Stalking the Dunes of the Kalahari: Pt 1

Engee Potgieter

South Africa is home to an incredible diverse selection of both wildlife and habitat from thick coastal forests to the rich bushveld of the old Transvaal. Yet very few places in this country have the mystique and grandeur as the Kalahari, a still untouched area of the Northern Cape Province. I recently had the fortunate opportunity to hunt an incredible expanse of pristine “duine veld” of some 16, 000 Hectares (nearly 40,000 Acres) nestled at the very heart of the old country, namely FM Safaris just outside of Upington.

I was a guest to the Kriel family who run all operations on FM Safaris, consisting of Dr. Peter Kriel, his charming wife Lynne, his son Roland and his partner Marie. A more professional, courteous and friendly group of people you are not likely to come across, they treat each and every client of theirs like royalty, which is not surprising as FM Safaris is also a popular hunting destination of the Saudi Royal Family.

I found that the most successful tactic when hunting such a large open property as FM Safaris was through “spot & stalk” and many hours were spent glassing as can be seen in the photo as my tracker Stef points out a distant herd of Gemsbuck to me.

I would be spending a week with the Kriel’s in order to hunt species endemic to the area like Springbuck, Red Hartebeest and Gemsbuck, the latter being the main objective as very few antelope symbolizes the Kalahari so unmistakably as our very own Oryx.

Now although many people may have the pre-conception that the Northern Cape or Kalahari is an endless expanse of dry and featureless plains, nothing could be further from the truth. Through intense fauna and flora management Dr. Peter Kriel (who has a doctorate in wildlife management) has created what can aptly be called a hunters oasis. I was personally astounded to experience the incredible diversity of terrain and wildlife present on FM Safaris, steep rock strewn mountains frame the open salt plains and Swarthaak thickets, whilst deep gulley’s and high rolling red dunes present ample stalking opportunity.

As far as species are concerned there is more than enough to choose from the 23 species to satisfy even the most stringent of trophy hunters and special care had been taken by Dr. Kriel to establish indigenous species and one can easily see what great success this is. Massive herds of Gemsbuck and Springbuck (Common, Black & White), (Cape) Kudu, Red Hartebeest, Blesbuck, Roan, Sable, Waterbuck, Nyala, Ostrich, Steenbuck and Duiker thrive on this beautiful piece of land.

On this particular hunt I had chosen to use my Tenpoint Turbo XLT Crossbow as I was suffering from a recurring shoulder injury I had picked up from my earlier rugby playing days, the crossbow was just as capable as my compound bow to cleanly and effectively kill my quarry but did not require brute power to draw and aim. I did however have to shorten my self-imposed maximum hunting distance to only 50 yards with the crossbow, as opposed to 80 yards with my compound bow, as I felt that my accuracy (3-shot groupings) was not up to par when taking shots further than 50 yards. Although the weapon is very capable of better accuracy at longer ranges when shot from a dead rest, I made the decision to limited myself to 50 yards as I would be stalking game on foot and shooting the Tenpoint offhand. This would still very much be a challenging hunt as the general openness of the area would have one relying heavily on spotting game from a long ways off before carefully stalking to within range or setting up an ambush along a trail all before you get spotted. Something that sounds much simpler than it is I can assure you.

I arrived on the property late in the afternoon after a grueling non-stop 14 hour drive from home and was welcomed by the Kriel’s at the main lodge with a damp facecloth and ice cold orange juice, just the thing to sooth a weary traveler’s mood. To be honest, it actually felt as though I had arrived at a holiday resort let alone a hunting camp! The main camp on FM Safaris is something to behold, a unique blend of true African styling and furniture with a generous sprinkling of rich Saudi influence and ornaments.

As we sat down to dinner that evening, overlooking a nearby waterhole visited by an array of Waterbuck, Nyala and Sable we discussed the strategy for the following days hunting. Although there are a number of waterholes across the immense property with a few featuring very effective and well built hides out of which bow hunters and tourists can be treated to a mosaic of animals coming to water through the day, we decided to try our luck on foot to see if we could bag a trophy.

What this entailed was to take a drive on the property after breakfast in the hopes of spotting small herds or bachelor animals in a stalkable position before setting off on the stalk. What I particularly appreciated was the fact that Dr. Kriel focussed more on fair chase, unhurried hunting as opposed to the “whack-em-and-stack-em” attitude. This did not mean that the hunting was easy only that one spent two sessions a day, both morning and afternoon, in the field interspersed with a light lunch back at the lodge. All hunting is done on foot and once an animal has been taken it is returned to the first-rate slaughtering facilities to be processed whilst the hunter retires to the lodge before the afternoon session. The generous numbers of game and general terrain on FM Safaris almost ensures that hunters will get their animals. I took four animals with the crossbow in 5 days, but rest assured that the hunting will not be a rushed affair.

The author and his cantankerous old Blue Wildebeest bull.

The first morning we were off after a scrumptious breakfast and drove around stopping regularly on higher ground to look for lone Gemsbuck or Hartebeest bulls, which would be easier to sneak up on than a herd full of scanning eyes. We soon spotted a small bachelor group of Gemsbuck bulls skirting the edge of a small rise, not too far from camp. Giving them time to drop out of view Roland and I set off after them, the wind wasn’t perfect, blowing almost straight at them, but if we closed the gap quickly enough then hopefully we would get within shooting range before they cut our scent. Although this meant that we would go after them quicker than I would like or was used to, it was our only option if we wanted to catch up with the group of four bulls before the game was up.

We had just crested the rise and were standing scanning the Swarthaak thickets below us for sign of the Gemsbuck when I spotted what appeared to be a lone Blue Wildebeest bull calmly feeding some ways off to our right. He was in a much better position to stalk so we decided to abandon the search for the Gemsbuck and try and sneak up on the old Wildebeest bull. (We later caught sight of the same four Gemsbuck we had been after, which it turned out, had run a great distance which could only mean that they did hit our scent trail long before we ever got close to them.) The Wildebeest however, was perfectly situated for a stalk, head down feeding with ample cover around him and the wind crossing our front. Making a mental note of his exact position we dropped down between the clumps of brush, heading straight for the bull.

The going was easy as our target was unaware of any danger and the sand underfoot made for quiet walking, we soon made it to the spot where we had last seen the bull and went down on hands and knees to close the last dozen or so yards. We hadn’t gone but ten yards when the bull suddenly appeared behind a thick Swarthaak only thirty or so yards in front of us, still feeding and totally oblivious of our presence. I carefully made my way to the left and ahead of Roland and got into a position to take the shot when the bull looked up in our direction, he must have noticed the movement but thanks to our 3-dimensional camo clothing could not decipher what exactly we were. He just slowly made his way off before I could take the shot. Waiting for the bull to get swallowed up by the Swarthaak Roland and I got up and hurried off after him hoping to still get a shot, this would not have been able had we been hunting on harder ground but the signature red Kalahari sand muffled all sound we made.

Our strategy paid off as we quickly caught up to the bull slowly walking into the wind, a short whistle stopped him broadside at 51 yards as I confidently touched the trigger sending the bolt high through the bulls shoulders. The shot was higher than I would have liked and this was conformed as he took off and I could see the exit. Not good. Anyone who has hunted Blue Wildebeest can attest to the fact that they are incredibly tough animals and wounding one will have you working very, very hard to get it on the ground. To cut a long story and very long tracking job short, Stef my tracker and I eventually did catch up to the grand old bull and could fortunately put it down with a follow up shot.

Hindsight proving that one should never attempt a shot at any animal after rushing off after it, as taking a shot when short of breath always leads to trouble. I was keen to head back out to look for a Gemsbuck, but I was grateful to take the rest of the day off as the Wildebeest had taken us on a merry run around under the blazing mid afternoon sun, so we retired to the comfort of the deck next to the swimming pool, taking in the most spectacular sunset over the vastness of the Kalahari.

Tomorrow – Part 2