Hunters and nerves

By Herman Labuschagne

When the mastery of our most primitive self, becomes the greatest game of all


Have you ever watched a lion stalking its prey? Have you seen the razor-sharp concentration in it’s glowing yellow eyes? Have you actually sensed that wild excitement as it surges through the animal’s body – yet is achingly contained within the rippling muscles? When only a faint trembling betrays the tremendous pent-up power within those great muscles: poised to release their rearing energy at a moment’s notice. Have you see it stalking its prey, one torturous little step at a time, slowly, watching, waiting... When your own nails are biting into the palms of your sweating hands, and you can barely stand it any longer, not wanting its prey to escape, yet hoping it will. When you want to shout out explosively: “Now. Do it. Now. NOW.”


But the lion takes its time, doesn’t it? It measures each second carefully against chance and opportunity, and you gape in awe at the sight of how that primitive mind manages to balance the almost overpowering urging of the body against the cold reasoning of a calm mind... Concentration balanced on a knife’s edge. You can almost feel the exertion of that mental control over muscle. If you have, then maybe you must know something about nerves. You will know that lions have strong nerves. Yes, lions are hunters, and the nerves of the hunter is a special thing. They seem to take a lot of abuse. They’re routinely tortured and strained and exercised until they become soft and supple and until they learn to be able to stretch without breaking. Strong nerves are a characteristic of the most seasoned hunters and soldiers. A man who knows how to control his nerves, is a true hunter, and not all of us do it equally well.


I’ve seen the deadliest of shots on the shooting range, turn into hopeless bunglers when finally faced by their quarry in the hunting field. Within the calm, controlled environment of the range, their minds and muscles were balanced in perfect harmony, but when challenged by reality, something just slipped. But didn’t most of us start our hunting careers that way? For some, it takes longer than others to learn to master that fearful excitement when confronted by the moment of taking life. I was six when I had to take my first large animal – an impala. A small boy with a rifle and calibre which he’d never fired before, against an exquisite life-form. How well I can remember that lame feeling of almost uncontrollable excitement and the run-away heartbeats as those weak arms struggle to keep the cross-hairs steady on its target. But somehow I knew that I couldn’t botch the job – I dared not. That awful moment of heady exhilaration, before the trigger depressed and all of that pent-up energy was released at once...


It was an explosive rush such as never before, and a moment which lasts forever in the mind of the hunter. It is this mixture of delicious fear, agony and excitement which is eventually tamed by the hunter, and transformed into the exhilarating trip which personifies the abstract definition of hunting. That first shot turned out to be perfect in every respect, and with it was opened the door to a lifetime of adventure. The hunter had just been born. Over the years I’ve seen a good number of others go through that first experience, and the first one is probably always one of the best. That “feeling” – the one which no words could possibly explain – is what keeps hunters in the field until they’re old and grey. It is a “feeling” which is eventually controlled and delicately-balanced, and honed to a fine point. Of course, occasionally the balance is disturbed anew and even old hunters get the jitters again. But that is hunting for you: perhaps the ultimate game – the game of the mind.


Buck fever is an ugly thing. I have seen it many times over the years. It is something which strikes both the young and the old. Runaway-nerves when the urges of the body is uncontrolled by the calm reasoning of the mind. When a big man get the jitters like a child, and his shots go wild. An experience with an old German hunter comes to mind, where he got buck-fever so bad that he had to sink fifteen .375 H&H shots into a blue wildebeest, and it still wasn’t dead. By that time he had run out of ammunition and was crying like a baby. He had hunted many times before, but when the big moment came against his first African game, his nerves just couldn’t take it. And this is sad. He should have been better prepared. I don’t know whether that man ever hunted again. 


But once the hunter has learnt control over his nerves, hunting often presents one of the ultimate challenges in life. To be hunting inside the dense Jess-bush with great, oily drops of thick sweat are slithering down your leg like serpents... When the tsetses are biting you in your most vulnerable parts, but you dare not make a move, because you suddenly realized that you are right in the middle of a herd of three hundred buffalo... When your vision is limited to three pace in front of you, there are no trees to climb and you hear the splatter of dung before you, see the flick of an ear to your right, and feel the bush vibrate as a bull scrapes his curved horns against a shrub behind you... You smell them, you sense them, and you know the angel of death is standing only a breath behind you... It is times like these when a man learns what it is to be truly alive. There is not other way to describe it. When fear sharpens the senses to unprecedented levels and the rush of adrenaline screams against the brain... And you know that all that stands between you and certain disaster, is you ability to control your nerves and act in a calm and calculated manner. 


And even during those long hours when you sit in a leopard blind, enduring the torture of the tsetses, whilst waiting for that mystical cat to appear. And when it does... when it just materialises there right before you eyes as if from thin air... That is when a person experiences yet again the uncommon thrill of having to master the nerves. The same maddening torture as you have to lift your rifle so slowly that the movement won’t be noticed... every second bringing the risk that the cat might simply vanish again... And then, when the moment finally comes, the breathless agony as you line up the cross-hairs, fighting the urge to end the rush by pulling the trigger wildly. You almost can’t bring yourself to do it, yet you do... and when that rifle finally lurches, your mind explodes as millions of nerves immediately unwind themselves at the speed of light. Then you know what one of the ultimate moments of life is like.


The game against our nerves seems to have a primeval fascination for man. We both abhor, and adore it, for it frightens, yet it draws us such as nothing else. That inescapable moment of danger, when success and failure, survival and death, is only separated by a division of time as thin as the neuron itself. You feel it when your Landcruiser has bogged down and you’re walking to camp through an African night so dark that you know you’ll never be able to see the puff-adders that lay soaking up the heat of the road at night. When the bush is full of imagined man-eating leopards and lions, waiting in ambush – yet you have no flashlight with you. You feel it when you’re driving through a dry riverbed after dark and the night stillness is shattered by the explosive blast of half-a-dozen elephants trumpeting with fear, so close you can almost feel them. It shakes you from the curse of your modern existence when you unexpectedly walk into a sleeping pride of lions, or hunt within a herd of elephants and you realize with blood-draining horror that the wind is shifting. When you have to face a charging animal, and know that to give in to your screaming impulses to turn and run, would mean certain death. There is nothing in the world as moments like these. No words could possibly describe them. They are unique in all their ways. 


But the battle of the nerves can be more than just having to face dangerous game in the Dark Continent. It can lie within the reach of every man and woman on earth and it doesn’t necessarily have to be associated with the death of something. One of the most exciting moments of my life was when as a child, I once ambushed a flock of guinea fowl with an airgun, and watched them approach to within three paces. That my shot only bounced off the feathers of the leading cock two times in succession, just didn’t matter. It was the experience. Or even the day I had the cross-hairs lined up at the base of the neck of the largest buffalo I had ever seen in my life before and it was staring right at me... The shot never came, but the experience still rates as one of the most intense in my entire life.


Jack London once said that, “The function of man is to live, not just exist.” Well, I will add that no man has ever properly lived until he has had to engage in the battle against his own nerves – and won. Perhaps it is the mastery of the challenge that our nerves presents that makes hunting what it is, and makes hunting the royal king of sports, and the sport of kings.