When professional hunting first started in South Africa, there were very few set rules and no compulsory licensing of the few operators and PHs. Lion, leopard and cheetah were considered vermin. No licence was required to shoot these species at that time.
During the early days when I was operating hunting safaris in South Africa, in the late 1970s and 1980s, I heard that two acquaintances had acquired the hunting rights on Letaba Ranch. This area was part of Gazankulu and adjoins the Kruger National Park, not far from Phalaborwa, and has the Letaba River running through it. In fact, it was the only piece of land in South Africa that could be called a “hunting concession”. There were plenty of big-game animals, including elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard, hippo, crocodile and all the common species of antelope to be found in that area.
I hadn’t met one of the operators before and when I went to see him about subleasing the area for some of my hunts, I found that he was a small man with a big ego and always spoke so softly that it was hard to make out what he was saying. The other partner, a big, strong, pleasant guy, I had met before and we got along fine. I discussed the terms and business with them and arranged to take my clients there for some hunts.
I took a number of hunts with great success, getting excellent buffalo, lion and leopard as well as kudu, waterbuck, wildebeest, zebra and impala. However, the small guy was not easy to get along with and I soon fell out with him and had to stop taking clients there. He appeared to be jealous over the fact that I regularly got better trophies than he did and he became very obnoxious, even threatening me with his revolver, whereupon I told him that if he pulled his gun on me I would take it away and shove it up his rear end. Obviously that ended our agreement! Soon after this they lost the concession and I started operating there again on a temporary basis.
During this time I and a few other PHs founded the Professional Hunters’ Association of South Africa (PHASA). At the urging of some of us experienced PHs, the Government agreed to bring in compulsory licensing for all professional hunters and safari operators. We then all had to qualify, even though a few of us had PH licences in a number of other countries. I arranged for one of the senior game rangers from Kruger National Park to come over and conduct the practical tests with me at Letaba. I found out that he knew very little about big-game hunting and absolutely nothing about safaris and this, unfortunately, proved to be the case with most of the officials appointed to do testing of PHs in those early days.
First we went to a waterhole to identify spoor. There were some zebra, wildebeest, warthog and a couple of giraffe drinking and I identified all the spoor to the satisfaction of the game ranger. Then I pointed out the spoor of a single waterbuck bull that had taken a drink earlier and walked off. He insisted that it was the track of a young wildebeest (a waterbuck’s track is smaller, shorter and a different shape to that of a wildebeest). In the end I tracked the animal and showed him that it was indeed a waterbuck. This seemed to impress him. A little later we saw the tracks of a pride of lions, including a young male, but no “big daddy”. “Wow, look at that big male lion track!” exclaimed the game ranger. I explained that this was not a big lion, but that the spoor of a young male was much bigger than that of lionesses. We carried on for a short distance and came upon a bunch of vultures feeding on the carcass of a big wildebeest bull. When I suggested we get out and have a look he said, “That is too dangerous. What if the lions are still there?” The vultures were all on the ground feeding; there were certainly no lions nearby, but he still refused to get out of the car, even though I had a rifle! I got out of the Land Rover and cut off the head of the wildebeest to keep as a trophy. The horns measured 33 inches across.
Later on I had to shoot an impala and track and skin it. We found a herd of impala and I stalked to within about 91 metres of them and shot a young ram through the heart. It sprang in the air, humped up, rushed off and collapsed about 70 metres into the bush. “OK, you must now track it,” said the game ranger. There was a blood trail that a blind man could have followed! I walked along the red-spattered trail and found the animal dead. “Man, you can shoot and track!” exclaimed the man. I just kept quiet!
I had to demonstrate how to skin the animal for a full body mount, so I hung it up by the horns, skinned it quickly up to the head; then I packed some leafy branches below the impala, opened up the stomach and took out the guts, lungs, liver and heart, dropping them on the clean branches. I then tied the back leg to the branch and cut the head off with the skin attached so that I could skin it out later. “How come you hang the animal by the horns and not by the back legs like everyone else does?” he asked. I replied, “Firstly it is better to skin it this way to avoid getting blood from the body all over the head and secondly, this way, when you open up the stomach, all the guts, liver, heart and lungs drop out between the back legs instead of filling up the chest cavity as happens when hung by the back legs.” He agreed that it certainly made sense.
Anyway, I passed the practical and written tests and got my South African licence.
About a year later I heard that the Letaba area was up for tender by safari operators, so my friend Bertie Guillaume and I managed to acquire the hunting rights there. The government man in charge was an ex-Kenyan by the name of Steve Kruger and we became friends after all the red tape was sorted out.
At the time Jeff Rann was hunting with me, so we brought our clients there, having some pretty good hunts. Bertie also brought his own clients there. He was a great, big guy and an obsessive elephant hunter, so he concentrated mainly on hunting elephants. He had a lot of very interesting and amusing stories to tell about his various hunts and it was great listening to him and having good laughs. His wife Erda often accompanied him; we became good friends and often visited them on their farm in the Soutspanberg near Louis Trichardt in the then Northern Transvaal (now called Limpopo). Their youngest daughter, Celia, became a PH and was one of the first women to be licensed in South Africa. She was a big, strong girl and could pull an 80-pound compound bow and throw a full-grown impala ram onto a bakkie on her own.
One of Bertie’s stories sticks in my mind because it was so strange. It went as follows:
One day he was hunting elephant with a client and found the tracks of a very big bull. They followed the tracks for a couple of hours and found the bull feeding near the high banks of a river. It had very good tusks, so Bertie and the client approached and Bertie told him to give it a heart shot. The client fired and Bertie immediately put in a back-up shot, also into the heart, with his .470. The stricken animal took off with great speed and disappeared into the thick bush on the riverbank . They followed the tracks and found where the animal had apparently gone over the high bank, into the river bed, so they had to go further along in order to climb down. After searching for tracks in the thick bush and amongst huge boulders, they could find no sign of the elephant; it had mysteriously disappeared! That night Bertie, his client and the tracker were sitting around the campfire, discussing the mystery. After some conversation the tracker suggested that they consult the local witch doctor (“sangoma”) to shed light on the matter. The next morning they all went to the sangoma and paid him his “consulting fee” and he proceeded to throw the bones and chant his mumbo-jumbo. After a while he said he knew what had happened. He told them the elephant had fallen over the bank onto a huge rock below and was lying dead there. On going back to the spot they found the big rock and, sure enough, the elephant was exactly where he said it would be! Bertie swore that was a true story.
Amongst a number of successful big-game hunts on Letaba, one I remember well was with two partners from Evansville, Indiana, in the USA. Steve was a small, fussy guy and his business partner Chuck was a great, big easy-going bloke. Steve had cold, cold eyes and was a very finicky eater; he had an obsession about washing his hands every time he touched an animal. He brought a huge trunk full of junk food and candy and would eat hardly anything else. I guided Steve and Jeff Rann guided Chuck. After a few days they had both shot buffalo, lion, waterbuck and most of the common antelope. We then went looking for elephant near the fence line along the Kruger National Park boundary. The old bulls often broke the fence and came through onto Letaba Ranch to feed on the mopane bush, so we patrolled the fence every day to pick up fresh spoor. Elephant were fair game in the hunting area, as long as we could get them before they returned to the Park. One morning Steve and I found the tracks of five or six big bulls where they had entered Letaba Ranch and after checking that there was no spoor returning to the Park, we set off on the fresh tracks.
After only about half an hour of tracking, we saw the huge shapes of some bulls in the mopane bush about a 100 metres ahead. We sneaked closer, watching the wind direction, until we were about 25 paces from them. However, by that time they had shifted position and we stood watching to see if we could spot the biggest tusker. After a few minutes I spotted the gleam of big ivory and I manoeuvred until I could clearly see his head and two beautiful, even tusks. “That’s the big one,” I whispered. “Take a side-brain shot; if he runs I will back you up.” (I had previously carefully told Steve how to get the brain from the side or the front.) Steve took aim with his .458 and fired, dropping the bull in its tracks and the others took off. We watched for a couple of minutes, saw that it was dead and walked up to examine the trophy. “Beautiful! The tusks will go about 65 pounds aside and they are very even. Congratulations!” I said enthusiastically, shaking his hand.
While we were looking over the animal, Jeff and Chuck pitched up and everyone started slapping backs and exclaiming about the great trophy. “Jeff, I only saw a couple of the others and there are five or six. I think you should get going on the spoor and check the others out,” I said. Jeff, Chuck and their tracker set off and about half an hour later we heard one shot. “They have got him,” I said.
A short while later the tracker came back and told us that Chuck had shot a very big elephant. We eagerly followed him and found Jeff and Chuck standing by an even better elephant than Steve’s one! “You lucky bugger! I thought you would have a long chase because of the one we shot,” I exclaimed.
There was much celebrating and more backslapping. While we were taking photos, another hunter (we’ll call him Ferdie) pitched up with a client. “Do you mind if I take some pictures?” he asked. “Sure, no problem,” I replied. “Just don’t tell everyone that these are your trophies,” I joked.
Later that year I was at an SCI convention in Las Vegas, when a bloke who looked vaguely familiar came up to me. “Hello John, don’t you recognise me?” he asked. I took a good look and recognised Ferdie; he had shaved off his beard. “What happened to your beard?” I asked. “I was half-plastered in the pub last night and some bastard set it alight, so I had to shave it off,” he replied, looking somewhat embarrassed. Later, in the convention hall, I passed Ferdie’s booth and, lo and behold, there were the pictures of the elephants that our clients had shot on Letaba! “Hell, Ferdie, I told you not to use those pictures to advertise your business,” I said loudly so that everyone could hear. “You had better take them down. I will be putting in a complaint to the committee.” Ferdie was renowned for this kind of thing and he later lost his PH licence.
Another very memorable incident occurred on one of my hunts on Letaba. I was hunting elephant with a client from Montana. Paul was not too fussy about the size of the tusks and just wanted a representative trophy. After a few days of patrolling the fence and spotting only a few small bulls, we were driving along early one morning when the tracker tapped on the roof of the Land Cruiser. I stopped and we got out to examine a fresh break in the fence. There was only one set of tracks entering Letaba and I could see that it was a large, very old animal because of the size of the spoor and the worn “treads” (cracks on the soles of the feet). We eagerly followed the tracks and after only about 200 metres I spotted the huge shape of a large bull. We carefully approached, keeping the slight breeze blowing into our faces and stopped in awe – it was the biggest tusker I had ever seen! The animal was very old and quite thin and I recognised him as being one of the few “Over Hundred Pounders” from the Kruger National Park. His tusks were very long and when he stopped he rested them on the ground. I estimated them to weigh in excess of 140 pounds each. There was no way I was going to take him out, even though he was fair game on our side of the fence, so I told Paul that this was a “protected” animal and we could not shoot it. He was quite happy with this and, in fact, seemed relieved. I took a couple of photographs and then I just chased the old patriarch back into Kruger Park to live a few more years. Paul later shot a good representative bull with about 55-pound tusks and went home happy.
Over the next couple of years, I had many successful and enjoyable hunts on Letaba Ranch and will relate some of the stories at other times. Unfortunately, because of local politics, we lost the Letaba Ranch concession in the end.
Article by John Coleman