An important time in every South African’s life is when they go on their first hunting trip with their father. It was just such an occasion that Heinrich Swart took his 14-year-old son, Xander, on his first hunt and it would be where his own father had taken him: the Kalahari.
Sitting around the fire that evening, Heinrich’s head was thick with nostalgic fog, thoughts of his first hunt swimming around his mind. The smell of the smoke and the feeling of the fire’s warmth transported him 30 years back in time, the memories crystal clear. His first kill was an old Springbok ram which he had tracked for the better part of a day. He was incredibly thankful to have had such a gruelling experience as his first hunt. He used to joke that the injury on his right shoulder was caused by the strap of his .243 rifle digging into the muscle after hours of hopelessly wandering around the Kalahari. He chose to keep the truth to himself, no one would believe it anyway…
Heinrich and Xander were awake well before the sun, giving themselves plenty of time to prepare their gear for the day.
“Are you ready to leave, boy?” Heinrich asked his son.
“Yes, dad,” Xander replied. “All ready.” “And your rifle is safe?”
“Yes, I just checked again.”
“Well, then let’s get going,” Heinrich said as he slotted a round into the cartridge of his .300 rifle. He had bigger game on his mind than a springbok.
They left their camp with a guide that Heinrich knew well. John Mbesi was a gifted tracker with knowledge passed down from every man in his generation going back as far as the first tribes of Africa. He was there for Heinrich’s first hunt with Xander’s grandfather, Cornelius. The same hunt that Heinrich suffered the injury to his right shoulder.
“The herd of springbok we’ll be hunting is about a kilometre from the river just over that dune,” John said as they began walking.
“Great!” Heinrich exclaimed. “You ready to walk, son?”
“Yeah, I’m ready,” replied Xander.
It was a beautiful day in the Kalahari. The sun had just made itself known behind the backs of the hunting party. There was a suggestion of a breeze blowing into their faces, the perfect conditions for a hunter: downwind with the morning sun on your back.
They were soon on top of the dune, surveying the land ahead. They could see the river below, the bed dried to sand from months of harsh sun after the summer rains. There were a few red hartebeest and oryx grazing on the edge of the riverbed, a falcon perched on a small tree and a lone warthog browsing nearby completed the picture in front of them.
John’s expression turned to a leer as he looked out across the land. “No springbok in sight,” he said after a few silent moments. “Let’s check the edge of the riverbed for spoor.”
They found evidence of a small herd of springbok astride the riverbed. Not many animals, but John was certain there would be a young buck for Xander to shoot.
The men marched on, sun still behind them, the wind strengthening ever so slightly. The oryx and red hartebeest darted off as the group approached, the warthog seemed oblivious and continued to browse.
The men had been tracking the herd for about an hour. It was slow going, the Kalahari sand making each step harder than the last, made even more difficult when carrying heavy rifles, rations and camping gear.
“Phew… Why didn’t we take a bakkie?” sighed Xander.
“Ha! No son of mine will shoot his first buck from the back of a bakkie,” was the reply that Heinrich gave. “If you are to kill an animal, you are to work for it.”
It was early afternoon when the hunting party found the herd. Thirty strong, the group was much larger than John had expected. A healthy population of ewes, lambs and rams.
Xander dropped to a prone position as Heinrich reached for his rangefinder, a small scope which allows the viewer to accurately identify the distance of anything within a certain metreage.
“Okay, Xander,” Heinrich whispered. “Can you see the large tree on the right of the herd.”
“If you move your sight to the left, you will see two small ewes, a lamb and a ram. That’s your buck. He’s 300 metres away, so use the first long line of your scope and put it on his shoulder. Clean kill.”
Xander did as his father instructed. As precisely and deliberately as he could, he moved his rifle until he found his target. He saw the young ram, dipping his head to graze from the small shrub at its hooves.
“Let him eat,” Heinrich said softly. “When he raises his head, he’ll be still. Take your shot then.”
Xander placed his right index finger on the trigger of his .243 rifle, preparing to gently squeeze. He watched as the buck tugged at the shrub. In a few seconds, it would raise its head.
Heinrich kept his rangefinder on the buck. He had trained Xander for this moment, he knew that he would make the shot. He needed him to. That’s the only way he would draw him out…
The springbok finally raised his head and Xander fired.
The buck fell.
“Ha! Well done, my son!” Heinrich exclaimed proudly. “Perfect shot!”
“Takes after his father!” John said as he clapped Xander on the back.
The men walked over to where the buck once stood. It could not have been a better shot. The bullet entered an inch to the left of the tip of the animal’s right shoulder. It died quickly and painlessly.
“How do you feel, Xander?” asked Heinrich.
“I’m not sure,” replied Xander after some time. “I’m happy that I’ve finally hunted my first buck, but… But a part of me feels incredibly sad for what I’ve just done.”
“Never lose that part of yourself, Xander,” Heinrich said softly. “I don’t know if it’s the spirit, a force of energy, or God. I just know that it connects you to me, my father, his father and the fathers before. We all live, we all die. You, like this animal, will take your last breath one day. All we can do until that day is live as well and as freely as we can. Always remember that with freedom comes consequence. You are the reason this animal is dead, but it will feed you and your family. You now owe a debt to the universe and you pay it by being a righteous man and respectful to everyone and everything you share this world with.”
Heinrich and John watched as Xander prepared the carcass for butchery — just as they had taught him. It didn’t take him long, he was proficient with his hunting knife, a gift Heinrich gave him for his 14th birthday.
“Good job. Now, I need you to do something for me,” Heinrich said, looking down at his son. “What is it?” asked Xander.
“I need you to write something in the sand…” Heinrich said, almost in a whisper. “Using the animal’s blood.”
“Wh-What?” Xander stammered, quite shocked at is father’s request. He looked to John for a similar look of bemusement, but found a face just as serious as Heinrich’s. “Why?”
“I’ll explain later,” Heinrich said. “Just do as I say.”
“Good,” Heinrich exclaimed. “We camp here for the night, we’ll need to be ready to move quickly.” “When are you going to tell me why I had to do that?” Xander asked, now beginning to worry about his father’s demeanour. Heinrich had become stern, quiet. He wouldn’t look Xander in the eye, his focus completely diverted to his rifle as he slowly rolled a bullet around in his right hand. This wasn’t a bullet that Xander had seen before. It was pure black, with a white ring around the tip.
John had slipped into a similar daze. No longer was he quick with a smile, instead, his face showed no joy. His expression conveying deep thought, planning, praying. He had begun changing his clothes from the blue overalls to a traditional animal skin.
“Dad? DAD? Answer me?” Heinrich yelled. “What is going on?”
Xander’s raised voice finally drew the attention of his father, who looked up from his rifle and muttered: “Sit down. I’ll tell you everything.”
As Xander sat down in front of his father, John walked over to the writing in the sand to inspect it one last time… . . . . R U N N I N G D E A D
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