It was such a find. We made a latish booking for the Franschhoek Literary Festival. With only a month to go, most of the guesthouses were taken. But we found a self-catering cottage on a wine farm. Yes please!
The pictures showed a cute thatched structure high up on a mountain, with amazing views of valley over autumnal vineyards. Breakfast was included. Bonus!
So we booked it, and when we arrived on the day the cottage was everything it said it was. Large open-plan under a roof of crazy beams and thatch. En suite with comforts like a kettle and heater.
Nothing to prepare us for the horror to come.
The cottage was separate from the main building, which called itself a lodge. (Big hint there.) There were zebra and springbok on the surrounding fields, wildebeest and a few larger buck too. (Another clue that passed us by.) Some farmers have horses, I thought, others like their livestock a bit wilder.
What the owner of this lodge liked best, it soon became clear, was to serve his wildlife stuffed.
We took the short road to breakfast the next morning, and walked into a hall of death.
The lion greeted us just inside the door. His teeth were bared, his eyes blazed yellow. They were marbles. His hide was soft and tawny, the ‘body’ beneath it was hard. I know because I reached out and stroked him. My hand burned with the memory of it all though the meal.
We had entered a macabre mausoleum to one man’s blood lust. There were eight heads in the dining room. I counted them, waiting for my poached eggs.
They were mounted high up on the walls, their throats huge and soft and vulnerable.
These were the most majestic of buck: eland, impala, kudu. There were European stags, Asian rams the antlers of American elk. There was a buffalo. No continent had been spared, it seems.
There was a large artistic impression of a leopard. Kitty corner to it on the next wall was a photograph of a hunter with a gun, foot on the limp body of a leopard lying along a branch. (How many people had it taken to lift the spotted cat onto the log, and pose him there? He looked like he was in a rest from which he might spring up, grab that hunter by the ankle, drag that inane triumphant smile right off his face…)
I wondered aloud whether the picture was of the same animal that the man shot. It was, the M’aitre d’ assured me. ‘That’s him over there.’
He pointed to the entrance hall. And there the leopard was, above an arched doorway, standing this time, on a different branch, posed to look threatening. I hadn’t even noticed him when I walked in, drawn as I’d been to the lion’s intense, dead yellow eyes.
There were some moose horns in that passage too. In this case they hadn’t bothered with the rest of the head. The place was a tribute to taxonomy. (One of the heads still had the tag dangling from it.) But these trophies had not been bought. They were, the Maitre d‘ told me, all animals that the owner of the lodge had personally killed, himself. He had built this lodge, in fact, to house his considerable collection.
Sticking my knife into the little squares of butter, spreading marmalade on toast. I could tell David was feeling squeamish too. Across the hall from the dining room was a cosy lounge; a fire burned bright in the grate, which was straddled by two enormous elephant tusks.
We had to rush to make our first FLF session of the day, so made a hasty escape. The quease didn’t leave me.
The previous afternoon we’d caught to a discussion on animal rights that included rhino horn trade and trophy hunting. One of the speakers was GarethPatterson, the ‘Lion Man’, who took George Adams’s lions to safety from Tanzania to Botswana.
“Trophy hunters are serial killers,” he said, after demonstrating the ugh-ugh-ugh that he used to communicate with the lions he lived with for so long.
(He wasn’t quite as articulate arguing against sustained harvesting of rhino horn to preserve the very few rhinos we have left, which was John Hanks‘ suggestion.)
The next morning, our last, we knew what to expect, and it was even more grisly than we remembered. I counted 28 heads in all, not including the free-standing antlers.
There were two more rooms we hadn’t looked at. A passage along the back with ducks and geese in a frieze up the wall, a 3D parody of the ceramic ones people of a certain age and social class have on their walls. These, of course, had once really flown.
There was a second lounge, with glass doors opening on to the view. In its back corner, facing this vista of vineyards and tame wildlife (oxymoron that?), was a giraffe.
Well, part of a giraffe – the ceilings weren’t high enough for all of it, so they just cut him off below the neck. After all, that’s the only extraordinary part, isn’t it? This part that’s greater than the sum of its whole?
There was a foot of some sort in front of Mr Giraffe, with a bit of leg attached. I don’t know whether it was his or some other creature’s. There was an ashtray or a flat candle on top of it. I really couldn’t bear to look any closer, or any more.
But as I turned to escape the room I saw the piece de resistance. In even more excruciating bad taste than the hoof ashtray was the zebra-head-on-a-plinth. The stand was made of hardwood (probably rare). The shape of Africa was cut out of it, the hollow space filled with yet more zebra skin. This whole continent is mine for the taking, the conqueror seemed to be saying.
I have a thing for horses (live ones), so it hurt to see this his wild equid face, made comical as his neck was posed to show off a stripe in the shape of a necktie.
I don’t why it is that this wealthy man gets his kicks claiming the life force of these creatures as his own. I don’t know why he is not deeply ashamed to display this need publicly. I suppose there are people who feel powerful, in the presence of these corpses. As if they’d had a hand in bringing them here, in claiming them. Which, in a way, I suppose they did.
I don’t understand it. I wish I had never seen it. But now that I have, I had to share it.
The cottage was lovely, the service was excellent, the staff were gracious. But I never EVER want to go back there again.
Thank you D Bush for additional pix