Southern Rhodesia: The 1940s
By Paul McCay
“You are never less alone than when you are alone in the bush.”
My life as a keen hunter began at the age of about six, where I grew up as the fifth child of six children on a large cattle ranch of 30,000 acres in Southern Rhodesia (Now Zimbabwe). My father was the second son of an 1891 pioneer to the country, and was manager of the ranch. He also owned his own ranch of a further 24,000 acres some fifty miles away.
We all had daily tasks to do, and my main one was to check that the gun safe and the contents were kept clean, and the weapons oiled. My first gun was a .177 Diana air gun, which I still keep for sentimental reasons. This I used to great effect in keeping the various birds away from my mother’s fruit and vegetable garden. From my many relatives I would hear stories of their hunting days and the famous British gun makers like Holland & Holland, Purdey, Westley Richards, and the American makers of Winchester, Colt and many others.
As soon as I was allowed, I began to seek further pastures and wandered off into the bush in search of other birds to hunt. I was allowed 10 pellets a day and was under very strict instruction not to kill anything I was not prepared to eat. I always carried a box of matches and a pocket knife, the latter to clean and prepare the birds for cooking over an open fire. On occasions I was followed by a child of an African worker in his hope of sharing the kill, and I always insisted he stayed well back and out of the way. However, we did get to share a lot, and learned so much from each other.
As I grew older my father said I could use his Winchester, pre 64 model 70 in .22 Hornet for shooting small game. To be allowed the use of this was also under very strict guidelines. I would be given three rounds and told that one was to kill a buck, and the second in case a shot resulted in a wounded animal. The third was to ensure I had protection on the way home. I was also told that I had to have a helper. His name was Sehla, and we were to share many years of hunting together, and from him I learnt a great deal of tracking ability and the need to conserve one’s body stability. The main issue here was not to drink any liquid when you’re hot, but to sit quietly until fully cooled down before taking a drink. This allowed me to stay out all day if necessary, and we would eat a bird killed with his throwing sticks. He taught me how to use them and I became quite adept at the odd francolin, quail or dove. Occasionally I took a wild hare.
The other criterion was that I was only allowed to shoot small buck as I would have to carry home whatever I shot. At eight years of age I shot my first buck, a small steenbok ram, and even though Sehla was with me, I carried this home myself as my father had given him strict instructions not to assist with this task. At the age of nine I shot my first impala ram, and between Sehla and me, we carried this home.
My father then told me that I would henceforth be responsible to do the hunting for the family as well as for our African labour. When game was not found I had to round up some of our cattle and select an ageing cow and despatch that. The worst part of my responsibilities became the final hunt for one of our faithful dogs when it became unable to do much more than barely walk. These distasteful duties taught me that it was necessary to kill only in order to eat. They did not change my desire to be out in nature and to walk for hours on end, but rather to enjoy the hunt, and to become a hunter, more than a just shottist.
Once, at around ten years of age I was out looking for game to shoot for the family, and had been walking for the better part of the day, not being able to find anything. Then I saw the tracks of what I thought was a large impala and followed very slowly. After some time I came upon a herd of kudu. Fortunately I had been given a 7×57 rifle, so I took a large bull. How to carry this back and to tell my father that I had shot one was not a task I was looking forward to, as he had not given me permission to shoot one. Fortunately he was very thankful as the workers also needed meat, and pleased that the kill was clean and the bullet allowance was not misused. After this I was allowed to borrow a vehicle for the recovery of bigger game.
My parents would have to take periodic trips to town for supplies, and we children had to go along when we were not at boarding school. I hated these trips as it would mean not being out walking in the bush, and on one occasion when I was about ten, I begged them to allow me to stay at the ranch. Much pleading bore fruit, but only on condition that one brother also wanted to stay, which was agreed to. Once they were out of sight, I said to my brother that we should try out my father’s Joseph Manton .577 hammer double rifle, but he was not at all keen on the idea.
I managed to persuade him as long as he got to do the driving of the Land Rover, which we also took without permission. We drove out to the bush and found a suitable tree for the target and loaded both barrels. I asked my brother if he wanted to shoot, and he said I should try first, so I cocked both barrels and lifted the rifle to shoot. It was so heavy that I had to lean over backwards a little in order to get it at the right height, and pulled the trigger. The blast also made my finger pull the other trigger, and I landed up flat on my back from the hefty kick.
“Wow! That was fun!” I said, and offered him the rifle to have a go, but he refused. And that’s how my love of big guns was forever burnt into my soul, despite the bruised shoulder. I never told my father about the incident, and was distraught when he later sold the rifle to an Australian collector.
A big problem we had on the ranch was the attention of wild pigs to our crops, and they needed to be hunted and destroyed. Finding them was not easy, as they would go great distances away from their nocturnal ravaging of the crops. But I became quite good at finding them with the help of some dogs and other young children of our workers. We would find the sounder, and upon flushing them I might be lucky enough to shoot one, and once managed two, but that did not reduce their numbers sufficiently.
On one occasion a young African was charged by one and he killed it with a blow to the head with nothing more than a knobkerrie. This got me thinking, and so I had a large knobkerrie made for me. We would then go out, and when finding a sounder, the bulk of the helpers and the dogs would go upwind and approach the pigs.
They would always turn towards me and a helper, and upon seeing us, would inevitably charge. The trick was to sidestep at the last moment and bring the kerrie down on the pig’s snout just below the eyes. This would drive a bone into the brain and kill it instantly. Such adrenalin-filled moments! We managed to build a quite a tally, but the carcasses would be secretly taken away by the staff as my mother would have had a nervous breakdown had she known. Apart from hunting buffalo, I have never experienced excitement like this, but would not attempt to do this now with my reflexes having slowed down.
I continued to do the majority of the hunting for the family, and found that it was far better to hunt during the hottest part of any day as I realised that the game also liked to rest up at this time and could be stalked to within much closer shooting range and thus ensure a clean kill. However, game was harder to find like that, as it was not moving around. I could only find it by spotting spoor and following the tracks.
The ranch that my father managed was owned by my mother’s brothers, and they had a passion for shotgun shooting. One uncle was involved in politics, and would invite various dignitaries, including the governors of the country at the time, and other important people. My father was tasked with preparing an annual shoot for guinea fowl and francolin which were in great numbers due to the crops we grew. We children joined with the African labour and became beaters to drive the birds towards the waiting guests, and had the task of collecting the bag of birds shot and searching for any wounded birds.
On one occasion my uncle’s Purdey shotgun barrel burst due to using the wrong cartridges, and the barrel peeled back as if it had been a sardine can rolled back, trapping one of his fingers. Fortunately, one of the guests was a Dr Standish White, who patched him up after the twisted part of the barrel had been cut off his finger with a hacksaw. Purdey made a new set of barrels for him afterwards.
One day while I walking in the bush, I killed a francolin with my throwing stick and decided to risk taking it home to ask my mother to cook it for me. Shortly prior to this, my eldest brother had been taking us home for a weekend when he overtook a military Land Rover that had not heard his continuous hooting and had reported him to the Police for dangerous driving.
The Police had been sent to take reports on the incident, and a constable had been sent to find me to get my statement of the event. I thought he had seen me with the francolin and was there to arrest me, so I made a long detour around and sneaked into the house through the back door and decided to hide my bird, which I did, behind a lounge cushion. When the Police had gone, I was so relieved that I was not in trouble that I forgot about my prize.
Some days later a bad smell was permeating throughout the house, and my mother sent everyone to find the source. One of the servants had the name of Mbanqwa which interpreted meant “Lizard”, and we were all looking for what we thought would be a dead lizard as these were often found having died in the house. I waited until no one was with me and removed the dead and rotting bird together with the attending maggots. Everyone said that Mbanqwa was the cause of the smell. My mother never did get the joke and I never got to eat my bird!
Paul was born in Bulawayo in 1943 and started hunting at the early age of six, and shot his first buck at the age of eight. He has a passion for the wild places and walking in the bush and has hunted in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Zambia, Namibia and South Africa, having hunted all the Big Five and numerous plains-game species.