Lucking Out With a Kudu
by Kevin Thomas
Huge granite outcrops and bush fringed whalebacks, dissected by mopane woodland and drab grey acacia formed the typical Zimbabwe landscape tapestry we were hunting across. My client, Art Mariner, had told me on the long drive into camp that he considered himself a ‘lucky’ hunter. For a PH it’s important after first meeting a client pre-safari to gauge his hunting guest’s mindset and find out what motivates him to hunt? – Is he tape measure obsessed (normally a nightmare safari!), is he relaxed and on safari for the all embracing African safari experience? Where trophy quality is important but not an obsession (normally a successful safari all round). Thus far on our safari Art’s luck had held and on the first morning, he’d shot a big zebra stallion, then two days later he’d put a huge leopard into the salt, after it’d obligingly stopped by to chew on a zebra haunch. On the days following, a sable went down, then in fairly quick succession, an impala, a waterbuck and a klipspringer.
As a PH, and like many individual sport hunter’s I’m a great believer in hunter’s luck, I never used to be, but after decades of guiding clients, there’s a gut feel that yes, maybe luck does play a role. Uptight, stressed out client’s who are obsessed with ‘inches’ and being in the ‘Top Three’ of the record books normally need a lot of luck. Although in my experience, Diana, that whimsical Goddess of hunting doesn’t often bless them with too much of it. On the other hand, a client who is laid back and enjoys every aspect of his safari experience, and who looks upon the actual killing of a trophy animal as part of the overall, invariably gets ‘lucky’.
Art hadn’t hunted Africa before, nor had he any intention of coming here and he was quite open about it. Our paths crossed when I was contracted by Touch Africa Safaris to guide him, and on the drive into camp he explained how one of his hunting colleagues, an ardent African trophy hunter, enticed him to come over as part of a business transaction they’d done. A professional hunter needs to know early on and preferably well before the client’s arrival, exactly what the client(s) trophy wants are. None of this had been given me – purely because Art himself hadn’t been too sure of what he wanted at that early stage of affairs.
En route the concession, a four hour drive from the airport, I started to become a little concerned because Art still didn’t really know what he wanted, although his safari was a 14-day leopard & plains game hunt. Eventually though, and after about two hours into our journey, I managed to wheedle out of him the names of a few trophy species he’d apparently looked at in a book, before coming to Africa. It soon transpired a kudu – “That thingy with those pretty spiral horns” – ranked high; he also wanted a zebra rug for his wife and maybe an impala. Not much by way of a trophy want list for a 14-day safari. When I asked Art if a leopard interested him, he replied, “Hell yes, but I’ve heard they’re not easy so let’s not sweat too much on that one, unless we get lucky”. It was at that point that he told me he considered himself a lucky hunter. After hearing that snippet of trivia, I immediately went into sales mode and tried to sell him a bunch of other plains game.
Kudu in Zimbabwe’s lowveld are known for their trophy quality, the vast tracts of land that bound the Buybye and the Mwenezi Rivers have over the decades produced some record breaking impressive trophy bulls. Sadly, and due to the ongoing land-grab, much of these areas, aside from a few conservancies, have lost their game numbers, and the mopane woodlands and kopjes now stand silent, aside from bird song.
Focusing on a good kudu bull, Art and I hunted hard; the bulls were still with the cows so we concentrated on glassing any male we saw in attendance with a group of cows. A number of them had horns in the mid-50s, which was about average for the area, and on one occasion after a long climb up a ridge, we glassed a worthy looking bull across the valley on the opposite acacia clad hillside. He looked to be about 57” so after a short rest, during which we quietly sat and observed him, we left the trackers under a tree, and then Art and I commenced a long slow stalk, monitoring the fickle wind all the while.
It was a fun stalk, in single file, and with Art close behind me the bush afforded us ample cover as we carefully made our way forward. Eventually we reached the base of the ridge, where at about the midway point the kudu was still visual, contentedly browsing. Slowly we began to climb, stopping frequently to rest and listen. Eventually we crested the ridgeline but found ourselves in some dead ground beneath the skyline, an advantageous situation for us.
Motioning to Art, I began to ease out of the depression, and crouching, slowly glassed the sparsely wooded area to our front half expecting the kudu to have moved off, yet there he was, about 150m to our front, side-on with head held low, scratching behind his one ear with a rear hoof. His horns were impressive, dark brown and gnarled with traces of yellowy green bark rubbed into them, ivory tips pointing forward – a mature good looking trophy, the heavy, deep, tight coil-spring curves, promising inches. We couldn’t risk any further movement for fear of compromise, so I slowly opened the waist high shooting sticks and hand signalled Art forward.
As if in slow motion he slid his .300 Winchester into the V formed by the top of the sticks, then settled the rifle into his shoulder and took in the sight picture. The kudu had stopped scratching and was standing well presented as if in contemplative mood. Off to the right, an as yet unseen younger bull hove into sight. I then heard the safety being slid forward, a hardly discernable metallic ‘snick’, audible only because of my close proximity to Art. Suddenly, and as if upon reflex alone I decided that with the hunting days we still had left, we could do better, so as Art started to place finger pressure on the trigger, I blanked off the front of his scope with my hand – effectively closing off his view of the target.
Art expelled a quiet expletive, and confused, if not a little annoyed he lifted his head with a querying look as if to ask what I thought I was doing at such a critical stage of proceedings. Standing up, I said somewhat loudly, “Art, we can do better” – my voice was all the kudu needed to send them away in a clatter of loose flying hillside shale in their signature rocking horse gait with white tails flagging.
When we got back to the trackers they too looked a bit irked at my having passed up the kudu, so I growled at them before they could say anything. On the walk out to the rig, Art grumbled about my having hashed it, letting his dream trophy kudu escape. By this stage of the safari however, he and I had great rapport so much of what he said was in jest but it was enough to nudge me into a serious bout of self doubt. My initial call on the kudu had been 57” a good trophy in anyone’s book, and I’d conveyed this assessment of mine to Art during our stalk – even venturing that it might go 58” plus. He’d stated that if he was able to put a kudu of that size into the salt, he’d go away a happy hunter indeed. I now began to wonder if my actions on the ridgeline had been stupid, and that maybe we’d now struggle to even find 54”. It was too late worrying, I’d just have to try harder or live with the consequences.
That night it rained - a quick freak storm with vicious thunder claps and lightning, and as I lay in my bed listening to the steady phut-phut-phut of the rain on the thatch roof and surrounding vegetation, I mulled over our quest for a bigger kudu than the one I’d stopped Art from killing. We were up early the next morning and driving out of camp as the sky paled. There was a damp but pleasant dust free scent to the bush, the haze was gone and the landscape cleansed. Bird song was vibrant and the day looked promising. We hunted hard without a break, aside from a brief lunch stop.
I’m a firm believer in big kudu bulls being out in the heat of the day, making their way to and from water, so by 13hr30 we were once more cross graining the concessions numerous management tracks and glassing the ridgelines. We saw kudu but nothing bigger than the low 50s. With light fading and while en-route back to camp, Art had another dig at me about his “lost” kudu. I promised him the next day – our tenth on safari – would be better. He smirked!
By late morning day ten looked to be a repeat of the previous day and I was getting worried, not helped any after we drove past the ridgeline where Art had nearly shot his trophy bull, gazing up at the feature he fuelled the underlying tension by casually remarking, “Damn, if we’d stayed with the plan, we could’ve carried that other old critter off that hill two days back!” Not commenting I drove on to a waterhole where we found nothing.
During our slow drive back towards camp conversation was muted. Suddenly tracker Lucky Ndlovu leant forward and squeezed my shoulder, and after braking quickly, we looked in the direction he was pointing. Below a huge granite whaleback dwala, all of 400m long a group of six kudu cows were daintily making their way through the bush that grew along the base.
Frustratingly there was no bull, and then just as I was about to re-start the rig Lucky whispered “Khona inkunzi!” (‘There is a bull!”) Above us and coming onto the skyline from the dwala’s rear slope was a kudu bull, and although he was about 450m from where we sat, one look through my binoculars told me he was a shooter. Hastily Art and I debussed and snuck off into the brush, moving quietly but purposefully towards the dwala.
At about 200m I didn’t want to risk going any closer so slowly opened the shooting sticks. Art felt he could do the deed, even though it was an uphill shot, and after getting comfortable, he watched the bull for about 30 seconds before letting the shot go. It was well placed and in acknowledgement of the hit, the kudu galloped straight towards us down the steep forward slope before being lost to our view in the thick stuff at the base. We heard no sound of thrashing around or similar, and Art was worried he might have missed. As we moved forward, I assured him the bull had been hard hit, if he’d missed or lightly wounded it, we’d have been climbing the dwala to look for it on the reverse side.
We found it crumbled in the bush; the horns went a solid 60” with 12” bases and the horn thickness too, was impressive. It was a magnificent trophy emphasising all the more Art’s tendency towards being a lucky hunter, and although I’m a veteran PH, one never stops learning, so it was also another life lesson for me – if early on in the safari you’ve got opportunity to shoot a good trophy, take it – with time running out, we could just have easily ended up posing with a representative kudu.
Kevin Thomas Safaris