This is part two of Larry Hodge’s African safari story. To return to part one, click here.
I wanted a black wildebeest for two—no, three—reasons. They are native to South Africa, they have been brought back from the brink of extinction to huntable numbers by careful game management, and—most importantly—I like the way their horns sweep forward, then up. Blue wildebeest horns simply grow outward from their heads, perpendicular to their faces. I think black wildebeest horns have more character. Plus their tails are white, which gives them a special appeal as they race around in circles on the veld, their tails held high and flailing, much like a bunch of cheerleaders waving pompoms.
When I first see the place where we are to hunt wildebeest, I doubt our chances of success. A broad valley, or kloof, stretches perhaps two miles wide by three miles long, surrounded by flat-topped mountains rising 1,500 feet. And there are wildebeest, among them the old bull Charlie Ayliff wants me to shoot. But apart from a few scattered thorn trees and a swale or two, there is no cover. None. And wildebeest are notoriously wild and spooky. So how are the three of us—Truter, Zoe Ann and myself—to get within 200 yards of these crazy animals?
But wildebeest have an Achilles heel, it seems, and Truter knows what it is. I make a practice throughout the hunt of not asking questions, simply observing and learning. Truter has been a professional hunter in Africa for 35 years; this is my first trip here. Listen and learn, grasshopper, I remind myself.
“They are mad, you know,” Truter had told us as we drove to the ranch to hunt. “Bot flies lay eggs in their noses, and their head are full of maggots. It drives them mad.”
As we leave the bakkie and begin walking toward the wildebeest, they take off in a high-tailed run. “You’ll think they are leaving the country, but they’ll make a big circle and come back near to where they were,” Truter says. Meanwhile, we keep walking in their general direction, never directly at them but angling ever closer. Occasionally Truter stops and has a few puffs of his pipe, then heads off again. Sometimes he veers away from the herd for a few steps, sometimes stops for a bit, sometimes walks directly away from them.
“You have to bugger them,” he explains. “They wonder what the bloody hell is going on.” And sure enough, several times the herd takes off in a dead run, makes a huge circle, and comes back toward us, stopping with all eyes on us as if wondering, “What are you people doing?”
After walking about four miles in as many hours, we have the herd with the bull we want 200 yards away—all bunched up and facing us. For the next twenty nerve-wracking minutes we sit, the gun on the shooting sticks, my legs, feet, and butt taking turns going numb, waiting for the bull to step clear of the others and turn broadside. Finally he stands alone, quartering slightly toward us, and Truter orders me to take him.
There is a distinct lag between the time the gun goes off and when we hear the impact of the slug. The herd blows up, and the old bull races off alone, his right foreleg flailing. I hope I’ve hit more than leg, but in vain. After half an hour we creep over the top of the swale where he disappeared, and I take a rest on the shooting sticks and draw a bead. Truter stands up, and the bull struggles to his feet 300 yards away. The second shot is true, and he collapses within 100 yards.
“I have a vendetta against these impala,” Truter tells Charlie Ayliff around the campfire following our second unsuccessful stalk. We’ve gotten close several times, but either the impala spook or the ram we want never presents a shot.
The third afternoon I’m feeling poorly after having developed a sore throat and runny nose. Liz Ayliff immediately begins stoking me with vitamin C—that’s “vit-uh-mun C”—but I just don’t feel up to another marathon walk like the one we’d had that morning, when we got within 120 yards of 16 kudu but found there was not a shooter bull in the bunch. So Truter suggests we go to an area the impala often use and just sit. We are almost to the spot when we see an impala ewe about 150 yards away. We begin a careful sneak, stopping often to glass. Truter turns and gives me a thumbs up. “There’s the ram,” he whispers.
For all I can see through the dead tree in front of us, there could be twenty rams. But the last three days have taught me to trust Truter. If he says the ram is there, it is.
As before, however, it refuses to give us a clear look, either keeping to the bush, or in the middle of the herd, or both. But after a while three ewes graze to the left into an opening, and I hope at some point the ram will follow. Amazingly, he soon does, just as the ewes turn and go back to the right. “Take him now!” Truter hisses. I already have the crosshairs on his shoulder, and the gun goes off before Truter finishes. The ram goes about 60 yards. It was a perfect shoulder/top of the heart shot.
Later, at the skinning shed, Charlie Ayliff shows us something amazing. Around the campfire one night he’d told us about an impala he’d shot at with his bow. “It was facing me about 15 yards away, and when I released the arrow, he jumped the string and ducked his head,” Charlie recalled. “The arrow hit him at the base of his left horn.” Now Charlie points to a three-cornered scar above the ram’s eye, then shows us the matching one just behind the ear. The ram’s luck had run out.
“The bushbuck is my favourite,” Truter e-mailed me before our trip. Once we start hunting them, it is easy to see why. Other than pursuing chachalacas in the deepest South Texas thornscrub, I’ve never hunted in such thick cover. Bushbuck are well named. Their coat is dark, dappled here and there with white spots, perfect for blending into shadows. Taking a bushbuck is a challenge, and that’s how our hunt starts out, though it ends quite differently.
Our first day is spent walking very slowly along narrow game trails through bush towering 16 to 20 feet high all around. Occasionally there is a small opening, and in such places Truter points out tracks, or droppings, or the tips of low shrubs browsed by bushbuck. “They like these kinds of places,” he says, but today the best of those places has been invaded by a herd of goats, trespassers from the farm next door. Truter chases them away, but the damage has been done. The best place at the best time of day has been buggered by goats, and though we hear bushbuck barking, and once catch a glimpse of a ewe crossing a narrow path, we see no rams.
The next day—my 62nd birthday—dawns clear, cool, and still, and Truter bangs on our bedroom door early. As I come out he is smiling, and his eyes sparkle. “This is excellent bushbuck weather,” he says. “They’ll be moving around today.”
And sure enough, when we meet with landowner Neil Dugmore prior to the hunt, he tells us where he’s seen a couple of nice rams that very morning. “If you see one, shoot it,” he advises. “You may not see another. These things can hear a canary fart from a kilometer away.”
We leave the bakkie at the top of a hill and almost immediately begin seeing bushbuck on the hillside opposite. We walk down a hundred yards or so to a wire gap into the pasture. We’d struggled with this tightly strung gap the day before, and I give Truter a hand with opening it, then step through and start to turn to help close the gap. As I do, I glance down the fencerow to our left just as a bushbuck ewe slips under the fence about 70 yards down and walks into the bush. Forgetting gap closing, I shoulder my rifle and look through the scope, and into the field of view steps a fine ram—at least, he looks fine to me, and he seems to be making a present of himself to me. But I want an okay from Truter to shoot. The ram stops in a spot of shade and looks at us. Truter takes one look at the ram and whispers, “Shoot him.” I can see only the top half of the ram’s body, so I hold for the spine and squeeze off the shot. The ram drops in his tracks.
I can tell Truter is pleased as we walk up to the ram. “He’s a fine one,” Truter says. “A big body and nice horns. You won’t do much better in this country.”
I never expect to have an easier hunt for bushbuck.
And never do I expect to have a better birthday present.
Impala photo: John Cooke, Bushbuck photo: Graham Racher