Guns and Gear

Spiral horns and curious diversions: African plains-game hunt takes an unexpected turn

By John Zent, AmericanHunter.org

We left the hills in mid-afternoon after failing to find the record-class buck known to be up there. Wind-blown mists from an imminent winter storm hindered glassing, and at any rate, we had another plan for evening. Beyond a well-kept farmstead, we came upon a behemoth green tractor dragging chisel plows over muddy ground, and assuming it was the landowner, stopped to thank him for allowing us to hunt the place.  Emerging from the fogged-up cab was a big ruddy-faced man dressed in wool and brown duck. As we joked about wayward bucks and mud-splattered tractors, a lanky teenager popped out the door, and he was followed by two younger boys. Though fairer and less weathered, they clearly were the man’s sons, keen to help Dad christen the farm’s new machinery.

It was an all-American scene a long way from home. Welcome to Africa, but an Africa far different than the dusty savannah, sweltering miombo forest, and verdant floodplains I visited on previous safaris. This was a region of prosperous farms lining valleys hemmed in by the mighty Stormberg Mountains.

I was on the middle leg of a whirlwind plains-game quest along South Africa’s eastern seaboard, sampling limited days at successive spots in a tour arranged by the highly regarded Crusader Safaris. This outfit has exclusive hunting rights to more than 1 million acres on conservancies scattered across the Eastern Cape and Kwa-Zulu Natal provinces. Unlike most hunting that occurs on farms and ranches throughout South Africa, Crusader’s operation is strictly fair-chase.

Enough distance separates the camps that I was due to encounter different animals and eco-zones as we ventured from the temperate south to the semi-tropical north. All told, Crusader offers more than 40 game species, and while I could have been happy hunting most of them, I wanted to set the bar high. And so I fixed on the region’s native spiral-horned antelope—kudu, bushbuck and nyala. It would be a stiff challenge to take genuine trophies of all three elusive spiral-horns, and doing so would provide a great tale to share with American Hunter readers.

But for now, my spiral-horn plans were on hold.

After bidding good-day to the farm family, we headed for higher elevations as the skies opened up with a slurry of rain and sleet and soon could see whitewash collecting on the sides of mountains whose tops were buried in clouds. All this mocked our afternoon plans, because the animal we were after—the one that had brought me to the Stormberg area—lived right up at the ridgelines.

On a continent famous for its surprising fauna, the vaal rhebok is a decided oddball. A member of Africa’s diverse antelope clan, it occupies habitat normally reserved for wild sheep and goats, and in fact its coat is more like wool than typical antelope hair. Spindly legs and an elongated neck give vaalies a gangly appearance, and their heads are a mismatch of floppy ears, bug eyes, a long nose and spiky horns like lacquered chopsticks.

Eight or more inches of horn makes for a good trophy, but the real draw for most hunters is the challenge of climbing above timberline in pursuit of an ultra-wary critter, and then making what likely will be a long, wind-whipped shot. It is the same thrill that pulls hunters up mountains around the globe, and quite an exception to most African hunting, including the chance to hunt in snow.

And how it snowed! The low ceiling erased the top half of the mountains, hiking proved treacherous, glassing even more futile, and our trusty Land Cruiser bogged down repeatedly. Hopeless as it seemed, my time was short, and so we couldn’t quit.

Just as we reached the gravel road on our way out, we spotted rheboks. Unusually low, but separated from us by 350-odd yards of open pasture, was a mature ram traveling with his harem. I sat in the slush and tried leaning against a fencepost to steady my rifle against a hard, full-value wind. I guessed at holdover and windage—both considerable—but never could trust my sight picture or hold, and soon the little antelopes disappeared in the ghostly nightfall.

The safari began many miles to the south in canyon country flanking the Baviaans River. Here the mountains are the Winterbergs, rising some 5,000 ft. over semi-arid badlands reminiscent of West Texas. Our group of nine American hunters included a mix of writers, sales reps and marketing men from the shooting industry, hosted by three esteemed manufacturers—Thompson/Center (T/C)Hornady and Carl Zeiss—and so naturally all hands were using their wares.

As it turned out, I went off to Africa equipped for a deer hunt. Well, kinda. I was keen to try out the new T/C Dimension, a futuristic bolt-action with far-out looks and ingenious barrel/caliber-change capability. Engineers at T/C devised a foolproof system for swapping barrels and bolts, thus giving owners the option of 10 chamberings from .204 Ruger to .300 Win. Mag. And that varmint-to-grizzly versatility is all the more appealing at the current trading price of around $600. That’s deer-rifle money, but who’s to say it can’t also be elk-rifle or Africa-rifle value? My loaner came with .223 Rem. and 7mm Rem. Mag. components, all set to hunt big and small game.

The good folks at Zeiss offered to fix me up with any scope in their line right up to the top-shelf Victory Diarange priced around $4,000! Tempting, but I was hearing good things about the company’s new Duralyt scopes, still salty at around $1,000, but not totally gauche for a deer rifle in Africa. The company sent a couple of 3x-15X-42mm units (one for each barrel), and wow! They were big, and they sure were bright.

Seemingly I had lots of choices when it came to ammo because Hornady produces 10 different factory loads in 7mm Rem. Mag. Since bigger antelope like kudu and wildebeest were likely, I was leaning toward a round bearing the company’s deep-penetrating, copper-alloy GMX bullets. But when the shipment arrived, it instead contained

Superformance loads topped with 154-grain SSTs. In .284/7mm, that weight is medium-heavy-for-caliber (good for penetration and knockdown) and when you combine a high ballistic coefficient of .525 with the Superformance’s enhanced velocity, the ballistic signature is impressive. The boattail, polymer-tipped SST has an ultra-streamlined profile and is fashioned internally after Big Red H’s mainstay Interlock design. It isn’t the company’s “toughest” bullet (nod to the GMX or InterBond), but may be its most accurate big-game projectile. It isn’t the Hornady bullet most would choose today for elk or kudu hunting, but is the Hornady big-game bullet best suited for making lengthy shots in windy conditions. It is a bullet I would deem ideal for muleys, sheep and goats above timberline. But how that would translate to African game remained to be seen.

Most partners were similarly armed, though a few opted for other gear, including T/C’s Venture bolt rifle with alternate Zeiss scopes and Hornady loads. Our PHs were smart, personable and driven, and so fine trophies (kudu, impala, warthog, wildebeest, gemsbok, springbok and more) streamed into camp daily, along with stories, photos and video documenting extraordinary hunting. However, due to the sheer expanse, rough terrain and free-range scenario, the experience was far less predictable that I have seen elsewhere in southern Africa. As might be expected from industry pros, most of the guys were shooting lights out (not always the case!), in some instances making shots pushing 400 yards, rarely needing to fire more than once. Naturally our entire party was duly impressed with such performance from the affordable Dimension, the Hornady ammunition and the Zeiss optics.

My game bag at Baviaans River was comparatively modest. Along the way I collected a cull wildebeest and trophy mountain reedbuck and blesbok, none of which involved heroic shooting. In fact it was hard-core spot-and-stalk, earnest work to get in position for open, sure shots. For the reedbuck, outfitter Andrew Pringle and I belly-crawled uphill through a steep boulder field to earn our chance. Later I teamed with PH Schalk de Villiers, to shadow a blesbok herd striding through dense cover. With the gap closed to bowhunting range, we had to stick with them another 15 minutes before finding a clear lane to the group’s boss ram. Being that close for that long, where any slight misstep, noise, errant wind or chance eye contact will bust the stalk, was electric. It was fair chase at its best, and fully satisfying. My quasi-deer rig made one-shot affairs of each encounter.

Nonetheless, the glass-half-empty mindset is stubborn in me, and the empty half lacked any opportunity for the spiral-horns I sought and planned to write about. There was still time to work on that plan … particularly if I could soon get to Umkomaas, the last scheduled stop on my leap-frog up the coast. But first I was headed for even higher country in search of what may be the strangest critter of all.

At daybreak we packed up PH Ryan Pienaar’s truck, said farewell to the gang and headed north. I wasn’t entirely sure where we were going, and if you had asked me then, could not have said why.

Back in the Stormberg, the blizzard raged with fits of lightning and thunder that shocked the night. Luckily our “camp” was a stately farm house belonging to Crusader Safaris co-founder Chris Broster and dating from the 1870s. In that secure refuge, Ryan and I found solace in hot soup and fresh-baked bread, followed by a cold drink around the hearth.

Chris recounted how his family had homesteaded the place, which he now farms along with his dad. Because of his work there, he has stepped back from Crusader’s day-to-day operations, but does open his home to help host clients coming to the Stormbergs, particularly those seeking a vaal rhebok. Like many great guides, Chris appeared convinced unequivocally that no other hunting on earth could match the drama and reward of his chosen favorite.

Intriguing, sure, but still I couldn’t help but wonder how the heck I ended up here after that thing in an African whiteout. In truth I was ready to move on to where we could get serious about big kudu, nyala and bushbuck, but in this storm we weren’t going anywhere, perhaps not even tomorrow depending on road conditions over the mountain passes. And besides, I had two PHs gung-ho to squire me back up the mountains, something we were bound to do in the morning regardless of the weather.

So I had to laugh at my glass-half-empty nonsense. The only thing to do was to play out the hand, and worry about hunting other game in other places when that time came. Instead I fell asleep puzzling over something far more tangible—my footwear.

Fortunately Chris loaned me some boots. They were rubber thigh-highs with a bit of worn tread, capable farm workers if not mountain climbers. Still, they had to be better than my day hikers.

The system had cleared, leaving behind a sunny, postcard-perfect snowscape.  We needed sunglasses to shield out the glare, but I knew it was too much to hope that the rheboks would be snow-blind without them. Our drab hunting clothes were sure to leap out from the white backdrop, seemingly making a hard task even harder. There was no way I was getting close this time out, and if I was lucky enough to get a shot, it would have to be a long one and most likely at a sharp angle and in gusty wind.

On our side of the ledger, the game was really on the move that morning after the storm, and the visibility was prime for us as well. The day’s first herd numbered about a dozen, including one good trophy, but, try as we might, they were too far away and moving too fast for any hope of catching up. The next bunch emerged directly above and within plausible shooting range, but it consisted solely of nine females. We watched them move off, weaving in and out of boulders studded along the ridgeline. Then the rhebok ewes emerged with a decent-looking male in tow, but on closer scrutiny that fellow proved to be a mountain reedbuck.

Perhaps that was the lucky break we needed, because charging out after them was a nice vaalie ram. Unfortunately by that time they were out of range. Along the base of the incline we hurried to parallel the band’s travel, hoping they would stay put in the rocks and not cross over to the other side. Finally close enough, we spied a line of rheboks bolting down into a chute. There were nine, none of them with horns. Could it be the ram was still straight up there in the rocks?

Out poked a horned head—the reedbuck.Then another—the vaalie! But I wasn’t quick enough as it withdrew behind the boulders.

The reedbuck remained planted in open view, and I used that stationary figure to get my bearings. And that made all the difference when Chris spotted the rhebok emerging a short span to the right. I held up for the drop and into the wind and at the Dimension’s blast, the vaalie vanished. Chris and Ryan weren’t sure at first, but when it didn’t reappear after several minutes, we felt certain our boy was down.

In the borrowed boots it was quite a slog climbing up there. Our tracker arrived much quicker, and so the suspense ended for good when he jumped on a rock and flashed thumbs-up. I was thrilled to join him and claim my prize. In the light of a new day, the vaalie no longer appeared such an oddball, and the “forever” vista of Eastern Cape mountains clad in snow was incredible. Now I knew why I had come.

Departing the Stormbergs wasn’t easy. Numerous wrecks had snarled traffic over the passes leading to lower ground and that forced Ryan and me to detour. When we finally hit the highway heading north, we faced eight more hours’ drive time to reach the Umkomaas camp. In one respect, the trip reminded me of a long-ago drive from the North Carolina highlands to Florida: When I got in the car it was winter; when I got out it was summer.

The final leg to camp was down a badly rutted trail that bisected a hillside orange grove. There on a level stretch fronting the fast-running Umkomaas River sat an old-style safari camp with fancy sleeping tents and rustic structures for dining and relaxing. On display in the “sitting room,” a spacious pavilion whose back wall incorporated a giant rock outcrop, were trophy examples of the local game, including stunning kudu, nyala and bushbuck mounts. Now I was in the right spot to pursue spiral-horn aspirations—but had just a day and a half to do so before my safari would come to an end.

Ryan rousted me out early and when daybreak came I could see the hunting wouldn’t be easy. The terrain was sharply tilted and far brushier than at the other camps. Like those areas, Crusader’s northern concession contained no game fences. It was strictly grind-it-out fair-chase, and that first morning we chased promising kudu and nyala bulls without success. The luck turned in the midday heat as we chanced upon a bushbuck with fine, twisted horns, and after a short stalk got a clean shot on an animal that had eluded me on previous safaris. Ryan checked the bushbuck’s teeth, rubbed its sparse brown coat and pointed to a divot in the right horn—clearly an old-timer, marked with faded white spots and still quite dapper.

With time running out it was sweaty work hiking the Natal hill country seeking bigger bulls, and we never did find a kudu to fit the bill. But the nyala was a different story. Instead of hustling to cover more ground, Ryan slowed our pace as we combed a series of high ravines, glassing more than walking. Thornbush choked the chasms, and so from an uphill vantage the young PH and I had to creep along peering for any thin spots amidst the tangles.

Incredibly Ryan spotted a bull. At first it was just a flick of ear and a glossy patch of rump. It took a step and we could see where brisket became leg along with a bend of horn, horn that appeared plenty big enough. The endgame demanded patience in keeping with the nyala’s gradual movement, a wait for any small gap that exposed the vitals. Even with my rifle rested on the sticks, the sharp downhill, 275-yard shot would be tricky. I struggled to stay calm, then had to chuck all that and shoot when the bull stepped faster and its shoulder fold briefly came clear.

The recovery proved to be quite an ordeal. Despite having a good idea where the bull lay, we had to crawl and cut through stringers of thorn to get sight of it. Finally I got a good look, and the horns were better than I thought, very thick at the base and arched inward to form the classic lyre shape. When kneeling alongside a just-killed nyala bull, you could swear it is Africa’s most beautiful antelope, and while debatable, that’s more than just the adrenaline talking.

Like other hunters, and perhaps more than most, I tend to get caught up in the flush of a successful outing, and only later can put it all in perspective.

While it’s true that much of what we want from hunting is goal-oriented—meat, trophies, limits, challenge—equally compelling is the randomness of contending with the elements, events and wild animals we can’t control. Luckily, both factors shaped my South African safari.

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Thanks to NRA’s John Zent for contributing this article. If you hunt please visit http://www.americanhunter.org.

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