Sitting in the scant shade of a thorn acacia while a hot African sun burned down on an arid land, I wondered idly if Bruce Truter really would return. Barely an hour has passed since the professional hunter set off downhill on foot to fetch the Landrover and, by my best calculation, another hour will pass before I expect to see him again. Maybe. Nevertheless, I scanned the wide plain that unfolds like a giant's apron below me, hoping to see a distant, nearing plume of dust. The plain is lifeless, except for a small band of zebra feeding lazily among a stand of tall bitter aloe a quarter mile away; watching them, my mind wandered.
Sometimes, it seems, there's little more than half a heartbeat between despair and hope, between disappointment and elation. At the start, the hunt had looked easy. Almost disappointingly easy and taking a good kudu bull was, by all accounts, supposed to be difficult. Yet, less than two hours of setting up camp, I had my glasses glued on what was, by the professional hunter's guess, at least a 48-inch bull. Provided the horns had appropriately heavy bases, that's potentially good enough to make the bottom end of Rowland Ward, Africa's version of the Boone & Crockett record books. And that was good enough for me.
"Look at the ivory on the tips of the horn," Bruce Truter whispered, squinting through battered binoculars. "That's an old bull, so the horns are worn back quite a lot. The bases should be quite thick. I'd think he's definitively a shooter; let's try to get closer though."
Truter slung his well-used 7x57 Mauser across a gaunt shoulder, tugged the brim of his ever-present brown hat down to shade his blue eyes and set off on a zigzag course deeper into the ravine. He'd hunted these Eastern Cape hills as well as the plains of Botswana and Zimbabwe to the north for 30 of his 52 years and knew kudu well enough to foster respect for them. A lot of respect. He respected them for their sense of hearing, he respected them for their sense of smell and he often cursed them silently for their keen eyesight.
After an hour's stalk, Truter set his rifle down once more to scan the opposite flank of the ravine.
"There he is, about 50 meters behind the cow, feeding in that thicket," Truter hissed. "It's about 300 meters across, so find yourself a good solid rest and take him when he steps out."
The greater kudu ranks among Africa’s most elusive antelope.
Through my 10-power binoculars, I could see the cow well enough. She stood in the clear, bathed in the late afternoon sun that deepened the brownish red of her coat as she nipped at the leaves of a mopane bush. Swinging the binoculars back, I could see the grayish brown neck and head of the bull reaching up to browse at the succulent tops of the thicket. And, I could see the elegant corkscrew horns, thick and dark for all but the tips that had been worn down to expose the ivory core. All I needed to do was find a solid rest for my long-barreled 7 mm Remington Magnum and wait for him to step into the clearing.
Easier said than done. Other than the seven-foot-tall, ramrod straight bitter aloe, only two plants grow stems thicker than a man's thumb in the hilly bushveld of South Africa's Eastern Cape. Of these, the euphorbia produces soft succulent branches that sag and threaten to snap under the weight of a passing hornbill; then there's the acacia which is so heavily armored with spike-like thorns three inches long that no passing hornbill would even want to land. Take your pick.
Considering the choices, I sat on the ground, braced my elbows on my knees and waited. Half an hour later, Truter started to glance nervously at his wrist watch. The bull was still in the heart of the thicket and, with the sun already on the horizon, there was little time left in the day. Little time to take a kudu.
"I think we should leave him be," Truter suggested reluctantly. "There's only about 30 minutes of daylight left and it'll take longer than that to get to him if you do get a shot. He'll still be here in the morning if we don't spook him on our way out."
With Truter in the lead, we retreated out of the ravine as cautiously as we had entered it and in the last light of day, we marched briskly back to camp. Puffs of dust rose at every step.
We were back in the ravine at the first light the following morning, glassing every thicket and, as the sunlight gradually crept down the flank, we glassed it again. We spotted kudu warming their hides in the early morning sun; we saw baboons warming their hides in the early morning sun and we saw bushbuck warming their hides in the early morning sun. The only thing missing was a big kudu bull with 48-inch, ivory-tipped horns warming its hide in the early morning sun.
We combed the ravine all through the morning and, on the off chance that he might have slipped into the next ravine, we combed it during the afternoon. We glassed half a dozen bulls, but not one a shooter. The next day, we glassed a half dozen more young bulls and the day after that as well. By Wednesday, Truter had enough.
"This place is jinxed," he growled. "Let's move camp."
Bavians River camp went up as smoothly and quickly as our first camp under the spike thorn trees had come down. We'd crossed a mountain range and driven several hours along country roads through arid rangeland that might as easily have been in the heart of the North American breadbasket. Only difference was that, instead of bands of pronghorns, I saw bands of springbok and, in the open grasslands, haughty secretary birds hunted for lizards. I may have dozed off in the warmth of the sun and the steady drone of the tires on pavement and the monotony of the landscape because, somehow, the land had changed and we were on a serpentine farm road that wound its way along the serpentine Baboon River.
Actually, the Bavians is a meandering riverbed with water seeping unseen below ground for 51 weeks of the year. The Bavians River camp is located in the bend of the river, a stone's throw back from the dusty road. In late afternoon, a sheer rock wall in the elbow of the riverbed obscures the sun and throws a long shadow across our campsite. Ancient bushman paintings adorn the lower part of the rock face and, in the black of night, when imagined sounds overpower those that are real, the campfires of people long gone dance once again against the dark stone.
Our camp is austere. Shaded from the noonday sun by a thorn acacia tree, it consists of a tent which I call home. To the side, on a cooking bench, pots, pans and nonperishables are laid out. In the middle of the campsite is a fire pit on which Truter cooks our meals and, around it, are a couple of collapsible lounge chairs and a table. Back from the fire, under an overhanging branch of a smaller but equally thorny acacia bush Truter's sleeping bag is rolled out over a ground sheet. He prefers to sleep out in the open under the stars most of the time, except when he's in hyena country. Because hyenas regard a slumbering human as fair game.
At Bavians River camp there are no hyenas; the worst that can happen is that a family of vervet monkeys, rascals at heart, might ransack a camp left unattended during daylight hours. There are two bands nearby, drawn by the water holes of the riverbed, but so far they've not worked up courage enough to come exploring. Probably because Reuben, the young camp helper, is usually around camp all day long. Reuben's pup tent shelter is hidden some distance from camp behind a screen of brush.
The advantage of a Spartan camp such as Truter's is that it can, with a bit of practice, be moved quickly and easily. After a decade as a professional hunter, Truter is well practiced. At three in the afternoon, the camp had not only been relocated 150 miles from one part of the country to another, but furthermore, we were ready to hunt the prime late afternoon when the land begins to cool once more.
Bavians Camp, Bruce Truter and Reuben.
We worked our way up along an erosion ditch carved deep into the red African soil. Bitter aloe dotted the slope, rising above the clumps of acacia brush. At the lower end of the ravine, where the gash of the ditch first cuts the earth, a kudu cow burst out, quartering away at about 75 yards. A second cow followed close after and, behind her, came the bull, head straight out and horns laid back parallel over his back. In whitetail deer country, that's about as nice a shot as you can ever hope for. The crosshairs sought out the brisket of their own accord and the gun felt snug against my shoulder.
"Don't shoot, don't shoot," I heard Truter bark. "Let him stop."
So I waited, finger hovering over the trigger. But the bull took its cue from the lead cow and she never looked back until she'd reached a cover some 600 yards away. Even then they continued to run and we watched them break back into the open and head down to heavier brush along the erosion ditch.
"That's a good kudu," Truter admitted. "He'll measure 48 or better. Let's see if we can't find him again."
Kudu are animals about the size of North America's elk, yet even a big bull leaves hoof marks barely the size of a whitetail's. We followed the tracks down through the ditch and the kudu played pranks, leading us in a wide circle back to the ravine where we'd first jumped them without ever showing hide enough to anchor a scope on. At last light of day, we gave up.
“Don't worry, he'll still be there tomorrow," Truter consoled. "We'll get him tomorrow."
I couldn't help wonder where I'd heard those words before. With four days of hunting behind me and only three days left to go, my optimism developed a couple of hairline cracks. Truter had warned me that getting a decent kudu bull might be difficult.
“Impala, springbuck and blesbuck should be little problem,” he’d written in a letter two months before our hunt. “Kudu are another story, especially if you are looking for something really good. The bush we hunt them in here is very thick and the old bulls are very clever at staying out of trouble.”
We started out on foot before sunrise the next morning, marching steadily to warm ourselves. Truter’s plan was to work our way up the steep flanks of the high cone-shaped mountain from the back side to avoid spooking the animals, cutting onto the high plateau just about the time the kudu would be coming up from an adjacent ravine. The big bull would be keeping an eye on its back trail in the open plain below.
In June, the darkness lasts from six o’clock in the evening to almost seven in the morning; on star clear nights, the land cools quickly and, in the hours before dawn, the thermometer often registers just a scant few degrees above the freezing mark. The animals are superbly adapted to deal with the relentless heat of the midday sun, but in the process they’ve forfeited the ability to deal with the chill of night. Come sunrise, the eagerly seek the warming rays like aging dowagers on a bright autumn morning. If ever there is a time to see game, this is it – ranging from the gray rhebok that weighs less than the average Labrador retriever to the abundant and much larger wildebeest, the bushveld is alive with animals. As we crested the first shoulder the mountain, I looked back the way we’d come and saw a band of baboon huddled against the morning chill on the road already far below us.
We’d spotted kudu – mostly cows with calves and some young bulls – on our way up. As we rounded the flank of the mountain, another small band of cows, calves and small bulls picked us up from half a mile away and were already in full flight by the time we saw them. Truter cursed them for their keenness of sight and for not having seen them first. And silently, I cursed them for being there and possibly spooking the big bull. High up on the mountain’s flank, the soil holds little moisture and what plants do grow are cropped short by herds of Angora goats. I felt exposed and visible to the creatures that roamed among the green acacia brush far below, certain that the big bull was watching our progress with curious, wary eyes.
It was mid morning by the time we reached the ravine where we had jumped the three kudu the day before. Truter stopped to meticulously glass the terrain before us. Like much of the plain around the base of the mountain, it was open brushland consisting of dry grasses and studded with thorn acacia bushes. From our vantage point, we could look down into the ravine that cut down the east flank and, like some bird of prey, we should have been able to detect any creature that had taken refuge there.
Nothing moved. Nothing breathed. The ravine was deserted. Truter moved along, skirting the rim of the ravine and I plodded on behind him. Not to worry, I told myself, I still had two and a half days left of the hunt and even if I went home with firing a shot, just being in Africa was a special experience.
"Kudu," Truter hissed, jolting me out of my thoughts.
I looked up and, barely 30 yards straight ahead, I could see a large gray animal with white stripes sneaking through the acacias.
"Was that him?" I asked, turning to Truter.
"No, he's too small, maybe 40 inches, not more," Truter replied too calmly, peering through binoculars.
I wondered how he could have deduced that from a fleeting glimpse and realized that he was looking in a different direction. That he was looking at the bull he'd seen. Not at the bull I'd seen.
"No. Ahead of us," I barked. "There he is. He's coming up the other side."
"That's him," Truter barked back. "Lay him down."
My first shot went low, the second shot did no better.
"How far, Bruce?"
"Three hundred and still going!"
I lined up again, elbows digging craters into my kneecaps, raised the crosshairs and squeezed. The bull crumpled in the shade of the big thorn bush.
It's difficult to remain composed when you approach any big game animal you've just taken. Be it a good whitetail buck, moose, elk or caribou. Or the first good kudu bull lying in the shade of a thorn bush. High up on side of a ravine. With a sere African plain unfolding like a giant's apron below you. And the dream of a lifetime come true.
"We'll need help to get this bugger out," Truter grinned.
The author with his kudu bull.
Sidebar An African hunt may or may not cost you a year's salary plus change; it depends largely on what you expect from the trip. I've seen hunts priced at $12,000 US plus airfare and I've heard of hunts that cost $35,000 US. My own hunt was a one-on-one (I was the only hunter), eight-day outing, transportation included, cost a lot less than an outfitted sheep hunt in the Rockies.
The major differences are in the degree of luxury provided at camp and the number of people catering to your whims. At the high priced safari lodges you'll stay in well-appointed accommodation, have servants on hand to turn down your bed linens at night and bring a steaming cup of coffee to you in the morning before you get up. Besides the camp staff, you'll have trackers, gun bearers, skinners and capers. Though wages are generally lower in Africa than in North America, all these employees crank the overhead of the camp sky high and that impacts the price the professional hunter has to receive.
Bruce Truter's operation is at the opposite end of the spectrum. He operates his hunts out of tents, cooks all meals himself, he is the guide and he has a helper to look after the camp chores and the caping. Truter picks up his clients in Port Elizabeth on South Africa's east coast and shuttles them by road to one of the five campsites he maintains in various areas of the Eastern Cape. Depending on the species of game the client wants and on the availability of game, he may hunt one or more of these areas.
But there's more. In South Africa, the landowner actually owns the game on his property, unlike in North America where the game is public domain. As such, the landowner can do whatever he wants with the game. In the past, the antelope species were virtually eliminated to make room for domestic livestock but then they learned that game animals could actually be a cash crop rather than a liability and they started to encourage the propagation of these animals on their properties. The game responded quickly, occasionally with the help of some judicious reintroduction projects, and much of agricultural South Africa once again has excellent game populations.
Do not think of these as game farms. Granted, some high fence hunts do exist, but on most properties the animals are no more penned than the deer in agricultural areas of North America; the fences are meant to restrain the ubiquitous Angora goats, the dairy and beef cattle. The antelope hop back and forth across the fences like deer and sometime even under like pronghorns.
The landowners set the prices for the game available on their properties and while there might be some slight variation, the fees are generally uniform throughout a region. The trophy fees typically range between $300 for an impala to $2500 for a waterbuck. Truter offers a total of 21 different antelope species, but he cautions hunters against expecting to take a dozen or more book animals on a five-day hunt.
Airfare to South Africa costs almost as much as the hunt. South African Airlines provides excellent service from New York's John F. Kennedy airport nonstop to Johannesburg, a 14-hour flight; the return flight stops briefly in the Azores to refuel. In Jo'burg, travelers switch to a SAA domestic flight for Port Elizabeth on the Indian Ocean where Truter greets his clients at the airport.
Since there was no dangerous game in areas I was hunting, I opted to use my 7 mm Magnum topped with a 2.5x8 power scope. The ammunition was hand-loaded with 160 grain Nosler Partition bullets. It was plenty for the antelope I hunted.
I also recommend a good pair of 10 power binoculars and that you spot-weld them to your chest at the start of the hunt.
A spotting scope might have come in handy a couple of times, but would have been an encumbrance most of the time.
Truter hunts entirely on foot, using the vehicle only for transportation between camp and the day's hunting area. You'll need a good pair of hiking boots, well broken in, to provide ankle support on the rocky terrain.
Tan clothes are generally favored, long-sleeved, loosely fitting safari type shirts are great for the heat of the midday; for early morning and evening you'll need a jacket and sometimes even a sweater. A hat with either brim or beak is also essential. Avoid camo patterns since the military and the police wear these.
While Truter provides bedding, I found the light, down-filled sleeping bag I'd brought extremely comfortable and warm on the coolest nights.
George Gruenefeld has been hunting big game for over four decades and his travels have taken him to several continents. Most of the time, though, he concentrates his efforts on the Prairies and mountains of Western Canada.