Old hunters dream
By David Becker
I consider myself still a novice hunter. Although born (1937) in a family with a long tradition of hunting whitetail deer in Wisconsin USA (father, grandfather, great grandfather), I came to deer hunting late in life in 1996 when a colleague invited me to hunt opening day of the annual Wisconsin November ten-day gun deer season on his big farm, from improvised ground blinds. I shot my first deer at 100 yards that morning, a big doe, and that was exciting for me. And so I was hooked and returned in the following years, eventually hunting on our own land. I had shot some nice bucks in the ensuing years but had never done any stalking or tracking.
Looking for some adventure late in life, I had read online, about Sandveld Game Ranch located in the remote northeast of Namibia, that offers a very different and unique hunting experience, one which is hunting the Eland on foot and in their natural habitat.
At Sandveld Game Ranch, the terrain is flat and all sand, slight sandy dunes, no mountains, typical forest savannah and teak woodlands. Walking on it is somewhat like walking on a dry beach, perhaps not as deep except for the road tracks through the bush. I wouldn’t call them roads exactly but tracks made by the Toyota Land cruiser through long straight firebreaks or curving through the bush. The wind fills in the tracks somewhat, and the game often follow the tracks or cross frequently leaving deep imprints.
Allan frowns, we must track, he considers hunting from a vehicle unethical. Are you up to it? I saw his point nodding my head; this was going to be real hunting. We would drive out on a sand road looking for fresh eland tracks, the sun a red ball seen through the bush and soon rising in the sky, sometimes stopping at waterholes, the sand carpeted with tracks and peppered with game droppings. Identifying, determining the age, number of eland bulls, from the tracks continued to amaze me. Andreas (not his traditional name) a Ju hansii tracker, a small built man, distinct facial wrinkles, polite, observant lively brown eyes would point out, tracks with his decorative cane. His eyesight is phenomenal. A true wilderness, Giraffes, gemsbok, Hartebeest, kudu moving through the bush, wildebeest crossing the road, zebras trotting ahead, became a familiar sight while tracking.
We would weave through the bush in serpentine fashion, Allan points out the Acacia thorn bushes from time to time to avoid, those rose thorn which has hook-like thorns will rip into skin and hold fast to clothes (I soon found that out not paying attention.) a reminder of this day, months later. Other brush we mainly pushed through silently, viewing fresh piles of eland dung that lay along its fresh tracks, looking like glistening piles of large black olives, occasionally picking one up to squeeze open between thumb and forefinger to examine moistness of its contents. The land was flat, the pace a normal walking speed, with frequent pauses as Andreas listened. Slowly like predators, we crept, approaching the browsing eland. A bat-eared fox jumped out, stared at us intently, and ran off. A Kori Bustard, the largest flying bird in Africa, casually walked across our path ahead. That was quite a sight! It was enormous. Then that familiar load bark of a kudu, breaking the silence of the African bush, the loud crashing of
branches, the eland bulls disappear.
The prevailing drought (worst drought in a 100 years) and lack of leaf cover at this time of year made stalking challenging. Always anticipating the sound of a rifle, which never seemed to happen, dense bush, no shooting lanes, no broadside shots and the alertness of other game that intercepted our stalk- so close yet so far.
Sometimes I took too long to discern an eland in the bush 80 yards out for example, who was well camouflaged with his grey and brown colour. Allan had coached me to look for the glistening horns waving above the trees as it fed, then look down for the head, and then the shoulder to aim and fire.
We stalked two bulls for 45 minutes and got very close - perhaps a mere 35 yards. I could see the big horns waving above the trees as it fed to the left (Allan said he could see a pie plate size opening and seeing its shoulder). To the right was a narrow opening in the bush and another big bull briefly walked through to the left and disappeared, then turned and poked its head out several times. Allan said “shoot either one” and I kept hoping that bull would just step forward into the opening. But then we were spotted out in the open with hardly any cover and I got a brief glimpse of big bodies rushing off through the brush.
We stalked a single bull spending a long time watching it and moving around to select a shooting lane, shooting sticks ready, Allan then motioning me to stay put behind brush as they squatted down and peered around a bush. I was glad that Allan had not motioned me to squat down too, as my only physical problem is painful knees when kneeling. They whispered back and forth and came back to tell me its body was fully exposed but it had only one horn!
I woke up the morning early, mesmerizing the thought of what I had learned about eland hunting, feeling confident, today is the day, I thought. We set off on fresh inviting tracks after several bulls. Suddenly Andreas stopped and listened, there it was, that distinct clicking sound that dominant eland bulls make when relaxed and walking, the odd crack of breaking branches as they calmly fed. Allan said; many believe the clicking sound is caused by the hooves when the two halves clap against each other, but most believe it is the tendon that snaps, when slipping over the animals knee joint, It sounds like castanets and can be heard for 100s of meters. I have some limited hearing loss, and could barely hear them. They were close. Like second nature, rifle on the shooting sticks with Allan pointing, where to look, again challenging, selecting a shooting lane, sticks, branches in the way, we were spotted and the bulls were gone.
It was getting late, the bulls like to bed down after 9 am. After conferring, Allan and Andreas thought it worth a try to continue tracking them (yes!), and we came upon them once again. 9:45: rifle on shooting sticks again I was looking over my scope for the tree where Allan pointed out a bull was standing under. Time stood still, the slight warm African breeze, cooling our sweaty faces, a good indication that the wind direction is totally in our favour. Standing motionless behind a leafless yellow wood bush, Allan pointed out to me the form of an animal, it was huge
grey-brown in colour, the sun glinting off its horns and then that distinct swaying motion of a dewlap, this confirming it was one of the huge eland bulls we were after. I aimed in my excitement and fired! My memory is a bit blurry but I seem to remember it leaping up and immediately thereafter the bush came alive and I watched two huge bulls rush out of the bush and race across my vision from right to left. “Did I hit it?!” I called out. Allan, right behind me, said: “reload!”. I paused to pick up my ejected souvenir cartridge and moved forward with smiling handshakes with Allan and Andreas as we walked to the eland lying 60 yards out, apparently having crashed on the spot. It was a neck shot. Allan said shoot it in the shoulder if it gets up, but THAT WAS NOT NECESSARY it had succumbed by the time we reached it. I was elated. It was a fair chase hunt and we had worked for it! I had successfully returned to Namibia for the eland I desired!
The last most memorable moment was when Zebra came into the clearing, and then a big male leopard stretched out at the water to my left, drinking for a long time and raising its head from time to time to look around. Then it walked across the clearing to the right and stood behind a bush with its tail sticking out curved upwards like a letter C. Zebra walked right by ignoring it. Allan explained that leopards don’t attack fully grown zebra and that its belly probably was full. I sat motionless watching it through an opening in the bush and then it disappeared. Soon afterwards we heard a load cough-like sound lasting for about 10 seconds and Allan said that it was marking its territory. Like a ghost, the leopard again appeared around the corner of a bush a mere 25 yards away, and surprisingly looked in our direction. I slowly raised my binoculars but it spotted me and vanished. Not long afterwards a zebra headed out of the clearing walking directly towards us. We froze, motionless as it walked past within 15 feet, looked at us, then picked up its pace as it disappeared in the bush.
David Becker with his hard-earned Eland