When I was a boy in Natal, South Africa, the farmers of the district organised a hunt each year in the Umzimkulu valley, using a hundred native beaters and their dogs. A variety of wildlife finds refuge in the valley—monkeys, baboons and an occasional leopard—but the creature most sought after is the wily gray bushbuck. With his speed and cunning, his ferocity when wounded or cornered, he is a quarry worthy of any hunter’s gun.
There was one buck we called Graybeard, a magnificent old-timer who year after year survived the hunt. I was the years old when I had my first glimpse of him, stepping proudly across a small clearing. His horns were long and sharp. His fur was a deep gray mottled with white. It was every hunter’s desire to kill him, and from that day I could think of little else. I somehow felt that my initiation into manhood would consist of claiming Graybeard for my own.
My father had insisted that I wait unit I was fourteen before I could go hunting, so I spent the next three years in a fever of anxiety, fearful that some other hunter would shoot my buck. But Graybeard survived. Once he followed silently behind a younger buck and, as it fell under a blast of shot, he jumped the clearing before the hunter could reload. Once he used a pair of legally protected does to shield him past the line of fire.
The third year the hunters chose their gun stations between the cliffs and the river so cunningly that it seemed as if no game bush I heard their excited cries as they sighted Graybeard. I was perched on the cliffs, and from my vantage point I watched him run from their dogs straight toward the concealed hunters. I clenched my fists as I waited for the line of beaters, who hurled their spears and knobbed throwing sticks at him. Just when I feared he had been struck down, I heard the yelping dogs pursuing him into the bush behind the beaters, and I realised that he had broken through to safety.
That evening the farmers could talk of nothing except how Graybeard had escaped into the bush for another year. I smiled, for next year I would be old enough to take my place in the line of guns.
All through that year I cherished one bright vision—the picture of myself, a skinny boy of fourteen, standing astride the magnificent creature. When my father offered me my first shotgun I rejected the light 20-gauge which would have suited my frail build and chose instead a heavy 12-gauge so that I could have a weapon worthy of Graybeard. On the day of the hunt I wanted to rush straight to the valley at dawn, but my father forced me to eat breakfast. ‘Graybeard will still be there,’ he said pushing me down in my chair.
In the gray light of early morning we congregated in the valley. The beaters were dispatched to the top end and we hunters drew lots for positions. The best positions were close to the cliffs, because bushbucks tend to climb in their effort to escape the pursuing dogs. To my bitter disappointment I drew a position down near the river. Then I heard my father, who had drawn a good stand, say, ‘I’ll change with my boy, I’d like him to have a good place for his first hunt.’ As he walked past me he patted my shoulder. ‘See that you get the old one,’ he whispered with a smile.
I scrambled up the steep slope, determined to outdistance the others and find the best possible place of concealment. I selected an outcrop of broken boulders, well screened by bush, which gave me a line of fire across a small clearing. For a long while there was no sound. Then came the shouts of the beaters, the sound of sticks beaten against trees and the yelping of dogs.
First came a doe, blundering past me in panic-stricken flight, then a young buck. I let him pass. Graybeard might be following, and I was determined not to betray my position. But there was no further movement, and I wondered if Graybeard had crossed lower down. Then a trembling of the brush caught my eye....