Nuggets of advice included things such as, “The best kudu hunting is at the margins of dawn and dusk.” The “gray ghost of Africa” well deserves its nickname. Mature bulls are notorious for giving you just a scant second or two to shoot before they break cover and flee.
Our plan on this fifth morning of hunting was to arrive in the area right at first light. Ideally, we’d catch a kudu bull in the lowlands before it moved to higher ground at daybreak and bedded down unseen in the steep, rocky hillsides.
The sun, though, had been up for nearly an hour as we entered what I came to call “kudu canyon.” I silently feared we might be a little too late.
Outfitter Phillip Bronkhorst described the ranch as prime kudu country. The low ground we traveled was never more than a few hundred yards across, necking down to about 150 yards in some places. Hilltops peaked out at several hundred feet. Reddish-hued boulders peppered the hillsides. Thorny acacias and other short trees grew amid the rocks.
Shots were possible in every direction. First, though, you had to spot the animal and the abundant cover meant bedded or motionless animals could be difficult to find.
The cool morning air pooled along trails that alternated between rutted, red dirt paths and smooth-stoned washes. I tugged at the lightly-insulated vest that covered my sweater, thankful I remembered to grab it from my pack before we headed out.
Colors melded together in a somewhat gauzy, early light before the sun’s rays poked over the tops of the hillsides. “Gray ghost” warnings aside, decades of white-tailed deer hunting had trained me to not look for whole animals amid thick cover, especially in low light. My eyes systematically searched the hillsides. My professional hunter Pieter Taylor and our tracker Elvis Mokibelo Monyeki similarly scoured the landscape.
Warthogs popped from their holes to investigate. A group of kudu cows and calves maneuvered for cover in the vegetation near the base of the hills.
As we emerged from a thicket, I spied ears atop a rock ledge a couple hundred yards above us to our left. The shape of an animal’s head came into sharper view.
“Wait,” I urgently requested.
My naked eye processed the image. It appeared to be a cow kudu. Based on the distance, though, the animal looked much too big. I lifted my Zeiss Conquest HD 10×42 binoculars and beheld a beautiful site. It was a kudu bull, its head slightly tipped back. The black spiral horns popped in the clear glass. It didn’t sport wide headgear but sure looked like a shooter to me. And I was primed to see a shooter, especially after the previous day’s 11-hour hunt, which yielded little but dust and eyestrain.
“What do you think?” I asked Taylor.
Taylor quickly pointed out slightly-curved ivory tips and nice deep spirals.
“He’s a good one!”
I raised my Bergara B14 Timber rifle. The gorgeous walnut stock warmed quickly against my cheek. Beyond the aesthetics of a finely crafted piece of wood, there’s almost something sensual – or maybe it’s just natural – about how an oil-finished walnut stock welds to your skin.
The rifle, chambered in .300 Winchester Magnum, was a good choice for a plains game hunt. The Zeiss Conquest 3×15-50mm scope atop it represented an excellent pairing.
The kudu, amazingly, remained motionless above us, probably confident he was sufficiently invisible to the eyes below.
The only shot offered was a head-on frontal. My worry was that when the kudu bull decided to turn broadside, it would do so with a conviction that rapid escape was in order. Experienced kudu hunters cautioned me that, too often, a 3-second window is all that you had to size up an animal, acquire an aim point and take a shot. A half-assed shot at a fleeing animal in the boulders and scrub brush seemed a poor alternative to a stationary frontal shot from a solid rest; plus I could dial that scope all the way to 15 power and pick out a precise, sure aim point. The rifle would do its job — as long as I did mine.
“This is likely the best we’re going to get,” I said, phrasing it more as a question than a statement.
“If you’re comfortable with the shot sir…” Taylor whispered back, his binoculars focused on the bull.
My mind rapidly processed his response. I’d taken several whitetails over the past decades with similar shots. Yeah, I was comfortable. I held about 2 inches low to allow for the steep uphill trajectory, pushed the safety forward, let out a breath and squeezed the crisp trigger.
The 180-grain Nosler Partition bullet from the Federal Premium cartridge thumped home, splitting the kudu’s heart and a lung. The big bull wheeled, took two steps up and right and then lost footing quickly. In another 20 yards, gravity carried it downhill where it careened over a boulder and fell. One small tip of a horn broke during the tumble.
After the initial excitement at the successful shot playing out in appropriate dramatic fashion on the rocky ridge above us, we busied ourselves developing a plan for how we’d retrieve the animal from the high ground. We climbed to where the kudu fell. The bull had commanded a scenic view of the canyon and valley below.
The plan had been to hunt all week with this new B14 Timber rifle, the first in Bergara’s new “Performance” line of rifles. Bergara, a company of BPI Outdoors in Duluth, Georgia, has been long known for its high quality barrels and multi-stage process of boring and rifling to exceptionally-high tolerances at its Spanish production facility. Diamond-tipped honing bits and computer-aided operation deliver an ultra-smooth bore touted as matching the top, hand-lapped, custom barrels. The result is stalwart accuracy.
The challenge came when Delta Air Lines didn’t ship the rifle with my other luggage and then had difficulty getting a courier to deliver it to Bronkhorst’s Bateleur Safari Camp in Limpopo Province, some 64 miles from the Botswana border. I ended up hunting with one of the outfitter’s rifles the first two days of the hunt and then driving with Taylor the 9-hour round trip back to Johannesburg to claim the rifle on what should have been the safari’s third full hunting day.
Fortunately, the greater kudu, my flagship species of the expedition, was still on the table. Better late than never seemed to morph into an apropos theme on my mid-August South African hunting safari. For this particular kudu bull, our late arrival turned out to be a just in time proposition.
Bergara launched a custom rifle line a couple years ago, with the rifles assembled by former military gunsmiths who are experts in building military sniper and competition firearms.
BPI Outdoors Chief Executive Officer Dudley McGarity explained that the market is limited for custom rifles costing about $3,000 and up. Still, Bergara brand recognition and image were strong. “We knew that to reach the upper price points of the mass market we needed to build some really high value guns at lower prices,” he said.
The answer is the “Performance” line, which is assembled in Spain. It includes the walnut-stocked Timber version, which carries a suggested retail price of $950. The synthetically-stocked Hunter model costs $825. They also have a Sporter model. Actual retail prices are coming in about $150 below MSRP.
The B14 is offered in five cartridge chamberings: .300 Winchester Magnum, .30-06 Springfield, .270 Winchester, .308 Winchester and 6.5 Creedmoor.
McGarity says the feature that stands out to him with the B14 line is the walnut stock with checkered pistol grip and forend. The wood stocks are bedded with integral epoxy pillars for stability and enhanced accuracy. Barrels are free floated.
“I am just a freak for good looking wood, and the B-14 Timber has much better wood than anything else in its price range, and better than most at $500 more. The oil finish makes it a great wood stock for real hunting because any scratches are not that noticeable and can usually be repaired with a good stock oil. Many of the lacquered, high-gloss stocks really look terrible once they get a few dings in them. The B-14 stock will still look great when you hand it down to your grandchildren,” he said.
Once the rifle made it to Africa, I showed it to a couple PHs and other hunters unfamiliar with the new Bergara rifles, asking them what they thought such a firearm might cost. Answers ranged from $1,300 to $2,300.
McGarity said further extensions to the Bergara production rifle lineup are planned with a left-handed version of the B14 on the list.–Ken Perrotte