by Hannes Wessels – 

When the men who settled Rhodesia decided they needed a place of learning for their sons they positioned it in the harsh, dry country bordering on the Kalahari Desert and then introduced a regimen that would have pleased a Marine Corps instructor. Plumtree School became a nursery for Rhodesian soldiers and airmen, and the Role of Honour bears sad testament to the fighting spirit of the alumni of this remarkable establishment. It was out of this crucible that Leon ‘Dog’ Varley ventured. He wasted no time in becoming a warrior of some repute in his own right .

Teak-tough, tanned, muscle-bound, scruffy, irreverent: a piercing gaze and squarely set jaw make a quick impression. With the Rhodesian war over ‘Dirty Dick’ Callow gave him a job as a buffalo hunter in the Rhodesian Tsetse Control Department and with it the life of a roaming rifleman, eliminating herds in the designated belts being made ready for cattle-ranching. Arduous and dangerous, virtually every day brought with it a shootout in dense country with wily beasts, always big on aggression. Social life was once a week at ‘Dirty Dicks’ less than salubrious bush-bar in Lusulu, where a big gathering consisted of about half a dozen drunks, and a dart-board was the only entertainment.
Seeking a change, he switched to a career with a brighter future when he took a position as a guide at Wankie Safari Lodge. Here tourists paid top-dollar and expected to be pampered and spoiled in return. Varley failed to impress when he decided to demonstrate his muscularity to his guests after a long day in the boozer. To do this he stopped his game-viewing vehicle at a waterhole and attacked a crocodile that was slumbering in peace, sparking a violent wrestling competition which the assailant, to the disappointment of his clients, survived. One lady-visitor from England passed out in shock, needed medical attention and ‘Dog’ was given the ‘DCM’ (Don’t come Monday).

He subsequently found employment as a professional hunter in the remote reaches of the north-west where it was more difficult for him to give offence. Branching out into walking safaris in the rugged wilderness known as Chizarira, he was making good progress when he had a close encounter of an unpleasant kind.

Walking along with clients he picked up buffalo tracks but quickly noted a drag mark. “I looked closer and followed a while further then realized that not only was a foot dragging but it was connected to something and I realized it was almost certainly a snare. This not being a hunting safari my clients were unarmed and I had to give careful consideration to their welfare. Erring on the side of caution I should have abandoned the tracks, but given the thought that the animal was in a state of certain agony, I wanted to find it and put it out of its misery. I checked my weapon again, made sure there was a solid in the breach, then pressed on warily.

“There was no blood on the spoor, so I figured it was probably a fairly old wound, but I knew full well it was not a happy buffalo. I followed it easily for a while, but then the going got hard as the bush closed in and I was struggling through thorn thickets over some pretty rocky ground underfoot. It was damn hot and I was feeling the heat in more ways than one, when I just got a feeling that something was about to happen. The tracks led me into some particularly dense bush, and I approached with great caution searching for sign of the animal. Suddenly, there was a puff of dust, a burst of black and the thunder of hooves as the animal came crashing towards me. The brush obscured my vision, but I caught a glimpse of his head held high, beady black eyes and the tips of his horns.

“It happened incredibly fast. By the time I got the .458 to my shoulder the head and horns had disappeared into a bush in front of me and it seemed the whole thicket was moving. I just fired blind where I thought its head was before the bush and the buffalo arrived at speed, smacked into me and everything went dark momentarily as I went flying backwards landing face-down in the dirt filling my mouth with sand.

“With my rifle now lost to me, rifle barrel pegged in the sand, I was helpless and thought to myself this was probably the end of the road for me. But my thoughts of an early departure to the great saloon in the sky were mightily interrupted when the bull landed on my back, knocked all the wind out of my lungs (and elsewhere) then started a thumping tap-dance. Using my back as a stage it pounded its hooves into me and I heard stuff cracking, assumed he was going to break every bone in my body, felt the hooves rip into muscle and bolts of sheer bloody agony. I just lay there and prepared for the worst, certain my spine was broken because everything had gone numb. Then the stomping stopped suddenly and I couldn’t feel or move my legs. It did go through my mind it was simply pay-back time, and I should take my ‘lumps’ for all my sins. I looked down, a pool of blood appeared before my eyes and it was getting bigger as I watched.  Panicking a little I felt for a new hole in my head, but only found the usual ones.

“Then my mind wandered. I had always been of the opinion that I’d rather be dead than paralyzed, and now it looked like I might have to make that call. Gingerly, I tested my arms and they seemed to be working. Then I lifted my chest off the ground and was thrilled to see the top-half of my body functioning although there was all sorts of aching and paining. With my self-prognosis looking up I immediately decided to change my view of life as a paraplegic. God-willing, I thought, I’d like to live on even if walking days were over. I thought I could still go to the pub and shoot the breeze, demands on me to perform domestically would be reduced, and life was certain to become more leisurely.

“My legs felt like they were lost to me. Everything was smashed: my glasses and binoculars were in smithereens. I assumed my spine was in similar shape then I twisted my neck slowly, looked over my shoulder and got the fright of my life. The reason I couldn’t move my legs was because the buffalo was squatting on me. Facing away from me he seemed to be enjoying the view. Suddenly realizing, to my great joy, why I was immobile I jerked my legs and was thrilled to see them move. Then the buffalo came to his feet and without a backward glance, trotted off into back into the thicket.

“Battered and broken I came slowly to me feet and tried to get a grip of my situation when a new problem revealed itself. An awful smell blasted my senses and I felt something warm and soft on the back of my legs that stank to high heaven. Horrified, I feared I had committed the absolute worst of all possible improprieties and filled my pants. Humiliated, an exquisite sense of embarrassment overwhelmed me as I struggled to come to terms with my fall from grace. Then I reminded myself I had just had fifteen hundred pounds of muscle and bone using me as dance floor, and the forces of displacement rather than nature had probably had their ruthless way with me. I reached tentatively behind me to sample the texture of the offending substance and begin the cleaning process when again I found relief. My adversary, I suppose to add insult to injury, had used the opportunity to empty his ample bowels upon me. Talk about bullshit, I was covered in the fucking stuff!

“Blood streaming down my face, I looked for the others but my group had understandably run for cover. First to reappear was Obert my tracker who approached very sheepishly looking unusually white for a black man, almost as if he’d seen a ghost. I asked him what my face looked like and if there were any new holes I should know about, but he seemed to be in some sort of trance and just shook his head forlornly. Irritated and unable to get any sense out of him at all, I spotted a digital camera in the dirt and took a self portrait. High-tech saved my day. I was very pleased to see my head was intact and the blood was from a cut above my eye which was pumping nicely.

“When my guests regrouped I cleaned and dressed my wounds then managed to get in touch with staff from National Parks who sent in a team. They tracked the animal down and destroyed it. As it turned out my shot, although virtually blind had not been far off the mark but a tad low and that’s the difference in these encounters. An inch can mean the difference between living and dying.”

With only one eye on the commercial aspect of his endeavors ‘Dog’ Varley has long fought a sometimes lonely and always perilous battle against poachers, some of whom are armed, aggressive and very dangerous. Walking a perennial legal tight-rope he has had to do his best to avoid violent confrontation, but this has not always been possible.

“Unfortunately the poaching problem is real and growing,” he says. “With the harshness of the economic situation in Zimbabwe I can’t help but sympathize with some of the meat poachers. They’re trying to keep their families alive, but the people who have decimated the black rhino and are killing the elephant have to be confronted if we’re not to lose all our wildlife.”

Varley walks on undaunted, and few of his clients choose not to return for a repeat of his particular brand of a bush experience. A top South African businessman who has been with him on several treks had this to say.

“He’s a fool in a way but he’s one of the most intelligent fools I’ve ever met. The guy fascinates me.”

An Australian client summed him up thus in the visitor’s book.

“This is the fourth time I traveled half way across the world to be with this disorganised prick. I would not have missed it for anything. I’m going to keep coming back until he gets it right.”