“Ah, the poor man’s Cape Buffalo.”
And with that simple quip, George described both my fantasy and my reality.
On our way north from Pretoria, our young Professional Hunter had asked both myself and my hunting partner what our biggest priority was for the trip.
Mike answered, “Zebra.”
For me, “Blue Wildebeest. The Brindled Gnu.”
It had always been that since the moment we booked the trip to Africa. Yes, of course I had spent nights dreaming of facing the Black Death with only my single shot Ruger No 1. Unfortunately finances, especially as they are during the COVID-19 pandemic, are a ways away from taking that surely one perfect shot anytime soon.
On the bright side, my romance with Africa wasn’t limited to a single object of my affection. The Wildebeest, too, made my heart go pitter pat.
And why not? Haven’t I seen film after film, photo upon photo of their great herds in migration? There’s nothing like it on Earth. Impossible masses of dark horns above too-long noses and wide nostrils flaring as they run. Blinding clouds of red dust rising from their pounding hooves with wide eyes rolling in alarm.
What color are they? Blue and black and brown and copper and, is that one gold?
Hasn’t National Geographic practically raised me on lions hunting the Wildebeest? Haven’t I cheered for the lions? Haven’t I cheered for the Wildebeest? Occasionally both at the same time? Haven’t we all?
I wanted to be in the thick of it. The thick of whatever it was right there between those lions and those Wildebeest. This is the hunt, and I wish it for you all.
But me first.
George pulled the Toyota Hilux into the NB Safaris lodge, tucked into the shadow of the Waterberg mountains. The full staff stood aligned to greet Mike and me and take our bags to our cottages for the 10-day stay.
Debbie Barnard, the owner of NB Safaris and one of the few female PHs in South Africa, remarked approvingly on my rifle and smiled wide when I mentioned my desire for the Wildebeest.
“They just get madder with every shot.”
George had asked us beforehand what kind of hunt we were looking for and what kind of animal. This was his polite way of asking if we were comfortable with lots of walking through varied terrain, and if we were chasing inches or chasing animals.
Mike and I had already agreed before the trip even started. A hard hunt, on foot, and any mature bull.
George had been a PH with NB Safaris for some years and had apprenticed with them since his early teens. When it came to the Wildebeest on this property, he was an old hand.
Mike and I had spent the last 30 hours on airplanes and had no more use for idleness. George had us at the range to verify our zero (and our ability) within an hour of arriving. Mike and I rock-paper-scissored to see who’d get the first chance at an animal. Mike won.
Mike, George and I hopped in the back of his Hilux while our now driver and tracker, Lucas, slowly drove us through the concession. A short drive later, George held his palm out for Lucas to see in the driver’s side mirror. The truck came to a quiet stop.
In hushed tones our PH explained to us that we’d just walk through the brush a bit to get to a clearing and see if there were any Blessbok (also high on our list) in the clearing. We all hopped out of the truck, and although this was Mike’s hunt, I grabbed a few rounds of .375 H&H ammunition and my rifle, just in case.
In case of what, I had no idea. I really hadn’t actually come to grips that we were, from that moment on, hunting in South Africa. It had been all of two hours since we arrived.
And within two hours and 15 minutes of arriving, we had our first stalk busted.
On our way through the brush, a Blessbok tucked right at the edge of the field noticed our approach, and ran. It was a strange, heads-up loping run the likes of which I had never seen before. And it was as fast as it was strange.
In no time the Blessbok had covered more than 300 yards, and in doing so, alerted the dozens of other animals in the field to our presence.
Nostrils flared, hooves thundered, red dirt rose. Wide eyes rolled in our direction. African fantasies, materialized.
I was grinning like an idiot.
Mike, having just had his first stalk spoiled, was certainly excited, but perhaps less pleased. George told me to hang back in the tree line while he and Mike attempted to push out in the field a bit to see if they could get a shot on a particularly big Blessbok in the open. This would be a fairly open stalk through the tall grass on a hope that Mike could get close enough before they spooked again.
He couldn’t. Mike had practiced quite a bit before the hunt, spending a small fortune hammering the primers on a couple of hundred .375 Ruger cartridges with his Ruger M77 Hawkeye African rifle. He knew he was solid off shooting sticks at 200 yards, and he knew he wasn’t at the 300 yard range the Blessbock continued to maintain. Mike’s discipline would pay off — spectacularly so — in a later hunt. But that’s another story altogether.
George and Mike got back to the tree line and quickly let me know that there were two good Wildebeest further to our left in the same field.
George whispered, “…so let’s just go and see if we can get a closer look.”
I thought “Now? Like, now now? I’m hunting Wildebeest like right now?”
Not even like right now, Jon Wayne. Right now.
Sure enough, there were two bulls just out of my view in the field. They were about even with the Blessbock, 350 yards out now. One of them was looking right at us, but another one, a bit farther off, was still facing directly away.
George told me to keep low and right behind him as we moved into tall grass, trying to keep small shrubs and bushes between us and the two bulls.
The bull to the right kept moving back and forth, watching us closely. The left bull never looked back in our direction. His head was firmly down, feeding. We closed within 150 yards. I was confident at 150 yards.
At this point, I stayed low, but raised my rifle to look through my Leupold scope at each of the Wildebeest. The bull to the left had his head down and we couldn’t see his horns. I could, however, see that he was very slowly walking away.
George whispered, “they’re both good, mature bulls, but the one on the left is a bit bigger.” Get ready and let’s see if he picks his head up.”
Upon fully standing and mounting the rifle on George’s shooting sticks, the busy body bull to the right snorted and turned a quick circle.
The bull to the left picked his head up. He wasn’t a little bit bigger, he was a lot bigger. If his companion was a mature bull, this guy was notably his superior. And he was still walking slowly away.
My heart rate picked up. I forced a slow breath. The cross-hairs of the fine rifle scope stilled their bouncing, and rested as the base of the now trotting animal’s neck.
“If he turns, you can take the shot.”
From that moment on, nothing existed but what remained inside the view of my riflescope. The bull took one step to the right.
The 260gr Nosler Accubond was still generating close to 3,400 ft/lbs of energy when it hit the Wildebeest. The round made an unmistakable thud as it struck the 550 lb. animal. The bull made an equally unmistakable lunge forward. He was hit, and hit hard.
“Get ready to hit him again.”
Surely not. I watched the round hit him. I saw the impact. Right behind the shoulder blade, quartering away, with a .375 H&H Magnum. Nothing lives through that. Nothing requires a second shot for that.
The bull was running away.
So was George.
Shooting stick in hand he called “Comeoncomeoncomeonecomeon!”
Now we were both sprinting, break-neck, across the plain in an attempt to cut the bull off as he ran for the tree line. Even through the tall grass, I could see the Wildebeest limping hard, but not hard enough. There’s no way we’d make it in time.
My mind simply didn’t believe what I was seeing. The bull’s front right leg wasn’t even making contact with the ground at that point. How was he still that fast?
The bull was now more than 300 yards away, and getting closer to the brush line. Nothing seemed to be slowing him. If anything, he got faster.
I got lucky when he tripped. The bull went down hard, rolling over as he fell. He didn’t get up and through the grass I could see him writhing, creating a cloud of dust around him.
George held the shooting sticks for me to get another shot.
“If you can shoot him again, shoot him. If he makes it into that brush we may never find him.”
But I had forgotten about the herd.
Now the same Blessbok that would have nothing to do with Mike stood directly between George and I and the wounded Wildebeest. To make matters worse, the other Wildebeest circled back, dancing circles around the fallen bull.
Encouraged, the big bull rose as Lazarus, and ran. He ran right for the brush.
His new course took him directly broadside me. At over 300 yards on a running animal, I took a stupid off-hand snapshot. I have no idea where that bullet landed. Well, I know it certainly didn’t land in that Wildebeest.
George and I chased it to the treeline where the bull, now somehow outrunning his uninjured companion, fell again as he entered the brush. He looked down for good now. There was no thrashing, no rolling clouds of dust. Now there was only a big greyish mound of Wildebeest low in the grass.
Since he wasn’t moving, George and I stopped to catch our breath and get a good shooting position tucked into the cover of a couple bushes. George gave me the shooting sticks while he called the truck in to come pick us up as well as the inevitable, unenviable bull. I had a while, so I used the Leupold laser range finder strapped to my Pnuma binoculars case to range the Wildebeest. It was 240 yards and I had a solid rest. If he stood up, I knew I could make the shot.
And it’s good I was so confident. I only had one round left.
Mike got there before the truck did. And right on cue, right as I was sure the Wildebeest was dead, his companion came running back in, kicking, snorting, whirling around his fallen friend.
The resurrection replayed.
Still, I was behind the gun and with a solid rest, so as the now clearly blood soaked animal rose, I put another round through the same shoulder, this time quartering towards me.
I stood dumbfounded as he turned and ran into the brush.
The deep, African brush.
There had to be a gallon of blood on the ground as we ran past where he laid. And were those pieces of his lung? They were.
That animal had covered the better part of a thousand yards, in a huge semi-circle around us, while on three legs and, at best, one lung. And he hadn’t stopped yet.
As I was out of ammunition, I grabbed Mike’s rifle. George was right in front of me as we both ran into the brush. All attempts at secrecy stopped. The bull crashed through the dense forest in front of us, we crashed through it right behind him.
If we had any need to follow the blood trail it would have been easy. The old boy was pouring his life out onto the ground. We had no such need.
Following flashes of blue and grey and brown, the sounds of hooves and branches, rifle in hand, it finally hit me.
That “thick of it” I wanted? Well I was certainly in the thick of it now.
This is everything I had hoped for in the hunt. The focus, the chase, even the fear, it was exactly what I thought hunting in Africa would be. The Dark Continent did not disappoint.
The bull slowed when he entered a light mottled clearing. I slowed enough to put the cross-hairs of Mike’s Trijicon scope on the base of Wildebeest’s tail and squeezed the trigger. He dropped instantly.
Now less than 25 yards away, George and I circled quickly broadside to the downed bull.
Impossible. He was getting up. Wild eyes wide and looking right at us, he was getting up!
George said what he didn’t have to. I knew to put another round in him. The muzzle brake of the Ruger African lit up under the shade of the forest canopy and another massive round slammed into the animal.
I cycled the bolt to find the gun empty. Only two rounds had been in the magazine when I grabbed it.
The bull lunged again. George drew his pistol, a CZ75 in 9x19mm and handed it to me. I put three tight rounds into the furious bull at point blank range.
His head lolled to the ground. It did not rise again. He was dead. Finally.
Mike arrived to find George and me still staring in disbelief.
Taking his cap off and running a hand through his hair, George spoke first.
He arranged for the truck to find our location and load the animal. I inspected the wounds.
The first round did indeed hit solid, but too shallow. Instead of entering deep and penetrating the heart, it skirted that one vital organ, smashing the shoulder to bits and practically obliterating the right lung along the way. The bullet was found under the hide of the chest.
The next strike hit from the opposite angle, but this time deeper, crossing the first wound track, and now destroying the left lung and most of the ascending aorta. I have no explanation of how any living thing got up and ran after that.
The third round struck his hip just to the side of his spine. The final .375 Ruger round punched a neat hole through the pulverized shoulder, going through the wounds previously created. Of the three pistol rounds, only one penetrated the bottom of the heart, and was found lodged inside the opposite rib cage.
That’s three guns, seven hits, more than 10,000 ft/lbs of energy and 1,412 grains of lead poured into one animal. When we hung him up, he didn’t bleed very much. He didn’t have much left to give.
With all our pulses lowered (the bull’s more than mine), the excitement of the chase was replaced by the joy of the hunt, and then the gratefulness. First for the animal, then the opportunity. I gave thanks.
Over the next week we had Wildebeest sausage, Wildebeest mac and cheese, Wildebeest salad, and Wildebeest steaks. The meat we didn’t eat at camp was prepared and given to a local orphanage. NB Safaris feeds as many as 1,000 children with the meat provided.
It turns out the bull really was as big as he looked. I wasn’t aware of the scoring criteria, but based on his measurements, he’ll be somewhere between the 110th and 150th largest Blue Wildebeest in the Safari Club International record book, depending on how much his horns and skull shrink after drying. Considering how many thousands of Wildebeest are shot each year, that’s an exceptionally large animal.
And exceptionally tough.
I had been on the ground at NB Safaris all of three hours and had just had the hunt of my life. From marking the big bull out on the plain to chasing him through the muck and brush, I had experienced everything I had hoped for in Africa, all in those brief, few fleeting moments.
Although Debbie told the truth when she said, “every round just makes them madder,” I think it was George who summed up the Wildebeest, as well as the hunt.