“As the truck veered slightly to the left, with the edge of the road mere yards away from the hidden drop off and the forested valley below, we weren’t in the mood for the usual mutter and jokes that had accompanied our previous two safaris together.”
As the Professional Hunter I was frustrated. I had done more than enough to have scored success up to this point. My hunters and great friends, Aaron Davidson and Garrett Wall, were being the ultimate gentleman, reminding me daily we were only hunting – It wasn’t a matter of life or death.
Of course they were right but that didn’t change the situation. I had planned the safari strategically months before. No stone was left unturned. Meticulous scouting by the entire team would be the only way we could meet the requirements for this particular group. As the leader I had made sure all my PH’s were in the best areas from day one, every hunter needed a good start to settle the nerves.
I chose to explore a lesser known area – more to get out-of-the-way of my team, and to spend some quality time with Aaron and Garrett. We hadn’t seen each other since show season ended in Las Vegas during early February, and I knew them well enough to know they’d enjoy going after some “unconfirmed” local knowledge. My old hunting partner, Niel, had been touting me of late with some news of big Kudu sightings in a range of mountains to the west. It was worth a go – Niel and I had enjoyed our fair share of success on pretty impressive Kudu up until then, I wasn’t about to start doubting one of the best in the game.
We hunted hard that first day, enjoying the optimism that goes hand in hand with any first day on safari. We returned to camp that evening to be met by overjoyed hunters, my team had clearly done their part, but I hadn’t seen much of what Niel had been spotting, so we celebrated in their success. The feeling of a hard day up in the mountains felt pretty good, like Aaron enjoyed reminding us, we had earned our desert after dinner that evening.
The following day we all setoff in various directions again. I’ve never been one to force a certain area onto any of my PH’s, they’ve all got the sufficient experience to run their own hunts, and they all have a secret preferred spot, I trust their decisions and back them to the hilt. They’ve always delivered the goods. After everyone had chosen their bearing and target specie for the day, I called over my tracker, Zwayi.
“You reckon we give it another go?”; I asked him. “Why not!”, came his ever enthused reply. After all we had a packed lunch for the day, an instead of playing it safe, boldness seemed an attractive thought at the time. Zwayi liked hunting the hills to the north-east of camp. He had seen a particular Kudu bull that had him in “gibberish” mere months ago, but we had tried hard to find him again, to no avail. I hadn’t seen the bull, Zwayi was watching a particular draw we had spotted a pair of Klipspringer disappear into, when he had first laid eyes on the bull. I knew my trackers pride and bragging rights back at the skinning shed depended on the size of “his” bull, combined with his experience, there was no doubting he had seen something impressive.
We gave it a good proper go all day, spotting tons of Kudu and numerous other species including Steenbuck, Mountain Reedbuck, Gemsbuck and Hartebeest. A couple of shooter Kudu were spotted and the opportunities should have been taken, but Zwayi was insistent we’d be making a mistake. We all felt the same way, so we passed on them, getting back to camp late that evening – still nought to report.
The following few days it was decided to change our target species, and to get Garrett, fondly known as “G”, back onto the gun. G is a pretty lucky hunter all round, that we had come to learn over the years, so any change of habit would hopefully change our fortunes with Kudu. Or so my superstitious nature assured me.
G didn’t disappoint with a massive Gemsbuck, Black Wildebeest, Zebra and Common Springbuck, then making one of the best shots on a Cape Eland I had ever seen.
We had spotted a group of Eland bulls early, and I wanted to catch them on the flat ground before they headed for the hills. The group consisted of ten to fifteen individuals, with two old brutes leading the way. Their experience told them they needed to be on the high ground by sunup, but their weary old joints after more than ten winters in these mountains kept them away from the higher altitudes for as long as possible each morning, ultimately determining the pace of the group.
The morning was a brisk Karoo winters morning, typical of that time of year. The group was far too interested in catching the first few rays of warmth to notice us slipping over the edge of a small bluff a couple of kilometres up the draw. We quietly made our way along the valley floor, nervous of busting out anything else along the way. As we crested the last bit of blind ground between us and the group I felt a shift in the breeze, the cold air was no longer burning my nose, I could feel it hitting the back of my neck. Immediately the Eland stopped feeding and looked up.
I explained the various scenarios to the guys, both agreeing any further movement would result in the Eland busting out. G crawled forward to find a comfortable spot while Aaron got the camera rolling. I ranged our bull at 810 yards, gave G the reading and let him touch one off from his Gunwerks 6.5 Creedmore.
The shot was perfect. He entered the soft spot just behind the shoulder as the bull was quartered slightly away from us. He took out a lung and the top of the heart. The bull never knew what hit him, let alone any of his accomplices. We sat quietly as the bewildered bachelor group didn’t know what to make of the downed old bull. Soon they moved out and we moved in to admire Garret’s beauty.
While Garrett set off our luck in the right direction I decided to throw in a couple of mountain hunting days in between – getting Aaron onto my favourite species to hunt.
A great Vaal Rhebuck and awesome Klipspringer made for exceptional hunting and even better long-range opportunities to test the equipment under pressure situations up in the high country. It felt much better joining in on the evening festivities once we started adding value to the skulls back at the skinning shed each day. We had scored big up in the Karoo – but still no Kudu. The following day I made a call to head south.
At 03:30 I knocked on the guy’s room door. Time to move boys! I was feeling optimistic – not merely because I’m a believer in the early bird catches the biggest worm, but I knew of a certain Kudu bull that I saw regularly. This particular bull frequented a certain valley in one of our prime areas bordering Addo Elephant National Park. I would see him on the odd occasion each year, but he was always just out of range, and making a move on him always came up unsuccessful due to the terrain he liked to call home. Of late I had seen him each time I hunted the area, in fact I had spotted him the day before Aaron and crew arrived on safari. A bout of cold weather hitting the coast had pushed my decision to head north at the start of the hunt, but now the front had come and gone.
At first light we were in position. The guys, including, Zwayi, and my Jack Russel Terrier, Bongo, had slept for most of the three-hour journey south, while I listened to the morning show on our local radio station, Algoa FM.
We glassed hard and sat patiently that entire day. We took turns on the spotting scope looking over numerous bulls during the course of the day. By nightfall we had looked at a number close to thirty Kudu bulls, but our back sides were sore from patiently sitting and waiting for “the” bull. We rumbled into camp with the sound of the Land Cruisers’ motor being the only company in that evening. Our failure to connect was naturally starting to affect our mood.
The following morning, we were back up at dawn, like any good cowboy, we weren’t about to give up after being bucked off the horse. I chose a versatile area for the day. Anything was going to do. Come what may I needed to find more to look at than just Kudu.
We were glad about our Cape Bushbuck, but even it wasn’t getting us closer to an elusive Kudu bull. As the truck veered slightly to the left, with the edge of the road mere yards away from the hidden drop off and the forested valley below, we weren’t in the mood for the usual mutter and jokes that had accompanied our previous two safaris together. Each one of us were in that winters morning daze, that period in the day when the sun bakes one into a hibernating mood. The toll of early mornings and last back at camp each evening was starting to wear us down. Our concentration was not where it was meant to be.
Starring at the track ahead of me I noticed a glimmer of light, a reflection of sort, something was moving on the slope ahead of us. I stopped the truck. Raised my 10×42’s and started panicking immediately. I dropped the clutch and let the truck roll back down the hill and out of sight. As it came to a halt the entire crew jumped into action. We had finally found a Kudu bull of magnitude proportion.
We rushed ahead hugging the edge of the two lane track, hoping to snake our way forward unnoticed into a shooting position. My heart was pounding out of my chest. Aaron could see I was clearly shaken by what I’d seen, so he moved even faster than usual. As the range finder beamed back something in the 450 yard range I told the guys to get set up. Garrett was on the camera and Aaron on the gun.
Aaron picked him up in his scope immediately, while Garrett located him in the cameras viewfinder. We were set and ready, now all we needed was for the bull to feed out of a clump of light brush into a clearing ahead where a particular Kudu cow had fed out into.
Like clockwork he followed her out, coming to a halt in the clearing. I gave Aaron the go-ahead, he had one final breath, then touched off his shot.
At the crack of the shot the bull looked up, but I could see from his reaction he had not been hit. He started moving within seconds veering back up to his left, looping away into some thick stuff. All this time I had the Swarovski 10×60 fixed on him, hoping to see any sign of weakening – but I knew there would be none. It was a clear miss over his back.
As the bull disappeared out of sight, I backed off the spotting scope lens, hoping not to show my disgust at the situation. I would have backed Aaron’s shot if my life depended on it. I had never seen him miss within 600 up to that point. We were all in shock and clearly disappointed. We had worked so hard for that one opportunity, which was now clearly gone.
Some hours later, after having gathered the gear and our lousy moods, doing what was expected, but clearly not enjoyable, I felt embarrassed for my earlier behaviour. I hadn’t said anything after the shot, but the look must have been one of utmost disgust – for which I was ashamed. Aaron was and would still be a great friend had he hit or missed the bull, I just wasn’t ready for that kind of disappointment when the opportunity had finally come. We had done our time and had a massive bull on the ropes being filmed for a television show back in the US. Don’t let anyone fool you – when the cameras are rolling the pressure is on, especially on the professional hunter.
That evening we shared Garrett’s footage with the rest of the crew back at camp. I knew the bull was big, but I didn’t need to see the look on my guides faces, especially my head PH’s face, Greg Hayes. There was no need for “the one that got away was a monster” story, everyone, including Aaron knew what we had missed out on. The evidence was on the camera.
The following day, after numerous discussions with the rest of my crew, and following Greg’s advice and hunch, we decided to give the area and bull a break. It was day nine of a 10-day hunt. If we were to have 1% chance of seeing him again on the last day of our hunt, then we had to give him space.
We hunted an adjacent area to the big bulls’ range, still going after Kudu, but fairly light-hearted in effort. I kept finding Zwayi on the spotting scope staring back at the range of hills behind us, instead of the valley below – the one we were hunting. Our day proved to be a fairly inconsequential one, we weren’t hung up on our miss anymore, but we weren’t over it either.
Our final morning arrived and we rose well before sunup. By 10am we were enjoying our egg salad breakfast sandwich, trying to find the joy in a great tasting sandwich, hoping to eat away our disappointment. We hadn’t found our bull and the eyes were tired of “seeing” things that clearly weren’t going to turn into Kudu the harder we looked.
At noon I decided we were done. The reality was plain for all to see. We had our chance. We didn’t take it. What gave us the right to think we’d have a second opportunity on a weary old monster? He must have escaped so many a hunter in his day – how else could one explain his sheer size? This bull was no fool.
I felt a bit better about things, grasping at the positive attributes of one of the best Waterbuck hunted in South Africa during 2015. Having loaded the Waterbuck, we headed towards the skinning shed. On route we decided to stop off at a side valley for a one last quick glass. We spotted some Kudu, but no bulls in the nearby vicinity. We continued on to the shed and left Zwayi to finish up skinning.
Instead of sitting around the shed I decided it was a far better option to head back to the group of Kudu cows, as just maybe a bull would decide to show itself during the course of the afternoon. Arriving back at the side valley we immediately spotted a mature Kudu bull. We could see it wasn’t “the bull”, but he was of a shape in horns that required a closer look.
Getting to within a mere 200 yards from the feeding bull, we were set and ready to take him, when Aaron paused, looked up at me from his prone position and said; “This isn’t our bull, let’s rather pass on him. We’ll never give this bull the respect it deserves if we took him now.” Aaron was right. By taking a lesser bull after everything we had been through would have left us hollow. Yes – we would have a great Kudu bull, but we’d rather take nothing than just take a bull because it was our last afternoon. We got up, gathered our gear for a last time, and headed over to the lookout in search of our bull for what would be the very last time. It was nearing 5pm – the light was fading fast.
Coming to a halt a couple of hundred yards short of our view-point, most of the truck fixed their binoculars on a group of Eland in the valley below us, when Aaron excitedly shouted out from the passenger seat; “There he is!”
No ways, I thought to myself. It was a long way off, right at the top end of the opposite slope, feeding in a frosted yellow grass clearing. I could see it was a bunch of Kudu, with a bull in the group, but it was not until my spotting scope rested on him and the focus glass cleared that my heart started racing again.
I cleared my emotions before lifting off the glass this time. If we had any chance this late in the day, it was going to take every ounce of knowledge I had of the lay of the land. Inside I felt calm, but on the outside I needed people to move, to realize how little precious shooting light we had left. At best we had 1% chance of having a shot at the bull. But it was still a chance, and we had been at it for ten days – there was no quitting now.
The idea was to race to the edge of the large valley separating our slope from the Kudu’s, before free-wheeling out of sight. Within a couple of hundred yards we would be out of sight. We would then race up the opposite slope to as high as we could make it, without disturbing the group, hoping they’d continue to feed in the clearing they were in.
Our plan started off fairly well. The Kudu hardly noticed the truck 2000+ yards away as it dipped out of sight. The minute I felt it as safe to start-up the motor I did so, increasing our pace down the slope. With numerous s-bends making up our two lane track down the slope, I cut one of the corners too sharp, slashing a massive gash in my front left tyre. The truck came to a sudden and bumpy halt.
Having taken stock of our situation we decided we had no chance with the remaining light if we didn’t use the truck to make it up some of the way on the opposite slope. With Zwayi back at the skinning shed taking care of capping out our Waterbuck, Garrett and Aaron jumped into action with me. It was something pretty special to see – right in the middle of the African bush three guys were going about the business of changing a flat as if it were a pit stop in a Formula 1 championship. In no time we were back at it and had come to a halt halfway up the opposite slope.
We grabbed our gear and made a dash for it. Long gone was the fear of busting out anything ahead of us. The lay of the land would hopefully protect us if anything did bust out – this was not the time to be concerned about what could and what wouldn’t. We marched on as fast as our legs and weary souls could take us.
Cresting the ridge, I realized the Kudu were actually on the opposite slope of a hidden valley nestled amongst a heavily forested section of the main ridge. Things were looking good. But the light as now fading from fairly poor to terrible. There was an open section with zero cover we had to cross to get within 500 yards to even start seeing the clearing they were last spotted in when we came to an abrupt halt, facing off with five White Rhino.
I’m not sure who was more startled? The Rhino or us! I threw caution to the wind, hoping the characteristically milder natured White Rhino would clear out without giving us or our Kudu a run for our money. Luckily they did. Two hundred yards further we settled down in the grass. For once things were looking up – we had front row seats to a beautiful sunset, a shooting position as perfect as could be, and a view of a group of Kudu feeding some 400+ yards ahead of us, unaware of any lurking danger. It was now or never.
I glassed as hard as I could trying to find our bull. I could see three cows feeding, with a couple more appearing from time to time. Then suddenly my eye was drawn to a single bright orange Aloe Vera flower about 100 yards below the feeding group. Right there next to the flower was a Kudu bull thrashing a particular thorn tree scent marking as if his life depended on it. I pointed Aaron towards the bull in the thick stuff next to the bright orange flower, while G located it in his camera. I had a quick glimpse through the spotting scope for one last time when I came to the realization I was looking at a completely different bull. Here was a big bull, but not our bull. I put him on ice for the time being and gave the guys the news. We turned our attention back to the feeding group in the clearing.
It could not have been more than 2-3 minutes, which felt like an eternity, but for the life of me we couldn’t find our bull. Just as I started glassing back down towards the orange flower bull I noticed a quick-moving glint of a reflection below the furthermost cow in the group. There was a Boerbean tree, bright red in flower, and from behind it protruding to its right was an off-green yellow looking shrub. And from that shrub I could now clearly see two shinning white tips moving about as the bull browsed in the cool evening breeze.
Aaron and Garrett settled on the bull, each in their now familiar roles when it came to our pursuit of Kudu. The bull started feeding out. First there was more to the horns than just the flaring tips, then the head, and finally he stepped into the gap. He was quartering away ever so slightly when Aaron touched off the 6.5 Creedmore. The bull lunged forward, then jumped high into the air before kicking out and flashing his bright white tail, before disappearing into the undergrowth and out of sight. We sat in silence.
There was nothing that needed to be said in that precise moment. Just for 10 seconds we sat to allow the moment to sink in. This time there was no doubting. I watched the bullets’ impact right behind the shoulder, in the sweet spot, where there’s only ever one result.
As the seconds passed and so too the crashing of the undergrowth on the opposite bank subsided our emotions took over. It had been a hunt of epic proportion, climatic to the very end of day ten. It was possibly the most emotionally challenging rollercoaster of a hunt I had ever guided up to that point, let alone been privileged to have been a part of.
There have been many great hunts over the years, but very few that would actually play out like the 1% Kudu. Experience tells us we should never have gotten a second chance at our bull, the reality of digging deep and not giving up right to the very end is what brought us back and took us out to the field time and again. The 1% Kudu is why we hunt.
Side note – For those interested in viewing the show of this epic hunt, be sure not to miss Gunwerks Long Range Pursuit on The Sportsman Channel for the re-airing of this show.