My feet hurt and I was hot, hotter than I could ever remember being. My shirt was stuck to my back and I had long passed the stage where I questioned the pleasure of hunting this late in the day. It was 11am. I had been walking since dawn, some five hours earlier, had consumed all of my water and now wanted to get back to the lodge for a cool swim, a leisurely lunch and a doze somewhere dark and shady.
The mopani flies whined around my face, darting in to drink the sweat by my eyes, slowly driving me mad. Nico, my professional hunter (PH), looked somewhat bemused by my attempts to swat these tiny flies. Totally ineffective, I simply left myself with red welts and ringing ears. He offered me a cigarette, a ?gwai?, and I gratefully accepted the only effective way to keep them off. The smoke rose almost vertically in the near-still air. I really had lost all interest in hunting today, but nonetheless continued to trudge obediently behind my PH.
He stopped suddenly and I nearly walked into him. He stared intently through the thick mopani veldt to a point in space, indicating with his eyes some invisible presence ahead. I peered intently, but could make out nothing. He was having a whispered conversation with Danny, the tracker. I looked quizzically at them. Nico whispered into my ear the magic word: ?kudu?.
The tiredness and aches in my feet fell away; the heat receded and I felt instantly alive, alert to a degree I had thought impossible only seconds before. I looked again yet could only see a curtain of green leaves and grey branches.?Fifty yards ? kudu bull and three females,? Nico whispered.
We had been hunting the ?grey ghost of Africa? for some days and, in the thick bush, had found plenty of traces, droppings and tracks, but had only fleeting glimpses of the ghost itself. I tried to focus on where the others were looking and slowly, very slowly, as I relaxed my eyes, the shapes and shadows began to emerge.
Confronting the kudu
First an ear, then a twitching tail and gradually the outline of a head. The animals were not aware of our presence and were motionless, sheltering in the shade of a mopani tree, their pale buff-grey, lightly striped coats merging perfectly with the shadows and shafts of tree-dappled light. Huge ears constantly moving, alert to the tiniest noise. The only way we had got so close to them was because we were moving quietly and slowly in the lazy air. I scanned back and could not pick them up again.
?They?ve moved,? Nico whispered, picking up the sticks he?d parked by a low bush. For such large animals, kudu are remarkably silent. I had not heard or seen a thing; it may even have been that they ?felt? our presence ? not for nothing are they called ghosts. Silently we began to track them. They moved steadily but not quickly, and we trailed them by their spoor. Nico quietly kicked the dust and watched the drift: the wind was still good. He glanced at the animals? tracks. ?Big bull,? he murmured.
I had not noticed the flies since first spotting the kudu, but the longer we tracked the small herd, the more the flies made their presence apparent again. The sun, now directly overhead, was relentless, but the two Africans guiding me seemed not to notice. They stopped and I focused once again. The herd had halted some 80m ahead. Nico motioned me forward, while Danny waited in the shade of a small mopani. We drifted through the bush, hardly daring to breathe, and stopped. I raised my binoculars, secretly pleased to have done so at precisely the same instant as Nico. He nudged me. ?The bull is on the left.?
I hadn?t seen him, but now I looked intently to the left of the cows and could just make out the slight movement of the bull?s horns in the sunlight. They looked magnificent, but then they all looked magnificent to me. Wide-eyed, I turned to Nico, who grinned and mouthed, ?Big bull. Take him.? He motioned me into a position for a clear shot.
Taking the shot
The Ray Ward .375, kindly loaned by a friend, was hot to the touch and slippery with sweat, but I eased it up on to the sticks and waited. I could not get a clear sight picture, only seeing parts of the bull, so I came off the sticks to hold freehand. The range was now less than 40m. The dense mopani still obscured the bulk of the kudu and, as I was using a soft-nosed round, I had to be sure of a clear shot.
The bull moved slowly forward into a small clear area. Miraculously, he still had not seen us. I slowly eased the rifle up and squeezed the trigger the instant I had the crosshairs on the bull?s shoulder. All I saw was the flash through the scope as the rifle roared. Suddenly Nico was punching me on the back. I could have cried ? I thought I had missed ? but then came the dawning realisation that he was congratulating me.
The kudu reacted, leaping forward in a spectacular charge, and crashed off into the mopani. We took off after it, trying not to lose sight of it in the thick bush and knowing it was in its last death charge. Despite the heart shot, however, the bull still ran some 200m. It was still breathing when we caught up with it, now down, wedged into the base of a mopani tree.
I administered the coup de grâce with a neck shot and the bull lay still. We stood a silent moment before the magnificent animal, watching as its eyes dimmed. ?Nice head, huh?? Nico grunted, not wasting any words. I looked across at him doubtfully, running my hand over the rough spirals of the kudu?s horns. Nico?s face cracked into a broad grin. ?Very nice head!? he emphasised.
At 53in, the kudu bull was a trophy-quality animal. All the hours and days of walking, all the litres of sweat, my sore feet, the irritation of the mopani flies ? all were as nothing compared to the bittersweet satisfaction of a successful collection of the ?grey ghost of Africa?. If I hunt nothing else again I will always have the memory of this kudu bull. Even as I write my eyes are drawn to the skull mount on the wall and, for an instant, I swear I can smell Africa.