[Reading time: 8 minutes]
[Some names and identifiers have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.]
"Man is a complex being; he makes the deserts bloom and lakes die."
- Gil Stern
A thin blanket of mist clings to the clay earth, wet with last night’s cold sweat. It is 4:50 AM.
It's -11°C degrees this morning. I climb my way out from under the heavy bed covers. Breathing in the cold air feels like swallowing a cup of tiny glass marbles. I mumble something invective. To work! I wrench myself and my photography gear out of the cabin. I move along, exhaling my morning dragon breath. We drive along now, clinging to the back of a truck. A bump in the road nearly throws me off balance. I hold on tighter: new hunt, new day; loose clothing flapping in the wind, the sound of our motorcade and guzzling engines in the air, eyes tearing and nose running with the wind in our faces. This is the kind of cold that couldn't care less about how much you paid for your fancy North Face jacket.
frozen over from the night before: the days drop from 33°C during the day to -13°C by night.
In this place I'm reminded that the body is nothing but paper maché and twine as cold slides straight into the bone. With eyes closed, I plead to the heavens: give me a single beam of sunlight to warm my frozen ears. It doesn't come immediately. Our motorcade comes out from beneath the mountain shadows and the first wave of warmth breaks out. An overwhelming heat wraps its arms around me. God, that hit the spot! Human again, we drive and drive some more; bumpy roads coughing up fine dust in the air, clinging to our faces, clinging to the creases in the corners of our eyes; one sprawling road turns into another.
Talking, once the apotheosis of recreational leisure is a dying talent.
Today’s company of five includes myself, Gerald the ranger, Ahmed, Omar, and Khalid. Ahmed flips through his iphone as usual; scroll, flick, and scroll, ad infinitum. We could be walking under the most intense display of cosmic stars in a thousand years; it would do nothing to distract him from his phone. There has been no signal for the last forty kilometers but that doesn’t deter him from trying to reconnect. He's grumpy and irritable without his comforts. He's not the only one agitated about the situation either; the others grumble about being disconnected too.
top: ahmed tries to catch a faint hint of a network signal.
middle: the hunter motorcade stops for a reconnoitering brief.
bottom: ex-military south african bodyguard waits to be called-in
Now that the electronic gadgets are of little entertainment value, the royal hunters turn to one another to conquer their boredom. The transition from electronics to people proves too much. Conversations wane quickly. Silence falls upon us again as Ahmed takes to his phone and the others stare blankly out of their windows. For noblemen and patricians who are well-versed in the art of conversation, this silence is puzzling. Gerald, doing the driving, tries to lighten the stale mood with animated small talk about his hometown, but sparking his audience's interest is proving both laborious and naive. Only the sight of animals fleeing for their lives gets these hunters excited. "Stop! A springbok!" Omar exclaims. Rifles are hoisted, loaded, and fired. Reload. Bang! Another creature thrown into the back. Bang! Another. More animals on the horizon, running away. Let's follow after them - we swerve around. Another male thrown on top of the first like loading cement bags on a construction site. On we move, forward! Our cars kick up a cloud of dust. Sometimes I can’t see through it. --Bang! bang! “180 meters, take the shot, fire now! Fire!” Bang!
I look back at our mess: the heap of animals bleeding out the back of the truck. We press on.
top: with an idling engine, khalid takes aim from the comfort of the car.
middle: gerald and omar get out to survey the land.
bottom: the northern cape's dizzying flora.
Nature feels wonderful; a teacher, a home, a companion; something to reach out and touch but never own.
I know death is part of life. The farm has a mandate to cull the number of animals feeding on the grounds. I have been told that the income generated from the farm rejuvenates life here. I'm for rejuvenation, just not like this. The sight of so much blood along with the smell of the dead carcasses is overpowering. I haven't pulled the trigger myself but I feel complicit in today's events. I need to distance myself from it. My thoughts turn away as we drive alongside thin ravines, flourished with wild botany. The towering reeds along the river embankment break the sunlight into small stuttering flashes of light. My eyes blink along with the inconsistent blasts and I start to feel drowsy. A hurried bird follows our course, tumbling about in the air like a tossed pebble. I fall into a hurried mess of bleached sun and swimming horizons, phasing in and out of a fugue. Standing at the edge of a cliff, looking down at the vast lay of the land: strings of voluminous rivers drape across the terrain; wisps and sputters of stringy clouds streaking in the sky as if etched with the tip of a chipped pencil. I wonder if I'm having a reverie or a midday mirage. My mind has disagreed with so much of what I've seen, these few hours, that to stand here in full view of a scene so unobjectionable, feels overwhelmingly liberating.
fleeing animals: the sound of an approaching car is synonymous with panic and death.
I stand at the foot of a vast expanse: a sea of Swedish blonde savanna before me, laid out in thick generous locks of gold. If you stop for a minute, all you can hear is the sound of your heart beating in your chest. The landscape seems to listen in on it and silently agrees. Nature feels wonderful; a teacher, a home, a companion; something to reach out and touch but never own. I look around again, taking in my troop of fellow compatriots in tow, gorging themselves on soft drinks and finger food. It seems to me, but the majesty of this view isn't doing much for them.
I point out how small Gerald looks engulfed by the great landscape around him. Khalid looks up indifferently. Ahmed looks away and tries to catch signal reception again while Omar busies himself with the food. Puzzled again by their disinterest, I wonder if this boredom is a result of money robbing them of their sense of wonder, or if there is a habitual attitude of indifference among those who live above a certain standard of life. I don't expect us to share the same wonder on all things but the three Arabs have said virtually nothing all day. Perhaps all a bored wealthy man sees here is the sight of the hunt, the only rendering of excitement in this place. The thirst to kill is then a demonstration of his control and virility behind the barrel.
A man who can purchase whatever his eyes behold is not easily impressed. To exhibit wonder or awe would seem weak, and worst of all: proletariat. Without the buffer of surplus capital in the bank, the everyday working-class person is vulnerable to forces and circumstances beyond his control. Flung constantly between hardship and chaos, I suspect he is inclined to be aware of his small stature and frail place in the world. The gasping 'ooh' and 'aah' of one who praises the mountains and revels in the sight of an open sky is befitting of one who, in his humble way looks upwards. Whereas the wealthy man, firmly in control of his prospects and his circumstances is tempted to see himself above that world order, stronger than it, and inclined to harness and bring it under his control. To set himself apart a wealthy man who buys into that temptation wouldn't risk appearing proletariat by displaying child-like awe. He might employ indifference instead. The million dollar view which cannot be owned or acquired does nothing for him. What is nature to these men then? A hunting adornment, a stomping ground for the taking; another distraction: a place for a bored old boy to whack his stick.
We turn around at last, at the end of a long day. The sun dips behind a curtain of mountains. It's going to be a moonless night. I feel the cold extending its limbs across my shoulders; my teeth begin to chatter. For all its beauty and perfection, nature, too, can be cold, unforgiving and unrelenting. When darkness envelops us I think of today's blood-bath and indifference. I look up at the giant expanse of stars, clearer here than I've seen anywhere else. How can anyone be indifferent to this? Before the view of the infinite, I feel small, secluded and entirely at its mercy, inspired and terrified all at the same time. Perhaps for some, that is too unbearable of a thought to linger on. Perhaps that's what the hunt is about - an escape from a multitude of unbearable thoughts. Today seemed to be one long exercise in pointlessness. I'm not entirely sure what to make of it and I'm too tired to figure it out. I get back home at last, stumbling into my room drunk with fatigue; the weight of the day hanging over me. Not my best day. The old, hot water pipes that link up to my room have frozen over. I take a painfully cold shower. Fine dust swirls in the soapy water at the base of my feet: precipitated by today's scuffle in the wild. I scrub and scour. I wash off as much as I can but it won't come off. I head to bed. Tomorrow it starts all over again.