Kev Thomas Writes
A Kiwi & His Kudu
Above: Top of Chris's bucket list was a good East Cape kudu.
G’day from New Zealand, my name is Chris … were the opening words in Chris’s email. It was the first time I’d received a hunt inquiry from a Kiwi sport hunter, and his focus was on a 5-day Eastern Cape plains game package. His main trophy want was to find a nice kudu. My schedule was also tight. I had a buffalo safari scheduled in Zimbabwe and was only due to cross back into South Africa four days before Chris was arriving in Port Elizabeth. It didn’t allow me much leeway.
Because Chris was travelling via Thailand and the Middle East, he’d decided not to bring his personal rifle, and had opted to rather use one of mine. To this end I decided he’d best suit my 7x57mm Mauser so I loaded some 160grn Nosler Spitzer AccuBond bullets in front of 40grns of S355 propellant. Probably my favourite plains game load in South Africa.
My return from Zimbabwe was on schedule and I met Chris at Port Elizabeth airport. Our hunt venue was a comfortable 2-hour drive away, with the property being about 25,000 acres in extent. Woodlands Game Ranch afforded the discerning trophy hunter excellent fair chase hunting for a variety of different plains game species. Much of the ranch topography is rolling hills, with deep valleys covered in succulent valley bushveld. This habitat allows species like the Eastern Cape kudu and bushbuck to thrive. As indeed they do. At the higher elevations the thick bush gives way to open grassed plains dotted with termite mounds. It’s here where the large herds of blesbok, springbok, and black wildebeest dwell. Nomadic herds of eland, Burchell’s zebra, and blue wildebeest come and go from the low-lying ground to the south and east.
Above: Woodlands Game ranch had been in Keith's family since the 1820s, and the original homestead was a beautifully appointed lodge. However, since our safari there, the property has changed hands.
Back then Keith Gradwell was the resident PH and manager. He’s a good friend of mine and much of the property had been his family’s ancestral home from the 1820s. As always, he greeted us warmly upon our arrival. Late afternoon afforded us enough light to visit the zeroing range so we got that all important pre-hunt chore out of the way. It also allowed Chris to familiarise himself with my 7mm Mauser, which I’d dressed with a Leupold Vari-X III 1.5 to 5 power scope.
Chris’s first few days of hunting saw us out at first light each morning and hunting for arbitrary plains game species included in the package. It didn’t take long for them to start falling to the trusty 7mm Mauser. On about the fourth day, I asked Keith if he wanted to join us on the hunt because I was keen to get in some photography of a stalk. When guiding it’s always difficult to take photos of the actual stalk so my plan was for him to guide, and me to use my camera. I needed photos for a magazine article. Keith readily agreed and we decided to go up onto the high ground, called the Bedford plains, for a warthog. The hunt went well. As soon as we reached the plains, we saw a big warthog break with a female and two sub-adults, and at high speed head for the cover of the lower mountainside slopes. Killing the engine, we let them go, and sat waiting. Warthog have short memories.
Above: Hauling it back up the mountain was the difficult part! Keith, Chris, and tracker Tami do the deed.
After 15 minutes we cautiously approached the edge of the plateau on foot. And with the wind in our favour glassed the area the hogs had run into. They were there, wagging their tails and feeding happily! Keith and Chris then carried out a good stalk. They shot the hog from about 50m while I sat back against a rock and took photographs. Hauling it back up the mountain was the difficult part. Back at the lodge and throughout that night the rain bucketed down. Early morning saw no real respite until about 09hr00, when the sun started to burn the fog off.
Above: By about 09.00hrs the sun had begun to burn the fog off, allowing us to glass the valleys. Keith and Chris passed the time chatting while we waited for it to clear.
Our next day’s hunting had an Eastern Cape kudu high on the menu, and Keith joined us again. During the first hour of daylight, we were driving east on the plateau when we spotted a bachelor herd running over the edge. Leaving the rig, we quickly moved towards where they’d disappeared. The wind was ideal, and using the plentiful cover we got down a few hundred feet onto a ledge, and then crawled to the lip and peeped over. The kudu were standing there, although very alert. Keith and Chris lay prone watching for an opportunity at one of the bull’s which was a good trophy. Eventually after about 25 minutes Chris chose to shoot from a kneeling position using the short sticks. It was a shot getting out to about 300m, previously ranged by Keith. Unfortunately, Chris’s bullet went a mite high, clearing the kudu’s back. The whole group then took off.
Above: ... only affording us the odd glimpse of a neck or head.
Immediately after this, we moved to where the kudu had been standing, and after some careful glassing picked them out across a narrow valley. They stood frozen in the dense spekboom thickets, only affording us the odd glimpse of a neck or head. It was about 300m out and too ‘iffy’ for a shot. The chance of wounding and losing one was too great. Following a quick Chinese parliament, we decided Keith and Chris would carry on down the valley on foot, while I legged it back up the hill to the vehicle. And then, after driving via a circuitous route I’d meet them at the bottom of the valley.
Our plan didn’t bare any fruit and the two intrepid hunters eventually pitched up at the truck a little worse for wear but in high spirits. We hunted hard for the entire day and counted 36 kudu bulls in total. However, distance, terrain, and bush density didn’t allow us to get within killing range of a trophy. At one stage we broke off from kudu hunting, and Chris and Keith tried a stalk on a lone gemsbok bull but it detected them and departed the area in a rush.
On Chris’s last day of hunting, we again went out early in search of kudu and at about 08hr00 located four bulls feeding on the side of a hill across a valley from us. They were a long way off but Keith and Chris opted to carry out a stalk from where we’d spotted them. Once the two of them had moved off, I sat down on a convenient boulder, and watched the scenario unfold. The action was too far away from me to have been able to record it with the camera lens I had, so I just watched the story unfold through my binoculars. Eventually, and after what seemed like hours, I glimpsed Keith and Chris gingerly crossing an open patch of bush, before they once more disappeared into the thickets. Suddenly a shot rang out, and although I saw three kudu break out of the brush, I couldn’t account for the fourth, or see the hunters.
Above: The reward – Chris with his noble old Eastern Cape kudu trophy.
After a few minutes, during which some waterbuck bulls came clattering over the ridge from lower down, Keith came into view and when watching him through my binoculars I saw he was signalling for me to drive up onto the plateau above their position. Handheld radios would have made our communications a lot easier but we weren’t carrying them. Without knowing if Chris had shot a kudu or not, I eventually arrived above their position and halfway up from where they were, met Tami the tracker who was all smiles. Chris had killed an extremely old kudu bull well past his prime. It’d been about a 150m shot in fairly dense brush and the 160grn AccuBond had destroyed the lungs and lodged against the far shoulder. In dying, the bull had spun through 180º and after running about 15m piled up. It was a fine ending to a tough but successful stalk.
Above: Throughout the safari Chris wanted us to introduce him to genuine Eastern Cape 'bush tucker' equivalent to what the Australian aboriginals and Torres Straight islanders once lived off. In other words genuine indigenous bush survival food. We weren't having any of that so introduced him to good mature rump steak, biltong & dry wors (sausage)! Many were the laughs, exactly as a safari should be, because it's an African experience without having to resort to eating bugs, roots, and tree bark!