In pursuit of the king of the Sneeuberg

Written by Oliver Maximilian Wettstein, Farm Doornstok, Naboomspruit

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A couple of months ago I was down in Graaff Reinet for a Greywing Partridge shoot with my good friend Tim Van Heerden from Karoo Wingshooting (which is a hunt anyone interested in wingshooting must go and do, but that is a story for another time) and we got to talking about Vaal Rhebuck while we were prowling the mountains in pursuit of those little grey missiles that would flush in front of the pointers noses. I had never hunted, let alone seen a Vaalie (the nickname that we give them) and was really keen on the possibility of hunting one of these small king’s of the mountains.

I got back to my home base in Limpopo, after our very successful wingshoot, and immediately started planning the next trip down for the Vaalie. I had recently purchased a custom built .308 on a Warrior chassis that I had done some load development for and was keen on stretching its legs on a real hunt and not just the range. A friend of mine offered to fly us down at the cost of the fuel and I immediately jumped at the opportunity, as it would make the trip a lot more comfortable. We set the dates and all that was left was to sit back and wait for the days to pass.

It was finally the week of the trip and we were due to fly early Thursday morning to be in Graaff Reinet by mid day to be able to still get in an afternoon hunt, as we knew we would need all the time we could get to have the best chance at success in the mountains. Wednesday afternoon came and the weather forecast for Thursday was not looking promising and I had to make the call to cancel the flight and opted to rather leave at 3am by car to be in Graaff Reinet at the scheduled time. I was very glad I did as the weather was not favorable anywhere along the 10 hour drive and it would have delayed us by at least a day if I had not left by car that morning. Not a great way to start the safari, but I was not discouraged.

I arrived at our accommodation, close to where the Eastern, Northern and Western Cape converge, at around 1pm and immediately unpacked and got ready to head out to the mountains. Tim was already there and had set up a great lunch for us to enjoy before heading out. After we finished eating we left for the farm we would be hunting at for the next couple of days and upon arriving we picked up Ronan, the farmer’s son, who would be our mountain guide for the hunt as he knew the farm inside out. Ronan and his family farm with cattle, sheep and goats. The farm has no high fences anywhere and all the game animals are free to roam wherever they like, making this hunt a truly 100% free range experience that would add to the challenge and allure of the Vaal Rhebuck.

That first afternoon we saw a lot of Vaalies and mountain reedbuck, but nothing worth shooting, at least not on the first afternoon. As we headed off the mountain some very cold weather started to move in and shrouded the mountain in a thick cloud as we reached the vehicle.

The next morning we got up at around 6am and had a quick breakfast, and as we looked outside we saw that the clouds from the previous day were still low in the mountains and there was a very gusty South East wind, which normally brings moisture to that area. Not discouraged by the weather we set off to pick up Ronan again, who wanted to look at a different mountain that he hadn’t been to for a while, but which held some good potential. We left the vehicle at the base of the mountain range and started our hike to the top. We immediately got into some Vaalies, but once again there was no ram worth shooting in the group. This trend went on for the rest of the morning, but I must say that I did not expect to see so many Vaalies in one area. It was truly spectacular to watch them through the binoculars and spotting scope.

As we headed back to the vehicle for lunch some more weather moved in and it started to sleet-rain on us. It all sounds miserable, but how can anyone be miserable when out in “big sky” country pursuing ones passion; the scenery was truly breathtaking. After lunch we decided to drive to another part of the farm where Ronan had seen some Vaalie, but never been able to hunt any. We did see some but they were out of the area long before we could even make a plan to stalk up to them. The Vaal Rhebuck has amazing eyesight and usually spotted us long before we ever saw them, and we usually only spotted their white tails as they ran up the mountain and over the other side. Vaalies don’t stick around for long and definitely don’t ask questions or wait around to find out the answer. Another day with many kilometers of rough terrain under our boots, and even though we still did not have our quarry we were not discouraged as we still had one full day left.

It was now Saturday morning and our final day in the mountains. Again, we got up at 6am and had breakfast. The weather at our accommodation was consistent with the previous day’s weather, but fortunately as we crested over the hills towards the mountains we would hunt, it cleared up and was a very pleasant morning. We decided to go back to the mountain we hunted the Thursday afternoon as we had seen a Vaalie that would probably measure about 7-7 1/2 inches, which is a very respectable trophy in anyone’s books. Having discussed a game plan with Ronan we set off and made our way up the mountain. As we peered over a ridge close to the top of the mountain we spooked a herd of 14 (!) mountain reedbuck, which hightailed it down the other side never to be seen again. We inched our way forward and to our surprise there were two Vaal Rhebuck rams still grazing down in the gully where the mountain reedbuck had come from. We got into a position where I could set up and see if it was a shooter. We judged the bigger of the two rams to be about 6 inches and I must say that I was very tempted to shoot. But after all the effort we had put in so far it did not seem right to shoot a sub-par and still-young animal just to be able to say I shot one. I would rather go home empty handed, but with the knowledge that I did everything I could to get one, than to go home with something I wasn’t happy with, so we let the two of them spot us and move off. We continued on and had reached the other end of the mountain before seeing anything again, and all we saw was the white tails of Vaalies that had spotted us long before we saw them (as usual), disappearing over the edge never to be seen again. We were now starting to worry and get discouraged, as there was no sign of the Vaalie we had seen two days before. Heading back on the other side of the mountain we came across the 6 inch ram and his younger companion, and had a serious look at him again. But it still did not feel right. As we watched them disappear off the mountain to our left Tim spotted something on the highest peak about 1km away.

It was the Vaalie that we had been after. He was laying right on the skyline overlooking his kingdom, and had clearly been watching us all morning knowing that we had not seen him and thus we were not a threat. We quickly made a plan for Tim and I to try and stalk him from the back side as Ronan headed to a vantage point where he would try and guide us to the location of the Vaalie. As we headed around and up the far side we unfortunately spooked some Vaalie females that we had not seen prior, and they ran up the mountain. Ronan let us know that our ram had gotten up to look at what was going on. We rushed to get up the mountain in the hope that we could spot the ram before he saw us, but as we crested the mountain he and his companions caught a glimpse of us and headed down the other side. We hurried to the edge of the mountain in the hopes that we could see them as they stopped to give us one last look before disappearing for good. They stopped at 500m and I picked out the one with the biggest horns and squeezed the trigger. A clean miss! I was devastated! There went my only chance so far and I had not taken enough wind drift into consideration. We were now not far from the vehicle and seeing as it was already half-past-one we decided to go down to the vehicle and grab some lunch. We called Ronan to come and meet us at the vehicle. We were only about half way down the mountain when Ronan, who was coming around the mountain from the bottom, contacted us and told us that he had spotted a large Vaalie, probably 8 inches plus, about 1 km away. This was a ram that we had not seen before and it got us excited. Ronan saw where the ram had bedded down; we could not spot him from our location, and he met us at the vehicle for a quick lunch.

Lunch was gobbled down quickly and we were ready to put a stalk on the bedded ram that Ronan had spotted. We proceeded around the base of the mountain hugging a small ledge that managed to conceal us well from the weary eyes of the Vaalie. Once we got to just below where Ronan believed he last saw it, we told him to go and peek over the ledge so it wasn’t too many people that could potentially spook the animal. He peered over the ledge. Nothing! My heart sank a bit but I was hopeful we were just in the wrong place, and we hadn’t heard or seen anything run away yet. Tim got up on the ledge and looked to the left with his binoculars and dropped to his knees whispering “big Vaalie to our left laying down!” and I leopard-crawled to a rock about 10m from our position to get a better view. Once I was set up I started to hear the Vaalie alarm bark and frantically started looking where it was coming from. These little creatures are so well adapted and camouflaged in their habitat that without movement they are invisible. Ronan helped guide me towards the direction of where the Vaalie was standing, as he was the only one who could see it at this point. I finally picked it up in my scope, it was facing me dead on and I remembered Tim saying that the frontal shot is a very difficult one as 4 inches left or right would be a miss on this small animal. He was starring right at me so there was no time to range him or even wait for him to turn, as he then would surely had disappeared up the mountain. I steadied the crosshairs high on his chest at the base of the neck and let the bullet fly. The sound of the bullet impacting was, at that point, one of the most amazing sounds to hear. The recoil took me off the animal and I lifted my head just in time to see the Vaalie go down after having run just a few meters up the mountain.

At that moment I felt Tim jump on me, congratulating and shaking me! I honestly was a bit in shock and couldn’t believe that we had finally done it. I never got a good look at his horns, however I did see that they were thick and passed the ears, because I was just focusing on getting steady and putting in a clean kill shot. Walking up that mountain for the last time was easier than I thought, and it must have been due to the adrenaline that was pumping through my veins. Getting up to a killed animal always holds a mix of sadness and happiness to me, and I am always thankful and filled with respect for the animal that has just given its life for me. Seeing the Vaalie for the first time up close I could not believe how small they actually are, and when I saw the horns on this one I knew he was something very special. I had never seen one up close before and thus didn’t want to have a go at judging the length but they were definitely above average. The fur is more like a rabbit’s fur than that of an antelope and that probably adds to the fact that they are so well camouflaged. Touching him and holding the horns for the first time felt surreal and only after we had set up for photos and started the walk back down the mountain to the vehicle did it really kick in what we had just accomplished. This is one of the trophies that I will cherish the most and definitely one that I have worked the hardest for. But after more than 40km of hiking in two-and-a-half days we had finally done it!

Tim was singing all the way to the vehicle, which lead me to believe there might still be something else he hasn’t told me yet. We got down the mountain, Ronan carrying the Vaalie on his shoulders, and Tim met us with the vehicles by the road. Tim, who also works for Karoo Taxidermy, wanted to get the innards out of the animal as quickly as possible to prevent hair slip as this trophy definitely deserved to be full mounted. Before we got to that it was time to finally measure our hard earned trophy. As Tim put the measuring tape on the horns and I saw the tape get longer and longer I waited in anticipation to see how long they were. 9 2/8th – 9 inches in length and 2 6/8th bases! We were all flabbergasted at what we had just achieved, and I say “we” because it truly was a team effort. Tim admitted to me that he was singing because when he saw the Vaalie laying there on the mountain he had a feeling it would be very close to 9 inches. To put 9 inches (which doesn’t sound like that much) into perspective, a 9 inch Vaalie is like shooting a 60 inch kudu bull! Adding the length and bases of the two horns together put it tied 24th in the SCI Record Book rankings.

After the entrails were removed and we made our way back to the farm house to skin it properly, I looked back at the mountains which were the Vaalie’s kingdom and I thought to myself how privileged I was to be able to pursue such an amazing creature completely free range in its natural environment. Nothing can beat that experience and it will stay with me for the rest of my life. The king of the mountain had fallen but would not be forgot and will be forever preserved to show him the respect that he deserves and allow everyone to revel in his glory.

Hitting the long road back home I couldn’t help but think back to those days spent in the mountains and as hard as it was, it was also satisfying and nourishment for the soul. There is just something about being out in wide-open country pursuing a quarry that has every advantage over you – eyesight, hearing, smell etc – which speaks to the primal nature in our soul. I believe every human needs to tap into this primal instinct every now and then for our souls to stay healthy and whole, and what better way to do this than to pursue the king of the Sneeuberg Mountains.


Tim van Heerden was born and has spent most of his life in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Apart from being the marketing manager at Karoo Taxidermy in Graaff-Reinet, he offers bird hunting trips to clients from all over the world. He feels most at home in the highlands of the Karoo, especially behind a brace of English Pointers pursuing Greywing Francolin. He also offers Waterfowl hunts, as well as European-style driven Guineafowl hunts in South Africa to discerning clients.

www.karoowingshooting.co.za
wingshootafrica@gmail.com
082 929 5373