In the Shadows of the Ancients: Chasing Eland in South Africa


A stalemate. A Mexican Standoff. Like two gunfighters faced off at high-noon waiting for someone to make the next move but both frozen afraid to even twitch. That is the situation we found ourselves in with an eland bull and after an hour-and-a-half of standing motionless something had to give. That is when I whispered to Yvan “that’s it, I’m just going to shoot him.”

 

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A good eland trophy is not easy to get.

 

I was in Johannesburg, South Africa to attend the Professional Hunters Association of South Africa annual general meeting and to do some hunting with my good friends at Wintershoek Johnny Vivier Safaris. I was visiting with Johnny and his partner Wiaan Vanderlinde when they introduced me to mountain of a young man named Yvan Nieuwoudt. Johnny said “James, Yvan will be your PH on your eland hunt.” I replied if I’d have known he was this big I’d have brought my infant-carrier backpack and he could have just carried me around!

After the meetings concluded we headed out for the Northern Cape and the beautiful lodge at Wintershoek. I chose to just ride back in the van with the whole WJVS crew to take in all the scenery, visit with the PHs and get to know Yvan better. Yvan asked me what kind of eland I was looking for? I told him I wanted to hunt for an old mature eland bull with a big dewlap and good “ruff” on his forehead. Horn size wasn’t as important to me as taking a mature animal and to hunt it on foot. I didn’t want to just be hunting and incidentally run into an eland, I wanted to specifically hunt an eland. Grinning, Yvan said “I think we are going to get along just fine. Hunting eland and hunting them proper is one of my favorite hunts.” 

How I grew to admire eland.

It is funny how you evolve as a hunter. Before I had ever hunted Africa I had a “dream list” of animals I longed to hunt and eland wasn’t on the list or even considered for it. I had seen mounts and pictures and just wasn’t that impressed. Even when I finally touched foot in Africa I was on an elephant hunt and the PH asked me if I’d like to shoot an eland at a very good rate as they needed some camp meat and I declined. Besides being on a really tight budget I just wasn’t interested in shooting an eland. We saw a few cows and even a few small bulls and still the urge just wasn’t there, although I was getting intrigued at how switched-on and elusive they seemed. Every herd we saw was already at the top of the next hill heading out of sight while the other game stood around out of curiosity. Then I saw my first big old mature bull eland. It just so happened that my two PHs were in a severe disagreement in the front of the truck when I spotted a big old eland bull peering out of the brush a couple hundred yards off. I was awestruck. He was huge with dark heavy horns, a big ruff on his forehead, and that “blue” hue that the big old bulls get when they start losing their hair from age. I instantly wanted him but from the ruckus coming from in the cab I was not about to interrupt. I never saw another eland on that hunt. I realized only then that the mounts and pictures I’d seen were of younger bulls that hadn’t had time to mature and get the characteristics that make an eland a true trophy. My interest in eland was growing.

 

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A foot hunt for eland takes a lot of walking,

 

My next encounter was on a hunt where another hunter and I were sharing a PH. We were driving along one morning when I spotted a huge “blue” bull on a distant hill. We were heading out to look for another species in another area so we just made note of where the herd was and kept on to our destination. The next day we went back in that area and spotted the eland herd again and sure enough it contained the big blue bull. Unfortunately for me it was the other hunter’s turn to shoot. I had to just sit and watch as they made a beautiful long stalk on the herd to maneuver into 70 yards of the big bull I had now come to greatly desire. I realized then that this was like watching the girl you never thought you were interested in kissing another guy and only then, racked with jealousy, do you realize your true lust for her. I watched from a distance as the PH made a beautiful stalk, crawled them into perfect position, put up the sticks, and set up for the perfect shot, a huge trophy eland bull at 70 yards broadside. Then I sat awestruck as the shot went off…and he missed! After returning to the truck the hunter then added salt to the wound by saying “James I didn’t know you’ve never shot an eland. I’ve already shot one and didn’t really care to shoot another. If I’d have known, you could have shot him.” Dejected doesn’t describe it. We spent the next couple of days looking for that bull but to no avail. I had to leave to catch my flight and as the driver and I left camp we hadn’t gone but a little way when there standing not a couple hundred yards off the road was the eland herd and my big eland bull. I just smiled and shook my head. I got the email with the picture of that bull not long after. They had taken him just after I left. The email started with “you won’t believe this…” Oh, I believed it. A big eland bull was now on my list.

Long walks and dangerous encounters

Yvan and I started at first light and headed up onto a kopje to get to a vantage point where we could glass down into the umbrella acacia flats below. We began to still-hunt along the face of the escarpment stopping every little bit to glass. We jumped some kudu bulls including one good one, some warthogs and some baboons but our quest was for eland. We made our way out to another point and there on the flat we spotted a herd of eland. We moved out of sight of the herd that was a half-mile away and began to close the distance. We were just about to a better vantage point to glass the herd for bulls when the baboon we had seen earlier let out an alarm bark. When we peeked out at the eland the whole herd was all looking our direction even though several hundred yards still separated us. We glassed the herd and soon saw a decent bull in the bunch. He was a mature bull, big body and dewlap, but just didn’t have the ruff and horn mass we were looking for. We watched them for a while then snuck back out so as not to disturb them any further in case we wanted to come back for that bull later in the hunt. We still-hunted our way across the top of the plateau in hopes of finding a big lone bull or a bachelor herd of bulls. We were just coming up to the crest of a small rise when the brush not 15 feet in front of us exploded startling us both and out broke two big Cape buffalo bulls. One ran out about 20 yards and spun to give us the “Ruark stare” of contempt down his nose then spun again to follow his companion over the rim of the plateau. After walking several miles and spotting numerous other species of game but no eland, we dropped off the far end of the plateau and radioed for the truck.

 

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… a lot of glassing,

 

This was the routine for the next few days. We spotted numerous eland bulls but after looking them over Yvan would inevitably say “James, that one is not the one we want” and on we would go. One afternoon we were working our way down another rugged area, hopping from boulder to boulder like a couple of klipspringers when I saw Yvan pitch to the side and let out an expletive. Looking where he had just placed his foot was a very large puff adder! He had stepped within a couple of inches of it and luckily caught a glimpse of it just as it was drawing back to strike. We gathered our composure and went upon our way, consciously more cautious where we placed our feet. As evening was setting in we spotted a couple of eland bulls on a ridgeline. We glassed them and quickly decided they were both immature bulls. Yvan had just turned to go when out of the brush stepped another bull that dropped over the ridge and out of sight as quickly as he appeared. From that quick glance I got he looked big, blue and very promising. I explained this to Yvan and even though I think he was skeptical of my story we decided to come back to the area the following morning.

The next morning we headed to a water pan not far from where I had gotten a glimpse of the bull the previous evening. We just crested the hill overlooking the pan when we spotted two eland bulls in the distance. We began glassing and soon spotted the big bull I had seen the night before. Yvan believed me now and said this bull needed a closer look. We dropped behind the ridge and hurriedly made a wide circle of probably over a mile to try to get ahead and downwind of the bulls. We were just reaching our ambush point when we were caught out in the wide open by one of the smaller bulls, which started the situation at start of this story. I was halfway out to Yvan’s side when the eland and us spotted each other at about the same instant. I think because of our strange outline he was unsure of what we were and decided just to stare us down until he could figure us out. We soon spotted the other smaller bull but absolutely could not see hide nor hair of the third bigger bull. The second bull was bedded so we assumed the bigger bull might be bedded as well.

 

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… and braving mortal danger, such as this puff adder!

 

Finally, after a very uncomfortable hour and a half I jokingly whispered to Yvan “screw this, I’m just going to shoot him!” Yvan said “let’s back out slowly to some cover and try to circle in for a look from a different perspective.” We kept the exact same position of me halfway out from behind Yvan and began slowly backing out. We eventually got behind some brush and circled back in again from the side. The moment we peeked out of the cover the same bull had us pegged. Soon our target bull stood up and even though he was a beautiful mature bull and I was ready for the shot Yvan once again said, “James, he just doesn’t have it all.”

The right one at last!

The next morning we headed a different direction and climbed a kopje to glass. We made our way to about our third sit when we spotted six eland bulls out on the flats far below. We moved to an outcropping closer to the bulls to get a better look. Yvan determined one bull might be what we were looking for. He said “James, we’ve looked at a lot of bulls and I’ve had you pass on a bunch because I wanted to find a bull with it all, mature, a good ruff, a good dewlap, and long heavy horns. This is a good bull but we might have to settle on one of these things as our time is getting short.” We made our way down to the flat and cut a wide circle of about a mile to get the wind in our favor and the sun at our backs. We knew besides the natural alertness of the eland there was numerous other game all around them and the cover for approach was fairly sparse. We slowly and cautiously started our stalk. Literally we would take one step then glass, another step then glass. We had to wait frozen like statues numerous times to wait for warthogs and impalas to make their way out of sight or until they would lose interest in us. There were times warthogs ambled around so close I found myself holding my breath in fear of being busted and blowing the stalk.

Finally, we spotted one of the smaller eland bulls bedded a couple hundred yards away. We dropped down and began to crawl our way closer. We worked our way to a larger acacia and crawled and wiggled our way through the thorns into the shadows under the tree. Thorns were tearing at our clothes and skin and every time you put your knee down thorns painfully impaled them. We were now 70 yards from the bedded bulls and still undetected. Yvan had played our stalk perfectly. We got as comfortable as possible in a thorn patch and began to pick apart the brush with our binoculars. We soon had accounted for five of the bulls but just not the one we wanted a look at. The bulls would occasionally stand and reposition then lay back down. We were about an hour into our vigil when from the left in walked the sixth bull that we hadn’t seen. Yvan and I looked at each other and he said, “That’s our bull.” The bull bedded facing directly away and behind a bush between us. Yvan said “James when he stands if you have a shot I want you to take him.” Three ways he could stand up and go and I wouldn’t have a shot. We watched the bull for probably close to another hour when finally he stood and turned broadside. I had just a softball-sized hole to thread a shot through the bush about halfway between us directly to his shoulder. I focused on the small window to my target and began squeezing the trigger on the model 70.

 

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A good Eland trophy will make anyone happy.

 

The bull buckled at the shot, regathered himself and ran out into the open to our right side. I hit him again right behind the shoulder and he stumbled a few more yards and tipped over. The other bulls quickly stood and peered out of the brush unsure of what had just happened. There were six of them still standing including the big bull we had seen from the ridge. I had just shot a previously unseen seventh bull and the best of the bunch! After the rest of the bulls made their way off we approached the fallen giant. Yvan turned to me and grinned, “this one has it all!” He was fantastic. Huge and mature, he had a ruff on his head that was dark and actually hung down on his face. His horns were heavy but still very long. We were thrilled and Yvan asked “Are you glad you waited?” I didn’t even have to answer; the grin on my face said it all.

We called in the truck and after much effort we got the bull all taken care of and loaded. Yvan said “There is something I’d like to show you. We drove to a kopje not far from where we shot the bull and parked. We made our way to the very top of the kopje and there on the summit was a flat-topped rock and what I saw on top sent a thrill of emotions through my body. Etched on the top of the rock was a Bushman painting of a big eland bull.

 

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A Bushman etching of Eland

 

We just sat there looking out over the vast landscape below. It was stirring to think, in another time, maybe centuries ago, another hunter had walked these same rich gamefields stalking the biggest of the world’s antelope, the magnificent eland bull. A hunt that should be on every hunter’s list.

 James C. Reed

The story originally appeared in Sports Afield, December 2013


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