Van der Post describes a hunting trip to get food for hungry Bushmen and talks about an encounter with a steenbuck who calmly stares down the hunters rifle and yet escapes, evoking the magic of a beautiful animal.
January 4, 1961
The Heart of the Hunter
The camp as a result was well found by the time we left. Ben and Wyndham Vyan, whose skill with his gun had kept us all fed for months, travelled ahead in one Land-Rover. I followed in another with Dabé and the strongest of the young men among our new Bushman acquaintances. The moment of madness had passed from the day by then, and the sun was still. In its long slanted light the smoke of our camp-fire stood high and blue in the golden air. Six other little columns of smoke surrounded it. Rising from the little shelters built by the Bushmen, they were more slender and sensitive than ours but as upright and blue. For me they made the picture complete.
As Ben had predicted, we came across game quite early the next day and set about getting meat for the Bushmen as quickly as we could. The first buck we saw was a duiker. It had bolted on the Steenbuck first alarm and was already running full out when Wyndham spotted it. Normally he might not have shot, because it made an exceptionally difficult target. Once on the run a duiker never stops to look back. I have seen only one exception to the rule in all my years in Africa. That was some years before in the Kalahari, and the duiker which had paused to glance back was promptly shot by Vyan before it could pass on the bad habit to others. Invariably it goes fast over bush and grass, its head down, showing little more than its back above the cover, all with a motion rather like that of a frightened porpoise diving in and out of the swell of the sea. It is this movement which made the old Afrikaner hunters call it duiker(diver), and which makes it so difficult to shoot. Today the shot was even more difficult than usual, for by the time Vyan had halted his vehicle and had his gun up, the back of the duiker was arching for the last time above a crest of the bush at the limit of our vision. Yet he brought it down with a deft instinctive shot, and the exclamation of wonder from the Bushman at my side was good to hear.
We went on for a while now without seeing more game or, what was far more discouraging, the spoor of any. When the noise of our vehicles finally woke a little steenbuck from his sleep and he rose out of the bed he makes more neatly and snugly perhaps than any other quadruped in Africa, I felt I had to shoot. Yet I hated doing it. For me the steenbuck has always been one of the loveliest and most lovable of African buck. It and the Klipspringer are part of my own childhood world of magic, and this little steenbuck was a superb example of his kind. He stood at the end of a bare patch of crimson sand about twenty yards away, beside the purple shade of the bush behind which he had made his bed, and there he eagerly fed the precise little flame of his vivid self to the rising conflagration of another desert day. He stood as still and fine drawn as an Etruscan statuette of himself. His delicate ears were pointed in my direction, his great purple eyes wide open, utterly without fear and shining only with the wonder of seeing so strange a sight at this remote back door of life. Remembering the gaunt faces of the famished Bushmen, I shot quickly before he should get alarmed or the sight of his gentle being weaken me. I would not have thought it possible I could miss at so short a distance. Yet I did. My shot merely made the little buck shake his delicate head vigorously to rid his ears of the tingle of the shock of the explosion from my heavy gun. Otherwise he showed no trace of alarm. I took much more careful aim and shot a second time. Again I missed. Still the little buck was unafraid. He just turned his head slightly to sniff at the wind raised by the bullet when it passed close by his ears. So near was he to me that I saw his black patent-leather little nose pucker with the effort. I shot until the magazine of my gun was empty and still he stood there unhurt, observing my Land-Rover keenly as if trying to discover what the extraordinary commotion was about. I believe he would have stood there indefinitely, taking in the strangeness of the occasion, had I not entreated Vyan to shoot from his vehicle much further away. Vyan succeeded merely in nicking slightly the saffron petal of one of the steenbuck’s ears. Only then did the steenbuck whisk swiftly about, a look of reproach in his eyes. The sun flashing briefly on the tips of his black polished toes, he vanished with a nimble bound in the scrub. I drove on very much aware that I had not lightened what promised just then to become the long task of getting enough food for the Bushmen and, now that the steenbuck was safely gone, more put out than I cared to admit by such poor marksmanship. Yet I was even more disconcerted to find both Dabé and the new Bushman apparently highly delighted at the outcome of the affair. Had they been amused, I would not have been surprised. Indeed I expected my companions to pull my leg about the incident for days to come. Yet delight in someone so famished as our new companion so amazed me that I interrupted something he was saying, a wide smile on his fine-drawn face.
‘What on earth has he said to please you so?’ I asked the grinning Dabé.
‘Oh! He is just saying what we all know to be so,’ Dabé answered in the indulgent manner of someone instructing an ignorant child, which he and the other Bushmen at the Sip Wells had always adopted when discussing their own private world with me. ‘The steenbuck is protected with great magic and very difficult to kill.’
‘What sort of magic?’ I asked, remembering my association of the buck with my childhood world of magic. ‘His own magic or the magic of other people?’
‘Oh. Just magic!’ Dabé said in a superior voice, leaving unsatisfied the curiosity which always nagged me more than ever when the curtain between the mind of the Bushman and our own lifted only to flop back just as I thought I was to be allowed to see behind it. Yet my imagination had seized on the encounter more firmly than I knew. I know of few things more awesome than finding that all one’s most determined efforts to injure another living creature have been unaccountably frustrated. Throughout the long hot day, at all sorts of odd moments, my mind returned to the vision of that gentle little buck standing untroubled amid blast after blast from my gun.
Luckily for the Bushmen, Ben and Vyan were better and more dedicated marksmen than I. Soon afterwards we ran into more game and within two hours they had killed another duiker, two springbuck rams, and a lone old male ostrich. All that meat turned into biltong should last the Bushmen well into the country where the rains had broken. Stopping only to disembowel the game, we turned back and travelling in the same tracks for the third time found them so firm that we made our camp at the fall of night.