As I wrote last week, there I was in the middle of the South African bush wrapped in a blanket to stave off the cold. Karl, the strapping ranger, had staved off the animals, but there seemed no remission from the biting air. On our way back to the lodge, we saw some rhino immersed in a pool–perhaps in the hope that the water was warmer. Their deep-pink underbellies were about the shade of my freezing hands.
The following morning, however, the weather let up. I woke to skies the colour of Anatolian waters. The sun was beating down on the copper earth. At last, I said to myself, time for a bit of relaxation by the swimming-pool. So I grabbed my bikini and made my way up to where the pool was located. It was one of those constructions where the water slops over the edge in a pleasantly soporific manner.
I lay on a sunbed, lathered myself in cream and dozed off. It must have been half an hour later when I woke up and saw something sitting beside me. It was big and brown, but it wasn’t one of the rangers. No, it was a huge and rather sulky-looking baboon.
I thought if I lay very still the baboon might go away. It didn’t. Then, to my mounting horror, I realised it was making its way towards my raffia bag, containing all my valuables. It picked the bag up and began examining the contents. One hairy hand extracted a hair-clip. This was turned over, examined and then discarded in disgust. Next, it reached inside and brought out a bottle of suntan cream. This, too, was chucked unceremoniously into the bushes. It would only be a matter of seconds, however, before it found my passport and all my Rand. I started praying. God was good. The baboon evidently possessed a short concentration span, for it dropped the bag suddenly and bounded to the other side of the pool. I bounded for my bag and left. We were due any minute to leave for Safari Lodge which is located right in the bush.
It was an extraordinary sight. Each guest cottage was a self-contained thatched hut reached by a wooden swing-bridge. We had been told that at Safari Lodge the animals actually came to you. I thought this was all puff. But, as I lay on my sundeck reading, I lifted my head and saw three elephants walking by with great majesty. They must have been about ten feet away. Next came scores of impala, leaping through the air like ballet dancers.
After a while, I received a telephone call from one of the lodge staff. I was told not to leave my room as there were lions in the camp. This was all very well, but how was I to know whether the lions might not get into my room and eat me anyway. Maybe they had had an unsuccessful day’s hunting and would leap over the sun deck to consume my puny amount of kilograms.
It was dark by now and I could hear their roars. I was beginning to feel very hungry but so, presumably, were they. Fortunately, about ten minutes later, a further call informed me that it was safe to go out. I started off across the swing-bridge. I suddenly realised it was a mistake to be wearing heels. They became caught in the wood and the bridge swung violently.
Worse still, sitting in the middle of the bridge was another blasted baboon. It appeared to have no intention of giving way. By this time, I had become a bit blase about baboons, so I stood my ground and said `Shoo.’ This had no effect whatsoever. I moved a step towards it. It stayed where it was. I stood and gave it a withering look. To my astonishment, it hopped off.
The main building consisted of an inside bar and dining area and an outside dining area surrounded by pink mud walls, where traditional barbecues took place. The ground was sandy, and a huge burning pot was half sunk into the ground. We English had insisted on eating outside, even though the nights were still chilly.
The lodge staff thought us mad, so, probably, did the American paying guests who had to eat with us. Karl came to join us for a drink and I told him about my elephants, the baboon and the lion. `You get used to them after a while,’ I said. `You sort of lose your fear.’
Karl looked at me crossly. `If you start thinking like that,’ he told me, rather icily, `they’ll eat you. It has happened before to people like you.’ What did he mean by people like me? I suddenly remembered the disclaimer we had to sign on checking in, absolving the lodge from all responsibility if anything happened to us.
Our conversation was halted by the arrival of some local women who proposed to dance for us. Most of them were neither young nor thin. But as they danced they acquired a natural beauty, making those stick-thin, heavily made-up girls you see at nightclubs appear ugly and graceless. Traditional love songs followed. The moon was high in the sky and the stars seemed near enough to touch. In the distance, the noise of the animals provided a haunting accompaniment to the women.
It was a moment of beauty, when man, beast and nature met in perfect harmony. We were all a little drunk–not only on the wine–when the security guards escorted us back over our swing-bridge. Mine teetered violently (the bridge, that is) and I giggled. I only hope the guard didn’t think I was a ladette.
Exmoor mobilised. (Hunting)
We had a good opening meet in the Vale of Tears Hunt (VT). We ran hard, killed two and a half brace, and our MP fell off. He had quite rightly decided to prevent a by-election at this trying time for the Tory party by lurching sideways to avoid a branch.
I shall leave fox-hunting for this week, though, and move the scene to the Crown Inn in Exford, in the heart of the country of the Devon and Somerset Staghounds.
In the parlour after breakfast is a tall, thin figure who reminds me of a John Buchan novel. He is perfectly dressed, with a long riding coat, a stockpin with a deer’s tush set in it, and supremely polished boots. Too perfectly dressed, in fact. His short-cropped hair is suspiciously neat; the tops of his boots, rather than the regulation mahogany colour, are almost red; he looks out severely behind rimless spectacles tied on with a chain. Yes, this faintly sinister figure is a foreigner–obviously a criminal mastermind, masquerading, for purposes of world domination, as an English gentleman. He turns out to be a shy Austrian dentist from the Tyrol, who spends all his holidays in some form of English hunting. He describes his previous day with the Devon and Somerset in rain and fog as `very horrible’.
To one who has never hunted deer before (me), the meet that morning is like every other, only more so. There is the same weird assortment of the urban on a jaunt and the rural in their element, the nervous children well protected by crash helmets and body armour and the wizened old men, often limping or bent through previous injury, who grin from under the angle of their mouldy bowler hats. Compared with the VT, there are a lot of people–about 120 mounted at the meet, with many more sliding in later in the day. Crowded into the great Ann Mallalieu’s farmhouse yard, the clans have gathered. This isn’t a leisure activity, this is Exmoor mobilised.
It is the hunting itself that is really different. Fox-hunting, on the whole, has tactics, but little strategy. You find the fox; if you can, you chase him, and if you kill or lose him, you look for another one. Stag-hunting has a grand plan. The night before, the harbourer has found a stag suitable for hunting. As we move off, the tufters, the elite hounds, are separated from the main body of the pack. They go ahead to identify the stag in question. It is only when they have done so and are hunting him that the rest of the pack is laid on.
And whereas the hunt for a fox will generally be sporadic, and runs often short, the search in stag-hunting can take all day, and never more than one stag will be killed. The stag is chased until bayed by hounds, and then shot through the head by a marksman.
On this clear day, though, with every October leaf glowing, we spend the whole morning in a pursuit that fails, and only begin the final hunt at two o’clock.
Other people’s fear is a funny thing. Because they are out on the moor, stag-hunters never jump. They therefore speak with awe of the bold jumping exploits of us fox-hunters. We, on the other hand, are terrified by the gallops down the slippery steeps into the combes, and by bogs. The bravest of our visiting party gets herself separated from our group. We start seriously to wonder where she is. Eventually she canters up, muddy and almost distraught. She was thrown into a bog: she didn’t mind that, but she was upset when her horse started to sink. There she was all alone, out of ear-shot of the posses hurrying hither and thither as if in some 17th-century battle. Luckily, a man on a quad bike found her in time. If he had not, the horse might have given up the struggle. When they do this, apparently, the only way to give them the will to live is to bite their ears.
At last the stag is killed, right down beside Exford itself. I don’t see it, only hear the bang from the stable yard where it is bayed, and then see the dead beast dragged into the field, where it is eviscerated, as deer always should be as soon as dead. Whisky is drunk. At the end, as at the beginning, the community celebrates. Teenage boys zoom up on noisy motorbikes and buy ice-creams from the van that has followed all afternoon.
Professor Patrick Bateson, whose report on stag-hunting caused the National Trust, without consultation, to ban it on its land, said that the effect of the chase was cruel. He described the red deer as `sedentary’, one of the odder words ever used about this swift, alert, noble creature. But I did notice that, compared with the Scottish Highlands, where I have stalked red deer with a rifle, the beasts on Exmoor seem placid. Without the threat of the bullet, they seem to regard horse, hounds and people as part of the furniture of the moor. They do not live in fear, though presumably they die in it.
But even if Prof. Bateson is right, we come up against the great conundrum of conservation–the good of the individual versus the good of the species. Each stag may suffer as he is chased, but if no stags were hunted, they would all but disappear from Exmoor. When the Trust banned hunting on the Holnicote estate, the deer count there fell from 429 in February 1998 to 163 in September 1999. Ted Hughes wrote about this shortly before he died. Deer are considered as something better than vermin or meat for money only by the co-operative culture that hunting brings, the strange but true fact that people care for what they kill. He called it `the spell of the hunt’.