By Jay S. Arnold, SCI Life Member
The smell of freshly baked bread greeted us at the door of the 1840’s lodge at Southern Cross Safaris. We were happy and hungry after a successful spot-and-stalk on a trophy mountain reedbuck. We had seen several and pushed a couple of nice ones out of range. They certainly have the eyesight. We also had seen a nice herd of zebra and more trophy impala that morning than you could count. The miles-long hike up and down along the game trails scratched into the mountainside certainly worked up an appetite. Each step had to be taken deliberately to keep upright and quiet. The luncheon discussion over a spread of fresh fruits and vegetables, sliced game meats, and marmite for the bread soon turned to the afternoon’s planned adventure for trophy bushbuck. Now we were talking!
“This will be more like your whitetail lie-and-wait game,” said my PH, Chris Cawood. “It will probably be approaching dark when the big males come into the fields, just like your deer. But one difference from the whitetail is a bushbuck can really hurt you if you make a bad shot.” I had read this about bushbuck, and I paid attention when Chris confirmed it. I’ve learned over the course of two safaris that he does not exaggerate or take artistic license when describing a hunt. “So have a quick nap and rest that trigger finger, hey chap,” Chris finished.
I drifted off with a full belly and thoughts of bushbuck dancing in my head. At 1:30 Chris and I climbed into his Land Cruiser and headed down the mountain through Bedford and on past Grahamstown, South Africa. The Karoo mountain scene surrounding Southern Cross had given way to open prairie periodically dotted with tree lines. It felt like we were driving from Denver to western Kansas for a pheasant hunt, but instead we were heading to the farm of a friend of Chris’ where lots of nice bushbuck had been seen feeding in the crop fields.
“You’re gonna like my buddy Mike, hey Jay. He’s made a fortune in the meat-packing business and now he plays Farmer Brown and cowboy-helicopter-pilot in his own Robinson R-44,” Chris said. Sure enough, as we pulled into the farm, we intercepted Mike and his sons on a tractor, just coming in from an honest day’s work. The tail of a helicopter peeked out from a nearby barn-turned-hangar.
“Oh my God, you’ve gone mad, Mike. Or have you lost it all and have to work your own tractor now?” Chris asked in a bright, cheeky tone.
“Don’t you know if you want something done right you do it yourself, hey Chris?” Mike said with a grin.
Chris and Mike caught up on the goings-on of farming and safari hunting while Paoway, the tracker, readied the gear. Today, for the first time on this safari, he brought Chris’ rifle–a custom .416 Rigby. I had killed a red hartebeest, a black wildebeest (okay that one took two days but that’s another story), a zebra, and a mountain reedbuck with me as the sole gunner.
“It’s not that I don’t trust your shooting, Jay. But if he runs and we have to track him into the woods in the dark, I want my rifle too.” That made sense to me and increased my heart rate a few beats, considering the “what if.” Hmmm–should I have signed up for MedJet Assist? After all, I thought this was just a plains-game hunt, and my wife had come along to South Africa since I assured her how safe it was. Well, at least she had stayed back at Southern Cross with Chris’ wife Lexi, a good book, and some great South African wine.
Based on Mike’s observations of some nice male bushbuck working his farm, we made a plan. We would walk along a fence line to a small rise where we could lie prone and still see the woods edge 250 yards out to the west. The wind would be just right, while the sun would set behind the trees and hopefully hang up long enough for a shot.
Chris and I gathered the gear, left Paoway in the Land Cruiser with a radio in case he spotted anything in another location. We said thanks to Mike, and started our trek.
“I’ll be on the porch with the cold beers ready when you’re done,” Mike said. “Good luck!”
We smiled, tipped our hats, and were off like a herd of turtles. It was almost 4:00 pm when I looked at my watch. It would be getting dark about 6:00. Chris sensed my slight concern about us perhaps being late, and said we had plenty of time and it would be a splendid setup.
We eased along the fence line so we could hopefully keep from spooking any game, and periodically glassed for any movement. Fortunately, we did not see anything to trap us, which confirmed we were indeed early enough for the show.
Chris pointed out our landing zone just through the fence and on a terraced plain. We held the fence wires apart for each other to climb through and stayed crouched on the other side. We slinked up to the selected spot and plopped our gear on the cold ground. Chris unrolled a wonderful fleece blanket that was backed with a water-and-thorn-resistant nylon. There was no need for water resistance in the dry Karoo winter, but the thorn and stick deflection came in handy. It seems that most things in Africa bite or pinch or sting.
I tried out the blanket in prone position and agreed this was the ticket. I could comfortably rest my rifle’s fore end on my backpack and have a super stable platform with a clear view all the way to the woods. We double-checked the distance, and the farthest practical point ranged 282 yards with the most direct line to the woods showing 248 yards. That gave us a nice triangle to work. Now all we needed was a mature bushbuck to enter our zone.
I heard dogs barking in the woods and thought they might have blown our chances, but Chris said those were not dogs–they were bushbuck–so my blood ran faster and the game was on. We stayed attentive for a good half hour but saw nothing but a few birds that looked like our good old black crows that seemed to mock me. I responded by rolling over on my back, closing my eyes, and lying quite limp as if I’d given up. Then I hoped they were not vultures that might mistake me for a carrion carcass. In actuality, I was simply thrilled to be there enjoying the paradox of excitement and relaxation that defines an African safari. I may have even dozed a few minutes, but my eyes sprung open when Chris announced the arrival of our first visible bushbuck.
The single doe snuck into the field from a small opening in the woods, just as the sun’s belly touched the treetops. It was now five minutes ‘till 5:00. We watched her through binoculars. I studied her movements and was amazed by her cautious feeding and head bobbing to scan her environment. This really was like whitetail hunting. Soon, another doe eased out to test the water. Before long we had three more, but where were the bucks? The sun was making that mad dash to hide in its way that ends whitetail hunts too abruptly. I was thinking we might have ourselves a bust when Chris whispered, “Okay, Jay, there’s a buck. But he’s a helluva long way off, there on the far left. We are in the wrong spot for him.” So just like that my hopes raced upward and then slid down as I saw he was well over 500 yards away. If they had zip codes in this place, he would have been at least in the next one.
“Maybe he’ll feed over to us,” I offered.
“That would be great, but I would not count on it, Jay. The bushbuck mostly come straight out from the woods, feast a while, and then head straight back into the woods,” Chris said. And he was right again. This guy was not making any beelines for us or anyone else.
As the sun tried to give up, two males came into view straight out in front of us. It was now 6:00 pm. Agricultural terraces and tall grass partially hid each male. I could see most of the one on the right, and Chris could see most of the one on the left. They would have to take a few steps to climb up into full view. It was now almost impossible to see them with the naked eye. I steadied my rifle on the backpack and studied my bushbuck through the Meopta scope.
“Chris, I’ve got him,” I said. “I’ve got a clear shot. Well, wait. Damn it. He turned. Can you see him?”
“Jay, I can’t see his horns. They’re blocked from my position, and I don’t want to move a muscle. You’d be surprised what they can see,” Chris said. “I don’t know if he’s mature enough for what we’re looking for.”
“His horns are twice the height of his ears, Chris. He looks good to me,” I said, talking about the first bushbuck I had ever seen through a riflescope. “Can I take him?”
“Hold on. Let me try to see him. Let me try to see his horns. Are you sure he’s twice the height of his ears?” Chris asked.
“Yes, that’s the way it looks to me. And I’ve got him now. I’ve got him again. He’s broadside, but the light’s almost gone. It’s dark. Man, it’s dark. I’ve got to shoot him now if I’m gonna shoot him, Chris,” I said, willing him to give me the green light.
“Okay, Jay. If you’re sure you’ve got him then let him have it.”
“Bawoom!” went the Sauer .300 Win. Mag., and fire flashed from the barrel. I tried to stay on him in the scope but I could not. Oh no. Where was he?
“He’s down, Jay. He’s down. That was a great shot. You smoked him,” Chris said. I rolled over on my back again and decompressed. The day’s events all flowed through me as I exhaled.
We used flashlights to navigate to him through the crops and over the terraced landscape. When I saw him, I couldn’t believe it. He was beautiful. What an amazing hide. And what interesting horns he had! They were unlike most bushbuck photos and taxidermy I had seen. I was ecstatic. Paoway made short work of carrying him back toward the Land Cruiser for optimal photo-op positioning. We took dozens of photos and then headed for Mike’s skinning shed. Mike and his sons met us there and congratulated me.
“Well done, man! That’s a great trophy, that,” he said. “I can’t believe how late it was when you shot. We thought for sure it was all over and there would be no shooting tonight.”
“Yeah, it was definitely last light, or maybe first dark,” I said, myself glowing in the dark.
We headed to Mike’s house and were greeted by the rest of his family and his dog, Scar. Chris and I regaled them with the details of the adventure in between gulps of ice-cold beer and bites of stewed wildebeest and other delights. I could not have been happier. The cool-and-getting-cooler South African night wrapped around me and it felt just fine. This bushbuck hunting is A-Okay.
The ride home was exquisite. Stars fell on South Africa that night. Radio Algoa played “Freshly Ground” and other contemporary African bands interspersed with good old American rock-n-roll while the hum of the off-road tires provided a soothing background tone. You could see forever in the crisp, clear weather. Our wives were happy to see us arrive safe, sound, and victorious, or maybe they had just corked an extra bottle. All I know is that I slept soundly and with more dreams of bushbuck dancing in my head. I’m hooked and ready for the next one.