On safari with Johan Calitz

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When I think about my professional hunting career, I wonder if my yearning to be a hunter was not perhaps embedded in my DNA from birth, or whether it was a love cultivated from a very young age when my father introduced me to the sport of hunting.

Perhaps it was around the campfire when my father told me about the great hunters of old. Or during the early morning mountain reedbuck hunts, where my shoes broke the frost in the mountains of the Free State, daydreaming about showing people from faraway countries how to hunt African animals, instead of being a doctor, lawyer or whatever my father ‘s dream was for me. I am not exactly sure . . .

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My dangerous-game hunting experience started early in my life. I accompanied my father on many a hunting trip to the then Northern and Southern Rhodesia, where I could do the back-up shots on elephant and buffalo. My father’s friend and professional hunter, Hendrik Coetzee, was my biggest mentor. He was probably one of the last people who sold ivory for an income from which he later started his own business. It was he who encouraged my first tentative steps into dangerous-game hunting as a career.

I was 14 when I shot my first elephant and buffalo in the Zambezi Valley under the supervision of my father, Dr FJW Calitz and Uncle Hendrik, as he was known. It was a sweltering hot day in the Zambezi Valley. We found the tracks of a smallish cow herd early in the morning. By midday the heat was starting to wear us down. My shirt clung to my shoulders and my hair and forehead were drenched with sweat. The nervousness and anticipation took a heavy toll on me, and I was losing my concentration.  Suddenly the huge, broad-shouldered frame in front of me came to halt. His right hand went up indicating that we should stop. The sound of breaking trees and heart-stopping vocal rumbling could be heard in the distance. We were very close. The reassuring voices of my father and Uncle Hendrik told me that everything would be fine.  Days before this moment, I was taught different shot placements on elephant, and I knew that the position of the elephant and the surrounding environment would dictate the shot. We moved in for the final approach. I still remember my thoughts at that very moment: How is it possible for a man of 230 lbs (Uncle Hendrik) to move like a ballerina?

I could hear my father’s breathing behind me, and the knowledge that he was there calmed my nerves. The bush was thick – everybody called it jesse bush. I could see how Uncle Hendrik calculated each careful step to avoid unnecessary noise. Dad and I followed in his footsteps. Thinking back today, those were huge footprints to follow . . . literally and figuratively.

Then I saw grey figures in the bush ahead of me and knew that the of reckoning had come. Uncle Hendrik stopped, motioned me in, grabbed me by the shoulders, like a Great Dane would grab a Jack Russell, and moved me into position.

An old cow loomed in front of us, presenting for a side brain shot. A whisper in my ear . . . I shouldered the rifle without a second thought and felt the recoil of the 9.3 x 64 Brenneke. The hind legs of the old lady collapsed, the trunk came up and whipped down, and she hit the ground, stone dead. At that moment I knew that I would like to become a Hendrik Coetzee!

Before I reached the age of 21, I had hunted most dangerous African game animals, including all of the Big Five.   But I mostly hunted elephant as a young man. Somehow, these gigantic animals intrigued me more than any other species on the planet.

In the years that followed, people such as Ronnie van Heerden, who hunted with us from Robinson’s Camp in the Hwange National Park, Uncle Bruce Austin, who was one of the directors of Austin Braybrooke and McCloud Safaris, Barry Duckworth, Uncle Willie de Beer, Harry Selby and others, made such an indelible impression on me that I was determined to become a professional hunter and nothing else.

Years of apprenticeship under the hawk eye of Uncle Hendrik taught me the art of tracking, hunting and bushcraft. The hours I spent with the people mentioned above in the University of the Bush, watching, learning and listening, laid the foundations of my career as a PH.

In the seventies, there was no government control over professional hunting in South Africa, so hunting for a reward was quite easy in those early days. I guess my first client was my father. I started to outfit and conduct safaris for a reward during my student days. With my father, the reward most of the time was that I could hunt a buffalo, elephant, lion or leopard myself. Later I started guiding friends of my father’s from abroad and South Africa for a reward.

So I guess my career as PH started in the mid-70s. Up until 1985, most of my dangerous-game hunts for myself and/or were done in Zimbabwe. In the late 1980s, my dream came true when I started hunting with Guides and Outfitters Botswana. I later worked with Micheletti Bates Safaris and Vira Safaris. Johan Calitz Hunting Safaris has featured as my own entity right from the early years up until now.

All of God’s animals are my favourite. To watch the silliness of a warthog, the agility of a leopard, the brutal speed and force of a lion, the tenacity of a buffalo and the grandeur of an elephant bull is an absolute privilege.

I have hunted and guided many of the dangerous Big Five animals over the last four decades. Many a night I would lie in a camp bed, listening to the distant roar of a male lion, overpowering the more subtle sounds of the African night. With first light I would be ready to track the biggest cat in Africa with my trusted Bushman trackers.

Seeing the disturbance the big cat’s body caused to the dewdrops on the leaves and tall grass, looking at a track the size of a small plate in the Kalahari sand, following the king of the African bush from the freshness of the morning, through the sweltering heat of the day and finally finding him fast asleep in the shade of a smallish bush or tree, is hunting at its best!

You get into position, sometimes as close as 15 yards, heart pounding in your ears, weighing up your options and shot placements . . . To triumph over the king of beasts with just one bullet must be the most exhilarating experience!

Waiting in a blind during the late afternoon or early morning, alone with your thoughts, when suddenly a big male leopard appears on a branch, is electrifying. Following buffalo tracks into the famous date palm (Tsaro palm) and having a big black brutal explosion a few yards in front of you is as exciting as it gets.

Years ago I followed a wounded buffalo with a PH in Tanzania. The tracks of the lone bull disappeared into the dense brush in front of us. The trackers at our side tried to pick up the wounded buffalo’s tracks, when suddenly there was a stampede in front of us. The Tanzanian PH and I ran in the direction of the noise when the buffalo turned and brought the fight to us.

He was in full charge. Shots went off beside me as the buffalo came for us. Everything happened at once. I heard shots but it had absolutely no effect on the buffalo. I jumped in front of the PH while lifting the .500 Nitro Searcy, to my shoulder. I underestimated the quickness and tenacity of the buffalo that reached me before I could blink an eye. I fired from the hip but missed its brain. By then the buffalo was on top of me – it gored me, flung me into the air and then pushed me around on the ground for several minutes.

I heard a shot. The animal towering over me lifted its head from my chest. For a brief moment I saw the anger and pain in the beast’s eyes as his full weight crashed down on me, forcing the air from my lungs and crushing the bones in my body.

The PH and trackers rolled the dead weight off me. After a few hours on the back of a pick-up, I was flown to Dar es Salaam and then to Nairobi where I was operated on and later flown to the Garden City clinic in Johannesburg. Several operations and long weeks of slow and painful recovery followed. Yes, I have experienced buffalo hunting at its best . . . and its worst . . .

Rhino hunting does not particularly intrigue me, but I have been privileged to hunt these prehistoric beasts in some of the most rugged and most beautiful hunting areas in Southern Africa.

For me the greatest game animal in Africa to hunt is the elephant, particularly the elephant of Botswana, because of the massive size of their bodies and tusks. No other experience has brought me so much joy and satisfaction while at the same time causing so much emotional turmoil and pain, as hunting the big Botswana tuskers.

From the age of 14, I have hunted elephant in various countries. For the past 14 years my professional hunters and I have hunted over 700 of these magnificent animals in Botswana alone. We live, sleep, eat and dream big tuskers. This is what we do; this is all we want to do! It is physically and emotionally taxing, yet there is no greater life-altering experience than hunting the biggest land mammal on earth!   It is hard work finding the right tuskers. You work under pressure; you operate within the secret folds of nature and against high expectations of your clients and peers. You see many elephant, some with broken tusks, small tusks or no tusks, but then you see the elephant that both you and your client know is the one!   It is those moments that produce the firewood of your old age, of having lived a life worth remembering!

One of the reasons for Botswana’s healthy elephant population is the country’s vegetation, security, water, and little interference from mankind, but mostly because of the authorities’ sensible approach to wildlife management. The Government, together with the hunting , realises that cooperative and scientific management of the country’s wildlife resources will secure the co-existence of man and beast to the benefit of both. It is of the utmost importance that Government and the hunting industry join hands to ensure the survival of this magnificent species and to conserve the natural habitat it shares with other creatures.

The quality of the hunt and the quality of the trophies taken undoubtedly makes Botswana the best elephant hunting destination in Africa today. Interestingly, statistics prove that the quality of trophies has not only stabilized, but has steadily improved since the reopening of elephant hunting in 1996.

With careful planning, monitoring the movement of elephant throughout the year and assessing the hunt day by day, your PH will narrow down the odds for you and with a little bit of luck you will get your elephant in the right place at the right time. The combination of your PH’s knowledge and skills and your good shooting will turn your dream into reality.

It is said that the days of hundred-pounders are basically gone.  Ninety-pounders, eighty-pounders, yes – it happens! Seventy pounders, yes – that happens more often. Sixty pounders happen a lot. The men that pursue big tuskers spend days, year after year, looking for that big one. You get despondent, you think of giving up, and then it happens – around the corner, your bull is suddenly there! The one you have always dreamt of . . . The year 2010 was such a year for us when one of our clients was blessed with a magnificent 104lbs tusker.

I have no regrets for having chosen professional hunting as a career.  The opportunity to meet and guide clients is very rewarding.  Each friend I have made over the years, who started off as a client, has a special place in my heart.  The bond between people formed by life-and-death situations is unforgettable and unbreakable.

The financial rewards of being a PH aren’t great but one can make a decent living out of it if you put body and soul into it.  The actual reward is being with your mistress, the bush, where you can live a life not unlike that of your forefathers and pioneers of old.

To wake up in the morning to the call of francolin on the other side of the canvas; to hear the chatter of monkeys and barking of baboons; to see buffalo in a herd counting hundreds; to see elephant in northern Botswana coming together from all directions to form a herd of a hundred individuals or more; to encourter 500 or more elephant in a single day from a makoro (dug-out canoe) on the river; to have the privilege of following sitatunga in a makoro that silently makes its way through the papyrus; to view the abundance of plans game around you; to encounter leopard and lion on a regular basis; to see the day end in all its splendor, watching the animals relax for a brief moment before sensing the dangers that might lurk in the night ahead; the deep roar of a big lion male making his presence known – all of this is priceless!  Money can never pay for what we experience on a daily basis.

My only regret is probably the sacrifice one has to make, not being there for my family when they need me, and missing out on so much happening in their lives…

In a career that spreads over many years, it is difficult to highlight a single moment.  What I do for a living is a highlight in itself.  There are so many highlights, each with its own charm and reward.  Is the taking of a 100 lbs elephant a bigger career highlight than a 66” kudu or a 48” buffalo?  Is hunting with a king a greater honor that hunting with my dear friend, Abe, the plumber from Lena, Illinois, who shot all of his Big Five with me using the same rifle? For me, it is a highlight every time I see clients and friends taking a worthy .  Each moment is different, each reaction and smile unique, each happy moment a highlight.

Being able to guide my father and my son on the same safari during which each hunted a buffalo was very special.  To watch the emotions on a 13-year-old boy’s face when he pulls the trigger on his first buffalo and to experience the emotions of a 65-year-old man shooting his last buffalo and last animal of his hunting life, is something one cannot put into words.

Being able to guide my son Cobus on his first elephant safari and to witness his happiness years later when his client shot a 94 lbs elephant, was very special to me.  To have been with my friend, Jose Luis Dias, when he took his 94 lbs trophy was a highlight.

To have been chosen in the 90s to conduct one of the first professional hunting schools in South Africa was an honor.  Standing next to people of the caliber of Kobus Schoeman and Ronnie Rowland in front of a class of bright-eyed want-to-be professional hunters left an indelible impression on me.  I learned something new on each occasion, watching these two dear friends sharing their infinite knowledge and wisdom with the students. Playing a small part in shaping apprenticeships is a feather in my cap. Today, many of them are world-renowned professional hunters and very successful outfitters.

To have served on the committee of PHASA and BWMA is certainly a highlight.  Having had the honor to feature on many podiums, videos and outdoor television channels, and especially Tony Makris’s very popular Under Skies series is a great privilege.  I can never thank then enough for the wonderful exposure this has given me.  Being asked to write a foreword to Graig Boddington’s book on elephant is another highlight.

These are just examples, of course, less career highlights I experience as a PH.

The biggest highlight of all is being to be able to work and live so close with Creation and to be blessed with so many special friends and colleagues each enriching my life in so many ways and making me a more complete human being.

Botswana is an artist’s pallet and every hunter’s lifelong dream. The diversity of its fauna and flora, the sunsets, the people, the sheer abundance of animals and trophy quality, make it a great destination. I have hunted many other areas in my career, but the ease of getting to and from the hunting area, the true wildness and abundance of wildlife in different areas of Botswana, makes this country one of my favorite hunting areas.

The Okavango Delta with its extreme beauty, its rivers, streams, islands and palm groves was, and still is, a great place to hunt elephant, buffalo and other animals. Cat hunting is no longer allowed in Botswana, but the lion and leopard hunting in the Delta was an experience of ten lifetimes! The Delta is one of the most beautiful spots in Africa and my favorite hunting area.

Thousands of elephant roam the drier Chobe regions of Botswana and hunting these big beasts is an awe-inspiring experience. Nothing beats the sight of so many elephant each day and being spoilt for choice. The quality of the trophies taken each year in these drier areas easily puts them on par with a hunt in the Delta.

I agree that I am prejudiced. I have hunted Mozambique, Tanzania, South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia and other parts of the world, but the country that I chose to call home, namely Botswana, remains closest to my heart.

Thinking about the difference between an agreeable and a difficult client, I guess that it is all about expectations. A client may become difficult if you are not meeting his expectations, for instance by refusing to do things which are beyond the boundaries of legal and ethical practices.

A client can become difficult if his pre-hunt expectations differ vastly from the reality of the hunt. He may feel cheated if things are different from what has been promised. Prior to, and during a hunt, it is vital to play open cards with clients, create realistic expectations, address all possible grey areas and stick to the contractual agreement. That way you minimize, if not prevent, nasty disagreements and unhappy clients.

A difficult client can also be one that is disappointed with his PH’s call. A client that sets the end result as a marker and not the overall experience as his goal is often difficult to deal with. A person without respect for God’s creation and the laws of nature and the land he is hunting on is almost always difficult to deal with.

On the other hand, it is a pleasure to hunt with a person who is in pursuit of a holistic experience and enjoys the wonder and lessons of life and nature every day! This is a person who notices a beautiful bird, a female kudu with her young; a person who watches in awe as the dust and thunder rise from underneath the hooves of a buffalo herd; a person whose heart melts at the sight of lion cubs playing with their mother’s tail . . .

An agreeable client is a person who works hard, has realistic expectations, respects the environment and uses the full impact of his hunting experience and being close to nature as firewood for his old age.   An agreeable client is also one that respects the decisions of his PH and trackers, and trusts them to come up with the best possible trophy available at the time without overstepping the boundaries of the law. An agreeable client is one that realizes and respects the fact that his PH will always try and act in his best interest without jeopardizing his or his companion’s safety. He is also one who is man enough to acknowledge the fact that nature has won if he does not get his trophy, and who then walks away with dignity, humbleness and respect.

To be able to hunt may be a God-given right, but to give it true meaning one has to realize that this right is a huge privilege that also comes with huge responsibilities. The quality of a hunt can be defined as that moment when man and animal become one, and man executes his right to take life in an honorable way with dignity and respect.

The quality of a hunt is when a PH and his client respect the laws of nature and wildlife, when they pursue an animal that is old and near the end of its life, and only take it if it meets the expectations of the client. The in-between, from start to end, is what matters.  The true reward lies in the knowledge and satisfaction that both the PH and client practiced fair chase and hunted in a humane manner.

For me, the quality of a hunt is defined as a cocktail of emotions, of fear, anticipation, euphoria and of sadness.  I regard each hunt that contained this mix of emotions as one that added quality to my life.

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