The bright light and shrill from the cell phone resting on the bedside table broke the darkness in the room and cut through the silence. Officially it was time to wake up but in truth, I was awake long before my alarm went off, my mind already tuned and prepped for the task that lay ahead. Today we hunt Kudu.
No Kudu hunt in Africa is ever the same as the last, it doesn't get easier, it certainly doesn't get any less enjoyable and there are no guarantees when you decide that you want to accept the challenge of hunting these prodigious animals. I have guided many hunters onto successfully shooting a mature Kudu bull, I have also failed on numerous occasions to get my hunters onto the bull of their dreams. It comes with being a professional guide and it just so happens that the Kudu of Africa is no easy target.
When hunting an animal that has a vision so sharp it will pick up the condensation coming from your mouth on a cold morning and satellite shaped ears that will tune into each beat of your heart as it strains to hold back the adrenaline in your veins, you need to understand that you do not have the advantage, you are the underdog in this fight, you are the one that has to be perfect in everything you do to achieve your goal of calling yourself a Kudu hunter. It was still dark outside, the Fiery Necked Nightjars can be heard giving their final and somewhat sardonic "Good-Lord-Deliver-Us" mating call, quite fitting considering what we have planned for today. I slide open the door from my room, Utah skipping over my boots as he dashes to relieve himself on the grass, the crisp cool air of the Karoo bites at my cheeks.
Yes, Kudu was the ultimate target for the day but first on my to-do list consisted of making a strong cup of coffee, laying out the breakfast treats, and putting a few knocks on the client's bedroom door to let them know that jet lag or not, sleep time is over and the reason why they had spent so many hours cramped up on an airplane had finally come, it was time to go hunting. On this trip, I was hosting a fantastic couple from Texas. There were already three animals in the salt, one of them an old Buffalo bull, so I knew they could hunt and were proficient with a rifle. We chatted softly over coffee, muffins, and cereal, talked about the plans for the day, analyzed the hunts of yesterday, and shared a joke or two at the expense of the husband who cleans missed an impala at close range.
There was a good vibe in camp and I was determined to ensure these clients would leave this safari as friends. I wanted them to have an incredible experience but mostly I wanted them to truly understand how special it was to hunt Kudu. Cooler box, first aid kit, backpack with binoculars, tire repair kit, shooting sticks, rifle, tracker, and clients all in the truck, we ready to go.
I could see the faint glow of the Sun sitting just behind the mountains. The tall peaks awakening with a silhouette on the skyline. It was into those mountains that we were heading, my truck’s tires rolling over the gravel road, taking us to those ancient hills, taking us to the valleys that the Kudu call home. The idea was to get up high, on a ridgeline facing West. The night had been cold, clear-skied, but bitterly cold. The hope was that the Kudu would move up out of the valleys during the very early hours of the morning, feeding slowly as they climbed, getting to the tops just in time to catch the first rays of Sun and begin warming their bodies.
The valleys were thick with Acacia bushes but the ridge tops were rocky and open with little grass cover. I knew the Kudu wouldn’t stay long in the open. As much as they yearned for the warmth from the African Sun, they felt uncomfortable being exposed in the open and would return to the thick bush in the valleys below for safety. I eased my foot off the accelerator and gently touched the brake bringing my truck to a slow stop. We arrived at the top of the koppie and could begin glassing the opposite ridgeline, valleys, and river beds below. Distant mountain peaks were by now covered in a blanket of bright orange, the Sun rising higher with each minute and its rays of light waking up the area. Below us was still dark, we could make out faint shapes of trees, cliff sides, and long draws but I knew there was more down there and would just have to wait patiently for the Sun.
Slowly as the dim light increased, we made out the shapes of Eland, Wildebeest, Red Hartebeest, and Impala. All the animals we expected to see in the open. These animals didn’t mind the wide-open spaces of the grasslands they preferred. The herd was their strength and camouflage. Their eye sight, sense of smell, and hearing from the rest of the members in the herd made it almost impossible for anything to sneak upon them. We had already hunted an Eland and Red Hartebeest the previous day, so I was wasted no time glassing over the herd.
The Sun had arrived on the opposite slope, turning it into a golden mound and instantly I saw the characteristic ears of a Kudu cow turning and swivelling as she enjoyed the warm rays covering her face. One cow on the slopes, my binoculars move left and I see a second, a third, and then the fourth stepping out from behind a bush. Just as I had presumed, the Kudu were cold and had moved up the ridge to warm themselves. No bull yet, but I was sure he was in there. After years of chasing these phenomenal animals and being outfoxed by them on multiple occasions, you just develop an almost sixth sense as to where they are.
By now we had all seen the Kudus and four sets of binoculars were scanning every inch of that slope, we scrutinized each bush, slowly peered into the draw falling away to the left, made sure every rock was checked twice. Then came the words every PH wants to hear from his tracker, “Daar staan a bul, Ek sien hom.” “Waar?” comes the quick, sharp, trying not to get an overly excited response. “Hy is regs van die koei, staan agter a dik bos, ek kan net die horings sien.” I reply in Afrikaans that I got him, I see the horns. Then instantly think to myself “Damn I just checked that bush, how did he just appear without me seeing? Not understanding exactly what we were saying, but hearing from the excited tone in our voices, Brian my hunting client asked what we were talking about? “Kudu bull, we found a bull.” Is my response to him through the fixed glare in my binoculars.
Not wanting to take my eyes off him for a second in case he disappears, I give directions to the hunters on where to look so they can find him. It takes a while and neither has confirmed that they have spotted the bull. I know they are looking in the right area but without actually knowing what to look for, I understand their lack of success in finding him. Again I direct them onto the bush he is standing behind. “Ok, can you see that curly branch sticking out from the top of the bush? The branch that is reflecting the sun and swaying in the wind?” They both respond with a confident “Yes!” “Well that isn’t a branch, that is his horn.” It was at that moment, they both realized just how special these animals are to hunt. That behind the lonely bush stands an animal weighing 440lbs, with forty plus inches in horns, long slender legs, a barrelled body, and a muscular neck, yet all we can see is the tips of its horns.
We all sat in silence, each of our binoculars fixed on those horns, waiting in anticipation for him to step out and provide us with a glimpse. The Sun continued to warm the ground the Kudus walked on, but the earth that we were sitting on was still cold and dark. No one cared, we were hunting, it was Africa, there was Zebra and Springbok grazing on the plains below us and at any moment we were going to see a big Kudu bull. The horns dropped low behind the bush, a few seconds pass without us being able to see any part of him, and then with two strides the bull reveals himself and stands glorified in the glow of the morning Sun. The spiral of his horns reflecting the rays at us, shining a bright white, his ragged long beard hanging from that thick neck carrying the weight. He stood tall as most mature bulls do, he was mature and old yet strong enough to keep the younger bulls a good distance from the females.
I knew he was a good bull, a trophy animal that any hunter would be proud to take. I dropped my binoculars, turned to my clients, and said “That’s the one, that’s the one we going after.” Target acquired, now we needed a game plan on how to get to him. From the way the females were feeding and moving in a single direction, it looked to me as though they were considering heading back down into thick acacia trees below. Once in the safety of the trees, they would rest up till the late afternoon.
Our two biggest options were; one we could watch the bull move down the hill into the thick vegetation, then return in the early afternoon and position ourselves as to be ready and waiting for when emerges for the late afternoon feed. The second option was we move now, swiftly and quietly from our vantage point, close the distance without being detected. We could then catch the bull as he made his way down and get a shot in before he reached the dry river bed. I put those options to my clients, it was unanimous, option two. With it being so early in the day and already having eyes on such a great bull, we just couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
We all bundled back into the truck, my trackers on the back keeping a keen eye on the bull as I eased the truck down off the mountainside, trying my best to move quickly but not so much as to kick up dust and draw attention to our movements. Pulling in behind a tall Cabbage tree, hiding the vehicle from the Kudu’s sight, the rumble of the truck’s engine died.
A quick brief by the trackers on the back of the truck to determine where the bull had moved to. They informed me that while we were driving he slowly made his way down the slope and hid in the middle of a thick stand of acacia, muddled between large boulders. “Perfect,” I thought to myself, knowing that he may be feeding inside the thicket which will slow his movements down and provide us with the opportunity to get into position for a shot. I ushered the hunter over and whispered what the trackers had told me. We would have to move quickly but quietly.
To be as swift as possible, without drawing any attention from the surrounding animals. The Kudu was our mission, but the surrounding Red Hartebeest, Blue Wildebeest, Impala, and Springbok, dotted like chess pieces across the plains were his unbeknown allies. If any of those animals spotted us, smelt us, or heard us, they would take off in a cloud of dust and the thunder of hooves hitting the red soil would without a doubt alert the Kudu bull to our presence.
We moved from bush to bush, each time glaring through the binoculars at the thick clump of vegetation on the opposite slope which sheltered our Kudu. Rocks shifted below our feet and dried branches snapped, we did our best to remain quiet but it was tough to have one eye on guard waiting for the bull step to out and the other watching over every foot placement.
My Vortex range finder blinked “320 yards” and we had now run out of bushes to hide behind. It was far but I knew my hunters could handle the challenge.
I threw up the sticks and instructed Lisa to place the rifle in the V and be ready. While she did that I searched franticly within the clump of bushes for any part of the bull. I was worried he had moved down into the dry river bed without us noticing him when a small flick of an ear caught my attention. All I could see was the satellite-like shape of a Kudu’s ear but I knew it was him.
Our chances of success increased, I knew the bull intended to move down the hill and there was a clearing of open ground about sixty yards that he would have to walk through before disappearing once again. We were set, ready and now the waiting game could begin. I tried multiple times to explain to Lisa where his ear was, it was all I good see but almost impossible to pick out to the untrained eye. She would just have to put her trust in me that he was still there.
With each minute that passed, the tension grew, the heat from the Sun beating at our backs, he was going to move, I could feel it but when? Lisa’s arms began to ache from holding the rifle on the sticks, our feet unsteady on the rocky ground, we shifted and adjusted slightly every few minutes trying to find relief from the discomfort.
All our Kudu bull had to step out below and to the right of the bushes, he would be walking at a slight angle away from us, but broadside just enough that would present us with a shootable chance. It would be a long shot, but we had no other choice. The trap had been set and any changes now may jeopardize our chances of success.
“Where is it? Shit, where did it go?” I couldn’t see the Kudu’s ear anymore, it vanished and I never got an indication of which direction he walked. My binoculars racing back and forth over the clump of bushes, trying desperately to find an inch of the bull, another ear flick, the bottom of his legs, the tip of his horn, or a glimpse of the stripes that run down his coat, anything. “What animal is that?” questioned Lisa. I never answered her but instead spoke directly to the Kudu bull, “You sneaky bastard!”, he had emerged on the top side of the bushes, almost backtracking on himself, he was moving to the right and following a line of bushes that would lead him to a deep draw with heavy vegetation. “We have to move, that’s our bull and we may lose him if we don’t reposition.” Lisa nodded in agreement and we both dropped into a crouching position.
The Kudu bull was moving between the bushes, his head angled away from us, this gave us the confidence to move without being detected. Typical Kudu hunting, come up with the best possible plans on paper, then rip it up and improvise to the situation.
This is what makes hunting these phenomenal animals so alluring, it’s moments like these that create stories that are told around the fire long into the night. The bull was now on the fringe of the draw, feeding on a Spekboom tree. A few more steps and he would be lost to us. One last check with my range finder, two hundred and eighty yards. It was now or never.
The sticks went up, rifle rested and hunter ready, time for the adrenaline injection. My heart was now racing, the blood bustling through my veins and the sweat dripping from my forehead, but I had to remain calm, I had to portray a sense of control, poise, and composure, my hunter needed that from me and I needed it from them to make this shot. I whispered to Lisa the details of his position and where the shot should be placed, finishing it off by asking if she got it? “Yip.” That was her response, so cool, so calm, so composed as if she had been in this situation a thousand times. Her response caught me by surprise yet filled me with a sense of confidence that she was going to pull this off. “Ok then, well whenever you are ready and feel comfortable. Gentle squeeze the trigger and let him have it.”
There is a moment before a shot goes off in the bushes of Africa, it’s an almost surreal moment, it’s as if Mother Nature and everything she has control over, hold it breathe. It all goes quiet, you don’t hear anything, the wind eases off, the Sun cools, the birds go silent and you are caught in this frozen moment in time. Then it is shattered by the cracking bark of a rifle as it sends the bullet to the target.
Over the many years of guiding, whether from experience or a slight loss of hearing, but the loud noise of a rifle doesn't seem to affect me anymore. I had my binoculars fixed on the Kudu bull at the moment when Lisa squeezed the trigger. I saw the impact, how the big bull reared back from the hit in his shoulder, then buckled forward tumbling into the dense bush. It was a great shot, the bullet hit right where it needed.
I could hear Lisa frantically trying to reload another bullet into the chamber, taking her eyes off where the Kudu was standing. I laid my hand on her shoulder, she stopped instantly, looked at me, and said “Did I hit him?” “He is down!” I responded and we both began to smile and laugh in relief.
Those moments when a hunter finally gets their hands on their quarry, especially on an African animal that they have spent their entire life dreaming about, is a private moment, it’s something I cannot explain on behalf of someone else, it has to be experienced, it holds emotions and feelings that are unexplainable. I tend to hang back as the guide and allow the hunter to enjoy those moments in peace and privacy.