Just like it was a few months prior, the KLM plane from Amsterdam to Johannesburg is almost completely empty. My two traveling companions, plus myself, make up a third of the passengers aboard the Boeing 777. We can take any seat we like, as long as it’s not in First Class, of course.
Last time, the purpose of my trip was a plains game safari. A lifelong dream come true. I highly recommend it.
This time, I’ve traveled at the request of a game reserve to teach emergency rescue and medical techniques to Zulu game wardens. Their critical fight against commercial poaching is a dangerous one that can leave them outgunned and injured, or worse. They need all the help they can get.
So as much as I enjoy being here, I doubt I’ll hunt this trip. I didn’t even bring a rifle. Well, I packed my longbow, just in case. But I certainly have no intention of hunting zebra. Then again, I had no intention of hunting one last time either.
The zebra was Mike’s dream hunt, not mine. Like everyone planning a safari, my hunting partner and I had made lists of the animals we most wanted to hunt in South Africa. Whereas the Blue Wildebeest topped my list, Mike’s number one was the Plains Zebra.
For me, the Zebra was just another horse of a different color. For Mike, it was as Africa itself. Untamed. Exotic and powerful. The zebra didn’t exist in the New World. It didn’t exist in the modern world. It couldn’t. So Mike went to it. His reasoning was sound, and his excitement infectious.
And yet, despite all that excitement, a full week later, no zebra. It wasn’t for lack of trying.
We had been hunting with NB Safaris and guided by George Nell in the plains north of Pretoria. The wary herds simply kept moving. And moving, and moving…always out of range. It turns out, that’s what herds do.
Mike had taken his safari preparation seriously. His rifle was a very capable Ruger M77 Hawkeye African chambered in .375 Ruger. With ammunition prices at record highs, Mike had spent a small fortune putting hundreds of rounds through the gun in order to perfect his aim. If any animal was within 250 yards, Mike was going to make that shot.
The zebras stayed about 400 yards away. The plan was to sneak up through the brush to the edges of fields, find a good stallion, and put him down with a solid shot from cover.
That plan didn’t work. As they say, “the plains have 1,000 eyes.”
Everywhere we spotted the zebra, some other animal spotted us and alerted before we could get in range. Wildebeest and ostrich were apparently on contract by the zebras, as they stubbornly place themselves between us and the herd at every opportunity, and I’d already shot my wildebeest.
South Africa has a particularly diligent aviary species. We learned it was called the “Go-Away” bird for good reason.
At one point, we actually thought we had a chance at the herd. We took our time and, crouching down, we quietly covered several hundred yards, keeping a small group of trees between us and the zebra. We couldn’t have been more than 200 yards from them when we reached the trees and readied for a shot.
That’s when we found out the tiny African grove was home to not-so-tiny African wasps. They expressed their displeasure. We ran for our lives. So did the zebra.
Of course, since this was a safari, and this was South Africa, there were many other opportunities that presented themselves while looking for zebra.
One morning, a herd of about 20 zebra thunder away from from us near the edge of a brush line. As I watched them go, our guide with NB Safaris, George, whispered to me “if you’re interested in the Hartebeest, you’re not going to find a better opportunity than that”.
Not 70 yards to our left, a lone male Red Hartebeest stood broadside, staring. I knelt, steadying my Ruger No. 1 in the crook of a tree. The Hartebeest turned and ran.
But he didn’t go too far. In the middle of a clearing, he stopped and faced us, barely 200 yards away. Seconds later, the animal and I were both kneeling. His knees had collapsed under him as I put a single round from my .375 H&H Magnum dead center through his chest.
That same morning, Mike had spotted a white Blessbock with long, pinkish horns. As we were completely in the open, I hung back as Mike and George made a long, low stalk to get in range.
I didn’t see the shot, but I heard its report, as well as the unmistakable sound of a heavy bullet striking flesh. The 260 grain Nosler Accubond was generating over 3,500 ft/lbs of energy when it hit the Blessbock square in the shoulder. No follow-up was necessary.
As we were more or less on open plain both times, it was easy to drive the truck right up and load the animals. We drove off to process them and get some lunch (local game sausage, grilled with mustard).
We started back at the zebra herds late that same afternoon. If it’s not one thing, it’s another, and this time, it was the giraffe that were problematic. Once they saw us, they followed us from a short distance away. Their height and attention was a like a flag waving “Look here! Danger here!” The zebra fled, again, now completely out of sight.
Frankly, it was worth it. The quiet, gentle animals blended into the bush shockingly well. I would have never guessed such a large animal could be so well camouflaged. If it wasn’t for their heads jutting from above the trees, we would never have seen them.
Since we didn’t want to shoot them and couldn’t shake them, we simply sat under a Mopane tree and waited them out. It was dark before they left. That sunset alone was worth the trip.
George had had enough of chasing the Plains Zebra, so he told us to get a good night’s rest and get ourselves ready. Tomorrow morning we were headed to the “proper mountains.”
The next morning, true to his word, we skipped the plains entirely. We drove right past annoyed ostrich and curious giraffe, heading up a winding mountain road. The goal was to get as high as we could and glass until we found a herd below.
It was a huge swath of land, but there were limited places to get water and if we found the herd, we could likely figure out where they were headed. If we were careful, we could maneuver into range sometime later in the day. This was a very familiar technique, as it’s exactly what I’ve used to hunt various sheep species with some success.
In the back of the truck, Mike, George, and I kept our eyes peeled down the mountain slope to our right. Without warning, the driver slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting the zebra herd as they darted past the hood. By the time we recovered ourselves, the small herd was far down the mountain, disappearing in the green canyon below.
Rifles slung, we followed.
Whereas in the days before we walked through endless plains and brush, now we were moving carefully down sharp ridges, placing our feet not on the red dirt that stained our shoes and clothing, but on hard chunks of boulder and solid rock. As we held onto withered brush for balance, we caught a few glimpses of stripes through our binoculars. Occasionally the sounds of hooves echoed as they skittered and ran across the stones below.
The zebra simply outran us. Not surprising. I mean, they are zebras. We gave up the chase when we heard them far to our right, well down the mountain. They had completed a semi-circle all the way around us, covering triple our distance, and they were still running.
I was the oldest of our group, and by a good bit, but my pride wouldn’t let me be anything but first to climb back up the mountain. By the time we got to the road, my burning thighs reminded me that pride was about all I had left.
With a little water and a little rest, and now back in the bed of the truck, we headed down the mountain road, hoping to intercept the zebra herd. Learning our lesson from earlier that morning, George reminded us all to look every direction, and Mike to keep ready to shoot. The opportunities would be few, and brief.
But immediate. It wasn’t five minutes later when, now creeping down the road, we saw a zebra. It was standing right on the edge of the road on the inside of a sharp turn. We could barely see it through the brush and George had some sharp eyes to pick it out. Mike carefully dismounted and got ready to fire.
Tucked into the brush and on the edge of a turn, we couldn’t tell if the zebra was male or female, the age, or anything other than the fact that it was a zebra. George whispered “hold on….”
The herd appeared. In an instant, materializing out of nothing but dust and thunder, hooves roared, not down the hill, but much closer. Within 30 yards of Mike, the herd came rushing toward us, paralleling the road. My brain was still registering their existence when George shouted “SECOND FROM THE LEFT!”
Mike swung the rifle 170 degrees, firing his Ruger just as the muzzle stopped. The first thing out of Mike’s mouth was, “I hit him.” The next thing out of Mikes’ mouth was, “I hit him?”
I thought the same thing. I barely got my eyes on his target when Mike shot, but I was 100% sure I saw a zebra take a hard fall before getting up and running again. But now I wondered. It all happened so fast. We’d spent days hunting these animals, and now within seconds Mike hit one. Or did he miss, and the zebra just stumbled while running down the mountain?
I was probably shaking more than Mike when I walked forward to where I saw the zebra stumble. It wasn’t far. The grass and plants were smashed down and there, plain as could be, was a long drop of blood the size of my thumb, and more close by. Mike didn’t miss.
The herd went left and down the mountain, but the splashes of blood showed one animal went right, backtracking but just a little bit more down in elevation and out of sight. The blood trail wasn’t hard to follow. Big droplets of blood were constant, making long streaks and teardrop shapes on the ground. He was still running.
Mike’s shot was true. Perfect, in fact. And yet, the zebra ran several hundred yards with his heart torn to bits. He died still running, with his mass plowing the ground as he fell. The old stallion’s body gave out before his spirit did.
Oh Father, when you call me, let it be so.
Mike’s shock dissipated as we went through the significant chore of getting the truck to the animal and loading it. It’s really much easier on open ground. By the time we had it loaded we were sweaty, dusty, a little bloody, and beat.
That night, we ate zebra tenderloins cooked over a wood fire. It was the best, sweetest game meat I’ve had in my life. Absolutely delicious.
Between bites, I let George know I wanted to be back in those mountains and back at the zebra. Tomorrow, it was my turn. He obliged.
The next morning, Mike cooked a zebra loin and buttered bread breakfast and we headed out. George figured we had run that heard pretty good, so we’d start on a different area of the mountain. This section of the property was a little lower, with trees big enough to provide some canopy overhead. It was also less developed, and we inched the truck along a dirt path rather than a dirt road.
Within just a few miles of where Mike shot his zebra, we were in what appeared to be an entirely different ecosystem. Small ponds dotted the landscape, and evidence of much more, and much larger animals was all around us.
For instance, there were the giant grey walls that moved. I don’t know if it’s fair to say I’ve seen an elephant in the wild, but I’ve certainly seen parts of them.
Remember what I said about the camouflage of the giraffe? The giraffes have nothing on the elephant. Herds of grey giants have an ability to glide silently through walls of brush and thorns seemingly impassable by mortals. The majesty of elephants in the zoo will make you believe in God. The vanishing of elephants in the wild will make you believe in magic.
Yet another lifelong dream box checked, we continued down the path. We spotted the first small herd of zebra ahead, and a familiar tune began to play.
Before we could get up to them, the zebra herd co-mingled with a large group of giraffe. The giraffe remained still, staring at George and me as we walked closer. Unlike before, the zebra didn’t bolt right away. This time they trotted back and forth, crisscrossing each other, weaving among and through the giraffes. I was about three second from having a strobe-induced seizure when George called out which zebra to shoot.
“Not a chance, George.”
The stallion simply didn’t stop. He didn’t even slow down, and tracking him through my scope and taking a shot that wouldn’t wound either a second zebra or a giraffe just wasn’t possible. I just couldn’t take an ethical shot from there. George agreed.
We re-positioned, but managed to simply scare the herd deeper into the brush. We took a break and made a plan. Circling wide, we could likely move down the mountain a bit and come at this same small herd from a different angle. The brush got very thick and full of thorns, but the herd would likely keep traveling around the edges of it and not too far from water.
It took us some time to move around the mountain, and there were several times we had to get out and clear the path to get the truck through. But George’s plan had paid off. As the day was heating up, we spotted them again, well ahead of us and up against the brush line, exactly as George had hoped. George and I went off alone, leaving the truck and Mike well behind.
We moved slowly and quietly through the shoulder-high grass, to no avail. The zebra spotted us and ran. This particular dance was getting old and I had already gotten my fill of it down on the plains.
But unlike below, these zebra didn’t run far. A few hundred yards away, as soon as they were out of sight, they slowed down, trotting back and forth in another small clearing ahead of us and to the right.
George had his binoculars up and whispered “The stallion’s the last one to the right, back of the herd. Good one.”
The tall grass and trees were too much of an obstacle to get a good shot at this distance, especially at a trotting target, so I went back to the path and hurried forward in the hopes of putting the stallion directly between my rifle and the brush line. George hung back, keeping his eyes trained on the target.
My path would cut through two large groups of tightly-packed bushes, with just enough space between to fit a small truck. To the left of the bushes was a large field. To the right was a small field and the herd.
My plan was simple enough. If I could make it another 50 yards, between those bushes, I could use one as cover to get in a shot, less than 100 yards away, on that stallion. Moving as they were, sandwiched between George, me, and the brush, I was bound to have a clean shot sooner or later.
I crept forward. By now I knew what the sound of thunder in the mountains meant. It meant my plan failed. The zebra had decided to make a break for it, and now were running flat out in one long string toward George. Maybe they had seen me. But then, maybe they saw George, because they wheeled, reversing direction completely.
They were now less than 100 yards immediately to my right in one continuous string, absolutely flying through the tall grass. I had no idea which zebra to shoot, or even where one zebra started and another stopped.
As they raced past, the lead animal took a turn for the big field to my left. I saw her through the window of the path in front of me as she brushed the small group of bushes I was heading for.
George must have realized the same thing I did. The whole herd would follow. He called out, “LAST ONE!” as I took a knee and brought the singe shot magnum up.
Hooves. Dust. Stripes. A thought.
“Which one is the last one? I won’t know until it’s gone.”
George’s voice: “NOW!”
Thirty yards away, there were stripes in the glass when I pulled the trigger. I knew it was a hit.
At least, I knew I hit something striped. I pulled the two pound Jard trigger the moment I saw the stallion’s chest. At that range, the only question was how far back on the animal the round had struck.
I found blood in the middle of the path in the shadow of the bushes. I found more — a lot more — just a few yards to the left of the bushes, toward the big field the herd and fled to.
In the field, the herd was gone. One remained.
Forty yards from where he was hit, the stallion lay still. Within moments, he was dead.
Zebra tenderloins for dinner.
We’ll be landing soon. Just like my last trip to South Africa, I have absolutely no intention of hunting a zebra.