Limpopo March 2019 part 2: The plains game

zambezi

Well-Known Member
The plains game hunts:

For 10 days of March 2019 I stayed at Boulders Game Ranch near Hoedspruit in the Limpopo province of South Africa. In addition to the buffalo hunt on nearby Excellence farm, I also had a tableau of plains game to work through and that was intended to include Eland, Kudu and Wildebeest bulls. Regretably the first two [spoiler alert] did not present themselves in the time frame available.

Wonderfully, my PH suggested alternative target species to fill the card. And I am very glad that I did so. It was a win-win for both outfitter [Bushwack Safaris] and myself as I left South Africa’s shores well satisfied.

On my first day we tried unsuccessfully for the buffalo. We repeated that on the second morning with no joy and that saga is recorded on another thread. So my PH decided that for day three we should revert to Boulders and make an inroad into some of the plains game species on my wish list.

After a leisurely lunch we rested till the peak heat of the day abated a tad. At three p.m. we headed out in Grant’s pickup truck with a native tracker stood on the flat bed scanning ahead for sign. In the event he observed any fresh herbivore spoor he would let out a low whistle and Grant would bring the vehicle to a halt slowly and we would disembark and commence a walk-and-stalk following sign.

I lost count of how many stalks we attempted. Everyone of them was a delight, even when no quarry presented. I was entranced by the variety of soils [rich reds, desert-like sands, black clay] and the flora supported despite the hardness of the ground. Eye-popping red flowers no bigger than your baby finger nail sprouted defiantly from concrete-hard sand, tortoises lumbered between grass fronds, and beetles and bugs you could throw a saddle on were everywhere. The thorns were scary in their dimensions and variety. Some clearly want to keep you at bay and others seem to want to ensnare you. The very large white thorn provokes an allergic response and is to be avoided. Easier said than done as you watch where you place your feet only to walk into a head-height thorn bush. Grant caught one in the mouth and it caused his lip to swell into a pea-shaped distention.

By far and away the most ubiquitous antelope was the Impala and their numbers on Boulders have exploded in recent times. They needed culling. I was the man for that job. I took 7 in 5 days. All perfect chest shots precipitating fast demise either on the spot or after very short death runs. (caveat: there was one shot that resulted in neither sign nor carcass. In retropect I wonder if it was a clean miss) It is hard to single out one stalk as they have somewhat blurred into an aggregated experience. Typically Grant would observe movement at distance and that would be the first flag that a herd was about. We would disembark the vehicle whilst still a long way off and check the wind and cover. Based on those factors we would track towards last observed movement. Typically the bucks would be running together in groups of 8-15. The does were in far larger aggregations. Getting a feel for which way any batch were walking was often easier with the larger groups as a percentage were always in view as they threaded in and out of cover. In thicker foliage it was necessary to thread shots between boughs. I turned down more than I executed. The longest standing shot was at 155m off a pair of sticks. All of the Impala were fat and healthy as the recent rains had supplied ample nutrients in recent weeks.

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I never ceased to be amazed at how both tracker and PH could scan ahead whilst walking without tripping or disturbing dry brush. Almost a Jedi-like awareness of surroundings. But not infallible: In addition to smaller plains game, Boulders also runs with a number of buffalo bulls. It is uncanny how something that weighs a ton can disappear into the flora so completely when motionless. On one stalk we walked to within 20m of a slumbering behemoth. We backed away as stealthily as we approached! It is a 50/50 what happens when a sleeping bull is disturbed by an inattentive walker. Just that week ranch staff had been chased up a tree by a beligerent bull dubbed scar-face.

On another walk, the usually hyper-aware PH stepped onto and then over a large ‘boulder’ and continued walking uninterrupted. Howls of laughter from me at the rear of our entourage had PH and tracker spin round to belatedly identify the rock as a rather large tortoise. It was none the worse for having been treated like a doormat. On yet another walk, the tracker came to within a couple of metres of a large snake. His reaction was to levitate like George Jetson’s transport. Even funnier: the PH had not seen the snake but took to the air in perfect synchronicity with the tracker, purely as a sympathetic response. By the time both had resumed respect for earth’s gravitational pull, the snake was gone.

Sometime midweek we became aware that one or more good sized leopards were working the Boulders ranch. On that day we headed out after lunch taking a road we had traversed on the way in. The PH stopped and pointed out that the fresh spoor imprinted on top of his vehicle’s tread marks revealed that the leopard had walked over our tracks whilst we lunched. Boulders is blessed with some very fine kopjes [granite boulder hills] which we periodically scaled for lookout points or whilst tracking Kudu. Atop their peaks was always a boneyard often replete with large herbivore femurs: the remains of a leopard’s repast.

The Wildebeest stalk was not stellar either in terms of stalking effort or shooting skill. To be honest, the Wildebeest I encountered on this trip seemed cocky, stupid or both. We spotted a posse of five bulls strolling down the road perhaps 250m ahead and jumped out of the vehicle and set off after them on foot. What happened then is that they changed tack slightly and instead of leaving the road at an angle as it appeared they would, they returned to it and started walking towards the three of us, both groups arranged line abreast. It looked like a showdown in some Sergio Leone epic. We had the wind in our faces, sure, but even a myopic Wildebeest would have seen us if it had looked up from its shuffling feet. At 70m I dropped the cull candidate. The fillet that came of that chap was some of the best wild meat I had eaten...till that point.

As the days remaining dwindled, it became obvious that there were few/no Eland bulls on Boulders and so my PH brokered a day’s stalking on neighbouring Selati ranch which is huge. The topography is also flatter and vegetation less dense. Coupled with known high numbers of Kudu and Eland, things looked promising. We certainly encountered a great deal of spoor and some spiral horn glimpses through the bush too. There was one serious Eland stalk in which we came to within 50m of the impressive beast. But no shot presented. So we tracked forward as it browsed. Then disaster: a covey of Wildebeest bulls became esconced between us and the departing Eland. It was like a game of chess and twister combined with a dash of Boone/Mingo-esque stealth thrown in. We damn nearly pulled it off. After a delayed circumnavigation of the Wildebeest, we caught up with the Eland but a swirling wind bumped it into a jog trot. We caught up once more, but this time it set of at a sustained trot. However I could tell it was moving in an arc that would swing it past a position to our left. So I sprinted ninety degrees left for 50-80m and there discovered a straight-ish dirt road over which the Eland would almost certainly pass in a few seconds. I had left the PH (and the shooting sticks with him) behind me and so readied by bracing my rifle against a tree. Sure enough the VERY impressive Eland bull loped across the road broadside at a shootable 150m. But sadly he did not pause as I had hoped and all I could do was watch the colossus trundle away.

We had now endured three days in which no powder had been burnt. So the PH started to broker alternate target species to replace the Eland and Kudu lest they remained unattainable during this trip . Initially I was not keen. But I came round to the idea. The clincher was spying a very impressive Nyala with elegant ivory-tipped horns and an extravagant pelage. Right there was my Eland replacement. We stalked into that beast as it bimbled through thick undergrowth. Near silent as it moved and superbly camouflaged for concealment in shadows, we lost track of it. We held fast where we were certain it was in the vicinity. Sure enough, the PH soon gestured for me to follow him once again. The Nyala had commenced a slalom through a hedge-like string of low bushes. We adjuged the wind and set off on a parallel path, leap-frogging between cover when the Nyala’s gaze was diverted. At about 80m, I set up on sticks. The Nyala was very nearly walking away. It heard us and turned back to look over its right shoulder and was now quartering away showing its right flank. Good, I thought, rumen’s on the left. Compensating for the angle, I sent the bullet on a path that made impact perhaps 5 ribs back from the right foreleg and later found the deformed projectile lodged under the skin of the left shoulder. It dropped after 10m.
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To replace the elusive Kudu we settled on a Waterbuck. I had seen two monster exemplars in the week and would dearly like to have met one of them again on my last day in Limpopo. That was not to be, but that final Waterbuck stalk was a joy for other reasons. Having had little success chasing the beasties in the thick stuff, we opted for an ambush strategy using the boulders of one of the kopjes. The sun would set away over our right shoulder and would thus illume the plains to front and left as Waterbuck tracked towards the area around the dam. It was a fitting bookend to a frenetic week in which I had stalked over 100km: that we now finished with a peaceful and contemplative setting of the sun on this trip to Africa. The sounds, smells and lengthening shadows thrown sharply onto the red earth were mesmerising. Finally I had time to rest the footsore limbs and stop to ‘smell the roses’.

In a sequence that would have had Hannibal Smith crooning his catch-phrase, I identified a representative Waterbuck bull shuffling out of the bush 400m away to my right. His trajectory was not to the dam we had staked out 200m in front of our position. His path was unwavering and ran at a tangent across the line between us and the water. It would surely draw him to within 160m of where I was poised, cartridge chambered, paralax checked... Boom. Short dash. In the salt.
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That night we had the Nyala fillets on the braai. It is without doubt the premier meat of Africa. Soft and rich like lamb, with a taste that has beef-like overtones but which is at once all its own. At one point in the week I overheard the PH describe my safari to a colleague thus: “ja, he is shooting edibles”. That probably sums my choice of hunting: If it is sustainable and I can eat it, I am up for the hunt.

Once Africa gets under your skin, you will return. If you hunt, that draw verges on an addiction.
 

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