Clown Princes of the Veld
By Mick Chapman
“Clown Princes of the veld” – a moniker that so befits the black wildebeest or white-tailed gnu of Africa. Characters with little inhibition, that go about their daily life, prancing over the veld, kicking up their heels, spinning, twisting, pig-rooting, dropping their heads, and charging their companions. In herds from 10 to several hundred, their playful behavior could well be a charade to mask an extremely intelligent and challenging species to hunt.
Since arriving in Namibia, we’d seen innumerable herds of black wildebeest often intermingled with blue wildebeest, hartebeest, or the odd gemsbok. Searching the herds for a trophy male was darn near impossible as these animals could easily be diagnosed as hyperactive. We’d select a bull with trophy potential and begin a stalk. Then, unexpectedly, an individual in the herd would commence a game of tag, impulsively head-butting the nearest animal, turn tail, and run through the veld, causing a domino effect as the sea of gyrating wildebeest flesh went thundering over the plains.
When approaching a herd, if a single beast becomes aware, then all is not well, because you hear a snort, then a high-pitched squeak. A head drops and the whole mob spins into motion, leaving us in their dust. With so many eyes constantly watching for predators, the black wildebeest is a test of skill, which only enhances their appeal to the hunter.
To begin with, though high on my “wish list,” I was not acquainted with how to choose a black wildebeest trophy. So before I hunted them, I asked many questions and wandered around the salt room of PH Drikus Swanepoel’s Ekuja Safari Hunting, studying trophies of successful hunters to find out what appealed to me about these odd-looking creations.
There were specimens with long, smooth horns, or well-rubbed ones with points polished to round stubs typical of older animals. One set had real appeal to me – an oval-shaped boss, rugged, with a heavy, long horn. It was the weight of the boss that drew my attention. Drikus informed me that, like Cape buffalo, the wildebeest horn boss starts out soft, but grows larger and harder as the animal ages. This particular set was exceptional, and my chances of harvesting such a trophy would be slim, though not impossible.
Was I up for the challenge? I quickly let him know I was. Besides, my theory is: If you shoot for the stars and land on the moon, “Ya gotta be a winner.”
On our first day hunting, we were fortunate to see cheetahs feeding on a young gemsbok. Since scavenging is not part of their repertoire, and dining only on fresh kills, these cats are the scourge of Namibian cattle farmer. Being easy prey, cattle often become their meal of choice, and cheetahs are regularly shot on sight. We were driving along an internal property track when we saw them. All hell broke out as Drikus yelled, “Shoot it!” I hadn’t even seen the cat at this stage, but Drikus pointed to where its head projected above the grass. I aimed for where I thought the chest was, and fired, at which two cheetahs bolted across the veld, totally unscathed.
Drikus headed the vehicle into the bush as I hung on, desperately working my rifle’s action to eject the spent cartridge. Closing in on the cheetahs, we were within 20 metres when the driver threw out the anchors and bought us to an abrupt halt. “Shoot, shoot!” I raised my rifle re-chambering a new round, took a lead, and fired, tumbling one cat that regained its feet before both disappeared behind the gawd-awful wait-a-bit scrub. Carefully, we approached the edge of the area that extended about 80 metres in length and at least 50 metres wide.
Willie, the tracker, quickly found blood spoor where we’d last seen the cheetahs. At least one cat had been hit as its tracks lead to the middle of an island of thorn scrub. There was no sign of its partner, until we heard the distant bird-like chirp that cheetahs make. We listened for a reply, but there was none. Walking around the impregnable thicket, we found where the wounded cheetah entered, but no sign of its exit.
Drikus released his dog, Devil, a German hunting dog crossed with an Australian kelpie used for blood trailing. Devil followed the spoor into the thickest section of the scrub, barked, then came out looking extremely sheepish. No amount of encouragement could entice the dog to re-enter the labyrinth of thorns. Convinced we had the cheetah’s whereabouts, what were we going to do next?
We couldn’t walk, crawl, or otherwise into the snarl of thorns. The boys could chop through with axes, but it would probably take days. With the amount of blood visible, we were sure the animal had died. Because I couldn’t bring the trophy home – due to the misinformed Australian government’s blanket policy banning the importation of spotted cat skins or products – we decided to abandon any recovery attempts. We were disappointed no evidence of the experience would be available, and continued with the hunt for wildebeest. We moved around the veld, checking habitat that wildebeest were known to frequent. The now setting sun resembled a fiery red ball suspended on the horizon, splashing the veld with shades of red and purple. We disturbed a mob of eland cows and hartebeest as we advanced to the edge of a vast waterhole, but no wildebeest were seen.
My attention was taken by the beauty of the scene in front of me when, unexpectedly, Drikus signaled Thomas, our driver, to stop. Drikus pointed to a jackal stealing cautiously through the grass painted violet by the hues of the setting sun. Keen to hunt jackal when I was in Zimbabwe, the opportunity never arose, so I was now about to nail one of these lovely little critters. Swinging up the Savage Model 116, I released a 210-grain Barnes TSX into its shoulder; you might say the .338 RUM was a little too much gun.
Five days of my safari had passed with little time and effort on black wildebeest. Finding distractions in gemsbok, eland and hartebeest, we were now ready to devote our undivided attention to securing one of these comical clowns.
We had changed areas to a more open section of the 66,000-acre farm, though there were thick pockets of scrub spattered around the plains that we searched for a lone bull displaying a well-developed boss. But, so far, we’d only found a huge blue wildebeest that tempted me; but, having acquired a lovely specimen in Zimbabwe three years previously, I declined to shoot.
Another African sunset with its vivid colors transformed the sky from brilliant blue to myriad reds and purple. The lengthening shadows inhibited our ability to see through the scrub. Yet, in the distance, we saw a pair of wildebeest bulls on the veld under a gaunt outline of a distant camel thorn tree.
Decamping from the vehicle adjacent to a flimsy camphor bush, we stood and watched the hunting truck disappear. The wildebeest very quickly lost interest in the vehicle and set about playing tag. One head-butted the other, then ran pig-rooting and bouncing sideways while watching its mate. His mate then gained enough pace to catch up and return the butt. This went on for a minute or two, the pair zigzagging back and forth, ‘til they finally came to rest beside the lonely tree where it all began.
Drikus quickly positioned the shooting sticks; I moved up to them and settled in for a shot. Drikus estimated a distance of 200 metres, as I had thought. Instantly, I had a flashback to a similar situation when hunting Australia’s Northern Territory a few years back – a setting sun and pigs at what I thought was 200 metres but was actually closer to 300-plus metres.
With the rangefinder back in the truck, my gut instinct told me to take a high hold. I aimed for the front leg on an imaginary line that ran up the leg to a point that intersected the mane or spine of the wildebeest. Tripping the trigger, releasing another 210-grain bullet, my .338 bucked through recoil. There was a resounding “whomp,” and we watched as the bull hunched up as though mortally wounded, then began to run, then walk to our right. Ejecting the spent cartridge I chambered another, took a lead of the beast, and fired. Rewarded with another “whomp” as copper met flesh, we watched the wildebeest succumb.
Positive we’d both underestimated the distance between us and the now dead animal, I counted paces as we walked out to the wildebeest. It took me 409 paces to reach my trophy; I’m long in the leg and was attempting to take metre strides. I believe that my shot was closer to 400 metres – confirmed somewhat from the point of impact of the first shot, which hit close to the heart from a hold on the back line of the animal – a drop of over 300mms.
Drikus mentioned that many hunters over-estimate the size of black wildebeest and, in turn, underestimate distances. I’d heard about their diminutive size before, but nothing could have prepared me for their lack of body mass when close up. From a distance, I would have sworn they were double their actual size. In fact, they’re about the size of an axis deer, but shorter in the body length. I still haven’t come to terms with their lack of stature.
Thank God for the good old gut feelings, and trusting this instinct. Mick Chapman has hunted extensively throughout Australia, taking five of the six species of Australian deer, water buffalo, and many other species, where he is also involved in the Australian Deer Association. He’s also guided hunters on red deer trophies in his local district. In Canada, he’s taken black bear, bison, whitetail deer and mule deer; in Zimbabwe, he took kudu, eland, blue wildebeest, impala and warthog.
20.3NamibiaBlackWildebeestChapman 1670 words Pull-Out “Drikus mentioned that many hunters over-estimate the size of black wildebeest and, in turn, underestimate distances. I’d heard about their diminutive size before, but nothing could have prepared me for their lack of body mass when close up.”