Mountain, Bush, and Little Blue.
By Ken Bailey
Blue duiker is not a species most hunters consider when creating their African wish list. They don’t have the immense size of an eland or a Cape buffalo, or the regal bearing of a kudu or sable. And in a beauty contest, an impala or lechwe would certainly put them to shame.
No, by most standards, the blue duiker simply does not match up. But rather than focus on what a blue duiker is not, hunters should focus on what they are, because if you’ve not hunted them, you’re missing out on an exceptionally challenging and enjoyable experience.
Blue duikers are among the smallest antelopes in Africa, and the smallest in South Africa, roughly the size of a large jackrabbit, about 15 inches high at the shoulder. Their coat color is variable, but is often the bluish-grey that gives the species its name. Both sexes have horns up to two inches long, making it very difficult to distinguish males from females, especially given that you seldom see them standing still. They’re secretive and cautious by nature, nearly always confined to dense forested cover where they feed on leaves and fruits.
I recently hunted blue duiker in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, a province I’d not previously hunted, and it completely exceeded my expectations. Leading the mission was long-time friend and PH, Eldre Hattingh, owner/operator of Lucca African Safaris. I’d last hunted with Eldre in Limpopo a few years previously and had quickly said yes when he invited me to explore the Eastern Cape with him. To fully appreciate the diversity of the region, we planned to hunt from the thick coastal thorn bush along the Indian Ocean coastline up to the very peaks of the inland snow mountains. Our quarry would be the iconic species that characterize the Eastern Cape – blue duiker and Cape bushbuck along the coast, mountain reedbuck and, if the opportunity presented itself, Vaal rhebok at the highest altitude.
We hunted near Port Alfred, a small coastal town settled by the English in the 1820s and named in honor of Queen Victoria’s son, Alfred. The area is dominated by mixed farming, but is also the widely acknowledged blue duiker capital of South Africa.
In the thickly-forested slopes that we hunted, every plant seemed to have thorns. We duck-walked and crawled, invariably snagging our shirts every few steps, often having to back up to get free. Stepping into this dense thorn bush is like entering another dimension – there’s no transition. In one step you literally cross from the light into the dark, and your first impression is ominous and foreboding.
Blue duiker forage under the canopy along well-defined trails. They’re territorial, so it’s unusual to find more than a pair in any one bush. The trick is to find a small clearing adjacent to one or more of their active pathways where you can sit and wait. Once you’re settled, the handler turns his dogs loose to find and pursue a duiker. Our handler uses braces of beagles and Jack Russell terriers, allowing one to spell off the other when they tire. By the frequency and volume of their baying or barking you can tell when they’re on a hot scent. You wait in expectation, hoping the duiker will run near you in its efforts to shake off the dogs.
You don’t really see the first blue duiker. Or the second. It’s more that you sense them or, if you’re really lucky, you catch a blur of movement out of the corner of your eye. No matter how much warning your PH gives, it’s never enough in the beginning.
They say some blue duikers are runners while others are sneakers – the sneakers seem to be pretty rare in my experience! We set up in four locations the first day, and at each saw a blue duiker – or at least a flash of movement I was told was a duiker! In any case, I didn’t get so much as a shot off at any of them. They were too quick, or I’d see them too late, or they emerged from a direction opposite to where I was watching. Still, I was having great fun, and Eldre assured me my experience was pretty typical for a first-timer, and that persistence would pay off.
Day two, on just our second setup, things started to change. Remarkably, as I crouched among a tangle of thorns listening to the baying of the beagles, a duiker ran straight up the trail towards me, stopping only 30 yards away. I raised my shotgun as quickly as I could and took the shot. A shower of earth revealed that I had missed low. There was no second shot, as the tiny antelope wasn’t about to stick around to see what all the fuss was about. It was frustrating, as in reflection I probably had time to aim more carefully. But considering the previous day’s episodes, snap-shooting seemed like the best option. All we could do was laugh at my ineptitude and keep hunting, so I settled back, listening to the familiar sound of dogs on the trail.
Only 20 minutes later at nearly the same spot, I picked up a flash of movement darting from left to right. Pure instinct took over, and I swung the smoothbore just as I do dozens of times each fall on crossing bluebills at my favorite duck lake. Just that quickly, our blue duiker hunt was over.
From there we set our sights on Cape bushbuck, heading southwest along the coast towards Jeffrey’s Bay, a town revered in the international surfing community. Bushbuck are one of my favorite antelope to hunt. Elegant and compact, they’re also maddeningly elusive. They’re also exceptionally pugnacious and have a well-documented reputation for being dangerous when wounded – no other antelope is as likely to attempt to separate you from your bowels as is a bushbuck. The smallest of the spiral horns, perhaps they have “little man’s syndrome”, such is their predisposition to aggression at any perceived injustice.
I’d hunted Limpopo bushbuck successfully with Eldre, and was especially excited to pursue the Cape subspecies, mid-sized in the bushbuck family and noted for its dark, almost black, coat. We’d be hunting on a large dairy farm and, like much of the Eastern Cape, it would be completely free-range hunting – fences designed to confine cattle and sheep mean little to game animals. Pulling in before first light, we hiked to the back of a secluded irrigated hay field, sitting inside the treeline for bushbuck that, as it turned out, would never arrive. Two bushbuck ewes feeding three-quarters of a mile away at least provided hope and entertainment while we sat. With late morning the wind picked up, which has a tendency to discourage notoriously nervous rams, so we opted to regroup and headed back to the truck for a snack.
Early afternoon we hiked towards the same field, and had not gone far when we spotted movement. Through our binos we could make out 11 bushbuck grazing at the end of the hay flat, nearly a mile distant. Closer inspection revealed a ram with eight ewes and a separate pair of rams. From our vantage point, both appeared to have pretty good horns. So, from within the cover of the thorn bush we slowly picked our way towards them, pausing occasionally to peek out and confirm they were still feeding. Chacma baboons frequent the area, so we remained well hidden to help avoid the inevitable alarm barks if one saw us.
Eventually we ran out of cover and huddled behind the last available tree, about 275 yards from the grazing rams. One was clearly the elder statesman, with thick black horns, one noticeably broomed, his swollen neck a sure sign the rut was in full swing. Despite a good rest, my initial shot was a couple of inches low; a second anchored him before he could escape into the adjacent stream valley. Had he made it, we’d have been challenged to root him out of the thick stuff. As we walked up to where he lay in the tall grass, his magnificence became apparent. This was a true “Dagga Boy” of a ram, well-muscled with thick horns, and bearing a wound in his side undoubtedly suffered fighting a rival for dominance. Eldre estimated him at nine years or more.
The ecological variability of the Eastern Cape is second to none in South Africa, and while best known for its beautiful coastal region, it also boasts the highest mountains in the country apart from the Drakensberg. It was to those mountains we headed, arriving at a secluded lodge high in the Sneeuberge, an Afrikaans word meaning “Snow Mountains”. This is not an easy place to hunt – the steep terrain makes every stalk a lung-scorcher, and vast properties with few fences ensure truly free-range pursuit.
The diverse habitats of the Eastern Cape support a wide array of species. Glassing from the lodge our first evening revealed no shortage of game on the surrounding hillsides. Without leaving the comfort of a deck chair, I identified kudu, red lechwe, impala, bontebok, waterbuck, steenbok, giraffe, zebra, eland, gemsbok and black wildebeest. And I knew, somewhere high on the open grassy slopes, was the mountain reedbuck I was seeking.
Mountain reedbuck are the smaller, prettier cousins of the common reedbuck. Standing 30 inches or less at the shoulder, a mature ram weighs about 60 lbs., with a woolly reddish-grey coat and forward-curving horns. As the name implies, they live on mountain slopes, descending into the valleys each evening to graze and water, climbing back early in the morning. There they take refuge in the highest, open slopes, intermittently grazing and bedding in sheltered nooks among the rocks.
I quickly discovered that, while calm when undisturbed, mountain reedbuck become extremely skittish at the first sign of anything unusual. With little cover beyond the natural swales of the open slopes to conceal one’s movement, closing the distance on them is difficult. If they do spot you, they quickly flee with their distinctive “rocking horse” gait, rarely stopping until they’ve covered several hundred yards.
Over a few days, Eldre and I made several half-hearted stalks on reedbucks, mostly to familiarize me with the species and to learn to differentiate rams from ewes, and good rams from average. That’s a much more difficult task than it sounds, complicated by the relatively short horns of even the largest rams and their long, slim ears.
At some point we had to get serious, however, so decided to make a concerted effort one afternoon. We slowly walked the grassy tops of the highest peak, pausing regularly to glass the surrounding slopes. It wasn’t long before we spotted a lone male that looked promising, about three-quarters of a mile away, so we ducked behind cover and began to work our way over. We hadn’t gone more than 100 yards, however, when a ram and ewe scrambled out of a rock pile and galloped towards the edge of nearby ravine.
“He’s a good one. Get ready in case he stops,” Eldre whispered excitedly, simultaneously setting up the shooting sticks. Instantly I nestled into the “V”, trying to follow the up and down motion of the escaping ram.
We all need a little luck now and then, and good fortune smiled on me that afternoon. Rather than follow his mate over the crest and out of our lives, that ram, for reasons known only to him, stopped on the precipice for one look back. I didn’t waste the opportunity, and the largest mountain reedbuck a client of Eldre’s has taken was down.
My hunt ended the following day. As it turned out I didn’t get to hunt Vaal rhebok before leaving, but I wasn’t the least bit disappointed. There will be another time, another hunt. For if I learned only one thing while hunting the Eastern Cape from top to bottom, it’s that there is no shortage of reasons to return.
Ken Bailey is an avid hunter and fly-fisherman from Canada who has pursued sporting opportunities across four continents. A wildlife conservation consultant by trade, he has been writing about his outdoor experiences for more than 25 years. He has served as the Hunting Editor for “Outdoor Canada” magazine since 1994.
Note: Hunting the Eastern Cape or the nearby Karoo with Eldre Hattingh and Lucca African Safaris begins in Port Elizabeth, which is serviced by air from major cities in South Africa and elsewhere. To learn more about the many hunting opportunities offered, check out their website at www.luccasafaris.com or call Eldre at (011 27) 82 879 5966.