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An American's return to Africa
By Tony Kinton
Following a five-hour drive from Johannesburg, I was once again feeling the red-dirt soil of Africa under my feet. And although it was after midnight when we arrived at the Sofala camp, I could not resist sitting beside ebbing coals of the evening's fire and looking upward. There I saw for the second time in my life the most brilliant skies known to humanity. In the distance an impala roared, a jackal sang and a baboon scolded whatever perceived danger had disturbed him. I took a long, deep breath and absorbed the wonder.
Trip one was the culmination of a dream, a dream that had evidenced itself to a poor Mississippi farm boy during childhood and had remained viably fresh every year afterward. It proved a grand experience. But since its execution in 2002, I had wanted to return, opting for a stickbow and wooden arrows rather than a rifle. Louis Steenkamp came to mind when thoughts of hunting with primitive gear were yet in an embryonic stage.
Louis (www.Sofalasafaris.com) married a young lady who lived near my hometown here in the US. As a result, I came to know him and had the pleasure of visiting with him several times. He showed an interest in primitive and traditional archery and mentioned the possibility of his hosting me on a hunt at Sofala. After my concurring with this suggestion, a suggestion that might seem preposterous to some, we began serious talks toward that end. It was then I firmly determined to build a bow specifically for the hunt. It would be an Osage take-down, this to facilitate packing for travel, and would be accompanied by wooden arrows and a hand-stitched Plains-style quiver.
Since a take-down selfbow appeared a mysterious project, I enlisted the assistance of Mike Yancey, proprietor of Pine Hollow Longbows (www.pinehollowlongbows.com). Yancey holds bow-building classes at his shop in Van Buren, Arkansas, and I managed to obtain a slot for the express purpose of leaving with a functional bow that would go to Africa. The finished product was a 66-inch two-piece Osage that drew 58 pounds at 28 inches. It cast an arrow with authority, eliminating any misgivings regarding its effectiveness. Becoming acquainted with its character traits was a simple and quick process, and within a few sessions I was putting arrows where they should go.
Sofala Ranch rests peacefully in the bushveld of Limpopo Province. Home of the acacia and baobab and wait-a-bit thorns. A majestic land rich with wildlife, ripe with the calls of birds and crisp mornings and quiet evenings enhanced by a curious mystique common to places and things far removed from the familiar. I had longed for such since that first visit a decade earlier; consequently, I relished in the charm and romance of it all.
The initial day of hunting began in glorious fashion. All met at the base of a koppie for breakfast fireside: Fresh-brewed coffee, juice, fruit, pastries, eggs, bacon and ham. This breakfast proved only the first such meal of extraordinary proportion and taste-bud delight we would have in days to come. Evenings were also graced with like displays of culinary expertise. That first morning was concluded with a prayer, a blessing of the hunt.
Afternoon found Louis and me tucked securely and quietly into an elevated blind on neighbouring property Louis had permission to hunt. The blind had been built by the property owner, who is himself a bowhunter, and it was well done. Stationed near a waterhole, it practically assured ample sightings of game animals. However, a potential problem was immediately apparent. The property owner is tall. He had fashioned the shooting window so that it fit his stature and compound perfectly. But with my condition of altitude deficiency, the opening struck me a touch short of shoulder high and the stickbow demanded more poise that I was capable of under the circumstances. But we had little recourse. We had committed to this structure and afternoon was aging.
< (Left to right) The author, Louis Steenkamp and Petrus, the tracker, begin a stalk for nyala.
Then began the parade. Warthogs, too small to be of much interest, came and went. One huge boar opted for a route that put him down wind; he turned and bounced away long before entering my comfort zone, tail held high as he ran. His appearance, though exciting, was a moot point. I could not extend my short frame into position for a shot. And to the right a beautiful kudu bull materialised from heavy bush. He ghosted the blind and maintained that meticulous stride minus an afternoon drink. But the day didn't end there.
Moments later an outsized warthog boar came as if mesmerised by the pool just outside our blind. Louis whispered that I might try to step onto a chair so as to perhaps get into position for a shot. I followed dutifully, and Louis passed me my Osage and a spruce arrow when I was securely planted. It almost worked! I drew the bow as the boar was sipping his last slurp of cool liquid but found my shot impeded by the remnants of an old cattle fence. I twisted and contorted, but could never become comfortable with the idea of shooting. And then the hog was moving – left to right and with no other reason to stay within proximity of the water. No shot. Only that feeling of despair. A marvelous orange sunset cast its last shadows of the day.
> Tony Kinton poses with PH Louis Steenkamp of Sofala Safaris and Kinton's nyala bull.
Kudu had been my initial leaning when I planned this trip. Louis had told me several times of a concession to which he had access, and this concession was a place of wonder where kudu were concerned. It held, he had said and showed me on videos, a prodigious supply of fine bulls. But there was no blind previously set with the archer in mind. Still, we elected to have a try at this place, with hopes running high even if misguided that a bull would allow us to invade the area with a pop-up and still maintain his daily routine of stopping by a tiny tank far back in the hills and bush. We left well before the first hints of dawn to make a rather lengthy drive to the kudu hot spot.
They were there! Kudu showed along every twist and turn of the ranch road as we drove and surveyed the property. Bulls of all sizes afforded adequate evidence that Louis' description of this place was in no way laced with hyperbole. It was fact. This was a kudu haven. The thing to do, we determined quickly, was to get to the tank as quietly as possible and set up in like manner. Before long we crawled in and sat back to wait. Kudu appeared in due time, some simply drifting by in the bush or crossing a ranch road in the distance. There was activity in every direction.
< Tony opted for a primitive bow, wooden arrows and a Plains-Indian-style quiver. He also used a haversack he made for carrying water and snacks.
And some made a partial attempt to come to the tank. Six cows emerged from thick cover 60 yards out. They stopped suddenly and stared at the blind. One particularly adventurous member of the group walked even closer, her eyes never leaving the suspicious blob that had not been present at her last visit. The sextet eventually melded into the bush with no additional attempts to drink at that spot. Then a bull chanced entry, a 55-incher, his incredible horns spreading widely and curling deeply. He came up a two track and stopped, staring briefly before giving every indication that he saw nothing unusual. It was not until he reached 40 yards that he seemed to think better of his initial decision, and with grace that belied his bulk, he turned and vanished without even a rustle of leaves or clatter of rock.
Another day had ended with no shots presented. It was obvious that the kudu would demand a blind that had been stationed long enough to be accepted as part of the environment. They were much too cautious to wander in oblivious to some foreign presence. Since time would not allow our positioning a blind that would provide ample time for the kudu to become acclimated to it, plans must change if this adventure were to end with an animal taken. We began a long discussion on the drive back that evening.
"What about nyala?" I quizzed. "I have a really good kudu from the rifle hunt I made but have never been in the company of nyala. They are the most beautiful of the spiral horns and I would like to try for one." "I have them," Louis assured. "We can try for one tomorrow if you like." That suited me perfectly, so we began laying out our procedure. We would, according to Louis, get on the concession shortly after daylight and drive the two tracks in an effort to locate a bull. It was then, we both agreed, that things could get a bit complex. This would become at that point my favourite method of hunting, walk and stalk. Sitting a blind is productive; we do it with monotonous regularity here in the states for whitetails and turkeys and I had done it the past two days in Africa. But nothing compares to locating an animal in the distance, figuring the wind, playing the cover and then creeping in gingerly for a shot. My excitement grew with gusto at the thought of such activity.
Sunrise that next morning was spectacular. Autumn light brushed acacia and grass of the hunting area, while hornbills and guineafowl and doves cackled and cooed their greetings to a new day. A steenbuck ram darted across the road; a young waterbuck bull spun to retreat from our approach, presenting that bullseye backside common to the specie. And then, over there, tucked tightly beneath an acacia perhaps 200 yards away, was a nyala. A fine bull indeed. The stalk began immediately and with fruitful hope, but it ended suddenly at 50 yards. Something, perhaps an errant swirl of wind or a fleck of sunlight glinting off a face alerted the bull. He asked no questions, hardly took the time to look in our direction. He simply erupted from cover and melted away. Back to the truck.
But before long there was another, this one not quite the specimen as the first, but a good bull just the same. And he was in a like position as the other. Enamored of the foliage and holding close to its cover. This stalk, however, went as planned.
At 20 yards the Osage came up and the sight picture became clear. There was nothing in my mind save one single hair low and forward. But then that haunting marauder from the depths of a hunter's core surfaced. It was not doubt of whether or not the shot could be made; it was not some erroneous judgment of the equipment's efficacy. It was deeper than any of these. It was that troubling question: Do you really want to do this? I addressed it from the edges of concentration and answered with a solid anchor and smooth release. The arrow smacked and this portion of the drama ended within 40 yards.
As we approached the bull, Louis and Petrus, our tracker, slowed and eventually stopped. They allowed me the privilege of being the first to touch this magnificent creature. I knelt beside him, stroked his rich coat gently, removed my hat and offered a prayer of thanksgiving for the grandest gift of more than 50 years in the hunting fields. Africa had once again worked deeply into my being and had cast its spell of mysterious magic that will remain entrenched for as long as I have life.