Thursday, August 17, 2017

Into Africa: Day 5

Don't Get Cocky

Of the three shots I had taken on animals in Africa so far, all the arrows had hit exactly where they needed to. I'd studied Brent's shot placement book over and over, and with a little bit of his coaching during the moment of the shot, had made three perfect shots. Granted they were all 16 yards or less, but the blood trails had been short and the tracking easy. I won't say I was getting overconfident or cocky, but sometimes I need a reminder not to.

On day 5 we returned to the blind I had killed my zebra from, again planning to sit all day. An nyala was the first animal to come in after things had settled down, and soon some small warthogs appeared. Close to 10am, Brent heard the guttural grunt of an impala and signaled me to get ready. Two male impala began making their way in to the water and we agreed on which one I should take. I positioned myself to get ready to draw and Brent got the camera running. Now it was just a matter of waiting for a shot opportunity.

I knew something was off as the shot broke, and watched helplessly, almost in slow motion, as the green Nockturnal entered the impala at the right height, but about 6 inches back from where it needed to be. "I hit him too far back," I told Brent as the impala went out of sight. We replayed the video of the shot, and sure enough the arrow hit him well clear of the heart and lungs, but could have possibly hit his liver. With a questionable hit, Brent said we would give him an hour before tracking. So after forever (an hour) we called up Erisha on the radio and began to trail the wounded impala.

Wounding an animal with a less-than-perfect shot is one of the inevitables of bowhunting, and no conscientious archer takes the responsibility of making an ethical shot lightly. There was a sick feeling in my stomach as we began to follow his trail. There was blood here and there, but the impala only seemed to be bleeding when he would stop momentarily. There were no drops of blood between the large puddles that we found. M'ya was going full throttle, trying to find scent, but I think there were just too many animal trails coming to and from the water for her to get a good smell. I never saw a dog that wanted it more though.

Brent, Erisha and I were taking separate paths, fanning out to cover more ground, and Mia was out in front doing her own grid search. When she started barking, we knew she was on the impala, and Brent took off running after her with his .416 Rigby. Erisha and I followed and Mia has bayed the impala against some trees and was staying just out of reach of the now-irritated ram. He wasn't backing down so I drew my bow with Mia and Brent working the impala and hoping I would get a good second shot. After holding for a couple of minutes the impala turned broadside and I released, striking him in exactly the same spot the first shot had. I nocked another arrow and drew again, then had to let down after a couple minutes of no shot. As the ram turned once again I drew and shot him in the heart and he was down in seconds.

Sitting on the ground beside the impala after he expired, I thanked God that we had recovered the animal, and again for the privilege of being on African soil. Losing an animal is a risk bowhunters knowingly take every time we go afield, but that guy-wrenching feeling when you make a marginal shot doesn't go away. This whole episode humbled me a little bit, before I really knew I needed it.

After taking care of the impala, Brent and I got back into the blind to spend the rest of the day. There was no action until right at dark. Two kudu bulls came in, then a herd of wildebeest, then a herd of eland as big as horses came in, approaching from the rear of the blind and coming within feet of us. We waited in the blind for Erisha to drive up, choosing to spook the animals off with a vehicle rather than humans coming out of the blind. That night we had "bush dinner" served around a campfire out in the bush, consisting of blesbok, hominy and roasted potatoes. We capped off the night back at the lodge around the fire, swapping stories, panning the next days hunts and listening to the PH's tell about hunting hippo and rhino.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Into Africa: Day 4

Black with White Stripes

Brent and I had noticed that the animals weren't moving until later in the morning, so there was no need in beating the sunrise just to sit in the blind longer. We developed a routine of getting up just a little later for breakfast, after the other hunters in camp and still getting to the blinds well before the animals were moving. This time we went to yet another blind, a small tin shed built into the ground with shooting and viewing windows cut into it. We had quite a few animals come in: nyala, kudu, warthog, wildebeest and sable all wandered in and out throughout the day. Seeing so much activity kept us entertained and provided some filming opportunities but there was nothing to shoot at. Warthog was high on my list but the only males we saw were very small. Having packed a lunch, we sat all day.

Just before dark, a herd of 8 wildebeest, a few warthogs, and a sable were all in range feeding and watering, when we saw a gemsbok carefully approaching the water. Then we realized there were two of them, and we started to get set up to take a shot if it was presented. As we were watching the gemsbok, 3 zebras came into view and Brent and I had a quick, quiet conversation that I should take the first shot presented by the zebras or gemsbok. The zebras came right in and went directly to the water hole. I didn't have a lot of time to judge them, and because they are difficult to determine I they are male or female, both are legal to shoot. I could tell one of them was darker and had bolder stripes than the others and as it happened, it turned and gave me a perfect shot opportunity at 16 yards. Aiming for the triangle on his shoulder, we watched the Nockturnal lighted nock zip right through him. He ran about 25 yards, started to stumble and went down. In all the commotion we had forgotten about M'ya, and the instant she heard the arrow fly she was out of the blind and headed toward the zebra!

"Whack and stack!" Brent loves to quote Uncle Ted.

The zebra turned out to be a stallion, and his hide was even more amazing than I thought. Deep, bold stripes and a beautiful mane. Bringing him back to camp, several of the PH's remarked that zebras are one of the more difficult species to get with a bow because of their cautious nature, and also that bowhunters don't typically experience the kind of success I had so far. Hearing this from them reminded that I was blessed not only to have been successful on some great animals, but also just to be here. The hunt I won was for 5 days, but given the slim odds of bowhunting, I opted to extend my hunt for 10 days. As the fourth day wound down, I had three animals already in the salt rack and kudu filet for dinner at the lodge. I like Africa.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Into Africa: Day 3

New Favorite

We arrived at the pop-up blind with our lunch of leftover pizza packed and plans to sit all day, or until we killed something. We had the usual quick breakfast in camp and Erisha took the truck back after dropping us off. We sat for a little while and both started reading after a while. A few blesbok came into the water, but way out of range. This was a big water hole, and the majority of it was out of bow range, but many animals had been approaching where we were set up, so we were still hopeful. Back to reading The Green Hills of Africa. 

I looked up to see a kudu bull with his head down drinking water about 40 yards away but at a bad angle. I don't know much about kudu, but he looked like a pretty good one to me. There was another, smaller bull with him that was very cautious and never came out into the open. Up until then, I was still undecided if I wanted to take a kudu but seeing him in the flesh, his gray, deer-like hair, mane on his neck, the white chevron on his face and dark spiraling horns, I couldn't help but admire what a beautiful animal he was. My mindset totally changed and I decided then that if he gave me a shot, I would take it. Then, as quickly and stealthily as he came in, he was gone. Watching through the blind by pulling back the windows, we realized both bulls had stopped in the trees about 40 yards to our left and behind us, then vanished. Back to reading. 

Not long after that we saw movement and both bulls walked quickly across in front of us and then began to circle the blind, presumably to try to catch our wind. They had been suspicious of this new pile of brush and kept looking our direction, and now they were trying to get a whiff of it. Thinking the kudu would wind us and be gone, I went back to reading. At some during all of this, Brent said he wished an Nyala or some other animal would come in to put the kudu at ease. 

Just a few moments later, as if by design, a lone nyala bull walked in and began feeding right in front of us, also staring at the blind but not showing any signs of being spooked. The kudu remained in the edge of the bush but we could tell they were surveying for danger. Eventually, and very slowly, the larger bull began making his way toward the feed. He initially came in facing me, but after jockeying for position with the nyala, he turned broadside at 11 yards. Drawing my bow and and coming to anchor, I found my pin and brought it up his front leg and then straight up to the top of the lower third of his body. The arrow blew through him and everything ran off. The kudu bull ran to the edge where he had been standing earlier and turned around to see what happened. He stood there for a moment and then went down, in sight of the blind. 

As we walked up to my bull, I realized that pictures don't do the beauty of the kudu justice and I wondered why I hadn't viewed them this way before. For one thing, he was larger than I expected, and his horns were longer as well. My mental image of kudu was a smaller bodied antelope, but he was as big as an elk. No longer an afterthought, and realizing what a good trophy he was, he became my new favorite. 

The strange thing was, I was reading the last chapters of The Green Hills of Africa when all of this action started, and Hemingway's character had just killed a good kudu bull. After some photos and taking the bull back to the lodge to be caped and skinned, we headed to another blind for the evening hunt. Warthog, sable and nyala came into shooting range, but nothing we wanted to shoot. 

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Into Africa: Day 2

Not So Fast

The next morning we would go back to the same blind we hunted the day before. The staff had prepared a quick breakfast for us as well as packed a lunch so we could stay all day. As we drove up to the blind, we spooked a beautiful sable, so we hurried and got settled in. Later in the morning the sable returned, along with two eland and the wildebeest that had been with the one I killed. These would all return throughout the day making for some excitement, but not any shot opportunities. The sable is a beautiful animal, but the trophy fee is a little more than I planned to pay. The eland on the other hand, were not initially attractive to me but after seeing them in person being impressed by the size of their body, were beginning to grow on me.

Twice we had zebras approach the waterhole, but from our blind spot and I was never able to get a shot. The eland and sable kept me entertained and provided some good video but I wasn't able to shoot anything. Blind hunting is not for everyone. It requires patience and either being ok with being bored, or bringing something along to keep your mind occupied. I brought along some books, initially to read on the plane, but they proved to be handy for all day sits in a ground blind. The Green Hills of Africa by Ernest Hemingway seemed like a great title to read on this trip.

That night dinner was pizza, but we're not talking Domino's. The toppings were wildebeest, locally made sausage and other delicious stuff. Later around the campfire, Brent asked if I would be interested in shooting a kudu. One of the other PH's had spotted a good one and had a good idea where he was going for water. He had Erisha put up a pop-up blind and brush it in for us to hunt the following morning. I was of course interested to see the bull, but I hadn't planned on hunting a kudu partly because of the trophy fee associated with them. There would be other animals around, Brent assured me, and either way there would be no pressure to take him if I decided I didn't want to. Seemed like a fair proposition to me. The other great idea Brent had was to procure some of the leftover wildebeest pizza for our lunch the next day.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Into Africa: Day 1

Set the Pace

Having arrived at camp so late, none of us were itching to get started too early. We had to check our weapons anyway, so we got started well after daylight. I'm not sure if it was the rough handling on the planes or if I was just jumpy, but it took about 30 arrows and a sight modification to get the Hoyt grouping right. Then Brent, Erisha and I were on our way to our first hunting spot. Not far from camp, we spotted two giraffes. Giraffes! We drove up to a blind fashioned out of a burlap-like material with a window cut into it, wrapped around the legs supporting a 14x14 platform wildlife viewing station overlooking a waterhole. In addition to the water, there was a salt block and feed to draw animals in. This is wintertime in Africa, and its very dry this time of year. Brent and I got set up and Erisha drove the truck back up the road a ways so as not to interfere with any animals close by. We had been in the blind about 45 minutes when two blue wildebeest began to approach very cautiously. One of the bulls was considerably better and Brent and I agreed if he gave me a shot opportunity I should take it. After a while the two bulls settled down and came on in, and the larger one eventually gave me a slightly quartering away broadside shot.

Sitting in the blind I had been studying a pocket guide to shot placement on African animals, and drawing back my bow I tried to visualize the drawing of the vitals in the book as I settled my top pin for the 14 yard shot. I don't remember the bow going off, just the wildebeest jumping and taking off in a sprint along with his buddy. This was unbelievable! My first hour in an African blind and I had arrowed one of the top critters on my list of animals I wanted to take. In a way I felt like I had avenged Mufasa by shooting one of the wildebeest that killed him in The Lion King.  Brent had been operating my video camera so we played back the shot to be sure, and it was definitely in the vitals. The hearts and lungs of African animals sit farther forward and lower in their chest cavity as a general rule and I wasn't sure if in the moment I had reverted to my hours of training to hit the vitals of deer and elk.

We gave the wildebeest about 15 minutes and waited for Erisha to get back with the truck. When we got out of the blind, Brent turned loose his wire-haired Jack Russel terrier Mia and she was off to find the wildebeest. Just as Brent told me, she had been raring to go since she heard the shot go off. We walked behind her looking for blood, and there was plenty of it. After 30 yards or so, Brent looked up and saw Mia's white hide through the bush and she was standing on top of the wildebeest, 90 yards from where I had shot him. Walking up on my first African animal was a moment I will never forget.

Every animal I've killed, especially with a bow, has been a trophy of the experience of the hunt on which it was taken, and the moment I first lay my hand on it holds a reverence for me unlike anything else. It's a time to be thankful; that the animal lived, that God made me a hunter, that our paths crossed here, that its meat will provide food, that I have this moment in time to remember. Sure, I take the grip-and-grin shots. When the animal is large enough, I have it mounted and I hang it on the wall. But the pictures and hair and bone that everyone else will see are more than just animal parts to me. They're a tangible memory of a time and place when I accomplished something that not everyone is able to, and a reminder of how blessed I am that I get to do that.

The score of my wildebeest wasn't important. He was an old bull, with scars on his face and worn bosses on his horns. He has lived his life avoiding wild predators and hunters like me. Now his head will come with me back to the US and his meat will be aged in a cooler and then feed other hunters who come to Africa to hunt like I have done.

We took the bull back to the lodge and were greeted by the other guys who wanted to see him. It was the first animal taken by this group. Lourens, another PH, said in his thick South African accent "all these rifle hunters in camp and you let the guy with the bow and arrow get the first animal!" Everyone had a good laugh. Lunch (like every meal at Wild Wildebeest) was delicious, and after a short nap Brent and I headed back to the blind. That evening an eland came in, and Brent spotted some zebras approaching that never came in close enough. I got to take in an African sunset, and had a great dinner with the guys in camp, followed by good conversation around the campfire. I couldn't have asked for a better first day in the Dark Continent.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Into Africa: Travel Day

It's not every day that you wake up in the middle of a dream and find out that it's real. But that's what happened to me landing in South Africa. I could never paint a true picture that would represent the incredible experience I had on this trip. It has to be experienced. But I'm going to try to detail the trip as well as I can with the rest of this series. Enjoy and please comment any questions you have about the hunt!

Travel Day

As my overnight workday was ending, my real day was really just beginning. Leaving work at 5am, I hurried home, took a shower and loaded my bow case, backpack and a suitcase into the back of my sister's car. My mom, dad and sister were taking me to the airport to see me off on my first ever trip out of the country. I had gone over my list of items to bring many times, and as we neared the terminal of the airport, I mentally checked them off again, not that there was really any time to pick up anything last-minute anyway. Ok, I think I have it all. Keys. Where are the keys to my bow case? I put four locks on it this morning and I have no idea where the keys are. Nope, not in my pockets. Not in my pack.

"Siri, where is the closest Walmart?" Fortunately there were two within about 10 minutes of the airport. We were tight on time but I had no choice but to get a pair of bolt cutters and new locks. We made to back to the airport in time and security went pretty fast. I never know when flying with a bow if the agent at the counter is going to treat it as a gun or not, so I usually try to allow a little extra time. Next stop, Atlanta.

The flight went by pretty fast, and before I knew it I was sitting for the first time in the F Terminal of the Atlanta airport where most international flights arrive and depart from. It was still Atlanta though, and I've been at this airport many times during the 7 years I lived in Georgia. The three hour layover was enough time to get to where I needed to be and grab a bite to eat before boarding the plane for the 15 hour leg of the trip.

The plane was late leaving due to an incident with another passenger, which I am told made the news before we got off the ground. But anyway, we are Africa bound. I'll admit that I was not looking forward to this part of the trip, but the advantage of working all night before and being awake over 26 hours by the time the plane was in the air, meant I slept pretty well on the plane. Honestly the flight wasn't any worse than a long road trip in the back seat of a car. For someone taller that may sound like misery but to someone of my stature, it isn't unbearable. Plus there was a screen in the headrest in front of me that offered and a few decent movie and music options, including albums by Merle Haggard and Albert Collins.

Flying over the deserts of Africa right at sunset provided some amazing views. Always a sucker for a good sunset, I didn't capture many photos of it because I was literally in awe. By the time I came to myself, most of the colors had faded. Landing in Johannesburg was also my first time going through customs, and though the experience itself wasn't that bad, the line was. Then just like America, the airport employees had treated my bow (along with quite a few others) as a gun, and sent it to security where hunters traveling with guns had to verify their paperwork. I found this out about the time I met my PH Brent, who had been patiently waiting for me to make it through customs and baggage claim. I was following the one airport concierge who was interested enough in my situation to take me where I needed to go, rather than point to the "oversized baggage" signs and go back to what they were doing as three others had done. Waiting in line for my bow, I recognized a few faces I had seen boarding in Atlanta, and soon found out we were headed to the same lodge. Joining Brent and I in his truck were Erisha his skinner, and Art Collier from the other party in camp. So a few hours late due to the delayed departure, misplaced bows and long lines, we were all on our way to Wild Wildebeest Lodge.