Leaping Eland by: Mike Mitten
After years of asking, “Mike, for a guy that loves diverse wildlife, why don’t you come with me to bowhunt South Africa,” I finally said yes to Gene Wensel’s request. Gene has been a hunting consultant and booking agent for dozens of African bowhunts, which took a lot of the guesswork and built early confidence in a foreign adventure. Most of the logistics, gear, climate, cost, tipping, customs, medications, and travel questions were readily answered in Gene’s “African Primer” instructional pamphlet. A years worth of anticipation was finally over on July 2nd as six traditional bowhunters boarded the scheduled 16 hour flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg. After getting through the uneventful customs inspection, a van took us to the Afton House Inn where we were met at 9:00 PM with a steak dinner and comfortable beds. Early the next morning we boarded another flight to Polokwane, the capital of the Limpopo providence. We were greeted at the airport by the smiles of our professional hunter (PH), his guides, and trackers who helped load and stow our gear in the backs of Land Rovers and pickups fitted with elevated racks. During the three and a half hour drive to the north-east, the conversations were quite interesting for the first-time African hunters. We saw many species of plains game, animals and birds along the route, and could soon identify game concessions that harbored rhinos by the security watch-towers that rose above the brush and tree line. I noted habitat distinctions between agricultural fields, working cattle farms, and private wildlife reserves.
It was hard to believe I wasn’t dreaming as our caravan traversed the gates of the Doorvaard ranch, which is the anchor farm of five continuous properties that give us access to approximately 100 square miles of managed wildlife habitat known as Matsuri Safaris. Gene chose this concession because of its similarities to old Africa, no modern electricity at the base camp, and all animals were born here and run wild. We met the camp manager, Van Reenan van Vuren (Van for short) who is also the nephew of the owner of Doorvaard. Van took us to our rondavel sleeping quarters, showed us the hearth and outdoor pavilion where all meals would be served, and introduced us to the camp chef, trackers, and additional native help who lived on the ranch and were available to assist us during our two week stay.
As all hunters and guides sat at the long dining table in the pavilion that first afternoon, Van queried us as to the species of plains game we were most interested in hunting. Our answers would dictate the habitat and specific waterholes in which to direct us. Zebra, wildebeest, and gemsbok tend to hang out together and prefer more open country where they eat more grasses and sedges, whereas kudu, eland and giraffe feed more on browse during winter’s dry season. My hand shot up like a school-boy in the front row after Van finally got to the question, “So who among you are interested in eland?” Directing his response to me and my friend Aaron Lamers, Van noted, “The older eland bulls tend to be alone or in groups of two or three this time of year, while the cows and younger bulls associate in larger herds of twenty or more. We have observed large bull tracks in the sand frequenting a few of the waterholes in the thicker brushy areas which could provide some excitement for you guys.”
We readied our gear and shot a few practice arrows before climbing up into the elevated seats of the safari trucks. Our first trip down the sandy trails were slow and deliberate as our respective guides pointed out diverse habitat, plants, and many animals native to this country. I was quickly made aware of the thorns and prickers that lined the limbs of nearly every tree and bush along the trail-way. We learned that much of this portion of South Africa was reverted back from cattle ranches to wildlife concessions where the supplied water is mandatory for the health of great herds that can’t migrate during the summer rainy season and winter’s drought due to the fences. The water supply would not be maintained without the sport hunters, and hunting dollars are the main source of habitat restoration, and the livelihood of rural communities.
Van informed us that no self-respecting rifle hunter would sit at a waterhole. Their primary hunting tactics involves driving the ranch in search of desired prey and glassing from bluffs. Once game is spotted it usually requires tracking until sight is reestablished in the bush followed by a slow stalk into range. This technique can be successful for bowhunting, but many first time bowhunters to Africa prefer to sit and wait in ambush near waterholes for a close range ethical shot. To facilitate the even closer range desired by the recurve or longbow hunters, portable stands or blinds were erected even nearer to the water, and the far sides of certain waterholes were brushed-in to aid in a higher percentage broadside shot at unsuspecting prey.
After arriving at my hunt location, I jumped down from the truck rack, walked 15 yards past the edge of the waterhole and stepped three feet down into the belly of the permanent termite mound pit blind. The blind was dome shaped from cement walls formed my pressing mortar into a wood and chicken wire frame. From the outside it resembled a six foot African termite colony mound, but from within it sheltered me from the sun and wind. There were several framed slots in the walls measuring 5 ¾ inches wide and over a foot long for which to observe or shoot out of. The walls were curved inward which would require me to shoot standing up with my bow positioned in the center of the blind to allow for unobstructed bow limb clearance. This waterhole was set in thick brush which only allowed visibility in place out to fifty yards. There was no vegetation in the area around the water due to the daily churning of animal hooves. Warthogs soon approached, but blew out of there in a cloud of dust after catching a whiff of my scent. I closed off two of the windows on the down wind side of the blind in hopes of reducing my odor exposure.
Eventually the wind died down and many animals came in for a drink including, impala, nyala ewes, and more warthogs. One of the warthogs was a very old boar with droopy facial warts, gaunt ribs, and ivory tusks with wore tips. He chased around a sow before drinking. Even though I considered shooting a warthog, my mind was still fixed on eland. In February, Gene sent us photos of various animals that were on the ranch including magnificent eland bulls with massive bodies filled out from the lush rainy season nutrition. For five months I wondered, “Could I cross paths with one of those great antelope,” and “I wondered what my eland is doing this very moment?” Being selective of individual animals put more uncertainty into this game rich hunt. I did not see an eland that day, but the outlines of the huge tracks in the sand from the previous day were enough incentive to keep my motivation.
The next morning I sat in a tree stand next to a very active waterhole. The stand was positioned with dense brush and trees behind me, but little to no vegetation out to a hundred and fifty yards past the waterhole. Unlike the closed-in ground blind, the tree stand allowed for great visibility and filming opportunities. I understood how species like zebra earned their reputation for wariness, as a stallion stood out at two-hundred-yards watching the water hole for two hours before deciding it was safe to come. I knew I would not get a shot at him when young impala and kudu approached down wind and barked warnings of my intrusion. I stayed in the stand all day filming and observing the wildlife in their natural habitat, while listening to sounds and vocalizations I never before heard in North America. Recognizing utterances of warthog grunts, impala roar, monkey chatter, kudu barks and wildebeest snorts allowed for a preparation advantage long before I laid eyes on any of them.
After allowing a herd of forty blue wildebeest refresh and splash in the waterhole, I decide to try for a shot at a large bull with a black face and forehead, sporting wide curled horns; that was until I heard the faint clicking of approaching animals from behind me. Even though I never heard the sounds before in the wild, I knew it was the splayed hoof of heavy eland clapping back together as weight shifted off the foot of each lifting step. The wildebeest got a pass from me as I shifted in the tree and trained my binoculars through the dry brush on moving patches of grey and tan hair. Spiral horns parted tree limbs above the flowing herd of twenty eland. As they broke out into the open, the mostly female and juvenile herd bucked and kicked at each other. The squaring off of two young bulls caught my attention as their foreheads met and short horns slid off center. Short hairy dewlaps flopped in the dry sand, while the snorting nostrils puffed the earth. A red dust cloud framed the scene as the lead cow halted her advance and looked back at them. The crowd of wildebeest left the water, making room for the rambunctious antelope. With the majority of the eland visible, I continued to film them while keeping a close watch on their back trail for any mature bulls. There were distinct differences between the size and stature of the cows. Some had extremely long almost parallel horns, while others had crooked horns, and lacked symmetry with tips bent downward. The lead cow paused two more times before cautiously reaching the water. When her lips wetted, the others rushed in on either side and immediately drank. I settled in for my first experience with eland, when all of a sudden the lead cow threw her head back spun 180º and bolted away from the water causing the entire herd to flee with her. As if these large antelope were just looking for an excuse to jump, I was astonished to see them leaping high in the air at full stride, some lifting over the backs of others. With the open terrain of sandy but firm ground stretching out for over two-hundred yards, I could not rationalize why the eland were still jumping and clearing seven foot high bushes that far away from the apparent danger. Clearly eland are far from mindless cattle!
After five more days of hunting, I ended up back at the first water hole in the termite mound blind where a herd of nyala ewes came into water. They fed in the thick brush and bedded in the morning sun. The wind was stable and blew from the water toward me. The temperature rose from the upper thirties to upper sixties, as I enjoyed the company of a duiker, a huge herd of over forty impala, and two steenboks. I was not bored at all when a band of eland came single file toward me from the trail to the north. The eland drank, and they too milled around the site, and bedded near where the nyala were. Shortly thereafter, a hulking mature bull came up to inspect the others and finally closed in to drink. I leaned my bow back down against the wall and started filming this bull after deciding he may need a year or two to become fully mature.
Around the campfire that evening I showed Van the footage of the bull I passed up, and he said, eland bulls come in different shapes and colors and tend to get darker, longer dewlaps, and thicker hair rugs on their foreheads with age, but the bull I filmed was a good representative, and that he had not started to wear down his horn length. I should have shot. Nearly all of the animals lose weight during winter’s drought, and big bulls aren’t as filled out. I informed Van that a similar weight reduction occurs with our deer and elk during winter as well. I was glad that Van lets us hunt alone if we choose to, and self imposed selectivity increases the challenge.
Two days later I was hunting out of a temporary canvas ground-level blind about an hour after daylight, when eight immature nyala rams ventured close. I started up the video camera and recorded their sparing. A half-hour later I was surprised by a group of five eland, and also elated to see the big bull I passed up at the other waterhole that was three miles from this location. Van’s words echoed in my ears, as I prepared to take this bull if given the opportunity. I focused through the six inch opening of the blind to a spot seventeen yards from the blind and to the right of the waterhole. The entire far side of the waterhole was blocked off with brush and briars, leaving only broadside or front access. The wind was blowing in as I took a wide stance with bent knees in order to gain the required overhead limb clearance. The bull was coming right to left when I started to pull the string, but a cow stepping between us caused me to check my draw. I knew that some African game animals tend to have vital organs lying much more forward in the chest cavity than North American ungulates; however, we learned from Van that eland have much greater body mass and don’t fit this paradigm. He suggested aiming slightly higher and further rearward from the shoulder on eland than other large antelope like kudu. After the cow cleared, the bull flipped end for end, presenting me a slightly quartering away broadside shot. I drew my bow and sent the arrow, which struck a rib and buried deep. The eland bull charged off, leaped over the first bush in his flight path and disappeared into the thick cover.
Waiting for the trackers to arrive from camp was not hard, since after the dust settled the oasis of water still attracted impala rams to keep me company. Soon after the trackers arrived, it didn’t take long to locate the balled up droplets of blood and sand with huge divots from the bull’s fleeing feet that led us to the great eland bull. The word “eland” is Dutch for moose, which I understood why when I approach the bull from the rear, walked the length of its massive body, and knelt beside its neck to lift its head from the cool sand. The mature bull had matching 35 inch horns and a dewlap that was much more pliable than that of a moose draping his under neck. Its forehead rug was thick and reddish-colored like an impala hide, while his nose was nearly black. My admiration of my prize was interrupted when the guide commanded the skinners to quickly load the beast because he just received word on the radio that my friend Aaron also arrowed an eland bull.
After winching my bull unto the bed of the truck, we hurried over to where Aaron was hunting, and found him still in an excited state as he described his morning events. Aaron watched a lone eland bull come toward the blind, but never offering a good shot. He knew he wanted to shoot the bull and stood at ready with a nocked arrow for nearly 45 minutes. Aaron’s patience didn’t wane, and when the bull finally turned to leave at 28 yards, his arrow took flight, catching the bull tight behind the shoulder and angled steeply forward. The savanna went quiet as soon as the bull left. Aaron pointed us in the direction the bull fled and told us he felt it couldn’t have gone far. The trackers dispersed and immediately found a blood trail that told of a mortally wounded eland. After tracking for seventy-five yards, we heard the bull break from his hiding spot and jump over brush in classic eland fashion. We crept to the sandy bed where the bull laid, and nodded to each other in affirmation at the large amount of coagulated blood he left behind. Aaron’s look in disbelief gave credence to the many stories of supreme stamina and extreme will to live associated with many African antelope. Tracking a wounded eland did not challenge the skills of the African trackers, but their pointing out that the increased splay in the hoof track on the weight supporting side, opposite the shoulder wound, was indicative of a willingness to teach us. The long stride of the eland drew us further into the tangled thorns of the brush country, but the trail eventually ended with the falling steps of our prey.
A joyous celebration began as we surrounded the bull and contemplated a route to its retrieval. We could not believe our good fortune in taking two eland bulls within an hour of each other using traditional bows. Hunting moose in Alaska encompasses a grand adventure filled with hardships, and the romance of exploring a vast wilderness. The hunter becomes intimate with the skinning and packing out of moose meat. But in contrast, bowhunts in Africa where self-limiting selectivity, long hours of proximity to an array of species, and close range shots is just plain fun. The nightly tales at the hearth were so much better when accompanied with South Africa’s best table fare, eland filets!
Equipment notes: Author used 64-inch Tall Tines recurve with 67 pound draw weight. Arrows were 2219 Easton XX75 shafts tipped with TuffHead broadhead, giving total arrow weight of 790 gr.