Second-Chance Eland

Into the Karoo

Hunting in Africa has long been a dream of mine, and the dream finally started to become reality three years ago when my wife Carolyn and I finally committed to go.  We went to hunting expos and watched innumerable TV shows about hunting on the Dark Continent before we met Rob and Laura Birch of Royal Karoo Safaris in South Africa, and booked our safari.

When we arrived in Cape Town we were met by Laura, who expertly guided us in and around the area before we headed east along the famous Garden Route.  At the end of our five-day tour we joined Rob, who flew us in a four-seat aircraft across a mountain range to our destination.  I was struck by the rugged beauty of the landscape; the Karoo wasn’t at all like the endless plains that I was accustomed to seeing on TV.

Upon our arrival we were introduced to our Professional Hunter (PH), Matt Roux, who ensured that we were comfortably settled into our accommodations.  We had a brief tour of the grounds and the lodge, and Matt cautioned us against wandering outside the grounds after dark because there were Cape buffalo nearby.  Cool.

The next morning we were introduced to our tracker, Frank, and cameraman Deon, who would be taking promotional stills and video for Royal Karoo.  We then spent some time at the range verifying the sights on my bow and we also zeroed the rifle I’d hired.

Asleep at the Wheel

Early morning on Day Two we were bouncing along a trail in a Land Cruiser pickup (a “bakkie”) to our glassing point.  We hadn’t gone very far when Matt slowed abruptly and we stared at something about 80 yards down the trail.

“Eland,” said Matt.  “Let’s back out and see if we can sneak up on him with the bow.”  We backed up for several hundred yards, then quietly stopped and exited the vehicle.  I checked the wind – we were in a good position to begin stalking.

The four of us walked quietly in single file with Matt stopping frequently to glass ahead and check on our progress.  Eventually he motioned for a full stop and turned to us.

“Take off your boots, nock an arrow, and follow me,” he whispered to me and, “You guys stay here,” to Frank and Deon.

“Do you see him?” Matt asked me.

It took a minute for me to spot two horns that poked out of a gulley.  We inched closer and Matt again motioned for me to stop while he ranged the eland.  “Thirty yards.  Get ready,” he mouthed, “and come around this side.”

I took a step to our left with my release on the D-loop when suddenly the eland stood up, looked at us for a moment, and then trotted off.

“He’s not frightened.  Let’s get our boots and see if we can cut him off,” said Matt.  We gingerly picked our way back across the rocks and thorns to where Frank and Deon were waiting.

I laced my boots and followed Matt; we alternated between speed-walking in a gully and covering the ground on top using the brush as concealment.

Matt stopped short.  “There.  Sixty-seven yards.  Get ready.”

I nocked an arrow and started to draw but this time the eland bolted.  We tried relocating him but no luck; it was as though the red African soil had swallowed him up.  The stalk was over and it was time to head back to the lodge for lunch.

Nyala - Male

Nothing but Nyala

That afternoon we decided to sit in one of the blinds for the evening hunt, and I was thrilled when Carolyn said that she wanted to join us.

Matt dropped us off at the blind and then drove farther down the trail to hide the vehicle; when he returned we settled in for a long wait.  He told us that we wouldn’t see anything for the first hour or two because it takes at least that long for the area to settle down.  Time for a nap.

These blinds are built for comfort.  Constructed primarily of brick and mortar, they have a padded bench upon which you can sit or nap comfortably.  They have three windows facing a watering hole: one saucer-sized viewing port in the middle, and on either side are two tall rectangular windows with black doors that open inwards for a bow hunter to shoot through.

For the next couple of hours only some birds made an appearance.  Then, just at sunset, we noticed a dark form standing very close by.  Nyala!  It was a handsome bull, and while we were admiring him he seemed to spook and then slowly walked off.  Minutes later, two more nyala came to the blind, but like the first one they were skittish.

It was getting dark.  “I can’t see to shoot,” I shrugged at Matt, so we gathered our gear and headed back to the lodge.

Lady Luck Lends a Hand

On Day Four, Matt suggested that we sit in a different blind.  He thought it best to be in place by mid-afternoon, so Carolyn decided to stay at the lodge to read and relax.  After a short drive we were in the blind; I nocked an arrow and hung the bow on a hook.

The next two hours were a repeat of the previous evening: watching birds flying back and forth, punctuated only by occasional stretching and peeking out the window.  At around 5:30 Matt suddenly perked up and cautiously looked out the window, taking my point-and-shoot camera with him.

He turned it on, set it on the window ledge, began recording video, and stepped back.  Both of us could look at the display on the back of the camera and see what was going on without having to put our faces in the window.

“Eland.  Big bull,” whispered Matt.  “Big bull.  Move to the back of the blind and get ready.”  He motioned for me to use the right-hand shooting window.  I took the bow off the hook and clipped in my release.

“Get your breathing under control”, he said, “and draw when you’re ready.”

I was really nervous.  I nodded to Matt as I came to full draw and he slowly opened the shooting window.

My mind wandered at the sight of the massive eland about 20 yards away.  This would be the first animal with my new bow… what a big bull… don’t miss… don’t miss… don’t miss…

I put the 20-yard pin in the middle of the eland’s body just behind the front leg and sent the arrow on its way.  It sailed harmlessly underneath him; he spun around and trotted off.

Matt was visibly disappointed and I was devastated – I had just missed a target bigger than a bull moose!  The only explanation I could think of was that in my nervous state I’d sighted with the gap below the peep sight, rather than the peep itself.  I was mentally kicking myself all over the blind.

Fortunately my PH remained level-headed.  “Nock another one.”  I fumbled for another arrow.

Quietly.

Matt stopped the video and closed the window.  I had to sit down to regain my composure while he surveyed the scene.  After a couple of minutes, much to my amazement, Matt whispered, “He’s coming back.  Get ready.”

Sure enough, the eland was back.  Matt restarted the camera and positioned it in the window.

“Make sure of your sight picture this time.  Let me know when you’re ready.”

This time when Matt eased open the shooting window I was ready.  The peep sight circled the 20-yard pin as I squeezed the release, and at the thump of the bow the eland lurched and ran out of view.

“Stay away from the window,” hissed Matt, “good hit.”  After about a minute he took the camera and held it so that we could both see what was happening.

The eland stopped thirty-five paces from the blind.  His big body was swaying, and after a moment he laid down on his side.  He was mine – my first African bow harvest!

To say that I was happy would be an understatement.  I was jumping around the blind like a little kid at Christmas and I gave Matt a big hug, who grinned and said, “Let’s sit down and give him a few minutes so that we’re sure he’s done.”

I asked him how he knew the bull was around even though he couldn’t see him.  Matt explained that the hooves of eland bulls will grow together at the tips, making a distinctive clicking noise as they walk.

After what seemed like an hour (it wasn’t) Matt looked through the shooting window at the motionless eland.

“He’s done, let’s go see.”

I needed no further prompting.  I picked up the bow and nocked another arrow as we hurried towards the eland, but I didn’t need it.  What a magnificent animal!  Matt showed me how the tips of the hooves clicked, and the big “mop” of hair on its forehead.

After we set the bull upright and took some pictures, Matt went to get the bakkie while I gathered our gear; all the while I was pacing around in a daze, replaying the night’s events over and over.

Once the eland was loaded we looked for my arrows.  I found the first one almost right away, and after a short search Matt found the other – it lay five yards beyond the spot where the bull was shot.  Amazingly, it was a complete pass-through.

On the way back, Matt radioed ahead to have the skinners meet us in the skinning and processing building, and we stopped briefly at the front of the lodge to show off our prize.  Everyone seemed happy that we had an eland in camp, and Matt said that I’d find out why at a special meal to be held the next week.

Rob was there to meet us and he said that this was one of the two biggest eland taken at Royal Karoo.  “He’s an old bull and likely not breeding anymore.  This is exactly the type of animal we want removed from the property,” he said.  “We’ll need to get his measurements to see if he’s the biggest.”

Once the eland was hanging in processing building, Rob estimated that the bull weighed 900 kilograms (1,980 pounds).  That’s almost twice the size of any bull moose I’ve taken.  Wow.

Leaving the skinners to do their work, we cleaned up and went for a late dinner, which was a delicious venison pie.  Afterwards, a celebratory brandy was in order.

On the Braai

On our second-last night at Royal Karoo, Matt conducted a blind taste test of the animals I’d harvested.  The loins would be cooked to medium rare on the classic South African barbeque, the braai (rhymes with fry), and the seasoning would be simple: a sprinkle of lemon juice and a dash of salt and pepper.  Once they were cooked we were given samples of each animal and asked to rank them.

The overwhelming crowd favourite was the eland.  In spite of being an old bull, the meat was flavourful without being gamey, and it was very moist and tender.  No wonder everyone was happy to see it come into the lodge.

In my opinion, the zebra and the impala were tied for second place; like the eland they were terrific but they didn’t quite have its rich flavour.   The black wildebeest was a close third.  The kudu had a great initial taste and texture but I thought it had a funky aftertaste; Matt said it was because of their diet.

The dinner was a fitting end to the hunt of a lifetime.  Like the other meals, we ate well and enjoyed some really good South African wine.  We had a fantastic time chatting with our hosts and companions.

Carolyn and I still talk about how amazing our vacation was, and we’re already dreaming about our return trip.