The memories of my hunting trips over the years reminded me of the role that hunting guides or trackers play. We have all visited hunting destinations where the hunting guide could be anyone, even a regular farm labourer that knows the farm well. His main task is to ensure that the hunter does not get lost, and to provide the services of a well-trained guide.
The minimum requirement for a well-trained guide in the Bushveld, for example, is the ability to communicate in English or Afrikaans (what a pity that so few hunters speak an indigenous African language). Other requirements include good general knowledge of the vegetation; animal behaviour; tracks and scat; a keen sense of observation; optimal use of wind and sun; the ability to move slowly and quietly; tracking and locating targeted game; assisting the hunter to get into the most favourable position for the shot; tracking and locating wounded animals; using a two-way radio; proper hygienic carcass processing; and the ability to cape a trophy animal correctly without damaging the skin.
Mentor: Josef Rapala was such a guide – and more. He was a Tswana that worked on the farm Dikgakeng in the Lephalale (Ellisras) district for nearly 30 years. He died within a few months after he had been diagnosed with liver cancer. In June 2009, during a family hunt at Dikgakeng, my two sons-in-law and I had the privilege to hunt with him for the last time. He was visibly ill but insisted to fulfil his role as farm manager and principal guide. The farm owner informed as about Josef’s poor health, but it was still a shock to see this wonderful and much-respected man wasting away in front of our eyes. He died shortly after our hunt. I could not have chosen a better guide and mentor for these two young men who each hunted their first buck under his tutelage in 2008.
Hunters often take guides for granted. For the average hunter that hunts once or maybe twice a year (especially in the Bushveld), the guide is arguably the real hunter. All the characteristics of a well-trained guide mentioned above, make it possible for the hunter to squeeze the trigger and conclude a successful hunt.
Many experienced hunters have learned some of their skills from hunting guides. Each time we meet a new guide, we evaluate his skills. Sometimes we are disappointed but often we are pleasantly surprised at their skills and dedication to their task. With the proper attitude a hunter can learn so much from their hunting guides. I was privileged to increase my knowledge when hunting with Josef. He had a finely-tuned sense of humour and the ability to communicate about everything one came across in the veld, whether it was a fresh track or scat, or explaining essential information in a simple yet effective manner. I remember early one morning in the Bushveld, when Josef, my son Mark and I were moving slowly into the wind looking for Marks’ first impala. At some point we came close to the fence of the camp. Josef changed direction, accelerated his pace, and made no effort to move quietly. His body language clearly showed that “hunting” was not his priority anymore. Mark looked at me over his shoulder with a frown on his face, clearly wanting to know what was happening now. I stopped Josef and asked him to explain to Mark. In his usual vivid manner, he explained to Mark that we changed direction to walk with the wind to a point in the camp where we would change direction once again to continue our hunt into the wind. The animals would not be able to smell us and our chances were better to get up close. This was just one of those basic hunting lessons that Mark learned from Joseph and would probably never forget.
Student: During 2018, I went on a solo hunt in the Northern Cape. It was the fourth year that I would be hunting on this farm. I knew the environment well. During the previous three years, a friend accompanied me. The farm was uninhabited. The farmer visited two to three times per week to check on the water and feed for the sheep. When hunting, you are alone on the farm and do everything yourself. To hunt all by myself was a privilege that I treasured! Since I planned a solo hunt, I asked the farmer if one of the labourers could assist me. Previously, I hunted solo in the Karoo for many years, but back then I was hunting blesbuck and springbuck and I could easily handle the carcasses myself. Hunting kudu, especially on this farm, was not a one-man task. You needed at least one extra person. For this hunt, a farm labourer David (a Shona from Zimbabwe) accompanied me. He had never hunted before. He was tall, slender, and very strong. His command of English was not too good, and it took a day or two for us to understand each other properly. It was fortunate that David could speak a little bit of English because I do not speak Shona at all. David was more versatile than I was!
The farm consists of stony hills interspersed with red Kalahari sand and two fairly large mountains on the eastern and western borders of the farm. With a 4×4 vehicle you could reach most parts of the farm, but frequently the only option was to drag a carcass to the hunting bakkie. For that you needed at least two people. David’s job was to assist with retrieving, loading, and cleaning the kudu carcasses at the slaughtering facility where you need two pairs of hands. From there, the carcasses were transported to another farm 50 km away to the cooling facility.
Within the first two days, I realised that I was handed a jewel. David was a quiet but pleasant, hardworking, and intelligent person that enjoyed the hunting tremendously.
To me this was a new but very pleasant experience. At the end of the second day, I also realised that I have been sharing my hunting skills with David, who was eager to learn. We both enjoyed the experience tremendously. After shooting the first kudu, I showed David in the veld how to cut its throat and explained why it was necessary to bleed out the animal as soon as possible. Next, I cut through the stomach skin and wall and he removed the intestines following my instructions. He accomplished the process quickly. As we loaded the carcass I realised how extremely strong he was for his slim built.
Back at the farmhouse, I showed David step by step how to clean and prepare the carcass. With the carcass on the floor, I demonstrated cutting off the lower legs at the joints, loosening the anus from the outside and as far as the knife could reach around the colon on the inside. We cut two slits in the hindlegs between the bone and the large sinews and hoisted up the carcass until the hindlegs were at eye level. From the inside of the carcass, I pulled out the anus together with the colon and cut it loose until it came out in one piece. I cut through the skin on the chest and sawed open the torso of the kudu. David held the rib cage open while I cut out the heart, lungs, and other organs, which I put in a bucket. We rinsed all the blood from the inside of the carcass with water, while the carcass – with its skin intact – remained hanging. David washed and swept clean the slaughtering area. I only demonstrated the entire process to him once. With all subsequent kudu hunts, David completed the process flawlessly. Every evening, he washed the hunting vehicle, slaughter facility and equipment, and put everything away before going home for the night.
For the rest of that week, David and I hunted together, and I taught him how to walk with the wind in his face (into the wind) when we search for kudu and, whenever possible, to keep the sun on his back. One day, a kudu disappeared over a mountain ridge after the shot and we followed the spoor. Soon, David showed his natural talent to follow the tracks and blood against the rocky hillside. We found the kudu dead under a small tree. A few days later, we walked among the driedoringbosse against a sandy hillside. By then, I had confidence in his exceptional eyesight and alert demeanour to allow him to lead the way. There was fresh kudu spoor everywhere in the soft sand. I stopped and whispered to David that we should look out for horn tips or the ears of kudu above the surrounding bush that reached on average up to 2 m high. The bush grew fairly densely and sight was limited to at most 20m. Catching sight of a kudu’s horn or ear tips sticking out above the bush would enable us to approach unseen for a shot at a relatively short distance.
We continued stalking and David’s body language showed a fresh optimism after a quiet morning with no kudu in sight. Walk-and-stalk is my favourite way of hunting with each sense on high alert. Within a few minutes after our whispered conversation, I saw the sun reflecting on the horn tips of a kudu bull about 30 m ahead as he moved through the bush. I tapped David on the shoulder with my shooting stick and showed him to stay still behind the bush in front of him. The wind was in our faces and I knew the kudu could not smell us. The soft sand muffled our steps and the bull could not hear us and it definitely did not see us! A perfect opportunity! I slowly moved forward a step or three to get in front and to the left of David where I stayed in position with my rifle over the shooting stick and a cartridge in the chamber, bolt closed, watching the kudu slowly approaching our position. He was in no hurry and stopped frequently to browse on the green leaves of the driedoringbosse. Finally, he emerged through an opening in the bush to my left. I whistled, the kudu bull stopped and curiously glanced in my direction. He was approximately 12 m away. I aimed for a heart/lung shot and squeezed the trigger. The bull turned 180 degrees, darted past us and dropped to the ground 30 m further. David looked at me with eyes wide, shaking his head at what just happened. It will be difficult to find a better example of the theory and the practical application of a hunting lesson and the time that lapsed in between! To me one of those experiences that will always stay with me!
At the end of that week, I realised that David had the potential to become a very competent hunting guide with the right training. Unfortunately, he lived far from his home in Zimbabwe and during our conversations I could hear the longing for his people. A year later, he joined his family permanently. I will always remember that particular hunt with a young man that turned out to be one of the best hunting guides I have ever had. I will remember him not for his existing knowledge and skills, but for his eagerness to learn, to apply it faultlessly afterwards, and for the passion with which he approached everything he did! David made a special hunt possible. When I think of hunting trophies, this will always be a special one! My only regret is that I will probably never see David again and we will never hunt together again.
Appreciation: There are numerous small tokens of appreciation that the hunter can give the hunting guide. It can be his favourite tobacco or even a photograph of your previous year’s hunt on which he also appears. Tipping the guide at the end of the hunt is at the hunter’s discretion, but this is an important indicator to the guide of your satisfaction with his performance. a Small amount by the hunters’ standards may be a significant amount for the guide. The tip – or the size of the tip – should not be affected by circumstances outside the guide’s control. Let the attitude and dedication of the tracker – even when things go wrong during the hunt – guide your decision on the size of the tip.
Let us appreciate our guides for their contribution to our hunting experience and success. Learn from them and even teach them and above all show them your appreciation! Show me the person being genuinely appreciated, who does not try to do even better next time! Happy hunting Josef and David! May both the veld and game where you hunt now, be in excellent condition!