The Macnab, Weather and Sleepless Nights ...

Extreme Conditions Hunting in the N.E. Cape highlands — August 2001

The Vaal Rhebuck stopped about 250 meters from us. The gale force North Easterly wind threatened to blow us off the mountain ridge over 8000 ft. above sea level. Iced snow burned our faces and eyes. Desperately I wedged Collin in-between two rock out- crops while I squatted upwind against his body for added protection and steadiness. Watching the barrel of the 7 x 57 jerking in the wind I advised Collin that he had no chance and should rather not shoot. But Collin was desperately keen, this might be his last chance...

I cannot claim to be a Professional Hunter but often acted as one, with no papers, only years of experience. At one stage in my life there were often dreams of being a P.H. From the outside it seemed to be an idyllic way of life, I began to take more interest in P.H’s instead of just taking them for granted. The man whom I thought to be the ideal P.H was Mike Bungi, well known in the Eastern Cape and watching his proficiency in working with and entertaining clients before, during and after the hunt my conclusions were unequivocal; I do not have it!

Always a perfect day

In short, they get up early, with a “friendly” smile, tell their clients it’s a perfect day and be adamant that the forthcoming hunt will be successful. How they sleep at night before a hunt, heaven knows. I seldom do. There’s always the imminent prospect of no game, dogs that refuse to work or difficult customers. One relives the times when you walk for hours on end without a sight of a partridge covey, while you know they must be somewhere. To prove your point you indicate where the birds have been, point out scratchings, fresh, or not so fresh, without emphasizing the fact that it’s not so fresh. The weather can also be a positive or negative factor on a partridge or any other hunt. A pointer uses the wind to find the birds through smell. If the wind is too strong it’s a disadvantage, if there is no wind they also battle to find their quarry. If the conditions are very dry the smell of the birds is also very faint. After a rain or heavy dew the birds are picked up much easier.

Once some birds are found your day is nearly made. To have a good day is to locate about 4 to 5 coveys. If the hunters miss, that’s not such a serious problem as long as they have enough to shoot at. A very good day for all concerned will be if the hunter manages to get his bag limit of 6 birds, which on the average requires about 18 shots. The official bag limit of 10 birds per hunter per day is in my opinion too high.

Planning the Macnab

But this coming weekend was booked months ago by two hunters who both required a Macnab each. Apart from the birds there is the elusive Vaal Rhebuck as well as a trout. This whole problem was placed on my son’s “broad” shoulders. Him being a real P.H gladly accepted, and really looked forward to the challenge.

So I had no sleepless nights until...

He was chosen to fish in the South African fly fishing team. This event took place in Sweden and ...the dates clashed precisely with the Macnab hunt. “Sorry dad as much as I like hunting I cannot miss this opportunity. Surely you can do it and would enjoy it. I’ll take you out tomorrow and show you my hunting grounds.” And so I was back to my sleepless nights!

The two hunters booked for two days hunting, although a Macnab must be hunted in one day they wisely booked an extra day for in case...

The evening before the hunt plans were made and food prepared. It could be a 12 hour hunt. I retired early but was woken by a gale force wind that tried to take the roof off and uproot every tree in its way. At 5 am I made the last preparations, the hunters were awake and much more enthusiastic than I was. While they made their last arrangements I picked up Bles our assistant and the pointer Kate. There were broken branches in the street ripped off by the wind. On the question what conditions would be like up on the mountain I did venture to say, “not so good, maybe we would find the buck where they would hide out of the wind.” Concerning the birds I doubted if Kate would, as good as she was, be able to locate them.

The hunt started

We entered the hunting area at first light, and I silently prayed that we would find the buck soon, and get this day over with.

We frequently stopped to work out strategies. Sometimes we split up in two pairs walking to the left and right on the edge of the escarpment looking down into valleys and the “out of the wind” grass slopes stretching downhill for kilometers away.

At about 8am we again split in two groups, Collin and I took a steep mountain slope to our left while Doug and Bles went onto a ridge towards the right hoping that we might chase something towards them. We started off at a brisk pace with the strong wind in our faces. Light ice rain made us pull our hats down over our eyes and it was only when I looked up that I saw 5 buck near the top. We stopped only to see them disappearing, white tails in the air, over the horizon.

Battling against the wind we followed. At the top we crawled to the edge to look over. There was another group of 7 buck about 350 meters away standing restlessly all looking away from us. I watched them through the binoculars but had to get a dead rest before identifying a trophy ram on the right. Collin was trying to get the ram in his scope but the wind was his main opposition.

Expecting the unexpected

Then pandemonium broke loose, a big, barking, longhaired dog came from nowhere charging into the group of buck. They scattered in all directions but he selected a ewe and chasing her disappeared out of sight. For one dog to catch a Vaal Rhebuck is virtually impossible. A pack of dogs is another story.

The ram was the only one coming at an angle towards us. I told Collin to be ready as the buck was getting into range and would stop any second from now, checking on the dog. He stopped about 250 m from us. The gale force north Easterly wind threatened to blow us off the mountain ridge over 8000 ft. above sea level while iced snow burned our faces and eyes. Desperately I wedged Collin in between two rock out -crops while I squatted up wind against his body for added protection and steadiness. Watching the barrel of the 7 x 57 jerking in the wind I advised Collin that he had no chance and should rather not shoot. But Collin was desperately keen, this might be his last chance. When the ram stopped he turned broadside toward us to look back to where the dog had disappeared.

“You will have to aim about half a meter to the left of the buck, into the wind and on his backline” was my quick advice. Watching through the shaking binoculars I saw the bullet kicking up dust just over the shoulders. Collin tried, against my advice another desperate shot and the ram disappeared towards where Doug and Bles were sitting.

I asked Collin about his shot and according to him he aimed about a meter to the left, into the wind and well over the buck.

We came to the ridge where the ram disappeared to find an enormous, vlei-like grassland ahead of us. On the far side it was verged by a low mountain range and on our side by a low ridge stretching for more than a kilometer to our left. Craning our necks we saw some buck in the middle of the vlei but a long way off to the left. We reversed out steps and walked behind the ridge to where we thought would be opposite the buck. The wind was still blowing bitterly cold at gale force but the direction not in our favour, not straight from behind but at a very slight angle.

There was nothing we could do about it. As my head cleared the ridge I could see the group of 7 buck straight ahead. Shaking in the wind I found them in the binoculars, they had all stopped grazing and were very restless. All were ewes. I called Collin to come and have a look but they took off and stopped about 500 m away. We retraced our steps and started the long walk back to the car on the wind side of the ridge.

There are some things that I don not like in this desolate and open grasslands. One is to scare game unnecessarily by walking in the open where you have a choice, even if it is on the uncomfortable windy side. The other one is unnecessary shots. I hate “taking potshots”, testing guns, target shooting or unnecessary noises.

When nature has beaten you but tomorrow is another day

The hour’s walk back to the car was very unpleasant but when we arrived we found Doug and Bles waiting. The decision they came to was unanimous, “we’ve had enough, we’ll try tomorrow, the weather could definitely only improve.”

I agreed because it was nearly 11am which does not leave enough time for what we hope to achieve in one day.

The next morning found us in the same routine. The wind had dropped considerably but it was overcast and it looked like rain. This called for other precautions. I made sure everyone had a raincoat and also loaded 4 mud/snow chains.

After twenty minutes drive, following the same route as the day before it started to snow. I always like snow, it’s beautiful and it poses an added challenge to the driver. Just make sure you do not get bogged down in it! This is a sentiment not shared by most other people who live around here. Snow can also mean stock losses to the farmers, slippery roads and sliding or stuck cars especially to the women folk and closed roads to travelers.

At the highest public telephone in Southern Africa we stopped to take a photo, it was just getting light. This was about 8000 ft. above sea level. From here the snow came down faster and we wondered what the effect of this white blanket of snow would be in spotting the buck. Maybe they would stick out like sore thumbs, same as partridges which I’ve often seen in snow. It turned out however, that most bushes protruding out of the snow can, if it’s far away, be mistaken for a buck.

On entering the hunting area the snow was mostly about 20 cm deep. Where snow drifts occurred it built up to half a meter. Travelling in the snow was at this stage no problem as most of the snow came down in the night and was at this stage frozen and not slippery.

As yesterday we again stopped frequently and walked the escarpment on foot to look down the Eastern side which was out of the wind and snow.

It was bitterly cold and when we stopped for our main walk the temperature measured minus 6 degrees Celsius.

It was now 8 am and the snowing had stopped. Standing in front of the car I explained the routes that we were about to take. Collin and Bles would go to the area where we found the buck yesterday while Doug and I would take a circle route in the opposite direction. We would meet back here at about 10 am, hopefully with at least one buck.

Our progress through the snow was slow but about 30 minutes from the car I spotted a lone ram about 80 meters away coming out behind some boulders. As I sat down on my haunches I whispered to Doug to shoot. The buck saw us at the same time. It stood for the usual 5 seconds to try and determine what the danger was before taking off to stop about 200 m away. Again Doug was too slow. I did not blame him this time. There was no dead-rest, only snow, and to take a standing shot at that distance, at a small target is a formidable task. The buck departed.

The determination of the hunter

We ventured on towards a deep valley and peeping over the edge down into the valley I saw 5 buck grazing about 300 m downhill, unaware of our presence. I told Doug to take his time and make himself comfortable. We found a small rocky outcrop with flat rocks where Doug pushed his 308 over. He had a good dead-rest and although it was very far his chances were good. I made sure that he aimed at the ram which I’d located with the binoculars.

When the shot rang out all buck disappeared into the bottom of the valley. As Doug was quite sure of his shot, we had no option but to go down nearly vertically , so it seemed, to where they were. When we found no sight of blood we had to assume that he had missed. Looking up to where we came from there was no option but to attack the climb doggedly, without consciously thinking.

We rested frequently and I could not help admiring the courage and perseverance of this bank manager from Gauteng. Many other hunters, looking at the formidable distance to travel would have made any excuse to get out of it. He was actually on his way down while I was still trying to locate the buck through my binoculars.

About halfway up while taking a break we saw them, way across the valley going in single file away from us. Looking quite unharmed. That was a relief.

Getting to the top we had to climb over a low 3 strand fence that we, in a different state of mind and fatigue did not even notice when going down. I took Doug’s’ rifle but the fence suddenly became a major obstacle.

We were on top now and after a good rest I asked Doug if we should continue our planned circle route. He just said: “Back to the car.” I said: “Thanks,” softly.

Eventually back at the car we had chocolate and tea and soon felt better. Our shoes and socks were soaking wet while the temperature showed minus 5,8 degrees Celsius. There was no sign of the other two. If they did get a buck it meant Doug was out of the Macnab as we then had to concentrate on the rest for Collin.

While waiting I took a photo of Doug, without his balaclava and gloves. In the background one can see the Eastern slopes facing away from the snow and wind, without any snow.

Collin and Bles arrived 20 minutes later and we turned back very disappointed. In my heart I’d given up, there was very little new ground to cover, but then, we’d made no noise coming this way, and it was my duty to try my utmost.

If we did not find one buck in the next half hour the Macnab would have to be written off. Refusing to give up I tried every possible venue.

At the last likeable place I stopped, and started to walk towards the last valley where I was sure something could be found. If I saw something I would come back to call the others. Not 5 minutes away Doug caught up with me. I was glad for the company and explained what my plan was. About 200 m from my intended lookout point two young rams burst out behind some shrubs and stopped about 100 meters away. As I went down to get out of the way Doug fired and I could hear the thud of the bullet, realizing it was a gut shot. The other buck veered away and disappeared behind a small ridge.

Wounding a buck

Decisions had to made very fast now. I told Doug his buck was wounded, and he must follow it. I doubted if it would get far, while I ran back to the car to get Collin and my gun. Halfway back I met him on his way to join us and showed him which way to run.

As I opened the door to grab my gun the pointer jumped out. Not worrying about her I ran back in the general direction of where things could be happening.

Suddenly I saw blood in the snow and quickly stopped to have a look around. There Doug’s’ buck was lying in the snow. The buck had been standing at an angle as the bullet entered the stomach and exited at the opposite shoulder.

Then a shot rang out and I ran towards it. In the distance I could see Collin lying down aiming down into the valley with Doug squatting behind him. Before I reached them another shot rang out and when I was within earshot Doug informed me that Collin had wounded the other ram and that it was way down in the valley. They had both now lost sight of it but I was fortunate to locate it when the movement of the buck trying to get up caught my eye. Through the scope I could see the buck on three legs starting to walk further down the slope. Not wanting to lose it and realizing that every step would take it further away I thought it best to shoot it.

With the promise of a substantial tip Bles started the long way down.

Shivering in the cold we watched his progress. When he was nearing the top Collin went down to help him while Doug and I went back to the other buck to remove the stomach and take it back to the car.

Kate — most trusting hunting dog

With the two buck attended to I suddenly remembered Kate and wondered where she was.

When there was no response to my whistling and calling I realized that she might have found some birds. We found her just out of sight at a dead point and I shouted to the hunters to bring their shot-guns while I went towards Kate encouraging her to hold her point.

Back at the car it was a mad scramble to get the shotgun cases and ammo out. Eventually they came at a steady trot but before they reached us the birds flushed . This happens when birds are wild and have never been shot at. The more a covey is hunted the tighter they sit.

We followed the birds to where Kate was pointing again. When they flew up the first time I counted 14 birds.

We were within range when they flushed and four shots rang out, with one bird down. They did not fly far and with us following at a steady pace we saw Kate pointing again. This time they sat more tightly and when they flew up another four shots were fired. Another bird down, both to Collin.

I called Kate and we started back to the car. I asked Doug how many times he had shot at birds before. It came out that this was his first try but he did practice on clay pigeons...

As it was past one and the trout dam was still an hour away we could waste no time. We packed, but I told Doug to keep his shotgun out as I knew of another covey close to the road. Arriving at the vlei where I found the covey on a previous occasion, Doug and I followed Kate while Collin brought the Land Rover. We flushed the birds twice but after another four shots Doug could not succeed in bringing a bird down. Time became a factor again and we had to give up.

Catching a trout

We had lunch while travelling and arrived at the dam at about 2:30pm. Although we were now in a different climatical area it was still cold, 6 degrees Celsius with a cold wind blowing.

Both hunters had told me that they had caught plenty fish before but to be sure I watched them carefully. Their tackle was of the best and they even took the trouble to dress accordingly. I soon relaxed, they surely seemed to know what they were doing, which gave me the opportunity to get back in the car for some coffee from where I could watch the progress carefully.

The minutes ticked by and nothing happened. After 20 minutes I suggested the use of heavier fast sinking lines and the use of black woolly buggers. Another half hour lapsed and more advice from me: “Use a big Mrs Simpson as a fly.” (The madam with no halo on her head). Five minutes later Doug was in and we netted a beautiful 3 lb. Rainbow.

Now they were close to their goal. If Collin could get his fish now he would have his Macnab. I’d promised Doug that we would have another try at the birds on our way back, should time permit.

Just after 4 pm Collin hooked a fish but with nerves a strong factor and being over anxious he lost it a meter from the net, not a big one but it would have made the day.

Twenty after 4 Collin hooked another one which he played carefully while we all rushed to his assistance.

The owners of the farm, Dohne and Jean-Marie were there braving the cold with us. They knew about the Macnab and watched apprehensively as a 1.5 lb Rainbow was netted. Congratulations all around, Collin had made it. We signed the visitors book and packed everything away except Doug’s’ shotgun.

Time was running out

At 5:30 pm with the sun sinking far too quickly I stopped for the last time to look for a covey that I knew of. Doug and I followed Kate while Collin watched from the car. Only a few minutes lapsed before Kate was pointing. Giving Doug last minute instructions, we moved forward but the birds were running, refusing to be flushed. They knew what was coming. We were at a trot, with the sun sinking fast, when some eventually flew up. Two shots, missed. I told Doug there were more birds and Kate was pointing again, the birds were sitting tight, somewhere quite close to us. Last minute instructions, “you’ve shot at the birds, single one out, cover it, follow through etc.” The bird flushed from about two meters away. Doug could not miss this time, and he didn’t

Someone produced a hip flask with some very fancy Scottish Whiskey to taste the well-earned double Macnab. Congratulations all around and we left for home as the sun set. We arrived after dark and while the hunters went for a well needed bath and change both Bles and I attended to the day’s bag. As a surprise we took the 3 lb. trout to the kitchen to be prepared for dinner for them.

Later, sitting around a huge log fire in the lounge reminiscing over the days events everyone was in high spirits, the cold, snow, icy winds and tired legs forgotten. The consensus of opinion was that it was the best and most unforgettable hunt they had ever had. I certainly will not easily forget the anxious moments and despair, often felt over the passed tow days. But then at the end of the day the success of the hunt can most accurately be measured by the clients reactions.

Doug wrote to me soon afterwards and said: “Collin and I had a fantastic time on the Macnab with you despite the strong winds and biting cold. My only regret was that my wing-shooting was shocking, to say the least. I would like to thank you for your time and patience and for the effort that you put into making the hunt a success. It was difficult for you with two hunters while time was of the essence. Will I do it again given the same conditions? Hell yes!”