It’s strange how sometimes the people you meet change your life for the better, and the safari industry is just such a place. You meet interesting people from all walks of life, and some of them do change your life forever – bankers, oil men, entrepreneurs, doctors, nurses and gamblers… But it was the vet and the nurse that really changed all our lives for the better and gave the meaning to the words, “friends for life”.
Africa is a wonderful place and the best way to see it is through hunting. Hunting takes you to all the places less traveled, and to all those little (and sometimes big} corners of this vast Dark Continent. Africa, with its mystic, colorful people and its magnificent wildlife allows people to fall in love with it and yearn to come back time and time again.
This story is about a couple who told me that their trip, a birthday present, from her to him, was a once-off and that they didn’t intend to come back!
I picked up a tired, but excited Isabella and Juan, at the East London airport and it immediately dawned on me that language would make for a difficult safari. Isabella could speak a little English, and Juan, who would do all the shooting, could only say, “hello”. With hand signals and patience we claimed all their bags and rifle, and proceeded to drive two hours to the ranch where they would be staying for the next 10 days.
The ranch is part of the 140 000 acre Kat River Conservancy and the group of ranchers that own the properties take an active interest in the conservation of all animals there, wild and domesticated. These are not game ranches – game is not bred artificially but is free-roaming, as it should be.
I asked Isabella how they came to hear about us, Stormberg Elangeni Safaris.
“Juan like hunting. I see advert in this magazine African Hunting Gazette, in Spain. I read all things about this safari company and I look at website. I like. Juan birthday next week, I book, simple like that.” I was a bit gobsmacked at this answer, as prospective clients from halfway across the world would normally like to meet the people they are paying money to, or at least have a reference of some sort. When I enquired about this fact, she replied, “Juan very busy, I very busy, no time for that and we book all holidays like that.”
We arrived at our Manzikhanya Lodge as the sun was setting, to a blaze of light from the kerosene lanterns casting shadows everywhere, and a very inviting campfire. Isabella remarked that it was just like in the photos, and they soon settled down to a drink and a wonderful meal. That night was about getting to know each other, and the hand signals and miscommunication plus language barrier, slowly but surely dissipated amid peals of laughter and big smiles. Isabella said, “I feel like I am at home with my friends. You are now my new friends.” Juan just nodded and enjoyed his third Johnny Walker Black.
We started hunting after sighting in rifles and, as the day progressed, her English got better and my non-existent Spanish also improved. On Juan’s wish list was a Cape bushbuck and Cape kudu. The only problem was that Juan couldn’t see dark-colored animals, and when they were in the bush, well camouflaged, he couldn’t see them at all. The hunt went something like this.
Me: “Juan, do you see the big green round tree?”
Juan “No comprende.”
Me: “Isabella, what is tree in Spanish?”
Me: “What is big? What is green? What is behind?”
Isabella: “Grande, verde, atras.”
Me: “OK, “Juan, un bushbuck macho atras de arbole verde grande. Comprende?”
Me: “Do you see it?”
Me: “OK, Isabella do you see it?”
Me: “OK, explain to Juan.”
As I looked where she was pointing I saw that she was indicating a dark patch of bush that was about 50 yards off of where I was looking, and it was just a dark shape, not the bushbuck in front of us. This was going to be a hard safari. And so it went. We managed to shoot an old bushbuck out in the open the next day and also some of the more common animals like springbok and blesbok, and also a black wildebeest in the following days – but no kudu.
Although there are a lot of kudu in the steep valley bushveld where we were hunting, kudu can be quite a challenge. These thickly wooded slopes and sometimes impenetrable tangles of vegetation are perfect kudu habitat.
On Day 9 it started raining and turned very cold. Still no kudu, and I thought, “Fat chance of that happening now.”
We left the warm lodge a little later than usual, as we weren’t going far, just to a little valley that I knew was a good place for kudu in bad weather. We’d glassed the hill for about an hour, and finally I noticed the horns of a kudu that was lying down behind a low bush about 150 yards from where we were sitting. As the time passed and the kudu wasn’t moving at all, the rain came down softly, soaking us and robbing us of body heat. I said to Isabella that we were going to be there a long time and that she could go back to the vehicle if she wanted to, as it was parked about 700 yards away from us. Ike, the tracker would take her back. She looked at me and said, “No, I tough Spanish woman, I stay”.
So be it. We all found an uncomfortable place to sit and we waited. Isabella wasn’t comfortable, and hearing a little shuffling behind me I looked around and couldn’t see her. I looked at Ike and he pointed at a big aardvark hole, and there I saw just the top of her head sticking out. I shuffled over to her and she lifted her head with a big grin and gave me the thumbs up. “All fine,” she said.
To cut a long wait short, the bull finely got up to stretch and Juan actually saw it clearly through the rain, and shot it where it stood. He ecstatically turned and hugged Isabel and me, all muddy and wet and dusty, and let out a whoop and hugged us both again, as well as Ike the tracker, and time actually stood still for all of us. Isabella said, “This was my gift to Juan for his birthday, I knew we would get this kudu.”
Juan loves hunting kudu, and since that day has hunted many more with me, as well as a couple of buffalo and all the plains game that South Africa offers, but kudu are his passion. That first kudu bull that we shot was an old, beautiful, worndown bull, not very long, but way past his prime and in the twilight of his life. Juan has shot seven kudu bulls that are much bigger than that first one, but that old bull has pride of place in his house.
Last year Isabella, for the first time ever, said that she would like to hunt, and after a bit of practice she managed to shoot a beautiful impala trophy. After that she said, “Now I understand more about our love for Africa and especially South Africa.”
That was sixteen years ago this year, and Isabella and Juan have hunted with me and Ike the tracker, with Stormberg Elangeni Safaris twelve times in that sixteen-year period. My family and I have been to Spain to visit them on several occasions, and we have become life friends like no other. They never miss my kids’ birthdays. My wife and I plan to go back soon to visit and look at all the wonderful trophies we have hunted together and talk about the memories, especially that first safari.
When I asked about all the times that they have hunted here in South Africa staying at Manzikhanya Lodge and why they continue to come on safari, Isabella smiles and says “Africa, South Africa, hunting, and all of the Stormberg Elangeni team are like a never-ending birthday present, now not only for Juan but for me too. I love all.”