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
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.
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.
‘With my father after he bravely took on three lions single-handed — a photo I still keep on my writing desk’.
Wilbur Smith has published 40 novels since 1964 and has sold close to 140 million books