A Kiwi Gets His Springbok and then some

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  1. Kevin Thomas Safaris

    Kevin Thomas Safaris AH Senior Member

    Jun 10, 2009
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    South Africa & Zimbabwe
    A Kiwi Gets His Springbok and then some
    by Kevin Thomas


    G’day from New Zealand, my name is Chris Elles… those were the opening words in Chris’s email to me on 08 August 2009. It was the first time I’d ever received an inquiry about hunting from a Kiwi sport hunter, so from the onset I’d hoped that it would come to fruition. I haven’t met that many New Zealanders in the course of my life, but the few I have met are all good people, so spending campfire time with a Kiwi on safari was sure to be a fun experience. If things got boring at least we’d have something in common by way of rugby banter, the All Blacks and Springboks are after all arch rivals.

    Chris had a pretty tight schedule as he was also planning on squeezing in a three day Mount Meru climb in Tanzania during his return trip, and mentioned that he was trying to “kill two birds with one stone”. His interest in hunting was focused on a 5-day Eastern Cape plains game package of ours that offered East Cape Kudu, Blesbok, Impala, Springbok, Warthog, and Steenbok. In addition he was keen on a Black or Blue Wildebeest and possibly a Gemsbok.

    My schedule was also tight, as I had a buffalo safari in Zimbabwe to do and was only due to cross back into South Africa on 29 September, which with Chris having planned on arriving in Port Elizabeth on 03 October didn’t give me much leeway for vehicle servicing, sorting out hunting gear etc. However, we firmed up on those dates and it was up to me as a professional hunter and safari operator to make them work.

    Because Chris was travelling via Thailand and the Middle East he opted not to bring his personal rifle, a .308 Winchester calibre, but to rather use one of mine. To this end I decided he’d best suit my 7x57mm Mauser and because of his trophy want list I loaded up three varying test batches of 160grn Nosler Spitzer AccuBond using new PMP brass and S355 propellant (all South African products). My primers were PMP Large Rifle Magnum and the most accurate load with the 160grns proved to be 40grns of S355 of which I loaded 20.

    My return from the buffalo hunt in Zimbabwe was on schedule and I met Chris at Port Elizabeth airport, but once more the baggage voodoo had struck, and Chris arrived with his hand luggage only. With the aid of an extremely helpful man in Nairobi, my wife Brenda eventually traced Chris’s bag to Dubai and it was duly forwarded to Port Elizabeth.

    Our hunt venue was Woodlands game ranch about 50kms North West of Grahamstown, a comfortable 2 hour drive from Port Elizabeth. The property is about 25,000 acres in extent and affords the discerning trophy hunter excellent fair chase hunting for a variety of different plains game species. Much of the ranch topography is rolling hills with deep valleys covered in what is botanically classified as succulent bushveld which allows species like the Eastern Cape kudu, nyala and bushbuck to thrive, as indeed they do. At the higher elevations the thick bush gives way to open grassed plains dotted with termite mounds. It is here that the large herds of blesbok, springbok and black wildebeest dwell with nomadic herds of eland, Burchell’s zebra and blue wildebeest coming and going from the low lying ground to the south and east.

    When we arrived at Woodlands, Keith Gradwell the resident PH and manager met us and showed us to our comfortable accommodations. Interestingly, Woodlands has been Keith’s family’s ancestral home since the 1820s and he has thus far, spent virtually his entire life on the property, so when it comes to local knowledge he’s a good man to have around.

    Mid-afternoon still allowed us enough light to visit the zeroing range so that Chris could familiarise himself with my 7mm Mauser, which I’ve dressed with a Leupold Vari-X III 1.5 to 5 power scope. He shot well with it at paper, and aside from shooting from the bench, also used the shooting sticks.

    We then entered the game ranch from a boundary gate on the perimeter, and after initially trying but failing to stalk two choice impala trophy rams, drove through a portion of the property merely admiring the game and countryside in general, before arriving back at the lodge. Evening was spent chatting about hunting in New Zealand and South Africa, and comparing hunting calibres favoured in the two countries., followed by a first class barbeque of kudu tenderloin and other venison cuts, expertly prepared by Keith Gradwell and washed down with a quality South African pinotage – in South Africa we aren’t shy about our love of good wine.

    Chris’s first day of hunting saw us out with tracker Tami at first light. We drove back to the same spot where we’d seen the impala on the previous afternoon. As luck would have it we detected them in the distance, and leaving the hunting rig we made our cautious approach. Feeding away from us, and despite the wind in our favour, the impala slowly disappeared into a thickly wooded stand of brush, and we failed to relocate them. Not long after sending Tami back to get the rig Chris and I spooked two very good rams on our way to the vehicle meeting point. Frustrated, we watched them run off up a wooded forward slope in the company of four kudu cows.

    When the vehicle reached us, we drove along a side road bordering the area where the two rams had absconded, and as we came onto level ground we picked one of them up to our left about 350m away. Stopping the truck, Chris and I were able to stalk to within about 150m of them, but once on the shooting sticks and looking through the scope only the smaller trophy of the two was visual and it had seen us. Eventually the big one stepped out from behind it, and it too stood staring our way. Chris had a good full frontal sight picture of the trophy, so I whispered to him to shoot it in the centre of its chest.

    In tandem with the noise of the shot, the impala seemed to topple backwards, then run off to its right at high speed. Initially when we got to where the animal had been standing, we couldn’t find it or any blood sign – but then we found blood – lots of it. Tracking was easy, and although the impala lost a huge amount of blood, it ran at least 250m before we found it. Chris gave it a coup de grace and his first African trophy went a respectable 24” – he was elated. The AccuBond had passed straight through, entering the chest slightly off centre, missing the heart but clipping the edge of the lungs, before exiting the belly behind the last rib.

    Back at the lodge, I asked Keith if he wanted to join us for the afternoon hunt because I was very keen to get in some photography of a stalk as websites always need to be updated and ours is no exception. My plan was for him to guide and me to use my camera – he readily agreed and we decided to go up onto the high ground, called the Bedford plains, for a warthog. The hunt went well; no sooner had we reached the plains than we saw a big hog break with a female and two sub-adults, and at high speed head for the cover of the lower mountainside slopes. Cutting the engine we let them go and sat waiting – warthog have short memories.


    After 15 minutes we cautiously approached the edge of the plateau and with the wind in our favour glassed the area the hogs had run into. They were there, wagging their tails and happily feeding! Keith and Chris then carried out a good stalk, and shot the hog from about 50m whilst I sat and took photographs. Hauling it back up the mountain was the difficult part. Day one had gone well.

    Throughout the night the rain bucketed down and the early morning saw no real respite until about 09:00hrs. With it being too muddy to hunt the valleys we found ourselves back on the Bedford plains, where after we’d hidden ourselves behind a termite mound, Chris shot a black wildebeest. We later recovered the bullet, and aside from setting well, the weight retention was about 88%.

    Late afternoon saw us back on the plains where we once again concealed ourselves behind a cluster of termite mounds, before sending Tami off into the far distance with the rig as a “chivvy factor” only, and not to drive or chase the game in any way. It worked, and in time, trotting way ahead of a gambolling herd, a lone blesbok male came into view. Yellowed stains from the orbital glands on its white facial blaze, and the long cream coloured heavy rings on the horns screamed ‘trophy’, so when it was about 170m out, I whispered to Chris to shoot it.

    Chris took the shot from a seated position, off my short shooting sticks, but when we walked towards it quietly on foot, the blesbok suddenly leapt up, his first shot was a little far back so he had to put in another quick anchor shot. Back at the skinning shed, the trackers recovered one bullet and it too, had set well, and later, the weight retention was found to also be in the high eighties. It was the first time I had used Nosler AccuBonds, and I was pleased with their field performance.


    When relaxing back at the lodge we had more than hunting to talk about because aside from his profession, Chris also serves as a Territorial soldier with New Zealand’s 2 Cants NMWC (Nelson Marlborough West Coast Battalion Group) and with me being an ex-Rhodesian Special Force soldier, and having seen two years service in Iraq as a Private Security Contractor, we found that discussing current global counter-insurgency issues was equally interesting, although hunting was the main focus.

    On 6 October we again went out early, but thick fog was at ground level and visibility severely curtailed. It is a common phenomenon at this time of year in the Eastern Cape and one has little recourse but to wait for the sun to burn it off. At times, this only happens at about midday. Back at the lodge my phone call to SAA proved fruitful, Chris’s bag was at Port Elizabeth airport so we headed to the city to collect it. Given that it was a Bergen with the side pockets unlocked, it was surprising that Chris’s binoculars and range finder hadn’t been stolen.

    Obviously with Kiwi and Springbok rugby rivalry at an all time high, we couldn’t let Chris go home to the land of the long white cloud without attempting to put a Springbok into the salt. Having returned from Port Elizabeth airport in good time, Chris was soon unpacked and wearing his own gear (I think he’d got tired of wearing some of my clothes), and so late afternoon saw us trying for a springbok. A trophy male we’d glimpsed earlier in the hunt, before he took off across the plains, wandered back into his territory as we sat in ambush screened by some brush. Chris dropped him with a shot also placed a little way back but he got up, ran a short distance then lay down. He was bleeding heavily and soon expired. It was a nice trophy and obviously some good natured banter about Kiwi’s and Springboks brought the day’s hunting to closure.


    Our next day’s hunting had an Eastern Cape kudu high on the menu, and Keith had again joined us. In that the first hour of daylight, we were driving east on the plateau when we spotted a bachelor herd running over the edge so leaving the rig we quickly moved towards where they’d disappeared. The wind was ideal and using the plentiful cover we got down a few hundred feet onto a ledge, then crawling to the lip looked over and the kudu were standing there, but very alert. Keith and Chris lay prone watching for an opportunity at one of the bull’s which was a good trophy. Eventually after about 25 minutes Chris chose to shoot from a kneeling position using the short sticks. It was a shot getting out to about 300m, previously ranged by Keith, and Chris’s bullet went a mite high, clearing the kudu’s back. The whole group took off.

    Straight after this, we moved to where the kudu had been standing, and following some careful glassing picked them out across a narrow valley. They stood frozen in the dense spekboom thickets, only affording us the odd glimpse of a neck or head. It was about 380m out and too ‘iffy’ for a shot, the chance of wounding and losing one being too great. After a quick Chinese parliament it was decided that Keith and Chris would carry on down the valley on foot, whilst I legged it back up the hill to the vehicle, and then via a circuitous route meet them at the bottom of the valley.

    Our plan didn’t bare any fruit and the two intrepid hunters eventually pitched up at the truck a little worse for wear but in high spirits. We hunted hard for the entire day and counted 36 kudu bulls in total, but distance, terrain and bush density didn’t allow us to get within killing range of a shooter. At one stage we broke off from kudu hunting, and Chris and Keith tried a stalk on a lone gemsbok bull but it departed the area in a rush.

    On 8 October, which was Chris’s last day of hunting, we again went out early in search of kudu and at about 08:00hrs located four bulls feeding on the side of a hill across a valley from us. They were a long way from us but Keith and Chris opted to carry out a stalk from where we’d spotted them. Once the two of them had moved off, I sat on a convenient boulder and watched the scenario unfold. The action was too far away from me to have been able to record it with the camera lens I had, so I just watched with my binoculars. Eventually and after what seemed like hours, I glimpsed Keith and Chris gingerly crossing an open patch of bush, before they once more disappeared into the thickets. Suddenly a shot rang out, and although I saw three kudu break out of the brush, I couldn’t account for the fourth, or see the hunters.

    After a few minutes, during which some waterbuck bulls came clattering over the ridge from lower down, Keith came into view and when watching him through my binoculars I saw that he was signalling for me to drive up onto the plateau above their position – handheld radios would have made our communications a lot easier but we weren’t carrying them.

    Still not knowing if Chris had shot a kudu or not, I eventually arrived above their position and halfway up from where they were, met Tami who was all smiles. Chris had indeed killed an extremely old kudu bull well passed his prime. It had been about a 150m shot in dense brush and the 160grn AccuBond had destroyed the lungs and lodged against the far shoulder. In dying, the bull had spun through 180º and after running about 15m piled up. There was a lot of smiling, laughing, and handshaking whilst waiting for the tractor to bring in the recovery team.


    SCI (Safari Club International) give the Eastern Cape kudu a separate listing in their record books, the horns are shorter than those of the Southern Greater kudu found further north. Chris’s kudu had beautifully formed horns that measured in the low forties and were tipped with ivory points.

    With the safari winding down, it was towards late afternoon that Chris then decided in closure (and with a lot of sales talk from Keith & me) that perhaps a blue wildebeest would be a good antelope to add to the bag. Over the course of the previous few mornings we’d seen an excellent bull with three younger ones, so driving back up onto the plateau we glassed and picked them up, and then did a quick stalk into a clump of bush slightly above the depression they were grazing in. It turned into a bit of a comedy because I’d wanted to try for a few photos but the wildebeest was so close to us – about 40m on the other side of the bush – he became suspicious of us and started to move forward to investigate our presence, so all we could do was let Chris crab walk sideways at a crouch, closely following Keith who had the shooting sticks. Once Chris had come up onto the sticks, he very quickly put a bullet into the curious blue wildebeest’s chest. With its tail windmilling, it turned and at high speed galloped off downhill before crumbling about 30m further on.


    Back at the skinning shed we found that the AccuBond had missed the heart, but totally destroyed the lungs, tearing a huge wound channel through them before disappearing somewhere into the grass laden paunch. We never found it.

    Finally my safari with my new found Kiwi friend had come to an end, and he had six good trophies in the salt, but if Chris’s enthusiasm is anything to go by, I reckon the African hunting bug has truly bitten him. En route the airport for departure on his Tanzanian mountain climb, he was talking about returning sometime in the future for a Cape buffalo in Zimbabwe, I like to encourage that kind of thinking.

    Kevin Thomas Safaris

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