SA JAGTER/HUNTER | January-February 2023 | By KOBUS DE KOCK
GUMBOOTS ARE ALWAYS JUST TOO SHORT
Wellies have many wonderful uses – shooting waterbirds over a wetland is not one of them.
Wellies, also known as rain boots or galoshes, were invented in the 1800s by the Duke of Wellington. Apparently, he asked his shoemaker to modify his riding boots. Initially made of leather, the Scottish-based North British Rubber Company began manufacturing wellingtons from natural rubber. Natural rubber was known as “gum rubber”, hence the name “gumboot”. The duke was famous as he led the British Army to their final victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815. Part honour to the great man, the name “wellies” stuck.
The instructions accompanying the invite said we should bring waders. Ja, well, OK, I thought. I did not have waders and I wasn’t going to rush off and buy a pair for one shoot only. Besides, I knew nothing about waders apart from observing heavily over-equipped flyfishermen wearing bulky, rubbery- looking long johns. I settled for gumboots and went to the local farmers’ cooperative to buy the regular. Those years the choice was easy – you could have any colour as long as it was black, like Mr Ford’s Model T. They were designed to withstand the rigours of serious mining abuse – tough and uncomfortable. You would perhaps doubt this statement if you saw the mileage some miners got out of them. They got issued with one pair a year, and by the time the new gumboots arrived (and despite very little being left of the old pair), the old boots were passed down to a buddy who managed to wear them for another year. They were really tough, those boots, and so were the miners’ feet.
They ground up your heels and your feet sweated and stank to high heaven. But they were water-tight, and at about calf length, adequate for sloshing around in ancle-deep mine water. I thus presumed they would be suitable for my purposes as well. Little did I know that this dryland Bosveld boytjie was in for a rude awakening…
We left the Memel Primary School dorm at four in the morning in bitterly cold weather. Three of us crammed into the front of my Toyota Hilux farm bakkie – no double cab in those days. No thermometer either, so I cannot accurately tell you how cold it was. Suffice to say that only madmen and wingshooters voluntarily venture out on such freezing days. However, I was happy to be in the cab, squashed in with those two big fellows. You always have one guy in the dorm with a monumental snore, and the night before, that man ended up in the bed right next to me. It was a relief to get up and move out. One can only stand so much!
Sitting so tightly packed in the bakkie created some warmth and misted the windshield up in double time. Through the fogged- up windshield I just managed to follow the red taillights of the car in front of me until the heater kicked in and demisted our route.
At our destination, we were split up into small groups and dumped somewhere next to a very placid and innocent-looking wetland. I was told to get a place next to the water, wait for the sun to rise and shoot the ducks coming over. As simple as that. And I felt very smart donning my brand-new black water boots. With frosted breath and iced-up grass, I got a rapid introduction to law number one of gumboots wearing: gumboots offer absolutely no protection against the cold. In later years, I was introduced to better-quality, neoprene-type boots sported by some of my better-heeled friends. But those black, unlined mining gumboots I wore that morning in Eastern Free State Siberia didn’t offer any protection at all. No Boet, on the contrary, they seemed to attract the cold, and once trapped inside that plastic-cum-PVC-cum-whatever those boots were made of, your toes were doomed to develop frostbite.
As I felt my toes getting colder, I decided not to worry because as soon as the action started, the blood would start flowing and my toes would warm up. Mind over matter, think of other things, try intrinsic motivation, that sort of stuff. But nothing helped. Absolutely nothing. How on earth did those Siberian Gulag prisoners survive? But when the first yellow-bills came over, I did temporarily forget about my ill-fitting, black coop boots and frozen toes and concentrated on the feathered missiles with their gold-flecked beaks flitting past against the eastern horizon, and I killed two that dropped about 30 yards out. We had no dogs in our little group of intrepid wingshooters and had to do the retrieving ourselves. No problem – my brandnew, fully waterproof black wellies were more than up to that seemingly innocent, shallowlooking vlei. Bring it on, baby!
I felt very chuffed as I strode out to fetch the ducks. Who needs waders? My gumboots were 100% waterproof. Halfway out I did notice, with some trepidation, that the water had risen to a mere few millimetres below the rim. But I was almost there, and slowing down, I walked very carefully, confident that the ducks would soon be in the bag. And then it happened... The bottom of the vlei dipped gently so that the surface of the water was now a few millimetres above the rim of the boots. Not by much, but just enough to slosh over and gently flow into the boots and fill them to the brim. No use shouting to the barman (he was overfilling my glass; does that ever happen?) or walking back to shallower water – my boots were full, and the ducks were still a metre yonder.
I was now rapidly learning the truth about law number two in the gumboot curriculum: their length is always a couple of millimetres shorter than what is required. This “law” can be formulated in several different ways, all for which you will earn full marks – i.e., the water is always deeper than the height of your boots, or the ducks always fall a yard beyond the protection of your boots, etcetera. If you can say it cussing through your chattering teeth, extra points can be gained. But always check for women and children, lest you be responsible for drawing them down to your level of cold.
After the shoot they said the short-haired dogs fared better in the cold than the long-haired varieties. I do not agree with that statement. My hair was short but my feet were very cold for the rest of the day. Perhaps my mistake was that I am a slow learner. As the shoot went on, it happened again and again. And my thermal long johns did not help either; they got saturated with the very first dunking.
I learnt rule number three as soon as I got those ducks ashore. I had donned a thick pair of rather longish stockings so I could fold it over the top of the boots. This in theory was simultaneously going to help against the cold and prevent the stockings from sagging and slipping down into the boots. Besides, I thought it looked rather cool (and even thought of adding a ribbon to hang out below the collar – I saw the pictures in a British Shooting Gazette). But theory and practice proved miles apart. In this case, practice made a mockery of my theory. Once those stockings got wet, they rapidly slipped down and got stuck below the balls of my feet and around my ancles. Submerged in water, it was not that bad, but on dry land they weighed a ton and all I wanted to do is pull them off, pour the water out, and wring the socks dry. This is when rule number three reared its ugly head: with wet socks bundled around your heels, those boots can hardly be removed. A vacuum is sucked down below. Pulling them off is exhausting – an octopus can learn lessons from it. Better as well to sit down firmly before attempting the job, as you are bound to lose your balance once or twice. That’s if you can find a dry spot; the frost-covered grass will be sopping wet, and you will end up with a wet bottom. And why the hell are there no boot hooks around?! Also keep in mind that you will be doing this several times during the day. Just recently, after I had stepped into a deep, squelching mud hole, I had to repeat the struggle three times in a row. I thought of giving up and simply braving the sloshing muck.
My mate had to throw in the towel as he could not remove his very fancy neoprene gumboots at all – and despite my every effort, neither could I. He just had to drive all the way back home where he could engage his entire family in a monumental tug of war. Here’s a few more rules. Number four states that the smallest hole is just as bad as the deepest water. You will get wet, just somewhat slower, and inevitably, with the same results. Rule number five – and you’ve got to experience it to understand this one: wellingtons are not designed for walking in the veld all day. You will be twice as buggered as usual after a full day in the veld. No matter how well designed they are anatomically and ergonomically, they are heavy. Filled with water, the weight and discomfort rating shoots up exponentially. Try and avoid it at all costs; it is dangerous to your health.
Since those early days, I have tried many different gumboots, or what they call “top boots” here in the Overberg. I tried to establish the origin of the word “top boot” but am still unhappy with the possible explanations. Mr Google simply suggests a boot with a high top. Other linguistic experts say it’s from wearing these boots “over the top”, but that makes little sense – unless it’s over your socks, which is the way most boots are worn around here anyway. Only the miners are able to wear them without socks and from the inside out.
Many years ago, I bought a pair of green CEBO boots, made of 100% natural rubber with a nice fibrous (artificial fur) lining. As I am on my second pair now, it is perhaps proof that they are not too bad. Ergonomically designed, they have a 140 mm zip on the side to facilitate easier doffing and donning. I can confirm that they are perhaps slightly warmer but beware – once that inner lining gets wet, it takes weeks to dry out again. The zipper quickly rusts past the point of useability and the rubber is thin and punctures relatively easy.
Any hole means a patch, which instantly converts your precious boots into a well-used, rugged look. Either that, or it’s another pair at R949. They are not as tough as the old black jobs. Wellies have moved on into the designer era. Some of them have red rims, some are completely white – I presume for the dairy industry (to match the milk?). This despite the boots mainly being used for walking through sloppy cow dung that renders them, well, brown or even black. Does that make sense to you? They are very fashionable with the ladies too. Pink or camo or even lime-green garden wellies. And they are seriously branded. I’ve noticed “Hunter” being very popular with the fairer sex, which surprises me in this day and age of the anti-hunting lobbyists.
A quick Internet search had me drooling, for instance, Le Chameau Vierzon jersey-lined men’s wellingtons with adjustable, waterproof gussets for enhanced comfort. The fast-drying design keeps your feet cooler for longer (do you want to keep your feet cool or warm?) and the flexible construction ensures easy movement and fatigue reduction. It all sounds very wonderful, except for the price.
There are also Howick gumboots lined with a “soft sock”. The variety is endless. I see they make a “Muck Boot” these days, with 4 mm neoprene and a breathable PK mesh lining for improved airflow and comfort? But buy the tall boot, not those heel huggers if you want to use them for any serious wingshooting work. Shakespeare said, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other would smell as sweet.” Ja, Boet, salesmen – they don’t smell like roses.
In summary, those guys that drew up the invite were right. Gumboots are best for use on dry land and mucking through the muck. The only thing that will keep you dry shooting over a wetland are waders. Either that or strip and walk in with slip-slops. After my Memel experience, I went to our local fly-fishing shop and bought some waders. Comfort is still a factor, but at least they keep me dry!