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The Hunting Blackbeards of Botswana

Edited by Brian Marsh

Recently in Botswana, every tourist seemed to be reading, in one language or another, one of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books, like Tears of a Giraffe or the Kalahari Typing School for Men.

They are certainly delightful and I loved them myself. But Rowland Ward’s The Hunting Blackbeards of Botswana, published in 2007, provides far greater insights into a country characterized by ‘The Great Thirst’ that is the Kalahari and the vast inland delta that penetrates it, the Okavango.

This is not simply the story over 75 years of three generations of Blackbeards – all professional hunters, a rarity in itself – and their ancestors. It is also the tale of generational friendship between the Blackbeards and the founding (and still politically important) family, the Khamas, and the Masarwa Bushmen that evolved, hand-in-hand with the Blackbeards, from shooting cattle-killing lions to tracking black-maned trophies in the Kalahari sands with paying hunting clients from around the world.

The book opens with the arrival in Africa in 1820 of Englishman Francis Blackbeard, a silver and goldsmith. One of his grandsons, Samuel, moved to the Bechuanaland Protectorate in 1879 to trade with the Bamangwato people, whose leader was King Khama the Great. Future safari outfitter, Dennis Blackbeard, was the twelfth-born child and last of Samuel’s sons, who grew up in the game-rich lands around the town of Serowe, which “must seem the most undesirable of all places in which to live.” His two sons, Gavin and Ronnie, also hunted. Ronnie became a full-time PH and outfitter, and Gavin’s son, Luke, carries on the family tradition at full speed.

Along the way the Bechuanaland Protectorate, established in 1885, became independent from the British Commonwealth in 1966. Today, the Republic of Botswana, with its flourishing diamond, mining and tourism industries, is one of Africa’s most stable countries.

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The book opens with Dennis’s voice, tying the history of the Cape of Good Hope in the 16 th century to his family line. The story of the early settlers, like Dennis’s father, who helped establish ‘the great Kaffirland trade,’ should be read by anyone going to Botswana. The exceptional Blackbeard/Khama friendship began between Dennis’s mother, Maria, and Chief Khama’s wife, Simane; and Dennis himself went to school (and later into business) with Sir Seretse Khama, Botswana’s first president.

Dennis’s early life of ox-drawn wagons “laden with sweet-reed, mealies, pumpkins and watermelons,” was punctuated by the crack of his rifle, a borrowed ex-military .303 SMLE. He roamed his dad’s 14,000-acre farm in the Tuli block bordering the Limpopo River with an old muzzleloader for which he made his own blackpowder with sulphur and charcoal from the local chemist and saltpetre from the butcher, and at age 10 years received a BSA .177 air rifle.

With warmth and insight, he describes the daily life and beliefs of the Bamangwato, into which he himself was ‘incorporated’ as a very rare white member of their tribal regiment. After serving briefly during WWII in the South African Air Force, Dennis opened Serowe’s first garage (now owned by his younger son, Gavin), while hunting with “My Friends, the Masarwa Bushmen” for hartebeest and wildebeest. Settlers were encouraged by the British government to learn to shoot in case of insurrection, and soon Dennis was carrying a brand-new Parker Hale P14 .303, the rifle with which, he writes, he probably took the most game over his long career.

Soon after shooting his first buffalo in 1959, he was guiding paying South Africans who wanted to hunt Bechuanaland, although Botswana’s ‘golden era of hunting’ began officially in 1962 with the allocation of concessions and the arrival of an entire hunting community banished from the Eden of Kenya.

Dennis’s hunting tales include everything from sitatunga to buffalo and elephant; an entire chapter is dedicated to ‘snake encounters,’ some deadly and sad. But lion, for which he used a .458 loaded with 510-grain soft nose bullets, play an especially important role in his career, including eliminating the countless cats that lurked at cattle posts (a borehole in a unfenced area where cattlemen graze and water stock).

Where do you aim at a charging lion? “In the ‘V’ where the bottom of the throat joins the chest,” which takes the bullet “right into the vitals,” writes Dennis. The same goes for buffalo, although their “positive aiming point” is more obvious.

Dennis never had his own Okavango or Linyanti concession, and sub-contracted for sitatunga and red lechwe from Alan and Ian Henderson’s Botswana Hunters. Many hunters recall the swamp-hunting rig – an elevated platform built 10 feet above twin pontoons, driven by a 20 HP to move through the papyrus-lined channels at walking speed. Still, sitatunga was never easy and success was about 20%, which only contributed to the status of this esteemed trophy species, now off the Botswana hunting licence.

With Seretse Khama, Dennis founded Bamangwato Safaris with its huge Kalahari hunting area at Rakops on the Botletle River, which was rich in eland, hartebeest, wildebeest, springbok, leopards and lion. Soon, his son Ronnie was part of the business that also depended on a number of unforgettable trackers whose contribution Dennis never overlooked. He understood the belief system of the Africans he worked with. They deemed that when a man-eating crocodile or lion missed killing its victim, it was not a real animal but the transmogrified spirit of an ancestor, because a real man-eater does not miss its mark. “Tribes people will not cooperate with game department rangers when they are sent to track one they believe was a transmogrified spirit. The Africans prefers to risk being eaten by it than to incur its wrath.”

Ronnie was already well past his own first air rifle when he was licensed in 1969 as the country’s youngest PH. His first safari with a client “proved to be a traumatic experience,” with a wounded lion. But more than 30 years of lion, buffalo and elephant safaris have gone by since then, and like his father, he sings the praises of his trackers. “They are brave people who go unarmed into really dangerous situations. It is difficult to believe that we could be as dedicated as they are if we were unarmed in the same situations and had to rely on another person’s nerve and shooting ability. Their bushcraft is incredible and essential for professional hunters.”

Ronnie covers his own hunting life in his own voice, and describes driving through the bush with a ‘compass stick’ held by a tracker on the back of the vehicle, directing him along lion or leopard tracks in sandy soil while avoiding holes and stumps he couldn’t see. Many great cats were taken in Botswana during those years.

Ronnie is a .458 bolt-action man, even on a charging wounded leopard. He says he can get off two shots faster with it than with a double, and four shots faster than reloading one. Younger PHs often prefer a shotgun loaded with a 3-inch cartridge with steel shot, he says. “I try to convince them that if they can hit a charging leopard at 15 paces with a shotgun, they should be able to hit it with their rifle.”

Camps along the Chobe River for species that are no longer on licence or have very restrictive quotas might sound as though the ‘good old days’ are over for a PH who has hunted all over Botswana and beyond. But the countless feathers in his cap include ‘taking’ all of the Big Five in 19 days in three countries with a rather frail lady hunter who carried only her .375.

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Gavin hunted in the 1970s, when quotas of one buffalo, one zebra, and four plains game of any species were given for one-week ‘citizen hunts.’ He did most of his buffalo hunting in the Kwaai area between Splash and Four Rivers and up into the Tsum Tsum flats, and has much to say about bovine anatomy.

Gavin makes a fine tribute to Shorty, his dad’s tracker, whether handling problem animals or as a PH. When Gavin’s son Luke shot his first game animal, a red hartebeest at age six with a .222, and buffalo by age 10, “a lot of the time was under Shorty’s direction and supervision.” (Shorty died just before the publication of this book.)

The book draws to a close with Luke, the newest generation with whom “the ever-present fragrance of Youngs 303 gun oil lives.” Luke has hunted with Mark Kyriacou’s Bird Safaris, as well as Jeff Rann and Johan Calitz, and today is a self-employed ‘contract’ PH, “buying hunts from operators and choosing where to take my own clients.” He is part of that lucky generation of PHs that, for the first time in decades, can offer elephant hunting in Botswana’s present incarnation of paradise.

Although Luke recounts many of his own tales here (“No two lion hunts are ever exactly the same,” he writes), one senses that soon enough, he will have his own full-length book to write. As Dennis’s wife Phyliss writes, Luke is following in his grandfather’s footsteps, “hunting those same areas where Dennis hunted and camping in the same places we camped.” As a hunting tradition and chance for the future, that says it all.

The 250-page hardcover The Hunting Blackbeards of Botswana, with 150 photographs, is available from Rowland Ward for US $70 or Rand 495 from Rowland Ward.