As the sun slowly rises above the horizon, we speak in quiet whispers from our vantage point in the mountains of South Africa’s Eastern Cape. A slight breeze at our backs pushes cool air up from the south as it leaves the Indian Ocean and crosses over the mountains where we find ourselves searching for kudu. It’s the same breeze that made the first flames dance in the fires lit by earth’s earliest humans.
Just to our north is the Cradle of Humankind, the site of the oldest hominin remains ever found. This puts our 75,000-acre hunting area near ground zero for the first hunter-gatherers on the planet. Whatever genetic code separated the hunters from the gatherers those millions of years before somehow passed through the ages to John Hill, Justin Holt and myself.
The wind picks up and my mind wanders to thoughts of ships tacking through the waves and salt spray, transporting English settlers to this land in 1820. The fleets set sail on the recommendation of botanist and explorer, William Burchell, as England sought land suitable for farming during the distressed British economy at the end of the Napoleonic Wars.
Today, they call this region “Frontierland,” a reference to the Cape Frontier Wars that raged here for 100 years as the new colonists sought to annex the territory. The indigenous Xhosa were defeated, but their history remains through their bushman ancestor’s drawings that can be found under the moss-covered walls of the caves we regularly hike past.
Looking at the young man on my right, I wonder if there’s any resemblance between the long passed explorer and my PH, Scot Burchell, his great nephew to the fifth degree.
Surveying the land before us – over 75,000 acres of South Africas best Hunting Safari preserve.
It was a cool morning, felt like 45 degrees when we stopped to pick up Mzonga, our tracker, at the skinning shed. Barry Burchell pulled up and sat in his ATV as he wished us luck. He’s the owner of the large property where we’re hunting and he’s partially paralyzed. He and Scot were flying their ultralight plane when it crashed just after takeoff on their dirt runway. Scot walked away from the crash; Barry wasn’t so lucky. Now Scot and his older brother, Freddie, help Barry run the family business. It’s a job both young men have dreamt of since they were boys shadowing their father as he guided hunters on the African plain.
As we pulled onto the dirt road to leave camp, I couldn’t help but think about Barry’s infectious smile and laugh. South Africans are known for being some of the toughest people on the planet, and it’s clear to see Barry is undefeated by his present condition. He seems happy.
We spent the morning looking for a very large warthog Scot had spotted days before. When we finally caught a glimpse of the boar, he disappeared in the scrubby hillside with a lady friend.
All was not lost.
On our hike back to the Landcruiser, we noticed an ostrich in the distance. John Hill has alpha gal disease from a tick bite and he cannot eat red meat. We needed an ostrich for camp meat, so we took a long route to get some elevation on the bird while staying downwind. John made a great shot that put a very quick end to the animal.
John was uncharacteristically quiet today. He’s a professional guide back in the states and he has one of the largest personalities you could ever be fortunate enough to encounter. When I asked him why he was so quiet, he told me he was just trying to take it all in.
“I’ve never seen anything like this place,” he said.
John Hill after a clean shot that would feed the entire team.
The Beauty of Hunting Africa
“Three gemsbok just there.” PH Scot Burchell has eyes like a hawk but his “just there” would have you thinking the animals were close by. Having hunted with him a year ago, I knew better.
After a solid hour of walking up the mountain, we slowed down and started a quiet stalk. At 60 yards, I left Scot and John behind as I crouched down and tried to sneak up on the gemsbok. I was carrying a Henry lever-action .45-70 with iron sights and I wanted to get close. A tree ahead looked like the perfect spot to set up for my shot, so I began angling in its direction. I never made it.
Caught in a small opening in the brush, I watched the largest of the three gemsbok turn and look directly at me. Was it a rock I kicked without realizing? It didn’t matter; time was up. I pulled the hammer back on the rifle as I threw it to my shoulder and fired.
The hit sounded solid as the animal took off in a dead run. I quickly stood up, worked the lever and fired a second bullet that landed somewhere in the southern hemisphere. Still swinging the rifle, I fired a third and final shot that anchored the powerful animal.
As the dust settled, I took off my hat and wiped the sweat from my forehead. A feeling of deep satisfaction set in and I looked up just in time to see the sun drop below the horizon.
It was a very fulfilling day.
After a long day of hunting, Justin Holt put a great lung shot on an impala ram but somehow the animal stayed on his feet. As we ambled around, searching for blood during the hottest part of the day, I heard an unfamiliar sound in the distance.
“Freeze!” Scot whispered. I stopped in my tracks. As the sound grew closer, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. In no time at all, a massive swarm of bees passed overhead. I inquired about the experience after they moved on. Scot informed me that had we angered the swarm, none of us would’ve made the hike back to his truck.
This morning our hunting party witnessed what may be the most incredible shot any of us had ever seen. Spotting a big herd of wildebeest grazing on a distant hillside, we began a long stalk. After navigating dried riverbeds, washouts and thick brush, we finally ran out of cover at the base of the hill.
Justin lining up on a wildebeast with the .45-70
Justin set his .45-70 on his shooting sticks. The range was 267 yards, but it might as well have been a mile with that caliber. But Justin knows his rifle and he knows his handloads.
We all watched through binoculars as Justin hit the largest bull in the heart with a perfect shot. The bull ran straight down the hill toward our position before expiring in the only spot that we could drive to in the Land Cruiser. We loaded him quickly and kept hunting. It made for a great day.
We were short a man this morning after John Hill had a bad head from South Africa’s fermented grapes of the red variety last night. You’ll have that on occasion. As it turned out, it was a good day to sit out if you weren’t functioning at 100 percent.
After spotting two nice kudu bulls, we set of on a long mountainous hike around their grazing area to avoid the wind and their incredible sense of smell. When we finally arrived where we’d hoped to cut off the bulls, they’d already disappeared, living up to their nickname, The Gray Ghost.
Accepting that, we took advantage of the opportunity to catch our breath and come up with a plan. Just then, Scot noticed some movement deep in the bush. He placed his binoculars atop his shooting sticks and told us he was looking at a small nyala female and a big warthog.
Then he quickly added: “Boys, a very large nyala bull just stepped out.”
I saw the bull and wasted no time dropping into a prone position for my shot across the canyon. As my rifle bucked, I lost sight of the animal.
“Reload, you missed” Scot said.
As I reloaded and scanned the area where the bull stood just moments before, my heart sank as I realized he’d vanished.
“Can you still see him?” I asked Scot.
“Yeah, he’s dead behind that bush that was in front of him,” Scot replied.
“I thought you said I missed?” I shot back.
“Oh yeah, I was just kidding about that.” said Scot. Damn hunting guides and their sense of humor.
After a long hike to reach the bull, we had a hell of a time getting him back to Scot’s Land Cruiser. Mzonga lashed the heavy animal to a stout pole and then enlisted the help of two anti- poaching scouts to help carry him off the mountain. Scot manned the front end of the pole and never set it down.
The wind was still at our backs as we watched a very large kudu bull feeding on a steep hillside in the cool morning air. Justin Holt was patiently lying on the ground behind his rifle. We’d been outsmarted by kudu all week and there was no sense in rushing a shot now.
Standing behind a thin layer of brush, the kudu was headed toward a small opening that would allow Justin an unobstructed shot. As the beautiful animal stepped into a narrow gap in the foliage, Scot whistled to slow his walk. As the kudu lifted his head to look in our direction, Justin’s bullet struck him in the heart. The old bull fell where he stood without so much as a flick of his tail. It was perfect.
After a quick rest, we spent the day searching for Cape buffalo. With an hour of daylight left, we came upon a small herd. We spent the next half-hour walking through dense thornbrush
in a deep ravine before climbing up the other side to narrow the distance between us and the herd. Shortcuts are never easy, and we emerged with scratched faces and bloody ears.
Just as we were closing on the herd, Scot threw up his hand and froze. A satellite bull we were unaware of was standing less than 50 yards to our left. By the time we waited out the young bull, we could no longer see the herd in the failing light.
In the last five minutes of daylight, John Hill and I had frozen in our tracks. The herd of buffalo had picked up our movement as we tried to sneak across a narrow opening to where I could set up my shot on a very old and very large bull. I stood statue-still, hoping the animal would relax and resume feeding. After about a minute, we won the staring contest as the brute started to graze.
At this point, John was crouched down several feet behind me and, as
he slipped toward a patch of cover, the bull lifted his head in our direction to show us that we had his undivided attention. Seconds before, I could see the circular motion of the bull’s massive jaws as he chewed a clump of grass that hung down on both sides of his mouth. Suddenly, he wasn’t chewing anymore. He looked purely murderous.
In an instant, the bull squared his stance with us, leaving me with only a frontal shot. I centered the crosshairs on his vitals and squeezed the trigger. By keeping both eyes open, I was able to see dust fly off the bull’s chest where the 500-grain bullet had struck. The old male pivoted off his hind legs before running into a dense thicket. For several seconds we stood next to Scot, without any of us saying a word. When the words finally came, they were not eloquent, but they had color.
The frontal shot meant we had to track the bull without finding so much as a drop of blood. The sun dipped below the horizon and we were in an area so thick you couldn’t see eight feet in front of you. Scot made the prudent decision to abandon the track for the night and pick it back up in the morning. No PH in his right mind tracks a wounded cape buffalo in the dark, especially in tall brush.
Scheduled to fly out in the afternoon, we woke early and headed back where I’d shot the bull. We finally found him less than 100 yards from where he had stood when I pulled the trigger. The seemingly impenetrable bush had made him difficult to locate. His horns were gnarly and old with deeply textured hard bosses and good width. He was exactly the bull we set out to hunt.
Having tracked the bull the next day, we celebrated the old warrior and savoured the end of an amazing hunt.
As our trackers struggled to winch the massive animal onto Scot’s Land Cruiser, a helicopter landed a short distance away. Scot jogged off through the bush to meet it, leaving John Hill, Justin Holt and myself somewhat puzzled. A few moments later, Scot emerged from the dense vegetation carrying a champagne bucket with three flutes. We toasted as many times as the bottle would allow, dropped the bull off with Mzonga at the skinning shed and headed for the airport.
We’d just buckled our seatbelts on the plane when John asked me if the past 24 hours had really happened. I showed John the buffalo blood on my boots, leaned my seat back and fell fast asleep.