In search of the understated mountain rhebuck, Byron Pace is back in the Winterberg Mountains
It’s the smells that get me most and drag me back in a flash of vividness. Sometimes I don’t even have to inhale a familiar scent to smell it—a poetic description, a picture, a passing comment, music, even an accent or any number of seemingly insignificant encounters can conjure up the consuming warmth of breath and earthy, nostril-filling aroma of Africa. It is so consuming that I occasionally feel myself smirking as I enjoy the fleeting moment. There are certain places that get under your skin. Places that create an insatiable desire to drop whatever you hold important at that moment in time to return to the sights, smells and emotions welling inside. It’s different for everyone. I have a handful, but hunting in Africa is right up there.
Days and dates, even time, become unimportant after a while. Time is for those governed by restriction and restrictions limit creativity. It stifles a freeness of living so liberating it’s a re-birthing of life into a world where night and day are your only markers of the passage of time. Where we feast on a belly rumble and scoop the cooling waters of a mountain stream to quench our thirst. It’s a place where fire holds an addictive draw and the cling of wood smoke to your clothes is accepted gladly and wholeheartedly welcomed. Detached from the stranglehold of work, taxes and material commitment, the only continuation of the world which remains important comes from the dawn of a new day. A warming sunrise and the gentle cooing of a diamond dove perched proudly atop an aloe plant. That is truly living.
Thinking back, I am not all that certain how long we stayed in the mountains. My friend, and professional hunter, Devan Delange was no doubt keeping track, but I didn’t care about things like that. I am sure my Dad was happy not to be thinking of it, too. I had already bagged a warthog with an opportune, quickly taken shot on a trotting sow some 200 metres away. It reacted to the bark of my dad’s rifle, aimed at an entirely different species, and there had only been a small window to act as it took off across the valley side. I had been in fine form that day and my tusked quarry was soon tumbling towards the stream below.
We were in the mountains ahead of the August winds, but our first few days had been cold, overcast and damp. In many ways, the climate and weather patterns in the Winterbergs were similar to Scotland, so I was used to the irregularity. We had certainly seen game, with the first kudu of many already claimed, but there had been a distinct lack of mountain rhebuck. In abundance when we had hunted the year before, their absence had been notable.
Most easily spotted in the first and last hours of the day, it was possible the poor weather had caused them to sulk, or at least be less obvious than when grazing out under the warming rays of the African sun. I was keen to head higher into the mountain ranges to survey the population more and even Devan was a little perturbed. It was unlikely to be the result of poaching. Caracal and leopard can take a considerable toll on the species and could have been the reason. We would wait until we had a better day to judge.
For me they are like the roe deer of Africa. Similar in nature and behaviour, but found more dominantly in higher areas as alluded to by their name. It is a rare trip to South Africa where I don’t take a mountain rhebuck of some description, be it male or female. A few notable examples sit on my wall at home, each telling a different story. They are not to be confused with smaller Vaal rhebuck or the larger Common rhebuk. Their dusty grey coat is tinged with gingery browns in places and a prominent cream belly distinctly identifies the little mountain antelope. The rams sport modest horns, ridged at the front, curling forward in the opposite direction to that of a chamois. They are daintily beautiful and, yet, understated. The latter part of my trip would take me in pursuit of Vaalies—the colloquial name for the Vaal rhebuck, much the same as the New Zealanders refer to chamois as chammies—which is a hunt I will, without question, be returning to on my next visit. They are uniquely different, occurring across much higher and open grass plains, and a number of successful stalks lead us to only young animals. For me, it didn’t matter. It was far more important to take the right animal and not just tick off the list.
Now, I don’t recall clearly what happened in the intervening days, other than to say we hunted hard, drank brandy and feasted on meat, but, eventually, a clear morning greeted us. Our weary bodies, stiff with the retrieval of multiple kudu at that point, needed fuel. A coffee and left over boerewors settled the pythons, so to speak.
We headed straight from a transecting valley to the main trunk, where I had shot my first ever mountain rhebuck many years before—still the most impressive I have personally taken. I am sure it would lay claim to some medal or record book, but since I don’t care much for such things, it’s an irrelevant aspect. It was also my farthest shot on an animal of such size. The experience of youth had landed a somewhat lucky, half-skilled 370 m shot without the benefit of a ballistic turret or range finder.
We sat quietly as the first rays unveiled the shadows. The morning was still and crisp, punctuated with a wakening chorus of bird song. It was tranquil and soothing, if a little cold. Rising steadily behind us, the burning orb of daylight ratcheted itself higher into the sky, casting a defined, sweeping shadow from the mountain top onto the valley face. One by one, then in small groups, rhebuck appeared from nowhere. If anything, there were more rhebuck holding here than in previous years. I could see Devan was relieved and, at the same time, content with his assumption that it had just been the weather. He knows his apples, as they say.
My dad had yet to take a rhebuck and was now happy in the knowledge that the population was doing well. We began to winkle out a suitable ram. Of all the stalks for the trip, this was the least arduous and, with a perfect cross-valley shot with the .243 Winchester, a short retrieval lead to his first mountain rhebuck.
The morning was still in its infancy and we pushed higher up. We scoured the boulder strewn land, which was now much sparser in foliage than where we had first paused to spy. It didn’t take long to locate a large group of females milling around a rocky outcrop on the opposite side. Some 20 or so strong, it was quite a sight. I had taken plenty of rams before, so the hunt to thin some of the females out was just as exciting to me.
They were just over 500 m from where we sat. We were well kitted out for longer shots, and it seemed possible, but unnecessary. If anything, it was too lazy to attempt. The stalk wouldn’t be all that difficult, but, with very little cover, it was destined to be slow.
Knowing the challenge of getting into position without being spotted, Devan and my Dad stayed behind, observing from a distance as I cautiously moved in with the tracker, Pumsley. We took about half an hour to cut just over 200 m off the range, which looked to be about as good as it was going to get. Many of the animals were lying up at this point, leaving limited immediate targets.
Slinking along the steep face, I hunted for a suitable shooting position, something at least marginally comfortable. There was no rush. We had the upper hand and remained undetected. I took the time to shift a number of intrusive boulders to the sides of the game trail we were positioned on. It required a fair amount of craning to line up a shot and I was thankful of my decision to slip on the bipod before setting out.
The rangefinder told me there was now 247 m between me and the rhebuck and I cranked up the ASV to reflect the distance. Communicating tenuously in broken English and hand signals, Pumsley and I agreed on which animal to shoot first. I would take another, should the opportunity arise, after the shot.
The first one dropped where it stood and the entire group paused after making an initial run for it. Thwak. Second animal down. I dropped the bolt back as the rest of the animals made haste out of range. Turning to Pumsley, I was greeted with a grin. A handshake between us exchanged mutual respect and thanks.
We rucksacked both animals out before venturing farther over the mountain range, in pursuit of nothing more than the unknown this time. Life is made up of stories, and some are just worth telling. Make sure you fill your life with them.
For hunting contact: www.winterbergsafaris.com
About the Author: Byron Pace
Byron Pace is the Director, Production Planner, Camera Operator, and Editor for Pace Productions UK.
Growing up in the countryside, “fieldsports” was always an important part of his life, and a thirst for adventure saw him temporarily postpone his post-secondary studies to work with EcoDart Ltd designing big game immobilization equipment. He went on to take part in trials and conservation projects across Africa. This included re-collaring of elephants in Kruger National Park, as well as rhino de-horning for anti-poaching measures.
After completing his degree, Byron went on to work for the world’s largest investment company, setting up new offices in India while working between London, Edinburgh and New Delhi. Not able to restrain his desire to get back to the countryside and adventure, after two years he left, working as a freelance film-maker for the UKs biggest online fieldports channels, as well as writing for a number of magazines around the world. It is during this time he honed his skills filming, and finally decided to fulfill a long held desire to make adventure feature films in partnership with his brother Darryl a retired Royal Navy Diver.
You can see the Pace Bros. excellent work at http://www.paceproductionsuk.com.