Who shot the Donkey? It reminded me of the nursery rhyme song – "Who shot Cock Robin? I said the sparrow, with my bow and arrow, I shot Cock Robin. All the birds in the air were a sighing and a sobbing as they heard of the death of poor Cock Robin … " In this case, it was me with my little .300 Win. Mag. , topped by a 2,5-10×56 Schmidt und Bender scope and loaded with 165 grain, Swiss made cartridges for Blaser that did the damage but no-one was sighing or sobbing except, possibly, a Swiss taxidermist who had shot at and missed the animal the year before. But wait, I am getting ahead of myself.
It was June 2013 and my third visit to Aadnesgaard & Kennedy Safaris’ Nkonka Camp on the banks of the Umkomaas River in KwaZulu-Natal. On my two previous hunts I had looked for one of hunting’s holy grails – a plus 30 inch nyala and gone home empty handed despite seeing a number of excellent bulls. I had come close to taking a bull like this previously when hunting with Pete Kennedy in Pongola while filming Flack Hunts South Africa and the quest had fired my imagination. On this trip I was looking for a really good, old South African bushbuck as they are referred to by Rowland Ward or Cape bushbuck as per SCI.
I was about to start writing and editing the third in the five book series on all the spiral horns, Hunting the Spiral Horns – Bushbuck, The Little Big Buck and, as part of my research, wanted to hunt bushbuck again in my own country. Despite hunting all 11 subspecies of bushbuck described by both Rowland Ward and SCI, some of them many times, it had been almost ten years since I had last hunted bushbuck in South Africa.
On the first morning, long before dawn, our hunting day started quite literally with a bang. As we drove up the public, dirt road in the dark towards our chosen hunting area, some idiot had illegally locked a gate barring our access. What is it with some people I thought, having experienced the same kind of nastiness and crass stupidity on my own game ranch? A soft nosed .375 bullet soon took care of the Chinese made lock, however, and we were on our way towards Doringvlakte in the Nhlamvini Valley. The low fenced farm had been in the Bam family since 1852 until a land claim by locals rested it away and Aadnesgaard & Kennedy Safaris had a five year lease to hunt it.
It was sad to see the run down state of the once productive property. Weeds were growing in the farmyard, fences were broken and the metal railing on the bridge across the river was missing in parts. A general air of decay and despair hung over the place and I was keen to leave and move up into the steep aloe and euphorbia clad hills to glass the few small clearings on the opposite slopes. The hills were choked with vegetation, most of them carrying thorns of one kind or another.
As we descended a rough, knee-length high, grass bedecked trail to a better vantage point, our local Zulu tracker, Funor, suddenly levitated while, at the same time, emitting a strangled shout, "Nyoka! ! " We all stopped dead. Where was the snake? I edged forward until I could see two beady eyes peering intently out from between the tall, dry, blonde grass stems. No, it was not the ubiquitous, well camouflaged, short, fat puffadder I expected but a mottled brown rock python. Pete was much bolder than me. "I’m going to catch it," he announced and, before I could stop him, flung his jersey over the snakes head and began to wrestle it out of the grass. He pulled and pulled and pulled and more and more of the snake kept on appearing until it was draped all over him. But for the fact that the snake was very cold, had a cut on its head and was clearly in a weakened state, I think he might have pulled out more than he bargained for.
They say that seeing a snake at the beginning of a safari can be either good or bad luck depending on local superstitions and, as we saw no bushbuck that day, I wondered whether I was going to go home empty handed from a hunt, yet again, especially as the animal I was after was a special one. Dave and Pete and their clients had been trying for the last four years to shoot a big bushbuck, which Dave had nicknamed the "Donkey" because it was old, grey in colour and big in body. It also had huge horns. In fact, Dave, who shot his first bushbuck with his Dad on the annual driven hunt on the 3 000 hectare family cattle and game farm, Naauwpoort, in the Umkomaas Valley, at the age of six and who has since then added another 200 or so of these crafty, tough and pugnacious animals to this tally, thought that the Donkey could be one of the biggest, best and most beautiful bushbucks ever taken in the Valley. Pete had also seen the little, big buck and echoed his sentiments.
Although the area I was hunting was not game fenced and about as free range as it was possible to be in South Africa, bushbuck are territorial and, even though this territory expands in winter given that food is less available, we thought when discussing the safari that, if we hunted over the dark moon period of the main mating season, at a time when it was very cold, the Donkey or another canny, big, old buck might give us a chance either as dawn broke or in the late afternoon. I was aware that better hunters than I had tried and failed over the last four years and I was I inwardly excited about the challenge.
It was bitterly cold around the camp fire that morning as I dipped a muesli rusk in a steaming hot cup of sweet, milky tea with the Umkomaas River chuckling in the background. I was wearing a balaclava and watch cap on my head, four layers of clothing on my upper body and long johns beneath my winter weight trousers. Two pairs of thin socks covered my feet beneath my strong hiking boots because the grass covered slopes we would soon be covering were both steep and slippery. The fire crackled brightly to my front as the flames rose vertically into the still, icy morning air and were absorbed by the blackness all around us. Frost lay white on the ground. This was what we had planned and hoped for.
In a few minutes we were going to leave to drive up the high slopes of Patheni along a narrow, rutted and muddy, dirt track and glass the valleys around us as dawn crept over the landscape, hoping to find the Donkey or another good bushbuck ram seeking the sun’s warmth down below after the bitterly cold night.
From a distance, Patheni looked like an overturned, roundish soup tureen covered by a pale beige cloth, the folds of which formed the kloofs or valleys which fed the Umkomaas River to the west and the ridges of which were the hills from which we would glass. In the local Zulu language, Patheni means, "to look out for" and is the name given to it after the Marwick family, who once owned all the land from the eastern bank of the river to Richmond, gave some 1 000 hectares, including Patheni itself, to their employees when their menfolk returned from the Second World War, as a token of thanks for them looking after their families so well while they were away fighting.
The round, bland, benign aspect of Patheni in the grey of early dawn was soon dispelled as we exited Pete’s truck and peered down into the steep, grass clad slopes of the many narrow valleys with thick bush encroached bottoms extending up towards the ridge tops. We split up to glass different parts of the slopes to increase our chances. Dave went to the right and Pete to the left while I stayed in the middle. Fingers of watery sun began slowly filtering their way down into the depths of the various kloofs and gullies and it was not long before we all spotted bushbuck. We detoured around the rim of two adjacent ridges to check out Dave’s ram but, as we came closer, it soon became clear that the black ram he had seen from a distance was a juvenile. Back we went to our original positions.
Pete was keen to descend into the bowels of a steep-sided, grass clad kloof overlooking a clearing nicknamed the "Town Square" because of its shape and near to where he had seen the Donkey some months previously but Dave wanted to stay up top for another 20 minutes or so. Pete’s impatience won and, putting a copse of trees and shrubs between us and the opposite walls of the valley, we wound our way down through the thigh high, pale blond, frost bleached grasses, now sopping wet as the sun melted the frost and I was glad I had worn my knee length gaiters. Sitting side by side we scoured the edges of the forest below and I used my Leica Geovids to range various easily recognizable features. The openings in the forest to our front were small and, if a good bushbuck was spotted, there would be no time to lose before it was swallowed up again.
Pete pointed out a bright red bushbuck ewe positively glowing in the early reflected light. She looked beautiful as she fossicked around, grazing here and browsing there, completely oblivious to the two predators above her. Then he spotted the head of a young ram carefully checking out the clearing to his front before emerging to feed. We were clearly in the right place at the right time. I could feel excitement building in my chest. The sense that something was going to happen any second was all but palpable. It was for moments like these that I hunted.
And then there he was! From an area we must have glassed a dozen times before, he suddenly materialized like the proverbial Jack-in-the-Box in a narrow, scalloped, gully between two outcrops of trees and shrubs. The grass and shrubs were both tall and thick in the bottom of the shallow basin and all I could make out was the ram’s back. It was 256 metres away and the sunlight, which was now shining brightly, washed out the colours. I battled to find him in the 2,5-10×56 Schmidt und Bender scope and cranked it down to three. Pete’s instructions were simple, terse and intense. "Shoot that ram NOW!! "
I snuggled into my Monte Carlo stock as I rested the feet of my Harris bipod on Pete’s Stoney Point shooting sticks, which we had previously erected and used the extended fourth leg under my right armpit to obtain a steadier rest. The rifle was sighted two inches high at 100 metres and I aimed just behind the shoulder of the ram facing diagonally away from me and about nine inches from the top of his back, which was all that was not obscured by the tall grass. I like this shot and use it often especially when hunting on my own as, if I put the bullet where I am aiming, it brings an instantaneous halt to proceedings and the animal drops in its tracks to the spinal shot. The shot flowed from the barrel of its own accord and I heard the clear "Ssschtuppp!" of a good hit as I rechambered a second round over the sound of Pete’s calm but insistent, "Reload, reload." But, as I swept the area with my scope, I couldn’t see a sign of the ram. "Keep watching, keep watching," were Pete’s next instructions but I sensed by his tone that they were unnecessary.
The first shot had done its job. Later, when we examined the carcass, we found that, on entry, the bullet had severed five ribs where they joined the spinal column and came to rest against the under-side of the column only 11 inches from the point of entry after losing all its lead and petals. It was the first time these bullets had performed this poorly over the last ten years or so that I had been using them but the subsequent nyala bull I shot presented no such problems and the bullet exited the side on animal behind the shoulder.
Dave carefully inspected the big-bodied, venerable, old bushbuck – his teeth were worn to stubs – with his long, thick, battered, scarred and classical, lyre shaped horns which were worn well down. To our amazement, he pointed out the faint but unmistakeable white stripes on the sides of the ram, something none of us had ever seen on a South African or Cape bushbuck. He was silent for a long while as we all stood around admiring the magnificent ram. As I bent over to take a photo of it where it lay, in a voice filled with conviction, he said, "This is the Donkey. There is no doubt in my mind. What is more, in my opinion, taking everything about the animal into consideration, I would say that this is the third best bushbuck ever shot in the Umkomaas Valley in my lifetime. If my late Dad, Olaf, were here now he would have said, ‘Well done you lot, well done! ‘ "
Later, back at the skinning sheds, Pete measured the horns at a whisker under 16 inches. By comparison, this would equate to a one of those 59 inch kudu super bulls and, after the skull had been cleaned, Pete set it up next to the camp fire where we admired it repeatedly as we ate our supper and relived the hunt again and again. It was everything anyone could have ever wanted in a South African bushbuck and it is the last one I will ever hunt.