Horns and All
By Ray Cox
To leave footprints in the ancient homeland is a privilege, and earning its bounty comes with three possibilities: a great deal of gratitude, being humbled, or both.
“Did you hear that?” exclaimed my son, Sean, from across the pitch-black chalet. “Yeah,” I said, speculating wishfully. “Sounds like it’s a couple of miles away.” It was 2.30 a.m., our first night in the Zambezi Region (the Caprivi Strip) camp. After a few minutes the lions roared again. Our senses now quite alert, we lay quietly, eventually drifting off to sleep until the generator rallied us around 5 a.m. For much of my 60 years, Africa had resonated within me. Deeply embedded instincts drove a desire to return to the ancestral common ground. That night, we were welcomed home.
We were on a 15-day dangerous- and plains-game safari with Omujeve Hunting Safaris. Eighteen months earlier, I had found Omujeve in AHG’s “Visited and Verified”, the African Visited Outfitter verification program.
“What are your priorities?” PH Steyn asked, while loading the bakkie that first morning. “Cape buffalo with distinctive bosses is more important than spread,” I replied, and added, “Kudu over 50 inches, eland, gemsbok, and other plains game – let’s hope for good specimens.” Smiling broadly Phillip said, “Let’s get on with it.” We climbed into the cab. The others rode in the open back of the bakkie – Sean, who was handling game-spotter/photographer/videographer duties, Foster the Mashi Conservancy Game Ranger, and Tracker Chris. Thirty minutes later at Bwabwata National Park along the Angola border, Park Ranger Carl joined the group, and the hunt was underway.
Within four hours, we saw several buffalo, had an unsuccessful stalk, and encountered tsessebe, lechwe, impala, sable, and roan, none of which were on license. That afternoon, Phillip was reassigned to another party that arrived earlier than planned, and Jacobus Wasserfall was now my PH. Over the next few days buffalo were scarce, but we had quite a few stalks for kudu, usually groups of two to five. There were no shot opportunities, just brief glimpses of bodies and heads before they vanished. We were thrilled nonetheless as several stalks involved kudu in the 52-55″ neighborhood, and one upwards to 60″. The biggest of the “Grey Ghosts” are equally as smart as they are endowed.
We searched the park and the neighboring conservancy for buffalo, and stalked the elusive kudu, but saw no eland, gemsbok, or other animals on quota.
We relocated to nearby Nkasa Rupara National Park, bordering Botswana. A brilliant sunrise cast long shadows on the misted landscape. Lagoons surrounded by expansive islands of grasses and woody vegetation considerably improved visibility, compared with the dense tree and shrub savanna of Bwabwata and Mashi, and increased game sightings.
A Park Ranger navigated our vehicle through the savannah, and within an hour, a mile distant, we spotted a herd of more than 100 buffalo. Abandoning the bakkie, we used the many islands of vegetation to close the range. Jacobus diligently studied the herd, found a mature bull, and plotted our approach relative to the wind. Despite having ample firepower, a Winchester Model 70 Safari Express in .416 Rem. Mag., I wanted to stalk in close. Jacobus selected a buff. It was between 65-70 yards from where I shot. The buffalo ran, and a second Hornady 400-grain bullet stopped him near a thicket. Three more shots up close produced a death bellow. Its very large bosses, with horns spread 43″ in near-perfect curls, made for a very happy hunting party. To touch those horns realised the fulfilment of a Cape buffalo dream.
We traveled to Omujeve’s main camp in central Namibia, entirely different from the Zambezi Region. Vistas were extraordinary, with unobstructed views toward the horizon in every direction. The veld, stark yet beautiful, was mostly plains and undulating hills punctuated by occasional kopjes. Shots could be 300 yards or more, yet despite the extraordinary visibility, finding game was suitably challenging.
Though kudu remained a primary objective, plains-game PH Jean Cilliers seized opportunities to take the other game on my list. Near dusk on the first afternoon, a blue wildebeest presented broadside at 240 yards. Shooting off sticks from a sitting position, my Sako Hunter V in .338 Win Mag using Federal 250-grain Nosler Partition bullets put him down within yards of where he stood.
Meanwhile, my wife Denise had arrived in camp that afternoon after multi-day tours in South Africa and Namibia, just in time to keep me company as the next day Sean was heading home. Over sundowners, we shared safari and tour stories.
The following morning as we returned to camp for lunch, a warthog darted up a fairly open hillside at 100 yards. I quickly uncased the stowed Sako, and a single shot turned him into leopard bait.
During numerous stalks on gemsbok we would come across zebra or waterbuck, but Jean would say, “We can always circle back for them.” Thus it was that we took a 28″ waterbuck. We had spotted him standing, elegant and stately, under shade on the edge of a dry riverbed about 600 yards away. The gemsbok had eluded us, so we made our way back toward the waterbuck. Our approach was cautious for a typically wary quarry, as we weaved undetected through the thorn bush. At 166 yards, the shoulder shot sent him stumbling in our direction. He stopped, facing us at 50 yards where another shot dispatched him.
The following morning, we headed out for eland. After working three sides of a broad hilltop, we sat quietly. The wait was brief. We heard the telltale clicking of eland hooves, followed by movement in the bush. As silently as possible, Jean and I tried intercepting them, but we soon realized that they were gaining distance on us. We went back to the bakkie, headed down the two-track about a mile, stopping just below a ridge that offered an advantage in spotting the eland.
As we reached the hilltop, instead of an eland, a gemsbok appeared on the opposite hillside. Jean had me on the sticks, when suddenly in the valley below us a group of gemsbok ran through, spooking the subject in the crosshairs. The herd moved off and there in the exact spot where the spooked gemsbok had stood on the opposite hillside was another, even more impressive specimen. At 288 yards, the gemsbok bull folded at the shot. His beautiful, prime-condition horns measured 37.5 inches.
Still eager to intercept the eland, we drove a few miles, Jean saying that they cover ground quickly. Leaving the bakkie and our new tracker, Hafani, behind, we double-timed it to a broad, flat depression completely surrounded by hills. Jean said that he was familiar with this area, suspecting that here the eland would take a mid-day rest. Dense ground cover provided concealment as we entered and slowly made our way through the depression. Suddenly, a group of eland appeared and a large male stopped broadside 160 yards away, but a dense thorn thicket blocked any clear path for a shot. Jean waved me into the thicket. I balked at first, thinking he was crazy, but he insisted, indicating that we had precious little time to get set and shoot. From a low sitting position on sticks, I found space through the thorns, and put a .338 round through the shoulder. The eland staggered forward and piled up on the edge of another thorn thicket. The bull had a thick tuft of tawny blond hair in front of his 36.5” horns.
Over lunch at camp, Denise suddenly announced that she would join me that afternoon. Not only was this her first safari, it was the first time she had accompanied me hunting. I was thrilled!
Common springbok, on license, were hard to find, and we were fortunate to spot a herd bedded about 500 yards away. Jean and I snaked our way through some thick cover, where he positioned the sticks at 175 yards and whistled. The nicest buck stood up, but my shot was high, kicking up dust behind him. Off they ran, the last springbok we saw on the safari. Disappointing, but that’s hunting.
An unpredictable wind picked up that afternoon and we decided to return to camp a little early. On the way, we scattered a large herd of Burchell’s zebra. They in turn spooked a small group of Hartmann’s mountain zebra. We drove forward to a high plateau, left the bakkie and made to a vantage point. At first, the Hartmann’s were moving away, but the swirling winds carried our scent, reversing their retreat. The zebra came up the opposite side of the plateau, and at 150 yards, the stallion halted, staring at me. He was jittery, and as he turned broadside my shot was good. Denise was able to see it all – her introduction to the wonderful world of safari!
The last day arrived, the priority kudu. Jean took us quite a distance from camp and brought Hunter along, a Jack Russell terrier. Hiking up the first hill that morning, we spotted a kudu across a ravine, a bull Jean estimated in the mid-50″ range. I settled on the sticks, pausing to catch my breath for the certainty of the 250-yard shot.
“Shoot quickly, the kudu won’t stand there for long,” Jean urged. At the shot, the kudu dropped hard. Suddenly it jumped up, running. Re-engaging, I sent two more shots without effect as it disappeared over the hill. I’d forgotten the advice I’d read from PH Tony Tomkinson about kudu. “Reload and keep your sights on him. Remember, the ones that go straight down are often the ones that get straight up again and bugger off for good!”
On the hilltop, Jean, Hafani, and I spread out looking for blood. After 20 minutes, we found bright-red drops, and optimistically followed the trail. Suddenly, Hunter started barking.
“What’s going on?” I yelled. “Hunter kicked out a rabbit,” said Jean. Seconds later, a massive kudu, with magnificent, long, deep, spiraled horns, bounded through the bush about 25 yards away. By the time I shouldered the Sako, he’d gone.
We followed the blood trail for over two miles. The kudu was never visible, but we knew he was aware of us. He would stop, watching his backtrack, and a denser blood splatter would form. The ground was only slightly hilly, but strewn with loose, ankle-twisting rocks, preventing Hunter and us from gaining speed to close the gap for one more shot. Sadly, the blood-trail crossed over an adjoining property fence line.
I imagine that kudu from time to time, browsing on the hillsides, a scar on his flank where a bullet had annoyed him one day.
A Namibian safari offers much opportunity, and regardless of inches of horn, you are ever-grateful when trophies are earned. Jean explained that animals sometimes “shock drop” to non-lethal wounds. Remember PH Tomkinson’s words. You take what is offered, if you earn it.
I’ll heed Africa’s call again, entrusting a “Visited and Verified” outfitter.
And that first night back will be like a welcome home.
Horns and All