How The Boers Hunt

This article—written by an ex-officer of the late Boer army—will be found of especial interest.


It describes the curious methods of hunting employed by the Boers, who carry the communal system even into their big-game hunts.
Much of the information contained in the paper will come as a surprise even to sportsmen who have visited South Africa.

The lion, still the terror of the Northern Transvaal, remains the most imposing game of Africa. It seems that other hunters merely go out with a gun and kill him, but this method does not suit us. The Afrikander knows his lion as he knows his horse. He has studied him for many years; and he has different orders of campaign for the lion on the open veldt and for the lion in the “nest,” as the lair is called.

He knows the lion’s voice, from its purr of pleasure to the deafening reverberations of its angry roar; he knows the lion’s power, from his lightning bounds to the felling stroke of his tremendous paw; he knows the lion’s nature, from its sublime disdain of humanity when it has no reason to be roused, to the unquenchable volcano of its wrath if a bullet only so much as grazes the tangled meshes of its mane. And the Afrikander takes immense precautions, being by nature a prudent man.

A lion upon the veldt, threatening flock and herd, brings every veteran hunter of the vicinity hastening to some farmhouse rendezvous in the early morning. The men have been summoned by the farmer’s son, for it would be an insult to send a Kaffir boy on such an errand. There may be twenty in the party, or there may be more; but no Boer will venture on the hunt with fewer than four companions.

The majority carry Martini-Henrys. There is but one shot in the rifle; but the leaden bullet spreads, and is three times as deadly as the Mauser’s steel-clad cone. No hunter is invited, and no one presents himself, who lacks the reputation for perfect accuracy of aim and almost more than mortal steadiness of nerve.

His debut as a lion-hunter is greater than an event in the life of the Transvaal Boer—it is a crisis. When the party has assembled the oldest hunter of them all looks them over, like an officer viewing a band of volunteers for a forlorn hope. He knows the history of almost every shot these men have fired; he knows, usually, the characteristics of each man present. But he never neglects the formula of the Boer lion-hunter — the Oath of Danger, which is renewed with each fresh enterprise:—

“ Do you wish to hunt the lion ? ”
They answer “Yes” in resolute assent. Then comes another solemn question : —
“ Do you swear to protect the man who is attacked ? ”
They swear, in loyal unison. The third question never fails to stir the hearts of the assembled men :—
“ Do you swear to shoot the man who runs from the lion ? ”
It is the final oath, and a terrible one, but they take it, every one.
But still another chance for withdrawal is given any hunter who may doubt his courage in extremity.
“Whoever wants to stay behind,” says the veteran, “ can do so now.”

There is no record of any wavering among the hunters; their doubts are always settled before they leave their homes. The veteran then announces that he will act as leader. He appoints the man next to him in the number of his encounters with lions as second in the troop. And, in successive numbers, he names the rest, according to the measure of their experience in the hazardous work ahead.

With the Kaffir tracker in advance, the hunters follow the lion’s spoor. It may be hours before they overtake him, but they never relinquish the search ; they never rest until they are upon him. How many instances there are in which the lion has at once shown fight I do not know; I have not heard of a single case. * The rule is that the monarch of the veldt prefers to trot away rather than risk a combat with so many foes.

The horses of his pursuers break into a gallop and the lion’s trot becomes a long lope. As the hoofs behind him thud more loudly in pursuit he speeds away in arched and flying bounds, until the distance has been lessened to a short-range rifle-shot. The leader of the hunters, checking his steed with the inimitable dexterity of the Afrikander, drops to the ground, sinks on one knee, takes careful aim, and fires.

Unless his sworn companions prove faithful to their oath the leader is foredoomed to death if his bullet has not hit a vital spot. There is no time to reload; there is no hope of diverting the lion’s wrath. Instantly he feels the wound; with mane erect, his very hair bristling with wrath, the lion turns and comes in vengeful leaps towards the kneeling man. The other hunters, jumping swiftly to the ground, have dropped on to their bended knees with ready rifles.

They watch the lion and one another. The man second in precedence fires as the lion turns. The third man follows in his order. Wounded, perhaps fatally, the lion still comes on, and the bullets seek his tawny sides in quick succession. One man alone holds back his fire. He waits until the lion, charging forward irresistibly, has
stricken and seized the first of the hunters who wounded him. It is the waiting hunter’s part to spring to the lion’s side, put his rifle to the brute’s ribs, and send a bullet through his heart.

The rock-strewn country offers innumerable inaccessible spots where lion families find their refuge and their home. There are still stories current among our people telling of courageous hunters who have not feared to face a brood of lions in the black darkness of a cavern, penetrating into its recesses with a torch in one hand and a rifle in the other.

The most systematic lion-killing that was ever done in dens was the work of a Boer named Jan Schutte and his two brothers. All three of them were sons of an old lion-hunter, whose farm lay in the vicinity of Rustenburg. The district abounded in caverns, and in one of them a whole troop of lions made their lair. They reared their young in its remotest depths; and from its yawning mouth the male lions issued nightly to prey upon the herds.

When it appeared that the Schuttes could have upon the family farm either lions or cattle, but not both, the boys, as a last resource, had broad-wick candles made, and went on regular excursions to the lions’ lair. The younger brothers, with their candles flaring and their trigger-fingers set, stationed themselves in niches in the wall of the cavern, while Jan penetrated it’s shadows until the light of his candle revealed bodies of the lions, huddled in the farthest alcove, in dread of the dancing flame. He took aim, invariably, at the oldest male lion, and never failed to kill him. With the flash and the report of the rifle the grown lions, male and female, dashed past him toward the veldt.

As they went past his brothers would each fire a chance shot, and sometimes laid another lion low. The oldest of the three, for his part, remained within, searching for the cubs, and, finding them, slew all with prompt dispatch. Repeated visits to the den within a period of a year cleared the Schutte farm of the whole brood.

The modern methods of lion-hunting appear much more bold than the organized lion-hunts of years ago in the same district of Rustenburg, to the west of Pretoria. Breechloaders have made the difference. In those old days the Easton was the gun—an English muzzle-loader, which we called the “roer.” It carried a half inch bullet, and was more deadly than a Martini-Henry, although it required a much closer range.

The lion’s “ nest ” in the Transvaal is frequently found close to some swamp where game abounds. The old lion hunters spent their winters in weaving quince laths into cover cages, which they put on the huge ox-waggon in place of the usual canvas hood. The quince wood, tougher than hickory, made a cage, open at both ends, whose interstices were not an inch square ; and the whole structure was as strong against sudden assault as if it were made of tempered steel.

When the hunting day was chosen and a party of five men had assembled, two of them brought the ancient mattresses of their truckle-beds, parallelograms of mighty beams interlaced with rimpis, or thin raw hide thongs. One mattress was used to permanently close the rear entrance to the waggon; the other was put in position at the front, with pulley ropes in readiness for its instant adjustment as a door that could be shut.

With half-a-dozen oxen for a team, trembling Kaffirs goading on the cattle, and themselves astride of mettled horses, the little party of hunters advanced to the vicinity of the lion’s lair. When the waggon was still four hundred yards away from the edge of the swamp it was turned around, the oxen were unyoked, the Kaffirs mounted the horses, and the stock were driven back to a safe distance.

The hunters, straining at the waggon’s wheels, shoved it backward and backward towards the edge of the marsh until the lion, resenting the intrusion, came growling from his midday lair.

At sight of him the hunters hastened to the refuge of the waggon, and one, duly appointed beforehand, waited until all were within. As the lion came onward the guardian of the forward mattress sprang into the cage and drew close-shut behind him the thong laced doorway.
The hunters, imprisoned, seemed easy quarry to the lion. He attacked at once; and, as he charged, the men fired. The quince laths, like the sides of a huge, impenetrable basket, cracked and swayed under the shock of the lion’s spring. But they never broke, they never gave way; and, sooner or later, some heavy bullet from the echoing “ roers ” crashed into the lion’s heaving sides and dropped him to the grass below, the victim of his own blind courage.

It has happened sometimes that three, and even four, lions have made an assault upon a waggon together. But the death of one of the band usually taught the others the lesson they required, and seldom did the ancient “ waggon stalking ” method bring two lions for the oxen to cart home.

Seemingly absolutely safe, the quince laths and the rimpi mattresses depended for their value on the thoroughness with which the preparations had been made. One of the sporting stories current in Pretoria turns upon the adventure of an aged tackhaar, or long-haired Boer, and his son, a boy of eighteen years, who had yet to kill his first lion.

There were five Boers in the waggon, and the proud tackhaar, anxious to give his boy an opportunity for glory, persuaded his companions to leave the front opening in the boy’s care. As the lion rushed forth and the men sprang into the waggon the mattress at the rear, insecurely fastened, fell to the ground. There was one awful rumble of the lion’s voice, one tremendous bound, and the great brute was within the waggon and had struck down the hapless old pioneer. The others, aghast, stood motionless, while the lion opened his immense mouth to rend his prey.

Lion attacking

At this crucial moment there was a scrambling on the wheel outside, and the muzzle of a “ roer ” was poked through the quince laths until it reached the lion’s very ear. The dull growl of the hungry beast was stilled in the deafening report of the rifle. The lion, a bullet in the centre of his brain, rolled over, dead. The plucky boy, from the waggon wheel, called out, anxiously :-
“ Is my father alive ? ”
The tackhaar rose slowly to his feet and,seeing his son’s face through the apertures before him, tried to put out a greeting hand, saying, in shaking accents :-
“Good morning, my boy; where did you come from ? ”
That single awful moment, while he lay in the lion’s jaws, had effaced from his memory all the occurrences of the hunt; he fancied he had just risen from his bed, and was giving his son a morning greeting !

“ Baas, Baas—there is a leopard ! ”
“ It is a foal, then, that is missing? ”
“ Yes, Baas, yes; there is blood everywhere, and the trail leads to the mountain.”

It is always the same colloquy, between the same types, which occurs of a morning in the mountainous districts of Cape Colony and the Orange Free State, where the African “ tiger,” or leopard, all brilliant spots and gorgeous stripes, still lingers as the foe to farmer and to herd. Huge and gaunt, of a far more desperate cunning than the tiger of Bengal, he is but rarely seen, yet often heard of. The blood spots and the missing foal—his favourite prey—tell many a doleful morning story to the faithful Kaffir who has the guardianship of the stock.

He is a rover, this “ tiger ” of the Cape, with his splendid spotted body, so massive yet so lithe, and in the murderous face of him the never-wearied ferocity of his brother of Bengal. It is one day for the kill and a second for the feed, and then on to another mountain and another hunting – ground. Immense tracts are traversed by a single leopard in a twelve month’s round, and the hunters must act quickly whenever they would end the career of one of these wandering banditti of the ranges. Long pursued, and never allowed to pass without concerted endeavour at reprisal for his depredation, the leopard has grown to be the of Southern Africa’s
most wary of the denizens tangled wilds.

Sharp on the Kaffir’s discovery word is sent to the farmers throughout the mountain region that there is to be a “ tiger ’’ hunt next day.

The sun has scarcely risen before the countryside is assembled, on horseback, at the farmhouse nearest the base of the mountain where the common foe has made his passing lair. At the horses’ heels there run the riders’ kennels of bull-terriers, bulldogs, and windhonden—the trailing hounds of the mountains, sure on the scent and game to the death. It is the dogs that hunt the leopard, and find him, and fight him. As for the men, sitting there on their horses with their rifles across the pommel, they count one another carefully.

The rule of safety is fourteen men for a single leopard. No hunt goes on with fewer hunters, unless foolhardiness and utter inexperience come together at the mountain’s base. With a  full-sized party assembled, the hunt begins. The men, each with his dogs, surround the mountain, every hunter taking a distance of 600 yards as the space for his activity. Some few are detailed to stay as sentinels upon the hillside’s slope. The rest strike straight for the ridge, and work in a cordon to the mountain’s top.

The watchers on the slope have the chance of an individual kill; the men of the cordon are more likely to share glory and danger in company. But, wherever he may be, the leopard-hunter must be as wary as he is daring, for he is bandying lifebreath with a foe that is both strategist and fighter.

These Cape and Free State mountain sides are perfect in their adaptation to innumerable lairs. Great gullies and deep, dry ravines cleave the age-worn, brittle soil. Strata of rock or clay afford some narrow shelves as resting-places where, hidden from view by a shrubbery he never fails to choose as shield, the leopard rests ready for a long, unerring spring that brings him like a flaming thunderbolt to the bottom of the gulch below.

No hunter, however sure a marksman, sets foot during a tiger-hunt in one of those ravines of death unless bulldogs and windhonden have scoured it from end to end. The hunter follows, his eye searching the shadows of the shrubbery and his ear alert for the first cry of the dogs that snarls out :-
“ Found ! ”
The roar that follows has the rending volume of the lion’s; but, underneath, there is a guttural, rumbling rasp that is part of the infernal spirit of ferocity ever raging in the leopard’s long-ribbed chest.

The chorus of bays and barkings that replies and the repetition of the vibrant roar which makes the hillsides shake are the noise of battle.
The struggle once begun, the hunter knows that he is safe to come within sighting distance of the fray.
The “tiger,” on his back, fights viciously with claws and teeth as the pack, its numbers steadily increasing with other beaters and their dogs answering to the call, hurls itself upon him. Terrier, dog, and hound sink unrelenting fangs into the masses of muscle beneath his loose, tough hide; and one after another—so long as the hunter detains the saving rifle ball—the keen, curved claws and the gnashing, blood-flecked teeth fling them upward or aside, disabled and dying.

The bullet of the hunter waits only a favourable turn amid the maze of writhing convolutions of the gleaming, prostrate form. One shot, in the side or throat, may end the tragedy of the mountains’ king; and if not one, another and another, until there come the last convulsive shudder of the straightened form and the last harsh gasp from the crimsoned jaws.

It is the first sight that wins or loses the conflict with our tigers of South Africa, and caution is the hunter’s only safety. I remember during a Cape Colony hunt that Willem Pelser, of Burghersdorp, a good shot and the owner of a fine kennel, insisted the time had come for him to join the older men of the neighbourhood in the dangerous chase. He was given a post on the mountain side, and was warned to be careful. Enthusiastic, and confident of his marksmanship, he let his dogs run on at will and never took the small precaution of hurling rocks into every cover.

One gully after another he explored until, his rifle in his hand, he entered a deep ravine. Twenty feet above him, invisible upon a rocky ledge, the leopard crouched,

Leopard waiting to attack boer

As Pelser passed the beast made his infallible spring. The other sentinels heard the appalling roar and hastened towards it. They reached the gully, saw a striped body pad-padding at a trot around the nearest turn, and fired some ineffective bullets in pursuit. Poor Pelser lay on the seamed, scarred clay before them, his head fairly bitten from his shoulders !

“The neighbourhood hunt” is the one we love, for it is the perfection of hunting and the perfection of comfort. What man could ask better sport than the wide preserve of Nature flung out before him on a continent’s breast, with 2,000 graceful deer within his rifle’s range; and on the hillside, near him, his wife, his daughters, or the dark-haired girl he loves, preparing dinner in expectation of the hour of his eager appetite ?

Under the English as well as the Boer Government the springbok, roebok, and ,teen-bok, of the antelope tribe, and the corhaan, or veldt hen, the wildekalkooen, or wild turkey, and the wildepaauw, or wild peacock, are protected for seven months in the year. The huinting season lasts only from February till August. In the Colesberg district, in Cape Colony, the springboks increase with a rapidity that makes the hunting months for the farmer not only a pleasure, but a need.

The antelopes must be thinned out and kept entirely wild, or there is no safety for the crops. During the close season herds, almost innumerable, of springbok may be seen from the outlying farmhouses grazing, running, and “pronking ” on the veldt. It is strangely close to the English “prank,” this “pronking” of the springboks, both in form and in meaning; and it tells with graphic clearness the agile pleasures of the dainty antelope.

Two and a half feet in height, with reddish backs striped with brown and bellies white as mountain snows, they carry from the tail to the loin a reach of long white hair. At a single bound they spring three yards in air; and, as they leap, the loin-stripe opens in a great, white fan. All day long the springboks can be seen “ pronking,” while every gay upleaping flirts the fan in the sunlight’s dazzling glare. Sometimes a sheepdog ventures on a hopeless pursuit. As he dashes in among them the bucks tease him with their dances, knowing always that, if he come too near, their dainty, slender limbs can bear them off to safety.

In the month of May the neighbourhood makes ready for the hunt. On a score of farms, within a territory of eighty square miles, there is an eternal baking of milk pies and sweet cakes, a long boiling of plum puddings, a killing of mutton, and a grinding of coffee. Seven or eight families, including perhaps forty people, accompanied by their Kaffir servants, assemble at some one farmhouse, where there is a hill slope near, which is wooded and bears a spring of running water.It is the place for the picnic. With the early morning the wives and daughters drive in nimble Cape carts to the chosen spot.

Springbok "pronking"

The men — and for springbok hunting a boy is a man when he attains fourteen — divide themselves into two parties. One group of hunters takes the southward track; the others ride to the north. They form a crescent at either end of the plain, which is like the open, rolling prairie of America, and is covered with a fine nutritious grass, about a foot in height. When the hunt begins the two parties are separated by a distance of about six miles. Between the western tips of the crescents lies the picnic-hill whence, while the baskets are unpacked and the little children play, the women can behold the entire stretch of veldt and see the hunt in one grand panorama.

To the hunter’s eye the six miles intervening present a broad, delicious stretch of sward, with snowflakes touching earth and whirling up again. The snowflakes are the loin stripes of the distant springbok, “pronking,” sometimes alone and again in herds to be measured by the hundred.

As the hunters close in and the bucks discern their danger the sound of the “ blaas ” is heard ; it is the indrawing of the breath as the antelope secures its wind for a long, hard run. Here and there a buck turns from its fellows, heading for the open, and makes its dash for liberty and life. Not until an antelope has passed him does the hunter fire, for it is then that he secures the cleanest shot.
Three, six, come flying outward, in a herd. The rattle of the Mausers and Martinis crackles along the line, like the musketry of a battle. As a springbok drops the hunter’s Kaffir boy dashes toward it, rips up the body, cleans it, and packs the game on his horse. ‘When the drive becomes too close and there is no time for packing the game, the bodies of the antelopes are piled together on the grass and covered with a spare blanket.

That is for the vultures. All over the deep-domed sky of Africa the everlasting vulture hangs—waiting, waiting, waiting. Death can seize no living creature but, on the instant of his blighting touch, the black markings of the sky drop like running sands—vulture after vulture, in endless, sombre train, sweeping downward to the feast from out the far abysses of the blue.

By the time the crescents’ tips have approached to the distance of a mile, all the antelopes have made their fleet way to the safe haven of the distant wood; or, in their flight, have been overtaken by the rifle-ball. The hunters make for the hillside then, and dinner, and the picnic pleasures of the afternoon.

But woe betide the marksman who has no buck to bring.
The women own the luncheon, and the law of the hunt has never yet been broken, that he who has no buck shall surely have no dinner.
My wife gives to me the fond and leal affection that every married man believes the world at large, less happy, must begrudge him.
When, at the last “neighborhood hunt ” in which I took part, on the Queen’s birthday, in the Colony, I returned at noon to the picnic grounds, my wife looked at me curiously, and remarked;-

“ Where is your springbok, my dear ? ”
“ Well, you see, there were very few bucks near me—and I couldn’t get a good shot—and I didn’t -”
The women round about began to laugh at me; and my wife — this wife who loved me so — laughed with them.
“ No buck,” she said, severely, “ no dinner.”
“Ah, Jo, if you love me — if you ever loved me — let me have one little cup of coffee ! ”
She looked around ; the others had turned away to serve to their confounded husbands the roast mutton, the milk pies, and the rich plum pudding.
“When you beg like that,” she answered, tenderly, “I cannot refuse you. Here is your coffee. But ” — with iron firmness — “ that’s all you get, though I become a widow.”

I drank the coffee and seized my rifle. I dashed down the hillside, ran to the end of a wire fence where I knew the bucks must pass, and stood, waiting to earn my meal. Ten minutes went by; a quarter of an hour—half an hour. There was a brushing of the under-growth. A troop of antelope came flying down the line. One shot and a springbok fell; a second, and I had killed two.

I seized them both and lugged them, 1501b. dead weight, to the foot of the hill.
“See, Jo!” I shouted, from the veldt.
“ May I have my dinner now ? ”
“ It is waiting for you, dearest,” she called to me, all smiles.

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Hercules D. Viljoen was, according to limited research a former Field-cornet of the Free State Army. He appears to have been fairly widely travelled and in addition to submitting the article "How the Boers Hunt" also addressed the Washington Hall in the United states - arguing that England would fail in their attempts to defeat the Boer army.

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