Day 4 – Monday, May 29, 2017
The day starts the same as the previous ones – perfectly. Winter weather here is great pretty much every day. It is sunny, always. The nights are cool which is great for sleeping. The mornings are cool too, so you need a light jacket perhaps, or for me, just a long sleeved shirt. Kiewied is bundled up and thinks it awfully cold. I am Canadian so its warm for me, and I am better insulated (fatter) than Kiewied!
We cruise to a new area to start our search, a thick bushy zone along a dry river run. Kudu love the bush and cover, they aren’t lollygagging around in the open like oryx.
We see jackal, springbok and tons of guinea fowl. And a really big male warthog. He runs off with his tail straight up in the air which looks defiant and cool to me. Everything about them is tense. They have sudden, jerky movements. They always seem agitated and totally alert. These animals are really growing on me. They are so cagey and this big dude disappears quickly into the grass.
We cruise a bit further and I spot a kudu cow and bull on the far side of the dry river, up a hill a bit. “Kudu bull!”, I say. By the time I tell Kiewied and he relays the information in Afrikaans to Immo, we are quite a bit past it. We back up and now only the cow is standing there. “Cooie”, says Kiewied, Afrikaans for female. The smart bull vamoosed leaving the girl to deal with the danger. Nice. These bulls are not gentlemen but that is how they get old.
Kiewied and I slip out of the Landcruiser to stalk the bull and his lady friend. I am thrilled I am on my feet, on the ground with the Champ. Its time to play the real game with Kiewied. My heart sings as we start sneaking through the tall grass crouched low like two lions.
We slip down into the sandy river and up the other side. We are immediately weaving through bushes. Ouch!! I remember the African bush very well from ’96 and it took only about 100m of walking on this day to have it all come rushing back to me. These thorny shrubs bite hard.
Everything in Africa is fighting to live. Everything that is still alive here has evolved over millions of years so as to continue to stay alive. The predominant tree cover here is acacia, and although I don’t know latin, I can imagine acacia means something like “rip the skin off your soft, office-working body”, cause that is exactly what it is doing to me right now. Evolution is sharp around here.
There are mostly two types of thorny rascals to watch out for on Ongangasemba: Acacia tortillis, known as white thorn and Acacia mellifera, called wait-a-bit tree.
The name white thorn makes sense cause the thorns are, well, white. Wait-a-bit makes sense too since it has razor sharp thorns that are curved back towards the stem, so they hook and hold you. In other words, when it grabs you, you need to wait-a-bit and back up to get unhooked. And it isn’t forgiving like ol’ white thorn. If you lightly brush against wait-a-bit, it has you. But Africa is like that, unforgiving.
Back in ’96 and today, I call this hell-tree, fish hook bush for obvious reasons. It is particularly nasty.
As we go a bit further, Kiewied finds a warthog night den. Now this is cool. The warthogs excavate a hole in the ground just deep enough to be able to back down in there for the night so that their formidable head is pointing outwards and their bodies are protected underground. Why you might ask? Cause there’s leopard here people, and they like hog meat. I can in no way imagine any halfway intelligent leopard wanting to deal with those tusks.
Now I am starting to better understand and appreciate the warthog. This ranch is known for its warthog and people come here to hunt them. At midday lunches we’d been waiting for one to come to the waterholes but I wasn’t keen to shoot one. Now I am. If we find a mature one on the ground, I would shoot one. Kiewied likes the meat and would like one. Now I am working on my warthog search image.
But it doesn’t take long for Kiewied to find the bull’s track and we are back on the kudu program. He says it is a big one, which means old, which means we are going to try to get him.
Kiewied starts following the tracks. I get down on my hands and knees and can barely see them on some of the hard packed areas. I watch Kiewied very closely and I see he his looking ahead a lot. He is anticipating where the kudu is going to go as much as he is following the tracks. He is thinking like a kudu. The tracks are simply confirming what Kiewied’s kudu persona is telling him.
I need to start thinking like a kudu. And that means much the same for all animals: taking the path of least resistance.
Wild creatures are all basically lazy in terms of trying to expend the least amount of energy possible. Ok, they aren’t lazy like you or I, it is all about survival. So I start looking ahead of Kiewied to guess where the bull goes next, and I start to see the land like a kudu.
We are sneaking slowly through the rocks and trees and looking very hard. His footfalls are very deliberate. I get this, I know this too. You can’t stomp around out here. Kudu have those huge ears like satellite dishes, so you can’t be careless. Breaking branches with clumsy feet won’t put kudu meat on our table.
Also, Kiewied and I do the same basic footfall: you gently put your heel down first and carefully roll your foot forward. It reduces the noise substantially, and noise is not our friend.
But kudu bush is a buddy. You quickly learn walking with Kiewied which shrubs bite and which don’t. There are two bushes, one with big, green leaves and one with slender, very pale green leaves that you can crash right through. That is good to know, because you are forever squeezing past shrubs here, and if it’s a fish hook on your left of the path, and a happy camper kudu bush on the right, go right!
Kiewied calls them kudu bush because it is what they eat. Unlike the oryx which are grazing on grass (like our deer), the kudu are browsers (like moose) and they eat kudu bush. Find the kudu bush, you find the cows. Find the cows, you find the bulls.
We follow the track but we lose it in the rocks. We climb up on any rocky outcrops to look for him. No sign of the bull, but we see so many tracks, we are in kudu central. And Kiewied and I are starting to gel as a team. We signal to each other about what to do next with our hands, like some kind of game of charades, hunting style. We talk very little for two reasons: sound is bad and I don’t speak his languages at all and he is speaking only some english. Who cares, we both speak hunting and that language is universal.
Like a couple of navy seals, we sneak and slink along, concentrating so hard on every sound and every sign. Then I hear something, and with a low hiss, get his attention and point to my ear and the direction. He listens. We move slowly that way.
We come to a trail and Kiewied points down. Fresh kudu track. I can tell from his body language that this is serious, that this track is really fresh, as in……the bull was just standing here. The hair stands up on the back of my neck. I know this is it. My heart starts to race.
Now we move very slowly, every footfall is double careful. The trail is soft sand, no rocks, no brush. He can’t hear us. We both scan the bush ahead, getting low to look under the bush for legs. The wind is in our face, he can’t smell us.
We are both tense and focused. You can hear and feel your heartbeat in your head. Time stops. This is living.
We slowly round a corner in the trail and Kiewied hisses. I immediately see him. Standing back in the bushes is a massive animal. Moose-sized. I slowly go to the ground, sitting to get a steady shot and in that same movement I quietly and deliberately chamber a bullet and bring up the rifle. Instincts and years of experience kicks in, I’m in the mode, it’s time. I find his shoulder and hold just behind it. I whisper to Kiewied, “I’ve got him, say when”.
But Kiewied hisses, “no can see horns” and he needs to, so as to tell if it’s truly a mature bull. I can’t either, the bush is, as usual, so bloody thick.
I feel a breath of wind on my neck. The wind has cheated us! It swirled a bit. The kudu gets our scent and turns to run. Oh no!! We can see now as he lumbers into the bush he is a massive old bull but there is no ethical shot so I don’t take it. You just don’t do that.
We sit there in silence. I’m wondering if that was our chance at the ghost. This could be like moose hunting at home. Normally when hunting moose, you get one great chance and you either convert on it and fill your freezer or it’s Costco for you for the winter.
There is a rocky outcrop near us and we both look at it and nod. That is universal hunter facial expression for, “let’s get up there high and see if we can see him”. So we scramble up, but we know this old boy won’t likely be within eye-shot. But you have to try and we both understand that.
Kiewied calls Immo on his cell phone to tell him where we are and to bring the truck all the way around. We have walked a long distance and walking back through the area we just hunted would be a bit pointless.
As we sit in the sun on a rock looking around and waiting for Immo, I consider the image of Kiewied on a cell phone. Seeing him, a San hunter who grew up in the Kalahari under the stars, on a cell phone boggles the mind. His family used to wander the desert hunting and gathering with almost no belongings at all. I reflect on my own life and the changes I have seen. I remember the first computer and it makes me feel old. Kiewied and I are of similar age, and I feel so much has changed in my lifetime, I can only imagine how Kiewied feels. Hunting affords you the time and the peace of mind for this kind of reflection.
We break for lunch. My legs are sore from climbing rocks and walking with Kiewied. It is a sweet feeling. That’s how I want to feel. I want to earn a kudu the hard way. We pull into a waterhole to eat and wait for warthogs. I am actually interested in shooting one now. I understand them better and the fact the meat is good is important to me. The lunch Almut sent isn’t warthog, but it is oryx. Hooray!
We break for lunch every day about noon and start hunting again at 3p because the kudu are resting in the shade then too. They are hard to hunt when they are bedded down so we hunt them when they are up and active; i.e., visible.
When it’s time, we cruise ranch trails looking for sign and meander our way home. We see two warthogs ahead in an opening. Kiewied says one is a mature male. Here we go! I was daydreaming in the truck and now it’s time to get frosty, real quick-like. That’s hunting, you never know when it will happen and you have to switch on quickly.
The warthogs move into the bush. Kiewied and I move forward slowly and we see them back in the bush but they are standing together, so there is no shot. The male steps forward and Kiewied whispers “shoot”. I find the spot behind the shoulder and squeeze the trigger. All hell breaks loose. The warthog leaps, rolls and is gone.
Kiewied thinks the shot is good and I do too. We would normally wait and let him lay down and expire, but it is getting dark, so we move. I am a bit nervous here. I have no experience with these things and those huge tusks are worrisome.
We move through the bush and we are looking for tracks and blood. There is no blood but there are tracks. Somehow in the approaching darkness Kiewied discerns between our mature hog and the myriad other tracks. The mystique of this man builds.
We continue on and on. I wonder how this thing is still moving. I felt the shot was true. Any animal hit like that in Manitoba with a 180 grain bullet from a 30-06 would already be loaded in the truck. Warthogs are apparently very tough, or are wearing some kind of armor.
We cross a dry stream and I see him. He is laying down in some grass but his head is up and he is glaring at us. Kiewied says to shoot him again. But I can’t see his body. We need to finish this so I aim low where I think the shoulder should be and fire. I hit nothing and he runs off. Yikes.
Now it’s getting darker and the hog is very, very angry. We follow the tracks again and I hear something. We stop to listen. We hear the hog breathing, right beside us! With a huge snort and crashing bush, he is coming at us, fast! And Kiewied is heading for the Kalahari! The hog turns towards him, but good luck catching Kiewied.
The warthog stops and I shoot. He is down.
We cautiously approach the warthog. Thankfully he is dead. I look closer and the first shot was true as it felt. If it wasn’t getting dark and we could have left him, he would have been done quickly. But he probably heard us coming and it pushed him to go further.
Kiewied and I each grab a tusk and pull the brute out of the brush to the trail. He is heavy. It is now dark but I check with my headlamp to see if Kiewied is actually pulling! I suspect he is, but it doesn’t feel like it. Immo brings the truck and it takes the three of us to load the warthog.
As we ride back to the ranch, I notice the stars for the first time. With my legs resting against the warthog, I lean back in the truck and look up. The stars look different from here in Africa than at home but they are no less vast. And they make you feel no less small. I daydream as we bounce along and wonder what my boy and wife are doing back home. I also wonder if we will get another chance at a kudu.
After chasing Kiewied all day, sleep will come easy tonight.
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