It was 4:30 pm on day two of hunting and we were running out of daylight fast. The South African Weather Service had confirmed that temperatures would plummet well below zero that night as the cold front moved in.
I was on horseback, standing on top of a rock face dubbed “Witklip”. Years ago, two soldiers engraved their name onto it during the Boer War. I was scanning the area, looking for my hunting mates Willie Marais IV and Davey Botha, who decided to pursue some blesbuck. I had not seen them for the past three hours, and we had no way of communicating, making it difficult to find them. Hopefully, they would follow the general direction we decided on beforehand.
I had run out of water, and although I had an energy bar for breakfast, it felt like days ago. My mind started running through possible scenarios. Sure, they were well equipped and knew the risks, but what if something had gone wrong? As the sun started setting and we still had at least 2,5 km to cover to reach the camping spot Jannes du Toit had selected, I was out of time and needed to make a call. Just as I was about to start moving, I decided to glass one more time. Like a scene from a movie, there they were, coming over the mountain pass, meat bags swinging from side to side. I sighed with relief, thinking my horse was just as happy as me to see them! We had been hunting since early morning, travelling well over 30 km that day.
Between the two of them, I got the full lowdown on how their hunt played out. They managed to shoot a blesbuck ewe standing broadside at 250 m. Then they took their time field dressing the animal to make sure they did not leave any wanted meat behind. They used their backpacks and meat bags, specifically designed for the purpose of hauling out meat.
We met up with Jannes as the last rays of sunlight disappeared behind the KwaZulu- Natal (KZN) mountain range surrounding us. You could instantly feel the temperature drop and we knew we were in for a very cold night. Jannes pointed out a possible campsite close to a mountain stream where we would be able to set up a flight camp and get some water. Unable to safely continue, we decided to dismount and proceed on foot, leading our horses. Wearing headlamps, we navigated the horses through some very uneven terrain. Our movements and the lack of conversation was proof of how exhausted we were – we just wanted to get there.
I remember going through the priority list. First, we had to start a fire and then get the horses to water. We also had to make sure our tents were pitched before sitting down.
As if in slow motion, I took the next step, feeling my left foot not finding the right place to tread. The weight of my backpack (approximately 35 kg, excluding the rifle) shifted and was concentrated on one area of my foot. The loose rock I had stepped on, gave way and my foot turned sideways. The pain was instantaneous, shooting up my leg, and it felt like my ankle was broken. My horse almost trampled me as I pulled him down with me.
Adrenaline kicked in and I got back on my feet, but I knew this was not just a sprain. The pain was extremely intense and it almost felt like I was walking on jello. I was unable to put much pressure on my foot since it wobbled with every step. Though we were only a few metres from the campsite, it felt like miles away. What a relief – we were there at last!
With everyone doing their part, it didn’t take long before our tents were up. Most importantly, we had a fire going and enjoyed it like a spit braai! Everyone sat close to it, staring into the flames. Funny how something that simple can have such a huge effect. Except for the pain reminding me of my ankle every second, I was looking forward to the meat we had just harvested.
We have been backpack hunting for some time now, and without getting into too much detail, we simply love it. The short version is that you carry everything you need to survive in the bush for a few days. Most of the time, you must field dress the animal and haul out the meat yourself. The gear is kept to the minimum, and you only take the most essential equipment with.
We had been talking about doing a trip on horseback for some time. The farm is situated at the foothills of the Drakensberg mountains and consists of 14 500 ha of mountains, grassland, and wetlands. We planned a three-day trip, during which we would cover approximately 130 km. This meant we would be hunting and travelling with all the gear simultaneously. The farm manager would meet up with us and offload what we had hunted that day. We wanted to rough it and test our capabilities, at the same time putting our hunting gear through its paces.
We arrived at the farm on Wednesday. The wind was howling, with all the signs of the approaching cold front becoming more evident. After unpacking everything, we double- and triple-checked to make sure we were ready. We set out from the lodge on Thursday morning, our horses eager and ready. With years of experience in the saddle, oom Johan gave us some solid pointers. We could not have asked for someone more knowledgeable.
Not taking any protein with, it was essential to hunt something on the first day. It didn’t take long before we found a blesbuck. Davey took the shot and dropped it in its tracks. We butchered it and kept the liver and fillet to one side. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been so excited about a blesbuck! That evening, we celebrated around the campfire. We braaied our fresh venison and enjoyed it with dehydrated food from The Raw Food Company. They make compact, tasteful meals for hikers, easily the best I had tasted.
We were up before first light. Even with the wind pressing down on our tents and the odd stick poking into our ribs, we managed to get some good rest. Coffee was our first priority, followed by the game plan. We needed to get to a vantage point to glass and see if any animals had moved in during the night. Before long we spotted a herd of eland and blue wildebeest.
I was up next, and what followed would be one of my most memorable hunting moments ever. I had always wanted to hunt on horseback with my double. The desire outweighed all the disadvantages, and there was a list of them. Nevertheless, when in doubt, take the double out. We were about 2 km from the herd, with open grassland between us. With only grass and hillside to use as cover, we had to climb about 500 m to where they were. The open sights on the .500 NE meant I needed to get up close to make a good shot. The wind was in our favour, and without a moment to spare, we were off.
Keeping low and moving cautiously, we closed the gap. The eland had now moved on, with only the wildebeest herd still in sight. With another 120 m to go before I would be in a position to take the shot, we were out of cover and the herd was getting uneasy. We had been leopard crawling for what felt like miles. Our every movement was being watched now, with the dominant bull in the front standing on top of a hill, looking down at us and grunting.
This was it – they were getting ready to run! The bull turned one more time and looked straight at me. It was now or never. I got my breathing under control, aimed the small copper bead dead on, and started squeezing the trigger. The 570 gr Barnes hit him like a ton of cement and he dropped instantly. I looked at my friend next to me and he confirmed the kill without saying much … A 140 m kill shot with my favourite rifle – that had just happened!
Our hunting trip ended on day three as planned, with temperatures dropping to -14 °C the last night. My ankle was completely busted, and we still needed to make our way back with the horses. But that didn’t mean we were done. We successfully hunted an eland and a blesbuck on our way back to civilization.
Horseback Hunting in the KwaZulu-Natal Mountains by Willem du Plessis originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of the Game & Hunt (Wild & Jag) magazine. Reproduced with consent of the copyright holder.