Wrapped in my sleeping bag, I opened my eyes. I had awoken to the sound of roaring. Beside me, my sister was already awake, staring nervously at the sliver of firelight between the canvas flaps of our tent.
We were used to the ordinary noise of the bush at night — the whoop of hyena, the chorus of cicadas, the distant growl of a leopard. But this was tumult beyond all my imagining. I crawled along the stretcher bed and moved to peer out of the tent.
I was eight years old, my sister only six. In the darkness around us lay the wild country of the Zambezi valley. This was the untamed land that my father had led us into two weeks before, at the start of the long dry season.
These annual safaris had become the highlight of my year, the trips around which my young life was built.
Big cat shoot-out: Eight-year-old Wilbur with his father and the three dead man-eaters
My father’s three big trucks would be packed with tents and camping gear, pots and pans for my mother’s outdoor kitchen, rifles and axes and racks for hanging meat.
Travelling with my mother, my father and sister would be 20 or 30 of the best men from my family’s vast cattle ranch in Northern Rhodesia [today’s Zambia]. Crowded into the open backs of the trucks, their hunting songs would fill the air.
‘Is it them?’ my sister asked as the roaring continued. The thought had entered my head as well. Four days ago, a runner from the District Commissioner’s headquarters 50 miles away had arrived at our camp and presented my father with a letter warning us that a pride of lions was on the rampage.
Turned man-eater, they had already killed over 20 villagers. My father’s reputation as a good shot was well known, and the District Commissioner wanted him to eradicate this menace if he could. My father was about to get his chance to confront predators with a taste for human blood.
My father’s reputation as a good shot was well known, and the District Commissioner wanted him to eradicate this menace (file photo)
Outside, our camp was encircled by a boma [livestock enclosure] of branches. In the middle sat our two tents — one for my parents and one I shared with my sister.
On the edge of the barricade, labourers from the ranch slept out in the open, the darkness lit only by the faltering light of their fire. Through the men moved a monster in silhouette: a lion with a mane of black, his luminescent eyes focused on the rack of meat we had butchered that day.
As I watched, the alpha lion hesitated. Something else had caught his attention. He turned, eyes dazzling in the firelight, and approached the camp retainers. This lion was no longer interested in meat left out to dry. It wanted the meat of man. It wanted to kill.
The lion was almost on top of Peter Matoka, my father’s foreman. In an instant Peter reached for an axe by his side. I held my breath.
The lion roared as it sprang forward. Peter raised the axe high above his head and for a second the lion’s jaws loomed above him, ready to savage him to pieces. But when they clamped shut, the demon had sunk its fangs into the heft of the axe itself.
Pandemonium broke out. As screams drowned out the sounds of the bush, two other colossal silhouettes appeared. The lion pride had arrived in force. I slunk back into the tent, fear overcoming my excitement.
Then my father appeared. From the opening of his tent, he staggered half-asleep out into the night, wearing only the shirt of his pyjamas. With one hand he seized his rifle, with the other his torch, but as he took his first stride his face smashed into the tent pole, breaking open his nose.
‘From the opening of his tent, he staggered half-asleep out into the night, wearing only the shirt of his pyjamas,’ writes Smith
Blinking back pouring blood, he turned towards the chaos. The alpha lion, Peter’s axe still lodged in his jaws, lifted its head to meet his gaze. There was a grunting, a furious roar, and the lion charged.
They say that time slows down, but that is not how it felt; instantly the alpha lion had crossed the camp, ready to tear my beloved father apart.
Without trousers, displaying his masculinity to the world, blood streaming from his ruptured nose, my father stood his ground. In a heartbeat, he turned his torch on the charging lion. Holding his rifle in his other hand, he aimed it like a pistol along the beam of bright light — and fired.
The deranged animal was arrested, mid-leap. The bullet had found the centre of its chest, cleaved through muscle and bone, and buried itself deep in the beast’s heart. I watched, incredulous, as the great carcass dropped and, in a whirlwind of dust, rolled to my father’s feet. There it lay still, blood pumping out of the hole in its breast.
Dad dropped the torch to reload. The torch’s beam fleetingly picked out the faces of the other two lions. My father lifted the rifle and released another two shots. At each, a lion dropped dead. Silence settled on the camp.
I looked between the lions and my father. As I marvelled at the beautiful man-eaters spread out beneath me, I was hit by the feeling that there had been only one person standing between them and my sister and me becoming their next meal: my father, my hero, my god.
Many lives were saved that night, and the local villagers would never forget it. Nor would I. It was my father who would be the inspiration for the heroes who eventually graced the pages of my books. My passion is to bring to life those heroes — and, if ever I need a model for one, all I have to do is remember that night when I was eight years old: my father, his Remington rifle, and three man-eating lions, rampaging in the night.
My father, Herbert Smith, meant everything to me. I loved him with every inch of my being. Every boy has a hero in his life — and my father was that man.
I did a lot of stupid things in my youth, but my father was always there with a stern word and his belt in his hand to make sure I stuck to the right path. Not once did I resent it.
He was a staunch Victorian with a strict code of discipline, but a sense of fairness as well. On our ranch there were all kinds of ways for a boy to get himself killed. His rules were the best way of ensuring I didn’t fall prey to any of them.
I was eight years old when he gave me my first rifle, a .22 Remington. ‘It’s yours now, Wilbur,’ my father had said, ‘but there’s a code that goes with it. A system of honour. You fire safely. You shoot clean. You only kill that which you’re going to eat.’
I shot my first animal shortly afterwards and my father ritually smeared the animal’s blood on my face. I was a new hunter, the blood the mark of emerging manhood. I refused to bathe for days.
Wilbur Smith, pictured, says political correctness is killing off heroes similar to his father
After that my friend Barry and I would roam the trails from one corner of the ranch to another, sometimes straying deep into the untamed bush. For a time we hunted only small game.
But one bright summer’s day when we were no more than 15 years old, Barry directed my gaze to the mountains that marked the horizon beyond the churning Kafue river, and whispered of a rumour he’d heard. ‘There’s a kudu bull roaming in the lowlands of that hill, Wilbur,’ he said. ‘We’re going to hunt him.’
Borrowing my father’s old Jeep, Barry and I set out, fording the river and journeying into the forested hills. When the Jeep could go no further, we went on foot. The sun was sinking by the time we first saw the bull.
The last glimpses of light were hovering over the mountaintops; soon they would be gone. We would have to head back to the Jeep, and get home, soon. We had found the bull and we’d find him again. I shouldered my rifle and began to tramp away.
It was some time before I realised Barry hadn’t followed. When I turned back, he went in the opposite direction. The realisation hit us both at the same time: we didn’t know where we had left the Jeep.
Worse still, we hadn’t plotted our route back. Intent on taking the kudu before nightfall, we’d pushed on without a thought.
‘We’re screwed,’ said Barry.
‘It will look different in the morning,’ I said, only half-believing it. First, we would have to endure a night in the bush, without fire, food or water.
Sleep did not come that night. We clung to our rifles, backs braced against an outcrop of cold stone, and waited for the black sky to pale. When morning came, two hungry, bedraggled boys tried to follow their own spoor (or trail), hoping they could backtrack.
But it was hopeless. By the time the sun was at its zenith, we had turned ourselves in yet more circles.
When I heard a noise overhead, I couldn’t be certain it wasn’t the roar of anxiety in my febrile mind. I squinted into the cruel afternoon sun and saw a shape that lifted my heart. It was my father’s little Tiger Moth biplane, sailing out of the blue.
Wilbur Smith recalls how his father saved his life by killing three hungry lions eager for human flesh
With energy I had not known we still had, we leapt up to grab his attention, screamed crazily and waved. There was a moment when I thought he had seen us. Then, he flew on. I had never felt so alone and helpless.
It was as dawn broke on the third day that I heard the Tiger Moth again. Ripping off our shirts, Barry and I scrambled for higher ground and began waving them furiously back and forth. Then came the signal we had been praying for.
Far above, my father tipped the aeroplane’s wings back and forth to acknowledge us, extended his hand from the cockpit and banked around.
There was no place for him to land in bush this thick, but he had located us and he knew we were alive. Barry and I settled down for a long wait.
Time went by and another sound reached us through the bush. It was my father’s truck, grinding its way towards us. At long last, it materialised out of the scrub.
My father sat impassively behind the wheel and motioned for us to climb into the back. It wasn’t until I saw the stony set of his face that I knew how much trouble we were in. The truck wheeled around and, at last, we were on our way home.
We dropped Barry at his house first, to face the wrath of his parents. Outside our farmhouse, my father climbed out of the cab and came around to face me. Only now did I think of the panicked nights my mother had spent, the terrible calamities she must have imagined had happened to me.
I watched as my father pulled the belt out of his trousers to give me a well-deserved thrashing.
Wilbur Smith (pictured) believes true action heroes are disappearing
What we had done was reckless and foolish, and the guilt I felt at putting them through such worrisome times was overwhelming — but there was another part of me that revelled in the adventure. That night my father came into my room. I was wide awake, unable to sleep after the terrors of the last few days and my father’s anger.
He sat on the bed next to me. I was expecting a stern talk about lessons to be learned, cautions to be taken, but he didn’t say a word. He stared beyond me for a while as if considering a difficult problem. Then he touched my forehead briefly and left the room.
‘That is a stupid idea!’ my father had said. ‘You’ll starve to death. Go and get a real job!’ From an early age, I wanted to be a writer. I loved telling stories. It was a skill I had been honing from the moment I could read.
Now those dreams seemed to have come to nothing. In 1962, I was 29 years old and, sitting in the bedroom of the bachelor’s mess where I lived, I stared at the 20th rejection letter I had received for the novel I considered was my masterwork. As I screwed it in my fist, I faced a troubling thought: my father might have been right.
But I had a rebellious streak, and maybe it was time to show my father what I was made of. Disappointment can be an incredible spur, if it doesn’t kill you.
My father had encountered numerous knockdowns in his life and he’d risen to fight again another day. Slowly, over the next days and weeks, ideas began to unfold inside me. I began to look around me for material, within myself and back in time.
The main thing was that I had my life to draw on. I had vivid memories of my childhood, living half-feral on my father’s cattle ranch. I would write about the people I had known, the black and the white, about hunting and gold-mining and carousing and women.
I would write about love and being loved, about hate and being hated. I would leave out all the immature philosophy, radical politics and rebellious posturing that had been the backbone of my past work, and write about the subjects and people I knew.
I picked up my pen to begin, and an old memory returned. It was a story I had thought of often over many years, one that made me marvel even to this day. It was the memory of the time I had woken in the night and, crawling out of my tent, watched my father shoot three man-eating lions without breaking a sweat.
My pen was already moving over the page. When The Lion Feeds were the words I had written. I had a title. That book would go on to be a bestseller, and begin the career that would bring me so many adventures in my long life.
I know that my relationship with my father influenced the way I thought about the characters in my novels.
Though we were dissimilar in many ways, we came to recognise the same qualities in each other — the desire to work for no man that had driven my father to build his business on the Copperbelt was the same one that had driven me to writing. We both wanted to dictate the paths of our own lives.
My father had little interest in novels, not even mine, although my mother said he carried around a copy of When The Lion Feeds in the boot of his car to show his friends. He had always been reticent with praise. There is one moment, though, that will always stay with me.
On my 50th birthday, he’d called me an idiot for the millionth time. I said, ‘Dad, you can’t call me that any more. I’ve proved you wrong. An idiot doesn’t write bestsellers.’
He grinned, looked at me keenly, and said, ‘I guess you have!’ And then he gave me a bear hug. Dad didn’t hug much. It meant a lot to me.
My father died on April 12, 1985. I stood at his grave, with tears rolling. A great man had gone and the yawning absence in my life would never go away.
I loved him and admired him and the world was smaller now. Dad had stopped smoking 20 years before, but the damage had been done. In his last days, he had become frailer, slighter, though in my eyes his soul never diminished.
When he passed away, my world changed for ever, leaving me with the regret that we had never been able to become true friends. Time, as it always does, had slipped through our fingers.
I often wonder what my father would have made of the 21st century. He would have been a man out of time. When my first child was born, my father took me aside.
‘My boy,’ he told me. ‘They’re going to bring that baby back from the hospital any day now. When they do, wait for it to soil its nappy. Then confidently announce to your wife: ‘Stand back! This is my child as well!’
‘Then, undo the baby’s nappy and stick the safety pin into the baby’s bottom. The baby will squeal and your wife will never let you near a dirty nappy again!’ He was being totally serious.
In the end, I didn’t take Dad’s advice, but I had some sympathy with his view of a man’s role in society. My father never bathed me, he never fed me, and he never changed my nappy.
I think one of the worst inventions of our times is political correctness. It has forced a generation of men to keep their masculinity under wraps, made them too timid to admit their true views about the world. Today, even the concept of ‘hero’ is not politically correct.
In my father’s time, our heroes were served up to us directly from battle, commanding victorious armies or navies, like Nelson, Wellington and Churchill.
Or they were performing amazing acts of derring-do, discovering hidden parts of the globe, like Livingstone, Stanley and Baker. But where are the titans in public life today? Where is Winston Churchill? Where is Franklin Roosevelt? Where is Nelson Mandela?
If you look hard enough, there are people to admire — but they are private heroes, quiet lionhearts. In South Africa we have the unsung former public protector, Thuli Madonsela, who, while raising her two children as a single parent, took on the ruling party and then President Zuma over spending on his private rural retreat.
Yet, on the whole, there are no giants today, no role models in the public realm. We make our heroes out of ordinary people who have achieved prominence simply because their job puts them on the television or cinema screen, or they have become famous for being famous through ghastly reality television.
Today’s heroes are celebrities. Yes, they’re different from the rest of us — they earn more, they visit more nightclubs, they may play better football — but Wayne Rooney is hardly Lawrence of Arabia, is he?
Although there may be a shortage of real men on the covers of magazines today, these rules don’t apply in my books. Like the heroes of my novels, my father lived life the way he wanted — in an era when a man could provide for his family with only his natural guile and the rifle over his shoulder.
To me, he was the sun and the moon and the stars.
- On Leopard Rock: A Life Of Adventures by Wilbur Smith is published by Zaffre, price £20. To order a copy for £15 (25 per cent discount) visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640. p&p is free on orders over £15. Offer valid until May 5, 2018.
Trumped – by Mrs Thatcher
I find strong women fascinating. I enjoy their independence, their self-containment and self-belief.
Margaret Thatcher, who everyone knows as the Iron Lady, was determined to always be number one, to be the best at whatever she turned her hand to.
I remember the time I went to a stock signing at my publisher Macmillan’s Basingstoke warehouse to sign copies of my latest novel before they were sent out to the bookstores.
I sat down at a table and signed 3,000 books in their stockroom. Ten days later, Maggie Thatcher went to the same warehouse to sign her book — the first volume of her autobiography, I believe it was. The staff said to her: ‘Oh, Wilbur Smith was here last week.’
Maggie frowned and asked: ‘How many books did he sign?’ and they said: ‘Three thousand, which is a lot!’ She looked at them and said: ‘Give me 4,000!’
If you thought my dad was tough…
If my father was a god to me, then Grandpa Courtney (below) was a god to my father. My grandfather Courtney James Smith had been a transport rider during the Witwatersrand gold rush in the late 1880s, and had led a Maxim gun team in the Zulu war, decimating the enemy with 600 rounds a minute.
With his dazzling blue eyes and magnificent moustaches, Grandpa (left) was something out of adventure books I loved, and was himself a fountain of stories.
I remember the day he told me the tale of the sjambok — a long, stiff whip originally made of rhinoceros hide. ‘One time I won a dog in a game of poker,’ Grandpa told me. ‘It was the biggest, dumbest boarhound you ever saw.
Four foot high, a big jowly brute, totally untrainable. I called him Brainless.
‘One night, we were camped in the Lowveld. I was laid out to sleep in the cot in the back of one of the wagons — but that dog, that dog just kept barking, on and on, keeping us all awake.
‘I groped around and I found my sjambok, and I slipped from the wagon and clobbered that dog until, suddenly, on the fourth or fifth strike, the dog started acting in a different way.
‘It made a new sound, a sound it never made before. I was a bit taken aback. I reached into my pocket, struck one of my matches and held up the light.
‘Right where Brainless the boarhound should have been was a fully grown male lion, its eyes mad with fury, its mane matted with blood. It had eaten my dog!
‘I froze. Because there I was, giving this beast the hiding of its life with the sjambok. I turned and ran back to the cabin, jumped inside and stood there panting with horror and relief.
‘And then I felt the sjambok twitching in my hand! I lit another match. It was no sjambok I was holding. It was a snake. I’d been beating that lion with a black mamba!’
Grandpa Courtney hollered with laughter, his guffaws echoing around the room.