Published June 2017
Apart from vermin control with specialized night vision equipment, or having obtained the necessary permit to cull animals with a spotlight during night time, every hunter knows that attempting to shoot an animal after sunset is, apart from being illegal, also very unethical. Yet there I was, part of a group of hunters that were about to accompany 10 guests on a driven Springbok hunt that, for them, were going to take place in total darkness…….
……….our guests were blind………..
It all started many months ago when my good friend and full time professional hunter, Neil Pretorius, asked me if my wife Anett (a keen huntress herself) and I would be interested to partake in a special annual Springbok hunt hosted by Bennie van Niekerk and his wife Pepe from the farm Hoeksfontein in the Pearston district of the Eastern Cape. Now my wife and I are dyed-in-the-wool “walk and stalk” hunters, and “voorsit” type hunting holds little appeal for us, yet, once the details of the hunt were explained to us, we readily accepted the invitation.
Soon the hunting weekend was upon us and as we left Port Elizabeth on midday that Friday for the three hour drive to the farm an unusual sense of expectation and excitement accompanied us, more so than what we normally would experience when we depart on a hunt. Something about this particular hunt held the promise of breaching new horizons!
Upon our arrival at the farm, Pepe showed us to our accommodation and after we had unpacked, we took the rifles to the shooting range for a quick verification of their zero, soon to be joined by the other hunters to do likewise as more hunters arrived in tandem.
The process of rifle checking was still in progress when a white Mercedes bus, unobtrusively bearing a CW number plate, arrived with our guests on board. One by one the excited occupants were assisted to disembark and the introductions between hunters and clients commenced in an almost palpable air of anticipation on both sides. Thus started my extraordinary experience of being afforded the opportunity to hunt with persons that, unlike you and me, are BLIND……….
The origins of the “Blind Hunt”
The origins of the so called “blind hunt” came into being as a result of a confluence of circumstances, fashioned by the events in Neil’s family life. Neil and his brother, Johan, were both dentists and at one time shared a practice in Port Elizabeth. However, in his 40’s, Johan was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a degenerative condition that causes untreatable retinal dystrophy and eventually leads to blindness. Thus Johan’s career as a dentist was cruelly cut short and resulted in him ending up in the then Worcester Institute for the Blind. Both Neil and Johan share a love for hunting, inherited from their father, and this passion made the brothers realise that those with sight impairment must surely also harbour this instinctive love of hunting. Why then not put the necessary mechanisms in place to also give these people exposure to that which sighted persons so blithely regard as a given? The logistics of this notion and how to turn them into feasible solutions were duly solved by them and through Neil’s interaction with Bennie, it did not take long to create the opportunities that would accommodate this dream.
It is indeed something special that both Bennie and Pepe did not hesitate for a moment to offer their services and become involved in a project that so easily could have had its bona fides questioned or be regarded as controversial by the uninformed masses, who may label the concept of “blind hunters” as unethical.
However, the modus operandi of the hunt clearly refutes all potential criticism of the hunt – each blind person is accompanied by a sighted hunter and the two of them are then placed where the buck will pass by them in relatively close proximity, making for sure and easy shooting. The sighted hunter will do the shooting but involve his blind companion throughout this experience by describing the process as it builds up from sighting the buck till the eventual shot.
This particular manner of giving sight-handicapped persons exposure to hunting has proven to be a winning recipe, underlined by the fact that this particular hunt was already the 5th yearly repeat of this experience on the same farm, oversubscribed to in its demand from the enthusiastic and excited residents from the Institute in Worcester (currently known as Kaleidoscope), a clear indication of its popularity!
Safety precautions first – our unsighted guests enjoyed rifle shooting practice
After the arrival of the blind contingent on the Friday and them having booked in and settled their baggage in their respective rooms, their interest was definitely focussed on shooting and thus they left no stone unturned to get to the shooting range where all the noises were coming from! Those who so desired, were offered the opportunity to experience the feeling of firing a rifle from a bench (under strict supervision and with all the requirements of safety precautions in place) and it was a humbling experience to behold the trepidation with which each shot was approached, followed with almost childlike pleasure upon successful completion thereof, despite the barrage of comments, jeers and cheers from the gallery of their peers at the back who, although unsighted, lived through each and every shot attempted by the incumbent behind the rifle!
Blind guests entertain everyone with music
Next stop was regrouping around the huge thorn wood log fire, built in a special circular pit, where everybody could sit around and enjoy the ambience of the warmth generated by the roaring flames, more so as one’s back could already feel the cooling bite of the seasonal transition into the impending winter. While we waited for the coals to develop for the inevitable South African braai to follow, we were treated to some excellent guitar playing and singing from some of our blind guests, delivered with such enjoyment and gusto that it totally belied the fact that these are people living with a “disability”! What a joy to be afforded the opportunity to be a part of this wonderful, exuberant expression of life!
Soon we were seated for a lovely dinner, efficiently served by Pepe and her helpers and the hum of conversation at each table reflected how readily the sighted hunters and their unsighted guests engaged in each other’s company. After supper, almost everybody returned to the fire for coffee or a nightcap, further developing the newly found friendships and continuing the discussions around that which was on everybody’s mind – the next day’s hunt!
An educated guess as to how much sleep each of our guests managed to get that night would certainly border on the minimum, judged by how early they were all up, eagerly awaiting breakfast so the main task of the day may commence! Thankfully the weather decided to play ball, greeting us in the obligatory early morning Karoo chill but with light clouds caressing the sky and only a slight breeze present, the combination of which held the promise of mild day temperatures.
Off to the hunt!
After breakfast the bakkies were quickly loaded, each pairing of hunter and blind guest allocated with military precision by Neil and Bennie to coincide with the pre-arranged sequence in which offloading were to take place at the respective “voorsit” places. All of a sudden the convoy of was moving, we were on our way to go hunting! Seated in the back of the open bakkie and with the early morning breeze in our faces accentuated by the moving vehicle, noses soon turned red and our exposed hands stiffened as a result of the numbing effect of the nip in the air, coupled with us having to hold on to the cold metal railings. Yet, if anything, this just added to the mood and feelings of expectation!
One by one, each pairing was dropped off at their designated place, with Bennie and Neil, in each case, explaining the limitations of the direction and shooting angle that applied to them. Eventually Aydienne (my blind partner) and I were also dropped off and amongst loud wishes of good luck, the remaining bakkies disappeared – eventually we were alone on our hunt!
As I observed our immediate vicinity, I decided for us to settle in behind an earth mound that was pushed as part of the farmer’s strategy to manage storm water damage. This would provide us with good cover against the sharp eyesight of the springbuck, as well as give me a steady rest for the rifle in the sitting, lying position we would be forced to adopt in order to minimise our exposure. I guided Aydienne to our position and we were still in the process of making ourselves comfortable when a group of about thirty springbuck suddenly appeared behind us and trotted past, only to stop about 100m away from us, staring intently in our direction! However, they were outside our shooting zone and as I explained this to Aydienne, the buck slowly trotted away and disappeared in the Karooveldt bush. This early sighting of springbuck had us both excited and was surely a good omen!
From experience I know how actionless a springbuck voorsit hunt can be, as the camps are inevitably large and the buck widespread. However, in this instance I regarded it as a blessing in disguise as it would afford us the opportunity to get to learn more about each other in the unique circumstances we found ourselves in.
I have been told that blind people develop more acuteness in their other senses, as a result of losing their sight. But some people are born blind and others become blind, so how would this influence this postulation, and to what extent? This is a subject I forgot to broach with Aydienne, or anybody else during this weekend. Definitely something to follow up on in future!
Nevertheless, whilst we had time to kill, I offered Aydienne the opportunity to feel, hold and mount the (unloaded) rifle, which he did with obvious appreciation. Next I let him feel one of the cartridges, explaining to him the differences between different bullets in the same calibre and also the plethora of calibres that are available to the hunter! Then I told him that he should be able to hear clearly the result of a good hit on the animal from a shot being fired by any of the hunters, even from a distance. I mimicked the sound sequence of “bang……dup!” which phonetically describes this process and lo and behold, somebody obliged as if on call as a shot rang out from somewhere to our right, reflecting exactly what I had just described! I must just add that, subsequently, Aydienne was also able to recognize and call the misses as well…….
For more than 3 hours, the springbuck chose to totally ignore our area, but that did not faze us. We learned about each other’s backgrounds, work, family lives, solved South Africa’s problems, etc., the discussions just carried on and on and the 3hrs flew like the blink of an eye. And then a (hitting) shot from our nearest neighbour made me caution Aydienne to be ready for potential action, as I suspected that the rest of the herd may pass in front of us. Suddenly three running springbuck entered our shooting zone from the expected side and fortunately stopped about 150m away, gazing intently backwards from whence they had come. I lined up on a ewe that gave me the best broadside shot and drop her in her tracks with a shoulder shot, which immediately caused the remaining two bucks to hastily depart. Throughout the whole process, I was giving Aydienne a running commentary of proceedings, and upon the shot, he excitedly enquired whether we “got” it. I replied in the affirmative and said that we must go and have a look, as the hunt will soon officially be over, and that we were lucky to get one before the cut-off time. As I guided him to the buck, I realized there and then that, despite having shot many animals in my hunting career over a span of some 50 years, I had just experienced one of my most memorable hunts ever, directly as a result of the circumstances under which it took place.
When I approached the buck, I noticed that the buck shot by our neighbouring pair was in fact lying only about 50 metres from ours, having covered a short distance from them towards us with a rearward lung shot before expiring. When we got to our buck, I quickly cut the jugular to let it bleed out, and then took some pictures of Aydienne posing with “his” buck! Upon observing us at our buck, our neighbours quickly joined us and we moved the two springbuck closer together. We then gutted the buck and in doing so, I invited Aydienne and Marius (the blind person who sat with his hunter, Dewald) to touch the entrance and exit wounds, and also to feel what the carcass, the horns, the head, the eviscerated stomach and entrails felt like. The keenness and wonder with which they engaged in these tasks just underlined again how special something as seemingly trivial and insignificant to us, can mean to an unsighted person. I, for one, will never be blasé about performing these tasks ever again!
Back to the campfire and all the wonderful stories
In the distance we could see the movement of the bakkies as they did the rounds to pick everybody up and soon we and our buck were picked up as well, to be taken to the picnic spot in a dry river bed where the braaifires were already burning in preparation for the ubiquitous boerewors rolls to follow! The air was filled with a constant barrage of comments, opinions, descriptions, as well as a good dose of bragging and leg-pulling as the many experiences and versions thereof came under discussion. I so enjoyed all this good humoured bantering that it took a while before it sank in that my wife, Anett, together with her blind companion, Freek, were not with us! Upon informing Neil about this, he immediately departed to look for them at the spot where they were offloaded that morning, finding them in good spirits and still chatting away – it was only when it became apparent to them that they had been “forgotten” that the whole group had to endure their “wrath” for the rest of the weekend. Subsequently my wife confided in me that had such a good time talking about the whole experience that that they were oblivious to the time! Suffice to say they were also one of three pairings that never got an opportunity at a buck, and in all three cases, it was conclude that their loud yammering scared the buck away! Nevertheless, when the dust had settled, there were ten springbuck on the bakkies, reason enough to describe the hunt as an absolute resounding success!!
How does a blind person enjoy the sights of the valleys and hills?
Whilst the professional hunters and their helpers moved the buck to the cooling rooms, our blind guests and their hunting partners were randomly distributed onto the back of four bakkies and we commenced to engage in what proved to be a roller coaster ride afforded us on the narrow gravel roads into the spectacular mountains on Bennie and Pepe’s farm. For a sighted person it is easy to hold on and brace yourself against gravity and centrifugal forces as you battle the perpetual upward and downward gradients, coupled with some steep side cross-falls, narrow crossings, deep ravines and sharp crests, but just imagine how a blind person must experience these effects? Yet they loved it! The sights of the valleys and hills from certain vantage points on these mountainous roads were truly spectacular and it seemed almost a travesty of justice that all we could do was describe it to our guests, yet they appreciated it none the less. All too soon the lengthening shadows and chilly bite in the air guided us back to our chalets at the base camp, after an unforgettable day.
With the rifles safely stowed away, everyone donned warmer clothing pre-empted by the already palpable cold in the cooling evening air as we started to gather around the soothing warmth of the welcoming fire’s licking flames. Two large potjies, containing our evening meal, were already slowly bubbling away on some hot coals and with something cold in hand, the atmosphere was already conducive for another evening of carefree conversation, laughing, music and happy reflection on the day’s events an accomplishments.
How did our guests become blind?
Later that evening, after a wonderful supper and in keeping with previous tradition, the opportunity was created whereby each and every one of our blind guests were asked to enlighten the whole group about their respective backgrounds, how they became blind and also to express their impressions of the hunting experience. As was to be expected, there were two groupings: those that were born blind, either as a result of genetics or through complications at birth, and then others that were born sighted, but lost their sight as a result of degenerative complications or because of an accident that happened early or later in their lives.
The best experience ever!
Every one of them unanimously declared the hunting experience to have been something special and a highlight in their lives, and the expressions of their gratitude in this regard was indeed a very chastening experience for all sighted persons around the tables. Although the hunting experience was a sponsored event, many declared that they would gladly pay for an encore!
Sighted people were emotionally touched
However, when they related the stories behind the reason(s) for their blindness, although delivered matter-of-factly, it was indeed impossible for the sighted people not to be emotionally touched by this.
These stories about their blindness were filled with pathos, yet devoid of any recriminations, regret, anger, resentment or any sense that they have been hard done by and that the world and society owes them. Theirs is a world of total acceptance…..
Sympathy? Empathy? Admiration?
Do these wonderful people need our sympathy? No. They are (rightfully) proud of their achievements and the lives they have carved out for themselves, despite the enormous challenges forced upon them by their comparative “disability”. Do they need our empathy? Yes. But only to the extent that we become the ones championing their cause and do whatever we can to canvass the means and support they require to make them the functional and appreciated contributors to our society that they can be. Do they need our admiration? They surely have mine! This hunting trip has exposed me to the pragmatic way in which they have accepted their situation, their astounding achievements despite their disability, their zest for life where they embrace and appreciate the little things that you and I so easily take for granted, their camaraderie, their cohesive spirit that transcends rank, colour and age.
We, who have the gift of sight, are indeed the pitiful ones, especially for the way in which we often bemoan insignificant happenings and experiences in our lives!
Thanks go to Bennie and Pepe for this wonderful, mind opening experience on their farm, it was really a privilege to have been allowed to be a part of this. We salute you!
Soon Anett and I will be travelling to Worcester to personally deliver the special boerewors we ourselves have made from all the spoils of this Blind hunt, as a thank you gift from all the organisers, sponsors and executioners of the hunt. We hope to meet up and spend some time again with our newly acquired friends, yes, those who have hunted in darkness……