It is always difficult to single out one species to say it is your favorite to hunt. Whether it is whitetail deer, elk or Hirsch, or some species of sheep or ibex living up where it is hard to breathe, fact is they all offer unique challenges and once-in-a-lifetime experiences. The Big Five are fabulous, but for me, the diminutive, delicate and difficult Vaal rhebok (sometimes called the grey rhebok) are just plain enjoyable to hunt. Almost always free range hunting in the high plains sheep country of the Western Cape of South Africa to the hilly and sometimes mountainous regions of the Eastern Cape, these grey-colored antelope with the long, thin, large ears; big binocular lens-sized eyes; and soft, angel hair-like hair are anything but easy quarry for the hunter—I’m fortunate to have enjoyed about a 50% success rate hunting them myself. They hear your every move and they seem to see everything!
It was September 2012 and I was hunting Vaal rhebok for the 12th time with my old friend, Professional Hunter and outfitter, Glaeser Conradie, of African Echo Safaris. Back in 2001, I was Glaeser’s first client when he began his safari business. We had met under the most interesting of circumstances. I had been discussing hunting with my dentist who had a South African neighbor. That neighbor told his classmate about the dentist’s patient who enjoyed hunting in Africa. Long story short–I hunted with Glaeser and we hit it off and have hunted together at least every other year since—South Africa, Zambia, Namibia, etc. We had planned this trip as a sort of holiday to go around the Western and Eastern Capes of South Africa visiting old friends, enjoying great South African wine and food, and just plain old relaxing. Of course, we had to throw in a little Vaal rhebok hunting just for fun. It is a great way to wind down from hectic work schedules back in the States! I highly recommend it!
As luck or just circumstance would have it, another of Glaeser’s university friend’s father owns a dairy farm and small cheese plant in the Western Cape near the town of Ashton. The farm backs up to miles of African bush, steep hills after hills of thick brush. One of two kinds of country that, in my experience, Vaal rhebok thoroughly enjoy–the other being the high plains semi-arid country where sheep are raised on huge farms farther west. In both locations, the Vaal rhebok race through the environment like fish swimming in the sea.
On the dairy farm, there had been a small group of Vaal rhebok variously numbering 7 to 10 seen for several years. The herd male was an old guy that the farmer, Eckard Leicher determined to be past his prime, having produced no offspring for the past two years. While there were a couple other younger males that would hang around occasionally, the herd male was still dominant and protected his harem. Eckard decided it was time to hunt the dominant male and it was my good fortune to do that through Glaeser’s connection with Eckard’s son, Rudi. It would be challenging though.
This particular group of Vaal rhebok would only sporadically venture out from the safety of the brush-covered hills into the pastures. And the pastures themselves are not easy to hunt, having been carved out of the brush in concentric circles up the hillsides. Every 50 feet or so, there would remain a concentric circle of brush for erosion control and the Vaal rhebok would not stray far from that brush line even when they ventured out into the amazingly beautiful pastures. I only had a couple of days and, to make matters more challenging, the weather report was for rain and there would be no way to get around the pastures on slick hillsides. But it was worth a try. Eckard had said that the horns went a ways past the tip of the ears. Glaeser knows that I am always looking for big Vaal rhebok and will pass on lesser trophies, which is why he was so excited by this prospective trophy.
At the last minute, Glaeser had to run up to the Kalahari to run a lion hunt, so I hooked up with his brother Andre who runs a tour business to travel up to the Ashton area after spending time with Glaeser and a few other friends in the Eastern Cape. We arrived in the afternoon and checked into the guesthouse, The Happy Hog, which was just down the road from Eckard’s farm. After getting settled we met up with Eckard, a prince of a guy with whom we hit it off right away, and took a drive through the farm that afternoon. As I said before, it’s a gorgeous farm with beautiful vistas all around—including mountainside waterfalls! Although we did not see any Vaal rhebok that afternoon, we did see a large herd of springbok that Eckard had augmented with Springbok brought in from the Kalahari. And it showed in the horn length and thickness–remarkable.
That evening, Andre and I road into Ashton to have dinner at a great restaurant, owned and run by a couple whom we met and chatted with. She is an American married to a South African. It was the middle of the week, the streets had only a little bit of traffic, and yet the restaurant was doing a robust business. Needless to say the cuisine was wonderful!
The next morning, we were off hunting—the rain I mentioned was forecast for the next day and we wanted to do what we could this day. Having failed to locate any Vaal rhebok the day before, we vowed to hunt until dark if necessary. We searched all over the farm, seeing not a sign of any Vaal rhebok, which I learned had not been seen for a week now. But encouragingly, with Eckard’s very sharp eyes, he spotted a lone female bedded down in the brush line forming one of the concentric circles. The rest of the group just had to be somewhere close, so we carefully searched and searched for them, and didn’t spot a thing.
We broke for lunch and about an hour later headed back out, driving straight to the middle of the farm to glass. Up one of the hills at a distance of some 250 yards, we spotted the group of Vaal rhebok. They had finally come out of the brush-covered hills for some tender green grass, yet they were weaving in and out of one of the lines of brush along the edge of the pasture farthest from us. There was just no chance of a decent shot—too much brush between us–so we decided to back out and try to circle our way around to come into the pasture they were in at their level.
The herd male was not a small! While this group was obviously used to hearing farm machinery, they still started moving away from the vehicle, but they didn’t just bolt and run off completely. What seemed like hours, only took us about 20 minutes to accomplish. Obviously we traveled slowly and we tried to go far enough so as not to disturb them too much. When we had worked our way to where we thought they should be, they were no longer there. We looked and looked, figuring that they might have followed along the erosion control brush line on around the face of the hill we were on, but no, nothing.
Then for some reason we looked farther up the hill and there they were in the process of climbing the hill to disappear once again into the vast brush covered hills behind the farm. They easily cleared the cattle fence, but were moving slowly about 275 yards uphill. I took an uneasy rest and aimed at the top of the herd male’s shoulder with the .308 I had borrowed for the hunt. At the sound of the shot, the whole group jumped and ran to within 10 yards of the top of the hill and assured safety. The females keep going single file with the old ram pulling up the rear. I don’t know why he did it, but just like a mule deer, just before going over the top, he turned and looked down, I guess to see what all the commotion was about, having never been hunted before and being unfamiliar with gunfire. I fired a second time, this time holding what seemed like a yard or more over his shoulder. As I was jacking another round into the chamber I shouted to Eckard, “Where did he go?” Eckard hollered back, “He’s kicking!” That second shot had taken out his heart and he was down for good. And to top it all off, he measured just over 10” on each side. Now that was exciting!
That evening, Eckard had us over to his home for a fantastic dinner with him, his wife, Jeanne, and daughter, Karla. We toasted the old ram, we toasted Glaser and Rudi for setting up the hunt, and we basically toasted way too much! It was great. We celebrated into the night reliving a most improbable hunting adventure and one that we’ll never forget! I’ve been fortunate to have a few memorable hunts—the central character in many cases being a big Vaal rhebok!–John MClaurin