Johannesburg to Addis Ababa – seven hours on the efficient Ethiopian Airlines. From there, two hours in a Cessna Caravan to the landing strip at Murulle Camp on the eastern bank of the Omo River in southeastern Ethiopia.
When I stepped out of the plane, I walked into a damp cotton-wool wall of heat. Hamar woman, bare-breasted, butter and ochre mixed bronze ringlets of hair hanging to the napes of their necks, watched surreptitiously from the straggly shade of a ubiquitous flat topped acacia. Their Kalashnikov clad men folk, one with a feather sprouting from his elaborate hairdo (indicating that he had killed a man or a dangerous animal), strode past clutching their wooden pillows-come-stools, with brightly coloured sashes wrapped around their slim hips, driving herds of cattle and goats to the fast flowing, 200 metre wide, brown Omo River.
As I was to discover, all was not well in the Omo. This year there had been an outbreak of anthrax to the north in the neighbouring Mago National Park, which had attacked the lesser kudu population in particular. Unfortunately, the only one doing anything about the problem was Nassos Roussos, owner of Ethiopian Rift Valley Safaris (ERVS), who held the sole and exclusive hunting concession in the Omo Valley.
To compound matters, Hamar herdsmen, their masters safely ensconsed in their mountain fastness some four and a half hours away by car to the east, had illegally invaded the concession with thousands of head of cattle and goats. As we drove into the thick, cool welcoming shade of the wild fig trees enveloping Murulle Camp, a cacophony of bleating and moo-ing rose from the river below. Not the best welcome I have ever had to safari camp!
As I put my feet up, waiting for the intense heat to abate so we could sight in my rifles (a Brno .300 Win. Mag. and a Brno .375 H&H) and start hunting, I involuntarily wondered whether I had not made a bad mistake. Would this be an action replay of my terrible first Ethiopian hunt almost two years ago where I had spent three weeks hunting for mountain nyala without seeing a mature bull? The heat, anthrax , Hamar cattle and goats, all gave me pause for thought.
The Omo Valley is bordered by Kenya and Lake Turkana (or Lake Rudolph as the local Karo tribesman insist on still calling it) to the south; the Sudan to the west, the Mago and Omo National Parks to the north and a chain of no-name-brand hills and mountains to the east. It covers an unfenced area of 4 600 square kilometres.
The whole valley seems as if it has been locked in a time warp. It is peopled by the Bume tribe to the west of the Omo. They number about 20 000 and are the sworn enemies of the Hamar, to the east, who are the second largest tribe in the region. The Karo people, who broke away from the Hamar to form their own tribe about 100 years ago, are squashed between these two heavy weights and number less than 1 000. Not surprisingly, the Karo are known for their tact and diplomatic skills. Further north, there are the warlike Toposa people who fight all comers and, to the south, the Galeb tribe (an offshoot of the Turkana from Kenya, who take turn and turn about with the Karamajong of Uganda, to raid cattle and kill one another). Judging by the books I have read of the early hunters and explorers who traversed this region, the only discernable sign of "progress" is the firearm. Watching these uncontrolled and uncontrollable tribesmen stalking over the savannah, everyone with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder and bandoliers of ammunition around his waist, I was reminded that their culture still demands that they kill a human being before they can marry.
The northern end of the valley, up against the National Parks, is dominated by the Wollaetey Hills, whose dense thorn thicket covered slopes spread predominantly from east to west. Even the plains at the foot of the hills are covered in wait-a-bit thorn, wild sisal, mother-in-laws tongues and a strange, pale green creeper, part of the viscum family and a hemi-parasite, which blankets bushes and, often, the gaps in between them. The lesser kudu bite off a two to three inch piece of the creeper, spit it out and lick the drop of milk-like substance exuded from the broken end. Under foot, these dry pieces crackle and snap like fresh cornflakes.
Our routine was to wake at 05:00, breakfast and be out of camp by 05:40 en route to one or more spots in the Wollaetey Hills, as discussed and agreed with the hunting team the night before. Although these hills ran predominantly from east to west, they had many protuberances which extended to the north and south. To call them hills, however, is to do them an injustice as my thigh and calf muscles will testify. I estimate that the "hills" at times rose a good 1 800 feet from the plains below and, in many countries, that would classify them as mountains.
In my first few days in the extremely thick cover which wrapped the Wollatey Hills in a broccoli clad blanket – except that this broccoli had thorns of every conceivable shape and size – when my cap was not being ripped off my head, my feet were ensnared by thorn clad creepers and my rifle barrel became entangled in slim tendrils with the tensile strength of tungsten. By the end of the first week, I counted 28 scabs on my right hand and forearm alone and, judging by the holes in my new olive green khakis, they looked as if they had been worn by a tramp for a month of Sundays.
The plan we invariably followed was to climb to a vantage point high in the hills, which allowed us to overlook one or more deep valleys, preferably containing clearings which might attract a browsing lesser kudu. We would then spread out in pairs to cover as much of the area as possible. Once an animal was spotted, the idea was to plan a stalk to put me within shooting range which, in my case, was a maximum of 350 yards.
The climbing was physically challenging, the spotting demanded constant concentration and sharp eyes and the thought of the shot filled me with dread. Those that were offered invariably extended across a ravine or valley and, typically, were 300 metres or so in length. To compound the problem, the hillsides usually sloped at a steep angle of 45 degrees or more and there was no place to lie down behind the bipod attached to the front sling swivel of my rifle. When I extended the bipod, it made no difference as my feet were always lower than my backside and so I could not sit behind the bipod either. The only rests to be found were up against the occasional thornless tree and these were few and far between.
After a week of this, I was definitely improving. I too, at times, was the first to spot an occasional lesser kudu cow, klipspringer or greater kudu. Yes, this was one of the few places where you could hunt both kudu species. In fact, in that week, I saw five lesser kudu bulls and four greater kudu bulls, although the lesser kudu cows were far more numerous than their larger sisters.
Well, what are the differences between these two magical members of the nine member spiral horn clan? Firstly, there is size – greater kudu typically measure 137 to 152 centimetres at the shoulder versus 96 to 104 centimetres for the lesser kudu. Weight varies from about 170 to 270 kilograms for the greater as opposed to 80 to 100 kilograms for the lesser. The lesser kudu, as the latin name "Tragelaphus imberbis" implies, has no beard but 11 to 13 very clear, well-defined, white stripes on each side of its grayish brown body. All of this you can see from a photograph. What you cannot see is the elegance of this animal which, for many experienced East African pros, ranks as the most beautiful antelope in Africa. For me, it has all the grace, allure, elegance and unattainability of a beautiful catwalk model, in a top Parisian fashion show, dressed in the latest haute couture. What you also cannot see from the photograph is the way it moves, particularly when alarmed. It is a much better runner than the greater kudu and likes to put tall shrubs and bushes between itself and its enemies as soon as possible. This it does by bounding over them with a cheeky lift of its fluffy, white lined tail (as if to say – so long sucker) and a flick of its heels like a top show-jumping thoroughbred. Lesser kudu easily clear bushes as tall as my 1,9 metres.
The largest of the first four lesser kudu bulls I saw measured an estimated 29 inches (the Rowland Ward minimum is 27 inches). Nassos would not hear of us even planning a stalk. "Here you shoot at least 30 inches," he announced emphatically. With three out of the nine days of my hunt left, the 29 incher we had passed up was starting to look awfully good! I admit, I was worried. To add to my woes, the valley we were watching that third morning had an air of emptiness about it.
In the afternoon, we moved to a different spot and Nassos detailed Koli (the national game scout) and Degino (the head tracker) to watch the valley behind the hilltop to our right. An hour and a half later, a shrill whistle above and to my right nearly gave me whiplash. As we made our best speed uphill, Degino came rushing down to meet us, a huge watermelon grin splitting his face. As he saw me he waved his extended forefingers in the air winding them above his head in a motion copying the corkscrew horns of these gunmetal grey ghosts.
By the time we plunged down the other side of the hill I was almost finished. As I slumped down next to Nassos, everything hurt – my lungs, thighs and calves. My clothes were sodden and stuck to my body. But there was a problem. Koli had not followed instructions. He had not stayed behind to watch the bull. When Degino had left to fetch us he had not kept an eye on the progress of the four cows and huge bull Degino had spotted. He no longer knew where they were. Try as we might to look through the matted, intertwined cover on the opposite hillside as the sun dropped and pulled the shadows over us like a blanket, the plaintive cry of an African black-headed oriole was the only sign of life in the valley.
Nassos and Degino talked to one another softly and at length, in Amharic. In answer to my question, Nassos explained that Degino had been comparing the lesser kudu bull to others they had taken together over the years. Nassos confirmed that the bull was big. Very big.
Why, why, why were the words that banged repeatedly around my brainbox as we bumped our way back in the dark on the hour long drive to camp. I said nothing. Koli knew he had made a bad mistake and tried to cheer me up. Only very old bulls stayed with the cows at this time of the year. They would not leave the valley tonight. They would be there tomorrow.
Behind us, dark storm clouds raced us to camp. Thunder rumbled in the distance and flashes of sheet lightning lit the eastern horizon. Please rain, I thought. No-one, not even lesser kudu, likes to move through wet foliage. In addition, the thunder clouds would obscure the waxing quarter moon. This would prevent them having enough light to graze at night, even if there was no rain and, therefore, they would spend more time grazing in the morning before bedding down. This would give us, in turn, more time to spot them.
On our second last morning we battle up the hillside in the dark, taking great care to move silently. As we reach yesterday evening’s valley, we leave Admasu (the regional game scout) and Koli higher up and to our right. Then Degino spots two lesser kudu cows and a bull! 455 yards. We slither carefully further to the right and uphill. The best rest I can find is a shaky, two inch diameter, paper bark tree. It takes forever for the threesome to browse within range.
The bull is well over 30 inches. The curl of the horns seems shallow but they go up and up and up. I have never seen anything like it. He is much bigger than the one I shot in Tanzania previously. He seems almost deformed. I am awestruck.
And then the nightmare begins. At 325 yards – my 7×42 Leica Geovid binocular/range finder is calibrated in yards – the crosshairs of the 2.5-10×42 Zeiss Diavari Z scope on my .300 Win. Mag. , jitterbug all over the front half of the animal. On my third attempt to steady myself, I let the shot go. I turn to Nassos. "Too high" he says abruptly. "Shoot again". But where? His normally good English breaks down and bangs into my excited incomprehension. The whispers become louder and more exasperated. At last he finds a reference point that I can use to orientate myself.
The bull is now 349 yards away standing broadside on, head to the left, above a red, raw patch on the hillside that had once been a game trail until progressive rain storms had gouged out a scar of erosion from the exposed earth. I feel much more certain of my second shot. "The line is right but too high" says Nassos in a deliberately non-committal voice.
The embarrassed grins of Degino and Admasu say it all. I place the horizontal crosshairs, as best I can, level with the top of the buck’s back to cater for the nine inch bullet drop at this distance and, somehow, manage to push the next shot higher still.
The three animals jog trot down the hillside, not unduly alarmed. They have not seen us and cannot smell us. Amidst my mortification, I find time to wonder whether they can distinguish between the lightning and thunder cracks of the night before and the sound of the 180 grain Winchester Fail Safe bullets breaking the sound barrier. The animals disappear into a thicket and stay there. The only good thing about the whole sorry saga is that they cannot emerge from the thicket without us seeing them. Nassos says that they will now bed down and stay there until late this afternoon. I reply that I am not moving. He looks at me strangely.
We move still higher up on our side of the valley to have a clearer view of the thicket. I find a diagonal branch of a sturdy paper bark tree as a rest. Perspiration drips into my eyes. My arms grow tired and then start to ache as I focus on the thicket through my scope. I lower my rifle and rest against the tree trunk, never taking my eyes off the thicket for a second.
Half an hour later, a neat, tan cow with crisp, clear, white striped sides emerges and browses down the right hand side of the thicket directly towards us. 281 yards. Much better. "The bull is edging towards her through the thicket" says Nassos. I strain my eyes through the ten power scope. Nothing. "His nose is twelve inches from hers," he keeps up a running commentary. "Get ready, he’s coming out!" No sooner do the words leave his lips than the bull materializes in the thicket. It’s like a fog has lifted from my eyes and I wonder why I have not been able to see him before.
He nonchalantly wanders into the avenue between two wait-a-bit bushes. As time has progressed, I have become much calmer and even more determined. I squeeze the trigger carefully as the sights settle behind the bull’s shoulder. I follow through with the shot but am still in time to see the lesser kudu kick his heels elegantly over a long, four foot high shrub to his right. Missed again. The silence is complete. No one looks at me.
After the third shot no-one speaks, no-one moves. Binoculars glued to their faces they plot the progress of the animals. "The cows are back in the wait-a-bit" says Nassos. "You see that dead tree with the white blaze surrounded by bare ground? If that is a clock, the bull is going to come out of the surrounding thicket at 6, 7 or 8 o’clock to join the cows up and diagonally to the left of the tree". We wait and wait. The sun beats down. Humidity rises. The cicadas are in full trilling song. When my brain locks on to the noise it drills a hole through my head.
I have one cartridge left. My black, waterproof ammunition pouch is in the .300’s rifle sheath. I ask where the rifle sheath is. Admasu points over the hill to the west in the direction of the car. I am irritated. It was his responsibility to bring it. I say nothing but decide to change to my .375, which I have also brought along at Nassos’s insistence.
"He’s coming out at 7 o’clock" hisses Nassos. The bull emerges at 284 yards, walking steadily in the direction of one of the cows who is browsing in plain view. I am on him. My rest is the same diagonal tree branch as before. The shot is almost the same as the one before. Only the rifle is different. The .375 stock has been made for me. It fits like a glove. I cuddle into the familiar, wooden, Monte Carlo cheek piece, completely different to the straight, black, synthetic fibreglass stock of the .300 which I need to "chin" in order to see the sight picture. As the head and shoulders of the bull enter the smallest of clearings my crosshairs are about nine inches down from the top of the shoulder in line with the front leg. As he hesitates in the opening, the shot flows from the barrel, in retrospect, with no conscious thought on my part.
I look to my left. Nassos and Degino both look at me strangely. They speak in Amharic to one another and then Nassos translates. "He’s down. His legs are stretched out in front of him. He’s dead" he adds with more than a hint of surprise in his voice. Then his voice gains strength. "Now that is a gun", he says in a fierce, emphatic way. "I’m going to clean it and look after it myself. Nothing must happen to it. You use that from now on" he says pointing at Bertha, my 21 year old, battle scarred, Brno .375 – re-blued twice, re-stocked once.
After bull-dozing our way downhill and up the other side I find him stretched out, on his side, as if asleep. He is spectacular. Old and grey. Neck scarred by a thousand thorns and a hundred mating season battles. Ear cut. Teeth worn to the gums. Only a button hole of red blood on his shoulder mars his perfection. His 32 inch horns tower above his head in a regal spiral. Is this not the most elegant, handsome, debonair, shy and sly example of all the spiral horns or what?
Given the angle of the shot, the 300 grain Nosler Partition, loaded by Federal, has penetrated both shoulders, the spine and arteries above the heart. He was killed, instantly, by a thunderbolt, in the last winter of his eventful life, his excellent genes passed on through many a coquettish cow.
There are only two countries where you can currently hunt lesser kudu – Tanzania and Ethiopia. If you check Rowland Ward’s Records of Big Game you will see that 15 out of the top 50 entries (including the top two – 32 7/8 and 32 3/4, respectively) come from Ethiopia – all from the Omo Valley – with 24 from Tanzania. SCI shows a slightly different picture with 27 out of the top 50 coming from Ethiopia (with all but two from the Omo Valley) and 21 from Tanzania, including the biggest (35 2/8).
Unfortunately, there are only four safari outfitters worth hunting with in Ethiopia and by far the best is Ethiopian Rift Valley Safaris (ERVS) which has the concession in the Omo Valley and probably books more hunts in a year than the other three put together, whereas in Tanzania you have a much wider choice of both good outfitters and areas. Secondly, you can probably find less physically demanding hunts in Tanzania if this is an issue. In both countries you can combine the hunt with one for a variety of other plains game animals unique to that country. Having said that, if I could afford the time and money for only one lesser kudu hunt – and they are both very expensive hunts requiring a minimum booking of 21 days – I would go to Ethiopia with ERVS and hunt with either Nassos or Jason Roussos.
For more on hunting lesser kudu see the book, Hunting the Spiral Horns – Kudu, the Top African Trophy, edited by Peter Flack and published by Rowland Ward publications in 2012.