end amongst the stones. Dripping with sweat, I peered into the darkness and saw part of the pine-cone curl of the culprit himself.
I followed Joel’s lead as we walked behind the wounded. I listened to the limpid Mokolo river in the darkness, waking up early to haul in the greasy barbel which had irretrievably swallowed my porcupine baited nightlines. Even with a rosy tint of nostalgia, it was precisely the boyhood dream I had hoped for, and realising that it is now ten years ago, I suddenly feel rather grown up.
I sat down to write some of the stories I remembered yesterday afternoon when the fog was down and things looked grim in Galloway, and soon found I had six thousand words on the page before me. I could treble that and still never come close to capturing the sense of adventure I felt as, on my first morning, I was given a bakkie, a cottage and .22 rimfire which irremediably fired somewhere between six and twelve inches left at fifty yards. There is far too much material to ever fit on this blog, but perhaps odds and ends will appear as I add to the pile of notes and diaries.
I daresay one of the main differences between now and ten years ago is the advent of digital photography – I only have a couple of dozen pictures from my entire trip (including the one above), and half of those went funny when the camera got too hot and the film melted. Useful to note that I remember things far more clearly without pictures than with them –