The whole situation unfolding in front of me was mind-stretching: We were negotiating our way through the South African brush when Hanno, undoubtedly the largest professional hunter in captivity at 7 feet tall, turned and looked down at me, raised three fingers and mouthed, “Just in front of us.” I caught a glimpse of a fine kudu bull, but the moving animal vanished in the yawning landscape.
My mind was still having trouble grasping the fact that I was indeed on the Dark Continent of Africa, a dream I had nurtured for half a century.
Back when I was 16, in the days of hunting giants like Jack O’Connor, Townsend Whelen and Elmer Keith, I’d read a magazine story about a high-school math teacher who’d long fantasized about hunting for kudu. He approached his school administration and requested a three-week leave before summer vacation, offering to pay the substitute teacher needed to replace him. The request was refused. Committed to making it happen, he quit his teaching job and went off to Africa. The author’s point was clear: If you want something, go for it. I remember thinking all those many years ago, “Someday I’m going to hunt kudu in Africa.”
We hunters are dreamers. Ever since I read that story at 16, the pull of Africa never left the back of my mind. Occasionally just a brief mental image of burnt-red, sandy soil or a set of corkscrew horns spurred my heart to racing. “Someday … ,” I thought.
Well, over the next 50 years that someday was buried while I earned college degrees, got married, had a family and worked a dual career as a college professor and freelance wildlife photographer. “When I have more time, or extra money, or when my son is raised … ”
Then I retired from teaching, and not long after, my friend Rolly Jurgens returned from a two-week safari. Stories of his hunt and seeing his record-book kudu caused “someday” to surge back into my consciousness. Early in 2014, Rolly said he was going again.
“Do you I want in?” he asked.
Fourteen months later, we landed in Johannesburg, South Africa, in late afternoon, checked into a hotel, had dinner and went to bed. After breakfast, Flippie De Kock, our professional hunter (PH), met us, and we were on our way to the base camp of Authentic African Adventures. Stepping out of the vehicle, I understood immediately why this operation is advertised as “The Biggest Outfitter in Africa.” Towering Hanno van Rensburg greeted us with powerful handshakes. After lunch we checked our rifles for zero.
Back at camp, Hanno asked me what I wanted to hunt. I told him kudu, gemsbok, impala and warthog were on my list. But I added, “If I only get one animal, it’s a kudu.” Smiling, he said, “Well, let’s go get you a kudu.”
Three days after leaving home, we were hunting. As we bounced out of the compound in the pickup, Rolly smiled and said, “Well, you’re here, bud—the place memories are made!”
I nodded and replied, “And hopefully where dreams come true.”
Less than 30 minutes down the dusty two-track, Flippie rapidly began snapping his fingers, signaling the driver to stop. Hanno looked at me, lifted his index finger to his lips and motioned me to get out of the pickup. With a wave of his hand, the truck departed in a plume of dust, leaving us in the cool evening air.
“Three big bulls hang out around here,” Hanno whispered. “Is your rifle loaded?” I nodded, chambering a round into my Nosler 48 in .280 Ackley Improved. We headed into the bush, which vaguely reminded me of river bottoms in the western United States—thick, sometimes impenetrable brush, and trees turning gold in May’s fall colors.
The terrain, however, had few discernible landmarks, so I had to stay focused just to keep up with Hanno’s long strides. I was pondering why I hadn’t turned on my GPS when Hanno stopped and hissed, “There’s a bull!” While spreading wooden shooting sticks on which to rest my rifle, he pointed toward what I’d come to Africa to see. I’ve always prided myself in my ability to spot game, and most of us would think a kudu bull at 75 yards would be simple to see. Wrong! Just as I was ready to ask where he was, Hanno whispered, “He walked behind that brush.” Hanno kicked the ground with his boot, sending a plume of red dust swirling in a gentle breeze. Folding the shooting sticks, we turned into the wind and moved deeper into the bush.
We lost shooting light before catching up to the bull, but I didn’t mind at all. Taking a kudu bull required more time, more sweat equity. It required gathering well-earned South African red dirt on my hunting boots. My dream demanded a hunt, not just a shot.
Despite minor jet lag, I slept little that night, which is unusual for me on a hunting trip. Likely it was because of where we were, with the iconic sounds of roaring lions drifting through the inky night. Africa was just like I dreamed it would be, maybe even better.
The next morning, dressed in shorts and a short-sleeved shirt, Hanno seemed impervious to the cool air of late May in South Africa; I had slipped on a polar-fleece jacket. We climbed into the pickup and bounced down the dusty delta. In the weak morning light, Hanno smiled and said, “Today is your day, Tim. Today you shoot your dream bull.”
Like the evening before, we jumped off the truck and slipped quietly into the bush. It was difficult for me to understand the exact strategy, yet Hanno’s international reputation as a skilled PH and outfitter told me that whatever it might be, it would work. We slowly still-hunted through the semi-open country, stopping only when Hanno kicked red dust to test unfelt wind currents. Hunting into the faint breeze, we covered several miles in two hours. Our only sighting was a warthog, which lived for another day because we caught only a glimpse of the boar melting into the brush.
After stepping onto a road, the big man finally spoke: “We’ve been following the three bulls, but they are very wise. Despite being in the rut, they’re still hanging together.” Placing a leg of the shooting sticks to the ground, he drew in the sand where we’d been and what the bulls had done. How he understood all this stunned me and still does. We’d never seen the bulls, but he’d followed them by reading tracks and other sign I’d been oblivious to. All the stories I read about an African PH’s ability to spot and track game were verified.
“Don’t worry, Tim, they’re there. This afternoon we’ll find them.” Hanno’s radio squawked: Flippie and Rolly had downed a black wildebeest and needed help. At that site, handshakes, fist bumps and smiles abounded while I photographed the celebration. During lunch at the lodge, everyone seemed buoyed by the morning success. Maybe, just maybe, today would be my day.
Long, black shadows stretched across the road when the truck stopped to drop off Hanno and me near where we’d been picked up that morning. Everything had become second nature. Chamber a round in the Nosler rifle, keep up with Hanno, stay alert. We hadn’t been gone 30 minutes when my PH raised three fingers: “Get ready.” The rifle settled into the shooting sticks as I tried to find the bull. Just as I did, his image dissolved into brush.
“Come on,” he whispered, grabbing the sticks, and we started trotting through the brush. “They’re headed to water. We’ve got to get there before they do.”
Abruptly Hanno stopped, set up the sticks again and grabbed my arm. “They beat us, but when they’re done, they’ll walk right through that opening. Don’t shoot until I touch your shoulder. If the bull isn’t big enough, I won’t touch your shoulder. If I do, shoot!”
Fifty years of fantasizing were about to crystallize into reality. A minute, maybe two, crawled by—it was a blessing, really. Statue-still, I was able to slow my breathing and gather my emotions. As if scripted, a kudu bull stepped out of the brush onto the bank of the waterhole. He paused, looking directly at us. Hanno gripped my shoulder. I slowly squeezed the trigger. The regal animal’s left front shoulder sagged at the shot. Before I could reload, he vanished.
Hanno grabbed the sticks and ran to where the bull had stood, looked down then started following the bull’s tracks. I tried to keep up, which meant keeping him in sight. One hundred fifty yards from where the bull had stood, Hanno stopped, turned and said, “Here is your dream bull, Tim.”
Kneeling at the kudu’s side, I ran my hand down his back, feeling the grain of his hair. Touching his corkscrew-shaped horns, I rubbed the ebony surface. Clarity and gratefulness and peace chased away all those negative thoughts: “I can’t afford it”; “there’s a better way to spend the money”; “I don’t have the time.” This moment was proof positive that we receive in life only that which we work to achieve. Dreams aren’t enough.