Meat!

I shot a young warthog in the grey light before sunrise. My companions strung it from a pole with strips of bark and we took turns in pairs through the day to carry it. It was hard work. It was a young boar and I had gutted it, but a warthog is a solid animal and the swing of the carcass from the pole gnaws at the shoulders and throws one off balance as one weaves through the bush. But there were no complaints; only smiles.

It is a bit sad to kill an animal but as the sojourn stretched over several days it became unavoidable. It relieves the pressure on the food stores we carry and what is more, bush people shun the weight-efficient food that I am more or less forced to take along. They will eat some, but mostly they end up eating only white maize porridge. The pressure on me to kill them some meat is a subtle constant – telling looks and glances and quite over-animated and unnecessary pointing out of likely prey animals…

That evening we grilled the heart and liver over the coals. The rest of the meat they flared, then pinched the pieces between two stakes tied together with fresh bark. The stakes were driven into the ground around the fire at an angle so the meat would catch just enough heat and as much smoke as possible. They would keep the fire going (which we had to do in any case against predators) and occasionally turn the meat through the night.

By morning it would be almost black and dry and smoked. They would tie it into bundles and carry it along on their heads. If they felt the meat wasn’t properly cured in the thicker parts yet they would smoke it some more at the midday break. This way the  meat lasts quite well, even if the last bits start going off a bit in the heat.

Here is a story of a meat hunt from Paths of the Tracker: (https://www.hoffmantheronvanzijl.com/)

When Craig was ready Old Fernando turned without looking at him and headed north-eastwards into the tall miombo, his thin figure bent slightly forward, his hands clasped behind his back and the panga dangling loosely from the fingers of his right hand. He reminded Craig of an eminent old professor wearily heading for a class of second year students.

After about forty-five minutes the ground started dropping away at a gentle slope, and they approached an open grassy area of about three hundred meters across. Craig remembered seeing reedbuck and other game grazing in such areas a few times. The old man clearly understood the bush. He must have read the terrain and recognized that it would very likely lead to such a place, and there was a good chance that there would be warthog or reedbuck there.

He was moving very carefully now, hardly making a sound. The old eyes were electric with vigilance as he scanned the bush ahead, and he frequently picked up pinches of fine sand and let it run from his fingers, to determine the wind direction, it seemed to Craig. It was blowing softly diagonally across their front. Craig moved behind him as quietly as he could. He felt the thin lines of sweat trickling down his hamstrings and calves, and the coolness of the breeze on the side of his face. The excitement was like a high wind in his head. Nothing else existed for him now.

The old man was skirting the clearing but remained well within the trees. Suddenly he stopped and Craig clumsily walked into him. He moved slightly to the left, and pointed with his right hand. Craig followed the gnarled finger, but he could not see anything. “Reedbuck. Two. There,” the old man whispered urgently, surprisingly in English. Craig’s heart was pounding so hard against his chest that his whole body seemed to vibrate from it. He strained his eyes but could see only trees and shrubs and the pale glimmer of grass in the depression beyond.

“There. They move,” Fernando whispered again, his broken English now more urgent, and Craig could hear a hint of disappointment in his voice over the roar of excitement in his head. He simply had to see them. But would he be able to aim and fire? Did he even want to, he wondered briefly.

He stared hard at the area the old man had indicated. Nothing. Was he looking in the right place? He scanned the surrounding bush. Nothing. Then, suddenly, in the very spot Fernando had pointed, first the one and then the other animal materialized as if a veil had been pulled away. “Yes, I see them,” he said breathlessly, almost forgetting to whisper. Fernando merely nodded, waving his right hand to indicate that Craig should shoot the rear one.

The animals were seemingly unaware of their presence and slowly moving forward as they grazed. They would disappear behind some dense shrubbery within the next few steps. He had to shoot. Now! He lifted the rifle and tried to fix the crosshairs on the flank of the rear animal just behind the front leg as Henry had explained to him, but he was trembling too much. He remembered Henry’s words when they were firing the rifles on the range, “Forget about what the shooting range marksmen tell you about holding the rifle steady and slowly squeezing the trigger. When you are in the bush you often have to shoot standing up, and you simply can’t hold the rifle that steady. Anyway, very often you have to shoot fast, so there’s no time for all that holding steady and squeezing stuff. As far as I am concerned, you hold it as steady as you can, which really means that you still tremble a lot, and when the crosshairs or the front site moves over the sweet spot, you touch the trigger. That’s why I like my triggers to be set light, so just touching them will run the shot. Try to practice that.”

But he felt he couldn’t even get the crosshairs near the “sweet spot,” let alone “touch” the trigger. He moved slightly forward behind a small tree and dropped to his knees so that he could steady the rifle against its trunk. He was still unstable, but it was better – despite something hard and sharp boring into his kneecap so that he desperately wanted to shift it away. But he simply had to get off the shot first.

He waited until he thought he had the crosshairs on the right spot and touched the trigger, but nothing happened. “Safety!”, he heard Fernando spat urgently. He clumsily fumbled for the safety catch, and aimed again, but now he was flustered, and he held on too long, and when he touched the trigger he knew that it was a poor shot.

He had instinctively shut his eyes tightly when he fired, so he had no idea where the shot went. Fernando didn’t say anything. He simply started walking to the spot. Craig followed dejectedly. He couldn’t even remember where the animal had stood.

“He go down. But then he run,” Fernando said when they reached the spot and he started looking around for sign. He showed Craig a few flecks of blood no bigger than match heads and some scuff marks on the ground that were hardly visible and to him could have meant anything.

“You hit here,” Fernando said, hitting his left shoulder with his right clenched fist.

Damn! Too far forward, Craig thought desperately. What a damn mess. I wonder if Henry would have heard the shot. Maybe we could simply keep quiet. Return to camp and say we unfortunately found nothing.

“He fall like this, then he walk like this,” Fernando whispered, mimicking how the animal had fallen sideways and forward and had then gotten up and tried to run with its left front leg dragging.

Shit, I can’t leave it, he thought, wishing it had all been a dream. Fernando simply started following the tracks in his slightly stooped attitude with his panga dangling… He showed Craig faint marks and mimicked the animal dragging its left front leg, and more flecks of blood. It had turned back into the forest, but Fernando was following it at a good pace despite the fading light.

Suddenly Fernando stopped and the gnarled finger lifted. This time Craig recognized the shape more easily. How the hell can he track and look ahead and see the animal so much easier than me? he thought. The reedbuck was limping along on three legs, occasionally stopping, restless but apparently unaware of them. He had to try and shoot it when it stopped again. He was feeling calmer now, and more deliberate. He steadied the gun against the trunk of a young tree and waited for a good chance, and when he fired he knew it was a good shot even though he had closed his eyes again.

He looked back at Fernando questioningly. The old man’s face was wrinkled into a delighted smile. He lifted both thumbs and said, “He dead.” Craig felt like crying with relief as he fell in behind the old man’s comforting figure.

When they got to the slain animal Craig held back, standing half behind the Fernando, reluctant to get too close to it – the first animal bigger than a guinea fowl he had ever killed. The broken front leg, pencil-delicate down to the pointed black hoof now lay grotesquely twisted back; the large liquid eyes were glazed over with a dull grey film, and the fine lips that could so nimbly finger blades of grass were draw away from the teeth in a dirt-sullied smirk.

Craig smelled the pungent odour of blood and guts as Fernando deftly cut open the stomach. It seemed so much more significant than a mere dead guinea fowl. A guinea fowl would just be a bunch of feathers with a small head hanging down limply. The eyes would hardly be visible, and it wouldn’t smell…

Fernando looked up from the work with a face that seemed to say, “Aren’t you going to give me a hand, you little brat?” Craig forced himself to kneel down and grip the skin of the opened stomach to hold it back so the old man could pull out the intestines. He had to pull in his chin against the bulge of nausea as he heard the tear of flesh and gurgle of blood. Part of killing. Part of the job. This is the breaking-the-eggs part of making the omelette, he told himself, firmly pushing back against his outraged sensibilities that desperately wanted him to walk a good distance away.

Craig tried to think of the hunt itself. There was no doubt that he had been almost irresistibly drawn to the excitement of it. Perhaps, as Henry had said, it was driven by the ancient instinct to kill for survival, or the primitive lust for blood – from the few scraps of predator-DNA left in him. But like Henry had said, there was also the regret when he looked down at the dead animal. Which was the stronger? Which was really him? Which should he succumb to? Or aspire to? When the moment came, would he really be able to resist that wild exhilaration that engulfed him as he was walking behind Fernando in an instinctive crouch? And when he stood pointed…?

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