Taking Wing in Namibia
By Ken Bailey
They come out of the sun as though they’ve stolen the playbook of the Red Baron, so it’s not until the last moment that we see them.
By then it’s almost too late and, having obviously seen us, they’re already twisting skyward as I shoulder my gun. I manage to get off two shots, but it’s a desperation effort, and I don’t cut a single feather before the flight of a dozen sandgrouse disappears into the horizon. But they’ll be back, I know. They keep to their schedule with the precision of a Swiss watch, and I’ll be waiting for them, better concealed, when they return the next morning. In the meantime I’ll go chase guineafowl and francolin. Such is the bird hunting in Namibia – if you miss one bus, there’s always another only minutes away.
To many, the appeal of an African safari is the combination of abundance and diversity. Understandably many think only of big game, with literally dozens of antelope species to choose from, not to mention the Big Five and a wide assortment of other unique animals of all sizes and descriptions. And compared with most other parts of the world, the sheer numbers of most species is breathtaking. I, too, have been captivated by the intoxicating lure of Africa’s big-game hunting.
But along the way, safari by safari, I found my attention being increasingly distracted by game birds. Whether flushing a covey of francolin while mid-stalk on a fine kudu bull, watching with amazement at the endless flights of doves as I check out a waterhole for warthogs, or being sold out by squawking guineafowl when closing the distance on buffalo, I was discovering that the opportunities for bird hunting were every bit as numerous and notable as they were for four-legged critters. So when planning to hunt Namibia a couple years ago, I dedicated time to hunt birds as a “must-do” on the agenda.
I admit I’m an avid wingshooter by nature – if not by nurture. It wasn’t as though the numbers of game birds I was seeing in Africa awoke any feelings in my soul that weren’t already stirring. It’s simply that with each flush and flight and flurry of feathers, the idea of devoting time to birds grew from a germ to an all-out determination. Packing a favourite over/under smoothbore into the two-gun case before leaving for Namibia just cemented my commitment.
Rather than risk temptation and fall back into old habits, I took my shotgun for a walk the very afternoon I arrived at Danene van der Westhuzen’s Klawka camp, one of two hunting concessions she manages with her husband, Gysbert, under the Aru Game Lodges banner. Whenever you’re hunting new country it takes some time to get accustomed to your surroundings, so I wasn’t fully prepared when a couple of common buttonquail rocketed up from the tall grass at my feet just minutes into our walk. PH Stephan Joubert and I both emptied our doubles, and in quick succession the two quail tumbled to the earth. Despite a thorough search, unfortunately we weren’t able to recover them. Perhaps they were merely wing-tipped and ran off to distant cover, but I still got that queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach, known only to hunters who wound and lose an animal. It matters little that it’s “just” a bird and not something larger.
We hunted on, and over the next hour collected four red-billed francolin, or spurfowl as some refer to them, chunky common residents a little bigger than a Hungarian partridge. They tend to inhabit open, grassy wooded cover, especially near watercourses, and much like pheasants would rather run than fly. To get them up we’d first push them into dense thickets. Crash the thicket, and they’d flush, rather like hunting ruffed grouse in dense stands of young poplar. The francolin provided the perfect conclusion to a first day’s hunt.
They say everybody has a fight plan until they’re hit by that first punch. That’s guineafowl hunting in a nutshell. Pushing with beaters is one of the popular ways to hunt these strange birds, and invariably your strategy sounds pretty good – beaters here, moving in that direction, shooters there. Of course, that’s before the first guinea recognizes something’s afoot. Then the plan falls apart, as guineafowl have a nasty habit of not following the script you wrote. In part, it’s what makes them incredibly fun to hunt, but their ruthless unpredictability is also what makes them so frustrating.
We set up two drives for helmeted guineafowl, both thoroughly and precisely battle-planned. Total body count for the two drives? Two! I guess by some standards, that that could be recognized as a success, but on each occasion we reckoned that there were 20 or more guineas within our theater of operations. And our reckoning was right, based on the number of birds I counted flushing early, late, and in every direction but the one we wanted them to fly in.
But, my, they’re beautiful in the hand – hefty and colourful, if a bit odd-looking with a horny helmet and bald head of blue and red.
One morning we opted to walk-up hunt guineas, much as one might for sharp-tailed grouse or pheasants, the primary difference being that we were hunting without a dog. From several hundred yards away, however, we’d spotted a several guineas cavorting through a grassy flat area, pockmarked with the odd thorn bush. We circled to ensure the wind was in our faces, not to manage our scent but rather as a means to help reduce the noise we’d make, then walked slowly forward to where we’d seen them last. Guineafowl have incredible eyesight and hearing, so it was more than a little surprising when they held until we were well within range. Four shots between us and four birds down – it really couldn’t have unfolded more perfectly. I don’t want to spoil my story, so I’ll refrain from describing the majority of our other attempts at sneaking up on these crafty veld denizens!
Nobody goes to Africa for the doves. That’s what Argentina’s for, after all, or perhaps Mexico. But if you don’t take advantage of the dove hunting opportunities Africa offers, you’re missing out on some exceptional gunning. You won’t experience the powder-burning extravaganza common to the dedicated dove destinations – there will be no 500 and more bird days. What you can expect, however, is sustained shooting, morning and evening, for a wide array of species.
At Aru, we had three primary species to target. The largest is the Cape Turtle dove, with that distinctive early-morning call that I associate with southern Africa more than nearly any other sound. Only slightly smaller is the Laughing dove, with its distinctive black-mottled rusty-coloured breast. Finally, we enjoyed flights of Namaqua doves, pretty little birds sporting unusually long tails; the males have a characteristic black facemask and throat. Our standard tactic, simple as it may have been, was to hide beneath the shade of a large tree adjacent to a watering hole. Each morning and late afternoon, as if on cue, the flights would arrive. Generally it would be half a dozen birds or less, though on occasion as many as two dozen would fly in en masse. Seldom would we wait more than 10 minutes between volleys, though this would carry on for an hour in the morning, a couple hours during the late-day hunt.
On our best hunt I think we tumbled 70 or so doves between the two of us -impressive, though certainly not Argentinian numbers. The trade-off? In Argentina you don’t have the opportunity to watch giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, springbok and many more species go about their business while you’re reloading or awaiting the next flurry. Having experienced both, I much prefer the relaxed, yet steady pace and otherworldly backdrop of Africa’s dove hunts.
Before reluctantly packing for home, I insisted on one last Nambian sandgrouse hunt. As with the doves, three distinct species were available – Namaqua, Burchell’s and Double-Banded. Despite their names, they resemble doves or pigeons much more closely than they do grouse. More importantly, I can assure you their flight doesn’t resemble anything close to the predictable, even flight path of most grouse. Think of a pigeon on amphetamines trying to escape a peregrine falcon, and you’ll have some idea of how sandgrouse fly.
I was so keen to hunt them not just for their sporting qualities, but more because classic African literature is rife with references to clouds of sandgrouse arriving daily at hidden waterholes, and I wanted to better understand what the fuss was about. The truth is, the clouds are no longer there, much as they aren’t for many other species. At Aru we could expect flights of anywhere from four to a couple dozen birds. Unlike the low-flying doves that would arrive suddenly, invariably we’d see the sandgrouse coming from a long distance, winging high over the trees for their date at the local watering hole. I suppose that opportunity to prepare should have translated into better shooting percentages, but it never did for me. Not that I cared much – as I said, there’s always another bus just minutes away when bird hunting Namibia.
I’ll go back to Africa – I always go back. Now, whenever I do, hunting birds will be a regular part of the plan. In just a few short days in Namibia I discovered in a new way that, for hunters, Africa remains the land of opportunity.
Ken Bailey is an outdoors writer from Canada. When not hunting big game or birds, or fly-fishing, he’s writing about his experiences. And when the bills need to be paid, he is a consultant in the wildlife conservation industry.