Hunting > Adventure

Spiral Horns and Curious Diversions

Carefully laid plans for a classic African plains-game hunt take an unexpected turn.

4/30/2013

We left the hills in mid-afternoon after failing to find the record-class buck known to be up there. Wind-blown mists from an imminent winter storm hindered glassing, and at any rate, we had another plan for evening. Beyond a well-kept farmstead, we came upon a behemoth green tractor dragging chisel plows over muddy ground, and assuming it was the landowner, stopped to thank him for allowing us to hunt the place.  Emerging from the fogged-up cab was a big ruddy-faced man dressed in wool and brown duck. As we joked about wayward bucks and mud-splattered tractors, a lanky teenager popped out the door, and he was followed by two younger boys. Though fairer and less weathered, they clearly were the man’s sons, keen to help Dad christen the farm’s new machinery.

It was an all-American scene a long way from home. Welcome to Africa, but an Africa far different than the dusty savannah, sweltering miombo forest, and verdant floodplains I visited on previous safaris. This was a region of prosperous farms lining valleys hemmed in by the mighty Stormberg Mountains.

I was on the middle leg of a whirlwind plains-game quest along South Africa’s eastern seaboard, sampling limited days at successive spots in a tour arranged by the highly regarded Crusader Safaris. This outfit has exclusive hunting rights to more than 1 million acres on conservancies scattered across the Eastern Cape and Kwa-Zulu Natal provinces. Unlike most hunting that occurs on farms and ranches throughout South Africa, Crusader’s operation is strictly fair-chase.

Enough distance separates the camps that I was due to encounter different animals and eco-zones as we ventured from the temperate south to the semi-tropical north. All told, Crusader offers more than 40 game species, and while I could have been happy hunting most of them, I wanted to set the bar high. And so I fixed on the region’s native spiral-horned antelope—kudu, bushbuck and nyala. It would be a stiff challenge to take genuine trophies of all three elusive spiral-horns, and doing so would provide a great tale to share with American Hunter readers.

But for now, my spiral-horn plans were on hold.

After bidding good-day to the farm family, we headed for higher elevations as the skies opened up with a slurry of rain and sleet and soon could see whitewash collecting on the sides of mountains whose tops were buried in clouds. All this mocked our afternoon plans, because the animal we were after—the one that had brought me to the Stormberg area—lived right up at the ridgelines.

On a continent famous for its surprising fauna, the vaal rhebok is a decided oddball. A member of Africa’s diverse antelope clan, it occupies habitat normally reserved for wild sheep and goats, and in fact its coat is more like wool than typical antelope hair. Spindly legs and an elongated neck give vaalies a gangly appearance, and their heads are a mismatch of floppy ears, bug eyes, a long nose and spiky horns like lacquered chopsticks.

Eight or more inches of horn makes for a good trophy, but the real draw for most hunters is the challenge of climbing above timberline in pursuit of an ultra-wary critter, and then making what likely will be a long, wind-whipped shot. It is the same thrill that pulls hunters up mountains around the globe, and quite an exception to most African hunting, including the chance to hunt in snow.

And how it snowed! The low ceiling erased the top half of the mountains, hiking proved treacherous, glassing even more futile, and our trusty Land Cruiser bogged down repeatedly. Hopeless as it seemed, my time was short, and so we couldn’t quit.

Just as we reached the gravel road on our way out, we spotted rheboks. Unusually low, but separated from us by 350-odd yards of open pasture, was a mature ram traveling with his harem. I sat in the slush and tried leaning against a fencepost to steady my rifle against a hard, full-value wind. I guessed at holdover and windage—both considerable—but never could trust my sight picture or hold, and soon the little antelopes disappeared in the ghostly nightfall.

The safari began many miles to the south in canyon country flanking the Baviaans River. Here the mountains are the Winterbergs, rising some 5,000 ft. over semi-arid badlands reminiscent of West Texas. Our group of nine American hunters included a mix of writers, sales reps and marketing men from the shooting industry, hosted by three esteemed manufacturers—Thompson/Center (T/C), Hornady and Carl Zeiss—and so naturally all hands were using their wares.

As it turned out, I went off to Africa equipped for a deer hunt. Well, kinda. I was keen to try out the new T/C Dimension, a futuristic bolt-action with far-out looks and ingenious barrel/caliber-change capability. Engineers at T/C devised a foolproof system for swapping barrels and bolts, thus giving owners the option of 10 chamberings from .204 Ruger to .300 Win. Mag. And that varmint-to-grizzly versatility is all the more appealing at the current trading price of around $600. That’s deer-rifle money, but who’s to say it can’t also be elk-rifle or Africa-rifle value? My loaner came with .223 Rem. and 7mm Rem. Mag. components, all set to hunt big and small game.

The good folks at Zeiss offered to fix me up with any scope in their line right up to the top-shelf Victory Diarange priced around $4,000! Tempting, but I was hearing good things about the company’s new Duralyt scopes, still salty at around $1,000, but not totally gauche for a deer rifle in Africa. The company sent a couple of 3x-15X-42mm units (one for each barrel), and wow! They were big, and they sure were bright.

Seemingly I had lots of choices when it came to ammo because Hornady produces 10 different factory loads in 7mm Rem. Mag. Since bigger antelope like kudu and wildebeest were likely, I was leaning toward a round bearing the company’s deep-penetrating, copper-alloy GMX bullets. But when the shipment arrived, it instead contained

Superformance loads topped with 154-grain SSTs. In .284/7mm, that weight is medium-heavy-for-caliber (good for penetration and knockdown) and when you combine a high ballistic coefficient of .525 with the Superformance’s enhanced velocity, the ballistic signature is impressive. The boattail, polymer-tipped SST has an ultra-streamlined profile and is fashioned internally after Big Red H’s mainstay Interlock design. It isn’t the company’s “toughest” bullet (nod to the GMX or InterBond), but may be its most accurate big-game projectile. It isn’t the Hornady bullet most would choose today for elk or kudu hunting, but is the Hornady big-game bullet best suited for making lengthy shots in windy conditions. It is a bullet I would deem ideal for muleys, sheep and goats above timberline. But how that would translate to African game remained to be seen.

Most partners were similarly armed, though a few opted for other gear, including T/C’s Venture bolt rifle with alternate Zeiss scopes and Hornady loads. Our PHs were smart, personable and driven, and so fine trophies (kudu, impala, warthog, wildebeest, gemsbok, springbok and more) streamed into camp daily, along with stories, photos and video documenting extraordinary hunting. However, due to the sheer expanse, rough terrain and free-range scenario, the experience was far less predictable that I have seen elsewhere in southern Africa. As might be expected from industry pros, most of the guys were shooting lights out (not always the case!), in some instances making shots pushing 400 yards, rarely needing to fire more than once. Naturally our entire party was duly impressed with such performance from the affordable Dimension, the Hornady ammunition and the Zeiss optics.

My game bag at Baviaans River was comparatively modest. Along the way I collected a cull wildebeest and trophy mountain reedbuck and blesbok, none of which involved heroic shooting. In fact it was hard-core spot-and-stalk, earnest work to get in position for open, sure shots. For the reedbuck, outfitter Andrew Pringle and I belly-crawled uphill through a steep boulder field to earn our chance. Later I teamed with PH Schalk de Villiers, to shadow a blesbok herd striding through dense cover. With the gap closed to bowhunting range, we had to stick with them another 15 minutes before finding a clear lane to the group’s boss ram. Being that close for that long, where any slight misstep, noise, errant wind or chance eye contact will bust the stalk, was electric. It was fair chase at its best, and fully satisfying. My quasi-deer rig made one-shot affairs of each encounter.

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