By now the road was familiar. Making the journey from Port Elizabeth north, once again I had joined my good friend and professional hunter Devan Delange on my yearly pilgrimage to Africa.
As a pleasant surprise, his one-of-a-kind mother had also made the journey to pick me up. I had met Aunty Bokkie not long after I’d met Devan, welcomed into the family home as a stranger from Scotland.
Before making the trip north again, Devan had kindly offered me a few days’ hunting. I could hardly refuse such a kind gesture. Unfortunately, although we had some success, I lost three days after falling ill.
The previous afternoon had seen the two of us sitting quietly around a water hole, comfortably positioned in the shade offered by a lone, tall tree. What I couldn’t have known while sitting patiently for the warthogs that never came was that a spider had crawled down my back and bitten me under the arm.
The following day, not even the opportunity to shoot a trophy buffalo could have perked me up enough to leave the house. I felt terrible.
Fortunately for me, Devan’s wonderful mother was keeping an eye on me as I slowly got better. It took more than a week before I was firing on all cylinders again. That was years ago now, and is an experience I am not too keen to repeat.
On the last handful of trips back, I had thankfully avoided any spider-based altercations, and was taking a wide berth of any restaurant-produced mushroom sources – but that’s another story. I was excited about getting back into the mountains. It was a wilderness that now held a special place in my heart.
The previous year we had ventured into these same rocky ranges, with no particular focus other than to hunt. I had been keen to shoot another bushpig and some of the more mountainous species, but there was no agenda.
This time, however, we both had a few species in mind. Devan was eager to get me into a good kudu after managing to shoot some cows the previous year. There were no complaints from me with this plan, but I was also hoping to take an animal from the other end of the size spectrum.
For years now I had come across the diminutive common duiker while stalking the veld, but with an eye on other quarry they had always been allowed to carry on about their business. Now, I thought it was about time I made the effort to hunt one for the wall.
On our second morning in camp, we repeated the route we had taken 24 hours before. Devan was sure today would come right. The previous morning we had watched four kudu bulls on the opposite valley-side for more than two hours, but unfortunately they were all young animals.
We spotted a much bigger, shootable bull higher up but he vanished like a ghost, leaving us to ponder over the youngsters who sat in full view just 150 yards away. If the right animal had been among them, we would have been home for a beer before lunch. But sometimes these things are not to be – after all, that is what makes hunting interesting.
By now we had a good measure of the movements up and down the mountain, and opted to re-enact our previous route in the hope that a bigger bull would pass into view. Devan knew they were there, but finding them among the dense bush is another story.
We would just have to be vigilant, and concentrate. It was a bit like hunting the big open spaces of North America, but with denser cover for your quarry to be hiding in. Our tactics were the same: sitting at strategic positions, and spying long and hard across the landscape for any signs of movement.
After a time it became strenuous on the eyes, and I found myself needing to take periodic breaks from the systematic scanning. I was using 10×42 Swarovskis, which were the same spec as the trusty Kahles that usually accompany me to Africa.
I have always been torn between 8x and 10x for my travels back, not quite knowing if the extra power was worth the strain on the eyeballs.
I certainly find myself doing far more extended scanning in Africa than at home, but given ranges of a kilometre and beyond, it’s hard to know if the lower power binos wouldn’t be a disadvantage when it came to spotting those tiny tell-tale signs of life.
It is amazing what can give your quarry away in the depths of the bush. A kudu may be a big animal, with proportions akin to our largest park stags, but there is a very good reason they are known as the ghosts of the bush.
Moving from thicket to thicket, they are remarkably camouflaged, and large bulls are notorious for standing perfectly still for long periods of time. Even when they are moving, they can melt away without a trace.
It takes a trained eye to have any hope of keeping track of an animal if there is any kind of cover on the ground. Often, the only evidence there will be is the glint of ivory tips swishing gently above the canopy as the kudu browses a route through the undergrowth.
I have seen myself stare at a spot for more than a few minutes, knowing a kudu is there, but unable to identify the animal until the flick of an ear gave them away from behind the foliage.
Movement is obviously the easiest identifier, but we are not always so lucky, so you need to look for colour, pattern and shape to guide your eye across the sea of tangled bush and swaying grasses over the baked landscape.
As the hours ticked by, our second morning was proving even less fruitful, with only some kudu cows and a following young bull putting in an appearance. The bush had been far from quiet though, with starlings and doves saluting the rising sun with their morning chorus.
We had spotted the herd of feral goats I had hunted 12 months before, perched perilously on the cliff tops above us. A 40-strong tribe of domestic goats also passed over the horizon, following their morning ritual of chasing the lifting shadows as the sun cast its early heat into the valley bottoms.
Of the wild game, a lone female duiker had crossed our line of sight early on, tracking the edge of a deep water-run cut through the hard, dry African earth.
We watched the little ewe bumble around, picking choice mouthfuls as she proceeded on her journey. Following an identical route to a small ram we had seen the previous morning, I was sure it wouldn’t be long before the male made an appearance as well. Sure enough, an hour later he did.
Not wanting to have another morning pass without anything in the chiller, and knowing that I was very keen to take a duiker, Devan suggested we cut our losses on the kudu for the day and take the ram while we had the opportunity.
I was in agreement, slipping back from where we sat to line up behind the .243 Zastava rifle. He wasn’t far, at little more than 100 yARds, but was clearly on a mission, dashing between bushes and behind dead grasses without pausing at all.
After a minute or so of tracking he stopped abruptly in a narrow, clear corridor across the gulley. Staring directly at me with its dark, bulbous eyes, he must have been moments away from making a dash for cover when I unleashed the firing pin.
The chain reaction was predictable, as gunpowder burnt, propelling the deadly lead-and-copper cocktail to its intended destination.
Despite a perfectly good shot, the returning report was less than convincing as the ram bounded away in the opposite direction.
In the end we recovered him with a perfect lung shot, but more than 100 yards from where he had been hit.
With an exit the size of my fist, and bits of lung spattered down its side, I will never know how this little animal made it so far, but it didn’t matter.
I was now ready for another day in the mountains.
For hunting in the Winterberg with Devan Delange, visit: www.winterbergsafaris.com