by Tuppence Stone, Director/ Producer, Grasslands and Deserts team
The enthusiasm of the first dawn was tangible. We rebuilt the grass hide, destroyed by elephants the night before, and I saw our cameraman Toby Strong plus camera and the two Bushmen hunters, Nao and Kun, creep inside. Their view of the waterhole was good and there were fresh kudu, oryx and ostrich tracks around. Arno, our guide, and I withdrew to observe as safety cover and I set up to film second camera – concentrating on the wildlife shoots, to complement Toby’s main action.
I spent hours crouched on a sloping grass-topped earth bank, craning my neck to see anything that might come into the waterhole without giving myself away. The sun was hot and I was shrouded by a camouflage string scarf which allowed me to see, but broke up my outline. Silence and stillness stretched through the hours. Parts of my body went to sleep, then pins and needles poked me alert again.
It is impossible to remain totally focused when there is precious little to focus on. I found my eyes wandering as I noticed the tiny action going on around my hiding place. Termites in their hundreds were crawling through the grass around me, nipping the stems into tiny lengths and posting it down the holes. Given long enough they would expose me..
It was great to have a role, but I knew I couldn’t jeopardise the crucial shot. If my actions spooked the wildlife, the hunters would not get a chance at their shot, then our story wouldn’t begin. Straining to see ostrich through the camouflage, I froze as they looked in my direction. The camera was recording, though it was above my head and the angle I had to twist to see the screen quickly became painful. I fought the aches, until the giant birds lumbered away.
The first day passed into sunset, without success. By Day Three the enthusiasm had passed, pessimism was rife and the wind had changed. The heat of the first day had been superseded by a blustery wind which carried our smell across the waterhole. This unseasonable weather was not what we needed. When the kudu approached they were edgy, and fewer came because the cooler air reduced their desire to drink.
Yet, slowly they came in, stepping, looking – again I froze. Again the mud bank crumbled under my inclined boots, again I strained to see the screen. With the bright light I couldn’t be sure they were in focus. I cursed and ever so slowly slipped my hand up under the scarf to adjust the camera. It’s tiring on the eyes to look through so many layers of focus: the weave of the scarf, the near grasses masking my face, then the middle distant brush and beyond that the approaching kudu. The concentration is intense. The kudu came closer. But then they stepped into the invisible zone where our smell tainted the air. They stamped, reeled round and were gone. No shot fired. No images today.
Day Three did bring a real surprise though. A leopard came into the waterhole at mid day, and it was intrigued by the hide. Slowly, slowly it approached the mound of grass, probably because it saw the potential of this cover as a good place to lie in wait. But the bushmen certainly didn’t want a leopard in the hide with them. Toby, sitting behind then, noticed their buttocks quivering alarmingly. As it wandered to within 20ft they lost their cool, shouted and crawled out of the hide to scare it – Kun pushed the younger Nao out in front of him, then clung to him as they saw off the predator. They didn’t seem such fearless hunters at that moment.
By Day Five we had changed our tactics. The wind had turned again, but the temperature remained low. The hunter’s hide was moved closer in and the morning doves in their hundreds didn’t mind the intrusion – but would the game be as relaxed? Arno and I had backed off further, initially to a distant hide and then the penthouse platform. So far from the action that binoculars were my only connection. But through them I willed the kudu into the waterhole. I was willing them to their death. Was it bloodthirsty, was I hard hearted? I cherish and respect wildlife, so shouldn’t I will the game to flee?
Though we had asked the bushmen to hunt in our time frame, the fact they were hunting was not unusual. If an animal was killed it would be because of us, yet if we were not there attempting to record the hunt, a different animal would have been taken by the hunters. Any kill is the only meat the bushmen families eat and a carcass provides a feast for the whole village as well as sinew for bow strings and twine, skins for bags and bone marrow to eat as well as knuckle bowls for preparing poison. What Nao and Kun were aiming to do was more honest than my weekly trip to the supermarket. Imagine how far our consumption of meat would go down if we had to sit for a week to catch that lamb or that cow, and then share it amongst our whole community!
Finally 2 male kudus with statuesque horns sauntered in. They came closer and the wind was kind.. The kudu were alert, frozen, staring at the hide for the longest time. This is your chance guys – do it! do it! I yelled in a whisper inside my head. But the males retreated, grazing close by for over an hour.
I could relax, stretch, move around because I was so far away, but I knew in the hide they would be frozen, silent, stealing glances, easing apart the grasses to make way for a shot. After what seemed like an eternity the males came closer again. Close enough to shoot surely. I saw the kudu react, turn, run, stop and look back. A shot had been fired, but missed. Our waiting continued.
60 hours stretched to near 70 before another opportunity. A group of females were tentative, smelling and sensing something strange, but unsure quite what the nature of the danger was. A warthog ambled into the frame – likely to blow the hunter’s cover with its superior sense of smell. But instead of disaster, he was the perfect decoy. Drinking casually from the waterhole, he was oblivious to the hunters just feet away.
The kudu began to drink, the tension rose as I watched but could not influence events. Just as with the males, I saw them react and flee, but this time the walkie talkie crackled into life ‘It’s a hit, perhaps two’, said Toby, with real elation. The waiting was over.
Nao had wounded his first kudu. His excitement was genuine and proud. But the hunt was still far from in the can. From here on we were no longer dependent on luck to bring the animals to us, but on the Bushmen’s skills as trackers to keep us on the trail. What we witnessed can be seen in the Grasslands programme, but needless to say – it didn’t go according to plan.