Alternate titles: Grey Ghosts of the Kalahari
Or: A perfect first African Hunt – More than Trophies
As a kid in the 1950’s, I looked forward to hunting season the way my friends did to Christmas. Long before I learned to shoot I wandered the fields in Alberta, Canada with dad looking for grouse and pheasants. Opening day of duck season was the highlight of my year. Sneaking quietly to the edge of a marsh we hid silently in the bull rushes waiting for the crack of dawn and the first flight of ducks. Watching the stars pale and the smell of the marshes still evokes great memories. I browsed the hunting magazines that were always around home. As I learned to read I couldn’t get enough hunting stories. Tales of African safaris, where great hunters shot exotic animals were my favourites. A comic strip of the time included the Zulu. How I wanted to see those stately warriors with their shields and spears. I remember dad saying that if I worked hard and saved perhaps one day I would be able to take an African safaris. But life goes on. Soon I was busy at university and with Apartheid, travel to southern African was nearly impossible for Canadians. I all but forgot about Africa.
In the spring of 2011, dreams of Africa were rekindled. My brother, Duane was co-chairing the World Veterinary Congress in Cape Town and suggested we organize a pre conference tour. I jumped at the chance. A colleague introduced my brother to his son and “Natural Destinations” in Namibia. A few emails later we had organized a two-week photo safaris for 14 of us from Alberta. By late September we were off to Africa. The second day of our tour we visited Soususvlei in the red dunes of Namib Naukluft Park. While most of the gang climbed the dunes I headed for the remaining water in the vlei to look for birds and animal tracks. What a thrill to see a magnificent oryx crest a hill heading for a drink. Standing motionless behind a clump of brush the bull passed within 10 feet of me. I dreamed of oryx, for the next week until I saw my first kudu with their majestic spiral horns in Etosha National Park. Watching the elusive grey ghosts appear as out of nowhere and as magically vanish in the brush and I was hooked. Returning to Africa to hunt was no longer and option; it had to be. To our good fortune, our tour guide, Louw van Zyl, owner of Track A Trail Safaris was also a Professional Hunter. By the time our tour was over, my wife Carole and I, along with my brother Duane and his wife Lucille were making plans for a hunt. The last entry in my journal was “P.S. There is a Kudu with my name on it.”
For the next year, as we finalized plans, I dreamed of shooting a kudu. While I think it is an overstatement to say that I was obsessed with shooting a Kudu, I am not sure my friends and colleagues would agree. We headed back to Namibia in November 2012. After a grueling two-day flight with stops in Calgary, London and Johannesburg we arrived in Windhoek where Louw met us for a six-hour drive. Our destination, Aandster farm (evening star) about an hour east of Grootfontein in northeastern Namibia where we would hunt for ten days.
Aandster in the Kalahari Bushveld is an area of low relief sand dunes that have been stabilized for centuries. Although there are patches of open grassland much of the area is covered with dense brush with a few towering Zambian Teak. The sights, sounds and smells or the Kalahari Bushveld are truly a treat for the senses. There are hundreds of birds of numerous species from the Cory Bustard, the largest flying bird, to the tiny Prinias, no larger than a hummingbird. Metallic plumages of blue, green, black and red are common. Birdsong is almost constant but especially around the waterholes at dusk. In the heat of the day, which was typically approaching 40 C., the hot resinous smells were occasionally punctuated by walking through a clump of perfume smelling Sand Camwood. The pungent odour where an animal urinated after getting out of its bed gave us hope that we were getting close on a stalk. It rained the first night bringing with it entirely different smells. More striking was watching it green up and admiring new flowers, as they appeared each day. Although the bush was beautiful it also bit. Almost everything had thorns. The larger ones were more obvious and could be avoided at least some of the time. The small backward snagging thorns were more troublesome. It did not take long for a new pair of cargo pants to look well worn.
Louw had told us that hunting would be spot and stalk and that shooting from the vehicles was out of the question. This technique worked for Springbok, Blesbok, Impala and Wildebeest. Sitting at waterholes seemed the only way to find warthog. Kudu and Oryx, however, were a different story. These we tracked.
Glassing the open fields and waterholes, the first morning was exciting as we saw several hundred animals. As we headed out for the afternoon, a simple statement from our PH Louw, “Joseph will help us look” seemed straightforward. It was soon apparent that Joseph did more than look; he was their head Bushman Tracker. Since I was a kid, I have known of the legendary tracking skills of the Bushmen; their ability to shoot an animal with a poison tipped arrow and track it several days or as long as it took the beast to succumb. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would get the chance to hunt for a week with one of the best. I felt humbled and handicapped that I could not understand Afrikaans as Louw and Joseph discussed strategies. All I could do was watch and follow in amazement as these two super hunters put us in position to bag our trophies. Both knew the tracks of the various animals at a glance and would quickly determine if there was a chance of a trophy bull in the bunch and if the tracks were fresh. A quick chat and check of the wind and they would decide if we should follow in pursuit or look for a better prospect.
The first afternoon we hunted an area where Joseph had seen good Oryx bulls. Hunting two on one with Louw we had somehow decided that I would carry the rifle first. We were using a 300 Winchester Magnum that belonged to Louw assuming this was easier than all the paperwork required for bringing our own firearms. After walking and unraveling tracks for some distance, Louw motioned for me to put a shell in the chamber and we started a slow sneak. Soon Louw was setting up the shooting sticks and motioning for me to get the rifle in position. Aiming just back of the shoulder of the bull standing broadside at 132 yards, I squeezed the trigger. I heard the bullet hit and saw the Oryx disappear. Joseph followed the blood trail for 300 yards before pointing to the bull where he had fallen. Leaving me with my bull, an impressive animal with heavy wide spread 36 inch horns; the others went for the truck. I spent one of the most magical evenings of my life watching the sunset and a rainbow as I awaited their return. The rain of the previous day had brought on a hatch of moths. Flocks of swifts were feasting on them. More intriguing were the small Gabar Goshawks. They would catch a moth in their talons and reach it up to their beaks without missing a wing beat; pretty amazing.
Tracking Kudu for the next four or five days we walked miles. One day we covered about 20 miles seeing lots of bulls but never getting in position for a shot. Kudu deserve the title “Grey Ghosts of the Kalahari” every bit as much as Woodland Caribou deserve the title “Grey Ghost of the Boreal Forest.” They are extremely elusive and quickly vanish into the thick brush. We frequently saw the tips of horns above the thorn scrub but seldom got a look at the body. When we got a good look at an animal it would be a smaller one. When a bull that Joseph had chosen to follow got mixed with a herd, he would motion for us to stand still. Soon he would unravel the tracks and we would be back on the trail. At times we were on a slow sneak; at other times almost jogging as we maneuvered to keep down wind and head off our chosen quarry. What excitement as we tried to outsmart them but were repeatedly thwarted. We would get close only to startle an animal we had not seen and it would sound the alarm. We would start all over again.
The Kudu were hanging around the dune ridges, browsing on the lush new growth of the Kalahari Apple Leaf, brought on by the recent rain. Early one morning we started walking from the downwind end of the dune ridges looking for tracks. We found lots of smaller ones but it was some time before Louw and Joseph decided that we had bulls worth following. After tracking cautiously for almost an hour we spotted horn tips above the brush. Louw determined that they were two mature bulls and set me up on the shooting sticks. Finding an open lane was impossible; the best we could manage was a thin spot through the thick foliage. The first time I saw the bulls face but only stripes as he moved quickly past. My heart raced as we moved ahead looking for another thin spot. I soon saw horns and the vague outline of a body. I had perhaps a half second to make up my mind as he walked through. I took a chance and my Kudu Bull dropped on the spot. I had my dream Kudu; 45-inch spiral horns with pearl tips. Covering the bull with branches to keep the sun off and the vultures away we headed for the trail where the truck would pick us up. Back at the truck, Louw radioed for staff to pick up the Kudu while we continued our hunt. I am not sure I could have found my way back. He instructed them to go to where they had picked up an Eland a couple of weeks back and circle until they found our tracks. I must admit I was skeptical but the Kudu was caped out and hanging in the shed when we got back.
It took several more days before my brother got his Kudu but what a perfect morning for it. The full moon was high in the sky when Duane and Lucille, Carole and I left the lodge. A glorious sunrise soon stopped us to take photos. A blow up hangs on our bedroom wall where it rekindles memories for Carole and me each morning. Spotting four Kudu bulls at some distance we started a stalk and caught them crossing an open spot. Louw decided the third one was a trophy and Duane squeezed the trigger. The bull dropped in an open spot, a perfect place for family photos.
By the time our hunt was over we had shot at 13 animals. It seemed impossible to miss shooting the 300 Winchester Magnum from the Norwegian made shooting sticks and the 200-grain bullets always did the trick. All 13 now grace the walls of our trophy rooms. A perfect first African hunt. Carole and I have caught the bug and have returned twice, mixing hunting with other adventures. Hopefully we will get at least one more chance.
Bio: Retired after 40 years in parks and conservation I have hunted for as long as I can remember. Namibia, 2012 was our first guided hunt. Since then Carole and I have hunted South Africa, New Zealand, the western United States and the Canadian Arctic.
Note: I have looked at a few issues of AHG – some captions use the term “author” while others have the person’s name. I have used author but feel free to change if you wish.
The first African Trophy taken by the author, a beautiful, heavy, wide spreading 36-inch Oryx.
This magnificent Namibian sunrise with Zambian Teak towering over the shrub lands hangs on the bedroom wall of the author and his wife and rekindles fond memories of Africa every morning.
Professional Hunter Louw van Zyl and Bushman Tracker, Joseph with the 45-inch ivory tipped Kudu taken by the author.
The author with a 45-inch ivory tipped Kudu taken at Aandster in 2012.
The author demonstrates the Norwegian made shooting sticks with the double rests that make a solid platform for the 300 Winchester Magnum.
The first sighting of an Oryx at Soususvlei in the red dunes of Namibia in 2011 started the author dreaming of a hunting safari.
Kudu, the elusive grey ghosts that would magically appear and as suddenly vanish clinched the deal for the author. He had to hunt Africa. Etosha National Park September 2011.
The Landals gang celebrates a great 2012 hunt at Aandster, Namibia with the 45-inch bull taken by the authors’ brother. Left to right: Archie, Carole, Lucille and Duane