Fallow Deer Faux Pas
By Leon Viljoen
The Western Cape mountain ranges are home to one of the world's seven flower bio-habitats. With plant species diversity higher than that of the whole of the United Kingdom and Europe put together, this magical natural garden is home to a diverse collection of fauna and flora. Stern opening words to be found on many a pig-eared 5th grade natural history textbook. I took my old crumbled schoolbook to have a look at the amazing diversity I am bound to stumble into, for I was off to the mountains to hunt fallow deer.
Now, for the uniformed and for the mildly curious, Cecil John Rhodes, mining magnate and colonialist extraordinaire decided that we do not have enough diversity to start with an in the late 1800's and introduced a number of old world species to add to this diversity.
Thar's, (smelly, goat-like Indian antelopes) were released from the estates into the mountains to trample new footpaths for the adventurous, and squirrels were brought from the forests of Rhodes's native England to feast on the acorn trees. Both were totally out of place and without any natural predators had a feast on their new menu. Soon their numbers were sky high.
Squirrels, in particular, enjoyed their freedom and apart from acorns soon added children's fingers to their diet. Rhodes was a man of vision and he argued that in exchange for all the animals, we Africans needed to pay the queen, since she kindly agreed to this exchange for our benefit and that of the British Empire. The only thing we had in abundance was little shiny stones and a soft golden mineral that we dug out of the ground. She did not seem to mind the trade even though she obviously did not win in this exchange. But, it was a sacrifice she was willing to make for crown and country.
One of the animals that she felt we needed is the Fallow deer. Africa had no deer species and since our horned varieties such as Kudu, Gemsbuck and Springbuck might hold their own in a horn beauty contest, we surely were in need of the more aristocratic and superior European deer species. That said, the fallow deer arrived and in biblical proportions filled the earth. In the mountains of the Western Cape they must have felt at home for water was in good supply and the grass was sweet.
In 1961 the British finally decided they had enough of South Africa and, with bags packed and a cock-eyed political system in place, they waved our shores goodbye. We were left pondering their goodwill and, in exchange for all that they done for us, we decided to place ourselves in total isolation for 30 odd years. But that is a different story and I am here to write about hunting.
The fallow deer, unfortunately, could not secure residential status in the UK and they decided to stay in my part of the world as naturalised South Africans. It was with this overload of totally useless information that I took myself to the hunting district of Napier, a mere 30-minute drive from my home in the heart of the wine lands. Napier was another of the British ex-colonialists who ruled South Africa and had a town named after him. As an Afrikaans speaking South African, we not only totally mispronounced his name, but also made the town insignificant in our larger scheme of things. But, as I have said, I am here to tell you about hunting and not about lexicons and vernacular use of languages.
The farm Fairfield is set in the heart of the grain producing belt of South Africa. Rolling hills and mountain slopes have been carved by centuries of farmers into winter grain producing fields.
A Mr P.K. van der Bijl owned the farm. Mr van der Bijl himself could write a story or two about his life as he served in Ian Smith's Rhodesian government as his Minister of Defence. Known to be a man not pleased with average things, the gentleman in question found himself a princess for a wife. No really, he married the Princess of Liechtenstein, so he had all the right in the world to call his wife princess. I also call my wife princess, but it is normally to win favour after having done something wrong. I wonder what he will call his wife if he has transgressed the rules of the household?
On his piece of Africa he built a beautiful farm with a thousand odd sheep and a hunting camp that would find itself at home in the European Alps. I stayed in a hunting lodge named after one of the relatives and for a fleeting moment in time felt a tinge of royalty rubbing off. As the Fallow deer could claim their own European roots they must have really felt at home on this farm. The only problem was that the lodges were booked and the only place they felt at home was the higher mountain slopes.
In good African hunting tradition I was given a guide to accompany me when I arrived at the farm. In even worse tradition I was asked what I would be shooting and, with much bravado and a severely restricted budget, I indicated that I would shoot an ewe for the pot.
I do not know about you, but sometimes it feels to me like I am calling the 8 ball in the corner pocket not knowing that I will even manage the trip from the bar to the pool table. We are human, after all, and being humans of the hunting kind we are even worse, for we do not want to admit any weakness. With a rifle in our hands we do back ourselves in the quest not to admit any flaw in our genetic make-up. We can always claim afterward that the equipment was faulty or that the weather caused sight problems, etc.
With all excuses in place, we started our walk into the mountains. It was breathtaking; I was so tired after twenty minutes of hiking up steep slopes that "breathtaking" really meant I had no capacity left in my lungs. It was breathtaking in the other sense of the word as well, as this part of the world does have some beautiful wild flowers. The flowers provided me with an opportunity to stop every now and then to "smell the flowers." They also provided a much-needed opportunity to catch my breath.
After about an hour's walk we stumbled over irrigation ditches that lead to a watering hole. The view from the lookout point was panoramic and I could see over a downhill stretch of roughly 270 meters. I used the vantage point not only as the final excuse in my long documented list of excuses to rest, but also as the ideal opportunity to sit down and experience the hunt the way I enjoy it.
My guide and hunting companion was a well-known expert in the area. We were talking in hushed tones about all things antelopian as we settled down. I wanted to know more and he was supplying on demand. I heard stories about male Fallow deer in rut season; antlers locked together in combat and unable to free themselves, dying in this handshake of death. Other stories that lightened my need for knowledge was the total absence of discarded antlers in the field since the males would eat the horns to replenish the calcium needs in their bodies.
This was very interesting, as you have to keep in mind that we simply do not have any deer species in Africa. We know a lot about our own game and could submit the information to any Oxford descriptive journal of African game species, but deer, absolutely not. While I am on this point, are you aware that in a chasing Springbok pack, the dominant male will never lead the chase, and that a female Gemsbuck (Oryx) always have longer horns than the male, and . . . let me, rather, stop. Just a final point to ponder, if we bite our fingernails does it also mean that we are replenishing calcium need?
In any case, on with the hunt! I was using the lookout toward the watering hole as a reference to the hunting scenario that was going to unfold in front of my eyes. As if they knew they were about to enter into God's stage, a small herd of four females broke from the brush thicket and headed toward the water.
The scene was set and my heart took its normal resting place between my Adam's apple and the back of my throat. My heart is funny in that way because without failure it tends to migrate upward whenever I need to pull a trigger. I am waiting for the day that my heart will move toward the seat of my pants, as I am yet to describe the experience.
The trigger finger also has its own agenda and I am convinced that the right hand index finger has a brain all of its own. It probably explains why I miss so many shots as it is technically not me pulling the trigger; see, I told you I had plenty of excuses lined up. Sights lined and bolt down the 7x61 Schultz and Larsen was about to unleash it's own bit of unexpressed fury.
I wish I could describe the scene in Hemingway fashion. Tall grass whistling, African sun backing down on my back etc, but we will leave the story telling to the professionals and the wordsmiths. I lined my sights on the female as she bent her back to take a mouthful of water. The downhill shot and trajectory path calculated in my mind (I had to get this piece of mathematical genius down somewhere, for normally I cannot claim any mathematical breakthroughs as my own doing).
The shot echoed between the mountain ranges and I heard the telling sound of a good hit. I was, however, a bit perplexed as I also heard that double sound that is sometimes associated with a stomach shot. I looked through the scope and she was down and no movement, so all I could draw from the double sound was that I must have hit the water after the shot left her neck.
I sat back and waited a few seconds. Not a bad piece of advice, even for the most novice of hunters. I looked to the guide and we nodded in agreement. It was time to tally the vote. I love the saying; it is so true in our modern world that we need to tally the vote.
As I walked the 230 odd meters I saw that I shot an enormous ewe, but to my amazement and that of the guide I pulled the old hat trick. My enormous ewe was not one, but a three in one shot, a double 8-ball with a twist into the corner pocket. I was delighted and horrified at the same time. How could I be so stupid and not have seen the other two? They were all down and dead on the spot, two through the neck and the third a spinal shot between neck and shoulder blades.
The guide, whom I have praised a few lines earlier, was just as perplexed as I was for he had not experienced such an adventure in his working career. We conclude that the three of them must have stood in a row and that I could only have seen the first one through my scope, not knowing that the other two were behind the first. That evening in true gentleman fashion I was made to pay for three animals. My budget shot to pieces by a fluke. Now, for all the doubting Thomas's out there, this piece of hunting history was captured in the publication Discovering Firearms published in 2002. Copies available from the author.
Hunting has always enriched my life and after each hunt I have a story to tell, but this one truly rates among one of the most cherished. I will not claim that I will be able to repeat the shot, but for a bottle of Jack Daniel's finest I will give a try.
Copyright 2003 by Leon Viljoen. All rights reserved.