Blackthorns and bushpigs

BP4The bellowing, taunting howls sounded like they were coming from the valley opposite. I turned to Devan with a look of resignation. I knew I was about to have an almighty slog through the bush, climbing vertically almost all the way. We waited to see if the pack had stopped. It was deceptive in these deep gorges, with the sounds bouncing between the rock faces all around. Zipping up the neck of my fleece, I looked behind to see how long it would be before the first rays of morning warmth would reach us. It was bloody cold, standing and waiting, but the irony was cruel – I would be longing for the cool shadows once the hunt was over.

The hounds were still on the move, slicing through the thick undergrowth with effortless strides. With each answering howl I would picture the pack following the fresh tracks, inhaling the scent from the night before as they closed in on the pigs. These dogs are built like nothing we have over here. Most comparable to an English foxhound in frame, they are strong and fearless. Rippling masses of muscles cut an athletic profile on rugged, war-torn faces. Most are all too aware of the danger, bearing scars from their last lapse in concentration. But they live for the hunt. You can almost see the building excitement in their eyes when they leave the kennel to be loaded into the truck. The steely concentration behind roving noses tells you they are ready for whatever the day brings. They are the special forces of the dog world.

This was to be my last bushpig hunt on the trip, having failed to stop any pigs on the two hunts earlier in the week. The weather had been far from favourable, as we battled icy cold winds to flush out the likely valleys. Guided by the hound master, the pack had searched every corner on day one, but only half-hearted barks and howls intermittently floated back down to us watching below. There was nothing there, despite the area proving fruitful in the past.

Thunderstorms then postponed the hunting for a day, with it being all but impossible for the pack to pick up any scent after a whole night of torrential rain. This didn’t mean we were confined to barracks though – far from it. We had plenty of other hunting on hand, and decided to tackle the growing warthog problem on the farm we were staying at.

Despite being widespread now, warthogs are not native to this part of the Eastern Cape. Having been brought on to game farms in previous decades, inevitable escapees bred and multiplied, leaving very few places Pumba doesn’t now call home. A menace for farmers, they not only eat valuable grazing for livestock, but also trail destruction wherever they pass through. There is no stock fence that a warthog won’t be able to undermine and open up, and for this reason farmers are all too keen to see them shot. Of course, this meant that getting into a trophy beast here is was rare indeed. I didn’t care about that, though, and was just happy to help out while enjoying some good sport.

BP5Not far from where we had set up camp, a small dam fed a lush area of wild grasses. These declined in abundance the further we got from the dam wall. It was most inviting for Mr Piggy, and we had already seen a group of them here when passing through looking for kudu only a few days before. It was likely they would be back out again, catching some morning rays and filling their bellies. This was to be our first port of call.

With a stiff breeze in our favour, the stalk was to be quite straightforward. Having parked at the bottom of the farm track, it was only a careful 200-metre walk to get into position. From there the ground dropped away, giving a good vantage point over the dam and ground beyond. Sure enough, it panned out just as we had planned. Two warthogs were busying themselves, rooting around among the foliage sprouting between the aloe trees. The odd flick of a tusk sifted out a stone or unearthed some tasty morsel, which they quickly consumed. They were engrossed in breakfast and unaware of our presence.

Setting up on the sticks, we watched for a while to see if any more were going to appear from the undergrowth. Confident there were just the two, I readied the .300 Win Mag for a quick reload. The shattering, unmoderated boom dropped the bigger pig in a swirling cloud of dust. With the ejected case still falling to earth, I slammed the bolt closed and swung through to pig number two. Unsurprisingly, it had vanished from sight. Still, I was pleased with my single warthog. Two days later, we were once again out after bushpigs. This takes us to where the story started.

The hounds must have been on a scent for more than 45 minutes before they stopped. Deep, frantic and contorted wails of success streamed back to us. The pack had at least one bushpig held up. Jacket off, Brenneke slugs firmly seated in both trouser pockets, and I was off. The bush here is not quite jungle thick, but in many places you won’t get through standing upright. The chase is fast and furious, testing most hunters’ limits of endurance. You can’t think about the route for too long, forging a way through thickets lesser mortals would take a wide detour to avoid. This is very much bush bashing, and it’s for this reason the shotgun remains unloaded until a shot is imminent. For ease of carrying and safety, it remains empty and closed until you are within sight of the dogs. Only then, with half a dozen paces left, will you load up and carefully edge forward into the hornets’ nest.

BP6By the time I reached the dogs 40 minutes later, you would have thought I had taken a shower with my clothes on. Now I had slowed down, my light bush shirt and khaki trousers clung to my skin uncomfortably. I was dripping through, streaking red rivers of blood down both arms. The bush had given me a few reminders that this is no place for the faint-hearted – two weeks later, I would pull the final blackthorn barb from my shoulder.

Wiping my brow and eyes, I focused hard to pinpoint which side of a kopje the hounds had stopped the pig. This was the feeling I came back to Africa for. Pumping through my veins in a crescendo of testosterone-filled excitement, this was a high that I couldn’t replicate any other way.

With the dogs in sight, I slipped in two slugs, closed the shotgun and made sure I knew where my spare cartridges were. Cautiously closing in the final 10 metres, I could just make out the bushpig. It hadn’t seen me, and that was the way I wanted to keep it. Lining up the bead, I edged the last few steps forward and was ready to unleash hell. It was just a single pig, but the dogs were right on top of it. There was no safe shot. Time froze.

The commotion of the pack blurred around my target, leaving a tunnel of clarity. As the final dog stepped back, the bushpig looked up. Through a break in the bush, it stared straight through me. Boom! The pig dropped where it stood and the pack dived into the kill. I followed up, still loaded, but the pig had already left this earth. Smiling, I knew I had a problem now: I already needed my next fix.

For the chance to feel the excitement of Byron’s bushpig hunt, visit www.orionhuntingtours.com.

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