The blood orange glow of the sunrise paints the fat cotton-ball clouds with a crimson blush as professional hunter Cullen Kelly and I settle onto the cold rocks of a promontory overlooking a valley that says “kudu” loud and clear. The bush is classic kudu country. Cullen calls it Karoo scrub brush. It’s thick and dense and impenetrable, just the sort of bush that kudu adore.
We see a group of cows and calves move slowly through the bush, their reddish-gray coats glimmering as the rising sun shines on them.
“No bulls,” Cullen whispers. “We’re still a bit early for the rut.”
Cullen had explained that it’s the fall now in April (with the seasons reversed in the southern hemisphere) and the kudu generally start to rut in mid- to late-May and into early June. The big bulls will be off by themselves or possibly in small bachelor groups. This makes the hunting harder, considerably harder as it will turn out.
We glass from dawn until 10 o’clock, shifting our position several times to get a look into fresh parts of the bush-choked hillsides, at which point our eyeballs are ready for a change of scenery. “Let’s go and try for a bontebok. They’re out in the open this time of day,” Cullen suggests.
The bontebok is an interesting animal and here on Frank Bowker’s Thorn Kloof ranch, one of the original breeding herds was established in the early 1900s when the bontebok was quite literally on the brink of extinction.
“My grandfather was given seven bontebok on the condition that he breed them and reintroduce them to their original native range. Two of them died while being transported to our farm, so we started with five, two males and three females,” Frank tells me at dinner. The herd grew to over 200 animals and they were dispersed to other areas onto farms where it was agreed that the bontebok must be bred back up to sustainable numbers. Today there are nearly 3,000 bontebok in South Africa out of which perhaps 30 old bulls are shot each year by hunters who, once again, provide the vital cash needed for game conservation.
Bontebok are beautiful. Their coats look like they were designed by a Parisian high fashion designer, a dark purple fading to russet brown, accented with white markings. But it’s the deep purple that shines in the sun like velvet that makes the bontebok stand out.
I admit, he’s not hard to hunt. Game biologists don’t have a clue why bontebok behave the way they do, but they have the curious habit of standing out in the open during the hottest part of the day with their heads facing the sun. All other game, when given a chance, prefers to find a bit of shade when the sun’s high overhead, but not the purple antelope. He must enjoy sunbathing.
We locate a herd easily, but that’s just the beginning. I have not, do not and will never shoot from a vehicle, so we must stalk to within shooting distance across flat open ground. Cullen is thrilled that I won’t shoot from a truck because he too likes to hunt, as he says, “properly.”
Like our pronghorn and all open-plains game, bontebok have exceptional eyesight. We dismount when we see a herd of 10 or 12 as tiny specks in the distance. We survey the ground and Cullen sees that there’s a gully in the landscape that will get us at least close enough to look the bontebok over to see if there’s a good bull in the group.
Hunched over, we run to the gully, then sneak low in the sandy dirt. We emerge as the gully peters out some 400 yards closer than where we started. We glass the group and Cullen gives me a big smile and a thumb’s up. “Very nice bull. He’s standing by that bush. Do you see him?” Cullen queries. I do. “How far can you shoot?” Cullen asks.
This is a good question and one I’d anticipated. The Eastern Cape is known for long-distance terrain, like glassing for kudu across a canyon or spotting bontebok far away in an wide expanse of land. I’d planned accordingly by mounting hold-over riflescopes with stadia calibrated for different distances. One is a Zeiss Rapid-Z 800 on my 8mm Rem. Mag. and the other, on the .270 Win. Steyr I have with me now, a Swarovski BL.
“Out to 400 on an animal that size,” I reply, knowing the .270 I have in hand can deliver its 140 gr. Winchester FailSafe accurately that far.
We creep on, sneaking from bush to bush as we maneuver to get within range. We manage to get to 276 yards, according to my range finder, an indispensable tool even when using a ballistically calibrated scope.
We crouch, then I sit. I position a set of Stoney Point “Pole Cat” shooting sticks, the short ones made for shooting from sitting. The big bull is easy to pick out and as the crosshairs steady on his shoulder, I take up the Steyr’s trigger.
“Good shot,” says Cullen as the herd runs off with one less bull in it.
We admire the animal, take photos, load him on the truck and return to camp to drop him at the skinning shed. We immediately set out to look for kudu again. We pass the afternoon and early evening until shooting light sneaks away, but we see nothing in the thick hillside bush. Tomorrow we’ll give the kudu a break and head over to Chappie Scott’s farm in the Winterberg Mountains to look for grey rhebok.
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