• Kev Thomas Writes

Grey Ghost of the Bubye River

Above: The illusive kudu bull we sought favoured the dense riverine vegetation along the Bubye (pronounced Bubi) river.

When we’d first glimpsed him in the thickets high up on the riverbank opposite us, the kudu bull looked a good trophy, maybe 54”. Nowadays in our era of shortened safaris, he’d certainly be considered a shooter. It was early June and he was in the company of four females. The rut was still ongoing. We’d sat watching as they came quietly down a game trail on the opposite bank, periodically lingering, soft eyes watchful, alert, parabolic ears constantly moving as they searched for the slightest sound that’d indicate danger. As per normal, the bull trailed the single line of females.

After a final nibble on some convenient browse the group suddenly moved more purposefully out onto the sand and proceeded to cross the riverbed. When they got about midway, they stopped and clustered together. The bull was showing interest in one of the females. And it was then that we glassed him more carefully. Still undecided whether to take him or not. Above us a querulous Gray Go-away-bird clung to a wind-whipped branch, ‘gaa-waaaaayy’. They miss nothing and can irritate during a stalk.

Suddenly, movement on the opposite riverbank again caught our attention when suddenly, and out of the deep shadow stepped a true monarch. It was the first time I’d seen him, although his majestic carriage and sheer trophy quality would forever after be etched into my mind, as I quickly recalled how over the years, I’ve had three clients shoot 60” kudu along this magnificent river, and he was well inside that category.

Above: During the rut mature kudu bulls are invariably found in the company of females.

During the previous season too, a 63-inch kudu had been shot not far from where we sat. It was self evident the stately interloper we now observed probably belonged to the same gene pool. He proudly carried high scoring deep curls, wide horns, thickness, length, and easily discernible outward pointing ivory tips – indeed a trophy connoisseurs dream.

Moving boldly out to join the group, and after a short ritualistic joust, he saw the attendant male off. And then concentrated on the females. Both bulls had heavy thick necks, consistent with the rut. As we watched, the noble old bull, his horns dwarfing those of the attendant bull, suddenly lost interest and moved away, stopping periodically and staring downstream as if lost in kudu thoughts of his younger days.

We quickly slid down the bank keeping ourselves hidden from view in the reeds, and once on the riverbed snaked our way towards a lone tree with dry previous flood debris piled against it. As soon as we reached it I opened the shooting sticks and whispered to my client to take the shot. The bull was about 185m out and broadside on. And then just as I was expecting the shot, he swung round and slowly made his way back towards the far bank. He was moving very slowly and I again whispered to the client to attempt a shot before the bull reached the bank. However, we’d already had a few animals wounded and he seemed reluctant to shoot, and as I waited, the bull reached the bank and stood on the riverbed in the deep shadow cast by the trees. It was then that Jose decided to take the shot. All of 300m by that stage, and the shot went in low, the .338 Win Mag 210gr bullet kicking up cloud of brown dust on the riverbank. Well below the kudu’s belly line.

With one bound, he was up the bank and almost immediately swallowed by greenery, a grey streak, with his head up, and carrying his wide horns lying over his rump. In the aftermath of the failed gunning exercise we walked across to where he’d been standing, and cast around. We also went up the bank slowly following the gouged-out hoof prints of an antelope in a hurry. As we’d expected there was no blood. We followed the tracks out of the riverine shadow and into the hot heat shimmering stillness of the scrub mopane. Not for very long though, because it was an exercise in futility. The magnificent kudu had reached old age through wisdom.

Above: At times we hunted into the dry scrub mopane country west of the Bubye River, but never lucked out on a trophy kudu worth taking.

Over the remaining two days of the safari we continued to hunt hard for a good kudu, and even had another brief glimpse of the missed monarch while he made off at speed, having heard the rig’s diesel engine grumbling as we crossed a dry tributary to the Bubye. On another occasion in the scrub shrouded shale ridges far to the west of the Bubye River, a bull in the high fifties held still. Facing away from us and ignorant of our presence. His thick neck providing a prime target for the 60m shot, however, Jose suddenly drew back from the scope and lifted his rifle off the sticks. His overriding fear of another wounded and possibly lost animal had got to him. And so, the safari ended, and although he went away happy, there wasn’t a kudu head amongst the other trophies.

Within two days of his departure I was back in the area, in a camp further north and away from the river. This didn’t deter me too much because our block shared a common boundary, by way of a dirt road, with the block where we’d seen the stand-out kudu. Animals aren’t confined to blocks by roads and tracks and I knew the big bull was probably wandering between the two blocks, although given his age he seemed to favor the riverine fringes and pools along the Bubye. With this in mind I decided we’d concentrate on the riverine more than in the dry scrub to the west.

With a buffalo being the priority trophy, we worked on getting it out of the way as quickly as possible, and we lucked out on the second day, and in the days following cleaned up on other plains game. Each day though, we also looked at kudu, a good bull was seen once or twice not far from camp although he always faded from sight, as kudu so often do.

We also drove inland, to the west, and hunted the flat dry scrubland, and low shale ridges where once or twice we saw kudu, albeit brief sightings as they crossed the track in the distance ahead of us. Those we stalked weren’t what I was looking for. On one occasion, after having obtained clearance we went north, and hunted another block, also with the Bubye River meandering through it. Whenever we hunted west of the river, and if we got onto high ground the ribbon of green riverine running north to south, and way to our east seemingly always beckoned us back towards the river, and the elusive grey ghost we so determinedly sought. Once, and only about 1km from camp, we stalked a good kudu but he screened himself from us in a stand of tall thin mopane and other winter dry sapling types. A tangle of dry hanging leaves, and close standing limbs. All grays and browns. Much like the kudu’s cryptic colouration and making it almost impossible for us to see him.

Above: A kudu's cryptic colouration blends perfectly with Africa's dry savanna scrub making the moniker 'grey ghost' a perfect description.

When we eventually did make out his solitary form, we couldn’t risk a shot because of deflection and possible wounding. For a few seconds time stood still. Until tiring of our whispering, he was gone. The clatter of pebbles and not much else the only indication he’d ever been there in the first place. On Jamie’s 40th birthday we hunted from sunrise to sunset for a kudu, and although we saw kudu, we didn’t shoot one. Each time we hunted the area where I thought we might cross paths with the missed stand-out bull of my previous safari, we drew a blank.

Finally, on the penultimate day of the safari we woke to blowing overcast weather and as per the previous kudu seeking days, our early morning hunt was unproductive. At 10.00hrs we drove south and then east along the track separating the two hunting blocks. Where we finally hit the Bubye River and turned north was only about 500m from where I’d last seen the stand-out bull. My hopes that he’d suddenly appear didn’t bear fruit, and by then, we’d decided to shoot any good, fully mature kudu bull over about 52”. There was a management limit on trophy size on the conservancy, with no kudu under 50” allowed to be shot.

Not much further north, we suddenly saw a group of kudu cows leap effortlessly from left to right across the cut line we were following. They disappeared into the riverine thickets leading down onto the riverbed. Although we hadn’t yet seen him, we were sure there was a bull present, and then, as we quickly alighted from the rig, grabbing the shooting sticks and rifle, a tracker pointed and whispered ‘Khangela!’ (‘Look!’). Following the direction in which he was pointing, we saw the four cows ahead of us, standing in the centre of the riverbed. Jamie and I took off as quietly as possible. Quickly weaving our way through the thick stuff, until we were about 120m from the group of nervous kudus. And that was when we saw the bull.

He was standing in front of the cows and slightly to their left. One quick look with the binoculars told me he was a keeper, so I quickly flicked the sticks open whilst mouthing the words ‘Take him!’ Jamie came up onto them in one fluid motion, and still the kudu hadn’t seen us. However, they were extremely tense, standing sculpture like, looking, and listening. The bull was perfectly presented, broadside on, and as the shot reverberated up and down the riverbed, he lurched forward, hunched his back, and then ran blindly back towards the bank we were standing on. The cows took off as one in the opposite direction across the riverbed.

As we moved quietly along the bank looking down into the reeds and open patches Jamie suddenly shouted, ‘There he is – he’s down!’ As indeed he was, the .375 H&H Rhino 380gr bullet having done exactly what it was designed for. We stood in silent reverence admiring his heavy horns and ivory tips. And when eventually, back at the skinning shed, I ran a tape along the horns they went a respectable 55”.

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