Peter Flack | Hunter, Writer, Conservationist, Retired Game Rancher

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September 2010

In Foortu's Footsteps - Hunting in the Umkomaas and Nhlamvini Valleys by Peter Flack

Almost everyone knows that a region of KwaZulu/Natal is called The Valley of a Thousand Hills. Some of these hills are so steep even the baboons use walking sticks to climb them but, what people may not know, is that when the good Lord finished creating this rugged valley he had a quite a few high hills left over and these he liberally strewed throughout the Umkomaas and neighbouring Nhlamvini Valleys some 50 kilometres further south as the fly crows, as one of my German friends once put it. The Nhlamvini Valley, not as well known as the Umkomaas, is home to the Ixopo River and its name in Zulu can mean either a bullet or a mielie pip, take your pick.

The avid Swedish collector and explorer, Johan August Wahlberg (after whom an eagle and many other birds, insects and reptiles were named), traveled through the Umkomaas Valley with another enthusiastic explorer, Adulphe Delagorgue (after whom a pigeon was named), in the 1840s. They both wrote books about their travels and, from Wahlberg's journal, it seems that not much has changed since then. He wrote, "28/30 August - Continued the trip and arrived at Umkomaas in the morning. Country beautiful; the hills rounded, and covered with grass at the summits; close thickets in the valleys. We passed several rivers; Kaffir kraals."

Allen Gardner, originally a naval man who became a missionary after his wife died, travelled through this region in the mid 1830s and, in his book, Narrative of a Journey to the Zooloo Country in South Africa, wrote of the Ithlangwain people that he found there that they, "originally lived high up on the right bank of the Tugela whence they were driven, about 15 years since, by the devastating wars of Charka……. they were eventually forced to abandon their country…….and obliged……. to seek their present asylum, which, after enduring many hardships, several of their people dying from actual starvation, they effected. They describe themselves as having been formerly a powerful nation, the only remains of which at present consist of 25 villages, ten here, ten more on this side of the Umgeni, and five on the other, all under the control of Foortu, and may probably amount to between 7000 to 8000 souls."

David and Carl Aadnesgaard and their families, the second generation of this originally Norwegian family to farm cattle on Naauwpoort in the Umkomaas Valley, showed me the site of Chief Foortu's kraal on the southwestern bank of the river and told me that, for many years, people found iron ore slag in the vicinity, indicative of the fact that these people worked the metal. According to oral history, they were also ivory traders and acted as intermediaries between their former persecutors, the Zulus and the traders at Port St. Johns and Delagoa Bay.

Not far from there, the run down dwelling can be seen that housed the Voortrekker leader, Andries Pretorius, who helped Panda, one of Shaka's sons, defeat his younger brother, Dingaan.
Interestingly enough, Wahlberg also wrote about this period in his journal as follows: "4 October. Panda, Dingaan's brother, the rightful heir to the throne, now in flight from his brother, who wants to kill him, seeks protection with the farmers and lodges with his leading
counsellors next door to me. The facial characteristics of these latter remarkably diverse and pronounced. The nails are worn very long."

But it is the successors of Chief Foortu who have changed the character of the two valleys most dramatically in the last few years. They instituted land claims and acquired a number of farms previously owned by whites. They have, in turn, leased the hunting rights over many of these farms for five years to a safari outfitting company called Aadnesgaard & Kennedy Safaris and it was they who had invited a couple of friends and me to come and look for one of the huge nyala rams and kudu bulls, respectively, that were supposed to frequent the valleys. For me it was to be my fifth try for a big nyala ram.

A year previously I had chosen the second week in May, both because it was during the rut and because it coincided with a dark moon period. As everyone knows, males often throw caution to the wind when loves is in the air and, when it is pitch black at night, not even game moves and, therefore, this improved the chances of the hunter during daylight hours as the game tended to feed longer to make up for lost time. And, of course, when game has its heads in the grass or up amongst the leaves and is moving, the hunter has his best chance to approach, unnoticed, within shooting distance.

David Aadnesgaard and Peter Kennedy, owners of our outfitting company, had also spent many days in the field, as all good professionals hunters should and had seen top quality animals of both the species we were looking for. In my case, the animal had even acquired a name - the Bell Bull (even if it was a ram) - and was known to frequent an opened patch of grass, interspersed with aloes, on the banks of the Ixopo River, in an area that had not been hunted for nearly two years. Three huge kudu bulls, one with horns in excess of 60 inches, had been taken in the valleys over the last few years and, clearly, the gene pool was outstanding.

What was uncertain, however, was how much of the game had been shot by farmers once land claims had been registered over their properties as the government, in what in my opinion is a shortsighted and foolish decision, has refused to pay farm owners for the value of game on their properties. In addition, in the hiatus between the land claims having been granted and the hunting rights agreed with the safari outfitter, how much of the game had been poached?

My reasons for wanting to a big nyala were many and varied. Firstly, as a trophy hunter, I try not to shoot another animal of the same species unless it is bigger and, therefore, usually older, than the ones I already have. Secondly, years before, I had put my business commitments before my hunting interests, a truly silly thing to do and lost the chance at a spectacular nyala which one of my friends shot in my stead and, if at all possible, I wanted to try and make amends for my foolishness. Lastly, at my stage and age, it is less about the shooting and more about the hunting. I like to hunt with pleasant people, for game I never tire of hunting, in places and at times of the year I find enjoyable. This hunt more than met all these criteria.

For a born, bred and schooled Capetonian, I find it easy to admit that I thoroughly enjoy hunting in KwaZulu/Natal and, in fact, have been a proud member of KwaZulu/Natal Hunting and Game Conservation Association for over 20 years. Secondly, of the three major kinds of hunting which I particularly like - walk and stalk savannah hunts; glass and stalk mountain hunts; and sneaky stop-look-listen-shuffle-a-few-paces-forward hunts along river banks and in thickets - my hunt in the valleys seemed to hold the prospect of combining both the latter two kinds of hunt. In fact, if the terrain had been a little steeper and the Nhlamvini Valley a little narrower, the hunt would have seemed very much like the ones for mountain nyala that I had experienced in Ethiopia, only very much less expensive.

But the best laid plans gang aft a'gley or words to that effect and the late afternoon of my first hunting day found me running, pell mell, down the steep, slippery, bolder clad slopes of one of Nhlamvinis many, high, steep, no name brand hills. Our tracker, Juba, had spotted the same kudu bull we had seen fleetingly earlier that day, in a small patch of thigh high panicum against the treeline at foot of the opposite hill. The bull was grazing with his back to us and, as he stretched to reach above the browse line, his spiral horns extended back on either side of his rump and looked, if anything, more impressive than they had in the morning when Pete and I guessed the horn measurements at over 50 inches.

Kudu have always had the ability to "smokkel my kop (play tricks on me)," as some of my Afrikaans friends would say. For a number of years, much as I wanted to shoot a really big one, at the end of a hard day in the veld or on the tracks, if a fully mature, two and a half curl bull presented itself in such a way that I could kill it almost instantly with one shot, my previous resolutions often evaporated as I did what came naturally and took the shot. It was only later when reality and "ground shrink" set in that I would sometimes, and then not very often, become irritable with myself for not being more patient and selective. So it was that for many, many years, a really large bull eluded me until in my fifties and on the tracks of a truly gigantic Livingstone's eland bull, I went against the repeated advice of my professional hunter and shot what turned out to be my first plus 60 inch kudu bull.

Branches slashed across my face and I stumbled over rocks hidden by the tall grass. The distance between Pete, Juba and myself lengthened and I battled to follow the path they were taking. My knees started to protest, breath rasped in my throat and perspiration soaked my shirt. The lower we descended, the thicker the vegetation became and, as the pace necessarily slowed, I began to wonder who would win the race to the bull, the encroaching darkness or us. Juba, holding Pete's fully extended, Stoney Point shooting sticks, now took the lead but he was still moving fast. Too fast and Pete's hoarsely whispered command to slow down came barely in the nick of time as we moved through the last patch of shoulder length, thatching grass. Suddenly, there he was, on red alert, facing directly towards us about 180 metres away! "Ten seconds, maximum", flashed through my mind and, as Juba planted the sticks, I was already resting the fore-end of my .300 Win. Mag. on them. The chest of the bull leapt into the crosshairs as my cheek settled against my well fitting, hand made, Monte Carlo stock and, as they jitterbugged in and around the chest area, I squeezed the trigger more quickly and firmly than I would have liked.

The bull took off to my left hand and, as I recovered from the recoil, behind me I heard Pete begin a running commentary. "He's hit. He's moving to the left and going to come out into the opening to the left of the big acacia. Get ready. There he is! Shoot him now!" And then as I found the bull walking briskly through the narrow opening and fought to match his pace with my crosshairs, I heard him repeat in a deliberately restrained voice, "Shoot him again. Shoot him again." I didn't need a fourth invitation and the bull fell to the shot. "His head is still up, give him another one," I heard from behind me and immediately did what I was told. It was all over bar the shouting.

It was a good bull. A nice, mature, representative kudu bull that no one would be ashamed to hang on his wall but, in all honesty, not what I had come to hunt. With only three of us and me largely a passenger after breaking my back in two places, loading was impossible and Pete and Juba were reduced to skinning the bull and cutting him in half before bullying the pieces into the back of Pete's Hilux. It was well after dark when we crossed the Umkomaas River in front of Nkonka lodge, one of two in the valleys (the other being Nkwasi Lodge on the opposite bank, high on the slopes of a hill) and we were greeted by the happy sight of two other big kudu bulls in the skinning shed - the first time three bulls had been shot on the same day in the valleys - one belonging to GT Ferreira, my hunting partner for many years, and the other to my cousin, Alison, a new convert to hunting.

For the next four days Pete and I confined our hunting to nyala. We hunted hard but with no success. Yes, we would glass various nyala from various hilltop lookouts and saw some very good plus 27 inch rams and, on an occasion, one that we thought would exceed 28 inches but the plus 30 inch Bell Bull was gone. On one memorable midday, we spotted four mature nyala rams sauntering out of the uphill thickets into an open, grassy meadow on the banks of the Ixopo dotted with euphorbia candelabra and acacia niloticus under which the rams whiled away their lunch break. One lay down while the others were contentGallery to rest motionless in the shade. What made this particular sighting unforgettable was that a good, representative nyala ram was at the very top of Alison's wish list and, on seeing the four rams settle in for their noonday rest, Pete called her young PH and suggested he drove over from where he was, some 30 minutes away, while we waited and marked the rams. We waited and then waited some more. Pete called a second time and then a third. When it became clear that the PH was not going to follow our suggestions, I sneaked down the slope, through the aloes (the dry leaves which the locals pulverize for use as snuff) and took photos of three of the rams. They were magnificent.

Hunting is not like shopping at Pick'n Pay where you can expect to find the same can of beans on the same shelf in the same isle whenever you pitch up and, the day after, when her PH decided to watch the area where the rams had been, they failed to co-operate and, in the end, Ali went home without one.

By the time the final hour of my sixth and last hunting day rolled around, I confess that I had developed a bad case of the plods. A few days earlier I had developed a hacking cough which kept me awake half the night. I was tired, my legs were sore and I was not paying attention as we climbed over a rusty, sagging, barbed wire fence and walked along a two tyre track against the side of yet another steep, grass clad hill overlooking the white stinkwood and bush willow clad banks of the  Lufafa River, a tributary of the Umkomaas. I was totally unprepared for the enormous, charcoal grey bushbuck ram which stood like a graven image sculpted from Rustenburg granite in an open meadow. Juba tried to extend the shooting sticks which, unlike homemade ones, were neatly telescoped into a compact bundle with lots of different screw adjustments. I did the same with my bipod while simultaneously trying to chamber a cartridge and screw my 2.5x10-56 Schmidt und Bender down to a more manageable six power. What a circus! By the time I found the ram in my scope, its forequarters were already disappearing into the ever present thickets and my shot blattered harmlessly over its back. It was left to the four Italian hunters who had just arrived in camp to test a new, bench rest calibre to collect the magnificent 16 ¼ ram four days later.

The two separate areas in the valleys over which Aadnesgaard & Kennedy Safaris have acquired the hunting rights, amount to some 12,000, low, cattle fenced, free range hectares in aggregate. They are a welcome addition to the KwaZulu/Natal hunting scene. If you are fit, prepared to hunt hard and can shoot - think of this as the poor man's mountain nyala hunt - over the course of a week, I have no doubt that, especially during dark moon periods, you will successfully hunt good, representative to excellent trophies of each of these sought after animals. The bonus is that you will meet really nice people, enjoy good food and drink and have a wonderful time while you are doing so. I know I did.

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