Gregor Woods Hunts with Fred Steynberg

Aritcle titled “On Top of the World!” from the “Magnum” July 2003 issue, by Rifle & Hunting editor Gregor Woods. Mr Woods recounts his hunting experience with Professional Hunter Fred Steynberg, in the extreme climate and harsh terrain deep in the Southern Drakensberg. Hunting South Africa’s most challenging antelope, the vaal Rhebuck, Gregor Woods describes how he braved chilling winds and back breaking mountains on foot, in their pursuit of sighting the herds, quickly realizing you need to be to shoot a vaal Rhebuck. Coming from the coast, Mr Woods was unable to keep up with Fred’s super fit abilities to scale the mountains, they opt for hunting on horseback, a much more comfortable proposition.

Field Sports on offer

At present, the field sports on offer are vaal Rhebuck stalking, greywing francolin shooting and fly fishing for trout and yellowish. The vaal Rhebuck is without doubt South Africa’s most challenging antelope to hunt, inhabiting the highest and most inhospitable terrain, and characterized by supreme alertness, plus a shyness verging on paranoia. Shots are generally taken at considerably longer ranges than in bushveld, and to add to the difficulty, vaal Rhebuck present extremely small, slender targets, weighing only 20kg – when they face you, it’s like shooting at razor blades. Wind is often a factor in high mountains.

Sighting the herds

In this treeless terrain, there is no vegetation to use as cover, so you have to rely on the topography alone, which generally means getting a mountain, or at least a mountain ridge, between you and the buck.. You usually sight the herds from a long way off (if you don’t, you’ll see only their fleeing rumps) and Murphy’s law invariably finds you on the wrong mountain, so a great deal of strenuous climbing and crawling is involved. You should not attempt it unless you are fit.

An outstanding hunter in high altitude conditions

My guide was Fred Steynberg, who is supremely fit, and an outstanding hunter, but nothing he could do made up for the fact that I was not fit enough. The first thing to hamper me was the thin air. I live at sea level, and to go to 9000 feet and start climbing mountains on the first day was more than my old lungs could handle. I am told that it has to do with a shortage of red blood corpuscles in lowland dwellers. If you live at high altitude, your body produces more of these to cope with the reduced oxygen levels. Lowlanders need to acclimatize for a few days, during which time your body produces the additional red blood corpuscles it needs. No matter how deeply I breathed I could not seem to get enough air, and I knew something was wrong by the way my heartbeat was hammering away in my ears like a Harley Davidson. For some reason this condition virtually doubles your heart rate. You also feel weak and listless.

With vaal Rhebuck you have to shoot very quickly

Another problem was the heavy clothing. It is very cold at this altitude, and if a wind is blowing, as it was on this day, you have to bundle up, and this makes it all the harder. We made several stalks, but only once did a ram give me a fair opportunity, and then I was still too slow getting into position. With vaal Rhebuck you have to shoot very quickly – they don’t wait around. I lost a second brief opportunity by simply not being able to see the buck at all. In mitigation, it was an overcast, misty day, which made it immensely difficult to see these grey wisps on a grey mountainside. On one occasion, a ram was silhouetted against the skyline on a ridge above us. Several fused vertebrae in my neck make it all but impossible for me to lie prone and shoot at an upward angle, so I was struggling to get Fred’s rucksack into position to use as a high rest. In just those few seconds the mist rolled over the ridge and completely enveloped the ram! End of story. By midday I was knackered and my legs just would not carry me up any more slopes.

Hunting on horseback

The next day Guy Stubbs took the group for a leisurely horse ride through the mountains, and I so enjoyed it that I decided this was the only way I could hunt vaal Rhebuck in this terrain. I have always been very comfortable on a horse, and as I get older I find myself feeling ever more comfortable on one. The Tenahead horses are a cross between Basuto ponies and Boereperde, and they are amazingly surefooted, fit and confident. To reach Tenahead you must negotiate a very steep, winding mountain pass known as Naude’s Nek pass. This route was mapped a century ago by a very simple method – old man Naude knew that a mountain Boereperd would instinctively select the easiest route up the mountain, so he simply let his horse walk in front of him, choosing its own way, and he marked the route as they went.

A thrilling sensation of power and freedom

So that’s what Fred and I did the following day – hunted on horseback. And I can’t remember when I last enjoyed myself so much. These horses can go anywhere – we literally climbed the highest mountains on them. The experience gives you such a thrilling sensation of power and freedom – you can just keep going, on and on, where you wouldn’t otherwise dare go because you know you would be too tired to hike back. Instead of each looming mountain becoming an impossibly painful obstacle, you find yourself eager to scale it to see what lies beyond. I have hunted on horseback before, but in bushveld, where it is rough going because the thorn bushes and low branches strive to sweep you off the horse or at least rip your clothes off. In treeless mountains, enhanced by spectacular scenery, it is seventh heaven.