Day 3 – May 28, 2017
I wake up very, very excited and full of anticipation. Its kudu time. I’ve been dreaming about this for years. In ’96 I saw oodles of kudu in all the parks I visited on my year-long trek across Africa, but never a really mature bull. They are just too skittish and sneaky, even in the parks.
But back then I wasn’t in kudu country in Africa during the May rut, the time when the bulls are lovesick and get a little distracted by trying to find Mrs. Right. Many say you almost never see the old bulls outside of breeding season, since that is the only time they really let their guard down a bit.
We pull out of the yard and head in a different direction than the previous day, away from the more open country the oryx favour. We are headed for the bush and the hills, where the kudu live. The sky is blue and in the golden morning light, I imagine an old bull behind every tree. But that isn’t how kudu hunting goes. Not even close.
We sneak through endless miles of the ranch’s back trails in the Landcruiser looking for fresh tracks in the sand. We look and look and look. Kiewied and I are standing up in the truck’s back using the extra height to get a better peek into the bush we are moving past. The idea is either to find a fresh track to follow, or if you see a kudu, you sneak out of the truck and try to stalk him. We see none, but that is normal, this is the gray ghost after all.
Late morning we are passing through a gorgeous plateau between two bouldery ridges when the truck stops. Immo has spotted something. Then I see him. Actually not him, his horns. Shining in the sun are two horns spiralling upwards. Then in my binos I see the stripes. Gawd, he is beautiful. But Immo says he is a young kudu.
At Ongangasemba, they try to let young bulls in their prime have many years of successful breeding before they hunt them. We are looking for an older bull. I am relieved because this is far too soon for this to end.
They tend not to shoot the cows. Maybe the odd old cow for meat when they need it. This is smart because the females make more kudu. At home, we are working with First Nation communities to encourage their young hunters to stop shooting the cow moose. If you kill many of the cows of any of the antelope or deer family, there simply is no future.
We admire the young bull as he climbs the ridge and then we continue on. We immediately run into a herd of mature oryx. They gallop across the grassy plain. So much game here.
We continue to explore the ranch looking for kudu and their tracks when I spot something in the grass running. It is a honey badger. Now this is cool. Almut calls them “little leopards” because they are mean little son-of-a-guns. They kill cobras for breakfast when you and I are stalking pancakes. And unlike you and I, they can survive getting bitten by one without treatment. They are serious Muchachos, don’t mess with a honey badger. If he doesn’t care about cobras, he’s not scared of you! And neither was this one, he shot us a smug glance and went looking for a snake to play with.
But it’s winter so he shouldn’t find one says Immo, the snakes go into hiding when it gets cold. But don’t tell that to the cobras.
We pull into a waterhole for lunch and warthog waitin’ – that’s how we roll at midday, we eat crazy-good food and watch for warthogs – and just as we are settling in, I point out a snake doing the breaststroke in the water right in front of the blind we are hiding in. “That’s a cobra”, says Immo, casually, like it ain’t no thing.
Even though I’ve been on the Dark Continent for only a short time, you get feeling a little bit homey. The Wilckens are so nice and their home is so inviting, you forget a bit that you’re in Africa. You kind of get into a routine. Then you see a bleepin’ cobra and its clear you aren’t in Kansas anymore Dorothy.
This super long Loch-Ness-Monster dude gets right in front of us and then slowly goes submarine. It just slowly sinks out of sight. This surprises me and underwater cobras are even news to Immo who’s lived here his whole life. But Kiewied shrugs, says they do that from time to time, and goes back to eating chicken legs.
I can imagine this cobra is getting ready to ruin the day of one of the many birds drinking along the waterhole and maybe that’s his tactic: come at the birds crocodile style. I was gonna ask if I could go for a swim, but that ain’t happening now.
We eat a glorious lunch. This time its chicken legs and rice. We delight in throwing the bones out the window of the blind we are hunkered down in. The jackals will like that tonight. I love throwing chicken bones out any kind of window. Not sure why, it just feels right. My son loves it too but my wife Tess, not so much.
After lunch, I start to feel very restless. We are surrounded by rocky hills that are begging to be climbed. I hate leaving a hill unclimbed. I wonder what’s up there and what might be hiding on the other side. It’s killing me. I am fidgeting wondering when we are going to walk.
We have been driving the ranch all morning and are likely to drive the afternoon. It is necessary, the ranch is immense, they are ranching over 30,000 bleepin’ acres. Huge. But other than getting around the ranch, that is not how I want to hunt, my feet are made for walking, and that’s just what I’ll do.
Bringing this up with Immo, the senior PH and ranch owner is sensitive. It’s meant to be. You don’t want to question your guide much. Remember that they have forgotten more than you know about the area and the animals. They are checking cattle every day and on the land all the time. They are born and raised here. They are part of the land. You might think you know, but you don’t know jack compared to them. Don’t forget that.
But the style of hunting, yes you can and should communicate to your guide about that. This is your hunt and it could be a once in a lifetime thing. Bottomline for me: I would rather be unsuccessful on foot than successful out of the truck. Hunting is deeply personal and incredibly intimate. When I am sneaking through the bush here or at home, I feel totally and completely alive. All your senses are on edge as you try to see the animals on their terms where they have the upper hand.
But we have Kiewied and that levels the playing field here when we play the ground game. I think Kiewied sees like a kudu. Keeping Kiewied in the truck too long is like having Gretzky sitting on the bench. Its time to start a “Free Kiewied” campaign. I ask if we can walk more and Immo says sure, but it is really windy today and not good for stalking. Fair enough.
I relax now that we are on the same page and I head out of the hunting shack to take a nap on the ground. I hesitate for a moment thinking about that cobra, then remember what Immo and Almut said about snakes. “Leave them alone, and they leave you alone. Don’t worry about it.” Yes, that works for wildlife most of the time for sure. “If a snake comes, just don’t move, it will slide away”, Almut says. Well, you can’t get more lack of movement than napping, so I go for it, and wake up refreshed and ready to look into the bush for kudu some more.
Looking into the bush for your quarry is something that my uncle Curt taught me. You don’t look at the bush, you look far back into it. You are looking for horizontal lines whereas all the stems of the trees and shrubs run up and down. Horizontal lines can be an animal’s back or belly. Or you look for a different color, something out of place, something shiny perhaps. You often never see a whole animal, you are looking for parts, clues.
You look, a lot. Then you look some more. The best hunters are hard workers. The harder you look, the more miles you log, the harder you try, the better your chances. Like life in general, hunting is about bringing effort to the table. I guess lazy hunters can go to the store for their meat.
But every animal and every environment is different. I am used to looking into the bush in Manitoba, not here. The bush is different here. The animals are different here, and all animals have a tell tale look. It’s called developing a search image. At home, I can tell you the species of a duck when it flies by most of the time. It’s the size, wingbeats, colors, etc…… I just know, I’ve been watching them with interest my whole life. I love them.
But I’m still working on my kudu search image since I’ve seen only a few so far, so I got some work to do and a short time to learn. But I’ve got Immo and Kiewied on my team. And another big lesson in spotting kudu was just around the corner.
We pull into another waterhole for a look-see. Kiewied immediately spots something. “Kudu!”, he says. And he points. I see absolutely nothing. He is pointing across the pond. Still nothing. “A Bull!”, he exclaims. The big dummy from Canada is still drawing a blank.
I pull up the binos and there he is. A young bull standing back in the bush a bit but his head fully exposed to the sun. I take down the binos to look for what Kiewied has seen and I get it. The ears. They are like satellite dishes, super big and distinctively light colored. They pop from a distance if you know what to look for. It’s starting to come to me.
They don’t call them waterholes, these guys call them dams. That’s because all the waterholes are made by the ranchers building earthen dams across the little streams that run in the rainy season and then are just dry runs of sand soon after. The dams back up the water and you have a water hole. This phenomenon was a game changer in Namibia, Almut and Immo tell me.
Pre-ranching, the wildlife, and the Indigenous people, spread out when the rains came and the grass grew, then contracted back to the permanent water in the dry season. This necessitated long migrations of all involved, and likely reduced populations.
The dams changed everything. The Wilckens said when their parents homesteaded on the farm, there was very little wildlife on their ranch. It was rare to see kudu or oryx. With the water came more antelope, birds and predators. More of everything. Water isn’t good, it’s great.
We start the cruise home and about halfway Kiewied says stop, again. I look frantically across a huge grassy meadow to our left and again, see absolutely nothing. Me with binos, him just looking with those bionic San eyes.
We slip out and sneak down a dry creek lined with thorn bushes. I stay close to him and he kneels and points. I look with my binoculars and there they are, three kudu cows. This is good. Cow kudu in the breeding season, they are the best bait possible for a bull.
I see another kudu in the bush, standing just out of sight. Hooray, one for the Canadian! Kiewied thinks it is the bull. My heart starts pounding, real hard. It’s hammering in my chest, I love that feeling. The sun is setting. I try to find the kudu in the scope but we are looking into the sun and the glare is strong. I can pick out his legs and belly and it is bigger than the cows. Gotta be the bull. I breathe deep and try to remain calm so I can make the shot.
But we run out of time. It gets too dark and we retreat to the truck and head home. A great day and a great start to our kudu quest.
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