By Kobus Fourie
I leopard crawled the last few meters to the tripod, struggling to keep the muzzle clear of the wet earth. With stiff limbs I rolled on my back and sat up, grabbed the tripod with hand scratched by countless thorns, and as I steady myself, notice the steam on my breath as I exhale. This is it, don’t mess it up now, all that crawling, all the sharp stones under my knees, all those blasted thorn bushes… careful, steady the rifle, control your breath, don’t miss.
All those thoughts raced through my brain as I steadied the crosshairs. In my sights was the most beautiful Fallow deer I have jet seen, his small herd grazing behind him where he lay in the shelter of a rock overhang. But wait I’m hitching the cart ahead of the horses, lets start at the beginning.
The European Fallow deer (dama dama) originally occurred in the European countries bordering the Mediterranean, Anatolia, and the island of Rhodes. In former times it inhabited North Africa. Today, due to widespread introductions, Fallow deer exist in a wild state in many parts of Europe. The name of this handsome deer is derived from an old English word meaning spotted.
Many colour variations exist, and in English deer parks, where the species has long been kept, it was sometimes practice to maintain a herd of a certain hue by a process of selection. In the wild state four basic colours are usually observed. The common variety carries spots upon its brown summer coat, which are much less evident on the darker grey-brown winter pelt. The menil strain has white or off-white spots throughout the year. Black Fallow, which my be anything from dark grey to a deep brown with none of the white underparts or white under the tail of the common strain; white Fallow, which are seldom true white but often cream colour with rust coloured markings.
|Cold, wet, tired, but happy. This was one of the best hunts ever. We stalked this Buck for more than 2 kilometres.|
Characteristic of the Fallow deer are the long tail and a prominent swelling in the throat known as its ‘Adam’s apple’, the latter becoming most evident in the bucks during the rut. In the Southern Hemisphere rutting takes place during March and April. The buck defends a territory defined by rubbed trees and scrapes in the ground in which it urinates, thus leaving scent in the manner of a dog. Within its area, known as the rutting stand, the buck holds its does, giving out its mating call, which can best be described as a rolling, belching grunt; this period offers the best chance for the hunter.
After mating, the older bucks leave the females, which form herds; these often include young bucks. The fawns are born during May and June and twins are occasionally seen. Antlers are shed in October or November and are regrown and clean by March. Standing some 36 inches (91.5cm) at the shoulder, an adult Fallow buck has an average weight of 165lbs. (75 kg.).
Introduced Fallow has been successfully established in South Africa. This deer displays remarkable adaptability and appears to readily make itself at home in a variety of habitats from woodland to mountain ranges.
Going through the 2002 Rowland Ward records for introduced Fallow deer; entries have been recorded as high up north in South Africa as Lydenburg in Mpumalanga, and Randfontien, just about in Pretoria. Records for the Northern Cape seems a bit barren, but that does not mean there is no Fallow deer. Other entries go down south as far as Fairfield near Cape Town, Vryhied in Natal and Klerksdorp in North West province. Current minimum is 25 ¼ inches (64cm) with the record taken near Kroonstad, in the Free state, by Johan Tait in 1995 (30 7/8 inches)
The idea for the hunt started in 2005 when Tommie and me hunted Red hartebeest in the Free State. Tommie and myself shared the same school, and naturally our love of hunting and guns formed a strong bond between us. Our families are neighbors on our respective winter farms in the Tankwa Karoo, and even though we lived no more than 50 kilometers apart; we never hunted together when we were in our teens. After school we each went our separate ways. He qualified himself in the sheep and wool industry, and I got involved in the game farming industry.
I was living near Warmbaths at the time, and haven’t heard from him in ages, then one day, out of the blue he phoned me. He was working in Edenburg, just about right in the middle of the Free State. Now I have to confess, driving through the Free state when I visit my parents in the Karoo, the surroundings does not look to exiting, the hunting looked to involve crawling on your belly over ankle high grassland to get close enough for that flat-shooting magnum to reach the target. But I was wrong, the Free State, as well as the Karoo is very deceptive as hunting country. After tentatively accepting a Black wildebeest hunt in 2004, I really got to know the Free State better, and subsequently have fallen in love with it. So much so that I went back there for a red hartebeest in 05
It was at the end of that particular 05 hunt, enjoying a bbq on the last day’s memorable guinea fowl shoot, that we decided to continue the tradition in 06. The original hunt would have been in the Easter cape on a farm a mutual friend of us hunted on in the 04 hunting season. But as the saying goes “the best laid plans of men and mice” turned out to be true, and difficulties in planing caused the hunt to be abandoned (hopefully temporarily). Meanwhile Tommie’s job took him to Victoria Wes, or ‘Vic Wes’ as most of the townsfolk call it. With gunpowder running through his veins Tommie very quickly knew all the likeminded (right) contacts regarding hunting and shooting that could be found in a radius of hundreds of miles around. With the hunt in the Eastern cape running into difficulties; he made some phone calls, and in no time at all found some Fallow we could hunt.
Victoria Wes is situated in an area of South Africa known as the Karoo. In prehistoric times the whole area use to be a marsh, and finding dinosaur fossils is a common occurrence. The climate have changed somewhat since then, and today it is a arid semi-desert, home to perhaps the least diverse amount of wildlife in South Africa. Mention the Karoo to any South African hunter and the first thing that comes to mind is springbok, then sheep and then huge wide open plains covered with rocks and resilient Karoo bushes.
|Wide open plains, covered with Karoo bushes. A very demanding environment to hunt using the walk and stalk method.|
Fallow deer, as is the case with most of the other game that once occur naturally in the Karoo, has increased their distribution in the last couple of years. When I was in school, there were no Kudu, Fallow or Jackal on any of our three farms, these days however signs of and actual Kudu are seen on farms bordering two of ours, and positive sighting of Kudu on one. Fallow actually occurred on the farm were Tommie lived, and he hunted his when he was still in school. Fallow deer tracks have been seen on one of our farms, but no actual sightings as jet. As for the expanding Jackal range and population, they are the bane of sheep farmers in South Africa, and every effort are been made to eradicate then when they are found on sheep farms.
The hunt itself was booked for the weekend of the 18th to 20th of May. Weeks in advance the preparation starts, which I have to admit, is when the hunt really begins. All that planing, all that preparation of equipment, rechecking rifles, spare telescope, ammunition, sharpening knifes, the daydreams of stumbling over monster buck and sometimes nightmares of ‘the one’ that got away. All of this builds excitement, anticipation, and it brings back memories. Memories of past hunts, of good friends, the hardship, the funny moments shared, shared burdens carried on broad strong shoulders of loyal friends. My two companions, hunting dogs, that are no longer there to press a wet nose against your neck, to shiver with anticipation when the prey are spotted, to share the moment. These are the very best of the good times that enriches our lives. Good memories called on to get one through a tough spot, or just to light up the day. That is what makes every hunt so special to me.
My parents live 400 kilometers from Victoria Wes, and I drove the 1400 kilometers to my parent’s farm a few days before the hunt. The original plan called for me to meet Tommie on the evening of the 17th in Victoria Wes, sleep there and get an early start the next morning. However, on the 14th he telephoned me and asked if I could be there one day ahead of the time. They were culling Springbok, and the shooting team were short a shooter. If I were to keep my reputation intact I would omit my history with Springbuck, but been the honest guy that I am, I will tell you that I have a history with Springbuck. Having grown up in the Karoo I hunted Springbuck on a number of occasions, and every time it turned out to be a disaster. I don’t want to dwell on the subject to long, but I will say this; I never seem to have enough ammunition on hand.
|If it is not wide open plains, it looks like this. Perfect habitat for Vaal ribbok and Klipspringer, but fortunately for me, we were hunting Fallow deer that prefer to stay on the plains below.|
After a lot of convincing, and promises that I do not have to fire a single round, I reluctantly agreed. Now for those who do not know, a cull is where game that has become to many, or directly competes with livestock for food is shot for the market. It involves been placed in strategic ambush positions in the camp. The game is then chased (driven) towards the shooter by a few farmhands on foot. Shooting is done from a purpose built shooting chair, and only head shots is allowed. By no stretch of the imagination can this be called hunting, but is necessary.
The day of the cull started out freezing cold with light showers and an icy wind fresh from the Antarctica slicing clean through the thickest jackets. The shooting team met at an old abandoned farmhouse, and whilst waiting for a heavy rain-shower to pas, me the new guy, got to know the rest of the crew. Everybody tried to get the blood flowing by moving stiff limbs, drinking lots of coffee and hid behind the biggest guy around (me). At around ten o’clock the worst of the shower had passed, and we moved out to the camp that had to be cleared of Springbuck so that it would be available for reserve grazing for the sheep.
I was allotted a corner of the camp on top of the mountain, with a view that looked down on most of the camp. A very nice spot with a stunning view, but in the prevailing climatic condition, extremely hazardous to one’s health. There was not a single rock, bush, tree or land feature that could be used to shelter from the icy wind and light drizzle. My dress consisted of canvas boots, long denims, shirt, jacket and ghillie suit with thick leather gloves and ski mask. Even with all those clothes, which would have been sufficient for most other days, I still fought a loosing battled to keep the cold out. Trying to keep the head of a Springbuck in the scope gets a bit difficult when you are shaking so much your teeth are clattering together.
At around two in the afternoon the Springbuck stopped coming by, and I was very glad to see the vehicles starting to pick up the shooters. Apart from the cold it turned out not so bad, most of the shooters had success and the owner decided we must do another camp as well. Before moving on to the other camp, we went to the area use to dress the carcasses before loading them into a cold storage transport trailer. It was at this time that everybody heard of one of our shooter’s escapades with a feral pig. The evidence was overwhelming, as plain as day, just hanging there on the meat hook. The offender was immediately dubbed ‘Porker Miller’ for his troubles, and later the evening when everybody enjoyed a cold one round the fire, many good jokes were had at his expense. Long lives ‘Porker Miller’
Tommie and me headed home for an early might, for tomorrow we had outlanders to meet. Friday the 18th started out almost as miserable as the previous day, still raining, and it had been raining almost non-stop since the previous evening. The roads were very wet, but growing up in the arid Karoo, and knowing how welcome the rain is, neither of us had any complains. The unbelievable smell of wet earth hanging in the air combined with the vegetation washed clean by the rain, is one of the most unforgettable experiences to be had in the Karoo. As we were driving to our hunting venue the smoke rising from chimneys were evident everywhere as the workers prepared coffee to start their day. Having arranged everything with the farmer before, we called on the farmhand to inform him we were on the farm, gathered the latest intelligence on the Fallow’s whereabouts and told him in which part of the farm we would be hunting.
|Jaco and me with the Buck. The synthetic stock on my 260 is very good for the wet weather we encountered on this trip. Wood usually swell and/warp when it gets wet, affecting the accuracy of the rifle.|
We met Tommie’s friend at our agreed rendezvous. After discussing strategy, getting all the necessary kit together, realizing we forgot out cool box (hot coffee, snacks and lunch) at home, I quickly rechecked the .260 Rem for zero before we set of. We drove to within 2.5 to 3 kilometers of were the Fallows usually are before proceeding on foot to get downwind of their possible location. This particular farm was what we refer to as a open farm, meaning it is not game fenced, and the game are free to come and go as they please. It makes for a very high stakes hunt, mess up the stalk or the shot and there is nothing stopping them from running for miles and miles. There is also no guarantee that any Fallow are present on the farm that particular day – exhilarating stuff indeed.
As we walked the 3 kilometers to get downwind, we saw some evidence of Fallow, tracks and droppings mostly. Upon reaching a dry stream, Tommie climbed a heap of boulders to use as a vantage point. After glassing the area thoroughly, he climbed down, and with a hushed exited voice said he can see four deer lying on a slope facing us some way in the distance. Looking at the terrain we have to cover before I could get into a position to make the shot, we were faced with quite a few challenges. The deer were on high ground, their backs to the slope, facing our way. The cover in-between consisted of grass, low bushes (mostly thorn bushes) and dense stands of trees. Good cover to stalk the deer in, but also perfect habitat for kudu, as the numerous signs of their activity testifies. If we were to spook a kudu whilst stalking the deer, the kudu are guaranteed to run into the wind, straight towards the deer. If that were to happen, the deer would waste no time at all following the kudu to who knows were.
After a meeting of the minds, we decided our only option is to move very very carefully, staying as close as possible to the side of the trees to avoid bumping into a kudu or ten, thus ruining our hunt. The dry stream did provide ample cover for a third of the way before crossing into the neighbor’s property, and after that we were forced to walk bend over to remain hidden. Shortly after we were forced to leave the streambed, the big buck spotted something and looked in our direction intently. Fortunately we spotted his gaze before he could get too suspicious. Upon realizing he was looking at us, we immediately went to ground behind a bush, enjoying a sip of the only thing not in the cool box we forgot, water. After ten minutes we peaked round the edge and saw the deer had relaxed again, satisfied his eyes must have played tricks on him.
Even though we were on a ‘do it right or loose the buck’ stalk, we still noticed al the signs of wildlife around us. Fresh Caracal droppings and worryingly plenty of fresh kudu droppings, some only minutes old. Every time we crossed such fresh droppings, anxious eyes scanned the surrounding bush for the slightest reflection off a horn tip, the smallest movement of a ear flicking away a troublesome fly and the faintest noise of a juicy leave been plucked from a branch. Our senses were tuned to perfection, every nerve ending in our body alert and every instinct razor sharp. We were alive, alive, as any human can be, alive and engaging in an activity as old as man itself.
|A beautiful and worthy opponent. This Buck will live forever in my memories. To see the Karoo so green is very rare, and the unusual scenery combined with the awesome experience made this an exceptional hunt.|
When hunting I always limit myself to 300 meters as the longest shot I would take. This hunt was only my second with the .260, and not knowing the rifle that well jet, I would have preferred a shot under 300 meters. Fortunately I had my rangefinder along, taking all the guesswork out of the equation. Having moved recently I still had not set up my reloading bench, so for this hunt I was using Speer Nitrex factory loaded 140-grain ammunition. A combination I used on the Red hartebeest with good effect. With Red hartebeest been bigger I had no doubts on the effectiveness of my equipment, I just had to do my part.
On we crawled, ducking under overhanging branches, sidestepping thornbushes and sometimes having to force our way through when no hidden path exists. Sometimes the cover was sufficient to walk upright sometimes we needed to bend over, and at times we had to crawl on all fours to stay out of sight. But slowly we closed the distance, ever closer, with the accompanying increase in heartbeat. A combination of excitement and the effort we put into the stalk. We came across another small dry stream we could use to mask our approach. We were still about 500 meters from the deer when the cover became ever more sparse, the deer picked their resting-place well, wily old critters indeed. After another discussion we realized there is no other way but to crawl on our bellies the last 200 meter or so to a chosen shooting position.
It was that last 200 meters that became the most memorable. Most of the way was covered in low bushes, we certainly got to know those karoo bushes intimately, and certainly the ones with thorns leaving a lasting impression of the encounter. When the rangefinder said 270 meters, I told Tommie to set up the tripod. He set up the tripod to the left of a low bush, the deer standing slightly uphill. I leopard crawled the last few meters over the wet earth to the tripod. With stiff limbs I rolled on my back and sat up, grabbed the tripod with hand scratched by countless thorns, and as I steady myself, notice the steam on my breath as I exhale. This is it, don’t mess it up now, all that crawling, all the sharp stones under my knees, all those blasted thorn bushes… careful, steady the rifle, control your breath, don’t miss.
|For open country like this, my rangefinder has proved to be indispensable. I will never hunt without one again.|
I steadied the crosshairs of the 6X42 Lynx four inches above his back, wanting to drop the bullet in just below his spine, cutting the major arteries going to the brain. With a hold like that I still had about 8 inches of safety margin should the bullet drop more than expected. After conformation that the one on the left is indeed the right one, I gently touched off the shot. As the 260 gently recoiled into my shoulder I momentarily lost the buck from the scope, but even without Tommie’s running commentary I knew I messed up. The shot went exactly were I aimed. Fortunately our thorough stalk paid off, and the deer had no idea were the shot came from. With the shot going over the top, the loudest noise they could accurately place was the bullet striking the rock behind them. This caused the deer to run closer towards us.
As soon as they reached some cover they stopped to look and listen. Remaining motionless for some very nerve-racking seconds, we saw that if they continue running in the same direction they would pass at the foot of the small hill to our right. I told Tommie to range the slope, and I prepared myself for whatever shot the buck might present me with. Unable to positively identify the danger the deer started to amble away, exactly as we predicted. First came the three females with fawn, trotting along slowly, as they pass I align the rifle, finger on the trigger, watching - waiting. The buck jumped into focus, I could clearly see his beautiful pelt, powerful muscles flexing in his shoulder, his magnificent antlers held up high and proud. For a second he stopped and looked at us. This time I made no mistake.
After the hunt I realize my two mistakes. Firstly I had zero the rifle to shoot 5 inches high at 100 meters for the previous years hunt in the Free state, and secondly, I did not realize the deer was standing so high above me. When we checked the zero before the hunt I shot at a prominent rock, with Tommie spotting the fall of the shot. Good enough to identify a serious fault with the scope, but not as precise as a paper target. This time I was lucky, but it could have so easily resulted in a wounded buck. I will make sure I do not repeat this mistake in the future.
|Carrying the buck to the nearest road. This is what we call 'knapsak dra' - Afrikaans meaning to carry the buck like a backpack. A very good way to carry small animals when you are alone.|
After Tommie took numerous pictures from all possible angles we had to gut the buck, and decide on the best way to get the buck to the truck or the truck to the buck. Fortunately we spotted a road not to far away, and after cutting the buck “knapsak” carried it out. “Knapsak” is an Afrikaans word meaning backpack. By cutting halfway through the front leg at the joint, then down the back of the front leg-bone ¾ of the way to the hoof so that it forms a T, then sticking the T through a cut made through the skin behind the sinew of the hind leg, the animal can be carried like a backpack on one’s back. We were suppose to take turns in carrying the buck the 500 meters or so to the road, but once Tommie had the buck on his back he refused our offers of help, and carried it all the way to the road.
After fetching the pick-up we measured the distance from the point were we first spotted the deer, to where I eventually shot it. The distance was slightly over two kilometers. Making a two kilometer stalk on a skittish animal like a Fallow deer, on a open farm at that, definitely ranks as one of the better hunts I ever had (if only I could have made the first shot count, it would have been even better). After loading the buck we went to Jaco Olivier’s, Tommies friend we met that morning, to warm halve-frozen bodies and to enjoy a well-deserved meal. The meal consisted of deep fried Springbuck fillet slices, a reject (not a headshot) from the previous days cull, and the most delicious ‘vetkoek’ imaginable. (Vetkoek is bread baked by deep frying tablespoons full of bread dough. When it is done it looks like a burger bun, only a lot tastier). Does not sound like five star gourmet, but believe u me, no restaurant will ever come close.
The butchery on Victoria Wes agreed to hang the skinned carcass for me, ready to take home and cut it into ‘biltong’. Biltong is spiced preserved dried meat, close to beef jerky but were jerky is sun dried, biltong is wind dried over a long period of time. Since deer is such a good meat, I used only halve the buck to make the biltong. The other halve of the animal I cut into steak, and very tasty they are indeed.
With the hunt finished we spent the Saturday afternoon at a big dam on a farm, having a barbecue, shooting clay pigeons and unsuccessfully trying to bag a duck or two. The evening when we went to thank the owners of the farm for allowing us to spent the day there, the news on TV announced the roads through the nearby Swartberg mountains closed as a result of heavy snowfall. No wonder I nearly froze to death.
And as all good things must end, so this hunt draws to a close. It was with a heavy heart that I packed the Sunday morning to leave for home. Hunting that particular part of the Northern Cape proved to be a very gratifying endeavor. Paying R20 for a hunting license at the nearest police station makes it one of the cheaper options and, compared to some of the other provinces, very easy and efficient. The people I met were without exception friendly and helpful. Given an opportunity I definitely would go back to hunt there again. If we are in any way capable, our tradition will continue next year. Enriching our lives with new friends, experiencing new adventures and renewing old bonds.