by James Reed
“Water is going to be a problem,” said professional hunter John Wamback. “Since it is very late in the season we have to find a water source and spike out from there.”
We were preparing for a backpack plains-game hunt. John conducts backpack hunts for free-ranging indigenous game in the Gamsberg Mountains southwest of Windhoek. After a very successful elephant hunt with John the year before in Botswana, I had returned for one of his specialty backpack hunts in Namibia. But it was late November and getting well into the hot days of the African spring. Fortunately, there had been some rain in the days before our arrival, so we hoped some water had stuck around.
Upon arrival in Windhoek, we made a quick trip to the local grocer to pick up some food and supplies, and then headed for the wilderness. Mount Barry is surrounded by a 250,000-acre wilderness and is truly wild Africa. The terrain is every bit as rugged as most of the Rocky Mountain West where I live. A hunter needs to be in the same good physical condition as he would be for a backpack elk or sheep hunt. Most of John’s backpack hunts, however, are conducted earlier in the year, so the heat and water situation usually isn’t as much of a problem as it was for us.
After a night at Pro Guiding’s Mount Barry Wilderness lodge, we loaded up the truck and headed out on a two-hour drive into the wilderness where we would begin our hike. The drive alone was nearly worth the trip. There were sections where low gear, low range in the transfer case almost wasn’t low enough! We made our way to a shady spot by a dry riverbed and parked the truck. The truck was carrying a load of water jugs, gear, and salt for preserving the capes if we were successful.
We loaded necessary gear into our packs and divided up the food. We would be carrying our tents, sleeping bags, food, and as much water as we could. We headed down a dry riverbed and up onto a trail traversing the mountain. We hadn’t gone too far when we spotted something ahead on the trail. A quick look through the binocular revealed two kudu bulls, one immature youngster and one nice, wide, old bull.
John exclaimed, “James, that’s a musa bull!”
I’ve yet to figure out the translation of musa, but he said the same thing about my elephant a year prior, so I knew “big” was part of it. The kudu spotted us about the same time and headed over the ridge at a good lope. We dropped our packs and headed for the top of the ridge. Upon cresting the ridge, we quickly spotted the two kudu in a saddle on the far side of the valley.
I dropped to a sitting position and tried to get steady on the shooting sticks. The big bull turned broadside at approximately 400 yards, and I fired. Maybe because of my heavy breathing from our sprint up the hill combined with the distance, I missed, and the kudu disappeared over the hill. We made our way over to the saddle to make sure it was a clean miss; it was. We began to glass from there, and soon spotted a herd of mountain zebra navigating the steep slope below us. We noticed there was a newborn foal in the herd that couldn’t have been over a few hours old, so we watched them for a while, then left them alone.
We headed back to the point where we had dropped our packs, which held all of our water. It was late morning and the heat of the day was beating down on us. We were almost back to the packs when John looked down and spotted the kudu I had missed earlier standing in the shade of a tree in a deep canyon. We began sneaking through large rocks to close the distance. As we approached a large rock pile, we spotted the kudu below us, staring directly up at our position. I low-crawled up to the rocks and set up for a 100-yard steep downhill shot. The kudu was facing us. There were many trees between us, but I finally sorted out a small window directly in front of the junction of his neck and chest. At the shot, the big kudu crumpled in his tracks. We were ecstatic to have been given a second chance at such a magnificent trophy.
We headed back up to gather our packs and a much needed drink. We unloaded some of the gear from the packs to make room for the kudu, and headed down into the canyon to our prize. The kudu was even better than we thought; very long and heavy with ivory tips that splayed out wide. We snapped pictures, then began skinning and butchering. After a quick lunch, we donned our packs, now heavily laden with kudu, and began the steep climb out of the canyon.
As we weren’t too far from the vehicle, we decided to take everything back out to the truck to be cared for by Clarence, the skinner, and at the same time, refresh our water supply. Upon arrival at the truck, we unloaded the kudu, loaded up what water we could carry, and headed back up the trail. We found a nice, shady spot along a dry riverbed and set up our spike camp. After a nap to let some of the heat of the day pass, we grabbed our packs, which were now much lighter, and headed out again.
As we made our way up a large valley we spotted a gemsbok bull off to our right just as he disappeared around the face of the mountain. We slowly made our way around, glassing as we went. We spotted many herds of mountain zebra in the distance, and finally the gemsbok. There were three in the small herd: a cow, a calf, and a large bull. They were feeding their way to a saddle that dropped into the next valley.
We dropped the packs and sneaked along the face of the mountain, keeping a small tree between us. We finally reached the tree and that was the end of the cover. We glassed them for quite some time; the cow stayed in the open but only the heavy horns of the bull were visible above the brush. We sat and watched them for quite awhile until they fed over the saddle and out of sight. We hurried up to the saddle only to find wide-open space and no gemsbok.
Just then, a commotion startled us from behind. We spun to see a herd of mountain zebra running down the canyon and across the riverbed to the opposite side of the valley. It was then that we noticed the water still standing in pools in the riverbed, which explained the concentration of game in the area. We began glassing and soon spotted another large herd of mountain zebra farther up the canyon where it looked like we could make a good approach.
We met Clarence, who was trying his best to bring the packs we had dropped, and headed across the canyon. There seemed to be zebra everywhere we looked. I was amazed to look up at rock cliffs where you would expect to see sheep if you were hunting the North American west, only to see silhouettes of mountain zebra. We cautiously made our way toward where we had seen the big herd.
As we approached a small drop-off, we were surprised by three adolescent zebra only twenty yards away. They were feeding toward us, completely unaware of our presence. We hunkered down in our best effort to become invisible, but were soon spotted by one of the youngsters. They took off, hee-hawing and alerting the rest of the herd, which came running down the side of the steep canyon perpendicular to our position. I set up on a rock and John whispered, “The last one is the stallion.”
He jumped a log, then a rock, and started up a small escarpment in the middle of the canyon. He stopped broadside about 300 yards out and I settled the cross hairs on his shoulder and squeezed off the shot. We could clearly hear the impact as the 225-grain bullet hit the big stallion. He picked up his front leg and crow-hopped in place for a few moments, then marshaled the last of his strength and ran around a corner and out of sight.
We knew the hit was good as we gathered the packs and headed to the last spot we had seen him. There was a massive blood trail leading only twenty yards or so to where the old mountain monarch had tumbled off a small cliff into the rocky riverbed below. He was a huge old stallion with absolutely stunning markings.
As it was still 95 degrees, we quickly began skinning and processing. As I hoisted my pack with the zebra’s full body green cape, I knew it was going to be a long, hot, and hard 3½ miles navigating the rugged trail back to camp. I looked at my arms and saw they were covered in blisters from skinning the zebra in the relentless afternoon sun. We all had heavy packs and were hurting from the heat, but as the sun began its descent the temperatures began to cool ever so slightly. We were happy to drop the heavy packs at camp and enjoy some cool drinks and some well-earned supper, and then we were ready to crawl into our sleeping bags and collapse.
The next day we decided to head out in a different direction to an area that was a little flatter in search of more gemsbok and possibly a red hartebeest. We so far had been very lucky as the water pools holding the game were not terribly far from the truck and our valuable water supply. We took a route that passed by the truck so we could drop off the zebra and replenish our water.
Not long after reaching the area we had in mind, we spotted a herd of gemsbok on a far hillside and began making our way toward them.
We were moving along a small ridgeline, looking down into draws as we passed. We had just reached the mouth of another draw when John spotted a big, lone gemsbok bull peering out of the bush down in the draw. He disappeared into the bush as I set up on the sticks.
We figured he would show up on the far side of the little valley, and soon he did. He stopped broadside at 200 yards. Just as I readied for the shot he took off again, disappearing into another draw in the valley. I was still set up on the sticks when he emerged again on the far hillside.
John said, “He’ll stop at the top.”
I replied, “Yeah, but that’s a long way.”
“350 yards,” John replied.
I thought 350 was very optimistic. The gemsbok stopped just before cresting the hill and looked at us one more time. I held for 400 and a little into the wind, and the big bull dropped in his tracks.
“Get over there in case he gets back up,” John said urgently.
Clarence and I sprinted over the two hills toward the fallen warrior. I put another shot in him and he was done. What a magnificent old bull! He had long, heavy horns and his head was huge, as was his body — a fantastic trophy with horns over 40 inches. We got him skinned, loaded up, and packed out as evening set in.
A beautiful full moon lit the night as we set up camp in a dry water pan next to some beautiful rock formations. We caped the gemsbok head, ate, and sacked out, listening to the jackals serenading us through the night.
We now turned our focus to trying to find a red hartebeest bull. We hadn’t even seen a hartebeest yet, but there were a few in the area. We made our way farther out into the rolling hills, seeing more herds of gemsbok, zebra, springbok, and a few kudu, but no hartebeest.
As we topped a hill, John froze, ducked back, and said, “James, there is a red hartebeest bull under a tree over there.”
We closed the distance to the last bush providing cover. I sat and scooted around the edge of the bush. The bull remained frozen in the shade of the small tree. We couldn’t see what he carried for horns, as his head was hidden by the tree. I steadied my rifle on the sticks and awaited his next move. Finally the standoff was too much for him, and he bolted from the sanctuary of the tree and headed up the hill. His gait was graceful as he pranced his way up the hill, steadily increasing the distance between us.
He finally stopped on the far hill. “Three hundred,” John said.
You could see the reaction of the bull long before the resounding smack of the hit came back to us. The bull ran around the hill and piled up. We made our way over there and were once again amazed at our good fortune. He was a huge old bull, long and heavy to his tips, with extremely heavy bases.
As we sat in admiration of the old bull we couldn’t help but reflect on our good fortune. We had taken all four species we were after, and all four were exceptional specimens. There is such a feeling of accomplishment when you have to dig deep for the strength to persevere against harsh elements, whether that means extreme terrain, thirst, a heavy pack, frigid cold, blistering heat, or any combination of these.
A hunt like this is not for everyone and not what many people want on an African safari, but it is what I live for. We had worked hard and hunted hard, and the Red Gods had smiled upon us and we were smiling with them.
This story originally appeared in and is reproduced with permission from the Sports Afield magazine.
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