South Africans are rather outgoing and flat out too generous. The first couple of trips to Africa I was convinced that something was wrong with me, given all of the helping hands I was offered.
On my most recent visit, I met a fellow named Stanford from Gauteng at my B&B. He had a nice couple of days of hunting planned just prior to Christmas should I decide to join. “My uncle manages a large preserve in Kwa-ZuluNatal. The rates are quite low and the hunting is excellent,” he told me. I’ve made harder decisions in my life and made my resolution with little time to spare. At my acceptance, I was emailed a set of GPS coordinates, a list of available game, and an image of the outlying area where we were to hunt. This was shaping up to be rather epic.
I arrived after dark on the first night. Supper was a couple quick biltong sandwiches and then off to sleep.
Wake-up the next morning was at 4:15 a.m., and our PH was to meet us forty-five minutes thereafter. Stanford woke me on time; we ate some quick yogurt and made it to meet Shane, a local boy who would be guiding our day’s activities. He is a bass fisherman as well, and loves watching American fishing shows, especially the ones in Texas, and finds the American accent too funny. Every time I would mention shooting from prone, Shane would give a wide smile and ask me why I pronounce it “prawn?”
Working alongside him was Chaise (pronounced Chay-zee), another local who would be doing the tracking and dressing game for us. Both of them were in their early thirties.
First up was sighting-in, which was easy enough. I learned how to shoot from the best, and had just cleanly taken three plains game the week before, including a 350-meter heart shot on a wildebeest. Between you and me there was some luck involved; between the PH and me it was all skill. Stanford shot first, firing a nice little group. Then I, Mr. Hubris, had his go. I stepped up to the plate, took the ol’ .303 British and managed to punch my nose with the scope on the first cartridge. I’m of the opinion that American men shouldn’t cry in the company of others. South Africans look as if they’re of the same opinion, so I put a grin on and kept shooting. It was all uphill from there, some shots would hit high, some low, some left, while others would crookedly miss. Now that I was “sighted in,” we were able to step off. A big warthog spooked as we were preparing to leave and came shooting out of his hole a body length away from me. My reaction probably earned me a skirt.
What ensued was the kind of overtly pleasurable walk that can only happen in Africa. Walking in single file, we first came across another warthog, upwind, about 10 meters away. Shane stopped us and we just watched this hog eat; his forelegs crooked most of the time. We were out for impala and to keep things sporting decided that we would not take targets of opportunity. This tusker was free to enjoy his morning, and it was splendid watching him from so close as he hadn’t the slightest clue that he was being noticed by our crew. After a few minutes he did sense us and gave this look like he had just been caught doing something he rather ought not be doing. Head high in the air, he trotted off somewhat embarrassed.
Up in some thick bush we jumped an impala yearling but it didn’t flush. “Before I started PHing I was a guide in Hluhluwe Umfolozi,” Shane told us. He is a wealth of information and explained that ewes will stash their little ones for a time while they go and graze and this yearling just hung fast as we passed through the tall grass next to her.
As the morning went on, we came across a honey eating bird. Her alarmed cluck was designed to help navigate us to a comb that she’d located. Her plan was for us to smoke the bees out, break the comb, and then to take a free meal once we were satisfied and had moved on. For a quarter hour or so, she followed behind, trying in vain to get our attention. She relented when it became plain that we were after a different quarry.
The usual assortment of plains game were everywhere — mostly wildebeest, eland, red hartebeest, even a few jackal that unnaturally were active under the sun. It wasn’t until perhaps a touch after noon that we came across a nice heard of impala. They were grazing 80 or 90 yards away and Stanford set up in some brush for the first shot of the day. His shot was lovely and his ram fell instantly. We loaded it into our pickup to be taken back and dressed before going into the cold room.
Our locality was near Roarke’s Drift and I was curious to see the sight, but my hosts had something much better in store for me. Piling into an old 1980s Land Cruiser, we summited a flat mesa sitting at 1,300 meters where I was treated to some charming views of the surroundings. Nearby was a rock overhang, not overly big but well protected, and painted on the undulations of the rock were ancient San pictures depicting just what we were doing — hunting antelope. It’s wonderful to see something that old and to relish in the moment. This was our day; our time to harvest the land.
After lunch, I was up as the shooter. We spot-and-stalked for a couple of hours before coming upon a water hole with a variety of wildebeest, blesbok and impala having their afternoon drink. Shane and I crawled up through some pretty thick brush to get a clean shot. Even then the impala were at the far end of the pond and not cleanly visible behind the other animals. Determining that we would have to change angles and try to get in a bit closer, we circled back and to our right well behind a thicket separating us from the animals. On our hands and knees we inched up and took up a nice shooting position.
As we set up, a bachelor group of impala rams came out of the tree line less than 150 meters away! “The second from the back looks like the best of the group,” Shane whispered from my left as he held one of my shooting sticks steady on our uneven ground. The ram presented me with a clean broadside, so I rested the heavy wood stock of the .303 as best I could and let a round fly. All of the rams stood stock-still. Not one ran, not one dropped or even looked injured. Through the binoculars Shane told me that I missed, there was no sign of injury on any of the animals, and I could take another shot if I wished. Admittedly it was tough to say no but in my heart I felt like I had my opportunity and missed – It happens sometimes.
The herd was spooked and stressed. I’d come to hunt, not to just kill, so I thanked Shane and told him I’d like some more time with the rifle and to try again tomorrow. He obliged. “It’s nice to see you do the ethical thing,” he told me. In hindsight, I can appreciate that. At the time I felt like quite a failure. We did some more hunting but no more shooting and packed it in around dusk. It was the day following summer solstice and so we got to bed late but content with a good day out in the African bush.
First thing the next morning I got back on the trigger to get my head wrapped around the .303. The rifle was lovely, but most of my experience shooting has been 5.56mm ball and the length of pull, trigger weight, and recoil were something new for me. Most of my trouble came from the double pull trigger — first slack is relieved before the trigger is actually pulled. Once I got that in my head, my shooting improved, but I still wasn’t my own self. When you get the quips you get the quips and they can be damnable to exorcize. It was what it was, and I promised that if I took a shot it would be humane, but we needed a manageable range.
As the day meandered on, a herd of impala was spotted and we set off to try and get into position. Shane stopped the truck a couple of kilometers away and out of sight of the herd, and we clambered down and began walking quietly upwind. Every sense was heightened. The crackling grass under my feet, alarm calls by nearby birds; anything that might spook the impala seemed much louder. “They’re just over that ridge,” Shane quietly told me. “Chamber a round.”
The two of us crawled up a small rise and I nestled up behind a large rock to keep from being silhouetted. Below me was a beautiful herd ruminating and enjoying the day. That .303 shouldered itself and the 4x scope drew a bead on a nice ram walking from right to left, somewhat obscured by a small tree. From my vantage, the scene
looked like it was in the third person. My position was 30 feet higher than the animals, making it appear that I was floating in air as I looked through my sight. As the ram strolled out from behind the tree, I squeezed my right fist and let loose a round. I found my mark, and the animal fell not 30 yards from where he stood.
A primal satisfaction came over me and I was quite pleased with the hunt. It is sad to see an animal when it has just died, but once the impala’s last breath was taken his body was but an empty vessel. Shane, Stanford and Chaise gave me a minute to pray with the ram and then we loaded him to take back to be dressed.
Most of the meat would have been pretty tough without some time to season, so we saved the kidneys and liver and fried them up with some onions for supper. Those who eat a lot of organ meat may appreciate how it tasted: Magical for the first few bites, pretty good for the next few, not so great after that. At least I had some Zulu beer to wash it down. Personally, I liked the taste of the home-brew although there were mixed feelings about it in camp. It’s cloudy and tart as the ale isn’t filtered or hopped, and I think it was around a dollar or maybe two for a liter.
Every bit of the animal went to use. To honor the ram I had Chaise salt the skull and on my next trip I’ll pick up my European mount from a taxidermist in Johannesburg. With some luck, that next trip and some new adventures will be in the not-too-distant future.– Joseph Sultan