A Tailgate and a Trip
By Matt Shaw
“There’s your cat! You will have to try him from here. He will be sitting facing us. Just put the crosshairs on his eyes,” whispered my PH Garth. We had been out night hunting for the last two and a half hours. I flexed my fingers to get some feeling back into my hands, (riding around in the cold wind of the Mpumalanga Province of South Africa at night in the back of the Land Cruiser was not what I had had in mind while packing back home in Alberta) brought the rifle up, found a solid rest, and slowly squeezed the trigger…
This was my second trip to South Africa. My first safari was to the Eastern Cape, which was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime. But as that safari wound down I knew that I would be back, stalking the majestic animals of Africa again at some point in my life – I just had no idea that it would be in less than two years.
I had dreamt of hunting Africa since I was 10 years old, and because of this I talked to every African Outfitter I could find at the various Sportsman shows around Alberta, and I even started visiting the Africa Shows held in Edmonton and Calgary. I became friends with some of the outfitters and enjoyed visiting with them when they were in town. In January of 2016, The Africa Show was held in Calgary. I attended, and went out for drinks and dinner with a couple of outfitter friends after the show closed. We shared stories of the past season’s hunting adventures, and when we left the restaurant later on, discovered that someone had decided to steal the tailgate from my new truck.
I was ANGRY like you wouldn’t believe, because the truck was less than three months old – it replaced the truck that had been stolen out of my driveway in the fall! The next day, while sitting on the couch and growing angrier with every ad I looked at for used tailgates (they aren’t cheap) my cell phone rang. It was Birgit from The Africa Show telling me that I had won the door prize, a 7-day Safari with Legelela Safaris in the Free State of South Africa! Miraculously my mood improved, and to this day I say that I will gladly trade a tailgate for a trip to Africa!
A year and a half later I was headed back to Africa with my good friend Brent who was joining me on his first safari. We would be hunting in the Free State, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal for 10 days, looking for a variety of plains game as well as the serval I wanted. We would also be crossing off another bucket list item for me, as we were going to spend a day angling for Tiger fish while we were there.
And now, here I was in the cold and dark, with a chance to finally get my cat.
I lined the crosshairs of the scope onto the serval’s eyes, and slowly squeezed the trigger of Garth’s .375 loaded with a solid. The rifle kicked up at the shot, and there was a solid “Whap.” “You got him, he dropped!” was Garth’s somewhat surprised exclamation. I stayed where I made the shot so that we would not lose the location in the dark and could guide Brent and the ranch owner up the hill to the spot. Meantime, I asked Garth why he was surprised that I had made the shot. “A 200-yard shot at night is something that most people miss, especially when they are doing it for the first time,” he said.
After a quick search, the serval was found right where he had dropped. While waiting for the other two to collect the cat, I asked Garth why you would shoot a small animal like a serval with a .375 H&H.
“Loaded with a solid, the large caliber would do less damage than a smaller caliber like a .223 loaded with a soft bullet,” he explained. I couldn’t believe how beautiful the spotted cat was when I finally got my first up close look at him. He was long and lean with an absolutely gorgeous coat. We took a few field photos, and Garth said we would take more detailed trophy pictures the following morning in daylight.
We continued to hunt that evening, and Brent almost took a jackal, but it disappeared into a valley full of long grass, never to be seen again. We were out again the following evening. This time I was armed with my bow, and the goal was to try for a steenbok. I had declined one on the first day of my previous safari, and had never had another chance. I had regretted that decision over the last two years, as those tiny antelope are beautiful. We attempted several stalks but I wasn’t able to get a shot off. There was a full moon, so that allowed the animals to see me off to one side drawing my bow while Garth held the spotlight on the animal. Brent had another close call that night as we spooked some bush pigs in a corn field, but we weren’t able to chase them out. They just circled Garth in the corn before disappearing.
Hunting at night was a great experience as it is not something that we are able to do in Alberta. It gave us the opportunity to see a totally different group of animals that we would not see by daylight. Some of them were caracal, jackal, steenbok, porcupine and springhare.
After hunting for three days, and doing the two night hunts, Brent had taken a blue and a black wildebeest, and I got my serval. We had several close calls on zebra and fallow deer, the latter now being bred in South Africa, but ended up leaving them for the next trip, and headed to a new lodge for spiral-horned animals in thicker bushveld. The drive went smoothly, with Garth stopping along the way to pick up some delicious biltong for us to enjoy. Brent was somewhat leery of the dried meat as he had misheard, and thought we were eating bull tongue. This was quickly sorted out, and the bag of biltong didn’t last long.
At the new lodge we settled in quickly and headed out for a drive to see what we could find before the sun set. It didn’t take long to start seeing different game that first evening – giraffe, impala, kudu cows and buffalo – leaving us excited for the next morning. We hunted hard the next few days, with me sitting in a blind by a water source, and walking and stalking nyala with my bow, but with no success for me. (Nothing new for a bowhunter!) I was enjoying the challenge and was seeing lots of game. Brent was able to take a nice mature kudu bull and a cool, non-typical blesbok.
Before we knew it, we had been in Africa for a week, and it was time to go and see if the fish were biting. We left at dawn as we had to drive for a couple of hours to get to the reservoir where we would be fishing, and wanted to be out on the water nice and early. I have been fascinated by Tiger fish since seeing one in the trophy room of some good friends at home in Alberta, and couldn’t wait for the chance to hook one of these underwater predators. At the boat launch in the bay we were leaving from we were greeted by an ornery bull hippo. He marked his territory, then submerged and appeared to leave the bay. We hopped onto the pontoon boat and slowly made our way out onto the lake. Right as we were leaving the mouth of the bay I spotted the hippo running back into the water, and alerted Brent. The hippo then decided to charge the boat. (It really is amazing how wide they can open their mouths.) Garth was shouting
“Go! Go! Go!” Garth shouted to our captain as Brent and I watched and fumbled for our cameras. The hippo managed to get so close to our boat that I probably could have reached out and hit him with one of the paddles. Brent and I laughed as the hippo finally fell back, as our boat got up on plane. Then Brent noticed the look on Garths’ face. He didn’t seem to think it was as cool as we did, and proceeded to tell us that the hippo would have had no trouble flipping our 20-foot pontoon boat over, tossing us into the water, and possibly attacking us.
That was the most excitement that we had that day. The fishing turned out great, and we were able to land 13 Tigers and had at least that many that got away. It proved to be a challenge for me to set the hook into the hard mouths of these fish as I am used to being gentler with a small hook and flyrod. Brent and I landed the majority of the fish with Garth only able to bring one into the boat. At the end of the day we were all a little apprehensive about what we might find in the bay, but the belligerent hippo was nowhere to be found.
After our great day of fishing we were down to three hunting days. Brent and I each managed to take a few more great trophies, thanks to Garth. I took a very nice springbok, which just happened to be my birthday gift from my wife. This animal was at the top of my list, because despite trying very hard on my first safari, I had failed to get one. I wrapped the trip up by taking a beautiful nyala on our last afternoon. After taking some pictures and getting him up to the skinning shed, I was able to spend the last evening enjoying one of Africa’s amazing sunsets and reflecting on all of the great memories made over the past week and a half.
This trip was first class from the moment we arrived at the airport and were picked up by one of Reinier’s guides. The accommodations and the food were all exceptional as was the quality of the animals that we saw and took during our stay. Our PH Garth Lee was amazing, easy to get along with, and really determined that we had the experience of our lives. On our way home, Brent and I were already discussing plans for a return trip to Africa with Legelela Safaris.
I would like to thank a few people for making this trip possible. Thanks to the people who continue to put on The Africa Shows here in Canada, despite the challenges posed by various anti-hunting groups. A huge thank you to Reinier Linde of Legelela Safaris for generously donating this hunt. And thanks also to my favorite outdoor writer, Craig Boddington, for instilling a passion to hunt Africa into a young Canadian hunter.