Limpopo Sable – Black Magic
By Peter Ryan
New Zealand to Africa sounds easy but it isn’t. I’ve made the journey a dozen times now, and it’s always a relief to walk in the door at Afton House, my overnight oasis in Johannesburg and launching point for so many safaris over the years. After 28 hours on the move a hot shower, a cold beer and a good steak is paradise.
The next day I’m in the Limpopo. After the cool greenery of a New Zealand winter, the bright light and red dirt of Africa is a shock to the eye, but a good one. Familiar sights wash back into the mind as the Cruiser churns its way through deep dust…knobthorn, sesame trees, blackthorn, camel thorn, raisin bush. Here we go again. It’s obvious straight away that the Limpopo has been in drought. The browsers can hold on, but by September the grazers will be in trouble. There is buffalo sign too, with plenty of them on this block wherever there is rough grazing and thick cover.
The beauty of a top safari outfit is the quality of their hunting grounds. This block is family-owned and was one of the first to convert to game way back in the 1970s. They don’t buy animals in, and they don’t push it hard, just one hunter at a time taking off very conservative numbers. The pickups by the skinning shed are staggering – many are mature males that simply died out there of old age. There are usually a dozen or so mature sable bulls roaming freely across the block, with just one or two taken off each year. It’s a class operation from start to finish.
It’s good to catch up with Hans ‘Scruff’ Vermaak again, boss at Coenraad Vermaak Safaris. We’ve hunted before, for buff and plains game up in the Kalahari, for bushbuck in the tangles of KwaZulu-Natal. I know his family, in fact his young son Caleb was at my shoulder when I took a lovely nyala bull last year. We muck around taking pictures and talk rugby, and play spot-the-wildlife and generally mess around like a couple of teenagers. Safari life is a fine thing.
The rifles I’ve taken on previous trips have been seriously retro, but then again I’m a bit of a dinosaur myself. There was a sweet little BRNO model 21 in 7×57, a ZG-47 in .30-06, a .375. Today I’m carrying an old Husqvarna, the one with the lovely Mauser 98 action made for them by FN. It’s in 9.3×62, a classic bushveld caliber. Restocked in New Zealand walnut, it’s come up a treat. South African old- timers will understand these sentimental choices.
I’m running Norma’s 285-grain Oryx load, and the whole outfit is topped with a Swarovski Z6 in 1-6. Does it shoot? Checking the zero I put two shots down, the first one bang on line but a touch high. The second – Scruff and I can’t find until we walk up. It has cut the first to make a single ragged hole, better than I normally shoot and not bad after twelve thousand kilometres of air travel. Let’s go hunting.
Confession time. I’ve hunted several Cape buffalo, water buffalo in Australia and a lot of the “royal” antelope, but few things get me as excited as a serious warthog. Cheap and cheerful they may be but big pigs still make my palms sweat. In the shade on the edge of a huge pan we watch sows and youngsters come and go, but no real ivory. Many times we walk into promising country only to have the breeze swing and watch high tails steaming off into the bush. Tomorrow is another day.
Tomorrow passes and we’ve started to get a bead on where we need to be, not just for warthog but a seriously good impala holding lots of girls. It’s mid-June but the rams are still running hot, and this one is something special. He doesn’t move far but they don’t get that size by being silly. Through the scope I get one look at long tips surging through the bush, but no shot.
So we have two species patterned, and soon the last one on my wish list. We scout up the odd sable bull, then suddenly there he is, a dark shape camped in the shade. Predictably he doesn’t like people much and drifts away into the thickets. If we retreat quietly he may still hang around the general area – sable sometimes do. Then again sometimes they don’t and I fall asleep that night wondering. He looked pretty special.
Back on the big pan the next morning a female warthog drifts by, and suddenly there’s a solid boar right behind her. They trot by and it’s time to get serious. I mess up the sticks a little and an unseen sow is right onto us. She hits the alarm button, and what was going to be a set-up shot at 150 metres suddenly isn’t. The big boar is trotting hard now, that pace when they are just about to really hit overdrive. It’s now or kiss him goodbye.
The dot swings past the dust trail, past the pumping hams, through the big-boned head. Squeeze and keep swinging. What feels like a long time later, the whock of a solid hit floats back. Not ideal but he’s anchored. Go again. And all of a sudden there’s my first head of African game taken on the run. For all those years of supposed experience my hands are shaking. A good game animal should always be worth that much.
Time to work on that ram. Ernest Hemingway once created a character who was asked how he went bankrupt. “Gradually…then suddenly” was the reply. Working on a great head of game is often like that. You work hard for days, try hard not mess it up, then all of a sudden things fall in your lap.
That ram is bigger than we thought. He’s at a hundred yards but completely surrounded by a staggering number of ewes front and back. Talk about charisma, he must be the George Clooney of impalas. The sticks are up and I’m looking squarely at him. He’s clear behind now, but right in front of his chest two females are facing nose to nose, blocking any shot.
We wait. They stand. An ear flickers. The ewe on the left looks backward, the space where her head was creating an opening to his shoulder, then just as quickly she looks forward again. Checkmate. Another nervous wait. She twitches, then back in place immediately. More seconds trickle by, finger on trigger, deep breaths, and ignore the tension creeping into stiffening muscles.
Eventually she swings her head to look behind and the shot breaks instantly. The sight picture is lost in the recoil, but Scruff is hammering my back and shouting, “Down! He’s down!” I see a white belly, and breathe a long, shaky whistle.
No ground shrinkage here. He’s an honest 26, heavy with it and a beautiful shape. Calming down after the pictures I suddenly realise its Father’s Day. I think about my son and daughter so far away in New Zealand, and then my own father. The hat I’m wearing belonged to him. It’s good in open country, a bit tricky in thick thorn, but I take it as a memory of him and the hunting days he gave me.
After an evening session on doves, a new dawn breaks and it’s time to start working on sable again. Would the bull we saw still be around? Only one way to find out.
After some scouting and a couple of smooth stalks, Robert the tracker points. It takes time, but there’s definitely a bull out there. We need him to turn in profile, and after a few minutes he does. No doubt about it, game on. The cover is thick with no chance of a shot – all that thorn would just eat up a bullet. The morning breeze isn’t helping, a kick of dust shows it swirling, never heading the same way twice. I frown. Scruff frowns. The bull starts to move. We flank him as best we can, just over a hundred yards out, moving forward to look for an opening. There is one, maybe six metres wide. Now we wait.
I’ve lost him in the thick stuff and so have Scruff and the trackers. More waiting and the minutes begin to stretch out. Doubts play on your mind. Did he wind us? Has he turned?
If you have to think long and hard about whether a game animal is a trophy, he isn’t. The great ones announce themselves. The bull walks through a small window of bush and it’s clear in a split second that he’s magnificent. In a minute he should appear in the ambush set-up. That’s a minute for something to go wrong, for the nerves to build.
It doesn’t take that long. Suddenly he’s there, out in the open but covering ground. A few more steps and he’ll be gone. Then three things happen in a blur.
Tracking him in the Swarovski, I whisper to Scruff but before the word is even finished he’s made a sharp little noise. The bull pauses broadside and the shot rings out. All three things went down in the same second – it was just as slick as that. An easy shot in the end, if there is such a thing, and that’s the way it should be. That big slow Oryx bullet lands right on the point of the shoulder. The bull goes a handful of yards and is down.
I’ve watched and photographed sable for 20 years now, but this is only the second I’ve raised a rifle to. (My first was up in Zimbabwe, but that mount was destroyed in the earthquakes that struck New Zealand in 2011.) I’m still sad about that loss…but a scarred-up 46-inch sable has a way of cheering you up for a long, long time.
A bit of rough math, and it occurs to me that today is exactly my 100th hunting day in Africa, if you string them all together. Lord knows what that cost – I don’t want to know, that way lies madness – but let me say this: I can’t think of anything else that would have been half as much fun. I wouldn’t swap those memories for anything.
Events blur into one on safari. More doves, and a lovely Beretta at sundown. Guineas and francolin. The beast of a male honey badger that scuttled across the track right in front of us. The tracks that tell the story of a wildebeest calf stuck in mud until the hyenas dragged him out. The high kopje that looked out over a waterhole, and a tawny shape hiding nearby – caracal, a huge tom.
Why go on safari? In truth it’s all these things. Speaking for myself, I never go to Africa just to shoot at something. I go because if I did not, some part of me might wither and die.