By Johan van Wyk
I suppose we all have a favorite hunting ground, a place where the days are longer, the sun always shines, and the hills are not too steep. I grew up in what I known as Bushveld country, generally flat terrain with the odd kopje covered in thick shrub mopane or thorn trees. It was in such terrain that I cut my hunting teeth and learned to hunt, and the Bushveld will always occupy a special place in my mind, particularly the south-eastern lowveld of Zimbabwe. In recent years, however, another area has earned its keep with me as a hunting destination as well: South Africa’s dry, arid and rocky Karoo.
If you bother to research the Karoo, you will find that it is divided into two regions: the Great Karoo and the Little Karoo. As the name suggests, the Great Karoo is by far the larger of the two regions, and if you find yourself on the northern side of the Swartberg Mountain Range in South Africa, you will be in the Great Karoo, with the Little Karoo stretching away on the southern side of the mountain range in question. It is an area dominated by dolerite outcrops, loose stones, extreme temperatures and, generally, very little rainfall. In fact, some areas of the Great Karoo receive as little as 75 mm of rainfall annually, making this vast semi-desert area one of the driest areas in Southern Africa.
As is to be expected in such a harsh landscape, the animals that call the Karoo home are special breeds as well. The antelope most often associated with the Karoo is South Africa’s national symbol, the springbok, and during earlier times they could be found here in their millions, constantly migrating from one area of good feed to another. Sadly, this is no longer the case, as the bullet and the barbed-wire fence put a stop to the old migration routes. Other species that call the Karoo home include the blesbok, mountain reedbuck, red or Cape hartebeest, gemsbok, zebra, eland, blue and black wildebeest, and the greater kudu. In addition, other species such as sable, buffalo and red lechwe have successfully been introduced to many parts of the Karoo, and they flourish on many game farms.
I’m in the fortunate position to have a good friend, Mynhard Herhold, who farms game on a huge property bordering the Vanderkloof Dam in South Africa’s Northern-Cape province. My friend’s property is huge and stretches for 18 kilometers all along the shores of the lake, with some spectacular scenery thrown in for good measure. In addition to all the species listed above, Mynhard also looks after a small but cherished population of Hartmann’s mountain zebra, introduced from their native Namibia some years ago and flourishing in the rocky, arid Karoo landscape.
Once a year, a small group of us converge on Mynhard’s farm for what is known as our “family” hunt. The fact that none of us is related to each other is irrelevant, but as far as a hunt with friends go, our annual Vanderkloof hunting trip has been a highlight since the very first one. In typical Karoo fashion, the farm consists of a mixture of open plains, rocky kopjes, and higher areas bordering the edges of the dam, with deep cuts running down to the life-giving water of the Orange River, far below.
On the second morning of our hunt in May 2022, I was dropped off along with two of Mynhard’s apprentice professional hunters at the foot of a steep hill that I knew, hidden away, had a substantial plateau on top. The plateau was a favorite haunt for both red hartebeest and kudu, and except for on foot, the only way up was by means of a rough track that tested the capabilities of any off-road vehicle. The track was used almost exclusively for the recovery of game, and we set about climbing the hill in order to reach the plateau, gingerly picking our way through boulders and loose stones that made walking difficult and walking silently impossible. When we eventually reached the top I, being the oldest and the most unfit member of our small party, called for an immediate halt to catch my breath. It was at times like this that you realise Father Time is not your friend, and you suddenly feel aches and pains in places you didn’t even know you had!
The first prize for me on the hunt would be a kudu bull, and the farm held a substantial population of them. In the past, I’d hunted a number of kudu by making use of the terrain, surprising them as they moved between ridges. With their phenomenal eyesight and the relatively open country they were a real challenge, though, and they certainly tested the hunter’s patience and perseverance.
Once on top of the mountain, we set about slowly walking along the edge with the breeze in our faces, stopping every now and then for a glance downhill to look for kudu feeding on the side of the mountain. There were a great many loose stones, and I found a way of trying to avoid as many of them as I could, making sure of my footing with every step.
As it was a beautiful sunny winter’s morning, visibility was excellent and in places we could see for miles and miles in various directions. From our perch up high, we saw two eland bulls, numerous herds of springbok and a lone sable cow, probably about to give birth and therefore on her own in order to stash away the calf, as is their wont. The kudu, though, eluded us, and after almost eight kilometers over that rough terrain, I was looking forward to a rest with my boots in the air. The afternoon was pretty much a repeat of the morning with yet more walking, and as the next day would be the last day of the hunt, I was starting to get a bit anxious about my prospects, or rather the lack thereof.
Ever the resourceful professional hunter, Mynhard announced a slight change of plans for the last day’s hunt. The hunters would be placed at strategic points on the farm while the apprentice professional hunters and some of the laborers would walk in our direction but from far away to ensure safety in the event of a shot being offered. The idea wasn’t really a drive in the strict sense of the word – the terrain involved was too vast for that – but more a gentle push in the hopes of encountering a suitable animal.
We were dropped off with very strict instructions as to where to wait as well as fields of fire, and my position was at the foot of a hill on a relatively open stretch of land with a view of a gully below me. As the previous rainy season had been exceptional, the grass was tall and the trees, mainly sweet-thorn, Acacia karoo still had lots of leaves, curtailing visibility somewhat. I picked a spot under a karee tree Searsia lancea, another iconic Karoo species, and did my best to hide the rifle and shooting sticks among the karee’s branches while retaining a good view of the area in front of me, just in case an opportunity presented itself. I settled down under the tree with my back against a sturdy branch, firm in the belief that any action would still take some time to happen. Big mistake…
I’d hardly sat down when the familiar sound of hooves clattering over the stony ground broke the silence. As I looked up, a kudu cow was running almost directly at “my” tree with a beautiful bull in close pursuit. They ran past the tree I was sitting under almost within touching distance and disappeared from view. Of course, I realised, it was the kudu rut and the bulls would be out and about, chasing after the cows.
I quickly set up the shooting sticks again and was barely ready when a waterbuck cow daintily walked from the bushes in front of me. She was followed in quick succession by the rest of the herd, fourteen in total, and walked to my right, no more than forty meters away. The herd did contain a bull but as he was a youngster, I wasn’t ready to call off my search for a kudu yet. Minutes later, a lone blue wildebeest bull stopped to stare at me from about 100 meters away. As he came from the side, he could see me, but the wind was still in my favor, so he didn’t spook. I looked at him through the telescope for at least a minute before he made up his mind that I wasn’t a threat and wandered off.
Minutes later, I was again startled to see a kudu cow running towards me. She was clearly in a hurry and was followed soon after by the rest of the herd. It was a large herd of more than 20 animals containing a beautiful bull, but as they never slackened their pace and just kept going, I could only watch in frustration.
During the next half an hour, I watched as yet more herds of red hartebeest, blue wildebeest, waterbuck and springbok poured past my position. Another kudu appeared as well, a lone bull, but as with the others he just kept going at pace. Why the kudu were in such a hurry while the other game was just walking by, I couldn’t fathom, but they were certainly doing justice to their reputation as an elusive quarry.
The sun was starting to get higher, and midday was looming when the small radio I’d been issued with crackled into life. Mynhard warned me that I had at the most another 15 minutes or so left to get a shot at something before he would be around to pick me up for lunch. Something had to happen, and just in the nick of time, it did. As I stood there with the .30-06 over the shooting sticks, another lone kudu bull approached my position. This time, though, the bull wasn’t in a hurry, and he walked towards my hiding place at a leisurely pace. There was another problem, however: I was set up on the right side of the trunk of the tree and the bull was on the left side. I would have to move the sticks and the rifle over to the other side and risk spooking the bull.
As slowly as I could I lifted the sticks with my left hand and gripped the rifle in my right hand. I pulled everything over to the other side of the tree and was just about to set things down when the bull’s head jerked up. He was close to me now, no more than 30 meters or so, and had clearly noticed something out of place. With a bark he crashed away to my left, coming to a stop in a rather peculiar position with his hind legs in the bottom of a ditch and his front legs on top. He was covered by a small tree, making a body shot impossible, but a portion of his neck was visible where it joined the body. The crosshairs found the mark and as I pulled the trigger and the rifle recoiled upwards, the kudu disappeared from view. The hunt was over.
As I stood next to the fallen bull, I couldn’t help but feel a touch of sadness. He was beautiful, all and more of what I’d hoped for, but there was something very melancholy in seeing him dead at the bottom of the ditch with blood dripping from the hole in his neck. He wasn’t my first kudu and probably won’t be my last, but as the years go by and the pool of blood gets bigger, they certainly get harder!
Johan van Wyk was born in Zimbabwe and educated in South Africa. A lawyer by trade, he abandoned the corporate life to become the editor of a South African gun and hunting magazine. His interests include hunting, fine gunmaking and photography. Johan is currently in the process of emigrating to Australia with his wife, Sonett.