by Mark Neal
Monday evening was a high. I had got my first animal along with a few of the others in our party. Life was good and a couple of drinks later it was looking even rosier.
We were having a great time and a good dinner saw many a weary hunter head for an early bed and a bath.
There have been few times in my life that I have felt so quickly comfortable and at home with what not so many hours ago were complete strangers. The banter quickly became that familial teasing and good natured jibing is that indicative of the well balanced people that my colleges undoubtedly are.
Tuesday was set to be a bonanza hunting day, after all we had now settled in and it should be easy to collect our sought after trophies.
Oh that life were as easy as those hunting books we have all read.
Jim, Jaco and I hunted our cotton socks off without success all of Tuesday, we stalked, crawled, Jim and Jaco dropped off the backs of moving vehicles, to confound the animals. We set up at waterholes, we tramped through the bush. Jim, Jaco and the tracker went into the brush and I drove the vehicle off in an attempt to fool them….and all to no avail.
We were not dispirited however, a couple of large Gin and Tonics back at the lodge and swapping of hunting stories and many “that’s huntings” and tomorrow was another day.
That night it rained, most unusually for the location and the time of year. This promised fresh spoor for the morning and a real chance to track the specific species that we desired.
Chris Troskie likes to hunt with each client on a group trip like this and Wednesday saw Jim and I in his company. He worked, by heaven he worked all day long to get us onto our animals, but the wind was swirling and we got glimpses. Chris and I were on wildebeest but could not identify a good head amongst the heard for the heavy brush that separated us. The traitorous wind swirled again and they were off. This happened time and time again. Chris got Jim onto an Impala but again the shot was just not the right angle to take and Jim passed the attempt rather than risk a bad hit.
It is hard to express in words the immense frustration of hunting in a game rich environment, but in cover so dense and animals so wary that they can vanish with so little sound that you begin to doubt that they were ever there in the first place.
Self doubt begins to set in and the, if I’d, should I’ve, questions buzz around your head.
Atmospheric conditions that evening meant that I could not call my wife in England for those much needed words of encouragement. Failing that the only recourse of the true scoundrel is the Gin bottle. Now for the boys that were there and swear that I never had a glass out of my hand, I plead that I am scared of malaria and I only drink for the quinine in the tonic water. ( Yes I am sticking to that story)
Chris wishing to ensure that everybody achieved his desire for success, came to me and told me that he had arranged for Jim and I to hunt one on one the next day. Jim to hunt with Jaco and I with a PH by the name of Regardt (Richard) to whom he introduced me.
I have to confess that I remember very little of the rest of the evening, other than we laughed a lot, Phillip and I cured all the political problems of the middle east and the third world with a few well placed bullets and some rhetoric which would make the biggest hawks in the government lose their lunch in anxiety, and the agreement to meet Regardt at 5.30 am the following morning.
I cannot really say that I remember sleeping, I do know that I was aware enough to set my alarm clock for 4.30. before the veil of the night took me to my rest.
Oh sweet heaven, the alarm clock is bleeping and I am very little closer to being sober than I was a few hours ago. I stumble into my clothes, with the desperate need of the far too inebriated to be in the fresh air. I slip open the door aware that my neighbours do not need to be up until 6am.
It was freezing a frost covered the ground.
Creeping around like a cat burglar, I make my way to the dining room stealing through the mercifully unlocked kitchen door. The embers of last nights fire are still glowing. By the light of my cigarette lighter I find the wood pile and selecting some thinner pieces endeavour to rekindle last nights blaze as I attempt to regain my sobriety.
The faint flickering yellow flames that lick up the dry thornwood announce the success of the first enterprise and by this feebly increasing light I locate the electric urn which promises the salvation of tea and coffee whilst I embark on the second task.
The PH’s assure me that there are no Camels on that property, nevertheless, one had undoubtedly camped for the night on my tongue. I once remember a description in Elmer Keith’s autobiography when in conversation with a couple of moonshiners: they remark that on his return from prison they had to pour whiskey into their Father for two days before his hoops would tighten. That is just what it felt like.
Bottle after bottle of water followed each other whilst the urn came to the boil. Tea followed tea. 5.30 came and went, still no
A small mini Safari of my own into yesterdays vehicle for painkillers and I am starting to feel slightly more human. Dammed fragile, but, definitely an evolutionary leap from the creature that had departed its lair an hour ago. I am not sure now who was the first to arrive to keep me company, but the consensus as more people drifted in, that I had not moved from the following evening, will I hope be put to rest by this tale. I have two shirts of the same design and I just like that spot by the fire. OK.
Regardt arrived at about 6.30 (revenge is a dish best served cold young man!)
I had lost my windproof and warm jerkin the day before and I just did not have the clothing with me to deal with the cold of that morning on the back of the open truck. We drove to a new hunting ground neighbouring the previous one, huddling down behind the cab of the truck to keep out of the wind as best we could. I had been joined that morning by our resident camera man who spent some time with each party to best record their hunting experiences.
Regardt had just returned the previous afternoon from Zambia where he works for Pieter and we shared a pair of gloves, talked of big game and the differences between the countries, tented camps, malaria (from which he was recovering) guns and many other topics.
Again we worked hard before lunch to no avail. The doubts really were creeping in now and I had to ask. “Is it me, am I too noisy, is it something that I am doing wrong”. He assured me that it was not. It was a combination he explained of bad wind conditions, a full moon for the previous few nights that had allowed the animals to feed for most of the night rather than having to feed at first light. “Don’t worry” he assured me we will get your Wildebeest”. This Wildebeest was becoming for me the holy grail. The poor mans Buffalo as it is described was the largest creature I could afford to hunt and the fairest test in that region for my .450NE, I didn’t want to think of leaving Africa without one to write into my game book.
We had in the morning crept into a feeding station, only to have had the wind beat us and see only the spoor of departed Wildebeest, we had sat for nearly an hour but to no good reward. Regardt decided that if they had not fed there then there was a very real possibility that they would go to a similar spot on the other side of the property in the afternoon.
We left the vehicle and crept in, covering perhaps 400 yard in total silence with Regardt and the tracker in the lead myself and the camera man following.
All was quiet when we arrived, in an unearthly silence that pervaded the place made more so by four grown men moving in mime, we set up in cover behind a large thorn bush. We broke a small gap into the bush and I wormed my way into its midst Regardt breaking off small limbs to the front to give me a field of fire. There we sat. The camera man to my rear, the tracker to my right rear and Regardt to my left.
And we sat, and we sat, my right leg, the victim of and old injury went numb. The barrels of my rifle rested on a limb of the thorn in front of me, the butt on my thigh.
It was a lovely hot afternoon, a gentle breeze caressed our faces, the silence enveloped us like a womb as we became part of the surroundings, part of nature itself as if our very souls were trying to blend into the background as we were physically.
The tracker went first. Out of the corner of my eye I could see his head nod and he jerked in that strange puppet like way that we do, as we fall asleep in a chair in front of a fire. I am not sure what Regardt hissed at him in Afrikaans but he made a believer out of me as well as him.
I to my shame was next, catching myself on the first nod as the barrels of my rifle slipped a few inches sideways on the inclined branch. Our camera man was next, being Pieters nephew, we allowed him to excel himself by snoring until a whispered epitaph from Regardt which was more Anglo Saxon than Afrikaans brought him to his senses.
One and a half hours we sat, Regardt told me later that he was about to give up when from the right came the single bleat of a Wildebeest calf.
“Here they come he whispered”, I just nodded, too frightened of loosing them now even to speak.
It sounds foolish sitting in London to talk of ghosts, but that was what it was like, 20-30 wildebeest came into that clearing almost without sound, one second they were not there and the next the floodgates had opened.
The lead bull was a good animal, I raised the butt of my rifle and slid my hand up the forend to rest on the branch. “Wait” whispered Regardt. The herd moved to our left and we could sense the cows getting restless, they had detected that something was amiss. Then at the back of the herd an old bull lumbered in, not a heavy head, but wide and with a boss eroded with years of wear, past his breeding prime.
He stood facing me head on but with his body turned away at about 70 degrees. The cows had started to move, nervousness rippled through the herd, they were going to flee. In that split second Regardt said “take him”. I settled the foresight on his chest, slightly to the right to rake the woodleigh softpoint through the length of his body. I squeezed the trigger, and concentrated on following through.
Hit and the old boy swapped ends in an instant, remembering how the Warthog had run seemingly a lifetime ago, I was going to take no chances. I knelt as quickly as I could and let him have the second barrel a 480 grain solid in the base of the spine just above the root of the tail.
He hit the ground kicking and I wrenched myself from the thorn heedless of the catches and snags. Breaking the rifle and shaking the spent cartridges from their chambers I paced quickly towards his rear reloading as I did so. Holding the gun on him I asked Regardt if I needed to hit him again. “No wait” he replied “He’s dead”
He had travelled less than 10 feet. The second insurance round had been unnecessary after all. On skinning him out, the softpoint had travelled through the chest cavity and was found under the hide by the opposite rear quarter, weighing in later at 406 grains, the solid had traversed him and exited from the front never to be found, but as the PH’s say, that’s why you carry a double.
To Follow…. Leon, The Kudu, two Wildebeest and Me