Anything but ordinary
The safari industry is full of colourful characters, says Yuri Janssen. None more so than Gavin Knott.
It all started with a text message to the editor about a year ago. “I've met an interesting chap on safari in northern South Africa whose story might be of interest to your readers. He is passionate about wildlife conservation, his knowledge of flora and fauna is truly impressive, he's a talented rifle Shot and an avidly keen hunter, he drives a Land Cruiser like a pro, and he's had some interesting pets including three lions, a leopard, a nyala, a warthog and a giant black dog called Bear. But the most interesting thing about him is that he's only been around for just over a decade.” The editor's response was immediate: “Sounds interesting. But what do you mean he's only been around for a decade?” “I mean he is only 11 years old,” I said. Needless to say he was keen for me to pursue the story.
So, some three months later, when an opportunity arose for me to return to Greater Kuduland, an 18,000-hectare wilderness reserve in South Africa's Limpopo Province, I didn't hesitate and immediately headed north towards the Zimbabwean border. But this time I wouldn't be accompanying any hunting clients, I was going back to spend some time with a lad who has grown up a million miles from the nearest PlayStation.
I'm not even sure Gavin Knott would know what to do with a games console – he is far more comfortable behind the steering wheel of a Land Cruiser, or on foot tracking game through the parched Limpopo sand. Indeed, my first morning back at Greater Kuduland saw me following behind him as he carefully picked his way along an ancient game trail at first light. The dawn chorus wasn't yet in full swing – a lone tom leopard coughed in the distance, and the last liquid calls of the pearl spotted owl drifted down the valley. But suddenly our focus was broken by a loud and disapproving cacophony – a troop of chacma baboons had spotted us. This is big cat country, so baboons need to be on high alert at all times, particularly at first and last light.
But our self appointed mountain sentries soon realised that we posed little threat and quickly resumed doing what all sensible baboons (and outdoor people for that matter) have done since the beginning of time – sit back and await the warming comfort of the rising sun. Which is exactly what we did, too, settling for a vantage point from which we could scan the plains for game.
Gavin duly pointed out a rocky peninsula where many unfortunate souls from the Venda tribe had met their fate. Apparently, according to local folklore, once a perpetrator of a misdeed was caught, and said act was deemed by the tribal elders to be sufficiently wicked, the felon would then be informed that he or she had qualified for the local high jump. The entire tribe would gather to witness the sentence at sunset the following day. The local hyenas and jackals dealt with the remains below.
As the warmth of the early morning sun drew a myriad of animals out onto the open plains (Greater Kuduland is home to 8,000 head of game), I began to wonder whether Gavin's obvious passion for the outdoors was inherent or learnt. “It's definitely nature rather than nurture,” said his father Howard, later that day. “You either have it in you or you don't. Yes, he has had an unusual bush upbringing, but I have never pigeonholed him. By the time he was three or four years old, he was already showing a very keen interest in what we do here. And later, while his mates were starting to chase rugby balls, he was chasing monkeys and God knows what else with his catapult.
“I actually tried to hold him back, but whenever there was an animal to skin or butcher, Gavin was up to his arms in it. When we darted buffalo, elephant or rhino, for instance, I had to keep a close eye on him because he was always in the thick of the action, which, of course, can be disastrous, particularly for someone who is only three feet tall!”
A desire to hunt
Gavin's desire to hunt emerged at a very young age too, without any prompting from his father. Indeed, unbeknownst to his father he used to sneak out of the house to join his older African friends on guineafowl hunts. “I later discovered that they would gather around the fire at first light to discuss their ‘battle plans',” says Howard, with a smile. “And then, apparently, they would go out into the bush to hunt anything that moved with their homemade catapults.” But it wasn't long before catapults were traded for guns, starting with an air rifle, a .22 rimfire, and then, at the age of six or seven, on to a .223 Win Mag. And by his eighth birthday, he was ready for his first proper hunt.
“We did it the way it should be done and spent several days camping out in the wilderness,” explains Howard. “It was the way I remember it as a boy and the way I wanted Gavin to remember his first hunt. There is something to be said about having dinner around the campfire, bedding down under the Milky Way and falling asleep to the sound of lions roaring. It's all part of the experience. And if that doesn't set you on the right path then I don't think anything will.” That was three years ago and since then Howard has made it Gavin's duty to go out into the bush and shoot all the antelope needed to keep the pet cats well-fed.
Although he is clearly old beyond his years, Gavin has made a few mistakes along the way. There has been the odd close shave with snakes, scorpions and dangerous game, plus plenty of scrapes here and there, but the one miscalculation on Gavin's part that sticks in his father's mind had repercussions of a different kind.
“We have a buffalo-breeding program here, and when Gavin was about four or five years old he witnessed the local vet performing artificial insemination (AI) and pregnancy tests on a few of our buffalo cows for the first time,” explains Howard. “You know the deal… it's not a glamorous job; the vet was up to his armpit in buffalo shit. Anyway, while we were doing the procedures, I spotted an old wildebeest cow on her last legs and asked a friend to go and put her out of her misery. Gavin was then tasked with keeping the vultures at bay while I went to fetch the recovery vehicle. Upon returning to the wildebeest carcass, I found everything as it should be, except Gavin looked a little sheepish. As I got closer, I also realised that he stank to the high heavens and was covered in wildebeest crap. After a little interrogation, he explained himself. “Dad, I was only doing exactly what the vet was doing to the buffalo!” he said. We still laugh about it now.”
Later that day, I had the privilege of meeting Gavin's mother, Shann, who reiterated how obvious it was from a very early age that Gavin had a natural understanding of the ways of the wild and an instinctive desire to hunt and fish. “If he wasn't hunting birds or terrorising monkeys in the garden, then he was in the gun room cleaning rifles.”
Fishing, too, came naturally to Gavin. Whether he was casting a spinner, threading a worm onto the hook, or releasing a fish, he liked to do it himself, and he quickly became an accomplished angler in his own right. In fact, he is the youngest person ever to land a sailfish at Hemingway's in Kenya.
Another unexpected and untaught trait that Gavin showed from his early years was a keen sense of direction. We all know how easy it is to become disorientated in the bush and Gavin's older sisters are renowned for getting lost out there. This all ended, however, when their mother insisted that they take Gavin out as a navigator. From an age when most parents wouldn't leave their kids alone in the garden, Gavin started guiding his older sisters around the ranch.
“He really was quite perceptive from a very young age,” says Shann, “and began to notice things that you wouldn't expect, like unusual vehicle tracks, different shoe tread marks and less common animal tracks. Indeed, this perceptiveness has proven to be invaluable in recent years.”
Doing it the right way
After a lunch, Gavin and I, accompanied by his enormous black dog, Bear, headed out to look for an old bachelor impala ram to feed to the three pet lions. With Gavin behind the wheel of the Toyota Land Cruiser, he expertly drove us towards an area of acacia woodland. The first thing I noticed was how confidently and carefully Gavin handled his rifle, never letting the muzzle wander where it shouldn't. He duly pointed out where he thought the impala might be and went on to assure me that he would only load his rifle when we were approaching the thicket. Needless to say, I was most impressed.
With the gun loaded and the safety catch on, we skirted around a clump of acacia so that we could approach from a downwind direction. Somehow, Gavin just knew where the impala would be. We hadn't walked more than 200 yards when Bear and Gavin suddenly stopped and stared in unison. Without thinking about it, Gavin instinctively dropped to his knees. I knew this was the moment.
The shooting sticks went up and the shot followed, almost simultaneously. A dull thud confirmed it had been a good shot. Whimpering, Bear disappeared into the distance in a cloud of dust, and, as we emerged from the woodland moments later, we found the enormous hound sitting proudly beside a very dead impala ram. It had been a perfect heart shot.
The calmness with which this 11-year-old boy had acted, the steadiness with which he had positioned the shooting sticks and the swiftness of the shot – a feat usually only achieved by veteran hunters – had been impressive, to say the least. But then it dawned on me, despite his age, this remarkable young man had been hunting for more years than he had not, and in doing so he had become well and truly immersed in an entirely different way of life. A life that, in today's day and age, is anything but ordinary.