CURSED SABLE OF THE WITCHCRAFT KIND
Sometimes you need a little extra help to have a good hunt.
The Sichifula Game Management Area in the Zambian province of Kaloma was well-known for its magnificent sable antelope. The landscape comprised 3 600km² of miombo and open dambos, and the area’s southernmost edge bordered the Kafue National Park. In the early 1970s I worked there as a freelance professional hunter for a few safari companies based in Lusaka and my first hunt of this particular season was for Peter Makanda’s Mulobezi Safaris. This hunt started off on a peculiar note and set the tone for what was to come.
My client arrived a week before his hunt was scheduled to start. However, soon after arriving at the airport and pass- ing through customs the man went missing. We searched everywhere, even the hotels and lodges in and around Lusaka, but to no avail. After a few days I eventually gave up and decided to head to the camp hoping to receive word there from my missing client. I loaded drums of fuel onto my Land Cruiser and set off with my driver, Sakala. After a ten-hour drive we finally arrived at our destination. The camp was built in typical Zambian style with huts and other structures neatly constructed out of elephant grass and wooden poles. From the low-walled dining area, guarded by a cluster of palms, one could enjoy a view of a waterhole. Beyond that, grassland stretched to a distant wall of haze-covered miombo. Sakala and I stepped out of the vehicle and were greeted by a guilty-looking staff. The crowd parted and a middleaged man with an air of authority about him stepped forward and introduced himself. He was Gustaf Malan, my missing client. With a vice-like grip, he grasped my hand and shook it in greeting.
While Sakala unloaded the truck, I excused myself and took stock of the supplies. Firewood and water were running low and the radio’s batteries were dead. We all toiled into the night to fix everything and restock supplies. Later that evening, still dressed in my over-
alls and over a late supper, Gustaf bossed the waiters around while we got to know one another. Gustaf, who owned a ski lodge in the Austrian Alps, had among other lesser trophies, three priorities on his hunting wish list: A sable, a roan and a Lichtenstein’s hartebeest. His rifle, if memory serves me correctly, was a custom-built 9.3x64 double, topped with a 3x variable scope. He zeroed it in while loafing in the camp before my arrival.
Sitting round the fire, the night to our backs, he also relayed the story of his disappearing act at the airport. Upon his arrival in Lusaka he hired a Land Rover and driver to take him to the camp where he wanted to rest and acclimatise himself. He sent the driver back with a note about his whereabouts, however, we later found out that the driver only reported to my office after three days. We talked late into the the night before retiring to our huts.
AND SO IT WENT
The next morning we crowded around the fire with mugs of steaming coffee, warming our hands as the skyline brightened before dawn. The staff for this hunt was new to me. Thomas, the tracker, had a guinea-fowl feather in his hair and tribal scarring on his face. Wiseman, wearing his company overall, was the skinner and Noah, the government game scout was there to oversee the hunt.
Gustaf asked what we will hunt first. “Any trophy that we come across on your licence,” I replied. “No! No!” he wagged his finger in front of my face and demanded, “the big antelopes first”. And so it went... For three days, we passed common duiker in their numbers, even a seldom seen Sharp’s grysbok. (I learnt something new about this dainty antelope’s unusual habit as it disappeared down an abandoned ant bear hole.) Gustaf also ignored my plea to take an exceptionally-horned oribi and later a steenbuck. Then at last we started seeing representative sable and hartebeest.
One morning, as we crossed a plain, the grass wet with dew, Thomas tapped on the roof of the truck and Sakala brought it to a stop. “Mpelembe,” (meaning roan in the local vernacular, Bemba) he said and pointed. We raised our glasses. The herd consisted of a dominant male with his harem of females and their offspring. Noah lit a cigarette and blew the smoke out the window. With the breeze to our advantage, we sat dead still and watched the animals. As the sun warmed the plain, the herd vanished into a wooded island-like area of miombo. I jumped to the ground and Thomas passed me my .375 Holland & Holland. Gustaf, Thomas and I then set off to find the roan while Sakala and Noah stayed behind to guard the vehicle.
With Thomas in the lead we walked at a good pace to reach the edge of the miombo. The trees towered above us as we took up the roans’ tracks. Visibility between the regiment of tree trunks was down to 200 metres, at best. Tsetse flies in search of blood, attacked in squadrons and we made fly swatters out of leafy branches to keep them at bay. All of a sudden, an alarming horse-like snort pierced the air. Caught off guard we froze, but it was too late. A beautiful black sable bull, that had watched our every move, wheeled about and bolted. His hooves pounding the ground as he retreated between the trees and disappeared. With the wind unfavourable, I chose to continue on the roans’ tracks. This decision clearly irritated Gustaf and his eyes, riveted to mine, questioned me before reluctantly agreeing. We pressed on in the shade of the miombo forest, more alert than before.
Every now and then we stopped to look ahead. We made steady progress and soon the trees thinned allowing more light to filter through. Entering an opening dotted with low trees and waist-high bushes the sun beat down on us. We stopped to have a drink of water. A movement in the distance caught my eye and I raised my field glasses to inspect. A male roan with good trophy horns filled my vision. »
» He was standing guard below a tree and his harem was bellydown to one side, red-billed oxpeckers on their backs. We had our quarry, but he was too far for a perfect shot.
After checking the wind, we used the trees and bushes as cover to stalk closer. Finally we were within range and I began to set up the shooting sticks. Then Thomas touched my shoulder, whispered in my ear and pointed. Beyond the roan, a sable bull was walking towards us, his head crowned with splendid horns. At the same time the roan was presenting a perfect shoulder shot. Gustaf rested his 9.3x64 double on the sticks to shoot, but because the sable was his premier trophy, he changed his point of aim. “Sable first,” he whispered to me, ignoring my pleas for him shoot the roan. I knew the sable was too far and the shot too difficult, since the animal was facing us, but I let him have his way. With my fingers in my ears and my eyes trained on both animals, I was anticipating that he would shoot each antelope in turn. However, he fired both barrels, his aim never leaving the sable. The roan harem, frightened by the shots, sprang to their feet and, led by the bull, dashed off. Dust and flying oxpeckers clouded my view of the sable. As soon as everything settled down I asked Gustaf about his shots. “Missed,” he confessed and cursed softly. We composed ourselves before taking up the sable’s tracks, but found no signs of blood.
We trudged through the miombo and onto the plain, our emotions at a low ebb. After a while we saw sunlight reflecting off the Land Cruiser’s windscreen and Thomas waved the shooting sticks in the air. Within minutes, Sakala and Noah arrived to pick us up and take us back to camp. Once there we showered and were sitting next to the campfire thinking about the day’s events when a waiter asked to speak to me in private. I excused myself from Gustaf and followed him. Thomas and other members of staff were waiting for me, their dark bodies outlined against the grey of the night. Speaking in solemn tones, with a worried look on his face Thomas pointed to the heavens. I listened seriously to what he had to say.
Rejoining Gustaf at the fire, I sipped my beer deep in thought. “Is there a problem?” he asked with concern. “Yes!” I replied. “We have eleven staff members who are miserable and hungry for meat. They are complaining that for days now we have passed many small antelopes and missed two larger ones. Beans and ugali (maize meal) is not enough for their stomachs. These men’s lives are steeped in witchcraft and they say their hunting gods are shouting for meat. A ceremony must be performed and blood must be spilled.”
SABLES, CURSES AND CEREMONIES
At first Gustaf scoffed at the proposal, but to his astonishment his rifle was brought to him. The staff, led by Thomas with his penchant for black magic, appeared out of the gloom. He wore a baboon skin around his waist and the guineafowl feather in his hair. They greeted the seated Gustaf and sat down. A hush fell over them. Flames flickered on Thomas’s face as he reached out and scraped red-hot coals barehanded from the fire into a pile. He spat on his hand and started to chant. From a pouch around his neck, he took out his secret ingredients and sprinkled them onto the coals. As the smoke rose, he fanned it and blew it over Gustaf and his rifle. The hunter’s eyes began to water. The evil spirits behind the lenses of Gustaf’s eyes had been flushed out and the ritual was over. We all finally stood up and took to our beds.
The next morning, with rifles in the gun racks of the Land Cruiser, we left camp. As our day progressed, Gustaf shot a reedbuck and the staff was happy... Blood was finally spilled and that night we dined on filets. Next to follow was a Lichtenstein’s hartebeest. However to bag a roan was not as easy. We first passed up a solitary old roan armed with just one horn, before shooting a good trophy at midday. Gustaf’s safari was finally on track with duiker and oribi also in the skinning shed.
That day we decided to lunch in the camp. While eating we saw in the distance beyond the waterhole a lone sable walking out of the miombo. I quickly picked up my glasses and focussing on the animal I instantly realised it was the outstanding trophy bull that we saw a few days earlier. Gustaf and I left our food and grabbed our rifles. We hurried into the fringe of the miombo, using the trees as cover. Keeping our quarry in sight we were able to stalk within shooting range. We quietly climbed an anthill and slowly peered over the top. The sable was jet black and had a handsome, aristocratic look about him. He had white face markings and long, scimitar-shaped horns that swept back and almost touched his rear end.
The sound of Gustaf’s shot carried over the plain into camp and the staff smiled... Their magic has worked.
Geoff (on the left) and Gustaf posing with the sable mentioned in the story.
A photo of the crew meeting with Gustaf in camp.
Geoff talking on the radio.