Peter Stark, self-proclaimed white bushman and self-confessed poacher turned protector of lions, died yesterday at the age of 84 in South Africa. Born in Windhoek in 1929, Stark was renowned for his in-depth knowledge of the bushveld and his adventures with wildlife and the bushman of the Etosha National Park. His fascinating life in and near the Etosha National Park was captured succinctly in his autobiography The White Bushman.
Here is authored by the late Hu Berry, which was published in 2007, and gives an in-depth view into the life of his friend and colleague, the legendary White Bushman, Peter Stark.
Text by Hu Berry
These men were superlative trackers; they were born ‘wild’ near many of the waterholes at which tourists gather to watch the wildlife coming to drink. During an era when tourism was still in its infancy, some 50 years ago, they and their clans joined the game in the never-ending quest for water, moving and hunting in rhythm with the herds along the edge of the Pan. Eventually, the previous government forced them to move out of Etosha, but some asked to remain and work as trackers. These men formed the core of Peter Stark’s work-force when he became a Warden in the National Park.
How did this honour come about? Born in Windhoek in 1929, Peter had little recollection of his father, a cavalry officer during the German occupation of South West Africa at the turn of the previous century, and who died shortly after Peter’s birth. His mother was a strict Prussian. She presented him with a donkey to train on before she entertained his plea for a horse. Nevertheless, at seven years he owned a horse and a .22 rifle.
Rock hyraxes in nearby mountains provided the first targets of what later would become much bigger, more dangerous game. Skinning and preparation of the hyrax pelts with the aid of an old Nama-speaking man provided the young Peter with an opportunity to become fluent in the language.
This helped him significantly later because the Haikom of Etosha speak a variant of Nama. His love for horse-riding took Peter through stages of racing, show jumping and then dressage, which was to remain his passion.
When the opportunity to work on Onguma Farm, a 20 000-hectare, unfenced wilderness directly adjacent to Etosha presented itself, Peter loaded his horse ‘Banner’ and his few belongings onto a Tsumeb-bound train. This was the start of his great adventure, but not before he learnt that Tsumeb was the end of the railway line.
Two days and 130 kilometres of horseback later he and Banner arrived at Onguma, hot, weary, dusty and thirsty. Draped over a fence near the homestead, five salted lion skins lay curing. The farm owner had previously lost an arm in a lion attack. This badge of courage was just the signal the young Stark needed to raise his desire to hunt lions.
His opportunity came in the company of a ‘wild-born’ Haikom Bushman, an exceptional tracker who stood unflinchingly as Peter brought down a young male that first attacked their hunting dogs and then charged them. He later referred to this Haikom as his ‘black father’ from whom he learnt the art of bush-lore and tracking.
Filled with a lust for adventure and challenged by the ever-present possibility of real risk when confronting dangerous animals, Peter soon became a self-confessed poacher, sometimes following lions into Etosha to bag them as trophies. He set traps for hyaenas and leopards, occasional snaring a lion in them. Changing from an old .303 military rifle, he took to bow-and arrow and even used hunting spears to dispatch his quarry. This courageous method of pursuit placed the hunted on an even footing with the hunter – it takes a fearless person to track a lion through thick thorn bush and face its onslaught with an arrow.
No fewer than 75 lions fell to his hunting skills. Peter admits that his greatest fear was not when following the spoor of a wounded lion but that he would be apprehended by nature conservators during his illegal excursions into Etosha. The tale is told, not by him but by others, that the closest this came to happening was when he had killed a lion inside Etosha and a warden came to investigate the sound of rifle fire. Stark’s only chance of not being discovered was to hastily arrange the lion’s carcase under a bush to appear as if it were sleeping.
The official stopped a distance away, checked the ‘sleeping’ lion with binoculars from his vehicle and drove off, satisfied that nothing was amiss. Shortly afterwards Peter emerged from his hiding place behind the lion – the hunt had been successful! His recipe for surviving both angry lions and investigating wardens was to ‘keep a cool head in every situation’.
From South West Africa’s endless expanses to the hustle and bustle of Germany emerging from a war is a significant change. This came about when Peter decided to hone his skills as a dressage rider at a renown riding school. Despite recurring spells of homesickness for his life in the wilds, he attained the status of a Master-in-Dressage before returning to his beloved ‘South West’. Back at Onguma his life was about to take a dramatic turn. It was a brought about during a visit by Etosha’s Chief Warden, Bernabé de la Bat. Stark’s usual coolness evaporated. Was he about to be arrested and taken ignobly into custody for his escapades?
Instead, de la Bat confounded him with an offer of appointment as a warden in the very Park he was using as a hunting ground. The offer was not without insight – ‘set a thief to catch a thief’ was the strategy the wily Chief Warden employed. Peter had evaded capture and prosecution for poaching on numerous occasions; therefore why not employ this man to catch other like-minded farmers? The ruse worked.
In Stark’s words the ‘wolf became a shepherd’. His appointment raised many eyebrows. When he entered Okaukuejo to take up residence, staff was heard to remark disbelievingly ‘here comes the biggest poacher in South West Africa and the Chief Warden has made him a nature conservator’!
Peter teamed up with de la Bat and other people who were to become legends of Etosha’s development. Men like Dr. Hymie Ebedes, Etosha’s pioneering veterinarian and Ken Tinley who later achieved international fame as an ecologist. The new warden soon discovered his niche. He developed a highly efficient anti-poaching unit made up, like him, of the most unlikely candidates.
‘Wild-born’ Haikom, some of them also past-masters in poaching, were trained as mounted horsemen. Led by the ‘White Bushman’ himself they scoured the vastness of Etosha, tracking down and arresting both African and European offenders. Stark’s proficiency as a horseman and the Haikoms’ inherited ability to follow tracks across the most grueling terrain, formed a formidable combination. His versatility on horseback enabled him to change from overalls and bush hat and next day don the formal black top hat and tailed jacket of the dressage rider.
In this manner he achieved the undisputed status of South West Africa’s dressage champion. Unable to relinquish his quest for adventure however, he found time to test his own courage, plus that of his horses, against fence-breaking elephants. If the giants persisted in demolishing the boundary fences and trespassing onto adjoining farmland where they exacted a price on water installations, they were about to pay for their deeds. Stark and his rangers on horseback who would chase them back into the safety of Etosha.
Unbelievable scenes followed of Peter and his Bushmen training their skittish horses to face charging bull elephants at waterholes. These were recorded on film, providing footage that formed part of a classic motion picture series released overseas. A film titled ‘The Fence’ gained him and his riders world-wide acclaim. The die was cast for the previous poacher to become a legend in his lifetime.
He ended his career in conservation as Etosha’s Chief Warden. I am privileged to have worked with this astounding man during my early years as an inexperienced biologist in Etosha. He gracefully accepted my initial ignorance in knowledge of the bush and the ways of its wild inhabitants. Reminiscing on the times I spent in his company and having witnessed his mercurial temper, I am grateful that he accorded me the patience he did when I fumbled my way alongside him.
When Peter Stark and his trusty trackers took to the veld, my faith in their ability was so great that I would follow these men into the most menacing situations. Peter and those Haikom and I no longer walk the game trails of Etosha. We are in retirement, some are dead, and others show the afflictions of advancing age.
I make a point of meeting the remaining Haikom with whom I worked when I am in Etosha, and I have met with Peter when he re-visited Namibia. He was no longer able to confront either lion or elephant but I vividly remember one thing about him, which remained unchanged – he has not lost the steely look in his eyes.
When I saw that gaze again, I was reminded that the White Bushman and his Haikom brethren were icons of Etosha’s history.This story was authored by Hu Berry in December 2006 and originally appeared in the Etosha 100 booklet published by Venture publications in 2007. Additional photos sourced from http://www.namibiana.de/namibia-information/
Hu Berry was a scientist, conservationist and specialist tour guide. He was one of Venture Publications' most valued authors. Sadly he passed away in July 2011. To read more about him click here.