SA JAGTER/HUNTER | November-December 2021 | By NICO KOTZE
HUNTING A MAGNIFICENT SABLE IN THE LIMPOPO VALLEY
I awoke in pitch-darkness from the noise of something sizeable running on my chalet’s roof. A moment later, the shrill call of a crested francolin outside the door spurred me on, announcing the birth of a new day in the Bushveld.
It is 05:00 on the first hunting morning on a large game farm in the northwestern part of Limpopo Province. Gert Stols invited me on a special sable antelope hunt on his beautiful game farm, bordered by the Limpopo River to the west and the Matlabas River to the east.
The hunt would be special in more than one way: I had the prospect of hunting a sable. What is more, I would hunt this majestic animal on this magnificent farm spanning close to 10 000 ha between the two rivers, a mere 30 km upstream from the farm where I grew up. This area undoubtedly is my favourite hunting ground!
The hunting camp is nestled in the middle of the Bushveld among red bushwillows and marula trees. Thanks to the thriving ecosystem, we were surrounded by the sounds of nature – from black-backed jackal yapping, francolin and fish eagle calling, buffalo grunting and baboon barking, to all the nocturnal sounds one could imagine. This Bushveld melody set the theme for the next seven hunting days. This is a place where you feel free and alive, and your mood is lifted from whatever your busy lifestyle enslaved it to.
OUR TRACKER DANIEL
Daniel, a friend of mine, came along to film the hunt and hunt an impala and a warthog if the opportunity presented itself. Our tracker was also called Daniel. An elderly and respected fellow, he is not a man of many words. However, when he does speak, he really means it, so we took heed when he firmly warned us on the first morning: “Maar ons moet mooi loop dié kant. Die beffol hulle es, en hulle es stout, daai beffol!”
It was the beginning of June, and a cold front had just moved in unexpectedly over the golden-brownish bushveld. The first morning at sunrise, the mercury had dropped to -2 ºC. Daniel suggested we walk in the woodlands next to the Limpopo River. The air was clean and crisp as a jackal broke the silence close by next to the river. I watched Daniel scooping a handful of sand and testing the wind unpretentiously – we did not want those “stout beffol” to smell us. However, there was a story behind Daniel’s immense respect for these animals!
Daniel is small in stature, and when I saw with how much patience he cautiously moved through the bush, I immediately realised he was a fine tracker.
Soon, we spotted a solitary sable bull through the bushes. As we were studying him, he stared at us and snorted. He was mature but had very narrow horns. Hundreds of sables roamed this large farm, and we had seven days to find a suitable bull. In the hunting field, you are always faced with the decision whether to take an animal once you see it or come back for it later. In my experience, always take the opportunity because there may not be a second chance. The bull snorted once more, turned around and disappeared into the sweet thorns. Slowly, we continued walking, zigzagging to and from the river; we had about 12 km of Limpopo River frontage available for hunting. However, once we reached the other side, we still had to walk back again to fetch the bakkie.
Given his stealthy, silent approach, Daniel would only use gestures to imitate the horns of a particular animal every time he spotted something. His imitation of an impala ram or a “beffol” bull still eludes me. We saw impala, eland, wildebeest, blesbuck, warthog and several other antelope species. There was life everywhere; we even stumbled upon a python basking in the sun, trying to regain energy after the cold morning.
FOLLOWING SABLE SPOOR
We came across quite a few sable bulls. The idea was to harvest a solitary bull or one in a bachelor herd. Late morning, we spotted a big bull from a distance. He had all the features I was looking for and carried long horns forming a complete curve and opening on top. However, he disappeared quickly, and we pursued him for a while but eventually lost him as all the grass and dry turf made tracking very difficult. He certainly was special, but the sudden excitement dissipated as it dawned on me that I may not see him again. Later, we spotted two more bulls. One must have been close to 47”-48”, but his horns did not have the same curve as the bull I had seen earlier. He was still impressive, nonetheless.
We then came to a few hundred metres of thick thorn scrub. Struggling through it, we noticed signs of bachelor buffalo bulls everywhere… Armed with only the .30-06, different scenarios played out in my head, should we accidentally provoke one!
THE WONDERS OF AND THREATS TO NATURE
Every now and then, we reached a vlei that was connected to the river and still had a lot of water after the heavy rains earlier that year. In each vlei, we caught a glimpse of crocodile. While enjoying a snack on the bank of one of these vleis, we watched a crocodile keeping a lookout about 10 m away. A water thickknee stood on the bank close to the croc and called to him. This clever bird lays her eggs near the crocodile’s eggs, and if an intruder approaches, she’ll call to the croc, who will then come and save their eggs. In this instance, we were the intruders, and she made this clear to the crocodile. What a strange yet wonderful symbiotic relationship. As I watched the croc, I thought of one of our tracker Daniel’s fellow farmworkers caught by one of these reptiles while trying to save his dog a few years ago.
Unfortunately, we also found a few snares set by the local people from across the border. Some of these snares hadn’t been checked for months, so you can imagine how many animals were lost. Next, we bumped into a bachelor herd of impala and decided to pursue them so that Daniel could take one. Silently and slowly, we stalked them, glassing them at every opportunity. There was one big ram, but we didn’t manage to get a shot at him. Suddenly, a warthog boar ran off to our right. Daniel quickly signalled for us to pursue him. It appeared as if something was twisted around his head. Despite losing him, we continued walking slowly in the direction he was heading. Within a few minutes, I spotted the pig feeding in the thorn scrub. I rested against a sweet-thorn trunk, and as he lifted his head, I saw the wire that was wound across his face. Instinctively, I took the shot.
Approaching the warthog boar, we were astonished. The poor pig must have been caught in a snare a while back. The wire had cut into his head and skull, and the skin around his jaw had grown completely closed around the wire and healed. By the look of it, he must have walked with this snare for about a year or two. This revolting, sad sight once again reminded me of the importance of placing a monetary value on wild animals and utilising them in a responsible, sustainable manner. Hunting plays a crucial part in this and in our duty as custodians of our wildlife.
SABLE, A BIG OLD BOAR AND A HISSING SURPRISE
The rest of the day, we bumped several good, shootable sable bulls. Unfortunately, it was not exactly what I was looking for, especially after seeing that big bull earlier on. And so, an eventful day in the Bushveld drew to an end. Arriving in camp just after sunset, we were welcomed by a cosy campfire warming up the chilly air. To our surprise, two African wildcat kittens were curled up next to the fire. The air was filled with all kinds of night sounds. Sitting there, tired but content, my thoughts wandered to the early African big-game hunting days of the nineteenth century. Every so often, we are blessed to experience a fleeting glimpse of those untamed moments. Filled with gratitude, we retired for the day in anticipation of what the next day might hold.
The following day at sunrise, we were already in the veld. The air was crisp and cold again, filled with the calls of crested francolin and guinea-fowl. To walk silently was almost impossible – as far as we walked, the birds announced our presence. This time, we decided to head to a sandveld area. We soon spotted many species ranging from gemsbuck, impala, eland, giraffe, wildebeest, sable and warthog to red hartebeest. I was also keen to hunt a red hartebeest. We found several herds but left the breeding groups and followed a few bulls in a bachelor herd. We stalked them for a while, but they never allowed me a clear shot. Shortly after, we bumped into a huge warthog boar in tall grass. He must have been close to 14” but was already running when we spotted him and disappeared in the long grass as we tried to follow him. I love hunting warthog, but I guess in this case the familiar Afrikaans saying, “Elke dag is jagdag, maar nie elke dag is slagdag nie” applied.
Late morning, while walking back to the bakkie a few kilometres off, my thoughts again drifted, and I paid scant attention to my surroundings. Then, as I put my right foot down, the unmistakable hiss of a puff adder rudely interrupted my daydreaming. A few seconds later, I found myself metres away from the reptile! Standing there, I wondered how on earth I managed to leap like that. Those who have had a similar experience will know exactly what I am talking about.
SWEET SUCCESS AT LAST
The third morning, we returned to the area where we had seen the lone bull on the first day. My rational thoughts kept on telling me he could be anywhere. However, given our circumstances, this would be the best place to start searching for him. Our only option was to slowly walk through the area, trying to spot him. Because of the grass and dry turf, tracking wasn’t really an alternative.
After a while, a black form moving in dense thorn bush drew our attention. Stalking closer, I caught a glimpse of the horns – it was him! He was watching us, snorting, from the safe cover of the thickets that concealed his vitals. I could not take the shot. Quietly, we knelt behind some cover, waiting for him to move into an opening. But instead, he walked off, keeping some bush between us. Carefully, we moved closer, concentrating on every step to prevent any noise or sudden movements that would spook him.
But the cunning bull outsmarted us time and again. At times we were a mere 20 m away from him, where he stood completely hidden in some thickets, snorting at us. Then he would run off again for a few hundred metres, just to find another hiding place. Frustrated, we hastily followed him as not to lose sight of him again. This continued for the better part of two hours until we finally lost him.
While searching for the bull, we bumped into another one and tracked him for a while until I realised it wasn’t our bull. We might have lost him for good this time but kept walking in the general direction we had last seen him running. A short while later, I saw a solitary bull in the distance. He was joining four other bulls in a bachelor herd in a clearing. It was him!
His behaviour had changed, though. He wasn’t fleeing anymore but had a dominant, fighting posture as he smelled and circled the other bulls. Although it was easier to stalk him now, it still took us about half an hour to get into a good position for a possible shot.
He and another bull were standing broadside to us, facing each other in a spectacular display of dominance and pride, measuring each other’s strength. This was the opportunity I had been waiting for. As the crosshair steadily found the bull’s vitals, I very slowly squeezed the trigger. He only went 50 m before expiring.
Over the years, I’ve hunted many animals. And with each one I take, my respect for them grows. I’m not sure why. Maybe it is because one becomes more mature as a hunter, or perhaps you better understand your responsibility as a custodian of our wildlife. Or maybe it is their genuineness as animals. Harvesting a majestic animal with such striking beauty as a sable bull certainly adds to that. He was beautiful in every sense of the word, stretching the tape well into Rowland Ward’s record book with beautifully curved horns that open at the top.
We carried on hunting for another few days, with Daniel also taking a warthog and an impala. Then we prepared some of the sable’s brisket and ribs with oxtail and enjoyed a fantastic potjie on the banks of the Limpopo to conclude a very special hunt indeed.