Kev Thomas Writes
A Boy's Rite of Passage During a Bygone Era
Growing up hunting and handling of guns from a young age was never an issue in my 1950s generation. It was probably in about 1957 at age seven I first became familiar with guns and the smell of gun oil. On my 7th birthday I’d been given my first gun. A .177 Diana Model 1. It was a break-barrel, with a blue tinplate action and a wooden stock. To load it you unscrewed a removable tube on the end of the barrel, and inserted the pellet. As the gun eventually became more worn from use you could watch the pellet in flight. At the time we dairy farmed on what was the eastern border of British Colonial Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), where I was born. The Diana was my introduction to gun safety, and to shooting on my own. My dad periodically hunted for the larder, kudu being the venison of choice. He had a WW2 era German 7x57mm Mauser Obendorf but at my young age I wasn’t allowed to handle it, unless he was cleaning it.
Like many white kids of that era, who grew up on farms, I also had a ‘minder’. He was the son of one of our African farm labourers, and was a few years older than me. His family were of the Ndau tribe, a sub-grouping of the Shona peoples and his name was Makandende. He thought the Diana capable of dropping a duiker, or larger bushbuck. Once, when we were walking to a field where my dad was working, we disturbed a magnificent bushbuck ram. It stood majestically staring at us in the early morning mist, and then, as it suddenly gave a throaty warning bark and fled, I took a quick ‘plink’ at it with my trusty Diana Model 1. Makandende immediately disappeared into the bush to search for blood! When he returned, he looked at me and mockingly remarked, ‘Wa posa’ (You missed).
Within two years of my receiving, and discarding, the by then shot-out Diana, my dad bought me a .22 calibre Falke Model 90. A superb German manufactured air rifle, the pellet gave me about 490fps. At 9-years old I was in heaven and spent my days shooting doves with it. It’d been driven home to me by my father I wasn’t to shoot anything I couldn’t eat. Once, and to test him I shot an egret. He made me cook and eat it, and I didn’t test him again. Thus, doves and green pigeons were my most sought-after prey. The Falke also proved adequate on spurfowl.
With my tribal friends tagging along we’d endeavour to collect about ten doves before making a fire and preparing our birds only feast. The plucked and gutted carcasses on skewers angled over the flames. We even had salt. Of the coarse variety carried loosely, and mixed with a few dried-out fishing worms in my one trouser pocket. Come evening, I’d sit on our lounge carpet in the light of a hissing and sputtering kerosene Tilley lamp, and lovingly oil the airgun. Interestingly, Falke reputedly only made about 400 of the Model 90 and to this day I wish I’d kept mine. Truth be known, over the passage of time I can’t even recall what happened to it.
By 12 years old I had two guns. The regularly used Falke 90, and a hand me down Remington .22 long rimfire, known in Rhodesia as a ‘two-two’. The Remington, through hard use had lost its blacking. It’d belonged to my grandfather, and then my father. And although it was never really given to me, I just sort of ‘took it over,’ as in removing it from the gun cabinet and using it frequently. Despite being old the Remington was incredibly accurate and had a 6-shot magazine. At the end of each school term my dad would buy me 250 rounds of Eley-Kynoch hollow-point for the .22 Rem. He’d also purchase a box of 500 Marksman pellets for the Falke. Before my return to boarding school at holiday’s end there weren’t many left.
Buying guns during that era in Rhodesia was easy. In Chipinga (now Chipinge), a small village closest to where we lived, the gun shop and liquor store were one and the same. Guns and ammunition were on the left and alcohol on the right. Now days the police would probably have a fit if you bought ammunition and a bottle of Scotch in the same shop, and at the same time.
Using the .22 rimfire I shot a lot of vervet monkeys which constantly plundered my mum’s vegetable garden. During the Rhodesian 1950s era, they were branded ‘vermin’. However, and with wildlife conservation enlightenment animals plundering crops were reclassified ‘problem animals,’ irrespective of species. A wise decision because a wild animal only becomes a problem animal if it’s in conflict with humans.
I also shot several common bush duikers, although there was no fair-chase involved. We needed venison so on each occasion we spotlighted them, and I shot them from the back of my dad’s old 1950 Series 1 Land Rover at extremely close range. Often, I was sorely tempted to have a go at a bushbuck. However, it’d been drummed into me the .22 was under-gunned, and a bushbuck if wounded is tenacious. For my 12th birthday my folk gave me an Alro 12ga side by side shotgun. When my dad bought it a few days before my birthday, I was in the shop with him but had no clue it was for me. It was a non-ejector of Belgium manufacture and had a double trigger and 28” barrels. By then too, we’d relocated from the Chipinga farm to the embryonic Chibuwe Irrigation Scheme in the Sabi Valley. It was wild and remote, an absolute Eden for a young boy addicted to shooting. Our newly built house was on the banks of the south flowing Sabi River, the country’s second largest river.
Above: The view across the Sabi River from our front lawn. The photo was taken during the dry winter months. What looks like the opposite bank is a large island. During the late 1950s into the 1960s crocodiles and hippo were numerous.
Once, during late afternoon I shot an African wildcat. It happened in a dense riverine thicket, just as the light was fading. The cat had looked more like a card silhouette than a living animal. In the aftermath, a tribal youngster belly-crawled into the thicket to retrieve it, while I held back my excited yellow lab, Shandy. We then noisily skinned it, made a fire, and barbequed the hindquarters. Shandy ate most of it, and after experiencing the taste I never tried cat again. I also got chastised by the old man for shooting a species which did good by predating on rats.
Hippo frequently plundered tribal crops, as did marauding elephant. Whenever this happened, Tom Orford, the government game ranger living upstream of the irrigation scheme would arrive to deal with the problem. Orford is no more, but throughout his lengthy game department service he used a .505 Gibbs. It was he who encouraged me to pursue my post school career. Initially, as a game ranger, and then after political change in the country, as a PH.
Above: Hippo were well represented and dwelt in the pools, inland pans, and backwaters on the Sabi River. If a hippo started damaging crops it was classified a 'Problem Animal' and shot by the local game ranger. During my tenure as a game ranger and PH I shot a large number of problem hippo, and hippo during an official cull.
Crocodiles were also plentiful and because of their danger to humans and livestock, my dad was intolerant of them. He was an accurate shot and killed a few of them using his trusty 7x57mm Mauser. The shotgun also added a new dimension to my hunting forays because Chibuwe and surrounds had numerous huge natural pans. They attracted various waterfowl species in their hundreds. A .22 shot into the reedbeds saw clouds of wild ducks and geese suddenly lift off, blackening the sky. At that point the shotgun took over.
Above: My late dad periodically shot crocs which were a threat to human life and tribal livestock.
In time though I soon tired of shooting bush duikers and longed to shoot something bigger. Impala were well represented in the surrounding mopane woodland, and were a popular antelope for Rhodesian youth to gain their hunting laurels. I guess geographical location has a lot to do with what species a youngster gets to shoot as an introduction to hunting. Across South Africa’s varying geographical zones, the choice would be impala, warthog, springbok, mountain reedbuck or blesbok. In Zimbabwe, it was mainly impala and warthog.
My chance to grass an impala eventually came about and I killed my first one with a borrowed .22 Hornet. Using a heart shot, the 45-grain factory load at about 2650 feet/sec ensured a clean kill. Not long after leaving school at age 17 and becoming a cadet game ranger in 1968, I bought my first .22 Hornet and over the next forty-six years I always owned one. Using that charming old cartridge, I culled hundreds of impalas, warthog, mountain reedbuck and springbok.
Above: … young boys and men would stop fishing and tag along.
Thinking back to my boyhood though, it must’ve been quite a comical sight to have seen me and my entourage of tribal followers heading out hunting. Aside from my regular ‘bearers’ (who shared my sandwiches) there were always lots of unemployed ‘hangers on.’ Quite simply, as we moved along the Sabi riverbed with the Falke 90, the .22 rimfire, and the twin pipe 12ga, hunting birds and monkeys, young boys and men would stop fishing the pools and backwaters and tag along. Protein of any sort means a lot in remote rural Africa. Just to our east in the Chipinge ‘A’ Block black rhino were still well-represented. They’ve been gone for decades now, a distant memory. The pristine canopy mopane forests are also now long gone. Back then too, when we hunted the word trophy wasn’t in our vocabulary.
Above: Our middle boy, Keith, with his first springbok shot circa 1985 while using a .270 Winchester with a 130grn bullet. Knowing he was a capable shot, I told him to try for a neck shot so as not to damage the venison. He obliged and it was a clean kill at about 120m.
Our own boys were blessed with a similar boyhood in a pre-independent South African homeland called Ciskei, where I managed Ciskei Safaris for the Ciskei government. Our home was also rural, relatively remote, and amongst plenty of wildlife. However, their boyhood was during the new era of high wire, game fences, and game ranching. By age 12 our middle son Keith wasn’t only hunting, he was also handloading for a variety of calibres. And then, straight out of school he moved to the UK to do his gunmaking trade with Rigby’s. Thirty-two years on, he’s a successful independent UK gunmaker. As a father, I’m truly thankful for the boyhood they had.
Sadly, Africa is changing. And rapidly. More frequently on the news now we read of elephant in Zimbabwe and Mozambique being killed by poachers with the use of cyanide. At times, entire cowherds. Cyanide is an organo-phosphate and doesn’t break down. Awhile back when I first wrote this article, eighty-four endangered white-backed vultures and a few other vulture species were found dead alongside a cyanide poisoned elephant carcass in Mozambique. Any animal that feeds on it will die. A terrible ongoing cycle of death and destruction which makes me want to weep in frustration and anger.
As I grow older, I appreciate more just how privileged I was to have seen the tail-end of the old Africa. My hope too, is that the sport hunter of today never takes for granted what is indeed a very special honour. To be able to hunt well-managed game on a sustainable basis.