Daryl Crimp finds himself turned on his head by Africa, coming face-to-face with a wide variety of antelope species – everything except his chosen kudu
The Botswana sun warmed my shoulders and dust puffed from under our footfalls. Sweat ran in rivulets, carving a miniature Okavango Delta on the dust plains of my face. I looked from under the shade of my hat and grimaced. The sun was already advanced in its march and the day was unfolding – badly.
I’d swapped the mountains of my native New Zealand for the heat and thorns of the bushveld: inexhaustible plains of copper ochre blanketed in a thatchwork of thorny bushes, trees, unkempt grasses and water pans that are home to a variety of plains game. I’d expected to see zebra, wildebeest, impala, gemsbok, waterbuck, and… dare I breathe the grey ghost’s name for fear of jinxing the hunt?… kudu. I was disappointed.
Stepping around another leopard track, I wondered if the animal was the same one that had left the pug marks in the dust outside my open tent door the previous night. Louis read my mind and tried to put me at ease: “I told you it had mistaken your snoring for the rutting sound of an ugly hyena – look how it’s running for the safety of the border.”
“Just like your rugby team, huh.”
“Low blow, Kiwi – I hope a rabid jackal bites you twice!”
“Leave your sister out of this, Bwana Bubba.” Much banter shadows the quiet moments on safari.
We’d covered six kilometres that morning and it’s not uncommon to double that on a hunt, especially with the type of authentic walk-up, fair-chase safaris such as those Louis offers. There is a rhythm that penetrates the very soul of Africa and you see it in the distinctive ways people walk. Africans lean back and relax into their stride with a fluid, seamless grace that swallows the ground silently. It appears effortless and aimless yet is pragmatic and purposeful. I fell in behind Louis and easily picked up the ‘African walk’. “Why are you bouncing around like a hyena, fool?” he said waspishly. (Note to self: hunt Alaska next.)
“Africa has the ability to turn you on your head. Studied from a distance, it presents itself in many lights, with rich layers and multiple textures. Yet when she introduces herself in the flesh she is not Animal Planet or Discovery Channel – far from it”
Days earlier we’d hunted the riverine fringes of the Limpopo River for bushbuck, the smallest of the spiral-horned antelope. Species sickness is common to many hunters; be it tahr, sika, fallow, kudu, moose or chamois, an animal can find a way under the skin of a hunter and the itch will become so irresistible it’s impossible not to scratch it. Such was my longstanding desire to hunt bushbuck.
Louis and I stalked and staked out miles of leopard-infested vegetation. We skirted sinister-eyed crocs in dank water and wearily watched for hippo in long grass. We passed up the opportunity of an absurdly beautiful ugly warthog, then heard the bushbuck’s barking alarm call that announces to the world your shortcomings as a hunter. We did see plenty, but mostly non-shooters or mere fairies of the thicket. One magnificent chocolate-toned ram was unequivocally a shooter but led us a merry dance, appearing in the thorns and disappearing in the open, taunting us at every turn.
Unseasonable rain and warm weather had created a late flush, the vegetation too thick for hunting bushbuck. That was the excuse we settled on.
“Pah!” Louis spat in the dusty loam. “Let’s go hunt kudu, boet.”
What I actually did was hunt a zebra. Numbers in the area were on the high side so Louis was keen for me to take a cull animal – and protein is always in demand in Africa so I knew the meat would be put to good use. But it was neither of these two factors that compelled me to take the animal. Africa has the ability to turn you on your head. Studied from a distance, it presents itself in many lights, with rich layers and multiple textures. Yet when she introduces herself in the flesh she is not Animal Planet or Discovery Channel – far from it.
Zebras are not horses in striped pyjamas. Neither are they the idiotic but loveable fools in Madagascar. They are incredibly alert, sophisticated herd animals that are extremely challenging to hunt – so when I found myself within 30 metres of a scattering of stripes in the thorns, I was trembling. It had been a tortuous stalk through and around scrub patches and trees, down on hands and knees and bellies as required, before I finally got the nod from the giant of a man beside me. I rose to one knee, took in the scene and prayed I’d read it right.
“Okay, Crimpy, take the second from…”
“Fokker – you shoot like a bloody pro!”
I grabbed the rare praise and stuffed it in my pocket to savour later. The herd had bolted but I wasn’t panicked. The shot was good, taking out the top of the heart and lungs, but the chosen beast still managed to cover 80 metres before expiring.
We continued to hunt for kudu, heading into the foothills of a distant mountain, and stalked a big grey bull in the thick stuff. We saw its butt but not its head. In fact, we almost scratched its rump. This we did for an hour, until the wind whispered in its ear that we were near. It was heady stuff. Intoxicating. I was drunk on Africa.
We saw immature bulls with cows and their young. But the vegetation was too thick and we were a month too early. The bulls hadn’t yet joined the ladies so were spread out, solitary, and hard to find. That was the excuse we settled on. Then one of the trackers announced he’d seen a big bull near camp.
We hunted it morning and night. In the morning it was where we’d hunted at night, and at night it was where we’d hunted in the morning. We tried waiting under a low-hanging tree as the sun set. We heard animals all around: zebra in the distance, kudu snorts on the wind and a leopard sawing in the scrub to our left. Ghosts that they are, kudu materialised and passed silently through the clearing. Cows, calves and an immature adolescent man-child, but not the big bull. Four impressive eland bulls lumbered past – tempting, I had to admit.
As the light dimmed, a promising young waterbuck appeared and came to within a metre of us before catching Louis’s eye and bolting with fright. Ironically, it edged back to look at him, snorting and stamping from a safe distance. The same paradox befalls us humans – that something so ugly can be found so appealing.
Louis finally exhaled. “There it is – magnificent!” But it wasn’t a kudu he was looking at – it was a beautiful black-faced impala with incredible gnarly horns. Impala wasn’t on my wish list. I hadn’t even considered it up to this point. But here I was.
Boom. Africa turned me on my head again.
On the final hunt of the safari, I was ‘bouncing around like a hyena’ while Louis was still trying to find a kudu in a haystack of needles. Everything in Africa has thorns.
Snorts in the middle distance changed the pace of the hunt. Louis slipped from the gait that swallowed ground to a more deliberate stalk. He worked the vagrant wind like a yacht, first tacking this way then that, keeping the breeze in the right quarter so we could close in on the noises ahead: an orchestra of snorts, zebra yips and a strange nasal snore that made the sound of half a didgeridoo: “g-nu!”
As the chatter of animal talk grew louder, it was underscored by the drumbeat of hooves on dirt. I’d slipped into tight single file behind Louis earlier and now we were hunched old men worming our way forward. Ghostly figurines danced in the dust clouds just ahead and materialised 50 metres away as ungainly, strangely distorted creatures called wildebeest. They are dubbed the poor man’s buffalo but are not as foolish as they look.
“They are the most wounded animal in Africa,” Louis whispered in my ear, “because if you don’t hit them exactly right, you can be on their trail for days.”
They looked agitated, spooked. They were snorting, stamping, chasing themselves in circles and squawking like a gaggle of aggrieved housewives whose husbands had just hung their wet towels on the floor to dry.
“They are bluffing,” Louis insisted. “They think something’s up but they don’t know we are here.”
We leopard-crawled closer, in behind a low shrub, and Louis swung into a sitting position, cross-legged. I edged in behind and slightly off his right shoulder. He looked through his binos, adjusted the focus wheel and, as the dust cleared to reveal a big bull standing broadside at 60 metres, whispered something that turned Africa on her head: “I know it’s not a kudu, Crimpy, but that is one hell of a wildebeest!”
He gave me the nod to shoot and the .30-06 exploded. The sight picture will stay with me forever. At the shot, the big bull’s legs folded and it thumped down, generating another mighty dust cloud – a fitting full stop to my African safari.
Sometime after the jubilation had mellowed, Louis looked at me earnestly, shaking his head. “I’ve never failed a client before,” he said regretfully, “so I’m truly sorry I didn’t get you your kudu, Crimpy.”
I gazed into the copper ochre for a moment before raising my head with a grin. “Hell, Louis – I’m not,” I replied. “I now have an excuse to return to Africa.”
Somewhere behind me a leopard sawed. And a fiery-necked nightjar gave voice to its distinctive cry: “Good lord, deliver us!”