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Into the wild of Africa

The experience of hunting in Africa is every bit as addictive as advertised, offering a narcotic effect that few other locations' grandeur can approach

By Mike Leggett
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF



VAALWATER, South Africa - Two hours and 50 yards. On sand-scraped hands and creaking knees. That's how long and how far Marco du Plessis and I had crawled, inches at a time, toward a big gemsbok bull bedded in a tangle of South African bush.

I had actually seen the bull's fly-swatter tail swish across a tiny opening once or twice, and maybe, just maybe, I witnessed the flick of a dull, gray ear the size of a dinner plate as he lay down to wait out the midday heat. But mostly I was relying on hand signals and a few mouthed words to learn that we had the wind on our side, the bull was unaware of our presence and that Marco intended for us to creep within a few yards, and into staredown territory, before we took the shot.

Using my fully extended shooting sticks as a kind of rake, Marco stealthily cleared a series of saucer-sized knuckle and knee landing zones in the blanket of leaves carpeting the ground beneath the trees, carefully laying out a zigzag course that would bring us face to face with the gemsbok.

In the midst of the stalk, sweat dripping down my nose, I surveyed our trail and thought how much it resembled a game of Twister played outdoors, with a gun slung over my back and binoculars shoved down my shirt. Or some of those Arthur Murray plastic footprints on a dance floor. Cha-cha-cha.

And then the bull, swinging twin dagger horns more than 40 inches long, hafted on 450 pounds of slate-gray muscle, stood up. And began a slow walk directly toward us. Marco did a mime's slow roll onto his back, fixing me with a plaintive look that said, "Find a hole in the brush and shoot this thing before he stomps us."

I could see the gemsbok, also known as an oryx, as plain as day 20 yards away and closing fast. But the view through my scope was nothing but a jumble of tree limbs, trunks and savannah grass that would block any bullet. Finally, one tiny hole crept into focus, one little space that if the gemsbok turned just right would maybe let a bullet through.

But then, as if directed by an unseen hand, the bull stopped in mid-stride. And looked right at us. Time, which had almost reached light speed when he left his bed, stood still. A fish eagle screamed in the distance. Sweat dribbled down my nose. My 55-year-old thigh muscles started to knot in protest and a hacking cough was building in my dehydrated lungs.

If I could hold it together, I might get a shot. And if I made the wrong move, the gemsbok would hit an instant high gear and streak off across the dry, dusty plain the way he had when we first saw him before 10 a.m.

Passing on an early opportunity

It was noon on Day 5 of my first African hunt, crunch time in our pursuit of the gemsbok we'd driven through mountain passes and over closed, washed-out bridges to find. Harry Taplin and I had flown 9,000 miles to hunt with Melville du Plessis and his sons, Mel Jr. and Marco, in the mountains of Limpopo Province, which they call home.

The concession we were hunting was dry, dusty flatland with a few mottes here and there, a sharp contrast to the lush green canyons of nearby Ubumanzi Reserve, where we had hunted kudu on the mountains and impala. I had killed a very nice impala and a kudu with 49-inch horns that Mel Jr. and I had chased around a mountain for most of a day.

Kudu, the "gray ghost" of Africa, had lived up to their reputation as cautious, careful animals, almost elk-like in their determination to hang out on thick, brushy mountainsides, where they feed on the freshest and greenest leaves of evergreen hardwoods. Moving quietly and using their gray coats with white lines as perfect camouflage, the kudu had presented only one easy shot.

That came on the first morning of our hunt, in the first 15 minutes, just after we left the Ubumanzi Reserve headquarters at the bottom of a deep canyon. After we had climbed to about 2,000 feet, Mel Sr. stopped the truck only 75 yards from a group of kudu cows and calves. I was sitting in the bed of the truck admiring them when a massive pair of spiraling horns rose up from behind.

Everybody in the truck, Mel Sr., Mel Jr. and ranch owner Niel Maritz, started chattering away. "Good bull. Real good bull. Very good bull. Maybe you should take him." I declined, though. It was just too soon. Too easy. Too lacking in the feeling that I'd gotten my feet on the ground in Africa, left my own track on top of a hyena's dog-like stamp.

We had landed in Johannesburg fewer than 24 hours earlier, resighted our guns just before dark the night before. We'd driven 50 miles over corduroy gravel roads to get to Ubumanzi and had been drinking fresh-brewed tea at the ranch's thatched-roof lodge just 20 minutes ago. Too soon.

"Are you going to shoot?" Mel Jr. asked, snapping me out of my mini-trance. I looked up over the top of the scope and said, "I'll wait." The big bull, which they would later tell me had horns well past 50 inches, turned and melted into the brush. "You'll be sorry one day," Mel Sr. said.

I wouldn't regret not taking the shot, because I still had the experience. I had come to quench a lifelong thirst for the feeling of Africa, the taste of which is every bit as addictive as I was told. Hunting is hunting, unless it's for buffalo or leopard or brown bear, but Africa has a narcotic effect that nothing except old South Texas and the Alaskan bush can approach. I needed time to absorb the smells, to test the air.

But for the next three days it did seem the kudu were reading our mail. Harry killed a nice one, along with a wildebeest, a zebra and an impala, but the big kudu bulls eluded me. I passed on a decent one we stalked to within 75 yards, deciding it was a little small and too young. The kudu I finally killed we found on top of a mountain with a smaller bull and several cows. After sighting him shortly after daylight the fourth day, I followed him up and down the mountain through the brush until getting a shot just before dark.

'Best hunt of my life'

The gemsbok bull now staring at me with his clown-paint face markings had presented a similar opportunity for a shot from the truck, but I had declined that, too. But when he turned and trotted away to disappear into a long line of brush on the edge of a huge grassy savannah, I told Marco that we could step off and move over to try a stalk. That was two hours and, despite the cool late autumn weather, a ton of sweat earlier.

Now, with his eyes and eyebrows, Marco was asking if I had a shot at the gemsbok, which had chosen a course that would carry him just 15 yards from where I was sitting. However, the grass was tall enough that part of his body was obscured and he could sprint off at a moment's notice. And the brush that moments before had provided us cover now prevented anything resembling a clear shot.

But, tail flicking quietly as he walked, the gemsbok crept forward and stopped perfectly in the only opening I had for a shot. Left elbow on my knee, I took the shot at 15 yards. The bull broke into a sprint, which quickly carried him out of sight into the tall grass. Marco and I both stood to track his movements, just in time to see him pile up just 40 yards away.

Marco grabbed my arm as I stepped around a tree to try to get in another shot if need be. "Wait," he said. "They can do a fake death and those horns are dangerous." We eased forward to make sure the bull was down for good. He was.

"That was maybe the best hunt of my life," Marco said, a statement not to be taken lightly from a guy who has taken on wounded buffalo in dense mopane-bush thickets. "That was really sporting."

It was Africa, too, and it felt right.




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