Danie van Graan
of yesteryear • Adventure Sport • Africa: The Good News • Book Reviews •
Interviews with battle-proven professional hunters in Africa: Danie van Graan
The Living Legends series presents profiles of professional hunters who have excelled in reputation and are recognized for their contribution to the hunting industry. Their professionalism is endorsed by consistently high standards of ethics and service, and their role as ambassadors both locally and internationally is critical to perceptions within the industry and the public at large.
If you were fortunate enough to travel between Nelspruit and Malelane, Mpumalanga Province, RSA, along the southern boundary of the Kruger National Park, and if you would say to any Black person that you were looking for “Dhlamini”, a princely name among the Swazis’, you would most likely be greeted with a smile and directed to the home of Daniel van Graan – Danie to all who know him.
This is Danie’s world - a little corner of the Lowveld that has witnessed over decades the activities and exploits of a man whose passion and enthusiasm for the bush and outdoor things is never concealed.
THE EARLY YEARS
Danie was born on 20 December, 1953, on the farm Thornhill near Hectorspruit, reputed to have been owned by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, author of “Jock of the Bushveld”. In 1960, his father Dirk van Graan bought the farm Stentor between Kaapmuiden and Malelane, and the family moved into the very isolated farmhouse up in the mountains. When not at school or helping their father, Danie and his two younger brothers spent much of their youth roaming a vast area of bushveld, camping, riding, shooting and hunting. Not averse to loneliness, Danie and his Black friends would disappear into the bush for days on end and it was during these times that Danie forged a lifelong friendship with a boy called Elmon Nkosi who, in years to come, would have an influence on his career.
Danie completed his high school education in Nelspruit, matriculating as head boy of Nelspruit High. He then enrolled at Pretoria University to read for a B.A.(Law) degree. He also studied Zulu as a subject, becoming proficient in reading and writing the language. As a fluent Swazi speaker, Danie from a young age had begun assimilating the Swazi culture and customs. Unfortunately Swazi as a subject was not offered at the tertiary level in those days hence his choice of Zulu as a related language.
Danie’s university career was studded with numerous student pranks, but a more serious and permanent consequence of his stay in Pretoria was meeting his future wife Karin Wolmarans. Being a passionate man with a good voice and a cranky guitar, Danie is said to have serenaded Karin outside the university’s women’s residence, much to her embarrassment. His persistence paid off however and they were married on 29 April, 1978.
After completing his studies Danie went back to the Lowveld and worked for his father. In his own words he was not cut out to be a court-room lawyer. His career in agriculture was not to last either, and after some years Danie and Karen, at Elmon’s suggestion, decided to formalize a hunting business. The name chosen for this enterprise was Engonyameni Safaris (“the place of the lion”) and Danie had at his disposal the huge family farm of Stentor on which to operate. The area used to be the migration route for animals moving south from the now Kruger Park, but that was disrupted a long time ago.
Much work went into the development of the game farm which over a period of time saw the provisioning of water, erection of hides around water holes, vegetation management, stocking of game, road building and the planning and construction of Engonyameni Lodge and associated facilities.
Danie’s ability to design something special was immediately apparent on driving through the massive lodge gates. Cascading water features, leadwood trees and a sparkling pool were a prelude to catwalks and tree bars, chalets each based on a theme, and the living area of the lodge with animal mounts and many things African. Needless to say, Danie built it all.
The game component of Stentor which I will rather refer to as Engonyameni was represented by kudu, impala, bushbuck, common and red duiker, warthog, baboon and leopard, whilst wildebeest, giraffe and zebra were restocked. Transient animals from the Kruger Park such as lion, buffalo and very occasionally elephant, found their way onto the farm particularly in the winter months, making for an unpredictable presence.
THE VAN GRAAN MODUS OPERANDI
Both Danie and Karen qualified as professional hunters, Karen being the second woman in South Africa to receive this qualification. Ably assisted by Elmon and his team of trackers and skinners they began offering hunts and in 1986, Karen’s ability to speak French enabled her to successfully represent Engonyameni at the French Convention in Bordeaux. In 1987 the business was marketed in America for the first time and so began an annual pilgrimage to hunting shows and conventions.
They made a formidable team did Danie and Karen, each using their attributes to full advantage. The development of their client base, much of which came from referrals and the forging of lifelong friendships is testimony to their success.
The relationship between the professional hunter and his client is generally a personal one, and Danie’s ability to determine in advance his clients strengths and weaknesses allowed him to shape the safari to best advantage.
From the beginning he viewed each safari as “an African experience”, all encompassing, measured not in trophy terms alone, but a journey of many parts, however brief. He began to record each safari photographically, and long after clients had retired for the night, often after a tiring day’s hunt, he would assemble an album which would be bound and presented at the end of the visit.
A hunter is not a hunter without his weapon, and no hunter passing through Engonyameni could forget Danie’s pistol and rifle ranges or his skills as a shooter. His weapons knowledge and handling is superb, honed over years of bush shooting, and his determined instruction particularly to those lacking in confidence has turned potentially disappointing situations into success. Whilst gifted with a handgun or rifle, one is just as likely to find him throwing a knife or spear with absolute precision.
Although Engonyameni provided Danie with a convenient base for the hunting of most game, he did not limit himself to this part of the Lowveld. He has conducted big 5 hunts in Botswana, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Mozambique and in many parts of South Africa.
Each hunt, whether at Engonyameni or elsewhere, has always been carefully planned with military precision. It says much for the man that he will go to extraordinary lengths to achieve success for his clients irrespective of the pressure placed on himself and his staff. The staff understand this, and their understanding underlines the rapport that exists between Danie’s team. Elmon Nkosi, the head tracker and man who mooted professional hunting in the first place, recently retired after a 44 year association with Danie.
His other trackers Robert Mkatshwa and Gugwane Ntuli also retired, having served Danie and clients with distinction. His new staff such as Mageka Ntuli, a young man with potential and ability who is rapidly becoming Danie’s right hand, will leave their own footprints in the sands of Engonyameni.
The often asked question of professional hunters is “what was your most memorable hunt in terms of famous personalities?” Danie skirts this, preferring to remember each hunt and hunter for the experience gained.
He does not seem too impressed by reputation, rather choosing to develop his own opinion. If pressed, however - and if one has time - he will tell stories of clients and events, always with humour and couched in his quaint English.
The late Col. Jeff Cooper, veteran of the Pacific theatre in WW 2, author, president of the N.R.A. and doyen of combat shooting made a huge impression on Danie. The deposit for Col. Cooper’s first lion hunt was a knife of great personal value which he offered to Danie.
Danie’s acceptance of a non-monetary deposit – a seemingly bad business deal – sealed a relationship of trust and a friendship which lasted until Col. Coopers death, to say nothing of a plethora of future clients, all referred by Col. Cooper.
Danie remembers nostalgically clients who have passed on. Men like Al Landau, who although a very sick man, was determined to hunt in Africa. He suffered a heart attack while on a lion hunt, and after being refreshed by Danie squeezing orange juice into his mouth, bravely went on to shoot his lion at close quarters.
Others are remembered for their physical toughness and endurance. Mark Feifarek, an ex-navy seal hunted buffalo with Danie in the swamps east of Marromeu in Mozambique, just south of the Zambezi River. Fly camps in the swamps, elusive buffalo, plagues of mosquitoes, reeds and water for days took their toll and would have defeated lesser men. Perseverance won in the end, and Mark Feifarek became the definitive hunter.
He returned 7 years later to hunt with Danie in Northern Zululand, a much less demanding hunt for a man who somewhat older still shows the resolve and strength of a special force soldier.
And then there is the client who wanted to shoot a warthog but shot a lion instead! Danie and this lion-shooting pig hunter sat in the Landau blind ( named after the late Al Landau ) at Engonyameni one day, with Danie dozing behind the shooting seat.
The aspiring pig hunter Alex Fagan suddenly said “there it is” and Danie through his sleep haze said “take him, take him”.
After the rifle shot Danie, whose vision had been obscured by the shooting seat asked “did you get it?” to which the hunter replied “yes Danie, but its a lion not a pig!”. Danie was not amused, immediately visualizing the difficulty in procuring a lion permit from a disbelieving official. It all got sorted out in the end, and the hunter went home with a lion but minus his pig.
The hunting bar at Engonyameni, more than anything else portrays the history of hunters, hunts and Danie’s life. A quiet drink will give a visitor time to mull over a rich kaleidoscope of photographs, trophies, quotes (for Danie is a philosophical man) and mementoes of family, friends and experiences.
There is much to see here.
A few years ago Danie took the decision to sell the lodge and his portion of the game farm to a trust of local Black people. He retained the game and hunting rights and built a new home on a knoll not far from the original lodge. Engonyameni emoyeni as it is now called still retains the spirit and ethos of the old Engonyameni , still exudes the van Graan charm and hospitality.
What of the way forward? At 55 Danie will carry on hunting for a while, at Engonyameni and elsewhere. There are clients out there who want the African experience and who better than Danie to give it to them. Its a life he loves and I cannot imagine him doing anything else.
He is positive about the industry as a whole but stresses that it needs professionalism, an adherence to standards and ethics and a sensitivity in dealing with issues of concern.
When I asked him what exemplifies a successful professional hunter and what would he look for in a young man wishing to enter the industry, he replied with a quote from Don Lindsay:
A professional hunter is first and foremost a people person who uses his skill and knowledge of the wilderness in such a way that others may benefit from it. He is the catalyst who enables the client to obtain his trophy in such a manner which is enjoyable and fulfilling, and within the physical prowess of the hunter.
His profound respect and love for the wilderness and the game it produces are important to his client at all times. The hunt and the actual kill are just a facet of the whole experience. The achievement of this is most rewarding when one sees the understanding and appreciation of nature begin to register in the eyes of the person you are guiding, whether young or old.
Friendships are forged in the furnace of nature, and cut across social, financial and cultural barriers to the very heart of things.
I think this encapsulates Danie van Graan.
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