Nowhere have I found hearing to be of more prime importance than in a leopard blind. Masked off by grass or branches or a hessian hide with only a small peephole to peer through, you have to rely on your hearing a good deal. Time passes slowly when you are sitting waiting for hours, but as the sun starts dipping towards the horizon, the sudden call of a baboon or the startled squawk and flight of a francolin can mean that the spotted one is on the move. Conversely, the normal chirp and chatter of birds is abruptly stopped as they peer down at the leopard stalking through the bush past their perches. Apart from the advancing years, using heavy rifles and the odd landmine explosion have taken their toll on my hearing to some extent. I can still hear a lions roar at 10 to 15km, but the phone bell in the next room often passes me by. Regrettably during my early days of rifle shooting and army service, ear plugs were not taken seriously with the obvious result.
It amazes me too, that having people in camp on the banks of the Zambezi with its unique atmosphere and a night full of sounds, will have someone bring out his portable stereo system or radio and blot out the natural sounds around.
Our puny olfactory organ, the nose, is not really fit to be measured against the natural world where a household dog has 200 times the sensory capacity. What factor over that the hyena operates at, can only be imagined as they seem to be able to pick up the scent of a dry bone at five kilometres.
Nevertheless it can be of some use to us on our hunting trips, even if only to record some of the wondrous smells that go to make up the memory bank of a hunt. Woodsmoke, bacon frying, the smell of gun oil lovingly applied at the end of a day. The smell of biltong salted and spiced hanging up to dry, counter-points the different smell of gutting the beast on the slab. The acrid smell of dung and urine following a herd of buffalo in the early morning, coupled with the new mown hay aroma of elephant dung are some of the scents that I will carry with me to the grave.
All in all, hunting is a blend of many things, sights, sounds, smell; sensations and emotions that is impossible to quantify or put into words effectively. To the initiated or the growing band of hysterical activists whose aim it is to deny us our sport, occupation or pastime, it can never be reconciled. I have often wished that I could take some of these vociferous critics out into some of the truly wild places of Africa and see how they would fare. A startled herd of cow elephant screaming and tearing up vegetation, the gut wrenching growl of an angry lion or even the sudden lurching feeling that comes when a life or death situation presents itself, would maybe put a bit of perspective in their lives.
To lie back next to the glowing embers of a camp fire and hear that faraway grumble of a hunting lion, the whoop of a hyena or the harsh cry of the night-ape, while the stars above blink their cold light, can be a humbling experience when you contemplate the significance of your life in the fabric of the whole.
There are few things more satisfying as a hunter than to pick up tracks of an animal, follow them for a good distance, and make contact. Whether a kill is made or not it is the pursuit that challenges.
About The Author
Ian van Heerden joined the Zimbabwean Department of National Parks as a ranger in 1968 leaving as a warden in 1980 to join the safari industry. He was manager of Zambezi Safari's Chewore Concession until he retired from hunting at the end of 1996.