An Empty Quiver: Chapter 5 Pt1- There’s Nothing Like Africa

By: Dr. Dave Samuel
By: Dr. Dave Samuel

“What is so special about bowhunting in Africa?” While doing seminars on bowhunting in Africa I get this question all the time. What they really want to know is, with so many great species to bowhunt in North America, why go to Africa?

Truth is, a hunter’s love for Africa is complex and hard to put into words. Another truth is, there is no place on earth like Africa. It is that special. This chapter is a bit long, but I wanted to cover some of the species and also some questions bowhunter have about going to Africa.

In 1999 I went to South Africa to bowhunt for several plains game species. This was my sixth bowhunt to Africa and I’d already taken a number of species including kudu, sable, impala, springbuck, zebra, kudu, wart hog, wildebeest, and tsessebe. Now waterbuck was number one on my list for this trip. Gemsbok were on that list as was nyala, eland, and a bigger kudu. Three good friends, Rob Johnson and Butch Baker from North Carolina and Bob DeLaney from Connecticut, were on this hunt with me. The hunt had been booked thru Neil Summers at Bowhunting Safari Consultants. No one has a better knowledge of bowhunting destinations in Africa than Neil as he goes there every year to find the best safari operations for bowhunters. We were going to Melorani Safaris. At that time it was a new bowhunting operation. In fact, we were to be the first group of bowhunters to go there. Melorani had formerly taken gun hunters, but after a few years lay off, they decided to open up their lands to bowhunting only and Neil Summers of Bowhunting Safari Consultants was, and continues to be, their booking agent in the states. Any reservations we had disappeared when we arrived at the camp and met Stewart Dorrington, owner and professional hunter at Melorani. Stewart was an outstanding person and excellent professional hunter.

I was most anxious simply because my friends came along at my recommendation. If things didn’t go right, then I’d feel guilty, because getting there took a long 17 hour plane ride and there was the cost involved as well. No fear because it turned out that the next seven days would be some of the best I would ever have while carrying a bow. Here is how this adventure unfolded.

“Aesthetics” is defined as the art of beauty, a term that refers to a “sense of beauty” and of beautiful things. Here is a term that can be used in reference to a number of African species. One of the beautiful qualities of some of those species is their magical horns. Long, some curving, some spiraling, some ivory tipped. Then there are the myriad of colors. Species with black and white, tans, oranges, stripes, spots, white manes. The variety is endless and it is this diversity that also attracts hunters to Africa. Sit at a water hole in Alberta and you might see pronghorns, mule deer or whitetails, and maybe an elk. Sit at a water hole in Zimbabwe or South Africa and you might see ten different huntable species. You almost always will see several different species in one sitting. Impala, wart hogs, several species of the small duikers, zebra, eland, kudu, wildebeest, tsesebbe, hartebeest, waterbuck, nyala, springbok, gemsbok, and the list goes on and on. Sure takes the boredom out of water hole hunting.

In the following paragraphs I will list the species that I believe are highly prized for their aesthetics and challenge by the average bowhunter. Many in the list have subspecies (for example there are five subspecies of waterbuck), but I will treat them as one. The list will not include the dangerous game because the cost of such hunts prevents the average bowhunter from hunting them. No doubt this list will differ from that of some, and it will not include all the species that some would like. (For example, I’ve left off the warthog. Very accessible to most bowhunters, and highly sought by some. A great species to bowhunt, but I just don’t feel he is the main reason that most bowhunters go to Africa.) In fact, that is the premise of my list; species that draw the average bowhunter to Africa for that first safari, or the second or third.

Time and time again, when you talk to bowhunters who have been to Africa, the species they most prefer, the species that is most captivating and highly prized is the greater kudu (coming in Chapter 7). The elegant greater kudu is one of the spiral-horned antelopes, a group with several beautiful species in the bushbuck family. Most members in this family have gray bodies with white stripes, white facial stripes and spots, and spiral horns with ivory tips. The kudu’s magnificent long spirally-twisted horns just set him off from many of the other huntable species in Africa. He is found in the thick bush of southern Africa and is cunning with a great sense of smell and hearing. He weighs in at 600 lbs., has long legs, a gray body with light stripes, white cheek spots and a white eye stripe. Because they are fairly plentiful, the trophy fee for a kudu is variable, depending on location, but is probably around $1,000-$1,500. When that first bull kudu approaches the blind, you know that you are looking at one of the most magnificent animals in the world.

This bull Kudu ended Dr. Dave's long wait for kudu. He was old with worn horns. A great trophy.
This bull Kudu ended Dr. Dave’s long wait for kudu. He was old with worn horns. A great trophy.

We’ll come to other members of the bushbuck family, but let me first list another species that puts southeastern African bowhunters in awe . . . the sable antelope (coming in Chapter 6). This large black antelope is very wary and has long, sweeping, scimitar-shaped horns. They are often found in herds led by a harem bull. Both sexes have horns, but those on the female are smaller. Bulls have white face markings and underparts and a stiff mane on the neck and back. Sable antelope stand higher at the shoulders and at 500 lbs. they still can run faster than our pronghorns. The long horns of the male are as deadly as they look. It is common for herd bulls to attack and kill other bulls that attempt to join the herd. Sable are only found in local areas, but are one of the top bred species on game ranches. Consequently they are sold and moved to many ranches in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Most areas do not hold large numbers of sable, thus trophy fees can run from $7000 on up. Yes, the sable is a pricey guy to bowhunt.

Few African species are as beautiful as the sable antelope.
Few African species are as beautiful as the sable antelope.

Another member of the sable family is the oryx or gemsbok. What a gorgeous animal this is; tan body, a striking black and white facial pattern, black stripes on the spine, legs, thighs and rump. But it is the horns that cap off this spectacular animal. They are long, straight and found in both sexes (with females having the longer but lighter horns). Gemsbok have many unique adaptations that allow them to live in very dry habitats in southwestern Africa. Once gone from certain areas, they have been widely reintroduced on private ranches and today good populations are found on private ranches in South Africa and Namibia. The trophy fee is around $800-1,000; few animals are as handsome as the gemsbok.

I took a great gemsbok on this hunt, but you won’t find it in the record book, because I had to finish him with a rifle. It was the second night there and I was in a huge tree overlooking a small water hole. There was a hard wind blowing to my right, so I didn’t expect animals to come in that direction. About thirty minutes before dark, the wind direction changed by about fifteen degrees. Soon a huge gemsbok walked in from my right, just out of range of my scent.

 

Gemsbok (also known as oryx) love the drier areas of southern Africa.
Gemsbok (also known as oryx) love the drier areas of southern Africa.

Both bull and cow gemsbok have long horns, with the females being longer and slimmer. Both make great trophies, and in fact there are several female gemsbok in SCI’s top 5 bowhunting records. But Stuart didn’t want us to shoot females if at all possible, so I watched this huge female gemsbok water, then stand in the shade at a distance of only twenty yards. Shortly I caught a movement to my right and here came another huge gemsbok. These two animals were the first gemsbok I’d ever seen close up, but even so, I knew they were big. The bull was more cautious in his approach, but eventually he watered. However, he was facing me and there was no shot.

When finished he turned broadside, at thirty yards. But my shot was low, hitting the joint of the front shoulder and then deflecting up and penetrating the rib cage. When Stuart got there we checked the blood trail, found part of the arrow, and decided to pick up the trail in the morning. There is one other factor when bowhunting in Africa and it came into play on this animal. You pay a trophy fee for what you wound. Thus, I instructed Stuart and Wayne that we would use a rifle if it appeared that I couldn’t get him with the bow or if things got a little too prolonged. The next morning we followed an ever diminishing blood trail. I jumped the bull from his bed, but there was no chance for a finishing shot. He ran, but the bull was definitely in trouble. Both professional hunters were optimistic that we’d get this bull. Later, as we circled the search area from the Landrover, we spotted the tips of his horns as he was bedded in high grass.

The bull stood up, very unsteady and obviously near death. I felt that I could sneak in and make the final shot, but I didn’t want him running off again. This had gone on too long already, so I said to Wayne, “Give me the rifle” and it was over. The bull turned out to be over 41 inches long and would have been close to a new world bow record. The bullet changed that, but didn’t change the animal. He was, and still is, one of the greatest animals I have ever hunted.

 

A gemsbok this big is enough to make anyone smile.
A gemsbok this big is enough to make anyone smile.

The kudu, sable, and gemsbok are at the top of the list of sought-after African species. But there are others. The 300 lb. nyala (the most mis-pronounced African species of all. Nyala is pronounced ‘in-yala’) is another of the spiral-horned antelopes, and most will agree that this is one of the most beautiful animals in the world. He has white facial stripes and spots and body stripes (similar to the kudu), orange ears and legs, and a white-tipped mane and white on the underside of the tail. The horns are shorter than the kudu, but do spiral and have ivory tips. The nyala is found in dense bush near water, and has been reintroduced to many private ranches in South Africa and a few in Zimbabwe. Numbers are on the low side so the trophy fee ($1,500) is higher than most plains game.

 

The nyala is another beautiful antelope species.
The nyala is another beautiful antelope species.

A somewhat similar, but smaller version of the nyala is the bushbuck. Also in the kudu family, the bushbuck is the size of our whitetails. The facial and side markings are similar to the kudu and nyala, and the tightly spiraled horns are just over a foot long. Found along streams in thick cover, the wary bushbuck is one of the most challenging of all species hunted with the bow. My best memory was a close call, while stalking bushbuck one rainy morning in Zimbabwe. My 32-yard shot was deflected by unseen brush. And he was a dandy too.

The ubiquitous impala is the whitetail of Africa. The horns are lyre-shaped, slim and elegant. This tan-colored animal is graceful and thrilling to watch. They travel in herds, sometimes mixed sexes, sometimes all rams. When sitting in a blind in southern Africa it is common to hear males fight, and more common to hear the many vocalizations that accompany aggressive behavior. The impala makes a spectacular and relatively inexpensive trophy for the average bowhunter. I’ve taken a handful of really nice rams, but my best came on this hunt at Melorani.

 

This really good impala came in right before the nyala. Note the ostrich in the background.
This really good impala came in right before the nyala. Note the ostrich in the background.

This brings me to the focus of this chapter, the waterbuck. This species is in the same family as the lechwe and reedbuck. A big bull will weigh over 600 lbs. The fur is a coarse, shaggy brown with a distinctive white ring around the rump and a white throat patch. There are sweat glands on the whole body, and they provide an oily waterproof secretion with a musky scent. Most feel the meat is not as palatable as many African animals, but if skinned properly, the meat is tasty. It lives in wetter grass savannahs and woodland patches scattered from central to southern Africa. Only the males have horns and they are ringed, and curve backward and upward. A bull waterbuck stands erect and stately; an extremely impressive looking animal. Again, because they are not found everywhere, trophy fees run higher from $1,500-$2,000.

I’d already taken a great gemsbok, a really nice nyala and an impala on this seven-day bowhunt. One of my companions, Rob Johnson from North Carolina, wanted a kudu and I’d seen several at the blind I’d been hunting. I wanted a waterbuck so for this last evening, we switched blinds. Thanks to Rob, I was going to hunt the “Pond Blind”. We knew there were bulls in the area, because when Rob sat here two nights earlier he’d seen seven bulls and a number of cows. In the early afternoon our professional hunters, Stewart Dorrington and Wayne Hendry, loaded up the land rover and we headed to the bush. On the drive we saw groups of eland, red hartebeest, wildebeest, zebra, impala and wart hogs. All great animals, but just not as captivating as some of the large-bodied, magnificently-horned antelope. There was no question that the waterbuck was one of the African species that held fascination for me. Was that because of his great sweeping ribbed horns, the proud erect posture, or his secretive behavior that made the hunt challenging? Whatever the reason the waterbuck was now a priority species for me.

TOMORROW: CHAPTER 5: PART 2

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Dr. David Samuel spent 30 years as a professor of wildlife management at West Virginia University. He is now in his 44th year with Bowhunter Magazine, where his Know Hunting column still appears. He currently writes the Know Whitetails column for the Whitetail Journal, The Future of Hunting column on www.bowhunting.net and writes a weekly outdoor column for WV newspapers. His activities on behalf of wildlife are diverse: from initiating the West Virginia Bowhunter Education Program to helping get bowhunting legalized in many European and African countries.

He has won honored lifetime achievement awards from the National Bowhunter Education Foundation, the Wildlife Society, the Quality Deer Management Association, and Whitetails Unlimited. He is in the SCI Bowhunter’s Hall of Fame, and his greatest honor was being inducted into the Archery Hall of Fame in 2007. He has written 9 books, with his three most recent books being Whitetail Advantage, Whitetail Racks, and the one being presented here.
An Empty Quiver – A Lifetime of Bowhunting Adventures now SOLD OUT. You can find the table of contents for the two whitetail books, and get autographed copies of all three of these books on Dr. Dave’s website, Know Hunting

Dr. Samuel is sponsored by:  ATSKO

For more please go to: Dr. Dave Samuel