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Big Kudu in "South West"

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July 10, 2013
Big Kudu in "South West" - 0

This story was originally published in the June 1973 issue of Outdoor Life magazine.

My wife and I were sitting by an open fire out on the patio with our hosts, Mr. and Mrs. Peter Böhmker, watching the big, bight African stars come out when we heard the telephone tinkle inside. Peter excused himself to answer it. In a moment he was back.
   
“It’s your son,” he said. “He’s calling from that other farm.”
   
I thought how odd it was to be on safari and yet be able to receive a telephone call.
   
“I had a great day, Dad,” Bradford said over the wire. “I got a good mountain-zebra stallion. Boy, was it tough! It was just like hunting desert sheep. If I hadn’t had a Hottentot with me to keep me from breaking my neck, I could have believed I was in Mexico.”
   
“Congratulations,” I said.
   
“What about you and Mother? Any luck?”
   
“Your mother knocked off a sixty-inch kudu. Otherwise, not much to report.”
   
There was a silence of several seconds.
   
“Are you still on the phone?” I asked.
   
“Yes,” Bradford said.  “You can say I’m breathless, consumed with envy, astounded, chagrined, flabbergasted, and words to that effect.”
   
When I rejoined our hosts by the fire my wife Eleanor was grinning smugly.
   
“Brad got a good mountain zebra,” I said.
   
“Did you tell him about my kudu?”
   
“Yes.”
   
“What did he say?”
   
“He like to dropped his teeth.”
   
She giggled.
   
“I thought that would fetch him,” she said.
   
Our first hunting day in South West Africa had been eventful—maybe too eventful.
   

In the classic story of the hunt, the hunter walks, sweats, climbs, and struggles as he looks for the Big One. Then when the time is almost up and it looks as though the hunter is skunked and is going home to endure a ribbing from friends, the chance comes. There is a magnificent shot. The Big One goes down. The trophy makes the record book. The hunter goes home, gets his picture with trophy in the hometown paper, and is praised and envied by all.
   
The story is a natural. It has its built-in form: a beginning, a middle, and a socko climax. The readers hang on every word, sitting in easy chairs with brows beaded with sweat. They anxiously bite their fingernails as they read.
   
But suppose you go out and knock off a sensational trophy the first day. What then? You’ve just spoiled your story—that’s all. If you’re a writer, you’ve just made it tough on yourself.
   
And that is the kind of dish my wife and hunting companion Eleanor served me.
   
The day before, we had flown more than halfway over the narrow southern end of Africa from Johannesburg to Windhoek, South West Africa. Before that, we had flown from New York to Rome, stopping there for a couple of days to rest, eat at some of the world’s finest restaurants, see some sights, and shop. Leaving Rome at midnight, we flew nonstop to Johannesburg. I didn’t get much sleep on the plane, so we slept a few hours at an airport motel before exploring downtown Johannesburg.
   
The motel had been built by an American chain, and by the looks of our room we couldn’t tell whether we were in Africa, Europe, Idaho or Iowa. The motel restaurant, The Alabama Room, featured Southern cooking: fried chicken, country-fried steak, pecan pie, cornbread, grits, and red-eye gravy. Such provender is as exotic to South Africans as snails, frog legs, and bird’s-nest soup are to us.
   
The next morning we took an early jet to Windhoek. At the Johannesburg airport we had run into the least red tape we have ever encountered in Africa. We simply told a courteous customs official the make, serial number, and caliber of each rifle and the amount of ammunition we had. He gave us firearms permits, which we turned in a month or so later when we flew back to Rome. We took our rifles in plastic cases to our motel rooms and the next day checked them through to Windhoek without question,
   
My wife and I took three rifles. Two were 7x 57’s, mine a Model 70 Winchester, the last 7 x 57 ever turned out at the Winchester factory. It had been restocked in French walnut by Al Biesen of Spokane and was equipped with a Weaver K4 scope. Eleanor’s rifle was a custom job on a Mauser action with barrel and metalwork by Tom Burgess and a stock by the late Russ Leonard. It wore a Leupold 3X. She had used it with success over a considerable extent of big-game country.
   
From South West Africa we planned to go on to Rhodesia, so I had also taken along a Model 70 Winchester in .375 Magnum, also stocked by Biesen. On the entire trip, neither of us fired it. We likewise had the 12-gauge shotgun but got little use out of it. Bradford’s battery consisted of a Ruger M/77 in .30/06 and a Winchester Model 70 with a Weaver K3 and a handsome stock by Earl Milliron of Portland, Oregon. Brad later shot an elephant in Rhodesia with the .375.
   
Our safari had been arranged by Jack Atcheson, the Butte, Montana, taxidermist and travel agent who books hunting trips in the U.S. and abroad. We were met at the Windhoek airport by the beautiful young wife of Volker Grellman, who runs Anvo, our outfitter. Volker and his wife Anke arrange to take hunters to various lands owned by “farmers” of German descent in South West. The Grellmans arrange for the licenses, set up the itinerary, and meet the hunters at the airport. Afterward they see that the trophies are shipped and bid the hunters farewell.
   
Volker and Anke are German-born. They came to South West on the same boat from Hamburg but didn’t meet until they were in Windhoek. Volker is a giant of a man with a rosy complexion, blue eyes, and dark hair and beard. Anke is a brunette and looks more like an Italian Madonna than a German hausfrau.
   
South West Africa used to be German West Africa. It was taken during World War I by the British and the South Africans. It is a cosmopolitan land. The indigenous inhabitants are of Bantu and Hottentot descent, and those of European blood are derived from German, English, and Afrikaner stock. English, German and Afrikaans are spoken, and newspapers are published in the three languages. South West Africa is famous for its enormous ranches, its excellent German beer—and its Kudu.
   
The road signs that mark game crossings in South West show pictures of kudu. The kudu is responsible for more automobile accidents than is speeding, drunken driving, or anything else. Generally those accidents occur when the driver is barreling down one of those, straight, paved roads at night and bangs into a crossing kudu.
   
Volker Grellman moonlights as an outfitter. He is a furrier who sells furs and designs elegant fur garments. After lunch Anke drove Eleanor and me to Peter Böhmker’s farm. Volker took Bradford to another farm to hunt mountain zebra. Ours was a deluxe safari. Eleanor and I were in a guest house with our own bath and were awakened each morning by a servant with hot tea. Our laundry was done daily.
   
In South West the custom among German farmers is to have a cup of tea or coffee and then to take off in gray dawn. When the sun is well up, the party stops and eats a sort of brunch: hard-boiled eggs, sandwiches, and coffee.

Peter was a lover of animals and a hunter. A rocky hill about 100 yards from his house swarmed with baboons that he allowed no one to shoot. In a little pasture near his house were three cheetahs he had raised from cubs. They were tamer and more affectionate than most house cats. At one time both springbrok and eland had been exterminated on his land and he is now trying to bring them back. He has enough springbok to support hunting, but the eland are still carefully watched in a small pasture near the house. The main products of Peter’s enormous ranch are karakul sheep, from whose hides handsome coats are made for women. The animals are slaughtered as lambs.
   
Peter’s “farm” is actually an enormous ranch. It is divided into huge pastures, called kamps, enclosed in smooth-wire fences. The spiral-horned kudu and straight-horned gemsbok, two of the largest and handsomest of the African antelope, move about freely on the ranch. The kudu jump the fences. The gemsbok scoot beneath.
   
We drove out to a kamp where Peter said he had lately seen some excellent kudu bulls, and started walking. Now and then we saw the shadowy forms of kudus disappearing into the brush and low trees. We caught glimpses of horns but never had a chance to shoot. We had been possibly out a half-hour when on the crest of a low ridge and through a long, narrow break in the trees we saw a herd of kudu bulls of various sizes.
   
“Shoot at the second bull from the front. It’s big!” Peter whispered.
   
Eleanor dropped into a sitting position and switched off her safety.

“Hold a bit high,” I cautioned. “They’re about 300 yards away.”

As her rifle cracked, I thought I saw the big bull sag at the hindquarters. I also thought I heard the bullet strike. The kudu ran on, and Eleanor shot again.
   
“I think you hit him on that first shot,” I said.
   
“No,” said Peter. “She missed. She shot low.”
   
“I’m afraid I didn’t hold high enough,” Eleanor said gloomily.
   
After many decades of shooting guns I don’t have very keen hearing. I decided I was imagining things.
   
“Too bad you missed that bull,” Peter said. “It was a fine one.” A moment later we glimpsed two kudu bulls jumping a fence. One was big and the other smaller. We assumed that they were the two lead bulls we had seen.
   
“Not a scratch. I sure blew that one.” Eleanor said.
   
Soon I got an easy shot at an excellent gemsbok that was facing me not over 125 yards away. I shot offhand, and when the little 7 x 57 cracked, the crosswires were centered where the chest joined the neck. To my astonishment, I saw a big puff of dust about 30 feet in front of the gemsbok, which galloped off.

Our Hottentot tracker ran ahead and found blood. The bullet had struck a branch between the rifle and the gemsbok. The branch had been plastered with mud by termites. We later found that the deflected bullet had scraped along the gemsbok’s side and opened the abdominal cavity.
   
We tracked and tracked. The gemsbok joined some others, and often the tracks became difficult to unravel, even for our Hottentot tracker. But now and then a drop or two of blood would tell us we were after the right animal.

Finally Peter said we’d have to try again in the afternoon with the little Irish terrier he keeps for tracking wounded game. We headed for the car.
   
“Boy, we’re doing great today,” Eleanor said sourly, “missing and wounding as if we’d never hunted before.”
   
She had hardly spoken when the Hottentot stopped and said, “Kudu.” Not over 20 yards away was a dead bull, unquestionably the one Eleanor had shot at. It hadn’t gone over 100 yards after her second shot. She had hit it both times, but she hadn’t led high enough and hadn’t held high enough. One shot had been in the abdomen, and the other had broken a hip.
   
“Gee, but those horns look big!” Eleanor said.
   
“That’s the best kudu you’ve ever shot,” I said.
   
“What will it go?” She asked.
   
“At least fifty-five and maybe fifty-eight,” I said.
   
Afterward we found out that the horns went a fraction under 60 inches around the spiral. Of the two ways of measuring kudu, the one generally used by old African hands is to follow the spiral of the horn around. This system seems to me preferable. Under the new Rowland Ward system, the measurement is taken on the outside of the spiral. The measurement of 55 inches along the outside puts Eleanor’s big kudu about halfway down the list for South African kudu in the Rowland Ward Records of African Game.

Peter called Volker about the astonishing piece of luck, and that night Volker and Anke drove out from Windhoek to see the great head. Volker told Eleanor that the head was a cinch to win the first-prize gold medal at the annual hunters’ show at Windhoek. It did.

Later we went out after the wounded gemsbok. By then it had stiffened up and weakened. Soon the little Irish terrier cornered it. These brave, frisky little dogs are favorites in South West Africa for tracking wounded game. Peter told me that all he had to do to train one was to put it on a blood trail a few times. The courageous gemsbok is armed with long, bayonet-sharp horns. Cornered gemsbok quickly kill any but very agile dogs and have even been known to kill lions.

Bradford joined us at the farmhouse of our next host, and there he collected a 54-inch kudu. Therein lies a tale. Our hosts looked askance at our rifles and told us we were underarmed, contending that African game was tougher than American game. On the big kudu and on my good 381/2 –inch gemsbok, the O’Connors hadn’t distinguished themselves. But Eleanor’s two shots at her kudu had been difficult. A 300-yard shot at a moving animal, even one as large as a kudu (about the size of a spike bull elk) is never easy. And I had been unlucky when my bullet was deflected.
   
Volker used a German-made .300 Weatherby Magnum with double-set triggers, a combination that I think would make a flincher out of a cigar-store Indian. The ranchers I met all used German-built rifles, and most of the hunters they took out were from Germany. Their notion of a good kudu rifle was a 9.3 x 64 or a 9.3 x 74, both in the .375 Magnum class.
   
Our next host was a big, good-looking German named Otto Steinmaster whom all called Steinie. He owned a ranch called Bergwheiher. He had a beautiful blond wife and a couple of handsome children. Volker Grellman joined us there to hunt kudu and mountain zebra.
   
Bradford made a spectacular shot on a kudu with his Ruger .30/06. One method of hunting kudu is to climb one of the rocky kopjes (pronounced “copies”) found over much of Africa. These little hills are simply piles of boulders 50 to 200 feet high. Then the hunters glass the flat country below, seeing a kudu to stalk.
   
On this occasion Eleanor and I stayed in the hunting car to rest our ancient bones while Bradford and Volker climbed a tall kopje. We could see them glassing. After about an hour I could see Bradford getting into position across a boulder. Then I heard the crack of his .30/06 followed by the sound of a bullet striking flesh.
   
Eleanor and I headed over and arrived just in time to see Bradford and Volker approaching a very dead kudu bull. Bradford had taken a good rest and held up about six inches above the top of the bull’s shoulder. The result was a perfect shoulder shot. The bull was Bradford’s second kudu and his best. He took his first in Zambia in 1969.

The trophies in South West Africa are limited. Lions are stock killers and have long been eliminated there. A few leopards and cheetah are still around, but these are considered vermin, as they kill the karakul sheep. The most-plentiful big-game animal is the kudu.

After we had all filled our licenses on kudu I saw one I am sure would go 65 inches around the spiral, the best kudu head I have ever seen on a live animal. The ranchers love kudu because they are browsers, are good to eat, and furnish great sport. Feelings are mixed about the gemsbok, as these greatest of the oryx family compete with sheep and cattle for feed. Gemsbok are not nearly so plentiful as kudu.
   
The foxy little antelopes that are called springboks because of the way they leap through the air are not plentiful, at least where I hunted. But they are present in shootable numbers. The red hartebeest is considered a fine trophy by many, but I have never been excited about about hartebeest. I saw a few in South West. I had previously seen some in Botswana. All were very wild.
   
The Hartmann mountain zebra is fairly scarce in South West. This interesting animal inhabits the barren, rocky mountain ranges that spot the desert of South West.
   
We made quite a production of my mountain-zebra hunt. To lead me to the zebra, I had Volker, Steinie, and two German ranchers who came along to see the fun. Bradford and Eleanor accompanied me to see I didn’t get buck fever or otherwise make a fool of myself.
   
We located zebra about 1 o’clock. They were dozing in the shade of some thin thorn trees on a hillside about 300 yards away. It was hot and quiet. From where we were glassing on a ridge I could see hundreds of square miles of flat thorn-bush desert; projecting from it were rocky ranges like the one we were on. Scattered through the bush were little rocky kopjes. I have seen almost identical country in Sonora, Mexico.

About a half-dozen mountain zebra were under the trees. One alone and at the far left seemed the best. I glassed carefully to try to make sure that no branches were in the way. I got into a comfortable prone position and held the crosswires at the top of the shoulder to allow for the drop of 300 yards. When I squeezed off the shot, the zebra dropped as if poleaxed. My gallery cheered.
   
“I’m beginning to believe that those little American cartridges aren’t bad,” Volker said.
   
On the way back, Bradford collected his first gemsbok—a trophy he had long wanted. He shot from the bottom of the valley at a gemsbok above on the hill and 375 to 425 yards away.
   
In South West not an ounce of meat is wasted. The client gets the hide and the horns. The meat belongs to the rancher, who eats it or dries it and sells it as biltong (jerky). So Volker started pushing his Land Rover up the 35° slope of that rocky hillside toward the dead gemsbok about a quarter of a mile away. About halfway he was stymied by a pile of boulders the size of dog houses. Bradford, Volker, and one of the German farmers carried that 400-pound gemsbok down the rocky hillside.

In Germany and over most of Europe trophies of horned or antlered animals are usually mounted with the bare skull on a plaque. As a consequence the scalps, or headskins, are almost never taken. Peter Böhmker had innocently cut the head of Eleanor’s kudu off at the chin, and had, of course, ruined the scalp. It was up to me to collect another since Bradford wanted his kudu head mounted.

My kudu came as the result of one of the prettiest stalks I have ever been on. With binoculars we spotted the feeding bull kudu silhouetted on top of a kopje about a mile away. About 175 yards to the right was another kopje. If the kudu cooperated, we could stay out of sight in the dongas (dry washes), come around the right side of the other kopje, climb it, and shoot across the valley at the kudu. If the kudu went back on the far side, lay down on top, saw us or smelled us, we were out of luck.

When we scrambled up the right hand kopje, he was browsing innocently about halfway up the kopje on the proper side. He could not have been more cooperative. Steinie and Volker started whispering advice, but I put my finger to my lips for quiet, sat down, help about one-fourth of the way up from where the bull’s front legs joined his body, and squeezed one off. The kudu went down like a pile of bricks. I had another set of kudu horns and Eleanor had a scalp for her big head. The 140-grain bullet had gone through the legbone and the heart.
   
“This is the way I like to hunt,” said Steinie, “a good stalk, a clean, instant kill. A lot of people want to shoot out of hunting cars. I don’t like it. The kudu don’t have a chance.”
   
The South West African farm hunt is not overwhelmingly demanding of time or money. When we were there the charge was $100 a day to feed, guide, and house the hunter and haul him around. The licenses cost $60 each. The hunter is charged a trophy fee, which goes to the rancher, for what the hunter shoots. A mountain zebra is $165. A kudu with an outside curve measuring 50 inches or more is $200; under 50 inches, the fee is $150. A large gemsbok costs $150, a smaller one $100. If the hunter draws blood on the animal, he is charged half the killing fee. Brad drew blood on a mountain zebra and it cost him $80.
   
For a short, relatively inexpensive hunt in a very interesting part of Africa, a week’s shoot in South West is hard to beat. Bradford got three good trophies. Counting his wounded zebra, his bill was $1,105. My bill was less because I didn’t wound anything. Eleanor shot only her big kudu. We had previously taken springbok in Botswana.
   
Bradford, Eleanor and I enjoyed the people we met. The men were ranchers but not the rugged, hairy-chested ranchers of the American wild-West novels and TV. They were rugged, all right—tough and surprisingly big. I am a six-footer, but I was small compared to some of my hosts. Peter, Steinie, and Volker were all six-foot-four. They didn’t go home to Dutch-oven bread, frijoles, and country-fried steak either. Neither did they go home to sausage and kraut in the German manner. The food was sophisticated and delicate.

One night we had a terrific fondue of warthog, ostrich, and kudu meat. Those German hausfraus were all pretty, and their houses had Oriental rugs and ancestral oil paintings. Meals were served with fine china and silverware. I’d like to go back.


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