Editor's Note: On Friday we reach back into the Safari archives and dust off a gem from the past. This time we join Wayne Van Zwoll on a kudu hunt in Blaauwkrantz in South Africa, where thorns, thick brush, and elusive game make for a challenging hunt. This article first appeared in the November/December 2009 issue of Safari Magazine.
I had hunted the southern greater kudu before in both Namibia and Zimbabwe, but never before on the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Isolated from other kudus, these animals range east to the Indian Ocean, on fertile land under Mediterranean weather. Citrus groves color a basin east of Blaauwkrantz (in English, Blue Cliffs), a 50-minute drive from Port Elizabeth's busy airport.
"Cape kudus are a bit smaller in body and horn than kudus to the north," Francois Rudman explained over ~ steaks and salad at the lodge. "But we have some of the best animals here."
It is still April - early autumn, a month before kudu rut ~ and well ahead of the mid-winter hunting that brings sportsmen the world over to Blaauwkrantz.
"Our family dates back to the 1700s on this very property," Francois continued. "My father has added to it, a parcel at a time, over the past 40 years. Now we conduct hunts on 65,000 acres - more than 100 contiguous square miles. It's all excellent kudu habitat, but we offer other game as well -- warthog, impala, blesbok, wildebeest, bushbuck and duiker. A little to the north, again on land we control, you can hunt klipspringer, Vaal rhebok and mountain reedbuck."
Francois and his brother Eardie do much of the guiding. Arthur Rudman, with wife Trinette, still oversees the operation but now works with various organizations to prove South Africa hunting.
A board member of the East Cape International Outfitters Association, the East Cape Game Management Association, the Professional Hunters of South Africa and farming groups as well, Arthur says politics has never been a priority. "But unless you work with government, you must accept whatever it gives you," he said, smiling. "South Africa stands to gain a great deal from its hunting industry. So do visiting sportsmen. But the people who regulate game ranching here have not always consulted the people who own the land and run the hunts. Only 15 percent of South African ranch land is now managed for wildlife. We've lost traffic recently to Namibia. Bookings there have doubled, while South Africa's have fallen. Plains game hunting here as good and access often better. Six of South Africa's seven biomes are found in the Cape. But our country and its regions must make sure sportsmen know they're welcome."
The Rudmans know how to entertain hunters. As if a success rate of 99 percent on kudu weren't attraction enough, "And some of our clients take more than one bull," Francois said. "Because game here belongs to the landowner, we can manage habitat and hunting seasons to produce large numbers of mature bulls." High fences? He laughed. "All property boundaries in this part of Africa are high-fenced. But that's to protect game, not impede its escape.
As you can imagine, game fences enclosing 100 square miles hardly restrict animal movements. Besides, kudu can clear a seven-foot fence. Our hunts are fair-chase only. We still-hunt or spot-and-stalk; if the hunter prefers, we wait for the game."
I like to walk, so we walked the first days. I've checked zero on Francois's Model 700 Remington, a .270 fitted with a 4.5-14x50 Leupold. Though the ocular was set too close to my eye, I managed a two-inch group prone, an inch high at 100 yards - quite satisfactory.
We walked through thick stands of acacia, all now brilliant shades of green. Thorns vary from stout, stubby fishhook barbs to straight four-inch sabers. Branches broken from them lie in short sections like jacks, waiting to penetrate my jogging shoes, pinning sole to foot. I took care removing them. Break one so there's nothing to pull, and the shoe must be cut off.
"There!" Francois was first to spot a kudu. His eye is trained, and he knows from experience where to look. "Cape kudus are darker in color than kudus in other parts of Africa," he said. Indeed. And the white facial chevron seems more pronounced against the charcoal cape and nose. But motionless, all kudus can be devilishly hard to spot.
Methodically, I picked apart the hillsides with my 9x28 Pentax. I found another bull.
The brightest green on the hills turns out to be a thorn-less shrub called spekboom, a succulent that comprises up to 40 percent of kudu diet. Its turgid leaves and rubbery stems seem an anomaly here in a land that gets less than a foot of rain annually. "Water comes in small doses throughout the year," Francois said, "not in a rush during summer as farther north." Kudus get both nutrients and moisture from spekboom.
Contrary to common perception, kudus are not particularly hardy. Drought kills them in large numbers, especially when followed by sudden cold rains. In the west and north - not on the Eastern Cape - rabies has also claimed them.
"We vigorously cull females to keep as many males in the herd as practicable," Arthur said one evening. "Ours is not the 20/80 bull I cow ratio a meat producer would prefer. We aim for a surplus of bulls so we can offer hunters exceptional trophies. Only five to ten percent of adult males wear trophy horns." As with elk antlers, the biggest kudu horns seem to come from eight-year-old bulls.
"In 1970," Arthur recalled, "a severe drought afflicted our big game herds. Neighbors drew animals from our property by baiting with oranges. That's when I enclosed 3,000 acres and started managing kudus intensively. Since 1979 we've continually expanded and improved the range.
"We take enough animals to ensure the herd doesn't exceed the carrying capacity of the habitat," he said. "It's better to shoot aggressively than to leave many kudus competing for forage suddenly limited by drought or locusts."
In 1978 Arthur had begun hosting international hunters and organizing hunts for other farmers in the Eastern Cape. “I’ve worked with up to 100 landowners. Now when visitors want to hunt species not on Blaauwkrantz, I have the best places at hand."
Arthur and his family have made a long-term commitment to game ranching. "It's not a business for people wanting quick returns," he said. "My grandfather bought the core parcel from Arthur Montague Rhodes, brother to Cecil John Rhodes. Recently, successful urban and suburban people have started buying rural property for recreation. But many fail to make the investments needed for better hunting decades into the future. Seventy percent sell within 10 years."
Each season the Rudmans' clients take 80 to 90 mature bull kudus off the home property - kudus like the bulls Francois and I routinely pass by.
"Hard to believe we're seeing so many mature bulls," I told him. Dozens seem to be in their sixth and seventh years.
"They're mature," he replied. "But not what we want."
When we find what we want, dawn is giving way to morning. The bull is still up feeding - in a dry river bottom where Francois has seen aged animals before. "Foliage there is easier to chew for old teeth."
The bluff above the river is steep. We eased through light thorn on chalk-colored rock to a point on the rim almost directly above the kudu.
Kudu are not territorial and don't require large home ranges. Like whitetail deer, they live in cover that both hides and feeds them. Typical home turf for a bull covers less than 300 acres, or a half-section. Cows travel even less. Range conditions do influence the scope of kudu movements. While with succulent forage animals don't need free water, they prefer to drink daily.
"A shallow curl,” Francois conceded as I close the bolt on his .270 handload. "But a truly ancient bull. One we need to shoot." That's OK with me. I find more satisfaction in killing game with worn teeth than prime animals with long horns. This bull was losing condition. I saw his ribs and the thinning hair on his neck. There was a bit of sag to his posture - Ideal.
I completed the sneak alone, slipped off my pack and pushed it ahead to a slot in the rim, where the pack and sling brought my reticle to a standstill. The kudu was quartering away; my bullet would land behind the near scapula. I breathed deeply a couple of times, then crushed the trigger.
The bull dashed off, stopped, ran again - and yet again as follow-up shots also flew wide of the mark. Forcing the reticle down into the brisket, I fired the fourth and last round in the rifle. The bull sprawled, kicked feebly and died.
"Well, you got him." Francois observed. It was a devastating line. I've used it myself. A courtesy extended to break an awkward silence, a weak attempt at humor, a euphemism for "I've seldom seen such inept shooting from children, and I certainly didn't expect it from you."
Humbly, I acknowledged that I'm both inept and lucky. Had I known that just hours later I would turn in a similar performance on a doddering impala, I might have hurled all the .270 cartridges in the Land Cruiser far into the thorn. There's no shame returning empty-handed if you don't see what you want to kill. But once you turn a bullet loose, you've put your marksmanship on the line.--Wayne Van Zwoll