Up at 4:30 to head to the Winterberg Mountains where we hope to find grey (or vaal) rhebok, I tumble groggily from bed and eat a quick breakfast of toast and a brown paste called Boveril, which Cullen tells me is what kept him alive at boarding school. It tastes mildly spicy with a beefy, yeasty sort of flavor that you have to try to appreciate.
Cullen tells me to pack a change of clothes because if we don’t get a vaal rhebok today we will spend the night so that we don’t have to drive the 90 minute trip there and back again in the morning.
We arrive at Chappie Scott’s farm— “farm” being a generic term for both livestock and crop land in South Africa— and after a cup of coffee, we head into the cold mountains. We are in the Winterberg Conservancy, a coalition of farmers who have pooled the indigenous game on their farms and hunt the totality of the land as one block. There are no “high fences,” only low barbed wire cattle and sheep fences which are to game what a sidewalk curb is to you and me.
Themba, a ranch hand who doubles as a tracker and game scout, joins our group. It’s me, Cullen and his two Zulu trackers, Mike and Patrick. We drive to an area where Themba has seen rhebok, a small mountain-dwelling antelope, perhaps 30 pounds in body weight, with freakishly long, straight horns. A good one will go 7 inches.
We glass the hillsides and quickly spot a group of mountain reedbuck, another small antelope that lives in the hills. We see a group of black wildebeest which are not at all mountain game, having been introduced and adapted to a steep habitat.
We try several other spots for glassing. A few females, but nothing of interest. We walk to the top of one of the hills to glass the far side. As we near the summit, Cullen spots a group of rhebuck with a very nice male. He runs over the crest, so we circle around to come up from another angle with the wind in our face.
We crawl over the ridge and glass. There he is, a ranged 309 yards. I have my Steyr chambered in .270 Win. with a Swarovski BL scope with the hold-over reticle marks. With a zero of 200 yards and the scope cranked to maximum 10x, I know I can hold on the first hold-over line for that distance.
I shrug off my Kifaru daypack and maneuver it into position for a prone shot as we lie on the hillside above the rhebok. My hold is perfect, the squeeze good. The shot echoes from the mountains and the rhebok scampers away, disturbed but not panicked.
“Miss,” whispers Cullen who has my Leica rangefinder and is acting as spotter.
I reload and reposition. He’s about 350. The rifle is steady as a surgeon’s hand and I press the trigger as delicately as stroking a baby’s head.
“Just to the right. Perfect elevation,” Cullen calls my miss.
Again the rhebok bounds off across the rocks, stopping one final time at what will turn out to be 486 yards. I’ll skip the suspense— I missed again.
Three clean misses is not my favorite way to start a day, but it’s a lot better than a poor hit that only wounds an animal. This time the rhebok lit his after-burner and I imagine by now he’s close to Cairo.
We come back down the mountain and move to another area. We stop to wolf down a box of sandwiches, sharing them with Themba, Mike and Patrick, before we continue with our glassing.
My mid-afternoon, we find a group of four females and a very good male on a distant hillside. Mountain hunting is the same the world over, so if you spot an animal on a hillside, generally the best plan is to go around the mountain somehow and then come over the top from the other side to get above him.
These rhebok are bedded down and comfortable. We hustle out of sight, reverse course and get around to the backside of the mountain. Mercifully, these are really more hills than mountains, so the climbing was not too bad at all. If I were to compare the terrain it would be to the Scottish moors.
We crest the top and can’t see the rhebok because a large expanse of boulders is blocking our view. We slither down the rocks until Cullen can just barely see one of the females still bedded down. He motions for me to crab over to him, but as he’s a good six-two and I’m five-seven, I still can’t see the male. I inch down the hill a few more yards until I can set up my Stoney Point collapsible shooting sticks. The distance is 220 yards.
I hold dead-on with my 200 yard zeroed main reticle and wait for the rhebok to decide to stand up. It’s a bad idea to shoot lying game, even though I don’t think it’s unethical. You just don’t have a normal target and the vitals are usually covered by vegetation. Washington crosses the Delaware, Grant beats Lee and Pershing whips the Kaiser before the rhebok finally decides to stretch his legs.
He stands up, gives me a broadside and as I caress the Steyr’s trigger, he goes down so quickly I don’t even see him fall.
“Good shot,” says Cullen. “He went right down.”
He proves to be a lovely 7 inches, which is a nice vaal rhebok. There’s not a lot of mountain hunting in Africa, but I thoroughly enjoyed this aspect that makes the Eastern Cape of South Africa an increasingly popular destination.
We drive back to camp in the dark, AC/DC blaring on Cullen’s CD player. We’ll try once more for Cape kudu tomorrow.