Back then, Kenya was divided into 87 controlled hunting blocks, the smallest of which encompassed several hundred square miles of variable bush, including everything from mountains and forests to semi-arid desert terrain. Access to the hunting blocks was restricted. No more than one resident party with a maximum of two hunters and one professional safari party with no more than two clients could be in the same block at the same time.
The Kenya Game Department administered bookings for the hunting blocks from its Nairobi headquarters. A hunting block, if not already booked, could be reserved for up to seven days. A booking was confirmed with the issue of a Controlled Area Permit (CAP), which had to be presented at a game scout post before entering the hunting block.
Block 26 was about 800 square miles of bush and woodland, stretching from near the main Nairobi/Mombasa road all the way to the Tanzania border. It was considered a seasonal area, dependent on good rains to freshen miles of green, grassy plains and fill numerous shallow-depression waterholes. Rains offered the promise of lush grazing for herd animals such as zebra, Grant’s gazelle, Coke’s hartebeest, impala, eland and fringe-eared oryx. Even buffalo and elephant were drawn out of the sanctuary of Tsavo National Park when good rains fell. But the lesser kudu were more or less resident there, enjoying the benefit of good rains, and also able to adjust to the dry conditions between the rainy periods. But it made them no less challenging to find.
We traveled west from Mombasa on a roughly paved, pot-holed road that snaked through 20 miles of coastal foothills, tropical trees and native villages before eventually topping out into game country. The dry thorn scrub country known as the Taru Desert stretched into the heat-shimmering distance. As the land changed so did the weather. Within a couple hours of leaving Mombasa we had shed our jackets and sweaters as overcast skies transitioned into layers of cumulous clouds and the temperature climbed.
Not far ahead was Mackinnon Road, a railway stop located 50 miles from Mombasa. Indian dukas (stores) and kiosks selling dry goods and meals of curried chicken and goat lined both sides of an Arab mosque. Here also was the game scout post where we signed a register with our license and CAP details before entering the hunting block.
At Mackinnon Road, we picked up two Waliangulu trackers: Kiribai, a skilled hunter and expert tracker, and Abakuna, an older hunter whose knowledge and experience with elephants, in particular, was legendary. During his lifetime, Abakuna was accredited with killing more than 150 elephants with a bow and arrow. His wrinkled face broke into a broad grin when he saw us, and his eyes sparkled with the anticipation of the hunt.
The Waliangulu, known as the “elephant people,” are a tribe of hunters who once hunted elephants, rhino and buffalo with bow and arrow. Through Kiribai, Abakuna and other tribal hunters, we learned more about the bush and African game than from any other single influence. Their guidance and hunting skills made them not only an integral part of our safaris, but our hunts were all the richer for their participation, pleasant nature and cheerful outlook.
On the first morning, we drove out of camp toward a prominent hill located in the central part of the block that would afford us a spectacular view of “MMBA,” or, as Ruark called it, “miles and miles of bloody Africa.” After glassing a large expanse of country stretching to the Tanzania border, we walked around the hill to glass a sweep of country to the north. The sight of a lone lesser kudu bull stopped us in our tracks. It browsed on a low bush less than 100 yards away. At a glance, I knew the bull was a “taker” with high, curling horns.
I swung the .300 H&H off my shoulder and quickly chambered a round. Aiming from an offhand position, I was struck with a classic case of buck fever. In the effort to keep the front bead steady on the kudu’s shoulder, I ignored the fact that I was aiming at a downhill target and yanked on the trigger, as if pulling it harder would make the bullet go faster. The first shot whistled over the kudu’s back. Though it showed no reaction, I was rattled trying to reload the rifle with fingers that felt like thumbs. I shot again—and still missed.
“Settle down, son. Your shots went high—bring your aim down,” my father whispered. “Shoot again.”
I had only one cartridge left. The bull moved to the edge of a thicket and stopped to look back with its head up and ears cocked forward, searching for the source of danger. Aiming ever lower, I squeezed off the last shot. The bull bucked and jumped out of sight. The sound of the shot echoed across the savanna, followed by a silence that made the bush feel empty.
Kiribai was instantly at my side handing me more cartridges. We rushed to where we’d last seen the kudu. I stared into the distance looking for movement when suddenly Kiribai grabbed my arm and pointed. My bull lay on its side, not more than 50 yards away. Hunting for a trophy lesser kudu is rarely described as easy, but this one was truly a gift that I still look at and admire, even as I write this article.
Though that hunt happened 40 years ago, it often seems like yesterday when I think about it. And recently, I had good reason to remember it. I was on safari in Tanzania’s northern Masailand with good friends Bo and Susie Holland of Atlanta, and we happened upon a pair of lesser kudu bulls late one cloudy afternoon. Bo didn’t have a license for lesser kudu, but we’d been keeping a sharp eye out for them in hopes of getting a good photograph. The bulls seemed unaware of us, so I told Bo to bring his camera and Susie her binocular, and I grabbed my own camera before we moved to a position to watch and wait for a chance to photograph them.
The bulls continued to feed without concern, edging ever closer to where we waited frozen like statues. There was tension in the air as the crepuscular light began fading as if someone was turning down a rheostat. We were short on good light as precious minutes passed. Any hope soon would be dashed for that long sought-after “money” shot. Closer and closer one bull approached, finally coming within good shooting distance. Then it stepped behind a wall of brush. All we could do was watch and wait as our disappointment mounted.
I was thinking the odds of the bull stepping back into view weren’t good when suddenly it emerged like an apparition from behind the brush, looking straight at us. It should have barked an alarm and leapt from sight, but instead it seemed mildly curious as it looked in our direction. I held my breath hoping the bull wouldn’t bolt and run as we fired our digital cameras. Incredibly, the bull put its head back down and continued feeding, moving even closer.
In the dimming light, Bo and I filled our cameras' memory cards with digital images of the bull as it moved to within 30 yards—so close its head and horns literally filled the viewfinders, and Susie watched him without her binocular. We wondered if our captured images were sharp, or exposed correctly, but, upon checking the preview screens later, Bo and I were more than pleased with the results.
Savoring the African night around the campfire that evening, we felt a sense of satisfaction that comes from achieving a challenging goal. As I write this, I still thank whatever good fortune it was that kept one of Africa’s most cautious animals calm and allowed us to record the incredible sight.
The record book indicates that many more trophy lesser kudus end up on trophy room walls than are mounted in photo albums or published in books and magazines. After more than 30 years of looking, searching and hunting, I finally captured the image of one of Africa’s most elusive, and for me, most treasured, trophies. And I get to relive that moment every time I gaze at this issue of American Hunter.