Lessons in Bush Craft
Dad was the type of person who never got lost. He could park the vehicle in the middle of nowhere, walk for hours in search of an impala to shoot and then walk straight back to the vehicle.
“You have to learn a sense of direction my boy,” he would say. When we walked about, he stopped often and asked me where the vehicle was. In the beginning I was seldom right, but he soon taught me how to always take note of the sun.
“Keep its position constantly in your mind, my boy. Then you will never get lost,” were his words of wisdom.
“Time for a lesson,” he’d say on a Saturday morning. It meant pack the blankets, we’re going for a walk. It would be just him and me. The women were left at home—not that my older sister ever had any ambitions of wanting to go with us. When his work for the day was finished, we packed a piece of steak, the maize meal, the shovel and one pan, beer for him, and water for me. Then we would be off to someone’s farm for a day and a night.
There were no special camping spots, but the farmer was advised we were on our way. When Dad found a spot he liked, it would become our camp. No tent, no overhead sheet, mosquito nets, or any other protection. It was newspaper wrapped in a blanket as your mattress and one rolled for your pillow. You slept in your clothes and if cold, you had a blanket to pull over you. First order of business, while he popped a beer, I had to gather dry wood for the fire. This of course was what we slept around, closer in winter than summer.
The ground for the fire had to be cleared of grass and anything that could start a bush fire.
“You don’t want to cause a bush fire. What the hell are the cattle going to eat?” Words of wisdom from Dad.
Next was to collect rocks big enough to surround the fire and some bigger than others for cooking the food. Then clear areas to sleep on, and don’t mess that up as a small rock in the wrong place could cause a bad night’s sleep. So special attention was paid to a comfortable bed foundation. The day would be nearing its end by then and it would be a folding chair for him and my arse on the ground. Would we talk? No, silence normally prevailed as we sat and listened to the bush around us change from day noises to night noises.
Rhodesia was known for phenomenal sunsets and I learned to appreciate these. As well, I took particular notice of where the sun went down as this could be my early morning orientation point before we went for a walk.
“Always know where south is, either by where the sun sets, or by the stars.” Now there was not much chance of me learning the stars in the beginning, so it was where the sun went down and finding a point of reference I could identify the following morning.
The pot half filled with water and salt would be set on the fire. Once it started to boil, the maize meal was added and it was my job to keep it stirred and to ensure it was properly cooked. I always succeeded in burning the meal, but that never worried Dad. It was tomorrow’s breakfast. The spade had to be well cleaned after its clearing work, as this was placed on the fire and acted as a pan for the steak. If you’ve never had a spade braai (barbeque), try it. Somehow that spade gives your steak a very special flavour when red hot. When the steak was done to perfection, it was removed and a sauce was created with the fat juices and a little mielie meal.
Timing was of the essence. The pap (maize meal) had to be ready when the sauce was made and the steak would be divided, leaving just enough for a breakfast in the morning. This was consumed by hand, no plate, knife, or fork, the pap was eaten from the pot, a handful taken, balled in the palm of your hand, dipped in the sauce and eaten. Mouthfuls of steak were bitten off and enjoyed between handfuls of pap. In those days Rhodesian beef was well known throughout the world, tender, flavourful, and just so easy to eat. No spices were added—none were needed—and it was like being in a first class restaurant.
The meal finished, the lesson would begin.
“What makes that noise?” was the normal question, followed by many a wrong guess from me. His patience never wavered and I was allowed as many guesses as I needed until I got it right. The stars followed; the Southern Cross, Scorpio and all the others he knew and used for walking at night. These I did not find as easy to master. Hell, I was just a kid and they all looked the same to me, but the lesson was always imparted. He knew I would know them in the end.
We kept a small fire burning all night. He only told me later that this was to ward off any hyena or jackal that might decide to steal our breakfast. I was more worried they might decide to take a chunk out of me. Sleep was never deep and many a time during the night I’d awaken and ask, “What’s that?”
There weren’t many lions walking around on these ranches as they didn’t mix well with cattle. Leopards were often encountered, but no one had ever been attacked and these did not worry Dad.
“Got too much to eat here. What would they want with your skinny body?” was his answer to my question.
An early morning start was the order of the day: a quick splash of water on the face, don’t waste, teeth were cleaned with a finger full of ash from the fire and a swill of water and this left a terrible taste in your mouth. Breakfast eaten cold, left over from the night before, a quickly packed up camp, dousing the fire, and then clean up the area, leaving it as near as possible to how we had found it. Then we’d be off on a walk.
We always started our walk when it was light enough to see.
“Got to get to the waterholes before the sun is too high.” Damn, I had no idea we were even near a watering hole, or for that matter how long it would take to get there. Walks were not for chats. If a hand was shown to me palm down, it meant crouch and stay still; if the hand was a stop, palm towards me, you stopped and made like a statue.
Dad always led in the beginning, and when we approached the waterhole, it was a crouched creep to get into a position to see what came down to drink. All this time I was supposed to remember that spot on the horizon where the sun had set. How I was supposed to do that while weaving through thick thorn bush, bent over like a half man, I do not know. I still, to this day, wonder how I ever managed to master it, yet now, I do it without consciously ever looking at that spot.
We would take up a position if nothing was there and watch to see what came down to drink. Here he taught me how to melt into your surroundings, to almost become invisible, to sit quietly and move your head slowly to see if there was anything about. Quite often I’d spoil the moment by slapping at a fly or bug that had decided that my ear looked like a perfect place for a nest. This would shorten the sit and a walk would follow. I soon learned the quicker the walk started the further we walked, so control became second nature. Yet Dad often shortened the wait by farting so loudly it would have frightened a lion away, if there were any in the area. Naturally he found this hilarious, but I’d be admonished if passing but the quietest of squeaks.
I soon learned his lessons, and on one occasion we even had a leopard come down to drink just before sun-up, followed by many different species of antelope, after they became confident the leopard was of no danger.
The walks covered many different animal and cattle paths which twist and turn. I often had to crouch to get below the thorns of an overhanging branch. But I could never let my guard down. Dad was going to stop and ask the dreaded question.
“What direction is the vehicle in, and how far away is it?” And if the answer was wrong, I would have to explain why I thought it was in the chosen position and he would pick up my error and correct me. These were hard lessons for a young boy. Not only was I having to keep my direction finder on, I was also expected to read and identify all the spoor that we found. Where was the GPS when I needed it most, and what of the cell phone with all these available apps that can tell you what animal it was, when it last passed there, and when it took its last meal? So easy for the young today.
These lessons went on for about a year, until he could no longer fool me with the odd circle walked just to confuse the issue. When these happened, I would ask if he was lost and I think he soon realised that I was now half bush savvy.