Rick hunts with Dubula Mangi Safaris, operated by PH Dennie Taljaardt, in South Africa
SEDITSE, LIMPOPO PROVINCE
We seem to be driving forever along a highway that is straight and flat. Dennie tells me that this is typical Bushveld: semi-arid scrub country, where every bush or small tree appears to be covered with thorns. Just as we arrive at the Botswana border, we turn right onto a dirt road. Travelling down there a few ‘clicks’ and we come to the entrance to the Seditse hunting camp which is to be our base for the next four days.
It has been a long drive from Dennie’s home town of Nelspruit. Awaiting our arrival is Piet van den Heever who, with his brother, farms some 6,500 hectares, split into three units and encompassing tobacco, paprika, beef cattle and crocodiles! Piet, his wife Tokkie and son Andries live in a beautiful house on Rhebokfontein, the farming area that hosts Seditse Safaris. By the time we draw up at the lodge it is past 4 p.m. and we have less than two hours of daylight left. Dennie knows that I am keen, and has already telephoned Piet to warn him! No sooner have we unloaded than we are straight over to the target: a chance for me to check the zero of my rifle after our journey from England, and an opportunity for Piet and Dennie to find out whether I can place a bullet in the right spot. No problems: the .308’s accuracy has been unimpaired by the ministrations of assorted baggage handlers. Dennie also takes the opportunity of a shot with the .30-06 he has brought along as a back-up. We are all set for an early start the following morning, and there is still time for Piet to take us for a drive around to see the landscape and some of the wildlife it contains. 6 o’clock, and it is as though someone has flicked the light switch, as daylight turns to darkness with barely a hint of dusk. We return to the hunting lodge and, after a quick wash, adjourn to the boma, where Tokkie has prepared a veritable feast – including crocodile sausage and barbecued impala saddle. Replete, I head for bed, looking forward to morning and the real start of my hunting adventure.
I was here at Seditse for the highlight of my first visit to South Africa. Dennie Taljaardt, my professional hunter, had been the guide for four of us on three full days of game watching in Kruger National Park. Subsequently the three non-hunters had moved on to another site, to enjoy various excursions, while Dennie and I had made tracks for the hunting camp. On the way, we had talked at length about hunting techniques, the animal species that I might get the chance to stalk, and their physiology. We even had the chance to stop off and visit Piet Smit, of Safari Taxidermy, who would be handling any trophies I might be fortunate enough to bag.
No need for an alarm clock: that is in-built when my brain is in hunting mode. I am up and in the kitchen by 5.30 a.m. for coffee and rusks – just a bite to keep us going until brunch time. Then Dennie and I are straight out into the bush as dawn quickly breaks, and immediately spotting game. I have a shortlist and budget to work to, with my prime target being a representative kudu bull. However, we have to bear in mind that we have but four full days in which to hunt, and Dennie usually suggests at least a week as minimum for anyone expecting a kudu. While looking for this bull, our plan is to take the opportunity for one or two other trophies should the species present themselves.
This bushveld is interesting country. Dennie asks how the hunting compares to deer stalking back home, and I have to admit to several similarities. I am a woodland stalker, and the slow walk through the bush, with extensive use of binoculars, is much the same as my usual progress amongst the trees of southeast England. My binoculars (Swarovski’s fantastic lightweight 8.5×42 EL model) are in more constant use than Dennie’s, as rounded reddish shapes in the undergrowth – shapes that would often evolve into deer at home – prove to be no more than yet another anthill. The main difference of course, is the quarry we seek. Deer have acute senses of sight, hearing and smell, but the antelope we see seem to be on a different plane, and certainly a great deal more jumpy than anything we had come across during our three day visit to Kruger.
With a lot of snorting a herd of wildebeest canter away as we approach them. The walking is quite easy: the terrain is flat, the morning temperature mild, and the only real problem seems to be the thorns that grab at or stick in me from every piece of foliage we pass. We find some impala, but they are spooked by something out of our sight and bound across our front. This being towards the end of the dry winter season, the sandy soil has a generous covering of dried grasses and fallen dead leaves. Whilst we usually find a quiet spot for each footfall, there are times when, inevitably, it sounds as though we are walking on cornflakes. Every now and then, more often than not while one of us is distracted by a particularly clingy thorn bush, the overall quietness is broken by the crack of a stepped on twig. At first Dennie and I keep a score as to which of us makes the most noise, but after a while we agree to an honourable draw. Allowances are made for a lingering cough that I have brought over from England with me. Once or twice I have to bury my head in handkerchief, hat and folded arms for a serious throat clearing session. Guaranteed to spook everything for miles around! Dennie runs ultra-marathons and is rather fit, certainly more so than yours truly; but he does his best to ensure that I dictate the pace.
The sand is great for tracking, and Dennie is keen to show me the variety of spore – particularly when they are fresh kudu prints. Impala, blue wildebeest, red hartebeest, zebra, tsessebe, waterbuck, gemsbok and warthog – all are in evidence, and more besides. This makes a pleasant change from looking at muddy fallow deer slots! All the more exciting when we get good sightings of the animals themselves.
The sun is high by the time we get onto another impala herd. The gentle breeze is in our favour, although it seems to periodically switch direction just to make things more difficult for us. We gradually close on the grazing herd, taking time to spot at least three decent sized rams amongst the thirty or so animals ahead. Suddenly that breeze shifts again, and heads are raised, looking around whilst trying to judge the direction of any danger. Dennie immediately sits down, and I squat beside him: we do our best to look like a thorn bush. One of the big rams comes to the back of the group, standing with neck extended, looking straight back at us. He is about 120 yards away. We are both studying him. Dennie confirms that this is a good-looking ram, and asks how I feel about a shot. Yes, I can see the quality of the trophy, but I am in the invidious position of needing to squeeze the trigger – most unusual for me, but I need to get something in the bag, a ‘banker’, to ease the pressure I senselessly seem to feel I am under. I feel calm, with not a hint of any ‘buck fever’. The ‘scope crosshairs centre on the ram, I breath out, caress the trigger, the .308 cracks, and my first African antelope goes straight down to a shot through the neck. As we make our way up to the impala I feel both elated and relieved – a successful conclusion to a good stalk.
We check the ram, check its location (how the heck Dennie manages to figure out where we are in this flat, featureless bushveld beats me), and make our way at a rather less cautious rate towards where the pickup truck has been left for us. Once we have found it, we drive to collect the impala before returning to camp for a late brunch. Dennie and I tuck into generous plates full of bacon and eggs, cooked by Tokkie, and discuss our first morning’s success. The usual routine is to take a break after brunch, thus getting some rest, and avoiding the heat of the midday sun. But you know what they say about mad dogs and Englishmen…… With such limited hunting time I am not in the mood to sit back and relax. We have barely finished eating before we are straight back out again. Where is that kudu?
“Rick, that is an excellent wildebeest, do you want to go for it?” asks Dennie. I have to admit that I am more than a little tempted. But I have to show self-discipline: a wildebeest is not on my list, and I have promised myself that I will not follow the example of one or two of my friends who have come to Africa looking for, say, six species, and arrived back home having doubled that! We let him be, and resume our vigilant stroll through the Limpopo Province countryside. Shortly after 4 o’clock we spot another warthog, but unlike previous examples, this looks to me to be a good boar with an impressive set of tusks. Dennie confirms my observations, but at around seventy yards through thickish bush, the hog presents no shot. Then, as we are watching him and deciding a course of action, there is a movement in the undergrowth to the right. Another boar appears briefly, but for long enough for us to see that he is enormous: no contest, this is the one for me! But he is a little wary, trotting away into cover, followed by his cohort, as we cautiously make our way after them. Fortunately they were not too spooked, and within a few minutes we have caught up again. The big fellow makes a mistake: at a distance of forty yards, he turns to see what is coming along behind him. There is no time to spare – I know that if he starts off again, it will be at full speed with his tail in the air, so I get the shot off as quickly as possible. He’s away, with his friend close behind him, and there is much crashing through the bush as they disappear. Dennie sprints forward to where the warthogs were standing at the shot – he is trying to get a positive line on the direction of their flight. All is quiet now as I walk to join my guide. “How did you feel about the shot?” he asks me. “Good” I respond, explaining that I was aiming just inside the front of his right shoulder as he quartered towards us. Dennie tells me that the hog looked as though he stumbled slightly as he took off. We start looking for any signs. Dennie follows some spore, but cannot make up his mind whether it is from my boar or the other one. We backtrack and start again – a number of times. One thing is certain: there is absolutely no sign of any blood trail. Dennie is sounding rather doubtful, and I am getting rather worried. After what seems an age, Dennie at last finds some positive indication. Forty-odd yards from where I shot at him, here is a print that has attracted my PH’s attention. “Look, this is his front right foot, it is starting to go over on the outside. This pig is in distress! I think you may have broken his shoulder.” We inch our way forward and, at last, twenty yards later spot some blood – a rusty smear against a clump of dry grass, certainly not the colour I had been hoping to see. The trail has been dead straight, and eventually runs into a wall of thorn bush. We search around and through this tangle: nothing. What is more disconcerting is that we cannot find any spore beyond. We look further ahead, to the left and right: nothing. By now it is getting late in the day, and we are still a couple of kilometres away from the truck. Dennie decides he has to get back to the vehicle while there is enough light left to see where it is. He explains that we can then get back to the camp for reinforcements and a dog to help in our search. I am given the option of whether I want to stay and keep looking, or join him on the forced march to the truck. I decide to stay, even though I am left wondering how they will find me in the bush in the dark.
Dennie has hardly disappeared from sight, I have turned a little more to the right, and…. that almost looks like a bit of tusk sticking up from behind a bush. I take a couple of steps, then let out a shout and a shrill whistle. Dennie comes running back. Here is my boar – stone dead – and what a boar he is! A real old warrior, huge in size, a massive head with a broken top right tusk and the bottom left tusk completely missing. As Dennie says: just “full of character”!
Am I light-footed, or just light-headed? The march back to the truck seems to take no time at all, but by the time we are back to my warthog the last vestiges of daylight have long gone. The two of us just manage to heave the boar into the back, and then head towards camp. Before we arrive there, headlights flicker through the bush: Andries is out looking for us, wondering if our late return is anything to do with us getting lost. Once back at base, everyone gathers round, amazed at the size of this warthog. I ask Piet whether I qualify for a discount as it has no teeth…. I dive into the shower, then make my way to the boma, where Dennie has a large gin & tonic ready and waiting. Piet & Tokkie’s eldest daughter and her family join us for dinner. Husband Alberto builds rifles, and we have a fascinating time discussing firearms in between generous helpings of food. By the time I hit the sack, I barely have time to reflect on this extraordinary first day’s hunting in Africa before falling sound asleep.
Dennie is up bright and early at 5.30 – only to find his coffee and rusks ready and waiting, along with me geared up to go. He asks if I might be interested in going for another warthog; and I tell him fine, providing it is bigger then yesterday’s. Dennie remarks that in that case we won’t even bother looking. Off we go, and are soon following fresh kudu spore from the night before. This is the format for the morning hunt, and even though we see several other species, the kudu remains elusive. We get on to a gemsbok – a definite possibility for a shot – but soon spot that it has one broken horn, so we pass him by. Still no sightings, and I am starting to appreciate why kudu are held in such high regard as a demanding animal to hunt. They are so well camouflaged that they usually prefer to blend into the undergrowth and wait for danger to pass by, rather than make a run for it. Dennie also points out that a mature kudu bull is unlikely to give you a second chance for a shot: you have to be ready for him. Piet has told us of a record book waterbuck that he has seen in one area. “Shoot that bull, and you will be very high up in Rowland Ward,” he says. As luck would have it we spot him, but at five hundred-odd yards, and disappearing into thick bush. We run to catch up, but never again get a glimpse of him. At brunch-time enquiries are made as to the condition of my feet and legs: how is my usually office-bound body putting up with all this walking? Walking I can do, and I assure my hosts that I have no problems. Piet tells me not to worry but it is the third day that gets everyone, and by the fourth day I will not be able to move. Very reassuring!
As we set off in the afternoon the atmosphere is starting to warm up. I do not feel too hot, but am starting to regret not having a wide-brimmed hat and some sunscreen. Not long into our stalk, and we come across a massive eland bull. This is the largest of the antelope family, and can reach a height of 6 feet at the shoulder with a weight of 1,500 pounds. Dennie takes a good look before asking the inevitable question: “Are you interested? That bull will make Rowland Ward – no problem!” But that would be two thirds of my budget gone in one shot, and where the heck would I put the trophy? No thanks Dennie…. So why don’t we stalk it anyway, just for fun? In the end we get to within sixty yards of the monster, just as he settles down for a post-lunchtime nap. All of a sudden the breeze changes direction once more, and instantly he is on his feet, zigzagging away from the unseen danger.
We carry on, and are soon on the tail of a herd of impala. The breeze seems to be favouring us on this occasion, and we are gradually closing on them, taking time to check out the couple of good-looking rams amongst the forty or so beasts. Suddenly it is not the breeze that is changing direction, but the herd, and now they are feeding straight back towards us. Dennie immediately sits down, and I make a dreadful mistake: I squat behind him. As the herd filters down to our front and right, we have ewes so close that we can hear them chewing. The rams, of course, are at the back of the pack, and not showing themselves clearly. Once in a while a ewe will look curiously at our motionless forms, and then resume grazing. Time marches on, and I am beginning to suffer: my big toes are agony, the other toes are – mercifully – numb, my calves are burning, and my knees do not feel too good either. Cramp seizes my right thigh. I really do need to stand up, but just manage to hold back the urge. Eventually a couple of young males start to move into view, followed by a large-bodied ram. I slowly raise the rifle to my shoulder, but cannot escape the notice of a ewe that is no more than ten yards in front of us. I do not give her a chance to warn the others. The shot cracks out, and there is an explosion of impala running in all directions. The ram goes no more than fifteen yards before crashing down: the Barnes X-bullet has done its work, and he is dead by the time we reach him. Maybe I should say ‘by the time Dennie reaches him’: I seem to be having trouble moving my legs. Maybe Piet’s prediction has come true rather earlier than expected! I stumble the short distance to where Dennie is standing, and life gradually returns to my lower limbs. The ram is a big fellow, although his horns are not quite a match for my first impala. The bullet has entered the front of his chest, on the point of the left shoulder, clipping the top of the heart, before exiting behind the right shoulder. Dennie tells me he was sitting there for forty minutes. To me, it felt more like four hours! Whatever, it has been a hunt to remember.
Dennie proves his fitness by carrying the kill three hundred yards to a track. This makes it easier to find when we return in the dark with the truck. When we get back to base, we find that my non-hunting companions have arrived from their camp near Kruger. They crowd around to see the impala, and are keen to learn how my hunting has been going. There is plenty of time to relate the story so far, as we adjourn to the boma for drinks and dinner. After nine hours of walking – and forty minutes of pain – I am ready for early bed. My last conscious thought is whether or not I will be able to get up in the morning…..
No problem! Day three, and at 5.30 in the morning, Dennie’s coffee is ready and waiting for him again. We hitch a lift from Piet, out to a far corner of the estate where farm worker Jack has seen much recent evidence of kudu. As soon as we are back on our feet we see fresh spore for ourselves, but as the morning wears on we seem to see everything but the elusive ‘grey ghost’. After brunch Dennie and I are joined by Andries, who himself is a qualified professional hunter. Not only that, but he is a marathon runner too – and just when I felt I was starting to wear down Dennie! Never mind, the legs are still working fine, and the blood-blisters under my big toenails from the previous afternoon’s impala stalk are starting to ache a little less.
Four hours later and it looks as though we have drawn a blank for today. It is time to head for the vehicle, and my two super-fit guides stride out in that direction, and I almost have to jog to keep up! The sun is soon disappearing, and Dennie remarks that we are seeing a typically beautiful South African evening sky, the like of which you will not find anywhere else in the world. I counter that by assuring them that we do indeed get plenty of these fantastic sunsets in the U.K.. Their quizzical looks soon turn to grins when I explain that we Brits do not actually see these multi-coloured skies because of the dense cloud cover. I have hardly finished speaking when Andries suddenly exclaims “Kudu!”. How he has spotted them I have no idea, since even when they are pointed out to me I almost have to kneel to look under the bush, at right angles to the direction we are taking, and there, fully three hundred yards away, are several kudu legs. No sooner have we seen them than Andries and Dennie are on the move again, and this time they are running! You can imagine how my heart rate reacts to all this excitement – and I am almost praying that I do not get the chance of a shot! We swing around in an arc to get ahead of the animals and, I have to hand it to the guys, they get me into exactly the right place. I am breathing hard, but recovery rate is good. Dennie mutters something to Andries in Afrikaans, and gets a mumbled response. He later tells me that he has said “With the light going so fast, do you think we should let Rick take a shot? It will be pretty risky”. Andries’ reply is “And when it runs, it’ll be a real problem to find”. Note: when, not if! Suddenly kudu start to appear in front of us. Dennie is watching through binoculars, and I have my rifle up and ready. “They are all big, mature cows,” says my PH. “There has to be a good bull somewhere.” I am trying to gauge the range, but the encroaching darkness and my lack of experience in hunting large antelope are not helping in this respect. Fortunately I am looking through a Swarovski 8×50 PF ‘scope, and the image I see is considerably enhanced. I put the crosshairs on one of the females, and decide that if a bull does materialise from the bush I will play safe, aim at him but slightly high.
My kudu bull strides majestically into view. He stops, my finger barely moves on the Jewell trigger, and he drops exactly where he is. After three days of looking, it is all over in three seconds.
We make our way over to the antelope. Dennie and Andries are delighted with our success. I am elated too, but possibly suppress my feelings slightly as I look down on this fallen giant. It has taken some hard work to find this bull: it has been a good hunt, and I have my reward. The highish point of aim has worked wonderfully. At a range of about one hundred and fifty yards, and a side-on shot, the bullet has gone through the top of his lungs imparting sufficient shock to the spine to drop him where he stood.
As Dennie and I examine the handsome beast, Andries heads back to camp for help and beer. Coincidentally, Piet and my three non-hunting colleagues are just returning from a visit to the Limpopo River. They have heard the shot, and come looking for us. By the time Andries returns there is quite a gathering ready to toast our success. Later there are further celebrations in the boma, and once the braai is underway Dennie takes great delight in serving me pan-fried kudu testicles. This, he assures me, is an African custom for those shooting their first kudu. Strangely enough he does not seem too keen to give me a demonstration of the best technique for eating them…..
The final hunting day dawns, and Piet has given us a lift over to the Limpopo. This is quite an experience: stalking along the banks of one of Africa’s magical major rivers. Looking for waterbuck and bushbuck, there is plenty of wildlife for Dennie and I to see at this early hour of the morning. The surrounding vegetation is a great deal more lush and ‘junglely’ here, with the trees full of monkeys and birds, and the odd crocodile keeping a beady eye on us from the water. The bushbuck are abundant and extremely alert, but the males we spot are all immature. We also locate one herd of waterbuck, and find them to be cows with calves. Meeting up with Piet again, we head inland, keeping an eye out for waterbuck or gemsbok. We spot half-a-dozen or so of the latter species, but they are exceptionally flighty and do not give us any chance of closing on them.
Brunch-time is an out of this world experience as we all meet up on the banks of the Limpopo, board a raft and float slowly downstream whilst enjoying barbecue and a beer. Shades of ‘The African Queen’!
The afternoon is hot, and I can feel the sunburn on my face and neck. I put up with it however, as this is my last real chance of adding to the bag. Once again we spy running gemsbok. As with all the game in Piet’s domain, they look to be in splendid condition, with some excellent trophies amongst them. Dennie and I have a good stalk up to five or six waterbuck. Here is a bull in some thick bush, and we are within thirty yards of him. Dennie tells me that he is a good bull, but not that special, and we still have time to possibly find another. I pass him up, and we creep away.
I am pleased to report that I see the waterbuck cows before either Piet or Dennie! They are standing in some shade about eighty yards away. Dennie glasses them and –same as for the kudu – “They are all big, mature cows. There has to be a good bull somewhere”.
At that, out he steps, straight in front of us. I pop the crosshairs just behind his shoulder, and the .308 fires its final shot of this African hunt. The bull makes an amazing leap forwards, towards the rest of the small herd, spins around 180°, and thunders off into the bush – closely followed by seven or eight cows. We walk up to where the waterbuck had stood. I estimate his leap as clearing about fifteen yards, and at the point of landing we see a microscopic spot of lung blood, confirming a positive shot. Piet and Dennie lead the way into the bush, pointing out to me the heavier and increasingly more splayed slots of the mortally wounded bull. After sixty yards we find another, slightly larger, spot of blood; but then no more until at the two hundred and fifty yard mark Piet suddenly turns, slaps me on the shoulder, and gives me a congratulatory shake of the hand. Well, obviously he has seen the beast, but for a few moments I am still searching, although it is barely ten feet away, and certainly large enough. Wow – another fantastic trophy!
We return to the farm, and come back with willing hands to help load the waterbuck into the truck. This takes some doing, as he weighs in only marginally less than the kudu. More celebrations that evening in the boma, but no further extra culinary delights other than another superb meal prepared and cooked by Tokkie and Piet. I allow myself an additional gin and tonic this evening, put my feet up, and think of the lie-in that I will be able to take on the morrow. Later, as I fall asleep, my mind is racing six months ahead, and I am trying to figure out what to do with the trophies when they arrive home – that kudu is going to be rather too tall for our little cottage I think; but we will cross that bridge when we come to it.
Breakfast is, if anything, a slightly subdued affair. The hunting is over, it is time to depart for Johannesburg airport, and I would love to stay on. I have had such an astonishingly great time. The hunting has been all that I could have asked for, and much more besides. It has been hard work, but so rewarding. The hospitality extended to us by Piet and Tokkie has been way beyond what we might have expected. At the end of such a short stay, I feel that I have made some genuinely good friends. As we drive out of the hunting camp, and head south away from the bushveld, I just know that I will be back.