“The poor man’s buffalo,” that is what the blue Wildebeest is called somewhat sarcastically at times, but this in no way does justice to this magnificent African game. Yes, in it’s physical appearance it is clearly less massive than the buffalo, you don’t need the biggest caliber for a Wildebeest and the danger of the hunt stands in no comparison to that of the buffalo—nevertheless, the stalk for a blue Wildebeest is one of the most exciting safari imaginable. Allow me to emphasize, that this game promises a real stalk and exuberating moments of elation, although requiring great effort and disparaging physical endurance, not to be compared with some blind on a waterhole, nor to even mention hunting from a vehicle while on a drive through farm terrain.
The blue Wildebeest was way up there on my wish list, when I got on board the Lufthansa Airbus A380 with Boris Eichholz, my friend and business partner heading to South Africa. Flying on an A380 was great, but my mind was preoccupied with the anticipation of fulfilling a dream, to just once hunt a really old bull in a herd of Wildebeest, on foot through the thicket of the African brush using only my sense of hearing and sight. Not a modern hunt, but one that goes back to the roots of nature, full of sacrifices, strenuous and challenging. I want to do this totally without a vehicle, not even for finding tracks. I want to try my luck on foot, from the first second of the hunt to the last.
Our professional hunting guides, Gerhard and Phillip from Mungu Zawadi Game Farm & Hunting Safaris, were already waiting for us when we arrive in Johannesburg. Unfortunately to our dismay, our rifles did not make the flight with us, due to a strike by the security personnel at the Frankfurt Airport. Eichholz hunts with a 9.3×64 caliber Steyr-Mannlicher Pro Hunter, in Europe as well as in Africa. Myself, the same weapon with a caliber of 8x68S. Waiting makes no sense, presumably both weapons will arrive tomorrow on the next flight. So we proceed on the 150 kilometer—roughly 95 miles—long drive to the farm with the intention of returning to the airport tomorrow, in the sincere hope of then being able to claim our weapons at customs. Our mood was hopefully apprehensive, Eichholz had also set a high personal goal on this hunt—his aim was to hunt one of the most native and original game of the black continent, the brown hyena.
After a late lunch on the farm and not being in possession of our firearms, Eichholz and I borrow some shotguns from the farm and set out to provide a little wildfowl variation in the menu for the coming week. Most of all, we are after guinea fowl, francolin and pigeons. As the sun slowly disappeared in a big red ball behind the far horizon, it seems we have indeed made a worthwhile catch for the day.
The following morning we get the good news—our weapons have arrived in Johannesburg and can be picked up at customs. The whole procedure of traveling to the airport, clearing the weapons through customs and driving back does, however, take somewhat longer than planned and by the time our pickup truck again passes through the entrance gate of the farm it is late afternoon, too late to start a hunt. What the heck, after a “sundowner” drink and many exciting hunting stories around the campfire, it turns out to be a pretty good day after all.
As I step out of my room the following morning at 5:30, I am greeted by a pleasantly cool, soft fresh breeze. The sun is still hidden behind a mountain range to the east. I start loading up my backpack with provisions and bottles of water, double check my Steyr rifle and pack sufficient ammunition—I am ready to go, waiting for the adventure to begin. My hunting guide Gerhard knows of my ambitious plan to hunt on foot and under no circumstances make use of a vehicle. That as it were, we check the direction of the wind, which happens to be blowing lightly from the southwest and therefore head off in that direction.
What a fascinating scene to watch, the sun slowly rise over the South African brush thicket, the sunrays submerging the landscape in an almost mystical red-yellow light. More than once we stopped, simply to enjoy the magnificent view. The wind in our face and the sun on our back, we continued our way in silence up a small ridge from where we had a breathtaking view over the wide horizon, transformed in colorful hues in front of us. I just stood there in awe, taken aback by the view described, while Gerhard scans the panoramic terrain and gently nudges me with a whisper, “Blue Wildebeest herd and zebras, your one o’clock.” Yet by the time I reach for my Minox binoculars to get a look, I can barely recognize a blurred side view of black and white stripes, right before all the animals disappear in the thicket of the brush. Wildebeest and zebras often roam together in large herds, which make the hunt even more difficult, since zebras are normally more alert than Wildebeests and would—should they even notice a slight sense of danger from a predator—take the entire herd of Wildebeest with them in flight.
“Did you spot an old bull in the herd?” I ask Gerhard, but he isn’t sure in the few seconds he had the moving herd in view, yet he thinks he saw a physically large Wildebeest in the herd! “That could have been an old, strong bull,” he replies. The direction of the wind is perfect. The herd was about one and a half kilometers away and we decide to stalk the game. Slowly, without making a sound and with great care we set out to approach the spot where we had seen the mixed herd on the move. We get there half an hour later and find a wide array of Zebra and Wildebeest hoof prints. While I was still trying to make sense out of the individual tracks, Gerhard points to a hoof print and is confident that it is from a mature bull. I noticed that the hunting instinct in me is making my skin crawl in anticipation. My heart is beating faster. The object of my desire has been identified and the real hunt can begin.
The Zebra and Wildebeest in the combined herd have a 30-minute jump on us. Yet, from our observation and what the tracks tell us, they aren’t moving exceptionally fast away from us. It seems we have a real chance of catching up to them. The sun has risen higher in the sky and I can already feel the onset of a slight sunburn on the back of my neck—a small taste of what is still to come. We start the stalk, taking more care than before—even my inexperienced eye can follow the tracks of the old bull amidst those of the herd. Time and again we come upon fecal droppings, which continue to be warmer—a sure sign that we are gaining on the herd. Yet, after tracking for five kilometers under the increasingly, relentless heat of the sun, there is no sight, sound nor smell of the herd. Could it be that the herd moved on faster than we thought? Maybe we are moving too slow.
We have to take a short break to rehydrate, before moving on. Another 30 minutes—which seems like hours in the searing heat—we follow the tracks. Suddenly, from an angle in front of us, we hear the characteristic burbing grunt of a Blue Wildebeest.
In an instant I am wide-awake, forgetting the beating of the sun and the burning scratches I got from the thorns of the vegetation. We stare in the direction from where we heard the noise, trying to make out some kind of movement between the bushes and shrubs, but the thicket is too dense. There’s no way around it, we gotta’ get closer. Now, with increasing frequency we hear grunting sounds, now and then even the sound of breaking twigs—without a doubt, we are close to the herd, we caught up with them. At the first glimpse of a Zebra from the side, I freeze in my tracks. The longer we look through the maze of branches and leaves, the more game we are able to identify. Where is the bull? Is he still with the herd?
Inch upon inch, we sneak closer to the herd, attempting to get into a position where we can view the herd and make out the bull, hopefully close enough to get a shot. Finally, we reach an opening in the thicket and there are a number of Wildebeests in front of us, totally ambivalent to our presence. The bull is not among them. We stay in our position for a while, hoping that the herd moves on just a little, so that we can get a view of some of the other animals in the group. We have been on the move for almost ten kilometers and the tension is unbearable. I am full of sweat, exhausted! Gerhard turns to me in slow motion, makes an almost invisible sign in the direction of a bush to our left, somewhat at an angle to the opening in front of us. I take my binoculars and behold the moment. In my view, as if part of the bush, there extends the curve of massive horns, without a doubt the bull we have been looking for.
My Wildebeest is still totally hidden behind branches. If he would only move just a little to the front, just a yard or so into the clearing! Will he do me that favor? Almost without motion, Gerhard is setting up the tripod for my rifle and just as slowly and carefully I try to center my weapon and get in position for a shot. Through my Minox scope, I get a close view of the massive horns of this aged specimen, I can even see the furrows and where splinters have broken off, a sure sign of a long life with many battles. But he does not move! There he stands, not 50 yards away from me, behind his bush. My rifle is cocked, the sun is burning, my arm is getting heavy and sweat is trickling down into my eyes. Then, finally, the bull moves forward, taking a few steps into the clearing.
Gerhard only needs a fraction of a second to be sure of our target and whispers a soft “yes” to my ears. My pulse is racing from excretion and excitement. My scope is jumping up and down on the Wildebeest in my sights. I take a deep breath and exhale, suddenly I find inner peace and can totally focus on the game, my crosshairs find their aim and I shoot.
The gunshot scatters the herd and as the proverbial dust settles, I see the old bull where he fell, where the Norma-Swift-A-Frame-180-Grain-Bullet from my 8x68S brought him down. Without hesitation I reload and keep my eye on the target, yet there is no movement. Totally exhausted, I unload my weapon and sink into the shadow of the ground.
As he hands me a bottle of water and sits down next to me, I can tell that Gerhard has also given his all on this hunt in this temperature. We don’t say a word. We just stare in silence at the big black point, there, about 50 yards in front of us, yet one can tell how relieved we both are.
After some time, I get it together and stagger to my slain Wildebeest. I reach for the horns and in fascination let my fingers glide over every uneven surface, each crack and every fissure that has a story to tell. With both pride and melancholy, I find my place next to the fallen game. I have achieved my goal.