A Grey Ghost in the Erongo Mountains

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A Grey Ghost in the Erongo Mountains
By Bruce Parker

You’ll see a far-off fire, a tiny flicker in the darkness, and, if your heart is right, you’ll know there are men sitting there, dressed against the cold, and planning tomorrow. They have come to find the legendary Grey Ghost of Africa, the antelope that consumes more fireside time and engages more hunters in wistful and proud discourse than any other in Southern Africa.

A farmer had once spoken of a special place far to the west, saying he’d never journeyed there himself, but years ago while still a youngster, a trader had passed by and left the horns. When pressed for details of their origin, he’d waved his arm towards the west and mumbled softly. For years the horns had been the sole reason, he said, that visitors called at his remote home, simply to see them, touch them and stare wistfully into the empty gravel plains that stretched further than even the horizon. The directions were never written, simply contained in a sentence that he’d learnt as a youngster, when all his waking time was devoted to how he would find the place where that kudu had once lived.

To find the mountains, he’d said, “You must walk the gravel plains to the west until the summer storms point you to the great mountains, and there you’ll find a land too beautiful to paint.” But from where do you start, he’d been asked, answering, “Well, my farm’s near Otjimbingwe, where the two rivers meet.”

Out on the plains, the night cold grew heavier and colder. In camp, under the yellow lights, the smell of the desert dust and coffee mixed with the shadows of men busy preparing for tomorrow. In a few hours, the gravel and pebbled surface would shimmer in the heat, and the dust devils would dance amongst the stunted acacia, and life would creep away and hide. And in camp, nothing would move as the land heated beyond use and began draining even the sky of colour.

The night before, the first of the summer’s storms had swept the peaks, flooding the valleys and ravines with a brown boiling turbulence that fuelled the dust-dry rivers. Amazingly, thirty-six hours later that wild water had already surrendered to the desert sand.

Arriving a day after the first heavy rains of the summer could be a disaster. Even Hendrik wore a worried look and had been seen having long animated discussions with our skinner Driet, but in the end we decided not to cancel.

In the early dawn and against the yellowing horizon, the sweeping and blackened arrowheads of rock seemed to fill the desert. Whatever the men were doing in the camp and whenever they walked from one spot to another, they kept glancing at the granite massif that seemed to glower at the world.

“It’s time,” said Chris. “We must leave now if we’re to be hard against the rock at first light and take the best track. The runoff from the storm should be past, so we’ll have the best chance at picking up the spoor we’re going for.”

Our pre-hunt chat in Windhoek had brought focus to the idea of going for the cisterns in the Erongo. Our strategy assumed that for aeons, rain water had tumbled, loaded with rock, carving and channelling the great granite domes, and in that rush of water, the secret cisterns were filled to overflowing. These reservoirs could not be far from the great run-off channels that burst from the mountains. The sand and rock-strewn washes had to be our way in, and the same applied to the wildlife. We reasoned we would go for height and watch the kudu arrive at the few springs that were still active.

“It’s easy,” Alan said, “We must just follow the insects, the bees or the butterflies, because they drink every day.”

“That’s right Alan,” said Chris, “and there’s a lot of rock there and not much topsoil to complicate the climb. Hendrik, my Herero tracker, is one of the few men who can follow over hard rock. And I must tell you guys, way to the south in the Khomas Hochland, Hendrik and I found kudu on steep bare rock, climbing like European sheep.”

“Tell us,” said Alan.

“We were following kudu tracks up a ravine, when the path was closed by a sloping rock. We could see scratch marks on the rock itself and followed. It was difficult, but after some five minutes we dropped down onto a small sand-filled cleft, blocked by yet another fall of rock. The tracks avoided the rockfall and went up the rock face again. In the next cleft standing on rock were eight kudu next to a spring filled with clear water, and doves were fluttering around trying to find a perch among a million butterflies. The amazing thing was that the kudu could not rush off, but stepped onto the rock and carefully climbed away and out of there.”

We left camp and drove towards the towering mountains, scattering a covey of Hartlaub’s francolin that ran, but did not take to the wing.

“Too cold to fly,” mumbled Alan, his face hidden by a balaclava.

On the top of the first embankment Chris engaged low range and the land cruiser went down at a steep angle, levelled off in what looked like deep mud, and crossed without a problem. In the riverbed itself the air was even colder than on the gravel plains above.

“Here’s good enough,” said Chris, bringing the cruiser to a stop near an overhang.

“It’s freezing,” said Alan, as we geared up, fingers clumsy and thickened by the cold. Around us, the grey tinted jungle of rock seemed more gloomy and indistinct in the slow drift of icy air from the heights above.

At a gesture from Chris, our half-frozen, zombie-like group shuffled after him and from the volume of fresh track, our theorising seemed to be paying off.

A half-mile further, we knew we had the way into the mountains. Crossing our path was a veritable kudu highway with the tracks of Africa’s most stately antelope everywhere. Some were deeply pressed and showing skid marks in the drying mud, while others were already losing their shape to the sun’s stealing warmth. This made for real focus, and checking the route they’d taken, it wasn’t long before we found the acacia thicket that hid their way into the mountains.

Ahead a huge rock fall and then the mountaineering part of our stalk began. As tricky as it now looked, this was what we’d talked about – surprising the kudu from high above. Along with height, came good glassing and shooting opportunities, providing we neither skylined ourselves nor rolled loose rock down the granite domes into the thickets and acacia below.

“The kudu will be standing, waiting for the sun’s warmth before they start feeding,” whispered Chris. “Keep low, or crawl, but don’t show yourself. If we skyline once, it’s all over.” Just then the distant bark of a chacma baboon echoed briefly, but was not repeated. Chris winced and shook his head, showing by crossing his throat that being seen by the troop would also kill the hunt.

We started at the foot of a jumble of balanced rock, against the dome flank and this gave us access to a rock-strewn ridge and up we went. Later, from a cave-like overhang, we had our first glimpse of the ravine floor below. Balancing rocks and a few rounded boulders ringed with acacia and thorn bush made the area appear impenetrable. Where was the open sand path with the game park view with kudu browsing everywhere? Alan looked concerned; it was after all his plan.

Protected by the deep shade, we started to glass, each trying a separate quadrant. Then, as if our eyes could suddenly see, kudu cows appeared scattered along the far wall of the ravine below us. Now, we peeled the thorn and spindly leaves from every acacia stand, searching for the bull, but, hard as we glassed, there wasn’t one.

Critically aware that a single loose stone could clatter hundreds of feet and bounce into the browse below and alert our quarry, we carefully resumed the stalk, feeling our way along the boulder-strewn path.

For another half hour, we continued our climb. At this height, we could see an infinity of boulders and ridges that began with a spiky hedge of green acacia and strange clusters of small boulder kopjes and loose round stones that lay scattered on sheets of flat reddish granite. Dead ahead was a drop-off, and then we began to catch glimpses of the ravine’s far side, a good quarter mile away. Taking off our packs and securing the rifles, we squirmed into position on our stomachs, elbows losing skin to the rough granite.

The view was breathtaking. Below was an oasis carpeted with yellow flowers and a mix of stunted euphorbia and acacia. Huge granite boulders lay scattered about, giving shade and form to this hidden paradise. As a busy group of rosy-faced lovebirds called, we spotted a pool at the base of the huge granite dome almost opposite us.

Suddenly there was a sharp intake of breath from Alan. “Man, I’ve got 59 maybe 60 inches, symmetrical with white tips and heavy bases. At 4 o’clock,” he whispered.
A kudu was behind a thicket of young acacia, his greyish-fawn coat blending with the branches so well that his horns were the only giveaway as they shook the branches above his head. Then he stepped back, holding his head low and took a few steps into the open, his tufted neck fringe almost on the ground. His rump twitched, sending a crowd of flies into the air, only to have them settle again in seconds. We lay transfixed, stretched out on the cool rock, wondering at his perfection. Not the biggest set of horns ever recorded, but a magnificent representation of what the greater kudu was all about. I knew we should savor this moment, for alive he was so much more than a horn measurement.

Then lifting his head suddenly, he stared hard down the ravine, his huge white-fringed ears flicking back and forth. Clearly, he sensed something. Not us surely, as we were at least 400 feet away and above him. Then I thought ‘acoustics’ – what if the distance wasn’t protection at all and the rocks were amplifying our whisperings?

I lowered my head and wriggled backwards, and found and unzipped my rifle bag, palming the zipper to silence it. Barely breathing, I pulled my .300 Win Mag half out the bag and slowly worked the bolt, loaded four 200gr rounds, and closed the action with a round in the breech, safety on. Taking a breath I looked up and saw Chris frowning and urging me to hurry.

Then the coarse, unmistakable bark – I knew I was going to lose him. I squirmed back and nervously exposed the barrel as Chris whispered in my ear.

“You may still have a chance. He thinks the problem is downhill and has moved into the brush where he was when we first saw him.” In seconds my scope was working back and forth probing the thicket. Nothing. Chris saw my nervousness.

“Slow down, you have kudu eyes now and we must just wait as he’s in a thicket island and must come out sometime.”

Then a touch on my arm: “I see him, he’s moved again, now half way back in the upper section, still looking down the ravine,” said Alan.

I kept the scope at 6x and started probing the area again. A white strip of something, then his rump twitched, and I had him. Moving the scope over his chest and neck, desperately looking for a clear shot, served only to raise the tension that gripped us all. Lowering the rifle, I looked at Chris and shook my head, whispering that the shot was a ‘no go’, as there were any number of small twigs and an inch thick-branch in the way.

“Chris, we must wait,” I said.

And wait we did. The minutes crawled by and then the first touch of the midday wind. A black eagle drifted over the jumble of rock below us. Alan and Chris glanced at me in turn, clearly urging the shot and wondering why I was holding off. I released the safety. The kudu was standing in much the same spot, but now I found some subtle shift in his position had opened a small window midway up his neck.

Steadying the cross hairs I took up first pressure and continued squeezing. The rifle jumped hard, but my eye stayed pretty much with the shot. Dust flew from his neck just as I lost the picture.

“He’s down! In his tracks,” said Chris with a shout. Our joy and excitement rang in those rocks, and everybody was talking at once. While we hurried to assemble the gear, Chris called Hendrik and gave him the good news, and then our long climb down to the gravel plains began.

Our greater kudu measured 62¾ and 62¼ inches.

Recovery took until early evening and left us standing at the truck, with aching backs and thighs, bloody, exhausted but proud, and with singing spirits.

None of us will ever forget that hunt, and one of the many memories that will remain with us was the ride back to camp. Leaning into the cooling desert air we rode that cruiser like warriors, arrow-straight across the vast gravel plain with the massif behind us, its peaks glowing gold. The great spiral horns rose high above the tailgate, perhaps his last salute to the home that had nurtured him for so long.

Our skinner Driet worked late into the night, with us constantly visiting to not only follow his progress, but to gaze again at the kudu. Hendrik joined most of our little expeditions, and he seemed as pleased as any man could be. We understood that he counted this magnificent kudu as his victory, too. And in the firelight we recognized in his work, a proud man in a very ancient Africa, practicing a very ancient craft.

Back at our fire we sat in silence and thought of what had been done and what had not been said, and while staring into the fire as all men do, we heard the strange call of a nightjar. It came closer and called again, its evocative notes finding no echo in the silence of the plains, but in our hearts it did, and in the silence that followed we wondered if it also spoke for the great mountain and what the message might be.

Bruce Parker has filmed for Craig Boddington and contributed to “Tracks Across Africa” in a life spanning the corporate world and the African bush. His hunting stories percolate through 40 years of hunting Africa.