I started my career as PH in 1976 when I returned to the family-owned farms in the Smaldeel area of the Eastern Cape. In those years the trophy hunting industry was still in its infancy. After all preparations were done East Cape Plains Game Safaris was established in 1979 and by June of that year I had eight American clients signed up.
My career as a PH was nearly over before it began because of ignorance and a large dose of stupidity. Being an absolute novice in the trade I approached our only taxidermist in the area, a fellow named Roy “Chum” Hayes, for some pointers in caping, skinning and trophy preparation. Old Chum stressed that under no circumstances may an animal’s throat be cut. Little did I know what was to follow. My first client was a professor from the University of New Orleans whose first African animal was to be a blesbuck. The animal was subsequently wounded in the gut and took off. After tracking it down I found it under a dense bush. Remembering Chum’s advice, I decided to grab the animal’s horns and break its neck as I’ve seen Tarzan do it countless times in the movies. Let me tell you, it doesn’t work in real life! After realising it was a no-go, I was still hanging onto a big blesbuck that I could not let go of. To my utter shame and disgust I ended up suffocating the beautiful trophy. Looking around, I saw my client standing a way off, staring at me with a wary look in his eye and holding his rifle in a ready high-port position. Not that I blame him – the whole scene must have looked totally crazy.
That night I confided to my young wife that I did not think my chosen profession was for me. In the early hours of the morning I came up with what I thought was a brilliant idea. I sharpened a screwdriver and used it to dispatch wounded animals by pushing it in behind the head and the first vertebrae, severing the spinal column so that the hole was where the cut would be made when caping. Later I became very proficient at using a knife and found that the Brusletto Troll Kniven range of knives with the chisel tip works best as the knife does not slip on the skin but penetrates cleanly.
In 1983 a law was promulgated that all outfitters and PHs had to write a Nature Conservation departmental exam and go through a practical evaluation of the Department of Nature Conservation. I did the first sitting for the theoretical exams in Queenstown and the practical at my hunting facility to become the third registered outfitter and PH in the Eastern Cape on 13 April 1983.
Contrary to popular belief not all outfits specialise in dangerous game hunts. East Cape Plains Game Safaris specialises in exactly what the name implies – plains game. We have a hunting area and concessions covering some 20 000 ha and offering 21 species of game that are really abundant in this area.
After my father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and ended up in a wheelchair I did everything I could to help him carry on hunting as he was absolutely opposed to hunting from a vehicle.
A porta-chair system was devised so that we still could take him on a “carry” walk-and-stalk hunt. Before he passed away I made a promise to him that I would extend the facilities to other disabled hunters and not charge them more than “normal” hunters. ECPG Safaris has a fully equipped wheelchair-friendly lodge and wheelchair access to the lapa to cater for disabled hunters. We accommodate about four disabled hunters per year. Logistically it is a nightmare but the personal satisfaction my crew and I derive from it is priceless! ECPG Safaris has eight PHs and freelancers working in the outfit. Having started off my career in such an unprepared way, I have become involved in the PH School system as a School Director. At this school we endeavour to teach prospective PHs the right way to go about the business without having to pay the school fees we had to in those early years.
What is your favourite game animal?
I truly love all the game we hunt. If I had to pick one species it would have to be the Eastern Cape kudu. What a magnificent creature – dark neck, prominent white markings and that long mane under the throat. The old bulls are as cunning as if they had written the rule book and broke every rule in it! That punch-in-the-gut feeling when you spot a huge bull standing motionless in the bush that you’ve been glassing for some time when suddenly you see the movement of an ear or tail or the sun flashing off a horn. Good shot placement and a sufficient calibre are essential as these guys are tough and, if wounded, will lead you on a merry chase. Every time a client takes a good Eastern Cape kudu I marvel at its beauty and feel very humble looking at such a beautiful creation of God.
Tell us about your rifles
Being a gun lover I have a large number of firearms. My favourite plains game back-up rifle is a custom-built .375 H&H on a Mauser-type action on a synthetic stock and a 1.5-5 Leupold scope on Tally QD mounts. Years ago GS Custom started making me 200g monolithic hollow-point bullets that are fast, shoot flat and very accurate in my rifle. I have been using this combination since 1996 and won’t change it for the world. In the early 80s I used a .460 Weatherby, which I sold in 1989 and had a double system built. It consists of three sets of barrels that fit on one action viz .470 NE, 93x74R and 12g shotgun – the whole world in one gun case! Eight years ago I had a client, Michael Roden, the owner of Granite Mountain Arms whose company makes double square bridge Mauser actions. After the safari he gave me one of his actions bolt-faced for .450 Rigby Rimless. I had my old friend, Kevan Healy of Bloemfontein Custom Rifles, build me a rifle and today I am convinced that I have one of the loveliest heavy stoppers that are phenomenally accurate and a pleasure to shoot.
Any regrets regarding the choice of PH as a career?
No regrets. I have, through the years, met wonderful people and have made very interesting and good friends all over the world. Maybe my only regret is that not more disabled hunters use the opportunity to hunt. Looking back on my life in the hunting industry fills me with great contentment.
Do you have any specific career highlights?
Having been able to meet and interact with many of the great names in hunting and having had the pleasure of a visit to my camp in the Eastern Cape by “Uncle” Brian Marsh. Hunting with the late CJ McElroy was truly an eye-opening experience and I will leave it at that. Through the years I have guided well-known and less famous people from all over the globe. The quip in camp is that we know jokes about every nationality on earth! All in all, every client and safari is a highlight in itself.
What is your definition of a quality hunt?
A quality hunt takes place when all the plans come together, when nothing goes wrong and all the client’s expectations are met. It does sometimes happen that in the heat of a marketing exercise PHs create unrealistic expectations in their clients; make sure that you can deliver what your client expects of you. Share your knowledge with your client, involve him in the hunt and make him feel that he is an essential part of it. It is the little things like a spoor or insects in the veld that your client would never have noticed without your help; information that he will never get anywhere else. Don’t ever be a know-all and don’t be overbearing. Remember, on a quality hunt your client arrives as a client and leaves as a friend. I always say, that at the end of a two-week safari when you drive the client to the airport, you must still be able to have a good chat about a topic you haven’t touched on before. Good communication skills in this business are as important as hunting skills, if not more so.
The difference between an agreeable and a difficult client?
Most clients are good people who share a common interest in firearms, nature, animals and the concept of conservation. To date I have had very few clients that can be classed as difficult. Personality clashes and misunderstandings have always been the key factors. I once had a North American client who refused to adhere to our safety rules regarding firearms because, as he put it, “the one who pays makes the rules”. After refusing to hunt with him and staying in camp for a day, we came to an amicable agreement but he had lost a safari day. A shady character in a group of great Hungarians also comes to mind. To the absolute horror and embarrassment of the group, this individual was doing his utmost best not to pay for trophies taken. To this day I am of the opinion that he was either a gangster or a black marketer. Russian hunters are more interested in buying uncut diamonds than hunting. But this is really insignificant compared to the great clients I have had.
Can you single out a particular and favourite hunting area?
This is an easy one – the Eastern Cape, of course. Here we have the whole world in one – from high mountains of about 75 000 ft to the Smaldeel with its rolling landscape of grass and acacia trees, riverine forests and the Fish River Valley bushveld with its kloofs and spekboom that the kudu and bushbuck thrive on. To me it is the most varied and beautiful hunting area, rich in history and a constant topic of discussion with clients. The area is perfect for the good old walk-and-stalk hunting and game is abundant.