Hit and miss: hunting in the Karoo

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, every man should kill the thing he loves to eat. And so I gave it a go.

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The springbuck stares up at me. There is a neat hole in the head, rimmed with red. Hands approach it; a knife cuts a slit in the stomach. The innards come out. I watch the small intestine on the ground – still squirming. The buck is lifted into the air; blood gushes out as it’s turned over.

I walk away and breathe. I feel both overwhelmed and detached; it’s a dream, almost, still ringing with the bang of the bullet leaving the rifle. The animal is tossed into the back of the bakkie; the wind against the pipes skirting its rear whistles an elegy.

I haven’t shot this animal, and yet I feel somehow complicit. What the hell am I doing here?

I blame it on the brandies at the end of dinner – back in February, when I was visiting the chef Gordon Wright and his wife, Rose – the Graaff-Reinet-based owners of Veld to Fork restaurant. Wright has written a cookbook with the same name, which sums up his approach to food – a belief in knowing where it comes from, in sourcing ingredients ethically. He hunts his own venison, grows his own vegetables and gets veld-reared Nguni beef from trusted locals.

“I want to hunt,” I told him at that dinner. “If I’m not prepared to the take the life of an animal, then I need to stop eating meat.”

And so that is why I’m here, on a scrubby Karoo farm, half a year later. Tenneco has invited the top resellers of its Monroe shock absorber range for a weekend with Wright to do hunting, fishing, and clay pigeon shooting – and to learn more about food. They’ve kindly allowed me to tag along.

Today is the first time I’ve held a rifle. When I shot at the range earlier, the force of the thing – its power and violence – shocked me.

Wind has been blowing all day, making the springbuck skittish. A long curtain of dust plumes upwards as herds dart about the 600ha camp. Frustratingly, during the morning they mostly stayed away from Wright and I – until just before lunch, when he shot one.

After boerie rolls beside a dam, it is my turn. We get driven to another spot. We crouch down by a shepherd’s tree and wait. On the horizon, a wave of blue mountain surges up to the metallic clouds. I am holding the rifle.

A herd comes closer. The stock squeezes against my shoulder; one eye is shut; the other squints through the scope. They are still too far. The wind tugs at us. My body aches with tension; my eye quivers, crusty with dust. They’re closer; they’re within range.

Adrenaline pulses through me. The safety catch comes off. There are a few rams, but they’re walking – ideally they should be still. The rifle shakes a little bit. I try to keep the crosshair still. I squeeze the trigger.

My ears are ringing; it is over – the springbuck are fleeing, unharmed. Wright asks me if I want another go.

“Yes. I want to kill a fucking springbok,” I say. This quarry is a worthy opponent; a difficult one; and I want to best it.

Forbidden to shoot them, we let a bunch of ewes strut past as the light slowly fades. The bakkie arrives: the hunt is over. Disappointment is edged with relief. Later, around the fire, we will eat the liver (stewed with lamb fat and spices in cream) from the six buck that the group successfully killed.

The next morning, I go into the butchery where the carcases are hanging – lithe and red and smelling like Cabernet Sauvignon. A pile of skins lies next to the row of heads propped against the wall. Wright, and the farmer, Elbe Strydom, cut up the meat. I check my phone. I’ve lost 21 followers since yesterday, when I Instagrammed a picture of me in hunting garb, with a gun slung over my shoulder.

I wonder how many of these followers think that the source of their sirloins is the supermarket fridge? Most commercial livestock – the chicken, beef and pork we buy – are kept in cramped conditions and pumped with hormones to fatten them up as fast as possible. They’re fed things they shouldn’t eat (like animal by-products), and injected routinely with antibiotics to prevent the spread of infection. The time leading up to their death at the abattoir is also often highly stressful.

Done properly, hunting is far more humane. The bokkie Wright shot was dead before it hit the ground. And springbuck and other antelope get to prance around in the veld – you don’t get more free range than that.

I felt deflated as I left the farm. It wasn’t because I’d just seen several beautiful antelope being sliced up and placed in cooler boxes: it was because my shot had missed. I had tried to face up to the death of something I was going to eat – and I’d failed.

I keep reminding myself of Wright’s words yesterday: “It’s better to have shot and missed than to never have shot at all.”

An edited version of this article first appeared in 9 August 2015 edition of the Sunday Times.

POSTSCRIPT (September 2016): Since this article appeared in print, the Wrights have sold their guesthouse and restaurant to focus on Taste of the Karoo, purveyor of Karoo meat, charcuterie and condiments. Gordon still offers Veld to Fork cooking courses: follow the Facebook page to find out about upcoming classes. 

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