An interview with Professional Hunter, John Sharp

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An interview with Professional Hunter, John Sharp

For those of you who have paid an interest in African hunting over the past 30 years, you will need little by way of introduction to PH John Sharp, known to many as the African version of Crocodile Dundee. With free-flowing hair and skin tanned by years spent hunting under the glare of the African sun, he’s often found wading across some remote river or trekking the Zimbabwean plains with his Rigby .470 N.E double balanced over his shoulder.

 In his three-plus decades of hunting in Africa, John says the Bubye Valley Conservancy (BVC) in the south of Zimbabwe, where he’s now based, is truly the finest area he has encountered. John is a passionate conservationist with a deep understanding of the natural world, a true ambassador for the sport, and has a lifestyle we all secretly aspire to.

 John, tell us a bit about yourself.

I got my Learner Professional Hunter’s Licence in 1978. Soon after that, independence came to Zimbabwe, so I decided to return to Cape Town to watch from afar to see what the new government would do.

In Cape Town, I bought the Hard Rock Café and ran that for three-and-half years before I sold it in December 1982. Early in 1983 I returned to what had become Zimbabwe and did my proficiency test, kick-starting my career as a full-time PH, and I’ve been hunting ever since.

Have you only hunted in Zimbabwe, or all over Africa?

No. I’ve hunted extensively in Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique, Botswana and Zimbabwe, and before I was a PH, in Namibia. You could say I’ve been around, but Zimbabwe has always been my favorite country and I’m pretty much settled there now.

Tell us about the Rigby you’ve hunted with.

 I have a Rigby .470 N.E double, which was built in 1927 but re-barrelled by Holland & Holland in the 1960s, so it lost its collector value. A client of mine bought it for me about 20 years ago, and I’ve been using it ever since.

How often have you had to use your Rigby in a professional context? Have you ever had to back anyone up?

Yes, many times. These things are inevitable in the life of a PH, and have happened mostly with buffalo and elephant and the odd lion over the years.

For leopards I use a three-and-a-half inch 12-gauge shotgun. A leopard can come from any direction, and with a few people milling around on the follow-up, I don’t want to be firing a heavy projectile that could wound or kill more than the leopard.

 How has your Rigby performed for you?

My Rigby is an extension of myself – as much a part of me as my arm.  If I am in the bush and not carrying it I feel naked, and I’ve been told that I look naked too. It has never let me down.

Can you recall a time the Rigby .470 N.E has saved your life?

 Each and every time I shoot an oncoming dangerous animal, and I have shot many, that rifle saves my life, and the lives of others.

In the early stages of a PH’s career plenty of mistakes are made, and luck is too often a factor, but one learns. As the years become decades in an older PH’s life, that experience translates into a rich safari without unhappy dramas – only the good kind.

What you’re asking of me now is a dramatic story for your readers, but the trouble with those stories is that someone, either the tracker, or the PH, or even the client, loses their life, or nearly loses it and that doesn’t make for fun reading. The whole point of carrying the best possible double is that I am properly equipped to protect those who are on safari with me. Everyone who comes on a hunt wants an exciting experience – but that doesn’t include loss of life.

What I can tell you is of an event before I owned a double that convinced me that getting one was not a desire, but a necessity.

I was hunting with a client who wanted to take a buffalo with a bow. We were tracking three buffalo and my client wounded one of them – a crack shot, he had been betrayed in the last seconds. The bulls caught our scent and came hurtling towards us, unintentionally. Hearing our warning shouts the first bull broke left, across me, as did the second bull a few paces behind him. I was concentrating too hard on the first two bulls, looking for signs of the arrow that would have been on their blind side. The third bull then also broke to the left, but when it was directly in front of me it suddenly turned 90 degrees and came straight at me. I snapped off a shot with my bolt-action .458, my mind still too focused on the other two that were high-tailing it – no effect. It was then that I realised I probably would not have time for a second shot. My mind raced, but everything my eyes took in became slow motion – very slow motion…

I don’t know how I did it but I remained anchored to the spot. It takes a split second to work a bolt – a split second that I quite obviously no longer had – and the bull was coming in like a freight train. I remember clearly seeing the empty case floating lazily in the air as I frantically tried to close the bolt over another cartridge, hoping and praying that I would be able to fire as the bull hit the end of my barrel. Miraculously, at the very last instant, the bull made a 90-degree turn to my left, his boss passing under my barrel. Still, it seemed to me, in slow motion, the rifle shouldered smoothly and I shot him behind the ear, a mere 10 feet away, as he began to pull away from me. He dropped like a stone, the bloody arrow flicking upwards from his belly and gleaming in the afternoon sunshine. It was one of those occasions where God and luck were the vital factor.

How did you come by your rifle?

It came to me through David Winks of Holland & Holland in London. He said at the time that it was the finest working double that had ever passed through his hands. I had the audacity to ask him whether it would fit me, because I had visions of getting this rifle and having to get it re-stocked at great expense – I simply will not hunt with a rifle that does not fit me perfectly. He became quite annoyed and said: “If I say it will fit you, it will fit you!”

Can you remember how much you paid for it?

It was a gift. The sum that changed hands was not revealed to me but, having carried it for 20 odd years, I can tell you that my Rigby is priceless.

Do you ever have your double serviced or is it a bit of a workhorse?

It is a workhorse. I had an unfortunate incident happen a few years ago. I have a big walk-in strong room with a fan that sucks air through the gunroom to prevent mould. My double always lives in its case but there was the one year I had left it on the rack, and while I was away in the States, one phase on my three-phase power tripped out. That one phase controlled the fan. When I got back home, the inside of my strong room looked like a mushroom farm, with green mould everywhere, and the air was damp and musty.

I couldn’t move the breaking lever on the rifle as it had rusted in place. I raced down to Cape Town to one of the best gunsmiths I knew. He managed to free it and suggested that I use it for the season and then get it back to him at the end of the year for him to refurbish. I told my German friend Walter what had happened, and he suggested that I send it to Otto Weiss of Hartmann & Weiss in Hamburg, Germany.  Otto had hunted with me a few times, courtesy of Walter, and he readily agreed to refurbish the rifle for me at a greatly reduced price.

He broke the whole rifle down, re-blued, re-regulated and re-stocked it. I always carried it over my shoulder, shirtless, and the perspiration from my shoulder had seeped into the wood of the forend making it necessary to replace the forend, and thus also the stock, to ensure that all the wood matched.

Soon after I got it back, I was with a client who had wounded a waterbuck. After finding the bull yet again, this time facing directly away from us, head in a bush, he took a shot at the base of the waterbuck’s tail from 100 yards, using up his last cartridge. At the shot the waterbuck took off, and as the front bead of my .470 touched the base of its departing tail, I fired. The bull collapsed in a cloud of dust. My bullet had punched a neat hole, dead centre, through the top of its tail. At around 110 yards that left barrel was spot on.

I love my Rigby .470 N.E. double. It’s a remarkable rifle and has been my constant companion in the bush for years. This rifle is irreplaceable, and is the most essential tool of my trade.

You have just written a book, Facing Down Fear.  Tell us about it.

 My book is part memoir, but mostly campfire tales of a few of my adventures. I talk about the people – and the dogs – who have touched my life. Inevitably they are stories of a loner who has had the freedom to come and go, and they make up a small part of the tapestry of my wonderful life in Africa. I’m expecting the book to come from the printers any day now, and it will be available from John Rigby & Co. in London, as well as others.

How did you choose the title?

I wanted to share what I have learnt: that facing down fear – of danger, of pain, of failure, of loss – can lead to a rich and rewarding life.

For more information about John Rigby & Co. visit: www.johnrigbyandco.com