Hunters of kudu often claim that the biggest bulls live in rocky hills. Biologist Jonathan Kingdon, author of perhaps the best field guide to African mammals, claims “greater kudus are increasingly restricted to stony, hilly country by expanding settlement.” He’s no doubt correct, for in less inhabited parts of Africa, such as the fringes of the Kalahari Desert, kudu live on sandy flatlands in thick thornbush. However, if you hunt kudu long enough, you’ll find they also live in two other kinds of habitat: your blood and your mind.
This often starts even before a hunter sees a live kudu. Though more than 70 species of antelope live in Africa, writers Hemingway and Ruark celebrated the greater kudu so well that the average insurance salesman from Indiana only knows kudu.
Apparently the human predilection is to latch onto some individual symbol of success, whether a red Corvette or a shoulder mount of a kudu. This doesn’t mean that mere possession is everything. A car or kudu is indeed only a symbol of the search and struggle. As that smart and sophisticated Spaniard José Ortega y Gasset noted, “One does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted.” So we venture to Africa to hunt our symbol, a much easier journey than when the kudu was first “discovered” by Europeans, though Americans (global masters of immediate gratification) still complain about the three-fourths of a day spent in a jet to Johannesburg.
Once there, if your jet-lagged eyes stay open long enough, you soon find that southern Africa does have many other kinds of antelope. In fact, it has more kinds of mammals than North and South America or Europe and Asia combined. You wander through the wild zoo, following a white guy dressed in shorts and a black guy dressed in coveralls, while they whisper and occasionally point at yet another strange animal that you only glimpse in the gray bush. If you’re lucky, you’ll begin to wonder just exactly where all those darn kudu are, in particular the bulls that stand staring like Angus cows from the pages of hunting magazines. Yes, you’ll be lucky if you don’t see any kudu for a while. This may seem contradictory, but remember what José wrote about hunting.
I know a guy who, like so many of us, went to Africa primarily to hunt a kudu. He mostly makes his living as a fine gunsmith, but he’s also a part-time writer, and, like every writer, wanted to publish a story describing his first African safari. Unfortunately, he was unlucky enough to kill a fine kudu bull on the first morning of his Namibian safari. He has yet to publish the story because there is no story. A kudu is a symbol of the struggle for success, not a $20 bill you find in a jacket pocket. A kudu must be earned.
I’ve been lucky in the pursuit of kudu because none of mine have come on the first day of the safari, or even the fifth. Nope, all of my kudu have come hard, and on one safari I never did kill a bull, though that wasn’t my fault.
This happened over a decade ago in the desert of eastern Namibia, and the goal was a kudu with exceptionally long horns. They existed on the ranch I hunted. In the living room of the house was a shoulder mount of a kudu with 62-inch horns taken by the ranch owner, Fritz Hein, who would guide me.
We found an exceptional kudu toward the end of the hunt, though for some reason Fritz didn’t bring a tracker along that day. Instead it was just he and I. This wasn’t a real handicap because Fritz was one of the founding members of the Namibian professional hunter’s organization and had forgotten more about kudu hunting than most of us will ever know. That ended up being the problem. He was now 66 and suffering from the affliction known as “PH burnout.” He’d simply hunted too much during his lifetime to pay as much attention.
We’d probably already seen close to 50 mature kudu bulls on the hunt, and passed on them all. That cold clear morning, just before sunrise, I spotted the bull half a mile away, the black spirals of its horns standing above the long grass as distinctively as a water tower above Kansas. It was already looking at the safari car, huge ears wide-alert. When I pointed the bull out to Fritz, it turned and gracefully cantered toward some tall thornbush. “Ah, yes,” Fritz said. “That is a fine one.”
After finding the bull’s hoofprints in the sand, surprisingly small for a 600-pound antelope, we followed on either side of the trail, pausing now and then to scan the thorns ahead—and, hopefully, to allow the kudu to relax. The sun rose behind us as we trailed, and a faint breeze eased into our faces.
We tracked for half an hour and had just entered the edge of the tall thornbush when the kudu rose from its bed within easy range. Big bull kudu are normally an elusive gray-tan, but he glowed in the orange sunlight, each white stripe on its side precisely visible. I started slowly raising my .338 as the kudu started to its feet, and had the scope’s reticle on its chest as it stood staring into the sun. My finger started to pull the trigger at the precise moment Fritz said loudly, “There he is!” jerking his arm up to point.