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Spiral Horns and Curious Diversions (Page 2)

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

Nonetheless, the glass-half-empty mindset is stubborn in me, and the empty half lacked any opportunity for the spiral-horns I sought and planned to write about. There was still time to work on that plan … particularly if I could soon get to Umkomaas, the last scheduled stop on my leap-frog up the coast. But first I was headed for even higher country in search of what may be the strangest critter of all.

At daybreak we packed up PH Ryan Pienaar’s truck, said farewell to the gang and headed north. I wasn’t entirely sure where we were going, and if you had asked me then, could not have said why.

Back in the Stormberg, the blizzard raged with fits of lightning and thunder that shocked the night. Luckily our “camp” was a stately farm house belonging to Crusader Safaris co-founder Chris Broster and dating from the 1870s. In that secure refuge, Ryan and I found solace in hot soup and fresh-baked bread, followed by a cold drink around the hearth.

Chris recounted how his family had homesteaded the place, which he now farms along with his dad. Because of his work there, he has stepped back from Crusader’s day-to-day operations, but does open his home to help host clients coming to the Stormbergs, particularly those seeking a vaal rhebok. Like many great guides, Chris appeared convinced unequivocally that no other hunting on earth could match the drama and reward of his chosen favorite.

Intriguing, sure, but still I couldn’t help but wonder how the heck I ended up here after that thing in an African whiteout. In truth I was ready to move on to where we could get serious about big kudu, nyala and bushbuck, but in this storm we weren’t going anywhere, perhaps not even tomorrow depending on road conditions over the mountain passes. And besides, I had two PHs gung-ho to squire me back up the mountains, something we were bound to do in the morning regardless of the weather.

So I had to laugh at my glass-half-empty nonsense. The only thing to do was to play out the hand, and worry about hunting other game in other places when that time came. Instead I fell asleep puzzling over something far more tangible—my footwear.

Fortunately Chris loaned me some boots. They were rubber thigh-highs with a bit of worn tread, capable farm workers if not mountain climbers. Still, they had to be better than my day hikers.

The system had cleared, leaving behind a sunny, postcard-perfect snowscape.  We needed sunglasses to shield out the glare, but I knew it was too much to hope that the rheboks would be snow-blind without them. Our drab hunting clothes were sure to leap out from the white backdrop, seemingly making a hard task even harder. There was no way I was getting close this time out, and if I was lucky enough to get a shot, it would have to be a long one and most likely at a sharp angle and in gusty wind.

On our side of the ledger, the game was really on the move that morning after the storm, and the visibility was prime for us as well. The day’s first herd numbered about a dozen, including one good trophy, but, try as we might, they were too far away and moving too fast for any hope of catching up. The next bunch emerged directly above and within plausible shooting range, but it consisted solely of nine females. We watched them move off, weaving in and out of boulders studded along the ridgeline. Then the rhebok ewes emerged with a decent-looking male in tow, but on closer scrutiny that fellow proved to be a mountain reedbuck.

Perhaps that was the lucky break we needed, because charging out after them was a nice vaalie ram. Unfortunately by that time they were out of range. Along the base of the incline we hurried to parallel the band’s travel, hoping they would stay put in the rocks and not cross over to the other side. Finally close enough, we spied a line of rheboks bolting down into a chute. There were nine, none of them with horns. Could it be the ram was still straight up there in the rocks?

Out poked a horned head—the reedbuck.Then another—the vaalie! But I wasn’t quick enough as it withdrew behind the boulders.

The reedbuck remained planted in open view, and I used that stationary figure to get my bearings. And that made all the difference when Chris spotted the rhebok emerging a short span to the right. I held up for the drop and into the wind and at the Dimension’s blast, the vaalie vanished. Chris and Ryan weren’t sure at first, but when it didn’t reappear after several minutes, we felt certain our boy was down.

In the borrowed boots it was quite a slog climbing up there. Our tracker arrived much quicker, and so the suspense ended for good when he jumped on a rock and flashed thumbs-up. I was thrilled to join him and claim my prize. In the light of a new day, the vaalie no longer appeared such an oddball, and the “forever” vista of Eastern Cape mountains clad in snow was incredible. Now I knew why I had come.

Departing the Stormbergs wasn’t easy. Numerous wrecks had snarled traffic over the passes leading to lower ground and that forced Ryan and me to detour. When we finally hit the highway heading north, we faced eight more hours’ drive time to reach the Umkomaas camp. In one respect, the trip reminded me of a long-ago drive from the North Carolina highlands to Florida: When I got in the car it was winter; when I got out it was summer.

The final leg to camp was down a badly rutted trail that bisected a hillside orange grove. There on a level stretch fronting the fast-running Umkomaas River sat an old-style safari camp with fancy sleeping tents and rustic structures for dining and relaxing. On display in the “sitting room,” a spacious pavilion whose back wall incorporated a giant rock outcrop, were trophy examples of the local game, including stunning kudu, nyala and bushbuck mounts. Now I was in the right spot to pursue spiral-horn aspirations—but had just a day and a half to do so before my safari would come to an end.

Ryan rousted me out early and when daybreak came I could see the hunting wouldn’t be easy. The terrain was sharply tilted and far brushier than at the other camps. Like those areas, Crusader’s northern concession contained no game fences. It was strictly grind-it-out fair-chase, and that first morning we chased promising kudu and nyala bulls without success. The luck turned in the midday heat as we chanced upon a bushbuck with fine, twisted horns, and after a short stalk got a clean shot on an animal that had eluded me on previous safaris. Ryan checked the bushbuck’s teeth, rubbed its sparse brown coat and pointed to a divot in the right horn—clearly an old-timer, marked with faded white spots and still quite dapper.

With time running out it was sweaty work hiking the Natal hill country seeking bigger bulls, and we never did find a kudu to fit the bill. But the nyala was a different story. Instead of hustling to cover more ground, Ryan slowed our pace as we combed a series of high ravines, glassing more than walking. Thornbush choked the chasms, and so from an uphill vantage the young PH and I had to creep along peering for any thin spots amidst the tangles.

Incredibly Ryan spotted a bull. At first it was just a flick of ear and a glossy patch of rump. It took a step and we could see where brisket became leg along with a bend of horn, horn that appeared plenty big enough. The endgame demanded patience in keeping with the nyala’s gradual movement, a wait for any small gap that exposed the vitals. Even with my rifle rested on the sticks, the sharp downhill, 275-yard shot would be tricky. I struggled to stay calm, then had to chuck all that and shoot when the bull stepped faster and its shoulder fold briefly came clear.

The recovery proved to be quite an ordeal. Despite having a good idea where the bull lay, we had to crawl and cut through stringers of thorn to get sight of it. Finally I got a good look, and the horns were better than I thought, very thick at the base and arched inward to form the classic lyre shape. When kneeling alongside a just-killed nyala bull, you could swear it is Africa’s most beautiful antelope, and while debatable, that’s more than just the adrenaline talking.

Like other hunters, and perhaps more than most, I tend to get caught up in the flush of a successful outing, and only later can put it all in perspective.

While it’s true that much of what we want from hunting is goal-oriented—meat, trophies, limits, challenge—equally compelling is the randomness of contending with the elements, events and wild animals we can’t control. Luckily, both factors shaped my South African safari.

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