The Gold Standard of Hunting in South Africa
The rains were poor last season and the concession dry. Game was concentrated around what little water remained. We were a particularly picky hunting party – myself, as professional hunter, and guests alike. This was, after all, not my guests first time on an African safari and we were most certainly in an area that can offer something special. Our approach was simple: take the exceptional that Africa gives you – especially if it’s a species we haven’t hunted together before, like the Sable Antelope.
One of the few gaps in the brush we could use to glass for Sable & a grand old Baobab tree - a sign of great wilderness preservation
Breakfast was handled quickly – the way we wish Monday morning meetings went. Necessities of coffee handled and edged on by an eagerness unique to day one on safari in Africa the hunt begins. Being the solo hunting group on 55 000 acres of wilderness is a special feeling and a privilege very rarely enjoyed in modern Southern Africa, yet here we are, ready to make memories. Like every hunt there are certain “priority” animals, some species talk to the individuals character more than others and on this hunt that was the case for Sable Antelope.
The Sable Antelope enjoys somewhat of an elevated, royalty status thanks to its history from literature of Hemmingway and Ruark in Africa. The beast itself does not disappoint: long, thick curved horns, a jet black face and a front heavy body lending weight to a gait that does its status justice. In the Limpopo valley between spectacular, large and old Baobab trees – a sign of well-preserved wilderness – we pick up the first track of a bull at mid-morning. Sable do need to drink every day and we cut a line trying to intercept this one on the way to water, or so we thought. As the sun peaks to mid-day our expert tracker, who has hunted here for more seasons than he can remember, shakes his head with a mild grin. He is the only one who seems not to feel the heat that has befallen us. We are too late this morning, the bull has had his drink of water early and headed of into thicker cover. With female tracks criss-crossing all over the larger bull track we retreat: to lunch and a siesta (customary on safari) and welcomed by my guests who’s excitement has been overwhelmed by jet lag. It is morning one and day one after all.
Dinner was served every night around a roaring campfire, sunset on day one and the end of the forst day discussing tomorrow's plan of action and the location of our beers.
Late afternoon arrives. Well rested and with the days heat breaking we return to where this bull’s last fresh track was seen. Where he will exit the “thick stuff” is anyone’s guess right now. With vast quantities of other game around – including buffalo and a few kudu bulls that anyone not heart set on a Sable in the immediate vicinity would have taken – it is impossible to venture in. I guide my guests to what I assume our best position is and wait. Saint Hubert was indifferent to our quest that evening for as the sun set signalling the end to a magical day one; the bull emerged. Cows all around and in the most unfavourable light we let him be – for now.
Rifles stowed away and a glimpse of the bull still fresh in our minds we salute the day with the best tasting beer one finds. Well second best – successful hunts do somehow add a subtle flavour of victory. This one is most certainly not bitter, how could it? We are together as friends in Africa on a hunt of a lifetime seeking out the royalty of the Limpopo bushveld on the best hunting concession in Southern Africa. The complaints department is currently completely out of work, that is for certain. A roaring open campfire awaits, fresh refreshments and home-cooked dinner prepared by the affectionately named and out right magnificent Chef Spider. Reflecting on safaris of seasons gone by, with fire blazing and dessert for those more accustomed to such things it is hard to imagine a finer time could be had anywhere at any time by anyone.
Even the sun is polite in the manner in which it wakes you on safari. Awaiting your second cup of coffee to be well and truly stowed away in your belly before silently rising. By now we are already where we last left the Sable bull yesterday. A particular fondness of my own as a professional hunter on a hunt is to search in an ever curious fashion for what Africa may offer you today – seizing opportunities should they present themselves, but once a particular animal, like this Sable, is identified pursuing it unrelentingly. In this case this means the noble art of tracking in the softer Limpopo soil between baobabs and camel thorn trees. Our bull is once again on the move ahead of us, probably motivated by the cows who surrounded him yesterday.
Those who have not been fortunate enough to watch a master tracker showcase his skills are missing out on a memorable experience. Quietly, at a pace slightly above a calm stroll, he moves. Next to, and never on top of, the subtle signs left by animal movements a few hours or even days ago. Aware of my guests longing to understand more of his craft, he stops to explain the difference in bull and cow tracks, patiently showing where they have fed or double backed on themselves. This brings on an entire new dimension to the hunt and a focus upon the hunter that something special could be just around the corner. The same focus required for an accurate shot.
The terrain offers very few openings to use binoculars to scan the bushveld and even fewer rises to observe from above the brush line. However, the first opportunity given on the top of a gentle rise I spot the females, pointing them out to my guests some 200 yards away. All tracking so far suggests the bull should be near. With wind in our favour (for now) we wait. Sable cows continue to mingle in front of us. Spending some 15 minutes dead still I concur with my tracker we have seen the entire herd – the bull has left. With our best attempt at not disturbing them we proceed as the cows move along. Between our view point and where we first saw them our tracker confirms what was suspected: a single bull track separating from the others. The hunt is on once again.
With the first beads of sweat beginning to form on my brow as the day heats up we follow the lone track. The Limpopo sun will soon be in full force – signalling once again our time to retreat. However, I sense we are close and the tracks prove it; the bull is walking slowly and is not far off. Pausing behind a thorny bush in some half-shade for a moment I exchange glances of unspoken determination with my guests and we continue. Suddenly, before the first water bottle is opened a jet black beast struts into the small clearing in front of us totally oblivious to our existence – we had tracked to practically on top of the animal. Rapid, precise and silent movements follow and shooting sticks are set, rifle steadied and I issue the calm instruction of, “shoot him, on the shoulder, when you are ready.” The shot rings out, followed by the unmistakeable contact of lead upon flesh. The Sable is hit – rearing up his tail as is the fashion of well hit Sable antelope, he runs only to expire some 50 yard further.
The beautiful old Sable we hunted - note the massive basses.
Overjoyed and ecstatic we approach the bull. Moments like these cannot be put into word or picture in a fashion that captures the true essence of the experience. Before us lies a hard earned and exceptionally old and large Sable bull. Jet black as only mature bulls are, worn horn tips and particularly thick horn bases displaying the secondary growth of an old male are all noteworthy characters of an experience where the hunt itself matched the trophy. Respectfully we take our memorable pictures. Successfully recovered, the trophy of the Sable is removed at the skinning shed while all the meat will be used by camp staff – Chef Spider prepares a serious Sable stroganoff which pairs brilliantly with a fine South African red vintage – or so I am told. With 10 days in the gold standard of South African hunting concessions who knows what we may hunt tomorrow?
Smiles all around with our Sable bull.