Despite hunting since I was a little boy, apart from one self-enforced absence of ten years as a young man, some things have remained constant. For example, after firing a shot at game, I suffer from immediate, post shot anxiety unless the animal drops in its tracks. Is it dead? Have I wounded it? Will we find it? Why did you take that shot? And even then, that isn’t the end of it as I know full well that an animal which falls to the shot may only be concussed and about to stand and run off never to be seen again, which has led to the good habit of staying down on the shot, automatically rechambering a round and watching the downed animal carefully, not exposing myself and ready for a second shot should it prove necessary. Sometimes I take one anyway, just to be sure.
I am certain some of this anxiety started in my early hunting days when I battled to afford the most basic hunts on the most basic game ranches and where, as is customary, you had to pay for the animal if a drop of blood was spotted, regardless of whether you found the wounded animal or not.
I was purely a meat hunter in those days and shot for friends, family and acquaintances who effectively helped fund my own hunting and having to pay for a wounded and lost animal was something I would battle to do. As such, a situation like this was of nail biting concern and certainly encouraged the most immediate, determined and enthusiastic follow up of wounded game, apart from the moral imperative of such pursuits.
In addition, I often hunted on my own, even in those early days and, as I have never been the world’s greatest tracker, always worried that I might lose a wounded animal if it ran too far and the blood dried up. Not to mention that the rock strewn koppies of the Karoo and certain other tricky terrains where I mainly hunted would have challenged a far better tracker than me.
Whatever the reason, I have never been cured of IPSAS and, at one time, it led to an even worse problem as I started to lift my head off the stock too quickly to see the results of the shot and did not follow through on it as I should have done. Of course, this created the exact opposite of the situation I was hoping to avoid – misses and wounding – until regular practice and self-discipline eliminated that particular fault.
This anxiety, fear really, dictated my early shot placement and I aimed for the neck of most animals in the belief that, if I missed, the animal would run away unharmed but, if I hit, either a little high or a little low, the animal would drop stone dead to the shot especially, as from an early age, not being recoil shy, I used heavier calibres than were strictly necessary for the size and tenacity of the species I hunted. Later, of course, I learned that this was a sub-optimal shot and had to change, especially when larger game was involved and I started to shoulder mount some of them.
The obvious choice was the traditional heart/lung shots in the vital triangle but then the game ran for greater or lesser distances. What to do? A good friend showed me what is today considered by many to be the risky, high shoulder shot. Roughly nine to ten inches down from the line of the back of a large antelope like a kudu and in line with the front leg. I found this shot placement dropped the animal in its tracks after bisecting the spinal column or produced such shock to the system it incapacitated most animals and allowed for a coup de grace.
With some game you needed to make allowance for a shoulder hump – like kudu for example – or the low position of the spinal column in the neck – such as gemsbok – but all that became apparent in my researches into the animals I was planning to hunt, helped enormously by Kevin Robertson’s invaluable guide, The Perfect Shot.
Early on, I learned how important this research was. A game rancher asked me to shoot a huge, old giraffe on his property that was killing his younger rivals but not covering the cows himself – a lose/lose for the rancher. At that stage, I had only shot two giraffe, both in the head with a .375. Others had tried without success to kill this wily, old beast and he was on high alert. In all likelihood, the rancher advised, the shot would be in the region of 200 plus metres. In examining The Perfect Shot, I found the heart of a giraffe was both much higher in the chest cavity than I expected and also much smaller relative to the size of the beast.
We found the giraffe in a large, open, flat valley bottom and, as the rancher had warned, it was impossible to stalk closer than 200 or so metres. The research helped me hit the bottom of the bull’s heart with my first shot and, as the animal rushed off in its ungainly but deceptively fast, galloping gait, I was able to shoot it a second time, which soon concluded proceedings.
I liked finding an animal out in the open like this because it usually allowed for a quick follow up shots and I worked on the basis that the taxidermist could almost always patch up one or two extra holes and this was infinitely preferable to allowing an animal to suffer while following it for hours or days.
In all honesty, though, I can remember very few times using the high shoulder shot that I had to make a second shot so, for the most part, this shot placement has worked well for me over the years, possibly because I used heavier calibres than necessary and, so, for example, after acquiring my first .375, I effectively threw away my 30-06 because everything it did, the .375 did, only so much better. Many of my friends who had still not seen the benefits of heavier calibres took to admiring her, despite the extra ammo costs and she was given the name, Bertha, by one of them. Slowly, one by one, most of them succumbed to the virtues of heavier than strictly necessary calibres and, today, one of them even uses a .505 Gibbs as his carry gun while, in time, a .416 Rigby shared the place of my carry gun with that of Bertha.
Another major factor behind my anxiety was a deep hatred of wounding the wild animals I had gradually come to care so much about and to which I had devoted so much of my time, effort and money, not least on my beloved Bankfontein game ranch, on the eastern edge of South Africa’s Great Karoo, in the poverty stricken Eastern Cape Province.
So, I built a 300 metre shooting range on the ranch and it was rare for me not to practice on it when I visited the property as I became ever more determined to kill the game I hunted on the ranch and elsewhere as cleanly and humanely as possible. This also dictated the firearms I bought to ensure that I had the right calibre and bullet combinations for the various species and conditions in which I hunted but always erring on the side of bigger is better.
So, while a lot of my fellow game cullers in the Karoo used .222s, .223s, 22-250s and 243s to cull, I used a 7mm Rem. Mag. Why? Well, because if I hit a springbok or blesbok in or about the head or neck, which were the animals I mainly culled, they were killed instantly, whereas I sometimes came across these animals with bullet holes in or about their heads still running around wounded.
Many years later, in my seventieth year, I was in Cameroon, on my last hunt before packing away my rifles for good. I wanted to stop at a time of my own choosing. While I was still ahead of the game. When I could still hunt properly, on foot, the way I always had and keep up with a hunting team over the course of a day on the tracks. While my eyesight was still good enough to pick up distant game usually spotted first by the trackers. While I could still shoot well enough – after practicing as religiously as in the past – to both kill game quickly and cleanly. And, most importantly, before I started inadvertently wounding game.
I had chosen my favourite hunt for a Lord Derby’s eland bull as my swan song and my good friend, Eben Espach and my son, Richard, as companions. My guide was the evergreen, professional hunting icon, Franz Coupé, who was in his 80th year and, if anything, fitter than me ten years his junior.
Early in the hunt we had tracked and been outwitted by a bandit, a lone Lord Derby’s bull who had been ejected from his breeding herd and who, despite trying to rejoin it from time to time, was on his own. I had tried and failed to hunt these loners more than once. To me they were the ultimate Lord Derby’s challenge. While they might not have the eyes and noses of the herd to protect them, they had not grown this old by accident.
On my first attempt in CAR, the head tracker, Martin Voungouessy Tito, son of the local chief and a formidable ex elephant poacher, showed me where the lone eland bull we were following had stood and patiently watched his back tracks for some time – judging by the number of hoof prints he left at the spot – from the fringe of a forest after crossing an open plain. Anyone following closely on them would have given the game away and, by the next day, the bull could have been 50 kilometres away.
Secondly, they were not slowed down by the calves in the herd and were ceaseless ramblers – much like the big, old Western roan bulls – often even eating on the move.
But there was something almost mystical about these huge, old, cunning bulls with their thick, wrestlers’ necks, dark chocolate brown ruffs, long, ponderous, heavy, hanging dewlaps and forearm thick, worn horns that demanded my deep respect and unalloyed admiration. Plus, the knowledge that they were probably in the last year or two of their lives and their death would not stress the herd or interfere with its dynamics, made me want to hunt them far more than the younger, longer horned bulls in their prime who had replaced them in the herd.
We tracked that big, solitary bull for nine days and botched the only two occasions we saw him. How we managed to follow, then lose, then pick up and follow his tracks again and again was nothing short of miraculous and entirely down to the skill and determination of my two man tracking team headed by Sabou Celestine and his powerful, heavy set assistant, Papye Pano Abou, and one other factor. That was the ability of the combined team to think like the eland and work out where in the 120 000 hectare (250 000 acre), unfenced concession, bordering Benoue National Park, the eland might go.
At midday on the 12th of the 14 day safari, after not being able to find the Bandit’s track for almost 24 hours, we were half heartedly following a small, mixed eland herd, which we believed had once belonged to the Bandit, when we cut his characteristic track with the signature squiggle in the left back hoof print. They were crisp and fresh in the beige dirt of the dry hillside. We were back in business! Everyone’s body language changed in a nano second. We sensed that this could be our moment as eland like to find a shady spot to while away the hottest part of the day, ruminate and snooze. The problem, if there was going to be one, was that the spots they chose at this time nearly always gave them an overwhelming advantage. Often an area surrounded by crackling leaves or impenetrable reeds. Often with an imposing geographic feature or the prevailing wind behind them and a clear view over open ground to the front.
An hour later we were heading up a steep, rocky, shrub choked ravine when Sabou sank to his knees. No words were necessary. We all knew that this was our moment. Nevertheless, it took seemingly endless minutes, with increasingly loud exchanges in French between Sabou and Franz – who is hard of hearing – before I could zero in on the area inhabited by the bull.
Eventually I found him in my 10×40 Leica Geovids, some 200 plus metres away, head hanging over his knees, fast asleep in thick, dappled, camouflaging shade at the head of the ravine. A ragged, changeable breeze blew predominantly from behind him and siphoned down the clear drop of the ravine to his front. If he had been awake, he most assuredly would have seen us before we saw him. No time to lose. Up on the sticks.
I was surprisingly calm as I steadied my 40 year old, customised Brno .375, loaded with 300 grain Swift A-frames. The crosshairs in the Zeiss Diavari Z 1½ x 6 scope found the bull’s left shoulder. The horizontal ones came to rest just below the line of the back of the bull, while the vertical ones were glued to the foreleg. The shot flowed from the barrel almost of its own volition as all my best shots did and, recovering from the recoil, I looked down into the grinning face of Sabou, kneeling at my feet and steadying the left leg of the sticks. Before I could say anything, he and Papye hared off up and over the boulders and rocks in the ravine heading for the bull, who had dropped stone dead in his tracks as a result of the high shoulder shot which ended his illustrious life in an instant. He had never woken from his sleep. When my time comes, I hope I will be allowed to emulate the Bandit, the king of the eland family!