by Coenraad Vermaak
I had a vision – many, many years ago – when Bill Daly, Don Lindsay and Tim Ivins each still sported a glorious full mane of dense dark hair. As is now very evident, it was a long, long time ago that I had this vision. As a youngster I had a vision that one day I would be a professional hunter or a “PH” as we are called. I set about this career earnestly in 1968. But as the years rolled by, I started to doubt that “PH” really stood for Professional Hunter:
I soon discovered that “PH” actually stood for “permanently homeless”; when clients were scarce I decided it stood for “probably hopeless”; and that meant that “PH” stood for “permanently hungry”; and if that was the case, “PH” stood for “Potential Hobo”.
I am going to share with you a little bit about how it was in those early days when I started hunting professionally and how it is today - and some memories of which I have a book full. In those early days safari life was very different to what it is today. Significantly different in fact:
• We did not have an apparatus called a GPS. We had to make do with what we had – the sun, stars, a compass and instinct.
• There were no satellite telephones – we used a temperamental VHF radio or a runner.
• We did not have range finder binoculars – we had to estimate distance correctly, the first time!
• Green hunting or dart hunting – would have been a joke, as in my opinion, it should be today. It contributes little to conservation, is woefully abused and plays right into the hands of the animal rightists.
• In those early days, we hunted wild lions with trackers – these days some so-called PH’s simply open a can.
• In those days, we shot birds – not wings. I don’t know where the term “wingshooting” came from. Imagine saying at lunch time “let’s go out this afternoon and shoot a few wings for the pot”.
• In those days, there were no Toyota Landcruisers – we had to make do with what we had …….. Landrovers.
I see some raised eyebrows! With apologies to Landi owners and those trusty work horses! But on a serious note, there were other big differences: Compared with today, there was very little game on private land. Hunting was cheap and if you were invited, it was free. Largely as a result of the demand created by hunting, there are at least 9600 game ranches in South Africa today. And as a result, of the total 28 million hectares set aside for conservation, only 36% comprises provincial and state owned protected areas. 64% is privately owned.
The North West Institute for tourism and leisure studies confirmed a 2008 study revealing that hunting alone generated revenue of R4.4 billion, excluding live game sales, taxidermy, eco-tourism and meat sales. Including these, the total was around R8 billion and counting, as the wildlife industry and all its facets blossomed. We have more game now than we did 150 years ago. Just one example: It is a little known fact that there are over 20 000 Buffalo on private land today.
In the 1960’s Billy Daly and I started what was to become one of the first game ranches in South Africa on my farm Vermaakskraal in Northern Natal. We paid R10 each for Springbok, Wildebeest cost R18. Today they cost over R2000. Zebra cost R30. Today they cost R6000. Impala were free. All we had to do was fetch them from the Natal Parks Board at Mkuze where they were caught at night with a spotlight. An Impala today will cost over R1000.
And when my neighbors saw our first White Rhino, which cost R150 delivered, they all said “daardie ou is mal in sy kop!” Today a Rhino will cost around R400 000. Later, those same neighbors all joined together to form one of the first wildlife conservancies. Those were the pioneering days of which I have wonderful memories.
Now, just a few interesting values from 1968 (42 years ago): For purposes of marketing trophy hunting in South Africa my first overseas brochure advertised a rate of R50 per day for hunters and R15 per day for non-hunters. The trophy fee for a Nyala bull was R50. And my client paid R500 for the first White Rhino I hunted. Ten years later, when it took $1.34 to buy one SA Rand, my daily rate was R250. Some trophy fees were: Impala R45, Kudu R250, Gemsbok, Waterbuck & Eland cost R350. Buffalo were R400, Leopard R750, Lion R1,000 and White Rhino R2,000. So that’s how it was.
Let’s see how it is today: These days, (and again I refer to overseas clients hunting in South Africa) daily rates for a plains game hunt are around R3500. And for a Big Five hunt approximately R14 000 per day. Trophy fees today are more or less the following: Lion (not the canned variety) half a million rand +, White Rhino R650,000, Leopard R75,000, Nyala R18,000, Kudu R12,000, Blesbok R3,500, Gemsbok R11,000.
In 1976 Kenya closed hunting. “Een man se dood is ‘n ander man se brood”. Not only did some of the PH’s from there head south, but the focus for hunting clients became South Africa. The industry here blossomed then erupted. That was good, but there were also some threatening negatives and consequently a hand full of concerned PH’s founded PHASA in 1978. Today PHASA has well over 1,000 members. Over 8,000 overseas hunters visit South Africa annually and figures for 2008 reveal that over 57,000 trophies of some 40+ different species, were exported (that’s in one season!). So it’s indisputable; give wildlife a value and it will stay … and here I am preaching to the converted like we all too often do.
The biggest difference for me between then and now is the advent of what I refer to as the “jet age” so-called safari of 7 or 10 days which has regrettably replaced those care free and leisurely safaris of not less than 3 to 4 weeks when the record books were irrelevant and there was time to smell the roses along the way and savor the great outdoors, accumulating a treasure trove or precious memories along the way.
I know it’s all relative, but listen to this: In 1971, when it took three days to drive from Francistown to Maun, where you needed 4-wheel- drive to get to the Old Rylie’s Bar in main street, Bill Daly and I went on our own private safari to Botswana. It cost R450 to hunt in two massive concessions which we had to ourselves, including 4 Buffalo, 2 Tsessebe, 4 Wildebeest, 12 Impala, 1 Gemsbok, 2 Zebra and 2 Lechwe; elephant bull licenses sold at R150.
In 1982, Tim Ivins and I hunted the Zambezi valley. It cost 3,000 Rand to hunt 1 Elephant, 4 Buffalo, 2 Duiker, 1 Bushbuck, 1 Kudu, 6 Impala, 2 Grysbok, 2 Warthog and 4 Baboons – and it took R1.20 to by 1 Zimbabwe dollar!
I have often said that although we PH’s are in the hunting business, it is true to say that our real business is the memory business because that is what we really do – we make memories for our hunter friends and their families from around the world. That’s really what it’s all about; memories and stories.
Allow me to share a story with you. I have been told that I am quite a good story-teller. But if that’s true then I must warn you that this evening, I am somewhat removed from my usual story-telling habitat. Because I am accustomed to telling stories late at night around a little camp fire, under a twinkling universe, in some remote corner of Africa, with a good cigar clutched in one hand and a suitably stimulating jug of good cheer, which greatly enhances eloquence, in the other. I don’t guarantee that, having abstained all evening and dressed as I am, and standing where I am, my story will be as effective.
Let me tell you about Bob & Sharon from America who over a period of twenty years hunted fourteen different safaris with me in three different countries. Our first meeting was on the first day of their first safari on a dirt airstrip close to a small village where they arrived by private charter. My old tracker Henry and I had been doing some last minute shopping. The shopping included a lot of groceries which we put in the back of the truck and two bottles of KWV brandy and a packet of eggs, which I put on the front passenger seat. We could hear the plane approaching, so we rushed back to the airstrip where I very inconveniently drove into a deep hole bringing the vehicle to a abrupt dead stop. The eggs and brandy bottles were propelled onto the dashboard, and smashed to smithereens. As you can imagine we had to do a cleanup job with great alacrity. After doing the best we could, the inside of the vehicle still smelt like a bar. So, I used a can of deodorant from my bag to try and improve this. Well, it only made it worse. The car now smelt like a brothel in downtown Calcutta during the monsoon season.
The three of us were soon on our way to camp crammed in the front of the old Landy. It was mid winter and cold. So the windows were closed. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed Sharon, sniffing the air and nudging her husband. I saw him give that knowing nod and I could image him saying to himself, “what the hell are we letting ourselves in for”. Having settled in camp, my explanation was accepted with good humor and the old Landy was christened “the Whorehouse”! We went hunting in the Whorehouse all day everyday!!
Bob was a very effervescent, humorous sort of fellow with an extravagant smile and a twinkle in his eye - a clear indication of mischief. Sharon, was a very large, ominous and stern looking lady with a bit of a moustache and quite a fierce demeanor. Her favorite color was purple. She wore purple everyday. A color that I feared from then on.
My staff and I only discovered four days into that first safari that Bob was totally bald and that he wore a permanent hairpiece on his splendid shining.
On that morning while driving through some thick bush a low overhanging branch snatched off his hat and his hair-piece, which were left dangling in mid air. Well, you could have sworn I had dropped a live snake in the back of that vehicle. My three Zulu trackers, seeing this white man from across the big water loose his entire scalp without shedding a drop of blood, instantly ejected themselves with great agility from the moving vehicle and took off running. It was a splendid performance. They simply could not believe what had happened. We all had a good laugh. The hair-piece was donated to Henry and became a treasured possession and Bob stayed bald from that day on. Like most of our hunting clients, Bob and Sharon became very close friends of Vicky and mine.
Twenty years later - towards the end of a safari together with a day or two to spare and with no hunting pressure we were able to enjoy some leisure time attending to “un-smelt” roses. Our evening camp-fires burnt considerably longer. The last night t was a very jolly affair. In fact, it was a dazzling performance which increased in volume and exuberance as Bob and I settled down with a tipple and a noggin, to successfully solve certain important problems. As the night progressed we congratulated ourselves, over and over, on being such fine examples to the human race, of the brave up-standing, righteous soles, of sober habits, that we definitely were. Sharon got a little grumpy and bored with our repetitiveness, excused herself and went to bed.
We had reached that stage of the proceedings, when our powers of control over personal equilibrium had diminished considerably, when Bob politely suggested that we needed more wood for the fire. Not trusting myself to a successful journey to the wood pile and back, I announced to Bob, that it was definitely his turn to fetch wood. There was a long silence. He had that customary naughty look on his face. After careful consideration and mumbling to himself, he removed both his boots and socks and threw them into the fire. Saying, “There’s my contribution” and obviously issuing a challenge. So I removed mine and threw them into the fire. Next, Bob took off his shirt and threw that into the fire. And … I did the same. Then he reached for the nearest chair and threw that into the fire. Pretty soon, tables, glasses, bottles, kettles, crockery, plastic dishes, all followed. Now we had a huge, fowl smelling bonfire, belching black smoke and shooting guyfox all over, as each new item was added. Of course we thought that this was hilarious. And became more and more rowdy.
Finally, when there was nothing left to burn, Bob took off his trousers and underpants and threw them into the fire. I thought “well what the hell” and followed suit. So now we were butt-naked, yodeling and bellowing with laughter, and giving ourselves a thundering applause, as we admired our handy-work.
That’s when the explosion took place. Bob had forgotten about the handful of 375 cartridges that were in his trouser pocket. Flames, sparks, smoke and ash were detonated into the sky. We got one hell of a fright. But, that was nothing compared to what was to immediately follow. The explosion had woken the fearsome Sharon. We saw the light come on in her tent and heard the zip opening.
I shall never forget her appearing like a demon from a nightmare – a very large demon. She was wearing a long bright purple robe. Her face looked like thunder and I am sure there was fire in his eyes and snakes in her long dangling hair. She approached menacingly with arms bowed and fists clenched. There Bob and I were, butt naked, covered in ash, feeling just like 2 little rabbits caught in the headlights. I new immediately that instead of our anticipated procession of triumph there was going to be a gnashing of teeth.
No longer were we the indestructible, unconquerable, saber rattling, illustrious warriors of 5 minutes ago. Because all the wrath and indignation of the fearsome Sharon was upon us. We were not sure whether to flee or choose spontaneous combustion. Or even mutual extermination. Because there was no escape. And it was freezing cold. Fortunately for us, violence was avoided. She sent us off to bed with a promise of severe retribution in the morning – which duly arrived.
We did not know was that she had taken 2 instamatic photos of us standing there butt naked. She presented these to us and growled “this is what you damned fools looked like last night!”. Bob studied the photographs and said meekly “….. but darling, I didn’t know that it was quite that cold!” And I did not know whether to deny everything, go blind, deaf and dumb or start singing “Glory halleluiah”. Bob ducked just in time to avoid a flat hand clobbering him behind the ear.
It was one of those gorgeous bacon and egg like African mornings. We had champagne with our breakfast. We toasted the great outdoors. The beautiful animals we hunted. Sunsets. We toasted ourselves and our friends. And our memories, a whole kaleidoscope of rich memories, and of course, we toasted our dazzling performance of the previous night. We toasted future safaris and we toasted life itself. It was a melancholy but very happy morning. Bob and Sharon flew home that same night.
Shortly thereafter they both died in a horrendous car accident.
Life goes on but memories stay. That’s what it’s all about - friends and memories. So treasure your memories. Always!!