The Ghost of the Darkness
By Dan Hendrickson
Africa calls. Within a few weeks after my fourth safari I was already dreaming about going back. Because of my success in hunting with Stormberg Elangeni Safaris (SES) on the Eastern Cape of South Africa in 2017, and the wide variety of game there, I decided to return in June of 2018. This time, I planned to take my 12-year-old grandson, Austin for his first safari. His older brothers, Cole and Cade, had both hunted with me in Africa when they were 13 years old.
Now it was Austin’s turn, and he had a wish list. Mine included klipspringer, Cape grysbok, bushpig and caracal. Planning a year in advance, I applied for an oribi tag. SES went out of their way to get me an oribi permit, and just two weeks before I left, I received it. I had also included blue duiker in my list, hoping to add to my collection of the Tiny Ten pygmy antelope in Africa.
We were met at the Port Elizabeth airport by PH Juan Greef and tracker/skinner Silas. Silas, a very jovial fellow, was from the Shona tribe in Zimbabwe.
The SES team had planned our hunt extremely well. We were to begin with the klipspringer hunt in the Cape Fold Mountains referred to as the Karoo area, where there were also some quality springbok, especially the copper variety, and some very good steenbok. We succeeded in just two days, taking a very nice klipspringer, steenbok, and a copper springbok that should be in the top 20!
Day 3. We traveled to the Stormberg Mountains and settled into SES’s quaint, historic Bufflesfontein Lodge owned and operated by Robbie and Angela Stretton. There, in one day Austin took a nice springbok, a huge blesbok with 18½ horns, and a gold medal mountain reedbuck. At another historic lodge about 50 km from Port Alfred we took blue duiker, oribi, caracal, Cape grysbok and a huge 30” waterbuck.
We spent the final three days hunting blue wildebeest, blesbok, impala, warthog, and bushpig in the Kat River Conservancy at the Manzikhanya Lodge, owned and operated by John and Isabel Sparks. Hunting the bushpig was quite a challenge. In 2017 Cade had a shot at a bushpig on the last day there, and missed. Apparently, his nerves got to him as the pigs passed just five yards from him going to the bait. As he was about to shoot, the automatic lights malfunctioned. Juan turned on his flashlight, but Cade shot too fast.
This year, we had two baits out with game cameras at each place. There were different big boars coming into both baits on a fairly regular basis. When they became accustomed to eating the carcasses at the bait site (bushpigs love eating carrion), Juan added the automatic green hog lights that were infrared activated. A hole was dug for their special corn-based pig bait.
Bushpigs don’t have very good eyesight, but their sense of smell and hearing makes them a challenging animal to hunt. They are very wary nocturnal creatures, seldom seen in daylight. Juan half-jokingly referred to the elusive bushpig boars as “the Ghosts of the Darkness” – quite a fitting name!
We planned to take at least one of the huge boars that we had seen on the game cameras. After checking the wind, we marked a trail through the brush to help us navigate in the dark. The bushpigs were hitting the bait after sunset between 6:15 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. After dusk, Juan and I left the vehicle and made our way to the bait, about three-quarters of a mile away. Wearing headlamps, we worked our way through the hills and creek bottoms until we got to the foot of the final hill. The bait was about 100 yards past the top of this hill. We slowly and quietly made it to the top without using any lights, and stood on a large flat boulder at the edge of the slope, and watched a dark clump of brush close to where the bait was.
We stayed until 8 p.m. but nothing ever activated the green lights. We checked the bait and saw the rotten corn was untouched. Juan didn’t think the pigs would be coming that night, so we left. But next morning as we began hunting, Juan received a call from John Sparks to inform him that the pigs had hit the bait at 8:45 p.m. the previous night and stayed there 45 minutes!
It was Day 9. We searched for a trophy blue wildebeest, glassed some nice bulls, but nothing worth pursuing. However, we saw herds of Cape eland, black wildebeest, springbok and blesbok in that wide valley. Juan spotted a huge blesbok ram in a group of at least forty animals and we decided to go after him. We bumped them three times before the big ram stopped at 250 yards with three other sizable rams. As Juan described the location of the ram within the group, I found him in my Leupold V6 scope, but another ram was behind him, making the shot too risky. He moved and then another ram walked in front of him.
“Aim a little bit back because of the wind,” Juan said. As that one cleared, Juan called the shot. I took a breath, steadied my Remington Model 700 7mm Magnum straight up his front leg to the center of his chest, and squeezed off the shot. I didn’t think that the 160-grain Barnes TSX BT bullet would drift much at that distance and I was right. I hit exactly where I had aimed, and he went right down in his tracks. His 17½” whitish horns were impressive – quite an exceptional trophy.
After lunch, we headed to another property, searching for a warthog or impala for Austin. Juan glassed a valley and found a herd of impala, as well as a very nice mature kudu bull below us. We made a half-mile stalk, located several rams, but Juan decided to look for a better one, and we eased through the valley, working our way behind the acacia trees. We spotted a nice ram about 225 yards and Juan put up the sticks, but Austin said that he wasn’t steady enough to try the shot. Then suddenly a kudu bull appeared in front of us about 250 yards, and we let him get out of sight before Juan and Austin moved forward. Baboons on the hillside barked their alarm as we moved slowly ahead, but eventually, we gave up and we headed to the truck as the sun was sinking. That night, the bushpigs did not visit the bait site.
Day 10. This was our last day to hunt, and we woke up to a light rain. John and Juan said that the cold, damp weather would hinder Austin’s chance of getting a warthog. However, I felt confident that we would have good luck. We drove to a property that was seldom hunted as indicated by the faint tracks, and made our way through the fairly thick acacia trees on the hillside. Within 30 minutes we spotted four nice impala rams to our left, one of them with exceptionally long, thick, black horns. To be honest, I really wanted to take that one, but it would thrill me more if Austin did.
Austin tried to get set up for a shot, but the four rams ran to the right. It was raining softly then, so I remained in the Toyota pickup, while they continued the stalk. They were gone about 30 minutes, when I saw two nice rams running toward me. They stopped about 80 yards away in almost the same place as before. One was the big ram! I grabbed the radio.
“Juan, two of the rams ran back to the same place. One is the big ram.”
“We are stalking them,” Juan answered. I watched as the two rams looked behind them and ran, and eventually Juan, Silas, and Austin arrived. The two impala had joined another group of four, and Austin tried several times to connect with a shot through the dense trees, but couldn’t seal the deal. I could tell that his nerves were getting to him.
Then we found a nice mature ram with a herd of 15 females, and Austin was able to get a shot. We heard a thud and knew that he had connected. We got on the track, Juan and Silas going to the right and Austin and I searching further north. Juan and Silas were 150 yards from us when we heard a shot. When we joined up with them we saw a beautiful ram with thick horns lying on the ground. Austin had shot him too far back, but Juan had put him down for good.
Our shoes and socks were pretty wet by then, and the cold made it uncomfortable, so we headed back to the skinning shed, an old British soldiers’ headquarters during the Boer War. On the way we spotted some warthogs near a dam, and our luck held out, although it was still wet and cold. Juan, Silas and Austin went through some goat pens and worked their way to the dam. Before long, I heard a shot, and it sounded good. Soon Juan came walking back. “He got him!” he smiled. We drove across to find Austin beaming. He finally got his warthog, and it was a very nice one with two long matching tusks.
After lunch and dry clothes, it was time for bushpig, as the sun was going down.
We approached the area from a different road because of the southwest wind. It was 6 p.m. Fifteen minutes later, from where we were sitting we saw the green glow of the hog light illuminate the hill on the skyline! It was pitch-black with no moon. I told Austin to stay in the vehicle. Juan said to play it safe and use no lights as we began walking pretty fast toward the green glow about three-quarter of a mile away. I focused on Juan’s long pants legs and walked where he did. We trod carefully to avoid disturbing a rock or breaking a stick.
It was very difficult for me, but Juan had no problem. It seemed like an eternity, but we made it. We just needed to get a little closer to make out the dark images below the light. Juan moved to the right and motioned for me to get my rifle in place on the tripod, but I couldn’t see a thing. I reached out, located the apex, and put my rifle in the cradle.
“Shoot the one in the middle, it’s a big one!” said Juan. I saw three shapes in my Leupold V6 scope, and put the illuminated red dot on the largest one’s shoulder, carefully took aim, and squeezed off the shot.
“Did I hit him?”
“I think so. The pigs ran to the right after you fired.”
We eased our way up to the spot where the pigs had been before the shot, and didn’t see any blood. All of the sour corn was gone, so they wouldn’t have stayed there much longer. We walked slowly and very cautiously to the right along a game trail. Juan had showed me ghastly photos of a man’s thigh, the result of a wounded bushpig attack, so I readied my rifle and listened carefully as we inched forward. We walked about 100 yards to the edge of a small canyon and stopped. Juan decided that we needed to go back to camp and get PH John Sparks with his .375 H&H backup rifle, and his tracking dogs. Good idea! As we were walking back to the pickup, we came across a large animal track in the sandy road. Juan asked me if I knew what it was.
“Leopard?” He nodded, but said it was not very fresh. That was a relief!
John Sparks was waiting outside with his dogs, Jasper, a Belgian Malinois cross, and Zinga a Rhodesian Ridgeback. We didn’t bring Juan’s dog, Chappie, because he was injured. John, Silas, and the two dogs went ahead of us as we made our way back to the bait area. John brought his dogs out on leashes and walked slowly to the right of the bait. Within 15 yards, the dogs put their noses to the ground.
“Blood,” said John. There was one drop of blood there. I knew that I had hit him! They went another 20 feet and did it again. This time there was more blood. He turned the dogs loose. Jasper started quartering ahead, then ran straight for 30 yards and stopped, licking something in the grass.
“They’ve found him!” said John. We were all very excited to see if it was the big boar that John had regularly seen on the game camera. As I walked up to it, I was relieved and shocked to see that it was huge and wild-looking, covered with long white hair – quite a demonic specimen with long, flesh-gnashing tusks and ears ragged from fighting.
Our 10-day safari couldn’t have ended better. Austin and I completed our wish lists, all spectacular trophies. The “Ghost of the Darkness” hunt had added another layer of memories to our magical days on the Eastern Cape of South Africa. The experiences that we shared on this incredible journey will be with us forever!
Once again, the SES team surpassed my expectations. Special thanks go to my PH Juan Greef; tracker/skinner Silas; Robbie and Angela Stretton; John and Isabel Sparks; Murray and Yvette Danckwerts; James and Viv Quin, and the entire SES team.
As a boy, Dan Hendrickson began hunting on Dixon Creek in the Texas Panhandle. His love of quail hunting led him to raising, training, and competing together with his English pointer bird-dogs. He and his wife, Glenda, founded Phantom Kennels in Abilene, Texas. His favorite pastime was hunting whitetail deer and exotics in Texas, and elk and mule deer in New Mexico until he discovered Africa. Africa changed him forever! He founded Hendrickson Hunting, LLC in 2011 and began helping other hunters as a hunting agent. He and his clients have numerous animals in the SCI and Rowland Ward record books.