Shoot­ing from the hip

At the age of 85, South Africa’s big­gest-sell­ing nov­el­ist has writ­ten a mem­oir — in which his own manly ex­ploits chal­lenge the der­ring-do of his fic­tional he­roes

Sunday Times - - Stinsight - Wil­bur Smith tells his story

His face caked in blood, stark naked from the waist down, he whirled like a dervish, bel­low­ing what seemed like a tri­umphant bat­tle cry. Was this some kind of rit­ual? Or had my dad lost his mind?

My fa­ther, Her­bert, meant ev­ery­thing to me. He was my god, I loved him with ev­ery inch of my be­ing. He could be a cussed old bas­tard and his val­ues were strictly from the Vic­to­rian age but ev­ery boy has a hero in his life and my fa­ther was that man. Some­times I think the world was too small a space to con­tain his soar­ing, re­bel­lious spirit and per­haps that was why he was so ob­sessed with avi­a­tion. He loved to join “the tum­bling mirth of sun-split clouds” as RAF pi­lot John Gille­spie Magee jnr put it in High Flight, one of my favourite po­ems. My fa­ther named me af­ter one of the Wright Broth­ers, Wil­bur, who, with his brother Orville, built the first con­trol­lable air­craft.

I don’t know whether I ever reached the heights he ex­pected from his son. He thought read­ing books was a waste of time and writ­ing them even more puz­zling. He was a prac­ti­cal, ac­tive man, a doer. A prob­lem was some­thing to be solved, not re­flected upon.

I re­mem­ber the time as if it was yes­ter­day when I first saw what my fa­ther was ca­pa­ble of when con­fronted by dan­ger. He be­came a real hero to me then and my re­spect for him was sealed. It was a ter­ri­fy­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and it took place at night-time.

I was sleep­ing and woke to roar­ing. Wrapped in my sleep­ing bag, I opened my eyes. Be­side me, my sis­ter was al­ready awake, star­ing ner­vously at the sliver of fire­light be­tween the can­vas flaps of our tent. We were used to the or­di­nary sounds of the bush at night — the whoop of hyena, the dis­tant growl of a leop­ard hunt­ing in the dark — but this was tu­mult be­yond all my imag­in­ing. I crawled along the stretcher bed and moved to peer out of the tent.

I was eight years old, my sis­ter only six. In the dark­ness around us lay the wild coun­try of the Zam­bezi val­ley. This was the un­tamed land, yet to be touched by road or rail, that my fa­ther had led us into two weeks be­fore, at the start of the long dry sea­son. These an­nual sa­faris had be­come the high­light of my year, the trips into the coun­try­side around which my young life was built. Some­times we would ven­ture north from our home in North­ern Rhode­sia, as far as Kol­wezi in the Congo — but this year we had re­mained closer to home, mak­ing camp in the heart of the Luangwa val­ley it­self.

The Luangwa val­ley, even now, is an un­spoilt wilder­ness teem­ing with wildlife. Over thou­sands of square miles, the val­ley is fed by the Luangwa River, one of the trib­u­taries of the Zam­bezi River, and its many oxbow lakes and aban­doned river la­goons pro­vide broad ex­panses of drink­ing wa­ter. When the rainy sea­son ar­rives in Novem­ber, golden-brown, dusty, dry land­scape turns to vivid emer­ald green, and the fresh clean scent of the first rains is a fab­u­lous por­tent of na­ture’s re­birth.

There are more hip­popotami splash­ing in the mud­flats of the Luangwa val­ley than any­where else in the world, as well as huge num­bers of leop­ards, ele­phants, croc­o­diles and li­ons who live in prides of up to 20 an­i­mals. The li­ons are dom­i­nant and fierce, as if em­bold­ened by the ab­sence of man, and, unique to the area, are known to kill hip­pos.

The birdlife is spec­tac­u­lar and I never tire of see­ing the crowned crane, with its halo of straw-yel­low feath­ers, white cheeks and red throat pouch roost­ing in trees, or the jewel-like carmine bee-eaters, the set­ting sun mag­ni­fy­ing their pink­ish-red and blue colour­ing as they gather chaot­i­cally to nest on the river banks. The Luangwa val­ley is a place of ex­trav­a­gant beauty and abun­dance.

Hunter be­comes the hunted

Ev­ery year our voy­age would be­gin the same way, with my fa­ther’s tiny Tiger Moth bi­plane dis­ap­pear­ing north to re­con­noitre the best hunt­ing grounds — be­fore a group of labour­ers from the ranch would be dis­patched, on bi­cy­cles, to burn back the bush and pre­pare for our com­ing. Once the new growth had sprouted in the clear­ing, tempt­ing the game down to lush green shoots, our jour­ney would be­gin.

My fa­ther’s three big Ford trucks would be packed with tents and camp­ing gear, fold­ing chairs and beds, pots and pans for my mother’s out­door kitchen, ri­fles and axes and racks for hang­ing meat. Then, as my fa­ther clam­bered into the cab of the lead truck and gave the tra­di­tional cry of “Kwenda Sa­fari!” we would set out. Trav­el­ling with my mother, my fa­ther and sis­ter would be 20 or 30 of the best men from the ranch. Crowded into the open backs of the trucks, laugh­ing at the prospect of end­less fresh meat grilled on the coals or black­en­ing on the dry­ing racks, their hunt­ing songs filled the air.

We had come for the buf­falo, the sable and reed buck, and the ele­phants whose meat was cru­cial to the sur­vival of the lo­cal vil­lages. Lit­tle did we know that, be­fore the ex­pe­di­tion was out, it was we who would be­come the hunted.

“Is it them?” my sis­ter asked.

I hes­i­tated on the edge of the stretcher bed, not dar­ing to leave the tent. The thought had en­tered my head as well. Four days ago, a run­ner from the district com­mis­sioner’s head­quar­ters, 50 miles away, had ar­rived in camp and pre­sented my fa­ther with a let­ter warn­ing us that a pride of li­ons was on the ram­page through the district. Turned man-eater, they had al­ready killed more than 20 vil­lagers, women and chil­dren among them. My fa­ther’s rep­u­ta­tion as a good shot and hunter was well es­tab­lished, and the district com­mis­sioner had writ­ten to ask him to erad­i­cate this men­ace if he could.

My fa­ther was about to get his chance to con­front preda­tors with a taste for hu­man blood.

Out­side, our camp was en­cir­cled by a boma of branches that had been har­vested from the bush. In the mid­dle of the pro­tec­tive en­clo­sure sat our two can­vas tents — one for my par­ents, and one I shared with my sis­ter. On the edge of the bar­ri­cade, our camp re­tain­ers — labour­ers from our fam­ily ranch — slept out in the open, the dark­ness lit only by the fal­ter­ing light of their fire. Through the sleep­ing men moved a mon­ster in sil­hou­ette: a lion with a mane of black, his lu­mi­nes­cent eyes fo­cused on the rack of meat we had butchered that day hang­ing out to dry.

As I watched, the al­pha lion hes­i­tated. Some­thing else had caught his at­ten­tion. He turned, eyes daz­zling in the fire­light, and ap­proached the camp re­tain­ers. This lion was not in­ter­ested in meat left out to dry. It wanted the meat of man. It wanted to kill.

The lion was al­most on top of Peter, my fa­ther’s fore­man. Lesser men might have fal­tered, but in an in­stant Peter reached for the axe that lay at his side. I held my breath, un­able to pic­ture what might come next. The lion roared as it sprang for­ward. Peter raised the axe high above his head and for a sec­ond the lion’s jaws loomed above him, ready to sav­age him to pieces, but when they clamped shut, the de­mon had sunk its fangs into the han­dle of the axe it­self, miss­ing Peter’s arm.

Pan­de­mo­nium broke out. As the camp took flight and screams drowned out the sounds of the bush, two other colos­sal sil­hou­ettes ap­peared. The lion pride had ar­rived in force, and we were trapped in­side the boma walls. I slunk back into the tent, fear over­com­ing my ex­cite­ment for the very first time. Then my fa­ther ap­peared.

From the open­ing of his tent, my fa­ther stag­gered half-asleep out into the night, wear­ing only the shirt of his py­ja­mas. With one hand he seized his ri­fle, with the other his torch, but as he took his first stride his face smashed into the tent pole and his proud, im­pe­rial nose — al­ready bro­ken in some long ago box­ing bout — scythed open, split to the gris­tle and show­er­ing blood. If any­thing could wake him prop­erly, this was it. Blink­ing back pour­ing blood, he turned to­wards the chaos. The al­pha lion, Peter’s axe still lodged in its jaws, lifted its head to meet his gaze. There was a grunt­ing, a fu­ri­ous roar, and then the lion charged.

Be­side me, my sis­ter pan­icked. Fear is an in­fec­tious emo­tion. Only sec­onds ago, this had been an ad­ven­ture, one of the most thrilling episodes of my young life, but now the enor­mity of the mo­ment took hold of me and would not let go. Clouds of dust rose to ob­scure my view. The shriek­ing of 30 men was drowned only by the cav­ernous roars of all three li­ons. Tears sud­denly poured from my eyes. They say that time slows down, but that is not how it felt; in­stantly the al­pha lion had crossed the camp, ready to tear my beloved fa­ther apart.

In these sit­u­a­tions, he­roes show their true worth. With­out trousers, dis­play­ing his mas­culin­ity to the world, blood stream­ing from his rup­tured nose, my fa­ther stood his ground.

In a heart­beat, he turned his torch on the charg­ing lion. Hold­ing his ri­fle in his other hand, he aimed it like a pis­tol along the beam of bright light — and fired.

The de­ranged an­i­mal ar­rested, mid-leap. The bul­let had found the cen­tre of its chest, cleaved through mus­cle and bone, and buried it­self deep in the beast’s heart. I watched, in­cred­u­lous, as the great carcass dropped and, in a whirl­wind of dust, rolled to my fa­ther’s feet. There it lay still, blood pump­ing out of the hole in its breast.

Beau­ti­ful man-eaters

Dad dropped the torch to reload. The torch’s beam tum­bled, cut­ting arcs over the camp­site, and fleet­ingly picked out the faces of the other two li­ons. Be­fore it had come to a rest, my fa­ther lifted the ri­fle and re­leased an­other two shots. At each, a lion dropped dead.

Si­lence set­tled on the camp. The dis­tant sound of the bush re­turned, the scream­ing of the camp re­tain­ers ebbed away, and I wiped the last tears from my eyes.

I was about to tell my sis­ter it was over, that we could ven­ture out and see my fa­ther’s prized kills for our­selves, when I heard an­other sound. My fa­ther was kick­ing his naked feet fiercely into the air and ut­ter­ing a se­ries of ter­ri­ble cries. His face caked in blood, stark naked from the waist down, he whirled like a dervish, bel­low­ing what seemed like a tri­umphant bat­tle cry. Was this some kind of rit­ual? Or had my dad lost his mind?

“What’s he do­ing?” my sis­ter asked, creep­ing to my side.

My eyes lifted from the fallen li­ons to my fren­zied fa­ther. This was his cel­e­bra­tion of the great vic­tory he had achieved, maybe.

It was only as his war dance ended, and my mother came run­ning out to make sure he was alive, that we dared creep over to the li­ons — and fi­nally re­alised what he had been do­ing.

As they tore through the camp, the li­ons

had de­stroyed the camp fire, scat­ter­ing hot coals across the open ground. It was not tri­umph my fa­ther had been chant­ing; it was pain. He was kick­ing to keep the burn­ing coals from scorch­ing his feet.

I looked be­tween the li­ons and my fa­ther, then re­alised how close we had come to be­ing the beasts’ next vic­tims.

As I mar­velled at the beau­ti­ful man-eaters spread out be­neath me, I was hit by the feel­ing that there had been only one per­son stand­ing be­tween them and my sis­ter and me be­com­ing their next meal: my fa­ther, my hero, my god.

I stared up at him. He was grin­ning, proud not only to have sur­vived but to have bested these beasts. He would never know how long that mo­ment would last across the years of my life.

Real life’s he­roes

Even now, more than 70 years later, I can re­mem­ber that night vividly. As I write, on my desk is a faded photograph taken the next morn­ing with my mother’s old Box Brownie cam­era. My fa­ther and I are kneel­ing side by side, each hold­ing the head of one of the li­ons. In the back­ground, Peter stands be­side one of the Ford trucks, wrapped in a blan­ket.

Although my fa­ther is wear­ing his py­jama bottoms, his nose re­mains swollen and lac­er­ated.

In the fore­ground, I am wear­ing one of my fa­ther’s hats, copy­ing his style, try­ing to be him, grin­ning into the cam­era as if to say: these are my li­ons . . .

Many lives were saved that night, and the lo­cal vil­lagers would never for­get it. Nor would I. The mem­ory of it would echo across all the nov­els of my life, through the Court­neys, the Bal­lan­tynes and be­yond.

Lit­er­a­ture throws many great he­roes at us, but real life in­vari­ably out­does them. That night I truly un­der­stood — my own fa­ther was a hero for the ages. And, look­ing back — across the years, across my nov­els, into the depths of this faded yel­low photograph — I know it was my fa­ther who would be the in­spi­ra­tion for the he­roes who even­tu­ally graced the pages of my books.

The hu­man need to seek out he­roes is deep-seated and it’s been recog­nised by sto­ry­tellers ever since Homer wrote his epic of the Tro­jan War, The Iliad, nearly 3 000 years ago.

My pas­sion is to bring to life those he­roes — and, if ever I need a model for one, all I have to do is re­mem­ber that night when I was eight years old: my fa­ther, his Rem­ing­ton ri­fle, and three man-eat­ing li­ons, ram­pag­ing in the night.

Pic­ture from ‘On Leop­ard Rock: Ad­ven­tures From My Life’ by Wil­bur Smith

‘With my fa­ther af­ter he bravely took on three li­ons sin­gle-handed — a photo I still keep on my writ­ing desk’.

Pic­ture: TBG Archive

Wil­bur Smith has pub­lished 40 nov­els since 1964 and has sold close to 140 mil­lion books


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