With aching legs on hot stones
August 21, 2017
Nature’s ballet
August 22, 2017

That sunset bull

I have been to Namibia several times and its allure and mystique always draws me back. Every trip I’ve made there is filled with unique experiences. I scheduled this safari for late May, to coincide with the kudu rut, hoping to improve my chances of finding that one very special kudu bull. However, even with improved odds, it is always a challenge in the vast expanse of Namibia’s central highlands. I expected to spend a lot of quality time searching for my trophy and this would also provide ample opportunity to pursue my other passion, bird-watching. I love to hunt, but I also love the time between hunts when I can enjoy other things in the wild, namely the almost limitless variety of birds one can encounter. Hannes had been teasing me with photos of secretary and other interesting birds taken by his trail cameras at water holes, so I knew about some different birds in the area that I wanted to add to my lifer list. Jim Athearn

W e awoke the first morning at the hunting farm in central Namibia to unseasonably windy conditions that were to plague us throughout our safari. After breakfast we headed out to experience what the bush had to offer. Our plan was to concentrate on getting my friend Steve’s trophy early on while I would keep an ever watchful eye out for a special kudu bull.

In the next few days Steve was able to take a beautiful kudu bull with a long shot after several hard hours of tracking. Steve also experienced the joys of crawling as he, Hannes and the tracker put on a long “sneak” on a wary herd of gemsbok.

The following day it was my turn. Hannes pointed to a tiny black dot out across a huge grassy plain and told me he thought it was a big black wildebeest. I knew what was to happen next when he handed me the knee pads and gloves. We took o on all fours and I lost track of the time but we finally sat up and took stock of our position. We were still about 500 metres out and needed to close the gap without startling the springbok that had wandered in between us and the wildebeest. Finally we eased up behind a small bush and decided we could go no closer. I was relieved to hear that familiar sound shortly after I squeezed the trigger. My bull was magnificent and a fitting trophy to reward our long stalk and crawl.

With only a few days left of our safari we still had a few things to do, aside from finding that special kudu bull. We spent some afternoons at water holes watching animals and birds come and go. Because the weather had remained unseasonably warm, many of the birds that normally would have already migrated north were still gathering in large flocks. They put on quite a show at the water holes. We enjoyed the vivid colours of the swallow-tailed bee-eaters, lilac- breasted rollers, rosy-faced lovebirds and the distinctive tails on the long-tailed paradise and shaft-tailed whydahs. Even a pair of secretary birds put in an appearance beside the road one day as we were driving back to the lodge for lunch.

We always take a day o from hunting and birding to visit the capital city of Windhoek, where we enjoy lunch at Joe’s Beer House and afterwards some sightseeing and shopping with Hannes’ wife, Geraldine. While Laura was selecting souvenirs for the grandchildren, I slipped in a necklace that she had been admiring. I wanted to surprise her with something special for tolerating my passion for chasing kudus and other African game. My plan was to give it to her after I had taken my special kudu. Now I just had to find that elusive bull.

As often happens when you are out looking for one animal, you spot another one that you just don’t want to pass up. In this case it was an exceptional impala ram that attracted my attention. Without hesitation we gave chase. All we had to do was get close enough without the ram and his harem spotting us. Although smaller calibres are more than adequate for impala-sized animals, my .338 Win Mag has always proven very effective without undue damage to the trophy. Luck was on our side as the herd moved to thicker bush and we were able to work in for a shot. I squeezed the trigger and we heard the distinctive thwack of the bullet connecting as the entire herd disappeared in a cloud of dust. After an anxious 250-meter hike over to where we last saw them, I was relieved to find a fine ram lying in the brush.

The remaining days of our safari dwindled, but the wind persisted and the kudus seemed content to remain hidden in the dense bush awaiting the onset of active rutting, now some weeks behind schedule. After many days going out early and staying out until dark, the last morning finally arrived. We had seen some nice kudu bulls but none that quite measured up to my expectations. We had covered all corners of the huge 25,000-hectare farm but the kudus showed why they are called “grey ghosts” and remained out of sight. I began thinking about a contingency plan for presenting the surprise necklace that remained carefully hidden in my day pack. Laura was enjoying herself so much that she already talked about returning for another visit.

Lunch on the last day normally indicates the end of the hunt, leaving the afternoon for a leisurely game drive and a happy hour on the “sunset ridge”. I confirmed these plans with Geraldine and told her that even though I was disappointed that I had been unable to take the ultimate kudu bull, I would still have a great opportunity to give Laura her necklace as we watched the sun set together. is was her first visit and she was unaware of the beautiful spot and the surprise sundowners.

After lunch and a brief rest we headed out to the truck with fresh batteries in our cameras, added sunscreen against the fierce African sun and expectations for a relaxing drive. Laura’s necklace was in my pocket. I always enjoy this last game drive, watching the wild animals, reflecting on the great adventure I had – even this time, despite being foiled by Africa’s grey ghost. Hannes had worked so hard to find him that I felt worse for him than I did for myself. Before we departed on the game drive he saw me sitting with my camera and asked where my rifle was. I replied that I had cleaned it and put it away since I thought we were just going for a drive. “ at is normally true, Jim, but you should bring it along just in case. You never know what you might run into and you need to be prepared.” I wasted no time retrieving my rifle and off we went, me with a renewed interest in the thought that when you are carrying a rearm, sometimes things can happen.

As the afternoon wore on and the sun began to drop we finally turned up the road that would take us near the hill where I knew Hannes and Geraldine’s daughter Caren was waiting with sundowners. My enthusiasm switched from any hope for a last-minute kudu reprieve to anticipating the “sunset surprise” soon to be revealed. I had overheard Caren’s radio message to Hannes and although they were speaking Afrikaans I knew she was just checking on our location and alerting Hannes that she was ready for us. en odd things started happening. Caren called again and the excitement in her voice caught my attention. Next, Hannes shifted gears and we tore o back down the road we had just come up. My friend Steve got a tight grip on the railing and, looking over, said, “Something must be going on, we haven’t moved this fast all week.” I knew sunset was nearing but doubted that Hannes had miscalculated the timing so much that we now had to race to the ridge. Then, another quick call from Caren indicated that she had spotted a large kudu bull. Laura, still oblivious of the sunset surprise, asked the obvious question, “Where is Caren that she spotted a kudu?” Without hesitation Hannes said, “They were just out driving around like us and saw it up on the hill.”

We stopped, got down, sent the tracker in one direction around the hill to scout, while we went the other way. Before we had gone very far, and after spotting several kudu cows, Hannes looked up the hill and said, “There he is!” He was huge and I knew at first glance he was the one I had been looking for. As I raised my rifle I first asked Hannes whether it was safe to shoot in that direction, because I knew Caren was somewhere nearby. Hannes said it was safe and I settled the crosshairs just behind the bull’s shoulder. He was quartering away and uphill and all I could think was that I needed to drop him immediately because we were almost out of daylight and we had a plane to catch in the morning. My .338 Win Mag did not fail me and, much to my relief, the bull folded on the spot.

Hannes and I were so excited, we didn’t waste any time getting to the bull and I couldn’t believe how magnificent he was – just what I had dreamed about. Hannes was almost shouting as he pointed out, “Jim, we have a dilemma!” I knew what he meant: kudu photos or sunset on the ridge. I immediately replied that the ridge was waiting and we could always take photos with a flash. Steve and Laura heard the “dilemma” and, although they had seen the kudu drop, thought that maybe he had gotten back up and slipped away.

We told them that we were going to drive to Caren and get some extra help to pull the kudu o the hill before it got dark. When we arrived at the short trail to the top, Hannes and I lagged behind until Laura and Steve made their way up and found Caren standing by a large table set up with a wet bar and hors d’oeuvres. A bon fire was roaring. Things had gotten a little too crazy to maintain the suspense but nonetheless the whole setting was a pleasant surprise. We settled in to celebrate the perfect ending to a wonderful visit. Steve had experienced his first, very successful and exciting safari in Namibia, Laura had had a thoroughly enjoyable time and I got my special kudu under the most unusual circumstances. Finally I was able to give Laura her necklace with my thanks for the special hunt and a promise to bring her back. We celebrated until well after dark and then headed down the hill for a kudu photo session. Who could have anticipated that my kudu quest would come down to a chance sighting in the last minutes before the sun set on the last day?

Does my kudu success mean that I don’t need to come back? ere are many interesting wild places to explore in Namibia and I think next on my list is the northeast, with 300 bird species and with tiger sh lurking in the Okavango and Zambezi rivers. I can’t wait.

This article was first published in the HuntiNamibia 2017 issue.