Day 1 on a South African safari

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My bags are packed, I’m ready to go, but I’m not leaving on a jet plane. The Icelandic volcano with the unpronounceable name is spewing more hot air than Al Gore at a global warming conference. My flight to South Africa, routed through London, is canceled.

It’s a week later and the air, unlike the aforementioned blowhard, is clear. I can extend my hunt five days, but I’ve lost seven in the delay.

Five connections, three air carriers and two continents later, I arrive in Port Elizabeth, a quaint South African seaside city. I’m met at the firearms claim area by Cullen Kelly, an eager and enthusiastic young man who will be my professional hunter for the first half of my safari. I’m hunting here in the Eastern Cape Province for six days and then changing areas to hunt in the Limpopo Province.

Cullen is the youngest son of Garry Kelly, one of the longest-running safari operators in South Africa. Garry was among the first half dozen operators to hunt professionally in the modern sense in the 1970s. His reputation is sterling.

I’m here in the rolling hills and gentle mountains of the Eastern Cape to hunt two of the spiral-horn antelopes that are unique to the area, a subspecies of kudu that grows much smaller than its cousin the southern greater kudu, and a variety of bushbuck with a coat the color the dark chocolate. Additionally, there’s a nimble little mountain-dweller called the grey (or vaal) rhebok. If there’s time, another species unique to the area that interests me is the bontebok, the so-called “purple antelope.”

I’ve survived the flights pretty well and slept wonderfully on British Air down from London, so I’m refreshed when Cullen and I pile in his Toyota Hilux 4×4 pickup and drive two hours to the Thorn Kloof ranch in the Fish River Rand Conservancy where we’ll be staying with Frank Bowker at his hunting lodge.

We have to put the medal to the metal as we have only about three hours of daylight and Cullen wants me to verify the zero on my rifles before we start hunting in the morning. I’ve never yet had a riflescope get jarred out of zero during transit, a testimony to the rugged quality of all the manufacturers, but it’s better safe than sorry.

We get to the ranch with a good 454 minutes of daylight, so I quickly unpack my rifles and we drive to the sight-in range, a wooden bench aimed at a dirt berm 100 yards away. “I’m zeroed for 200 yards,” I tell Cullen, so I should be about two inches high at a hundred.”

Cullen nods as I put in my SureFire EarPro plugs and settle behind my “big” gun, an 8mm Rem (at left). Mag. built by Mel Forbes at Ultra Light Arms. The 200 gr. Barnes TSX that I handloaded with Hodgdon H-4350 to 3,050 feet per second smacks the target dead-on for windage and two inches high.

“”Perfect shot,” Cullen says as he spots with his Leica 10×42 binoculars.

I then unlimber my “light” rifle, a .270 Win. chambered Steyr SBS. I have the same 200 yard zero. I’m shooting Winchester factory ammo, 140 gr. FailSafe loads.

My shot is dead-on for elevation, the requisite two in inches high, but a bit to the right by about an inch and a half.

“A hair to the right,” Cullen says. “I’ll leave it,” I reply, always reluctant to tamper with a scope’s setting because of one shot.

Back at camp, we enjoy a cold Hansa lager by the fire and then sup on impala shoulder(at right).

I unpack for the morning and fall into a deep sleep. Tomorrow we look for kudu.