Origin: I became acquainted with Hardus van Zyl and Cabassa Safaris several years ago while attending the Western Hunting and Conservation Expo. Aside from their South African operation, they operate in Mozambique, and I made a point to visit with Hardus every year since that initial meeting at the expo to listen to his stories of the previous seasons leopard hunts. By chance, Cabassa Safaris donated a hunt to our local SCI chapter in 2016. It was not the ideal time for a trip, as my wife and I are traveling to Arctic Red River Outfitters for a dall sheep/mountain caribou hunt this July. However, I consulted one of my best friends, Brad Tribby, and we agreed to bid to an agreed upon price point. Well…we won the package at an embarrassingly low price. People really missed the boat here!
The package was as follows:
2 Hunters for 3-days bird hunting and 4-days big game hunting including: 1-impala, 1- warthog, and 1- duiker for each hunter
As is customary with any donation hunt, Brad and I added two days hunting to the trip, as well as several other animals.
Travel: I arranged the flights personally for this trip. We flew Alaska Airlines from Billings, MT to Seattle,WA and then Emirates from Seattle -> Dubai -> Johannesburg. We had a very favorable experience flying Emirates; food, entertainment, and hospitality was exceptional. I applied for my rifle transit permit exactly 30 days prior to departure and received the permit 13 days later. Upon return, I was personally escorted by Emirates staff to SAPS and U.S. Customs for clearance of my rifle. Additionally, they flagged my Pelican camera case and hand-delivered it to the plane.
Disclosure: This report will likely be choppy and switch between present and past tenses; I am merely copying and pasting daily updates from Facebook. My sincere apologies to the grammar police. Additionally, I will primarily speak of my hunting experiences, while adding pictures of my hunting companions success. I would be out of place to tell the complete story of his successes.
After a 26 hour flight marathon from Seattle to Johannesburg, the first darkness of the flight cloaks the landscape as we begin our descent into O.R. Tambo. I’m no longer entertained by In-flight PacMan or Sons of Anarchy. I’m ready to stretch my legs, feel the tropical (by comparison to my Montana home) air on my face, and get FOOD!
The landing is without issue, and we eventually gather our checked baggage; time being a causality of bags tucked deep in the hull. We pass by the nonexistent customs outpost and I’m relieved to see T.J. Butcher (one of our professional hunters) briskly walking to intercept us. T.J. escorts us to gun collection, and a quick signature and serial number check has us heading to Afton House. We settle into the room around 11:30pm, and despite the excitement of Africa, quickly fall asleep.
Day 1 (Travel Day):
We are up at 6:00, and after quick showers are gathered at the breakfast table by 6:30. A cook-to-order breakfast is placed in front of us and we quickly eat, sign paperwork, and discuss our agenda with T.J. The excitement is building, and after a cup of coffee we are all ready to head down the road.
From Afton Guesthouse to Cabassa Safaris headquarters near Hoopstad, Free State is approximately 4.5 hours. Over the course of that drive we watch the landscape change from one biome to the next, eventually concluding in corn/peanut fields and grasslands punctuated with Camelthorn trees. It is a beautiful part of the world, and while it may be blasphemous to mention, the wide blue sky rivals that of my home state.
T.J. shows us to our rooms and urges us to gather for lunch quickly. After lunch and range time we just might have time to take a drive and see what game the countryside holds. That is plenty of motivation for us. Following lunch T.J. goes over shot placement with each of us, reviewing the illustrations provided in neatly assembled books highlighting our itineraries. After completing this exercise we head to the range to confirm the zero of my rifle and familiarize Brad with the 30-06 that he is borrowing from Cabassa.
With zeros confirmed, we headed out for an afternoon hunt. I would like to say how amazing it was to observe the wonderment of Brad’s first experience in Africa, but, in reality, as a safari sophomore my eyes were too busy dancing around in their own wonderment. Vervet monkeys fleeing cornfield raids, farmhands harvesting peanuts, guineafowl erupting from the road, and a half dozen different species of antelope as we traveled towards a particular valley bottom T.J. wanted to glass. Upon arriving at the property, we parked the truck and walked to a position that allowed us the opportunity to glass the valley below. Aside from wildebeest, warthogs, gemsbok, and a lone sable bull grazing on the neighboring Sandveld Reserve, T.J. spotted what we were after–common springbok.
As I mentioned before, it is not my place to tell Brad’s story. However, after an intense stalk and lots of crawling I was able to watch the sweat bead, the hands shake, and the eventual calming of the nerves (slightly) as Brad took his first African animal. This hunt was about Brad’s first experience in Africa, and it was quite pleasurable to sit back relaxed and watch the hunt unfold.
Day 2: Impala(s):
For nearly an hour we had travelled a semicircular course maintaining the wind in our face and our outlines hidden from the impala sentries always scanning for the slightest indication of danger. Since first spotting the herd, our stalking posture had regressed through the chain of evolution from a brisk upright walk, to a hunched over scramble, and the eventual leopard crawl. Now only a bush separated T.J. and I from the closest impala; the ewe contently fed less than 30 yards away as I shyly peered through the branches before slipping back to the complete seclusion of the ground. As my knees shifted the sand beneath, a guttural growl broke the silence of the morning and was followed by a series of blowing wheezes. I had no clue what was going on beyond my screen of vegetation, but it sounded like a croaking fallow deer was about to clash with a snort-wheezing whitetail buck. I shot a sideways glance at T.J. hoping his body language would indicate what was going on ahead of us. His eyes remained focused ahead, but his hand motioned me to his side. Like a gangling tortoise, I crawled to the side of the bush.
“He is right in front of us…CLOSE…facing to the left. I’m going to put the sticks up and then we must come up together…SLOWLY.”
I repeated T.J.’s words in my mind as he positioned the sticks, and with a tug on my shirt I came to my feet settling the rifle smoothly into the standard African shooting apparatus. As my head cleared the branches I saw the ram directly in front of me—50 meters! My eye found the impala and the scope came to my eye as the cross hairs slid down the neck line and settled on the shoulder. Exhale…squeeze…
He was finished; I was relieved. So much pressure rests on that first shot in Africa, and I didn’t want to disappoint T.J. or myself. The impala was taken neatly on the shoulder and collapsed instantly. The moment was a perfection that only a hunter knows; the stalk, the shot, the animal. Impala are beautiful, and, as this was the first I had ever laid hands on, I was impressed with the mass and symmetry of his horns.
Later in the hunt T.J. would talk nonchalantly about impala; mentioning that he had culled so many that they didn’t kindle the excitement of most other species. However, if a picture is worth a thousand words, I think these images would tell a different story T.J. Hardus said that trophy photos are the last way to show the animal the respect it deserves; they must be perfect. I couldn’t agree more. Candid photos like these of T.J. capture an intimacy within that moment that is rarely captured—respect, thankfulness, pride, sorrow…perfection.
A couple hours later I able to watch Brad take his own impala, and what an impala!
By this time Brad was on ”Cloud 9″, and later that afternoon when a warthog was spotted as we walked up on a waterhole, he decided irregardless of the pig’s non-trophy ivory, he wanted to take it.
Day 3: Pigeons and Peanuts
Hardus arrived at camp the evening of Day 2; road weary due to a marathon drive from Mozambique. He had been tied up with government officials working out details related to quotas and concessions in that wild country. The hurdles and hoops he described, while comical, weren’t an extreme departure from many of the same challenges we experience in the United States.
Brad, T.J., and I had already shared a couple great days with 1 springbok, 2 impala, and a warthog comfortably nestled in the salt. We talked, joked, and laughed while we threw back Castle Lagers, and likely were just sipping down the first gin and tonic when Hardus walked in. Fueled by the frustration of missing that first day, Hardus didn’t skip a beat in organising our Day 2 adventure. He looked dead on his feet, but at least he was on his feet! Hell or high water he was going to get in on the action, and, as he described, shooting ‘rockies’ was great fun.
My alarm sounded at 5 a.m., but I had been awake for nearly an hour—a consequence of jet lag or excitement I do not know. I liked this; it felt like hunting when the cool air brushed my face and the night stars glowed overhead during my walk to the lodge. We were on the road by 6 a.m. and would travel the next hour through a landscape oddly similar to the county roads of any Midwest agricultural community. Sunflower fields shifted to corn fields which shifted to peanut fields and then back again. The primary difference (aside from sadly crumbling road infrastructure) was that ring neck pheasants had been replaced with guinea fowl!
Shortly after 7 a.m. we arrived at a recently harvested peanut field. The primary yield had been picked and bagged, but the upturned plants and plenty of residual peanuts lay in windrows awaiting the round baler. While our bird boys constructed burlap blinds around freshly deposited bales and situated small decoy spreads, I stood mesmerised. It was that same feeling when ducks are swarming you and despite knowing that you need to pitch decoys and grab cover you just stare. I caught myself staring; too excited to move. What must of been thousands of ‘rockies,’ or speckled pigeons as they are formally known, were flogging the field for it’s residual peanut crop.
It didn’t take much convincing to snap me back into reality. I grabbed a Beretta auto loader and headed to my blind with a case of shells. We would shoot until nearly noon when the bird flights slowed, the sun blazed, and our stomachs growled. As we sat in a shady grove of trees filling our bellies with wonderful food from what must of been a bottomless cooler, I was still amazed by the bird numbers and frequency of flights that morning. However, when I voiced my contentment with the shooting, Hardus said “Wait for the afternoon shoot.” My bird boy had alluded to this during the morning, something along the lines of “birds fly better in the afternoon.” Believe it or not, the birds did fly better in the afternoon; which was hard to fathom after the wonderful success we had enjoyed during the morning.
Throughout the day I shot very selectively, still missing a great deal but slowing expanding my decoy spread with the placement of fallen birds. I would sit and engorge myself with raw peanuts picked from the round bale while pigeons settled into the decoys and began to feed. Eventually I would shoot a descender and the ground would take flight again. And, that sequence was played over and over again—shoot 10 rounds, calculate my hit ratio, eat peanuts, and joke with my bird boy who constantly urged me to shoot white egrets that were following the tractor and baler. Fool me once; shame on you…fool me twice; shame on me bird boy! (No I did not shoot a giant white bird)
At the conclusion of the day my decoy spread contained ~85 birds. It had been the most phenomenal day of wing shooting of my life! We added Brad and Hardus’ birds to the pile and laid them out for pictures with the two comedians that shadowed us most of the day. We dropped the birds off to be distributed to the locals, and hit the road back to the lodge. A couple road sodas and we were back preparing for dinner. We were beat, but the mention of jackal calling provided instant rejuvenation. Hell yeah I want to go out calling! (But, that will have to wait for tomorrows story)
Day 4: The Bad Shot Black Wildebeest
Well to back up and continue Day 3…
The motivation of jackal calling had Brad and I shoveling down our dinners and heading to our rooms to layer up for the cool evening air. My down jacket was a welcome barrier to the wind as we rode in the high seat spotlighting steenbok, duiker, and even a porcupine. After several miles navigating farm tracks through corn and peanut fields, we descended closer to the river bottom and passed through a farm yard complete with barking dogs and the lingering odor of wood smoke. Shortly thereafter we pulled up to a pasture/field which was well illuminated by a cursed waxing gibbous moon; a less than ideal phase for predator calling.
T.J. positioned the caller, and proceeded with a serenade that mimicked ‘jackal challenge,’ ‘rodent-in-distress,’ and ‘calf-in-distress.’ My description of these sound files probably isn’t entirely accurate, but the best my North American ears can interpret. During the hiatus between calling sequences the spotlight would illuminate the field searching for glowing eyes. During the entire session mosquitoes feasted on any body part left uncovered. The region had yet to experience cold temperatures sufficient to doom the bloodsuckers, but despite the annoyance, these mosquitoes were the result of much needed rains that had fallen a couple months previous. Aside from this unfortunate by-product, the rains meant grass and water; feed for game, cover for nesting birds and mammalian offspring, and sanctuary for waterfowl.
I was busy assuring myself that the benefits of the rains outweighed the annoyance of the perpetual mosquito assault when the spotlight illuminated a set of eyes at its furthest reach. Jackal!
I placed the crosshairs delicately on the shoulder crease of the looming animal and waited for confirmation. “Take him.” The shot reported and the hit was obvious, but when I turned around the following conversation occurred:
T.J. – “That was a duiker!”
Me – “I though you said, ‘Take him!’”
T.J. – “No, I said ‘DUIKER!’ It’s okay, maybe it’s a ram.”
I glanced at Brad for support, but he sheepishly sided with T.J. I couldn’t believe that I had let excitement overwhelm me to the point of making this mistake. As we walked across the field in silence, the disappointment continued to build. I had let down my professional hunter and myself. At 25 yards T.J. cast the spotlight on the animal in front of us. Just as my mind was trying to process the appearance of triangular coyote-like ears, he turned around with a big grin, extended his hand, and said “Congrats on your jackal!” Ohhh the relief and laughter that followed! We had given T.J. a fair amount of grief over the past couple days, and he found the golden moment to get back at me! That wasn’t a good joke—that was a GREAT joke!.
And so I had a jackal, Brad would go on to take a duiker, and we would settle into bed around midnight.
By the morning of Day 4 my body had adjusted to the time change. I clung to the last few minutes of available sleep before a morning shower, and headed over to the lodge for breakfast. The game plan of the day was KUDU, and shortly after sunrise we headed to the boundary roads separating sunflower and cornfields from plots of bush.
To put a damper on my long-windedness, I will briefly summarize this hunt as it is more so Brad’s story to tell. The summary: We found where the kudu bull had merged with cows exiting the fields. We even saw the bull; who displayed exactly why they are nicknamed the ‘Grey Ghost’ when he disappeared deeper into the bush. We witnessed T.J. and our Zimbabwean tracker read the bull’s tracks to perfection; eventually creeping into 100yards. We startled the kudu cows. We followed the alarm barks as the confused kudu tried to locate each other. We saw the bull a couple times after, but following the last sighting it was concluded that he just wasn’t big enough. It was an awesome morning hunt, and one that heightened my anticipation of a tracking-based hunt in Mozambique.
After departing from the kudu track we returned to the vehicle and decided there was enough time to go look for two black wildebeest bulls we had spotted on our arrival day. I wanted to hunt black wildebeest primarily because I was in the Free State, and despite their range being expanded to Namibia and Botswana, I wanted to hunt them where they were endemic.
As a side note, the black wildebeest, or white-tailed gnu as it is also known, is a classic success story due to a few enterprising game farmers and the international hunting community. The population had dwindled to less than 600 individuals, when conservation measures were put in place which recovered their numbers to over 18,000 at present day.
We parked the truck, and headed in the direction of a particular tree that these bulls preferred to seek shade. Sure enough the bulls were resting under the tree, and our casual hike quickly turned into a fairly miserable leopard crawl through vegetation similar to cheatgrass ramped up with ample doses of MiracleGro. Hop-scotching from bush to bush we slowly closed the distance from 400 yards to 300 yards to 250 yards, and eventually to 150 yards from the dozing bulls. However, we were out of bushes. It was going to happen here and now, and the moment we stood to the sticks the bulls would immediately become alert to our presence. T.J. positioned the sticks and we stood. My eye settled on the bull quartering towards us as instructed. The scope came to my eye, and like a rookie I swung the crosshairs and jerked the trigger. I watched them lift too far back to connect with the vital zone. We have our highs and we have our lows, and if the impala was perfection, this was miserable imperfection.
Despite the response of the wildebeest indicating a solid hit, upon arriving to the location where it stood, no blood was located. The shot was back. T.J. and I continued in the direction the wounded bull had traveled while Brad and our tracker searched for sign. Fortunately, we located the bull over a small hill a few hundred yards from the initial shot and I finished what I started in the matter of a few minutes after the first shot. It was a relief to put an end to the animal’s pain, but my stomach continued to churn my sunken heart.
What happened is a reality of hunting, but that doesn’t mean you should just shake it off. I took time to reflect on my mistakes while I sat next to downed wildebeest. I tend to punish myself in these situations, and I couldn’t help but feel like I didn’t deserve this animal. I pitched around these feelings privately while Brad and T.J. did their best to offer reassurances. I knew what I needed to do—I needed to access my mistakes taking corrective action in future shooting scenarios, and I needed to offer my apologies to the animal the only way I could, by showing it the respect it deserved and honoring its life into the future. I needed to come to terms with the events then and there; otherwise, my shooting for the remainder of the hunt could easily be compromised. As I ran my hands over his coat, his cracked, old horns, and his bushy tail, I settled what I needed to settle with the wildebeest. I said my apologies.
Something else I will touch on here…which will probably prick the defenses in many is the use of ‘harvest’ in hunting. Brad used the term ‘harvest’ when he tried to console me out of my sullen state, and I may have been a little snappy at the moment in time, but I hate the word ‘harvest’ in that application. I don’t mean to be offensive to any one; keep using it mainstream community. However, to me, relating to the outdoors, I am a hunter and gather. I hunt animals and I gather berries, mushrooms, etc. As an agriculturalist, I harvest fruits, vegetables, and grains. When applied to the procurement of meat, I slaughter chickens, beef, hogs, etc. Now as hunters I understand that we can’t say I ‘slaughtered’ a wildebeest due to the negative connotation such a word brews among non-hunters. However, the use of ‘harvest’ seems like a scapegoat refusing to accept the reality of bloodshed, pain, and, in the case of this wildebeest, suffering. As mentioned, my purpose in writing this passage isn’t to berate those that use ‘harvest’ to refer to successfully placing meat in the locker, but rather to express this moral dilemma when explaining my actions to nonhunters. Do I use more graphic, yet realistic terminology like ‘killed’ or ‘shot,’ or antiquated terms like ‘bagged,’ or the mainstream ‘harvested’ which leaves me feeling like a dishonest puppet?
Later that day, while I sat a waterhole for a particular big-ivoried pig, Brad took a wonderful kudu bull.
Day 5: Frickin ‘Fluffies’
I will keep this write-up fairly short. Day 5 dawned another beautiful day in Africa; up at 5a.m., a quick breakfast pushed down with coffee from the French press, and down the road in the same direction as we hunted ‘rockies.’ Shortly after 7a.m. we pulled off the pavement, slid down a gravel road, and shifted onto a two-track. Hardus settled the truck into the shade, as we watched singles, doubles, and triples, a continuous trail of doves, fly over this grassy buffer strip that separated water, grit, and roost from their food source.
The ‘fluffies’ were comprised of two species of dove, ring-necked dove (larger than a North American mourning dove, and similar in appearance to a Eurasian collared dove), and laughing dove (smaller than a North American mourning dove, but almost identical in appearance). The ring-necked doves were by far the more common of the two species.
Once again my excitement was welling. With a chair under one arm, a case of shells under the other, and my shotgun precariously pinned somewhere in between, I waddled to the nearest tree to establish my stand. The continuous stream of ‘fluffies’ was incredible; exponentially better than anything I had experienced hunting some of the best dove fields in the United States. The constant stream of one or two doves, followed by another one or two doves resembled a never-ending line of gravity defying ants.
I set up my chair, loaded my gun, and proceeded to bang away. The culmination of two boxes (50 rounds) was two ‘fluffies’ and a plethora of profanity. These little buggers were there and gone; flying like a F-16 fighter when you tried to swing. A one foot lead wasn’t enough, a two foot lead wasn’t enough, finally at 3 feet I starting trimming tail feathers. Brad, Hardus, and I shot for hours; taking a lunch break in the shade midday to enjoy sausages braai-ed in the pit right there. Then we shot for a few more hours.
As the day progressed I focused on the basics. I returned to the principle mechanics of wingshooting; particularly completing my swing through the trigger pull. Miraculously ‘fluffies’ began to fall! My shooting may have improved as the day went on, but profane frustrations and laughter continued to echo across that buffer strip. Brad took the lead with the classic BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, @#$#!!!!
Around 4p.m. I polished off a case of shells and decided to call it a day. Shortly thereafter Brad came over to join Hardus and I. Despite some ‘rough’ shooting in the morning, we had accrued quite a pile of birds through the day. We had toasted Castle Lagers, smoked Macanudos, shared laughs, told stories, picked on each other, braai-ed, and shot well over 100 ‘fluffies.’
Just another PERFECT day in Africa with Hardus and Brad!
Day 6: Cannonball!
I like all forms of wing shooting, but there is something extra special about waterfowl hunting. If I had to put a finger on what intrigues me so much about these feathered fowl, I’d say it is half an Audubon-like fascination with the diversity of species and sexual dimorphism, and half the toddler in me that is delighted when a bird makes a cannonball splash.
After four days of watching morning and evening flights travel from feed to roost, and observing birds on the waterways we passed, I was up and ready to go well before my alarm the morning of Day 6. Hardus, T.J., Brad, our tracker, and myself loaded up for the short drive to a nearby lake at sunrise. The moment we stepped foot from the truck birds were flying overhead and in range—this was opening day naivety. While Hardus drove away to conceal the truck I loaded three shells into the Beretta auto loader and immediately shouldered on an overhead flock. I wasn’t even in position against the dam face and already had a knob-billed drake knocked down.
Despite an amazing shoot, Hardus wanted better coverage and decided to leave T.J. and Brad on the causeway separating two lakes while he and I moved to a narrow inlet on the other side of a lake. We had been experiencing regular flights of ducks, but this was a great strategy to employ as our shooting kept birds in the air and moving back and forth between the groups It was actually too good…if there is such a thing. Hardus offered up his fancy Beretta SxS, and we proceeded to fill our limits in 5 minutes. First a flock of red-billed teal flashed in and three fell. Then the whistles of white-faced whistling-ducks gave away their descent and one fell. That flock was backed up by a flock of fulvous whistling-ducks and three fell. Next came a pair of Egyptian geese announcing their presence with a nonstop string of high-pitched honks; one fell.
Hardus and I gathered our marked birds with more and more birds coming overhead. While he circled around the lake to pick up the other guys, I sat on the banks of a separated pothole and examined the birds we had collected. I had just picked up a red-billed teal when I glanced over to see a nyala ram emerge from the bush. For the next fifteen minutes I watched as the ram cautiously approached to within 20 yards of me, sipped water, flung mud with it’s horns, and retreated into a reed bed on the lake shore. It was a very special and unique moment in Africa, despite the slight danger due to their aggression and territoriality.
When the guys returned we laid our ducks out, divided them by species, and counted:
1- Egyptian goose
3- Knob-billed ducks (one of the largest duck species in the
2- Yellow-billed ducks
1- Cape shovel er (once a spoon shooter; always a spoonie
9- Fulvous whistling-ducks
9- White-faced whistling-ducks
5- Red-billed teal
Total: 30 birds—6 species—1 hour maximum!
This hunt alone will be enough to pull me back to the Free State over and over and over again…and the spur-winged goose I missed…
Day 6 (cont.) Guineafowl Galore and the Diminutive Duiker
Following the waterfowl hunt, the day proceeded with a short game drive before lunch. The diversity of large ungulates present on well-managed properties such as this one is unreal. During a brief drive we observed: common reedbuck, nyala, Cape eland, southern greater kudu, red hartebeest, impala, Burchell’s zebra, gemsbok, and waterbuck. Observing the animals, their behaviours, and their habitat preferences it truly one of the most enjoyable facets of hunting Africa.
While driving, a flock of guinea fowl crossed the road. Brad and I jumped off the back of the truck and followed them into the grass. They flushed, that snappy Beretta SxS was shouldered, and two fell. That was fun! And, that Beretta was quickly becoming my favourite shotgun. We had seen close to 1000 guinea fowl over the previous days, but I was anxious to handle these birds and assess similarities and differences with their obnoxious domesticated brethren. These were helmeted guinea fowl; so named for the hard, knobby projection that juts from their heads. Overall, they were very similar to the domestic guineas roaming Amish barnyards; however, their ‘helmets’ were much more pronounced and their waddles lesser. The blue and red head coloration of the helmeted guinea fowl is more pronounced, and I learned that in other times of the year, when their diet switches to a specific insect, it becomes particularly vibrant.
Anyway…we returned to the lodge for lunch and Hardus called a friend. Easy as that, he had arranged a guinea hunt for us that evening at one of his friend’s farms. We headed that direction later in the afternoon and met up with his buddy, Hennie. We met several of Hardus’ friends over the course of the hunt and I enjoyed all of them. Whether graciously allowing us to hunt like Hennie, or sharing conversation over cigars and drinks, they were all top-notch individuals. We drove around the field roads of this particular farm flushing guineas and francolin, and looking for warthogs (‘vark’ in Afrikaans) and duiker. The number of guinea fowl was incredible, and with most the fields unharvested, I’d assume hundreds, if not thousands, remained concealed. Eventually we wound our way back to a patch of bush near our origin; along the way treated to a rare daytime observation of a family group of the typically nocturnal, termite-eating, bat-eared fox.
Hardus, T.J., Brad, Hennie, and myself lined up and proceeded to walk through the two-foot tall grass to a line of bush a few hundred yards distant. When we reached the brush line we shifted down and worked the tall grass back to the farm road. In that collective walk I shot more guinea fowl than I could carry. Flocks of 10-15 birds would flush at 20-30 yards allowing for a bird or two, and then, similar to sharptail grouse, singles would begin ‘popcorning’ as close as a few feet away while you marched to marked birds. If it wasn’t for maintaining marks, I could have easily shot twice as many shells. All told I alone shot 8 birds in that short walk, and while carrying six on the walk back had to revert to one-armed shotgun swings if anymore flushed. The combined tally of guineas had to approach 20 birds, and it concluded what is without a doubt the best day of bird hunting in my life!
As the sun began to settle on the horizon, we looked for a duiker ram, but eventually thanked Hennie and headed back to the lodge. The day was not over though. We had yet another amazing dinner, and then layered up with hoodies and down for another night of duiker hunting. Brad had taken a duiker the night we jackal called, but I was still looking for one. I’m sure people will question the ethics of hunting duiker at night aided with a spotlight, as that practice is largely illegal in the States. However, these tiny antelope are primarily nocturnal in this agricultural region, and while we did occasionally jump a duiker from it’s brushy daytime slumber and spot one or two during the last dusky minutes of daylight, nighttime hunting allowed the opportunity to observe many of them. This style of hunting also allowed us the opportunity to see several other nocturnal species totally inactive when the sun is up. Despite spotting several duiker each evening, they are difficult animals to hunt, even at night. Their horns are typically shadowed by their ears making it difficult to distinguish a mature male from an immature male or female, and they are constantly on the move crossing into standing cornfields and tall grass or scampering through peanut fields.
While I did add another jackal to the bag, we searched for over two hours without a confirmed ram sighting, before returning to the lodge. A ram had been frequenting the short path from the road to the lodge, and Brad and Hardus had nearly hit it with the vehicle a few nights earlier. The chance of the ram crossing the road in those couple minutes was very slim, but there was still a chance. We had travelled less than 200 yards when the ram crossed the two-track and headed for the shadows of the undergrowth. T.J. said ‘Shoot,’ and as this was my first rifle shot since the bad shot black wildebeest, I paid special attention to basic mechanics. When the ram passed through a window in the undergrowth, I settled the cross hairs, exhaled, and squeezed. The ram ran. We departed the vehicle and walked to where it had been standing…Yep, no duiker. How could I miss? But, how could a 20” tall and ~35lb antelope run away after a vital hit from a .243? However, there was blood and the trail became more define. After 40-50 yards I looked up from the trail to see the ram sprawled out in the underbrush. The shot was both perfect and structurally devastating; I have no clue how it travelled that far in the second or two following the shot.
Nonetheless, I had taken a beautiful duiker ram with an easy, but confidence building, shot. I recognise that this style of hunting doesn’t appeal to everyone; however, I can guarantee the next time I’m in the Free State I will be duiker hunting. This hunt was the capstone on one hell of a day of hunting, and Brad and I still had three and a half more days to go!
Day Seven: The End of the Beginning
Day Seven dawned the end of the first part of our hunt. We would leave the Free State the following morning and travel to the North West province to hunt a different camp. It felt like a free day; basically no agenda. We had taken all of the animals that we were after aside from a couple species delegated for the later part of the hunt. Sure T.J. and I were still after a warthog that had been frequenting a particular waterhole (aside from when we set there), but that could wait for the afternoon and I was being picky. Brad decided that he would like to take a cull springbok should the opportunity arise, and I expressed interest in hunting a sneaky black springbok that we saw the very first day while stalking his first springbok. Thus, we left that morning searching for a cull springbok or a big warthog or something special that might just pop up when you least expect it.
We drove along a ridge and eventually stopped to glass the valley below. Warthog! We bailed off the truck and proceeded to head to the patch of grass bordered by lines of brush that the pig was land marked in. We didn’t find the pig, but we did find a bedded beef calf in the very same spot. Ha…the tall grass is a bugger when hunting short-legged pigs! However, as luck would have it, T.J. and Hardus spotted springbok feeding at the opposite end of the bush. We stalked our way in that direction using the patchy shrubs to screen our approach, and while we eventually slipped into range the herd was comprised of females, young rams, and a couple trophy rams. While the cull ram Brad desired wasn’t present in this herd, there was a dandy black springbok ram. This was the same ram we had jumped in the tall grass the day we arrived, and the same ram a previous client had missed twice. He was a bit of a nemesis to T.J.! As I watched him and we discussed the options the decision was made to attempt a stalk; after all it was a free day. Well…we attempted a stalk but with so many pairs of eyes and ever thinning bushes the black ram never offered a shot before the herd spooked. Black Ram-3 Hunters-0. I didn’t care, we tried, the stalk was a blast, and we were hunting! “Let’s try to find a ram for Brad!”
And so we continued searching, and eventually found a respectable cull ram which Brad took. When Hardus arrived with the vehicle he had spotted the black springbok again—the nemesis ram. He was awfully excited about it after assessing it through his optics, and I of course was eager to try another stalk. The ram was standing well out in the grass without any cover nearby, and when we closed to the last cluster of trees the range exceeded 250 meters. As long as I could manipulate myself amongst these trees to find a rock solid rest, I felt confident in taking the shot. With the help of a couple limbs, the trunk, and an arranged binocular case I found exactly the rest I desired. I settled the crosshairs solidly on the transitional stripe of the broadside ram and squeezed. Miss! I chambered another round simultaneously as Hardus said that the ram, clueless of the shot origin, was running right at us. I found the ram in the scope and continued to track while Hardus began a series of buffalo bellows. Sure enough the ram came to a halt at 100 yards and one second later the shot reported. I didn’t miss this time.
This was my special animal of the trip. I don’t mean to devalue the other animals, but I always say I will mount one animal from a trip. I never decide what animal that will be until the end. What made it special? Well..the four of us were there, Brad, Hardus, T.J., and myself. T.J. would be leaving for Mozambique a few days later and this was his last opportunity to lay his hands on the ram he had history with; I was happy to oblige. The failed stalks, the missed shot (although we later found the bullet dropped more than anticipated grazing the backside of the upper leg), the buffalo bellows, and the clean kill. And that moment that the four of us walked up to the downed ram to admire it’s beauty; the horns, the white blaze, and the charcoal pronk. We took time to honor the ram, relive the hunt, and toast a thank you for all that it provided for us.
For those that don’t know what the ‘pronk’ is…pronking is a jumping behaviour used to intimidate/confuse predators or during courtship displays. The ‘pronk’ are long, typically hidden hairs that run down the back of the springbok and are erected and flare during these displays. The springbok pronk will also flare for a couple minutes upon the finality of death.
Springbok come in a variety of colors. I hunted a common springbok in Namibia and viewed both black and white color phases while on that hunt. Black and white springbok are naturally occurring, but have also been selectively breed in the South Africa game ranching industry; as have other color variations such as copper and coffee. This particular herd of springbok that my ram was harvested from were reintroduced nearly 50 years ago when focus was shifting from livestock to game in many areas of South Africa. The original founder population contained only common colored springbok, yet carried the genes and produces black springbok on a regular basis without artificial supplementation. The colored springbok tend to be smaller in horn than common-colored individuals, but I was fortunate to take a great ram with horns of similar length and confirmation as the standard Karoo springbok.
To continue the story, we loaded the springbok and returned to the lodge for a quick lunch. We wanted to head for the waterhole earlier than we had in the past. To not be long winded, we sat until an hour before dark watching a little boar briefly visit the water and wallow, as well as, a free range fallow deer doe that laid around until we decided to move to a track the pigs crossed during their evening departure from feeding. T.J. spotted one pig cross well out of range and we made a last ditch effort to approach; however, the tall grass once again stifled our attempts to get a better look. With the sun touching the horizon we turned back and hiked to the truck. We each grabbed a beer, we sat of the tailgate, and we talked. We talked about our hunt, our lives, our goals, and how thankful we were to come to know T.J. over the last week. We closed the door on the Free State with a Castle Lager in our hands, a weaverbird colony overhead, and the fireworks of an African sunset broadcast before us.
Day Eight: Goodbyes and Greetings
Waking up the morning of Day 8 was bittersweet. I was excited to head to the next camp, as we had heard so many great things about it, but saying goodbye to the Free State camp that Brad and I enjoyed so much left a bit of a hollow feeling. Brad and I made our rounds after breakfast thanking our trackers, Madinda and Muzondi, our hosts, Johan and Annette, and T.J. We said our final goodbyes, loaded our bags in the truck, and Hardus, Janine, Brad, and I piled in for the 4 hour drive.
We made a customary stop at a biltong shop for chili bites and dry sausage, the grocery for camp food and then stopped by the taxidermist to drop our hides and horns. Hardus took the opportunity to show off one of the buffalo he guided the previous year. It was an absolute monster, and I believe will rank Top 20 in the Safari Club International record book.
As we approached the town of Koster, the town nearest our next camp, we left the agriculture, flat grasslands, and camel thorn trees behind. The ground began to undulate into valleys and ridges, and the hillsides were covered in dense brush. We grabbed a quick fast food lunch at a joint called ‘Steers,’ and headed into the next lodge. Hardus gave us strict orders…eat our lunch, get changed, grab the rifle, and do so promptly—there was hunting to be done! (That was the essence of it at least).
Brad and I didn’t need to be told twice; we were excited to get out and explore this new place that sable, nyala, cape buffalo, and white rhino roamed. We saw all those species that first day, and many more. It didn’t take long to happen across the first rhino of the trip, and, as always, they demand a brief photoshoot. At the close of the evening Brad had taken a beautiful blesbok following a truly great stalk. That was his last animal, and he was now an observer for the hunting that remained.
We arrived back to the new lodge to find that Janine was preparing South African t-bones for dinner. While she finished dinner preparations we sat around the fire sipping gin and tonics and watching a couple nyala come to the salt lick below. Shortly thereafter the property owners, Stan and Jacqueline Burger arrived and we enjoyed the next few hours of storytelling and conversation. Ironically, the Burger’s had hosted clients from both Lewistown and Great Falls in the past! I hate for those African evenings to end, because each one brings you closer to your last day. However, I needed rest, tomorrow would be our last full day of hunting.
Day 9: Poor Man’s Buffalo
As I opened the sliding door of my chalet and stepped out on my own private veranda the morning air was a little cooler than it had been in the Free State. Fog laid in the folds of the landscape and the sun had just begun to crest the ridge line. I walked the dewy cobblestone path to the lodge and slipped out the deck to check the salt lick; nothing this morning. Janine had prepared a great breakfast and we indulged before loading up for the morning hunt.
We would hunt a different section of the property today, and, while all contiguous, it took us over an hour to negotiate the farm roads and eventually meander to this corner that blue wildebeest favored and lone bulls hid. The brush was thick and reduced visibility at many times to 20-30 yards as we crawled up the riverine bottom. Eventually the bush parted, blooming into a wide grassland at the head of the valley. Eland. Ostriches. Blue wildebeest!
We departed the vehicle and planned a stalk up a sparsely vegetated spring seep flowing through the grass. Our shoes had finally dried out from waterfowl hunting, but not for long! We crept our way up the spongy seep and were making good progress to the unsuspecting herd when Hardus pointed out mud rubbed logs; an indication of warthog presence. I had just chambered a round for the final push and had began our walk when a warthog erupted 10 yards to our left. The long, curling ivory was eye catching and we scrambled out of the seep, into the grass, and up on to the sticks hoping for a shot opportunity. He was gone, swallowed by the grass. We turned our attention back to the wildebeest herd which now stood at attention surveying these intruders that had just clamored into the open. We were busted, and with a flick of the tail these brindled gnu waved goodbye.
We continued hunting the dense bush looking over warthogs, bumping into a beautiful sable bull, and spotting the first giraffes of the trip. Eventually we even bumped into two bachelor bull wildebeest, but despite our best efforts they were swallowed by the bush and virtually disappeared aside from a brief series of grunts when a lone bull detected our presence somewhere in the abyss.
The morning hunt was over, but I wasn’t disappointed nor distressed at our lack of success. I actually enjoyed it. This is what I enjoy most about hunting; the search for the quarry, and despite a lot of blue wildebeest on the property they were extremely apt at utilizing the abundant security cover.
After lunch we took off for the evening hunt, hunting yet another piece of the property. This time Janine tagged along, and Brad and I were happy to have her along to have some fun for once. She had been tied up until this point managing camp logistics, preparing meals, and dealing with the attributes of her office manager position.
Early in the hunt Lady Luck smiled upon us and we drove right into a blue wildebeest. A survey of the surrounding shade trees revealed swooshing tails. Slowly bits and pieces of hide materialized into one…three…a herd of blue wildebeest. We attempted to position ourselves, but the lone cow that had alerted us to the herd, had alerted the herd to us. They ran, and as they ran we shifted to the left hoping to find a window. The bulls were in the back of the herd and fortunately they ran only a short distance before stopping and turning to clarify what danger was present. Hardus put up the sticks, I put up the rifle, and as he indicated, I settled the crosshairs low on the point of the shoulder of the quartering towards bull. The shot broke crisp and clean; the kind of squeeze that almost startles the shooter. The crosshairs jumped from the sweet spot I had aimed, but the bull turned and ran.
As we approached where the bull had stood Hardus told me to load another round into my rifle to have a full magazine and warned me these animals were tough. Just then we saw a bull running to the left ~300 yards away. He was swallowed by the bush before the horn configuration could be assessed to determine whether it was my bull. Internalized holes began to develop in my positivity following the shot. Where was the blood?! Hardus advised Brad and I to proceed forward on either side of the brushy patch the bull had immediately ran behind to look for sign while he found the bull’s track.
I had walked only 20 yards when I looked up to see the bull bedded at 30 yards. I called Hardus over, desiring conformation that it was indeed the bull I had shot. He confirmed, and another shot ended our pursuit of blue wildebeest.
I can see why these animals are called ‘poor man’s buffalo;’ they are tough. My first shot was exactly as I thought, but the bull bedded, far to stubborn to continue the last run. I was happy to have him, and for Janine to be present for the hunt. I walked up to the bull and was immediately impressed with it’s size; far bigger than I thought and much larger than the black wildebeest. Also, the prominent black tiger stripes descending from the dorsal line and cutting through the slate grey hide were stark and beautiful. This coloration pattern is why they are also referred to as brindled gnu, and why they make one of the prettiest flat skins.
By the time we took pictures, winched the bull into the truck, and reached the skinning shed there were only a few hours of daylight left. While I befriended a Black and Tan dachshund puppy, Hardus worked out a plan for a last hour attempt at bushbuck. An old ram lived in a certain valley and we were going to have a look.
We did have a look. We sat on the hillside during that magical hour of the day that kudu, bushbuck, and nyala leave the security of the undergrowth to feed along the tree line. The bushbuck ram did not show, but the opposite hillside was crawling with kudu. When the sun finally slipped below the ridgeline, a mature kudu bull strutted into the grassy valley below. He was a beautiful bull with complete curls and tips flaring outward, but I was content watching him through my binoculars. It was the perfect evening to reflect on the past days, and the people and animals that had made it so special. The moment was far too serene to shift focus and interrupt the evening serenade with gunfire. I just sat there and smiled, and I glanced over to Brad and Janine and they were smiling. And, I’m 100% sure Hardus was down the hill doing the same.
Day 10: The End
We returned the following morning but the bushbuck ram didn’t show, nor did the kudu. We looked over warthogs and passed warthog. We saw more rhinos and we photographed rhinos. We drove by the lakes for hippos, and we found hippos. We returned to the lodge to pack and we packed. We headed for the airport around 1, stopping for curios and tanzanite along the way. We arrived at O.R. Tambo, said our goodbyes, shook hands, hugged, and Brad and I would climb on the plane to leave Africa a few hours later.
Africa 2017…To Summarize…
Africa is a target rich environment that is painted by outdoor television as a bloodlust nirvana, and it is. But, that isn’t what it is to me.
My hope is that in the last weeks, as I posted my daily recaps, readers have developed a new perspective of African hunting. I hunt Africa to live out childhood fantasies encouraged by the writings of Ruark, Roosevelt, and Hemingway. I want to see my own ‘Green Hills of Africa.’ I hunt Africa to see animals that captivated me in elementary school, and still captivate me today, outside of national parks and zoos. I hunt Africa to observe the keen eye and quick wit of the professional hunter and trackers. I hunt Africa to experience the vulnerability of travel. And, I hunt Africa to share experiences with other hunters who despite thousands of miles of separation, share a kinship related to the natural world.
This trip was:
Sitting in the shade with a Castle in one hand and a Macanudo in the other watching sausages braai over a pit of coals and cussing a morning of ‘fluffy’ shooting.
It was an evening shared with Hardus’ friends sipping South African brandy and cokes, discovering what good lamb really tastes like, and catching head itching nicotine buzzes from the snuff machine…oh that snuff machine.
It was chain-smoking cigars in an attempt to fog out an onslaught of mosquitos doing their best to drain T.J. and I of our last precious drops of blood when all we were trying to do was sit for a warthog that came in every single day we didn’t.
It was ‘Send It,’ biltong shops, “Let me take a selfie,” Janine yelling ‘Shut up,” purple polished boots, a stray toddler, a jackal or was it a duiker, and showing one of my best friends Africa for the first time.
These pictures are what it was and the true reason I hunt Africa…
Location: Hoopstad, Free State, South Africa
Outfitter: Cabassa Safaris
Hunters: Myself (Derrick Miller) and Brad Tribby
PH: Hardus van Zyl and T.J. Butcher
Trackers: Madinda and Muzondi
Manager/Owner: Hardus and Johan van Zyl
Dates: May 1-10, 2017
Area hunted: Hoopstad, Free State (6 days) and Koster, North West (3 days)
Rifle: .300 WSM – Tikka T3 Lite paired with Nikon Monarch 3-9x and 180g Federal Trophy Copper
Animals taken: Myself: Impala, Black Wildebeest, Common Duiker, Black Springbok, Black-backed Jackal x2, and Blue Wildebeest
Brad: Impala, Warthog, Duiker, Southern Greater Kudu, Springbok x2, and Blesbok
Additional Animals seen: Nyala, Red Hartebeest, Waterbuck, Burchell’s Zebra, Gemsbok, White Blesbok, Ostrich, Cape Eland, Cape Buffalo, White Rhinoceros, Hippo, Giraffe, Limpopo Bushbuck, White Springbok,
Fallow Deer, Red Lechwe, Common Reedbuck, Sable, Bat-earred Fox and Steenbok