African Blind Date
Join this bowhunter on his first trip bound to Africa
as he goes face to face with the trophy of a lifetime.
By Paul Hantke
IT OCCURRED TO me as I pushed a cart overflowing with equipment cases and duffel bags through the Jan Smuts airport in Johannesburg that I was on the blind date of my life.
I had accepted an invitation from Sangira Safaris to come to South Africa for a three-week hunting and photo safari, but I knew nothing about the company or its principals other than that it was a new venture by two relatively novice professional hunters.
Not only was I sailing into personally uncharted territory on the other side of the globe, but also the adventure had been arranged, booked and inaugurated into action in about five weeks. Normal planning for a trip like this should take months, but the wonders of e-mail and a need to get there quickly made it all happen.
Haste was in order, because, as it was, I arrived in the first week of September, which is well at the end of winter for that half of the world, and almost too late for hunting. The rainy season, or springtime, brings everything to a halt.
Summer in South Africa is the off-season for hunting because it is way too hot. Not to mention, during the summer vegetation has grown lush from the rainy season and many game animals are virtually impossible to see or pursue.
So there I was that morning with a cart full of gear. (As Staff Editor for the Y-Visionary Outdoor Group, I also had firearms and lots of other stuff for field testing in addition to my archery gear.) Things got better immediately as I was greeted by my hosts, Tinus Van Heerden and Stoffel Botha, proprietors of Sangira Safaris, Tinus has a background in the military Special Forces, while Stoffel was a federal police investigator, but both grew up “in the bush.”
Their professional skills in bush craft and hunting would show later, but I was immediately taken by how friendly and down-to-earth both fellows were, and their excellent English made it easy to quickly make friends. We off-loaded the cart full of stuff into the back of a new 4×4 Crew Cab Toyota pick-up and we were on our way to “the bush,” which varies considerably as you move around South Africa.
First stop was the bush veldt outside of Thabazimbi, which means “mountain of iron” in Tswana. Mountain of Iron is the world’s largest deep-pit iron mine that is serviced by the most amazing (and scary) road you have ever seen.
Our hunting grounds were on a private farm of immense proportions in the valley north of Thabazimbi, which flattens out and looks much like south Texas, with thorn bushes instead of mesquite. The ground there is level with a couple of inches of soft silt over hard earth, and the thorn bushes grow so thick it is often impossible to find a path through them.
Arriving about midday, we had lunch and then headed out in the old Land Rover hunting buggy. Our drive took us along the first fence line for several kilometers, and then we turned into the middle of the property.
I had been warned by a couple of old Africa hands that the animals there were especially hard to see due to their superior camouflage. “All your North American skills and instincts will need to be re-programmed,” I was assured.
They did not lie, and I found myself frustrated because Stoffel or Tinus would point out game that I simply could not see. I could see and agree with the specific tree they were supposed to be standing beside, but I couldn’t make out the animals themselves. It was interesting but not fun.
In spite of my handicap, the fellows managed to show me gemsbok, impala, red hartebeest, dukier, kudu, and blue wildebeest, all in a two-hour drive. We were, in fact, looking for a specific old bull in one of the blue wildebeest herds that the landowner wanted to cull.
We managed to find the old bull and I grabbed my bow and set out on a stalk with Tinus. You don’t get to be the old bull by being stupid, and that cagey wildebeest played hide and seek with us for awhile from abut 150 yards out before he darted for parts unknown.
In the truck, on the way back to the farmhouse, Stoffel suddenly grabbed my shoulder and pointed into the bush. “Look at the size of that kudu!” he exclaimed. Everyone else looked and had the same reaction. “What a monster!” I, of course, saw only movement in the brush. After several attempts, the big kudu was ruled impossible to stalk for the day.
Dinner that night was a South African “Braai,”their version of a good old charcoal grill, and was well received after the long day. It had been decided over steaks and libations that Stoffel and I would head out to a “hide” next to a waterhole the following morning where I might get a chance to stick a warthog.
We were dropped off early the next day, and I literally had to look around carefully to find the hide, which only protruded about three feet above ground level. The interior of the hide is dug out some three feet deep, and a rough wooden bench is you only seat. The brush walls are lined inside with a tarp to prevent the detection of movement inside, and there are a few tiny viewing holes punched in the tarp. A “shooting slit” that was about three inches wide and extended about two feet up from ground level was positioned well over to the side.
We began our vigil, hoping to get a chance at a warthog once the sun heated up the bush veldt and the animals made their way to water.
I had along my High Country Ultra Force bow and was shooting Game Tracker’s Carbon Express 300 arrows tipped with the company’s new First Cut broadheads. A sight check the afternoon before showed the bow was dead on.
Stoffel and I spent a long and unproductive morning in the hide, eventually drawing pictures of animal tracks and playing tic-tac-toe in the sand at our feet. We were a scant 25 yards away from the waterhole, so all this was done in virtual silence.
Our only visitors were Lourie birds and two female kudos, who came in and drank, then laid down just a few feet from us, testament to the camouflage and proper upwind positioning of the hide.
It was some seven hours before we heard the old Land Rover grinding its way to our position for our pre-scheduled midday pick up. Once aboard, we weren’t more than a few hundred yards from the hide o our way out when trackers and professional hunters alike all pointed in the same direction. “Kudu!” they exclaimed, “and warthogs too!”
Once again I saw only gray shadows in the brush that I presumed to be kudu, but I could make out a couple of dozen warthogs moving with the shadows. We stopped the truck and two female with piglets ran across in front of us and disappeared into the thickest on the other side of the trail. I don’t know if it’s the Disney influence, but I find the sight of warthogs on the move quite humorous. The pigs and their babies drew a smile as they passed.
Next came a moment of pandemonium wherein our trackers, Joseph and September, exchanged lots of information in several different languages with Tinus and Stoffel, the gist being that the kudu and the warthog were apparently moving together, and more than that, it was thought they would circle back and resume their trek to the waterhole we had just left.
“Do you want to go back, or do you want to go have lunch and try again this afternoon?” was Stoffel’s question to me. “I came to hunt,” was my reply, and September turned toe Rover around, dropping us off short of the hide so we could stalk in while they left by a different route.
It was another two hours before we began to get any action, and then it was all from female kudu coming quickly into the water and then moving aside into the shade from the taller trees near the waterhole.
Stoffel kept watch at the peephole, occasionally updating me on the scene while I fiddled with my equipment and thought about what I was doing.
I eventually decided that my many months of work and practice made me feel comfortable with a shot out to about 30 yards, any further that that and I’d have to pass.
I was at the peephole when the bull walked in, and I’m sure my jaw dropped just a little bit when I first saw him. He stood nearly six feet tall at the head and was sporting a set of spiral horns that had to be over 40 inches tall.
“There he is!” I said excitedly, but quietly, as I got out of the way of the peephole so Stoffel could see. I was jut making the decision to reach for my bow when Stoffel stopped me, “Take it easy,” he said, “all the vitals are right behind that spot.”
We watched the young bull come warily to the waterhole, testing the air with nose high. Stoffel pointed out a place bhind the animal’s shoulder where the markings made an oval. “Shoot for the center of that oval,” he said, “all the vitals are right behind that spot.”
For a second all I could think of was the Gary Larson cartoon of the deer with a target on his chest and his deer buddy saying, “Bummer of a birthmark, Hal.” It was an interesting mental juxtaposition, but I quickly regained my focus.
“The young one!” I whispered. “How much bigger can those things get?” His answer came back in the same hushed tones as he pulled me back to the peephole, “How about this one?” Stoffel asked.
Almost seven feet tall at the head, I quickly saw the big kudu Stoffel was referring to. The trophy was walking right into the water.
He sauntered to the waterhole and gave the young buck a shoulder to signal him to back off, then he turned broadside to me and began to drink.
I stepped back from the peephole, eyes and mouth wide and heart hammering already. I don’t remember what I said, but it was probably not printable anyway. I picked up my bow, nocked an arrow, set my string release, took a deep breath, and moved forward to fire.
That was when I discovered that the slit was too close to the wall for a proper elbow-out posture when firing. So I folded my arm down, concentrated on my bow-hand hold, my cheek weld and the fiber-optic 20-yard pin that I had placed just at the top of the oval in the markings.
I ever so gently touched the trigger on my release and was very happy to see the yellow-fletched arrow center my target. Right about then I realized that I had just heard Stoffel saying, “Are you going to shoot?”
The big kudu hunched up, spun around once, and took off. A few minutes later and about 100 yards away we found the big guy. The broadhead had cut a path through heart and lungs and stopped on the inside at the offside shoulder.
We measured the horns with a steel tape right after I took the kudu, and they ran out to 54 ¼ inches. A more professional measurement was taken with a steel cable after the head and cape had spent three days in the cold room, and the set still measured 52 ¼ inches.
As I understand it, the kudu will qualify for both the Rowland Ward and the Safari Club International world record books.