Stephanus has eyes that never fail. At the far end of a long open valley, he spotted the herd of eland lying in the shade of the trees on the edge of the hills. The valley is wide and gentle but the slopes that surround it are steep and rocky and covered in thorns with a few marula and fever berry trees.
It was late afternoon on the farm called Gauss. The shadows were long but there was still time to plan a stalk. Hagen and I left Stephanus behind with the vehicle and crept into the bush where the eland couldn’t see us and gradually worked our way toward them along the side hill. There were 21 eland there in the shade, maybe more. Surely among so many animals there would be a nice bull. But that’s a lot of eyes and ears on the lookout, and the crunchy, dry ground was not conducive to being stealthy.
Northern Namibia on an August winter day is still pretty warm to a hunter from the northern Rockies, and I was glad the stalking was a slow and careful affair. Suddenly, Hagen stopped and raised his right hand in that way hunters have of conveying to each other that it is time to freeze. This invariably happens when I am standing on one foot and crouched over.
The thorns were thick but I could just make out something horizontal through the branches. The back of some animal was barely visible there, and it was frozen, too. The game would now be to see who had the most patience. Another drop of sweat made it from my forehead into my eye, and although it stung, I couldn’t move just now. A fly landed on my cheek. Still there was no movement from Hagen or that indistinct creature only a few yards away in the thorns. After an age, the creature finally trotted away with a swishing tail, and then we could see the gold, white and black colors of a gemsbok with only one horn.
After the brief interruption with the gemsbok, we crept onward through the bush and under Hagen’s expert guidance, soon found ourselves within only thirty yards of the eland herd. The closest of them were on their feet and browsing in a lazy way among the scattered marula. I could smell the eland. I could hear the clicking sounds they made as they walked. We patiently watched as more big antelope rose to their feet, but some remained bedded, making it difficult to be sure we had seen them all. After some time, we decided that the only bull was a young one and retraced our steps quietly to leave them undisturbed.
The next morning Hagen and I returned to Gauss and, with Stephanus, studied the spoor left by nocturnal visitors at each water place. Not only did eland leave the biggest, roundest tracks, but Hagen showed me where a large bull had pressed his brush, the big tuft of red hair between the horns, into the urine-soaked mud. Thus, being sure we had found eland spoor and not cattle, we pursued them on foot.
Stephanus and Hagen took the lead as I followed with my rifle ready. These guys were good but, even though we moved quickly, so did the eland. They seemed to know where they were going and it took us in a direction that would leave the property. We could not hunt on the adjacent ground and the cattle fence that marked the boundary was no barrier to them.
By late morning, we had abandoned the spoor and were walking the fence-line, trying to divine when, where or if the eland had crossed. The spoor meant nothing to me, but Hagen patiently explained what he saw. As we gradually convinced ourselves that they were still on Farm Gauss, we dropped down a shallow hill and into a grassy clearing. Suddenly, I looked up past Hagen and, in the shadows about 280 yards out, I picked up the “V” of shiny horns at the base of a small kopje under the trees.
“Eland!” I shouted in a whisper. Hagen saw him immediately. As we studied the bull through our binoculars, we became aware that there were also two younger bulls. If there were others, we couldn’t see them. The older bull peered in our direction, but didn’t seem particularly alarmed. He had not winded us, and wasn’t sure what he saw, or even if he saw something at all.
We crouched like two baboons and continued trying to get closer, but we ran out of tall grass and the wind wasn’t right for that approach. The three bulls started moving away, but they didn’t seem alarmed and moved farther onto Gauss and away from the cattle fence.
Keeping to the tall grass, we turned left toward another kopje that we hoped allowed us some cover, requiring less crouching and crawling. My knees were already bruised and bleeding. Finally, we got to the edge of the hill and the eland were out of sight. Happily, we could stand upright and began to scale the hill, winding through rocky outcrops and trees.
As we dropped down the far side of the hill, staying in the cover of the trees, the eland were nowhere to be seen. My heart sank. Eland often outsmart me and this was fitting the pattern nicely.
Staying in the open woods provided both cover and merciful shade, so whispering a plan, we decided to continue in the direction they were last headed. Just as we decided to move on, Hagen caught some movement to our right. At only seventy yards, the bulls were in the shade of the same tree line we were hiding in. Fortunately, we had remained quiet. They had not seen or heard us. Hagen indicated which was the old bull and I aimed for the front shoulder, looking for a clear path through the branches and rock piles.
The rifle went off and the bull dropped. At only ten yards, one more shot in the neck finished him. The old eland bull now lay in a contorted position among huge jagged rocks, a massive 1,500-pound pile of flesh and bone. He was big and grey and gold and had a big stinky brush, probably the one that left the imprints in the mud at the waterhole that we had found early that morning. He had scarred horns and a torn ear. Later, we learned that he made Namibian gold, according to the Namibian Professional Hunters Association, or NAPHA.
But my quest for extreme antelope was not yet over. Namibia is home to not only the largest antelope, but also the smallest. The next morning Hagen and I left at 4 a.m. for a short drive to Maraeula Farm -- dik dik country—as it hosts an unusual density of these tiny antelope. A really big Damara dik dik weighs-in at about 15 pounds and trophy horns are three inches long. Maraeula is also at the edge of Etosha National Park and so sometimes it is lion country, too. Bernhard, the owner and our host, has a lion in his den that was shot on his farm. For self-defense I had only a .22 -- potent dik dik medicine.
We began by cruising the two-track roads of the farm in a pre-dawn chill, and it was quite cold, spotting from the back of the hunting car. The breeze made my eyes water and I was glad I had brought a jacket to Africa. The terrain there is brushier and thicker than at Gauss, with dense cover that comes right up to the roadsides. In clear places with patches of yellow grass, we searched for dik dik, but the grass in many places is twice as tall as the average foot-high pygmy antelope.
We knew we didn’t have long to find them, an hour perhaps at first light, before they retired to cover. So we alternated tactics between driving along likely tracks where Bernhard has seen them often, and walking through the bush in those places. The work was not as strenuous as stalking the eland, but the brand new challenge of a species with totally different habits and habitat is just as exciting.
In the grey dawn, we didn’t see much and there was no action until the sun was up and beginning to warm the chilled landscape. When we did see them, they often occurred in pairs, but each time we spotted a pair, whether along a road or from the trail, the female stood guard while the male faded away into the denser bush.
So far, Bernhard had not seen a buck that he considered a shooter. I spotted one apparently lone male from the truck, but he evaporated before we could judge him. The difference between a good dik dik and a very average trophy is only a half-inch of horn, so I was happy to have some experts along. We saw four or five pairs plus this lone guy all in one morning. Maraeula is dik dik heaven. In my past half-dozen Namibian hunts, I have counted myself lucky to even see one pair in a week.
On a lonely track, Stephanus spotted another pair under the thorn trees. They stood looking at us long enough for Bernhard to get the male in his binoculars and for me to ready the .22. I had him in the scope, waiting for another off-hand shot as soon as I was given the word. Bernhard pronounced him a good trophy--an old male. “Shoot the one at the rear,” he told me. I found a path through the branches and the .22 popped! The little antelope squealed and dashed through the brush but hit a tree and he was down.
This diminutive, delicate animal turned out to be a better trophy that my eland of the day before. He also scored Namibian gold but in addition, Hagen and Bernhard agreed that he was truly an old timer. Exceptionally old individuals that still score gold are eligible for the NAPHA Game Fields medal, which is meant to reward the hunter who passes up younger animals that still have a genetic legacy to leave to their populations. I had long desired this medal ever since I first became aware of it. I take conservation seriously, and view my hunting as a tool toward wildlife conservation. The Game Fields medal is a tangible symbol of that ethic. It’s another reason to love Namibia, a nation that has enshrined the duty of conservation in its very constitution.
And so I thank Hagen and Birgit Eggert of Ometjete Safaris, Namibia, for yet another quality wild experience. After a half-dozen trips to see them, each time has the same magic as the first time. My most recent trip for the antelope extremes will certainly not be my last.--Bruce J. Mincher, PHD