With full acknowledgement to primal instincts and ancient traditions, this man goes hunting with his own, meticulously crafted longbows
According to some anthropologists, the hunting instinct still lurks in every human male, although it’s often hidden beneath an impervious veneer of “civilised behaviour” – impervious, that is, until society’s constraints are removed.
When I was a boy – and evidence suggests that most men started out as boys – all that I needed to express the ancestral imperative was a length of reasonably pliable wood, a piece of string, and a handy target. I was Crazy Horse, and woe betide any buffalo that strayed within range of my trusty bow (as far as I can recall, General Custer was also fair game).
Was I responding to an ancient instinct, or merely doing what boys do best?
Henk du Plessis isn’t especially interested in the nature versus nurture debate. All he knows is that his fascination with hunting hasn’t faded with age. In fact, it has blossomed into something rather special: he crafts traditional longbows for hunting.
Over the centuries, bows have evolved and branched out (as it were) in many directions to suit different hunting conditions, different woods and different prey species. However, every design works on fundamentally the same principle – and Limpopo-based Du Plessis is interested in all of them. Working carefully and methodically, he builds Native American, Japanese and English longbows to his own exacting standards – then takes them hunting.
When the urge takes him, Du Plessis combine the best features of different designs to create what can only be described as “hybrids”. Although he’s a purist in the best sense of the word, he makes no apology for these deviations, explaining: “A longbow is a survival weapon – it makes meat. You can make a crude one and it’ll still work.”
A patient hunter is a good hunter. And the same can be said of bow makers: it takes time, patience and finesse to construct a longbow from scratch.
Fortunately, Du Plessis has had plenty of opportunity to develop his skills. A farmer for his whole life, he began hunting in earnest while in his early teens. Back then, a rifle was his weapon of choice, and over the years he became what others would consider an expert shot.
But it wasn’t enough, recalls Du Plessis, and the challenge soon faded. In 1984, he began hunting with a compound bow. That was okay for a while, he says, but after a while that, too, began to become boring. “It basically lost its glamour for me… it was getting far too easy.”
Du Plessis first picked up a glass fibre longbow in 1996 – and was immediately hooked. He worked relentlessly on the new stalking disciplines and other techniques demanded by the longbow, but even so, it took him two and a half years to make his first kill.
“I would often become frustrated, and threw my bow into the bushes many times. With a rifle, you can shoot game from a distance of up to 180 metres, but with a longbow, the distance shrinks to about 20 metres – max. This means you must patiently stalk the animal, and once you’re close enough to shoot, you have to draw the bow without being seen – and that’s a big body movement for your quarry to miss.”
As far as Du Plessis is concerned, it’s worth going to all this trouble because it’s the hunting method that is most in tune with nature. In fact, he happily identifies with our hunter-gatherer ancestry: “When I’m walking in the bush with my bow, I often wonder what it would be like to bump into one of our ancestors from 10 000 years ago.”
He was now an ardent longbow convert, but there was still something missing. “I wanted more satisfaction from hunting, and I didn’t consider myself genuinely self-reliant. Then it hit me: why not build my own bows?”
His research led him to Ishi, a Native American and last surviving member of the Yana tribe, who first came to “civilised” America’s attention in 1911. For Ishi, archery was not a sport, but a sacred art that enabled him to survive – and he passed on the love and lore of Indian archery until his death in 1916 of tuberculosis.
Before him, traditional archery involved a small band of individuals who used English longbows to shoot at targets. But Ishi’s followers changed all that. Says Du Plessis: “These guys were considered real hunters who shunned the modern ways… that’s where the modern trend of tradition archery really began.”
As Du Plessis tells it, each hand-crafted bow becomes a natural extension of the person using it. And because wood has a memory (unlike glass fibre), it can be used only by the person for whom it was made. This isn’t airy fairy stuff: it’s a fact that everyone’s stance (shooting style) and draw length (how far they pull back the bow) is different. The way one holds the bow is also important, because, if you apply more pressure on the heel of your hand, more pressure will be placed on the bow’s bottom limb – so it must be made stronger. Also, if you draw a bow back further than its design allows, it will become overstressed and probably break.
Choosing the correct wood can be a tricky exercise. For example, two pieces of wood from the same tree won’t necessarily build identical bows. The side of the tree bearing the brunt of prevailing winds tends to be stronger, and the tops of branches are always stronger than the undersides. The terrain in which the tree is growing also has to be taken into account: a tree situated in a valley or on a hill that gets more wind is always tougher than one growing in a sheltered place.
Dead wood should never be used to make a longbow, says Du Plessis, because it may harbour hidden insects, and cause it to rot from the inside. That said, there’s plenty of scope for experimentation: “Most of my wood is imported, and there’s a lot of wood in South Africa that I haven’t tried yet. Our local mulberry is easy to source and makes great bows, but I wouldn’t make one with a draw strength any greater than 27 kg.” (To put this in context, even an 18 kg bow is sufficiently powerful to take down a kudu).
Once the ideal branch or trunk has been identified, it is split along the grain, and the bark and “sap wood” are removed to speed up the drying process. Wood glue is used to seal the ends and back; this replaces the tree’s natural protective layer. Then it’s a matter of time: since wood dries naturally at a rate of about 2,5 cm a year, a piece 10 cm thick will need about four years before it is ready.
Before working the wood, says Du Plessis, one must pay attention to its growth rings. The thicker gap between the lines mostly represents summer growth, and the thin line winter growth. The summer growth becomes the bow’s back (that is, facing the target) after the spongy winter growth has been removed.
Using only sandpaper and basic hand tools such as rasps, files and small scrapers, Du Plessis removes wood until the growth ring above the desired thickness of the bow is reached (generally about 18 mm for the limbs and 40 mm for the handle). “When working the wood, you need to be able to visualise the bow hidden inside – and that takes experience.” The bottom limb needs to be slightly shorter and stronger than the top limb because it takes more strain – and remember, the arrow is always shot from above the bow’s centre mark.
The wood is then steamed until it becomes pliable, at which point it is bent and clamped down on a form (template) in the opposite direction to which you intend using it. It stays clamped for about two weeks. This decreases “string follow” in the completed bow (that is, how the wood retains its bend, or memory, after the string has been removed). Next, the bow is placed in a “hot box” to ensure that it’s dry enough; ideally, the moisture content should be between seven and 10 per cent.
Floor tillering is next, and this involves pushing each of the limbs into the floor to force them to bend; you’re looking for an even curve, explains Du Plessis.
“A longbow only blosso
ms at full draw. It doesn’t matter what it looks like at brace height or when it’s unstrung, but when it’s fully drawn, you want an even curve.” Once you’re satisfied, a “tillering string” is attached about 2 cm above the handle so that you can check the curve on the entire bow.
Areas that require work are marked, the string is removed, and the wood is worked down. This process is repeated in regular increments until the brace height (shortest distance from the string to the pivot point of the bow when strung) has been achieved. Says Du Plessis: “When I get to the final stages, I work very carefully and make sure my tools are very sharp to minimise sanding, as even two light swipes with 100-grit sandpaper can easily lose you half a kilogram of draw strength!”
The bow is then attached to a “tillering tree” to force the wood in the belly (facing the archer) to compress and the cells in the back to stretch. Then, working from brace height, the string is pulled to 25 cm – ten times. This is repeated (the wood need