From up here on the snowy mountaintop, the desert stretched away to infinity, a muted mosaic of blue-gray sage brush and grasses turned brown, gold and yellow for the winter, the hillsides dotted with dark green junipers and blackened stumps where some of the trees had been hit by lightning or burned by summer fires.
Lynn Lloyd, huntsman of the Red Rock Hounds near Reno, Nev., and I sat our horses, listening for hounds, who were some distance out to our front, out of sight and sound. The thick-packed snow creaked and groaned under the hooves of my big Dutch Warmblood, as he shifted and fidgeted, ears cocked toward the north.
There it was, the distant song of hounds, wafting toward us faintly, like the cry of wild geese on the wind.
“Yep,” said Lynn, “thought so. They’re traveling west on the far side of that second ridge. If we ride a little, we’ll catch ’em.”
Down the hillside we went, our horses slithering and skittering through the snow. We hit the desert floor at a hand gallop and tried to keep it there, conserving our mounts’ energy, although both horses wanted nothing more than to set their heads low and fly as fast as they could just for the sheer joy of being out on this fine February morning.
As we hurtled forward, not talking, the hounds’ cry coming in stronger now over the wind, my mind went back to another, very different kind of desert hunt on the opposite side of the world. No horses, no hounds, just me and the two tireless Bushmen hunters, tracking hour after hour through the parched Kalahari Desert in Botswana, Southern Africa.
We’d been on the trail of a gemsbok, a beautiful, horse-sized antelope with long, rapier-like horns and characteristic black stripes running from its nose to its eyes. It’s a dangerous animal to hunt–sometimes, when it suspects the hunter is close, it will turn and charge, and the hunter suddenly becomes the prey.
So here we were, me and the two lean, young Bushmen armed with nothing but small bows and arrows poisoned with the juice of a beetle larvae–hunting as their forefathers had for 70,000 years. How strange that that hunt in Africa should have brought me here, to this moment, riding hard behind Lynn Lloyd and her Red Rock hounds.
Perhaps I Should Explain
Although I was born in Britain and grew up with horses and hunting very much as part of my life, my parents were not British. My mother was from South Africa, and my father was from what was then Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. They raised me on stories about this hotter, more colorful, more dangerous and intriguing other world, and they took me there from earliest boyhood onward.
Eventually I became a journalist, covering Southern Africa for the British and sometimes the American press, returning north in the winter to hunt, and heading southward in the summers. In the mid-1990s I met Southern Africa’s oldest people–the Bushmen, small, golden-skinned hunter-gatherers known to the world through films such as The Gods Must Be Crazy, which depicted them as a harmless, gentle people who never made war and had about them an air of child-like innocence.
To my amazement, I found that many of these myths were true; the Bushmen did indeed eschew war and most forms of violence, arming themselves only to hunt.
But the innocence was cracking: over the past few hundred years other Africans, both black and white, have traditionally wiped out the Bushmen wherever they found them. Finally, inevitably, they’ve been forced tofight back.
I discovered that in South Africa, the southernmost country of the Kalahari, the Bushmen were down to just 35 individuals. To everyone’s amazement, in 1995 they found themselves a human-rights lawyer and sued the government for the restitution of their ancestral lands. Being a journalist, I just had to follow the story, and eventually I wrote a book about it, The Healing Land, published last year.
I never expected them to win.
But they did: the largest land claim in Southern African history–more than 200,000 acres of land, awarded to them in 1999. But in 2002, a larger group of Bushmen up in neighboring Botswana–some 2,000 of them to be exact–were kicked off their land, to make way for new diamond mines. Their hunting licenses were revoked, and they were loaded onto trucks and taken to internment camps outside of their ancestral area, known as the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.
Some who resisted were beaten and tortured. But because the South African Bushmen had successfully sued their government for the return of their hunting grounds, the Botswana Bushmen didn’t lose hope. The same human-rights lawyer came to their aid, and the case–for full restitution of hunting, grazing and dwelling rights within the CKGR–finally came to court in July.
But what has all this to do with foxhunting and the Red Rock Hounds?
Let’s go back a few years. At the same time that I was first meeting the Bushmen, something strange was happening in the U.S. hunting country. Many readers, especially those on the East Coast, will doubtless remember the early 1990s for two things: the influx of coyotes to hunting territories east of the Mississippi River and the resulting faster, farther, more exciting and more dangerous hunting that ensued; and the simultaneous and massive leap forward in suburban development.
Just as the hunts of the East Coast found themselves needing more land than ever to hunt on, they were losing large or entire sections of their territory to the developers. Even the green acres (or should that be ivory tower?) of Virginia, long assumed sacrosanct, were beginning to disappear under concrete and strip malls.
Rudely awakened from their long, complacent sleep, foxhunters realized that they were going to have to fight for their way of life and the very land to do it on–against an enemy with even more money and determination than they would ever have.
The Orange County Hunt, some 50 miles west of Washington, D.C., led the way.
Faced with a Walt Disney theme park 10 years ago on the very edge of their hunt country, the Orange County’s elder statesmen
gathered together and used a small organization they’d formed two decades earlier, called the Piedmont Environmental Council, to fight back.
Hold on, you might say, foxhunters calling themselves environmentalists? Well actually, that’s what all hunters really are. If you want to have game, you have to have habitat. Don’t conserve, and in a year or two you have no game–it’s that simple.
Whether we’re talking Virginia, the Leicestershire of my boyhood, or the Kalahari of Southern Africa, the same rules apply: conserve and preserve or perish.
In September 1994, Disney executives scuttled their theme park, and the success of the PEC and its allies provided something of a road map or inspiration to other foxhunters and conservationists.
Throughout the 1990s, foxhunters began to support conservation groups more avidly, especially on the East Coast, from Florida to upstate New York. Meanwhile, foxes, coyotes, and all the other species that derive health and pleasure from open land (including humans) benefited.
Because all this was playing itself out during the time that I was traveling to and from America’s hunting country and Africa’s Kala-hari, I began to see parallels. Although separated by vast cultural gaps, the Bushmen and the foxhunters shared more than it first appeared. Small groups of hunters with a way of life that dated back centuries, combined with a strict set of sporting and conservation ethics, were facing down corporate greed (developers over here, cattle barons and diamond miners over there), and sometimes winning.
The only real difference was that we foxhunters had considerably more money and political clout with which to try and protect our way of life. Perhaps, I thought, it behooved us to begin advocating for the rights of fellow hunting communities less fortunate than ourselves. So began a strange partnership.
In 2003, I went to the Masters of Fox-hounds Association Board of Directors meeting at Morven Park, in Leesburg, Va., and made an appeal: help these fellow hunters in Africa secure their land and hunting rights by helping them come to America to put their case to the media, the United Nations, the U.S. Congress and the State Department. And the MFHA’s directors stepped up to the plate.
The Bushmen are arriving here late this month–just at the start of hunting season–and will stay through the end of September, traveling from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., and New York. To help finance their trip (which will include National Public Radio and National Geographic coverage, as well as local TV and radio), the hunt community has
donated more than $15,000.
So far the two hunts that have donated the most to the cause are Marty and Daphne Wood’s Live Oak hounds in Florida, and Lynn Lloyd’s Red Rock Hunt, although sizable chunks have also come in from the MFHA’s of two Virginia regions and from various individuals around the country.
Defying Natural Law
Which brings me back to where we began, flying across the high desert after Lynn Lloyd’s hounds the morning after a fund-raising talk there generated $4,000 in a single evening.
Hounds had–in true Red Rock style–put up their coyote just minutes after leaving the meet at Hungry Valley, and we’d been running hard up and down some of the steepest stuff I’ve ever encountered out hunting (although for Lynn it’s pretty much an everyday thing).
Nevada’s coyotes often appear to defy natural law. So it was again: we eventually caught up with hounds several miles down on the sage-brush flats, milling about as if there’d never been a coyote in the first place, their quarry having seemingly been beamed up by some unseen spacecraft–the “poof! Factor,” as many Western foxhunters call it. We waited, Lynn praising her hounds, who had stuck out a difficult, patchy scent for 45 minutes of hard running, until the breathless field caught up, and we let horses and hounds rest a little before hunting on.
The Red Rock hunt country, most of it owned by the Bureau of Land Management, seems never-ending. We rode up from the plains into wide canyons to narrow draws to great ridges without ever seeming to come to a settlement or road. When hounds found their second coyote and pushed him back over several miles (how do you even begin to measure distance in country like this?), we found our horses beginning to tire.
Occasionally we would view our piratical pilot, loping far ahead of us with all the confidence of a coyote that knows it can disappear any time hounds come uncomfortably near. And, boy, did they try to get near, working out the line in this difficult, cold-scenting country, the whips galloping far up ahead, scouting for the quarry, tiny silhouettes moving fast across the patches of sun and shadow.
Just for a moment, it was like being back in the Kalahari, running low through the winter grasses, the gemsbok cantering far out to our front, my two Bushmen guides closing the distance by running around to the side, the wind in their faces waiting for the chance to make their shot.
Where Can You Meet The Bushmen?
They arrived in the USA on Aug. 25, in Los Angeles. On Aug. 27, they were guests and beneficiaries of the Tribal Cup Polo Match in Santa Barbara, Calif., and that night they were guests of an Amnesty International-sponsored event in Hollywood.
From Sept. 4-12, they’ll attend The Gathering, at Big Bear, Calif., an annual meeting of shamans, elders and medicine people from tribal groups around the world (www.jour
From Sept. 14-20 they’ll be traveling by road across Arizona and New Mexico as guests of the Hopi, Navajo and Pueblo Indian tribes. On Sept. 21 they’ll arrive in Washington, D.C., and go to Capitol Hill to meet the Human Rights Caucus, the House Subcommittee on Africa and to the State Department.
On Sept. 26, they’ll speak at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and on Sept. 27 they’ll address the United Nations.
During Labor Day weekend there will be a fund-rasing event in California, and there will be a similar fund-rasing hunt in Virginia later in the month. See the MFHA website (MFHA.org) for an update.
One of the Bushmen, Vetkat Kruiper, is a rider and will ride to hounds at these two meets.
For more information, contact Rupert Isaacson, the journey facilitator, at email@example.com.