It’s early spring on the South African veldt. Through the parched, grey grass of winter the first flowers show off splashes of yellow, and buds are appearing on cracked thorn bushes. Fella and I work our way slowly and silently up an erosion gully, the only cover between us and a small herd of 20 springbok, just 350 yards ahead. The animals are nervous.
As Fella peeps carefully over the side of the gully, the nearest springbok raise their heads and gaze suspiciously in our direction. A swirl in the breeze is enough to upset them, but they don’t move far – the wind is not enough to make them flee the bushes lining the course of the gully in front. We wait a few minutes and resume our stalk.
More springbok are in front, that’s for sure, but where? With painstaking caution, Fella edges around a bend in the gully, then leans back towards me. “Springbok, on the left, 25 metres,” he whispers. I peer around the corner and immediately spot the springbok ram grazing along the edge of the gully. I have just moments in which to take the shot so, sliding my rifle onto a rock, I slip forward the safety, squeeze the trigger and the .300 bullet strikes the beast squarely in the chest, killing it…
The restored farmhouse at Sandymount Park is a haven for hunters after a hard day’s sport in scorching heat.
I travelled to South Africa last October to experience the wonderful hunting at Sandymount Park, approximately one and half hours drive south west of Bloemfontein. Unlike other hunting reserves I have visited in South Africa, the 6,500 hectares of hunting rights at Sandymount cover not only open veldt but a crescent-shaped range of hills that rise up out of the plain in a tangle of rocks and thorn scrub, which is alive with game. The place was bought as a country retreat by Leon and Engela Fourie, who have lovingly restored the large, rambling farmhouse to its former glory. Fella Van Niekerk, the professional hunter who accompanied me, well understands British sportsmen want to stalk their game on foot, fairly and squarely, not drive around and shoot animals from the back of a pick-up truck, as happens in some places.
Professional hunter Fella Van Niekerk.
Owner of the hunting reserve, Leon Fourie.
Much of Sandymount is totally inaccessible by vehicle, and on my first afternoon – following the successful early morning springbok stalk – Fella took me high up into the hills. Spying out over the landscape we saw herds of eland, impala and zebra far below on the veldt. Our objective was to take a red hartebeest, so carefully and quietly we made our way through the dry thorn scrub, skirting past a group of six magnificent kudu bulls browsing in the trees, until we dropped down towards another area of veldt. There, ahead of us, we saw a small herd of hartebeeston the edge of a wooded koppie, but between them and us stood perhaps 60 springbok.
I was convinced there was no hope of getting past the springbok without alarming them, causing them and the hartebeest beyond to crash away across the veldt. Nor was there sufficient time before sunset to make the huge left-handed circle that would have been necessary for us to get on the right side of the wind to approach the hartebeest unseen from behind the koppie. Our situation seemed impossible, but Fella thought otherwise. In a bold move, he led me straight out towards the koppie, some 500 yards away, the two of us walking quickly across the open grass. Of course the springbok soon departed, but the hartebeest simply backed away and melted into the tall thorn trees clothing the koppie.
We reached the edge of the thorn trees, sat down and waited to allow the animals to settle, then stalked cautiously around the edge of the koppie. There, 200 yards beyond a low ridge of rocks, were the nearest of the hartebeest, content and grazing once more.
Under cover of the rocks, Fella and I crawled towards the game and, as the African sun started its descent towards the horizon, I made my final approach over a tumble of wind-polished, bronze-coloured boulders. The red coat of the hartebeest bull caught the last of the sun’s rays as I looked at him through the scope, and with a firm rest on the rocks, squeezed the trigger. He went straight down, barely moving a yard.
Shooting under cover off rocks was the best way to ensure a clean kill.
Hunting in the high ground that encloses the farmhouse and its small group of outbuildings on three sides in many ways resembles stalking in Scotland. There is tough climbing over unforgiving ground, and there are vantage points from which you must carefully spy out the country as it unfolds ahead of you to locate the game that grazes upon open grasslands or lurks among trees. You must use the wind, planning your route into the hills and your approach with care to avoid animals detecting your presence. There the resemblance ends, for the hills here are clothed in wild olive, evergreen oak and harsh thorn scrub, the land is arid and the harsh African sun is hot as it climbs swiftly up into the cloudless blue sky. Even so, there was a touch of frost on the ground as Fella and I headed up into the hills the following morning after a blue wildebeest. It was a hard climb, but the views from the top were spectacular and as we worked our way along a ridge it wasn’t long before Fella located a group of a dozen or so wildebeest in a deep grassy gully below.
Backing off, we made a wide circle to the right, ending up at a clump of evergreen oak on a rocky outcrop overlooking the gully. The animals moved below us, oblivious to the danger, and I waited until a suitable bull wandered out into a patch of dry grass.
He quartered away, so I brought my point of aim back accordingly and took the shot from just under 200 yards away. The roar of the rifle echoed around the rocks and the herd fled in panic, the bull disappearing through a group of olive trees. Fella and I watched the herd as it ran away to seek shelter in the tall grass of a dried river bed, about a quarter of a mile away.
Had my shot been good? Was my bull the animal that ran behind the group, flicking its leg as it cantered away, refusing to go down? Was my decision over the point of aim correct? Fella wasn’t sure and my own confidence had ebbed away, so we waited.
The red hartebeest shot by the writer on the first evening.
It was a lingering, nerve-wracking interval that ended only when a pair of crows circling in the blue sky descended swiftly just the other side of those olive trees, 250 yards below. Sure enough, they had spotted my bull, which was lying stone dead on the edge of a track. I was relieved that the shot had been a good one after all and that the animal must have gone down within moments of being struck.
Looking back on my South African experience, my visit to Sandymount Park really was a hunting safari to remember. In three days I shot five different species, including a magnificent blesbok ram that I took after a long and patient hunt through the bush and which notched up Rowland Ward trophy status. On my fourth day I put the rifle aside and tagged along with a group of English hunters who had arrived to sample the sport. Like me, they were greatly impressed with what they saw.
Hunting in the hills on horseback
They say that if you want to gain the respect of an Afrikaner, then you must be able to both shoot and ride. Shooting I have no problem with, but I have to admit that my horsemanship is rusty to say the least. It is a long time since those days in the saddle with the West Norfolk foxhounds, but as with riding a bicycle, the skill of staying on a horse is one that can be quickly recalled.
A large chunk of the hill country at Sandymount is inaccessible to wheeled vehicles and the only way of getting in there and out again is by horse. Our mission was to hunt the mountain reedbuck, a small antelope indigenous to these hills. In the company of Wessel Fourie, son of Sandymount’s owner, and Gert, a tracker and outstanding horseman, I set off with a rifle strapped to my saddle.
Picking your way up those treacherous boulder-strewn slopes gives you a real buzz. There is nothing you can do except let your horse have his head and allow him to clamber over the rocks. When we got to the top of a range of hills and the ground levelled out, Wessel and I left the horses with Gert, took the rifle and set off on foot, working into a gentle breeze as the thorn scrub shimmered around us in the morning sun.
We hunted slowly along the top of a broad valley before turning along the edge of a kloof or narrow ravine, whereupon Wessel spotted the head and shoulders of a reedbuck in the cover on the opposite side of the kloof, just 150 yards away.
Observing from behind a wild olive tree, we could see there were at least two animals, one a good buck, so Wessel carefully set up the sticks and I took the shot. As the ram fell down among the rocks, no fewer than five more mountain reedbuck departed the scene.
There was more to come. We waited for maybe five minutes, and as we did so, a pair of blesbok walked right in front of us, on the far side of the kloof, just 50 yards from the dead reedbuck. “Take the ram,” whispered Wessel, so I did.
Now we had two animals to extract from a really tricky piece of country so, bringing up the horses, we loaded the two beasts onto them and led them back down the hill in single file as though we were a stalking party heading home from the Scottish hill.
You’ll never forget a day’s hunting on horseback in the South African hills.
Coming back down that steep hillside was really tough going and we had to drag the blesbok the last half mile or so, but eventually we got into a river valley that was accessible to one of the pick-ups. Wessel radioed for support and the two beasts were taken out by the relief party, which turned up half an hour later.
This really is a unique hunting experience, nosing out wild quarry in true wilderness. Genuine physical fitness is required, plus at least a few basic horsemanship skills, but if you’re not afraid of a day in the saddle and can use a rifle, then hunting mountain reedbuck on horseback is something that really has to be done.
South African Airways flights to Bloemfontein connect with international routes at Johannesburg and Cape Town. Hunting at Sandymount Park can be booked through Allan Clarke at LDS, UK booking agent. For more information contact 01844 299000 or 07734 809411, or email firstname.lastname@example.org