Free-Range Hunting in the Eastern Cape

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Free-Range Hunting in the Eastern Cape
By Vanessa Harrop

You never know what kind of hidden gem you will find, until you expand your horizons.
TJ and I had already experienced and enjoyed several typical plains game safaris, but we now wanted something a little different. We just didn’t know what it was until, at the Africa Hunting Show in Calgary, a small picture of a hunter with a Barbary sheep caught our eye. We stopped, and Raymond Kemp and Edward Wilson of Lalapa Safaris introduced themselves. After speaking with them for a while, we got really excited. Not only did they offer hunts that were a little different, they had some totally unique hunts that we’d never considered.
Lalapa specializes in free-range and indigenous species, and also offers hunts for all 40-plus species in the Eastern Cape. We ended up booking a hunt for Vaal rhebok, mountain reedbuck, Barbary sheep, blue duiker, caracal, bushbuck and bush pig. It would start at Lalapa’s main lodge near Cathcart and then move down closer to Grahamstown to finish our adventure. And what made us even more excited were some of the unusual hunts Ray planned for us. He suggested blue duiker over a small pool deep in dense forest; caracal with hounds; bush pig with infrared, and spending a few nights in the mountains for Barbary sheep. Hunts all new to us, and all free-range.
All our previous South African hunts had been in the heart of the Kalahari in the North West Province. We never expected the Eastern Cape to be so incredibly diverse, with landscapes ranging from the dry and desolate Great Karoo, to the lush forests of the Wild Coast and the Keiskamma Valley; the fertile Langkloof, renowned for its rich apple harvests, to the mountainous southern Drakensberg region. From the endless beaches and craggy bays of the coastline, the province gradually crosses an interior of grassland, rivers and dense forests to reach its northern boundary in the majestic Drakensberg. And the animals available to hunt were no less diverse, each carving out their own niche in this varied landscape.
The Eastern Cape region was settled by the British in 1820 and one only need drive through the countryside and chat with the locals to see that British influence is still very strong today. Sometimes it’s hard to believe you are in Africa when you look out over the lush, green, rolling hills dotted with sheep and cattle. Although there are fenced hunting ranches in the region, there are vast areas of open farm and ranch land where wildlife still flourishes. Those that believe there’s no free-range hunting left in South Africa have never been to the Eastern Cape.
Our first few days were spent hunting Vaal rhebok and mountain reedbuck, and TJ managed to take very respectable animals of both species. It was a great way to acclimatize to the elevation before heading to the more rugged Stormberg Mountains to scout for Barbary sheep. It was Ray’s plan to check out the area and, if need be, return with camping gear for a couple days of spike camping. Barbary sheep were originally brought to the Stormberg from Chad in the early 1960s. They were kept behind a high fence until 1994, when the property was converted to a cattle ranch and the fence fell into disrepair. The Barbary sheep rapidly expanded their numbers and range, and now there is a large herd of approximately 1,000 free-ranging sheep in that area.
As we headed up the mountain behind the main ranch buildings, the terrain became very rough and rocky. Vegetation was sparse, but to my surprise there was some water, with flowing creeks in several of the draws. After ascending the steep terrain in the Land Cruiser for a couple of hours, we parked and headed off on foot. A couple of trackers spotted a large herd of sheep right away, so we went for a look.
The rut was just kicking in and there were several large rams with the ewes. Ray picked out what appeared to be the best one and we made a hurried stalk. At 80 yards I put a big ram down with the .338. As they headed off toward an adjacent mountain, Edward counted 87 sheep in total.
Ray had a good idea where they were headed, so after dealing with my ram, we drove another hour or so and then headed off on foot over two more mountains before spotting the sheep again. They’d split into two groups and we were looking at about 20 and there was one exceptional ram in the group. Directly between us and the sheep were blesbok, black wildebeest, mountain reedbuck, fallow deer, Vaal rhebok and about a dozen Cape Mountain zebra. Ray decided to drive around the mountain and meet us near where the sheep currently were. We would continue on foot and try to get to the sheep. It would take several hours to drive around, and would be nearly dark before he got there. We figured we had little chance of scoring on two rams in one day, but Edward and the trackers were keen to give it a try.
As expected, the zebra spooked as we topped the final ridge and scattered the sheep. They headed over the next mountain, and with the truck now gone, all we could do was follow, in the hope they stopped. We descended into a deep canyon and as we were coming up the far side, we ran right into the sheep that had at some point returned. Spooked by our sudden appearance, they ran across another valley and started up into the cliffs. We scrambled to get up above the creek and TJ found an ant hill to rest the rifle on. The big ram was at 460 yards and he was still climbing. As TJ pulled the stock to his shoulder, the ram was now close to 500 yards. He settled the crosshair on the ram’s shoulder and squeezed the trigger. The big ram dropped right on the spot and tumbled a hundred or so yards down the hill. Our three-day sheep hunt had turned into one day. For all the hunts that never work as planned, you learn to take luck when it comes your way.
We had a few extra days to kill before we headed south for the second half of our adventure. It had been my birthday a couple days previously, so TJ asked me what I’d like to hunt for a birthday present – I chose a black springbok. So, early the next day we headed to a neighboring farm, and after playing hide-and-seek with one exceptional ram for much of the morning, around noon I finally got in position on a high point above him. The ram was standing in the shade under a tree at 240 yards and, once comfortable on the sticks, I gently squeezed the trigger and the ram was down – my best impromptu birthday present ever.
With our wish list filled and still two days remaining before heading for the coast, we decided to add a couple more species to the list with bows. We fixed up a blind and sat at a waterhole for a day. Though many impala, eland and mountain reedbuck came in, we opted not to take anything the first day.
The next afternoon we went back to the bow blind. Eventually two big warthogs appeared. They drank for several minutes then shuffled off to eat grass. Finally the larger of the two offered a broadside shot at 36 yards. I slowly raised my bow and let the arrow fly. But the boar jumped the string and the arrow caught him quite far back. I was devastated, but we picked up blood immediately and called in the reinforcements. Penny and Mechanic, two incredible blood-tracking dogs came to the rescue, and before long I had my big warthog.
The following day we headed toward the coast with our new PH, Ross. Our destination was an amazing tent camp perched high above a waterhole that had lion and elephant and loads of plains game as regular visitors. After dinner we headed out to hunt bush pigs. Ross had two baits going, both with huge boars on them. Bush pig was on my wish list, and we were going to be hunting with a rifle equipped with infrared technology. The first evening, at about 10:00 p.m. we heard a group of pigs starting to make their way to the bait, but at the last minute, the wind swirled, and they got our scent, sending them scurrying away.
The following morning we sat at a blue duiker blind. A good male made a brief appearance but offered no opportunity for a shot. We hunted bushbuck at mid-day and ended up passing on a great male at about 30 yards, a decision that would later haunt us. We saw large numbers of kudu, impala, eland and zebra, and some truly spectacular waterbuck and nyala – we are still wondering why we didn’t decide to add those last two to the list. That afternoon we sat at the blue duiker blind again but had no luck. They had been coming regularly into water before we arrived, but some unseasonably hot temperatures seemed to have interrupted their schedule.
Back to the lodge for a quick dinner, then out to the bush pig blind. We’d been sitting for about an hour when I saw Ross point to his ear. I heard nothing, but Ross said he could hear the pigs crunching corn, about 70 yards away. I quietly reached up and switched on the IR scope, and there were seven pigs at the bait. Much to my chagrin, the big boar was hidden behind the piglets. It took every ounce of patience not to shoot, but eventually I had a clear shot and dropped him on the spot.
I enjoy hunting cougar with hounds in Canada, and when I learnt we could hunt caracal with hounds in the Eastern Cape, I was beyond excited. As with cougars, hunting caracal needs an expert houndsman with a skilled pack of hounds, and that’s where Jeff Ford entered the picture. Jeff has run two packs of hunting dogs for almost 20 years in the region. The hounds were controlled by two dedicated houndsmen, Tim Mbambosi and Maron Fihlani. Jeff uses his hounds to hunt both caracal and jackal in the dense bush and often extremely rugged broken terrain.
Jeff’s dogs head out with their handlers each morning before sunrise. Typically, they will receive a call from local farmers who have either lost livestock to predators or have heard the bark of a bushbuck in the vicinity, and they will begin the search there. As this is all dry land tracking, the handlers must work meticulously through the area until the dogs strike on a scent. Because of Jeff’s success in controlling these predators, small game species such as oribi, blue duiker, Cape grysbok and Cape bushbuck have flourished in the area.
As the morning sun was just starting to rise, a blanket of mist shrouded the lower-lying areas and we got a call from Jeff that the hounds were on a caracal. We raced to the meet location, only to be told that the caracal had jumped from the tree and been killed by the hounds. But, Jeff’s other houndsman, Maron, was out looking for a scent so we headed toward his location.
We could hear the hounds in the distance, working the trail in the bottom of a very steep canyon. The footing was treacherous, and I fell on my butt several times on the way down the steep slope. It was more of a controlled slide, with branches and vines slapping my face as I skidded down. Once in the bottom, we hit a rocky creek that was surrounded by a nearly impenetrable wall of thick vegetation and vines. Dropping to our hands and knees and squeezing our way through the heavy bush, I could hear Jeff and Ross further down the ravine, with Maron and the hounds off in the distance. I pushed myself harder to shorten the distance, my breath running ragged and the sweat pouring down the sides of my face and my back.
By now, we could clearly hear the dogs barking, followed by a deep baying that sent chills up my spine! I finally caught up to the group and was quickly prodded on. Ross whispered that we had to get there quickly before the cat jumped the tree. The noise from the dogs intensified into a crescendo, and I knew the cat was treed. We needed to sneak in unnoticed or the cat would jump for sure, so we crawled on hands and knees until I could just make it out high up in the tree. Ross handed me the shotgun and I managed to catch what little breath I had left, took aim and pulled the trigger. Hunting a caracal had always been a dream and doing it free-range with hounds was more than I could have ever imagined.
We realized that the more we hunt South Africa, the less we know. I had just assumed that all South Africa was the same as the North West Province, but I now know that South Africa, in particular the Eastern Cape, is incredibly varied both in terrain and huntable species. If you want to have a truly unique and diverse adventure, you need look no further than the Eastern Cape. And, if you believe that there is no true free-range hunting remaining in South Africa, you have obviously never been to the Eastern Cape.
For more information, check out Lalapa Hunting Safaris at www.lalapasafaris.co.za