Some years ago I wrote the story “Vaalie Obsession”, as many of you would recall I shared my love for pursuing Vaal Rhebuck, the fleet-footed masters of the mountains. At the time of writing that story, I, together with Professional Hunter, Ed Wilson, had come agonizingly close to that magical 10” mark all Vaal Rhebuck hunters strive to achieve. On that particular hunt we had old friends, Brett Nelson and Jeff Edland, testing their wit against one of Africa’s toughest species.
Having “banked” that amazing Vaalie and the experiences that went with it, I continued on in my pursuit, glassing horizon to horizon whenever the opportunity to escape to the mountains presented itself. It was not that I didn’t appreciate the magnitude of Brett’s Vaal Rhebuck, but more the thought of finally hitting that 10” mark. It may be the same drive which sees all Elephant hunters striving for that magical 100 pound tusker, so it was for me, the obsession of finding a 10” Vaal Rhebuck.
Possibly finding what I was after….
It was once again a late season scout that got my excitement levels up. It is strange how often the best is found at the end of the season and not at the start when most of the scouting takes place. 2014 had been a bumper year and a scouting invitation from an old friend and fellow Professional Hunter, Pierre Moolman, sounded like a dream escape into the mountains.
Pierre had guided for my Dad, Rick, at John X Safaris for many years while I was still at school. We had become close friends during those years and continued on in our friendship when Pierre decided to start a safari company of his own some years later. Having shared many a campfire and always thinking along the same lines we were looking at doing something never achieved before. Instead of going after one of the biggest and best Vaal Rhebuck regions on our own, we joined forces and collectively secured what could be considered one of the best Vaal Rhebuck areas in the East Cape – if not South Africa.
Together we secured just over 50 000 acres of prime Vaal Rhebuck territory, sharing a quota of ten rams per annum. Knowing full well that the success of the area and potential which it held could only be reached via conservation minded longevity, we entered into a long-term agreement with the landowners – committing ourselves to the utmost in not only time, but finances too. Like the saying goes, you get what you pay for.
With the business side of things handled we set off into the hills. Pierre had told me how fantastic the area was, but nothing could have prepared me for what we found. A Vaal Rhebuck paradise to say the least. In a single day we spotted over 300 Vaal Rhebuck, and barely had enough time to cover a fifth of the area. It left me day dreaming and wishing for 2015 to arrive. I not only wanted to scout the area – I wanted to hunt it. Find what I was after – surely I could cure my obsession with an area that big and a population so dense. The wait was on… 2015 couldn’t come soon enough.
Finding the right hunter…
Having found and secured the right area, it was now time to find the right hunter. Even though it was my obsession to find a 10”, it has never been about me squeezing the trigger. In all the years I’ve never hunted for any trophies myself – it was something my Dad, Rick, instilled in me as a youngster. If a hunter is willing to get onto an airplane somewhere around the world, and is willing to support our livelihoods, then that hunter should have the very best chance at not only experiencing a great safari, but have the opportunity of walking away with the best possible trophies our areas have to offer. The ultimate enjoyment as a Professional Hunter has always been the successes of my clients and the thought of knowing I could get him/her onto something special. That’s what drives me doing what I do day in and day out.
While I guide many fantastic hunters each year, all whom would give anything for the opportunity at an amazing Vaal Rhebuck, very few can be called on at short notice, and without guarantees. I had not found a huge Vaal Rhebuck yet. I had only found a superb area and had a good feeling about its potential. Not many hunters could be called on to book an early season hunt on my gut instinct.
There are however two or three. The first being my old hunting partner, Steve Robinson and his son, Hunter. Both these guys had done their time in the mountains – loved every minute doing it and had been on numerous safaris with me sharing the same Vaal Rhebuck obsession as I do.
Unfortunately Steve was caught up in his Grand Slam of the Sheep of North America, and while I know he would have dropped a sheep hunt to join me, I decided to not offer the hunt to him, as I knew how important the Grand Slam was to him. Africa would still be here after he got his sheep – so I thought it best that he finished his sheep quest while he was so close.
The second lot of hunters I had in mind were my good friends, Eric and Kristie Arnette, from Texas. The Arnette family have been great friends of ours for many years, and Eric’s love for the mountains have made us great hunting partners. The man is physically a beast, always keeping up no matter how steep the mountain or tall the order. A fantastic Klipspringer hunt some years ago had set off a love for mountain hunting within him, that would see him jump on a plane in a heartbeat, but I felt the notice possibly to short. I knew Eric was extremely busy with business and the opening of his new hot rod shop was keeping him occupied for the time being.
The third hunter was the one I knew I could call on at anytime of the day. A busy man in the business world, but one who may have been able to get away at short notice. I dropped him a message on face book, explaining what I had found and gave him a date option without any guarantees. A couple of minutes later he replied. The hunt was on.
Searching for the elusive 10”….
Luther Dietrich and I have become great friends over a goal. He has a desire to hunt the nine main spirals of Africa, and I have a desire to guide all nine, but that’s a very long story for another occasion. What we do have in common, and what brought him into play when it came to this story, is our enjoyment of one another’s company and the passion we share for hunting Africa. The man first introduced to me by none other than Brett Nelson, literally eats, sleeps, and breathes Africa. He most certainly doesn’t have the time in his busy schedule to ‘just”get away, but has the means and desire to make things happen at short notice.
His quest for new areas and exploring uncharted territory, combined with a quiet rivalry between our team and that of Brett Nelson and Ed Wilson, saw him buy into my 10” quest. I wanted to go after the “holy grail” of Vaal Rhebuck, and he believed it could be done. A guide who lived on hope and a hunter who bought into the dream – We make a great team.
Unlike before, we hadn’t actually found a monster, so while the waiting took patience, it was bearable. But I wouldn’t be lying if I said I was relieved to collect Luther at the airport in Port Elizabeth. With him was his good friend, Mark Swanberg, fondly known as, “Swanny”, back on his second hunt with John X Safaris. Swanny too had bought into the idea of hunting a new area, and keenly joined Professional Hunter, Ross “Stix” Hoole.
That very first day we set off for the mountains. It was time to get hunting.
The idea was for us to dedicate as much time as possible to scouting a large an area as possible, making notes on numbers and locations. Where possible, keep track of the sizes of the rams seen and then to take the opportunity if it presented itself. Anything in the 8” class was noted, as well as extremely old rams shorter than 8” in horn length.
A Vaal Rhebuck in the 8” class is well above average and a magnificent trophy – an average we’re extremely proud of as a company. We’ve been keeping it up for ten years now and continue striving to achieve that. Anything between 8”-9” is a no debate shooter, and one heck of a ram. Anything of 9” is considered once in a lifetime, and a 10” like I said before, is the “holy grail” of Vaal Rhebuck hunting. Our plan was quite simple, anything in the 9” class was game on, but anything less than 9” was to be left in the first 3 days. A tall order indeed, but we weren’t here to settle for anything short of magnificent. The guys had made a commitment to us, so Stix and I were going to honor that.
That very first day saw us “finding our feet”, getting a feel for the lay of the land we had not seen during our previous scout.
Stix and Swanny did however see a ram they weren’t willing to “share” much information on, only that they’d like to hunt in the same region the following day again. In the hunting world, that tells a story better than the best book ever written – They had found something big.
In any event, Luther and I, together with our tracker, Zwayi, hadn’t found anything worth “lying” about just yet, so we were quite happy to head into another region the following day. By now the competition was rife and we needed to start finding rams that could see us competing at the dinner table that evening.
As Swanny and Stix disappeared into a set of hills at sunrise, we continued up the valley, hoping to find something big. There’s something to be said about a hunters hope and the horizon, it seems the further the horizon and the more ground there is to cover between you and it, the higher the hopes. One always seems to be telling oneself it’s around the bend or over the next hill. There’s always hope when the old beaten track continues meandering up and over the horizon.
Finding the ram…
As luck would have it, or call it poor luck, Zwayi spotted a ram cresting a draw above us. I couldn’t get the spotting scope onto the ram in time, but Zwayi was adamant that we should dedicate some time for a closer inspection. Knowing him the way I do, I trusted his instincts and continued up and over. The minute we reached the top we found a nice group of 11 animals, with a big ram off in the distance. He was busy marking his territory and had left his females momentarily.
Vaal Rhebuck rams are extremely aggressive and territorial, often fighting to the death or chasing a weaker or younger animal to the point of death by exhaustion. I had told Luther about this phenomenon, and we were fortunate enough to see it unfold in front of our eyes a couple of days later.
Having spotted a big ram and feeling excited about that prospect, Zwayi wasn’t entirely convinced it was the same ram he had seen cresting the hill. We continued over onto the next ridge without being detected by the big ram and his females, and then found what I had been searching for, for so long.
To be quite honest, I found him by co-incidence. I’d love to claim that I spotted him out there at a 1000 yards, feeding among’st the sage camouflaged better than anything I’d ever spotted before, but if it wasn’t for the ram Zwayi spotted, we would never have ended up where we were, let alone staring down at a herd of Eland. And need I forget to mention, a gun steel-blue Eland bull is like a moth drawn to a light for me. I saw a big old bull in the valley below and decided to have a better look with my spotting scope, not that I needed the scope to convince me of his qualities. He was a brute, but viewing a brute close up is much more enjoyable through the lens of a spotting scope than wondering about the precise color of his mop on his forehead.
Admiring the beautiful Eland in my scope I noticed something off in the background. A set of ears. Far too small and erected to be that of an Eland. Then another, and another, and then they were piling out of a draw, from what looked like a natural spring. At first there was no ram at all. And then we saw the two figures running out in the distance. A younger ram in the 7” class was chasing a monster for dear life. It was quite obvious what was playing out below us. The big old ram had, had his day and old father time was catching up to him, the youngster was making a move on the old rams’ territory and harem. The cycle of life was catching up to the old boy.
A standoff ensued and the younger rams’ courage got the better of him. He turned and headed off into the distance, sure to be back sooner rather than later, wiser to the old rams’ tricks. It was only a matter of time. The big ram returned to his females and to within 1000 yards. The spotting scope was no longer picking up the wavering heat wave; I was not imagining it anymore.
I’m not sure if the moment got the better of me? But I suddenly had no clue how to judge the ram and determine how big he was. I’d never seen one this big out in the field. And in my spotting scope. Yes, I’ve seen them in books and magazines, but this was different. I stared at him for five minutes, taking in every move he made, studying every angle possible – summing up the challenge.
And then I got up, tried to keep my composure and convince Luther and Zwayi the ram I’d spotted was in the 8 ½” class. I had come to the realization that the ram was not in our concession, he was in the neighbor’s side. How could I break their hearts now? Mine was already shattered.
As I turned and walked back to the truck summing up my various options I caught a glimpse of Zwayi out of the corner of my eye. He was beaming with excitement. I immediately knew he had seen what I had seen, even without the spotting scope he knew what he was looking at, I wasn’t to sure I was ready to admit it to myself. He caught my eye, let out that beaming smile that greets me each morning before the days hunt and started laughing. What the heck?! He’d called my bluff, both he and Luther were part of the team, I had to come clear.
After explaining everything in great depth, and seeing Luther’s excitement, I made it quite clear, I would try my best to convince the neighbor to allow us to hunt the ram, but there were no guarantees what so ever. I also wouldn’t allow him to head back up the ridge to study the ram in the spotting scope, as I would never be able to find something of similar size if we couldn’t get the required permission. Best he didn’t see it. I’d hate him to view a hard hunted 9” ram with disappointment.
The wait, anxiety, and keeping a secret…
Since that first day we had set out a couple of parameters for the hunt, but together with those we had entered into an extremely complicated competition between the two teams. Swanny and Stix were not going to be doing us any favors and the same could have been said about us.
So with us spotting this ram, we knew it would be best if we kept that particular information to ourselves. However, in the meantime we had to continue on searching for more Vaal Rhebuck until I had reached the neighbor and sought the required permission. Even then nothing was guaranteed, this was still Vaal Rhebuck hunting, and it’s pretty tough on the easiest of days. I wasn’t counting on our monster making it any easier with the many years of experience behind his back.
I finally tracked down the neighbors number and tried to call him. In fact I tried reaching him on numerous occasions, only to reach voice mails and busy tones. I sent text messages, and even tried emailing him, hoping to reach him somehow. Having spent another full day looking over more rams on the third day, and some fantastic rams too, we kept hoping with a burning desire that we might have a chance to hunt the big ram. I finally decided the next day we’d drive to the ranch house and try our luck. Not the best etiquette, but desperate times led to desperate measures.
Arriving at the ranch we were met by the local farm manager who proved to be very helpful. He conveyed to us that his master was in Zambia, but that he had a way to reach him. I thanked him profusely and waited to see if he could make contact. A couple of minutes later he informed me the landowner had made contact with him, but that I should wait at the phone as his son would be calling me within minutes. As promised the phone rang and a young guy, similar in age to me was on the other side. We made the usual introductions before coming to the reason for my call and the fact that I was standing in his living room on the farm. I explained the situation in-depth, and in a stern response he declined my request to hunt the ram.
Having seen pictures on the wall in the living room of him being a hunter, I decided to give it another go, explaining what I had witnessed, with the young ram chasing the old ram. Surely I could get him to understand, I was not only willing to pay him whatever he wanted, but my hunter would give the ram the respect it deserved by mounting him in full and proudly showing him off in his trophy room back home. The ram would be immortalized. Mr. Smith, the owner’s son, kindly agreed.
Permission is one thing, hunting a ram of this class is another….
With the required permission granted, I confidently turned towards the mountains. This was it. Or so I hoped deep down.
We had last spotted the ram in the valley with the spring and Eland, knowing Vaal Rhebuck are territorial it was the most obvious place to start. Upon arrival at our previous location on the ridge, we immediately spotted the group. Luther finally got to view him through the scope – The hunt was on.
We would descend around the back side of the ridge we were on, trying to reach the valley floor undetected before cutting back towards where they were feeding. Things were going well until I stepped off a loose boulder and twisted my last good ankle I hadn’t twisted during the course of the week already. I have extremely weak ankles, to the point of where I twist one on most safaris. I’m so used to it now that I can usually shake it off within a couple of hundred yards, but I wouldn’t be lying if I said I was overly irritated with myself. I was paying far too much attention to what was around me than where I was putting my feet in the long grass. Luther kindly took all our gear while I walked it off, it was tender and the terrain steep.
Reaching the bottom of the draw, and just relaxing, thinking we’ve made it to where we should be in range, we suddenly heard that familiar alarm signal from a Vaal Rhebuck. Right above our position, unbeknown to us stood a great ram in the 8” class. Where he had come from was anyone’s guess. Within minutes the monster and his females joined the fleeing ram. Round one to the Vaal Rhebuck 1-0.
We decided it would be best for us to “disappear” into a draw below our position for things to settle down. After an hour I asked Zwayi to head in the direction where the ram had disappeared, while we took up a favorable spot with a great vantage view of where the Vaalies had disappeared to.
A couple of hours passed and still there was no sign of Zwayi or the Vaal Rhebuck. We were about to doze off when suddenly I noticed some white tails bobbing in our direction. They had spotted Zwayi and were making a hastily retreat to their familiar territory. Luther and I lay in wait – ready.
At 400 they settled down and Luther felt comfortable. The 180 grain from the 300 Win Mag would drop as much as 18-20”. The shot rang out, dropping short. With luck the animals had no idea where the shot had come from and continued on – closer in our direction. At 300 Luther knew what he needed to do to correct his previous miss. He touched off the trigger and the bullet flew true. The ram immediately dropped out of sight.
Luther and I literally lost all self control with the excitement! Elated and over-joyed we walked up to our ram.
Reaching 10” and then some….
The ram was everything I had dreamt of…. and then some. I detest hunting for inches, let alone measure an animal in the field. I respect the game I guide and try to instill that in my hunters. The experience of that hunt and the week leading up to those final moments, the anxiety of those experiences combined with the sweat dripping from the edge of our cap’s, is what pays tribute to the game we hunt. Had he not made the magical 10” mark, would he have been any less of a trophy?
The answer quite obviously is no. Neither Luther, Zwayi, nor I, could care a less if he made it or not. But that doesn’t mean we can’t set ourselves goals to strive to achieve. To test our endurance, patience, and wit against. To give it our best go at achieving something we all bought into, and to sometimes come out on the right side of luck.
As we finished up skinning, leaving the meat behind for the helpful ranch hand whom had assisted so willingly trying to reach the landowner that morning, we sped away down the valley and back towards where we had left Stix and Swanny that morning.
Taking in the moment with our friends….
Catching up with our friends we played it “cool” for a while, radioing in that we had hunted a nice ram, but that I had made a small error in judgment. We were still very happy with our ram, and loved the experience up in the mountains.
Arriving to where Stix and Swanny were enjoying a midday siesta, neither jumped up to have a look in the back of our truck. Conversation continued on about their morning, our morning, and then Stix knew something was up. I was being way to blasé about our ram. Stix walked over to our truck, picked up the caped out skull as if it were a new-born baby, and just stood there in silence.
“I’ve never actually held a 10” in my hands”, he continued. “Neither have I”, I continued. We had both done our fair share of time in the mountains. While Stix may be five years younger than what I am, he had grown up in the mountains too, hunting many Vaal Rhebuck through the years. He understood the magnitude of what we had achieved. It takes more than hard hunting to achieve, it takes years.
Had this ever been done before?
Having shared in our success the guys asked if we would be willing to assist them in theirs. They had spotted a great ram earlier that morning, I suspect the same ram from that very first day. The ram always seemed to stay ahead by a yard or two, twice they had stalked him, each time he had used the same escape route.
Stix and Swanny needed Luther and I to circle up and around the backside of the ridge where the ram had made his escape to each time. They would take the same path as before, but wanted us to show ourselves high above the Vaal Rhebuck. It would keep the animals pre-occupied with us on the ridge while they got into a favorable position. Like clockwork the plan worked.
The ram could hardly keep his eyes off us, but felt comfortable at the distance we had shown ourselves. The minute Stix gave us the thumbs up, we continued down the ridge “stalking” the group. They took off in a flurry coming to a halt within 200 yards of Swanny. And Swanny doesn’t miss within 200.
We had done what few, let alone any of us, could have believed possible. And all within the space of a single day. It was a dream come true – one I’m privileged to claim, “I was there”.
Giving “thanks” where thanks is due…
In closing, when I first started hunting Vaal Rhebuck I was only a young boy, not much older than my own son, Brett. I was very fortunate to have had a Dad that always included me on those hunts, as best he could. May it have been on the back of a truck with the trackers, on horseback, or comfortably snuggled up under his arm in the truck. He recognized a passion in me that I hope to recognize in my own boy someday. For that I am forever grateful – Thanks Dad!
To the many hunters I’ve guided over the course of my short career thus far – thanks for the patience and opportunities provided by you in allowing me to pursue one of my dreams, and ultimately realizing one by having guided this Vaal Rhebuck. Every single one of you contributed to the gaining of valuable experience – Thank you.
To Luther – It wasn’t our first hunt; neither will it be our last together. It was however our first Vaal Rhebuck, and most certainly our last in this class. Thanks for the trust my mate – we got lucky this time!
As for me, I can sleep with a bit more ease, knowing I’ve got one under the belt. Well, for a little while. Who knows what else may be in those mountains? I can’t wait to get back out there…..