Hunting Caracal with Hounds in the Eastern Cape
Over the last few years I’ve throttled back and, as a more “mature” PH, traded chasing 100-pounder elephants, marauding lions, and lying for hours on riverbanks waiting to shoot that sly and elusive 15-foot crocodile for far more gentlemanly pursuits.
No more tsetse flies! No more malaria! Yes, sad as it may seem, I’ve replaced the hallowed hunting grounds of the Zambezi Valley, the Mnondo forests of Zambia, and the stark beauty of Mozambique’s Lugendainselbergs with a less stressful East Cape vista, one of rolling hills and the backdrop of the Indian Ocean.
I recently joined forces with Jeff Ford, a big but quiet-spoken man, native to the Eastern Cape, in an effort to provide clients with a unique hunting experience. Jeff, a cattle rancher until a few years ago, has run two packs of hunting dogs, inherited from his father, for almost 20 years. These specially trained hounds, a mixture of blue tick and foxhound, are controlled by two dedicated houndsmen, Tim Mbambosi and Maron Fihlani, and form an integral part of the Problem Animal Control program in the KowieKareiga Conservancy. Jeff is employed by the Conservancy to control predators such as caracal and jackal. He puts his vast knowledge of the area to test in the dense and often extremely rugged broken terrain that encompasses the area adjacent to and between the Kowie and Kareiga Rivers.
Jeff’s dogs are out with their handlers each morning before sunrise, ready to react to calls from local farmers who have lost livestock to predators. As a result of Jeff’s success in controlling these predators, small game species such as oribi, blue duiker, Cape grysbok and Cape bushbuck have flourished in the Conservancy, and a quota of these animals along with caracal is now available for trophy hunting.
PH Don Price (L) has exchanged chasing 100-pounder elephants for more gentlemanly pursuits, like hunting the indigenous species, like blue duiker, of the rolling hills of the Eastern Cape, in collaboration with former cattle rancher, Jeff Ford (R).
I first met Sean Scott, or as I call him, Scotty, a few years back when we traveled to Argentina as part of a group of guests invited by Alfonso Fabres to case out his new bird-shooting operation. We spent two weeks together and, having like interests – hunting, fishing, guns, good wine, women and song – immediately bonded and a great friendship was formed. Although my new friend hails from “Mud Island” he is definitely not the normal pompous “Pom” (Englishman)! Far from it, he is just the opposite, a rugged guy who thrives on the outdoors and who has hunted four continents, from the heat of Botswana to the freezing mountains of Kazakhstan. A booking agent, hunting consultant and shooting instructor, Scotty proved to be proficient with a both a rifle and shotgun, and his knowledge of diverse hunting species was even more impressive.
In mid October 2010 Scotty, accompanied by girlfriend Lauren, arrived in Port Alfred on a three-week working holiday. I had invited them to the Eastern Cape on a fact-finding mission to check out hunting opportunities I have on offer right on my doorstep. The emphasis was to be on the specialized species unique to the KowieKareiga Conservancy. And on top of Scotty’s wish list was the elusive caracal or African lynx, as it is commonly known.
Scotty and Lauren were happy to spend their first night in Africa unwinding at Gisa’s Beach House adjacent to Kelly’s Blue Flag beach in Port Alfred. As we relaxed with a glass of fine Stellenbosch Merlot in our hands recounting hunting stories, the fire crackling in preparation for the rack of Karoo lamb I was going to cook on the braai, my cell phone rang. It was Jeff, informing me that his old neighbor Rob Clayton had called to report that he’d lost two sheep to caracal. ”Are you and Scotty available early tomorrow morning?”
Hunting country here is rugged and broken, thickly vegetated with thorn scrub, euphorbia and spek-boom – and no game fences.
What a question! Wild horses couldn’t have held him back, and early the following morning Scotty, Jeff and I were out early to give it a bash. The big question on all our minds was: Would the dogs pick up scent? The country was rugged and broken, thickly vegetated with thorn scrub, euphorbia and spek-boom. There were no game fences. This was going to be tough, the real thing!
The houndsmen had deployed their two teams of dogs 10 km apart approximately 25 km inland on the Kowie River, and we were quick to position ourselves on top of a commanding feature in the middle so we could respond to either team. It was quite beautiful – the sun was just coming up with a blanket of early morning mist below us in the valleys and along the river off to the north.
While we waited, Jeff and I seized the opportunity to brief Scotty on what could possibly happen if the dogs picked up cat scent. ”Bwana, listen carefully for any giveaway noises and sounds – bushbuck barking, the alarm call of the tree hyrax, baboons, the screech of the crowned eagle – in fact anything out of the norm,” were our instructions.
Sure as God made little green apples, the words had just drifted away on the morning breeze when below us and to our right we heard a bushbuck bark! The noise, faint at first, grew louder, and we ignited into action. Off down the ravine at a run close on the heels of our leader, Jeff Ford. We slid, barely managing to stay on our feet, grabbing at branches that whacked us in our faces, as down the mountain we went, Scotty clutching my Browning over-and-under 12-gauge, and me with my camera slung around my neck. The pace quickened as we dodged and slid in an effort to keep up with our leader.
By now we could clearly hear the dogs barking, followed by a deep baying that sent blood-curdling chills up my spine! Jeff’s radio crackled to life and breathlessly he answered Tim Mbambosi’s call in fluent Xhosa. ”Scotty, they have a good-size cat on the run,” he reported. “He has treed twice already but has jumped again and is now heading towards the Kowie River!” And off he spurted again, down towards the baying and barking dogs. As the pace hotted up, Scotty’s shirt stuck to his back, wet with perspiration. There was no giving up now; we had to get to the cat as fast as possible as a caracal can only be treed a few times before he vanishes for good.
PH Don Price (R) and Jeff Ford (L) with their hounds, along with English hunter Sean Scott with his beautiful trophy caracal in the Eastern Cape’s KowieKareiga Conservancy.
The radio crackled back to life and this time all Jeff said was, “Inkosi!” (Thank-you). “The cat has jumped again …we don’t have much time …push guys, push!”
The noise from the dogs intensified into a crescendo, and I knew Tim had the cat treed again. We could make out the river by the belt of thick vegetation in front of us, and I prayed, “Please Lord, let it be a big cat and keep him in the tree!”
Then we were at the river’s edge. Tim and his dogs were holed up just 50 metres away in some really thick riverine vegetation that included a few taller trees. To our astonishment Jeff suddenly began to tear at his clothes, flinging off his shirt and trousers as he ran towards the dogs and the treed cat. What in the world was going on? Scotty and I didn’t realize that Jeff had spotted the caracal high in a tree overhanging the river and was preparing for any eventuality. He hastily signaled Scotty forward and together they crawled towards a big tree surrounded by the baying, barking dogs. Surrounded by the rest of the pack, Punch, the big black and white lead dog, was baying profusely, front paws as high as he could reach up the tree trunk, while out of the corner of my eye I saw Tim, the houndsman, waiting quietly to one side for the business to be completed.
I suppressed a chuckle as I watched Scotty and his semi-naked PH creep forward, quickly take aim, and pull the trigger. But Instead of the blast of the shotgun there was dead silence. Scotty anxiously pulled a second time, but still nothing happened! In a split second he broke the gun, examined the caps of the 12-gauge shells in the barrels and slammed the gun closed again. This time the gun bucked and a shot echoed in the valley. The cat came crashing down out of the tree but halfway down it caught in a limb, seemed to hang on for a brief second and then, in slow motion, fell to the ground.
The next few seconds were crucial as hunt-frenzied dogs can tear a trophy from limb to limb. In a flash Tim was with his dogs, shouting commands and swatting them on their heads, which gave Jeff the opportunity to snatch the caracal up and out of harm’s way. Scotty was ecstatic! What a beautiful specimen, truly a magnificent trophy, deep red in colour, the pointed ears fringed with black. “Don, look at this, mate… he is beautiful… what a cat! What an experience!”
Houndsman Tim Mbambosi (L) is in charge of Jeff Ford’s (R) specially trained hounds, a mixture of blue tick and foxhound, which form an integral part of the Conservancy’s Problem Animal Control program
We all regrouped and Jeff gathered his clothing. ”Sorry for the sudden strip-show, guys, but I’ve had a caracal drop into the river before and we never found it… so I was ready to dive in and retrieve your cat if necessary,” Jeff explained with a smile.
Caracal are incredible predators for their size and kill ad lib if not checked. And, contrary to popular belief, there are still thousands of caracal in Africa, especially in the coastal vegetation of South Africa’s Eastern Cape. Their population is strictly monitored by both Nature Conservation and private organizations such as the KowieKareiga Conservancy. As a result, this formerly elusive species that used to be collected by spotlighting can now be harvested with the aid of well-trained dogs. No longer a dream or a chance trophy, caracal is now very much a reality.
See you soon in South Africa!