Throughout my hunting career, be it guiding safaris or hunting for myself,
I’ve observed a pattern whereby the big antelope – kudu in particular – like to visit waterholes during the heat of the day. I’ve only ever had two clients shoot a 60in kudu, and both were taken in the window between 1pm and 2pm. Obviously, because it’s not only unethical but also poor wildlife management practice, one doesn’t shoot animals at a waterhole. Rather, you locate them en route there.
My first client to get lucky with a 60in kudu bull was Bill Jenkins of Philadelphia. We were hunting in Zimbabwe, on the lower Bubye River. It was late August and hades hot. We’d first seen the kudu bull as he followed his group of five cows across the wide, sandy Bubye riverbed. They were in no hurry and stopped frequently, though ever alert. On top of that, their direction was taking them out of the hunting block and onto a non-hunting property.
We sat high above the river on an outcrop of boulders, glassing the unfolding and frustrating scenario. The bull’s impressive horn mass was forcing him to walk with a lowered head. When the trackers also wax lyrical about trophy quality, you know it’s good. At one point when the bull lingered, his head outstretched and swaying from side to side as he warily scanned the east bank’s dense riverine bush for danger, the Ndebele tracker whispered expressively, ‘in-Kalakatha’ (huge).
Given the distance we were from him, his sheer heavy horn mass with deep curving spirals, ending in outward flaring ivory tips, screamed trophy quality. The depth of curl on the spiral configuration would translate into solid inches with a tape measure. When he lifted his head high to test the breeze, his horns swept back along either side of his lean back, the tips seemingly reaching his rump. From our commanding position far to his rear, his foreshortened body was bracketed by an inverted V formed by his horns. It was an impressive sight.
When they finally disappeared into the brush on the opposite riverbank, and after we’d eventually moved off back towards camp in the stifling heat, I wondered if we’d ever see that magnificent kudu again.
Over the next few days we hunted hard and Bill grassed a number of other smaller plains game species. We also saw a few kudu but they all looked small compared to what we’d started referring to as ‘the elusive bull’. Periodically, we’d return to our vantage point above the Bubye River, glassing the dry riverbed with our binoculars and willing the kudu to reappear. It was to no avail and he’d become the epitome of the kudu moniker ‘grey ghost’.
The season was to our advantage: late winter, with the land dry and parched,
a time of year when the African bush takes on a drab grey hue. The trees stood leafless awaiting the first rains to once more energise their sap flow. Waterholes had in the main dried up and were nothing less than cracked, dry mud basins in an arid landscape. If we could find where the kudu bull and his females were drinking, it would simplify matters, unless they were finding their water needs outside of the hunting block.
One early morning a tracker drew my attention to a rapidly shrinking waterhole an easy walk from camp. There was plenty of game spoor surrounding it, including kudu. He was convinced it was where our elusive quarry and his harem were watering. He even pointed out that the kudu spoor from the previous day led off along a well-used game trail towards the Bubye River, and seemingly headed close to where we’d been sitting glassing.
Because of my firm belief that the kudu were watering in the midday heat during the 12-2pm window, I decided we’d build a blind. The waterhole was only about 450 metres from the river, and amid the fresher impala and warthog spoor along the game trail, there was also older kudu spoor going in both directions.
To confirm what seemed to be a regular daily visitation to the waterhole, we backtracked the spoor east, down to and across the riverbed. It was a eureka moment: the spoor could only have belonged to the elusive group.
Without wasting time, we used some deadfalls and other dry brush to build a simple u-shaped blind 30 metres off the game trail midway between the waterhole and the river. By 11.45am we were in situ. It was incredibly hot, but our wait wasn’t long – at about 12.45pm they came into view. There were five kudu in the group, moving slowly along the game trail in single file. The majestic bull brought up the rear, ambling 10 paces behind the last female.
Due to his magnificence and proximity, there was no need for me to use my binoculars. I gently nudged Bill. His rifle was already resting on a branch we’d used as a cross-member when erecting the blind. Sliding his left hand under the forend, he slowly brought the butt into his shoulder and settled comfortably behind the scope.
Wary as always, the kudu group stopped frequently to survey the surrounding bush. Most animals feel vulnerable at or near waterholes, and for good reason: predators. Our luck held: as the bull turned at an angle to us he presented ideally for a heart shot, which Bill took without hesitation. It wasn’t a long shot, and in acknowledgement of being hit, the bull buck jumped once. Then, with his tail flagging, white under-hair clearly visible, he ran headlong into the scrub before noisily crashing to the ground. As we stood up, I glanced at my watch: it was 1.05pm.
Approaching the magnificent trophy, we were in awe of the length and mass of his beautiful horns with their polished ivory tips. They looked out of place and way too large for his body. It took us a few minutes of silent admiration before we bent down and reverently touched the horns, our hands following the twists from ivory tip to horn base. It was only after the photographs had been taken and at the time of loading that I brought out the tape measure – an item that ranks low on what motivates me to hunt, though I understand why so many see it as the all-important item. With Bill holding one end, we ran it around the horn keel following the spirals and then up to the tips. One horn went 60.5in with the other going 60in. Our midday hunt decision had certainly paid dividends.
The next time I had a client take such a trophy was a few seasons later. This time round I was hunting on Touch Africa Safaris’ magnificent Mjingwe spread east of the BVC. Sadly, owing to land invasions in Zimbabwe, it is no more. My client, Art Mariner, was also from the USA.
We’d passed up a number of kudu – I’d even stopped him from shooting one that probably would’ve gone 57in. Perhaps it’d been stupid of me because we were down to the last three days of the safari. The decision could come back to haunt me, for sure.
Sticking to my belief in the hot hours paying off, we continued hunting hard without breaking for a daily siesta. We’d frequently eat in the field, the rig’s tailgate our table. Finally, on our last hunting day and when I was becoming increasingly concerned, our luck changed for the better. At about 1.30pm my tracker spotted a kudu bull standing way out on top of a huge granite dwala (whaleback). He was silhouetted against the cobalt blue sky, and even at the distance we were from him, he was impressive.
Art was using a .300 Winchester Magnum and had proven himself an excellent shot. Knowing we only had another five hours of hunting, we departed the truck and went straight into stalk mode. Initially the kudu had been about 450 metres away, and after careful wind use and staying in what cover we could, we got to about 200 metres. It then became impossible to get any closer. There was no cover, only short dry grass.
Fortunately, the kudu hadn’t moved – he was standing as if dozing on his feet. Art was confident of a clean shot so I opened the sticks. As the sound of the shot reverberated along the valley, the kudu ran blindly towards us, off the dwala, and into a thicket at its base. We found him there, as majestic in death as he’d been in life. His heavy mahogany coloured horns went a solid 60in on both sides.
There were other good kudu in the high fifties, taken in the midday heat.
Carlo Magni from Italy, hunting with me in 1995, shot a good 59in kudu at about 1.30pm one sweltering late September day. Excellent trophy warthog, too, can be found meandering slowly towards a waterpoint or mud wallow in the extreme heat, as can impala, and the shy and elusive bushbuck. All of this gives a motivated hunter good reason to be out in the field during the midday heat, while others less driven have retreated into the shade.