by Eric Muller
Either in the early pre-dawn hours or in the late afternoons we’d jump into the back of the backie and make ourselves comfortable, lying on or in our sleeping bags, depending on the temperature. The drive from Empangeni to Mr. Scribner’s ‘weekend’ farm in Zululand’s interior took about two hours, with some obligatory stops on the way to pee, stretch and get a hamburger. Sometimes Bert’s Dad guzzled a beer at the bar in Melmoth while we sipped sodas outside in the sun. Except for a few short miles, it was all dirt road and our faces were always masked with dust by the time we arrived. In one way or another, each trip was an adventure, and we went often during our last year of primary school, because Mr. Scribner had begun to raise cattle and needed to oversee his growing herd. Usually it was just Bert, his two younger sisters and me, but this time a bunch more joined us – my brother George, Bruce and Max from our class, and Bert’s three cousins who’d come up for the weekend from Durban.
Bert’s cousins had brought their guns along and wanted to go hunting. Everybody was game and we rounded up enough guns so nobody would be left without one. There was quite a collection, from small BB guns to a twelve-bore shotgun. The cousins and Bert had .22-caliber rifles (or two-twos, as we called them) and a Winchester. I was left with a rusty pellet gun.
Gearing up for the hunt, we did some target practice. We placed a row of bottles and cans on the stonewall behind the farmhouse and shot them off, one by one. And as a special treat we all got to shoot the 12 bore shotgun. When it was my turn, I was sent sprawling into the dirt, even though I’d braced myself against the potent kickback. We aimed the old shooter at an unopened box of oatmeal, because it would explode in an impressive cloud when hit, which, in this case, only happened once, when Bert’s Dad fired the vintage rifle to show us how it’s done. After an hour or more of popping off tin cans and bottles, we were raring if not ready to go out into the bush to hunt.
We weren’t anticipating any big game, at the most a duiker, or a dassie, but we banked on bagging a bunch of pheasants. They weren’t really pheasants, but wild Greywing Partridges that belonged to the Francolin family. Pheasant soup was on the evening menu. I imagined we were part of a dangerous posse as our hunting party set out into the hot Zulu afternoon. Personally, I didn’t care too much for hunting, but I liked the excitement of it all. At least we weren’t stalking impalas, springboks, or kudus, which had left me with a sense of loss the last time I’d gone hunting.
Stealthily we walked along the rugged terrain, eleven abreast, constantly on the lookout for anything that moved. Now and then, someone cautioned us to stop, and we’d all listen intently. Bert and his cousins had most hunting experience took the lead. Bert’s Dad, with the big twelve-bore slung across the shoulder held back, participating more as a chaperone to ensure we’d do nothing stupid.
An hour later, and still we’d not fired a single shot. However, our hopes were raised. We’d seen coveys of about six birds in the distance and gone in pursuit, but at crucial moments one of us stood on a stick or made some other uncalled for noise that scared them away. Bert, in his frustration took a pot shot at two rock pigeons perched on an anthill. He missed, but close by a duiker ran out and disappeared into a ravine before we could shoulder our guns, which garnered a communal groan. We tracked the elusive pheasants for another hour, but our spirits gradually ebbed. Eventually Mr. Scribner persuaded us to return to the farm.
We were about half a mile from the farmhouse when Max suddenly held up his hand. We all stopped. He pointed to a patch of veld about twenty yards ahead of us where the dried, brown grass was at least five feet tall. Ever so slowly, we spread out, forming a wide semicircle around the area. Little by little, we approached the mark, breathing with our teeth bared. Every footfall was measured and focused. We could see it sitting tight between the stalks – ready to be flushed. At once, with loud squeals, it rose into the air, its great wings flapping. As one, we lifted our guns and fired – the shots resounded across the grasslands with a massive boom. Letting our guns sink, we expected the pheasant to have exploded like the oatmeal box, but there it was, still flapping its clumsy wings. “Shoot it, shoot it,” Bert’s oldest cousin shouted. We fumbled with our guns, reloaded and shot. Still it flew, defying each pop, bang and boom, the wide wings moving awkwardly, though it disappeared with uncanny speed behind a koppie. Gone.
We’d all missed! Shells ejected, we stared gobsmacked across the empty veld. To cheer us up Mr. Scribner explained that these birds were incredibly cunning, hard to stalk, and were generally hunted with trained pointing dogs – and even then were no easy quarry. “I guess no pheasant soup for dinner,” Bert sighed as we turned to go, gun broken.
Late next day, while driving back home, we woke up from our snooze with a loud thud and the screech of tires. Coming to a halt, we jumped out from the back of the backie to see what had happened. A large pheasant lay dead in the road. “It just flew into the windshield. There was nothing I could do,” Mr. Scribner said, wiping the hair from his sweaty forehead.
“Looks like we’ll have some pheasant soup after all.” Bert cocked his head and smiled.