“I want to hunt in Africa, but I really don’t want to hunt game behind a fence.” This is a common statement I hear from hunters who are considering a trip to southern Africa for plains game. I used to feel the same way. Before my first trip to Africa, I had preconceived notions of what such a hunt might be, and I wanted no part of it. But after experiencing firsthand the vast ranches in southern Africa, many of which cover areas of 30,000- to 70,000-plus acres and host free-roaming, self-sustaining herds of wildlife with plenty of space, rugged terrain, and heavy cover that allows game to evade even the most expert hunter, I changed my opinion.
That said, I understand why some hunters prefer to hunt completely free-ranging game. These hunts are available, even in South Africa. Recently I hunted with my friend Dave Davenport of Leopard’s Valley Safaris, who offers just such hunts. Dave hunts on his family farm, a working sheep farm in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Dave represents the seventh generation on the farm; some of the land has been in his family since the 1700s.
Dave’s farm starts out on the open, flat savanna and stretches miles back to a horseshoe-shaped valley framed by steep rock-cliffed mountains—Leopard’s Valley. The property is stunning because of its varied terrain, which allows for hunting multiple species all on one property. There’s open veld where cover is sparse and stalking can be difficult; thick brush where careful, close-quarter stalks must be made; and steep mountains where you sit and glass for game, much like hunting in the mountains of the American West.
The first morning at first light, we drove up a steep road that switchbacked up the mountain at the head of the valley. We topped out on a bench where we parked the truck and worked our way out to a cliff-face escarpment that jutted out prominently for miles around the head of Leopard’s Valley. Finding a nice place to glass, we sat and began picking apart the thick mountain vegetation and small openings looking to spot a greater kudu. From our perch we could see miles out across the valley from the thick mountain foliage to the more open veld. Wildlife could be seen nearly everywhere — blesbok and springbok out on the plains, kudu and baboons in the mountain cliffs. We spotted several groups of kudu, including some young bulls, but did not see the big, mature bull we were searching for. We decided to work our way along the cliff face, glassing different vistas that came into view and looking down into the thick brush from above.
Dave sent the tracker back to get the truck and have him meet us at the end of the cliff. He hadn’t been gone long before he returned saying he’d just run into a big kudu bull working its way down to the cliff face. We hurriedly moved across the cliff, looking ahead for any sign of the bull. I looked down and spotted horn tips sticking out of the brush below us. I grabbed Dave’s arm and he froze. I pointed out the tips not fifty yards below us. Quietly we repositioned, and I readied on the sticks. The bull was feeding on leaves and all we could see were the tips of his horns swaying to and fro as he fed. But he must have either seen some movement or caught a whiff of us, because he bolted down into the thick brush and then reappeared about 100 yards out, where he stopped and turned broadside. He was magnificent in the early morning light with his long spiral horns stretching back over his muscular body. I slowly squeezed the trigger on what should have been a slam-dunk shot. At the report, the kudu bounded off the cliff and with one jump was out of sight.
“You shot over him,” Dave said.
“No way,” I said, “I even held slightly low to compensate for the steep angle.”
We worked our way down to where the bull was standing and sure enough, no blood, no hair. A clean miss.
“Are you sure this rifle’s dead-on?” I asked. I was using Dave’s .300 Winchester Magnum. We had arrived at the farm the night before, too late for me to shoot the borrowed rifle at the range, and with limited days to hunt, we had wanted to get out at first light. So we broke the cardinal rule of always going to the range and firing a few shots before starting a hunt. I had justified it to myself, thinking that this rifle hadn’t been thrown into multiple airplanes and luggage carousels, so it should be fine.
“Yup, I shot a baboon with it at 400 yards just the other day, but we can go to the range and check it if you want,” Dave said.
Now, Dave and I have been friends for a long time. Once when I sent my wife a picture of the two of us, she sent back a picture of Phil and Alan from the movie The Hangover. Yeah, it’s like that. So the ribbing began, with me blaming his bent-barreled rifle and him disparaging the shooting skills of “the great long-haired hunter.”
We worked our way back to the truck and followed the road along the mountain where we were above the thick brush. This country was so similar to my home in Idaho I half-expected to see a herd of elk, mule deer, or even bighorn sheep feeding among the grass slopes and boulders.
“Mountain reedbuck!” Dave exclaimed. We bailed out of the truck, grabbed the rifle and sticks, and began a stalk. Dropping down into a grass slough, we inched closer until we ran out of cover. I readied for a shot just as reedbuck spotted us. It was a long poke at over 350 yards on a fairly small target, but I was steady and took the shot—and watched the reedbuck run over the crest of the mountain unscathed. Dave looked at me out of the corner of his eye, rubbed his face, and shook his head with a half grin.
“Shut up and let’s take this rifle to the range,” I said.
“After lunch,” he said, “we’ll shoot it.”
As a sheep farmer, Dave has no love lost for jackals. As we were driving back, he spotted two of them, stopped the truck, and took the rifle. He shot and missed. I laughed as he reloaded and missed again. On the last shot, he connected, then turned to me. “I told you it wasn’t the rifle!” Then he grinned. “But I was holding about a foot under it when I hit it with that last shot.”
“No wonder you hit the baboon at 400 yards!” I said.
After a short range session and some readjusting of the scope, the rifle was shooting as it was supposed to, although Dave was still finding ways to blame me for the “improper calibration.” We went out for a late afternoon hunt in search of a big blesbok we had seen the previous day, and discussed the next day’s plan to go after the elusive vaal rhebok.
Ever since my first trip to Africa, I noticed that the majority of the professional hunters I met held the vaal rhebok in very high regard. Whenever they would talk of their favorite hunts, this elusive mountain-dwelling antelope was always in the conversation, and you could hear and feel the excitement when they spoke of hunting them. At first, I couldn’t get too excited about hunting a critter that looked like a spike whitetail buck. But as is the case with many species, the more you learn about them, the more your interest grows and you realize the challenge of the hunt is the true allure. My love for mountain hunting and the respect my friends held for these animals soon had me keen to hunt one for myself. Dave has an exclusive area for vaal rhebok and only takes four rams per year out of the area, so I was excited about the opportunity.
We packed for a couple days in the mountains, loading gear and food in backpacks. We arrived at our area just after daylight. We drove back into a mountain valley with Dave showing me the faraway bowls and valleys where we would hike into to begin our hunt. Loading up our packs with water and supplies, we began walking up the creek bottom toward the high bowl at the back of the valley.
We hadn’t gone but three-quarters of a mile when I looked up and asked, “What about that one?” Standing a few hundred yards away was a vaal rhebok. Dave took a quick look and whispered, “That’s a really good one!”
We dropped down into the creek to sneak closer, hidden behind the steep canyon walls. We popped up once and ranged the ram, still at 400 yards. Dropping back down, we moved another 100 yards and crawled up behind a large rock. I ranged the ram again, this time just over 300 yards. The ram was aware of us and hopped up on a mound to get a better look.
Dave said, “He’s going to go!” I squeezed off the shot, and the ram dropped in his tracks.
We approached the ram and he was even bigger than we originally thought. His weathered old horns stretched well over 9 inches. Truly a great old ram, and I was thrilled, as was my excited PH.
I quickly had to rib him, though. “Boy, all I’ve heard is how tough these vaalies are to hunt—all these stories about grueling death marches into the mountains to maybe catch a fleeting glimpse of one! And we shoot one in the valley bottom in view of the truck!”
Dave laughed and replied, “That’s because you’re an extremely lucky bugger and have an exceptional PH!”
Our tracker field-dressed the ram, threw it over his shoulder, and we all headed for the truck. As we drove out, Dave was still expressing his amazement at our luck. We hadn’t hunted even an hour and took a 9 3⁄4-inch ram. About then I looked up and there was another nearly as big as mine standing just uphill of the truck about 50 yards away — a testament to what an incredible area Dave has.
We renewed our focus on a big old kudu bull, but they were proving elusive. On the last day of our hunt we set off at dawn and finally got a break. We spotted three kudu bulls working their way up a hill and heading over the ridge crest. We headed around the ridge to the front of the mountain face and glassed the bulls as they began feeding in a depression. After much deliberation, we decided our only approach was to go straight at the bulls, staying low and using the sparse, low vegetation. The wind was still drifting down the slope and we were in shadow, but we knew we would have limited time before the sun crested the ridge and the thermals betrayed us.
We hurried, staying as low and quiet as we could, only stopping to glass the bulls to make sure they were still relaxed and feeding. Then we felt the wind hit the back of our necks. Dave looked wide-eyed at me and we hurriedly backtracked down the mountain as quickly and quietly as possible.
Reaching the bottom, we could see the bulls were still feeding but moving slightly to the south. We made a new plan that would require a lot of effort and luck. We were going to try climbing the next canyon, slipping over the mountain, working our way behind the ridge, and then hopefully coming back over the top above the bulls. We hunkered as low as possible and crouch-walked to the next canyon. It was a long, steep climb; out of breath and dripping with sweat, we reached the top and dropped off the ridge to the back side. We worked our way up the ridge a half mile or so to where we thought we’d be above the bulls. Creeping slowly and quietly, we finally peered over the rim to find — no bulls. We glassed for a bit and Dave spotted them in the next can- yon south.
We worked our way down the ridge and eased onto a rock escarpment. As we peeked over the edge, we spotted the bulls bedded about 100 yards below us and to our left. I slowly worked into a shooting position on a rock and got as comfortable as possible. The bulls were bedded and about all we could see were horn tips protruding above the bush. Waiting for them to stand was not only mentally painful but physically painful due to our contorted position in the rocks. I had told Dave I wanted a wide old mature bull, however, and one of these definitely fit the bill.
I lost track of time as we waited. I was afraid the wind would betray us at any moment and send them bolting out of their concealed position. After a while, one of the smaller bulls rose from his bed and began feeding. Finally, our chosen monarch rose and began feeding with his smaller comrade. The brush was thick, however, and still obscured the vitals.
All of a sudden the bulls began getting nervous. I don’t know if they smelled us or got a glimpse of the strange-looking additions to the rocks above their lair. The big bull turned to get ready for his escape, exposing his chest, and I sent the round. It hit the bull a little low. The group disappeared over a rise, then reappeared farther down the mountain face. I quickly found the big bull and put him down with a well-placed second shot.
Dave was ecstatic and we excitedly recounted the incredible stalk that had culminated in a beautiful kudu. We approached the fallen monarch and he was everything we had hoped for, a mature, heavy-horned old bull. We took pictures, then began the arduous task of getting him off the mountain.
Returning to base, we unloaded the bull at the skinning shed then grabbed some lunch. Since it was our last day, Dave suggested we head back out to see if we could find the big mountain reedbuck we had missed earlier in our hunt. We reached the area as the sun was already behind the mountain. Our tracker quickly spotted a mountain reedbuck female a couple hundred yards to our left.
“The ram can’t be far off,” Dave said.
We began glassing, and sure enough the ram bolted out of cover be- low us and into a ravine. He was headed to the crest of a ridge when he made the mistake of stopping at 300 yards, broadside. I was already on him and as he took that one last look, I took the shot. He spun and disappeared into the bush. I thought for a second I had missed, but Dave said “No, you got him!”
We reached the hillside and found that the ram had only gone a few yards. He wasn’t the big one we had missed earlier, but he was a good, mature ram and I felt grateful to get that last-minute, last-light opportunity.
Some hunts stand out in your memory because of the trophy, some because of the adventure, and others because of the great comradery. This was one of those rare hunts that provided the gift of all three. My time in the mountains of Leopard’s Valley will always hold a special place in my hunting memories.
The story originally appeared in Sports Afield, July/August 2020. Reproduced with consent of the copyright holders.
Watch James and Dave discuss this hunt, Leopard Valley Safaris, and other hunting-related stuff in the first episode of Crazy Nation by BookYourHunt.com
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