By Eyad Yehyawi
The sun was high in the sky when Marius placed his hand on my shoulder and whispered, “Slowly grab your bow.”
The windows of the blind limited my visibility, and my heart rate peaked as I wondered what African prize was approaching. All I could see were Marius’ eyes looking hard to our left. I followed the professional hunter’s gaze, and then I saw them: two gorgeous springbok, South Africa’s national animal. Cautiously the two springbok began drinking from the water tank just 20 yards in front of our blind.
I looked at Marius, whose poker face provided no clues as to whether I should prepare for a shot. Finally he leaned over and said, “Too young. They need another year or two.”
I was disappointed, but the number of tracks surrounding the water tank before us gave me hope that it wouldn’t be long before I had my first chance to fire an arrow. I exchanged my bow for my camera and began taking photos of what were my first African animals within bow range. While no other animals visited the water before noon, it was a great start to my African adventure.
Patience is a Virtue
I had dreamed of this trip for nearly 20 years. Like so many bowhunters, I had created a list of animals I had visions of taking. Anybody who had ventured to Africa had returned with Hemingway-like stories of giant, spiral-horned animals roaming the grasslands and savannas. I was sure that I would have a similar experience, with lots of animals to choose from and plenty of shot opportunities.
I could not have been more wrong.
When you choose to bowhunt, you add a level of unpredictability and uncertainty to your hunt. Africa proved to be no exception to this rule. My first trip to Africa was something I will never forget, but what I had expected to be an easy hunt turned out to be quite challenging.
Nearly all bowhunts for African game are over waterholes during the fall and winter, which for those in the southern hemisphere is between May and September. While spot-and-stalk hunts are an option in some areas, me hunt would find me waiting patiently near a waterhole for one of what could be many species of African game to come quench their thirst.
I soon learned that patience would be a critical factor in finding success in Africa.
With the help of Neil Summers of Bowhunting Safari Consultants, I had selected Tshepe Safaris in northern South Africa to make my African adventure a safe and memorable experience. Tshepe Safaris utilizes two diverse ecosystems to provide hunters with opportunities at various game animals. The Bushveld is a subtropical woodland region where popular species like kudu, impala and warthogs can be found. The Highveld is similar to the plains of North America and is where one will find blue and black wildebeest, blesbok, springbok, eland and gemsbok.
My first day was spent in a blind on the Highveld, where we hoped to intercept a thirsty wildebeest, gemsbok or blesbok at the water tank. Tshepe Safaris had designed its blinds to resemble termite mounds, and their realism was impressive to say the least.
After having to pass up the two beautiful springbok, we had a quick lunch and then moved to an area where Marius had been seeing a large group of gemsbok on a regular basis. With ebony-colored horns, silver sides and a painted face, few animals are as striking as the gemsbok. Considered by many to be one of Africa’s toughest animals, the gemsbok requires a perfect shot to ensure a quick recovery. Should your arrow miss the vitals, which are smaller and further forward than on most North American game, tracking and recovery can be difficult at best.
The hours passed quickly, and before long the sun had began its descent into the western horizon. As is often the case with bowhunting, the initial excitement I felt was overcome by the realization that I might not even have a single opportunity at a decent animal.
Suddenly Marius whispered, “Don’t move.” That’s when I heard the subtle clip-clop, clip-clop of hooves approaching the water tank. The steady cadence grew louder by the second. Finally Marius uttered the words I’d been waiting to hear: “Reach for your bow, Eyad. Gemsbok are coming, and there’s a good one.”
I’ll never forget the moment the gemsbok first came into view. I was mesmerized by the contrasting black and white “mask” and the long, black horns, sharp as daggers with heavy bases. Slowly, I reached for my bow, attached my release and waited for Marius to show me where to focus my efforts. Female gemsbok also have horns—longer with less mass—so we had to carefully identify our target.
Soon our attention was locked on a bull with heavy bases and broad shoulders. Marius confirmed that he was a shooter, but just as I came to full draw, the entire herd of gemsbok exploded from the waterhole. The magnificent bull was gone, leaving me heartbroken and frustrated.
Marius simply patted me on the shoulder. “It’s okay,” he told me. “You did nothing wrong. These animals are as wild as anything you’ve hunted, and they sometimes get spooked for no reason. We have time, and we must stay positive.”
My adrenaline began to subside and the grassland grew quiet once more. Just as the last rays of light were cast across the waterhole and I had all but given up on the prospect of their return, Marius leaned over and said, “They are coming back. Get ready.”
I grabbed my bow just as the first gemsbok crossed in front of the blind, followed by two more. Bringing up the rear was the shooter bull. He stood facing the blind, presenting a less than ideal shot. I waited with shaking hands, hoping he would turn broadside before nightfall swallowed the grasslands. Then, almost on cue, the big bull gave me the shot I had been waiting for. The string came back, my finger touched the release and the fletching sped toward the trophy gemsbok.
The arrow entered straight above the leg, and I knew almost immediately that the shot was true. I will never forget the dust trail following the giant bull as he dashed across the African landscape. Marius and I were ecstatic. Soon we were taking pictures of one of the most beautiful animals I had ever seen.
Putting in Our Time
We spent the next day on the Highveld again, and I was fortunate to connect on a great blesbok. Om the third day we hunted a different concession in the hopes of seeing kudu and impala. This hunt took place on the Bushveld, where thick vegetation and limited visibility were the norm. Unfortunately, the record rainfall that summer had afforded the kudu and impala with enough moisture and food that they had no need to visit the waterholes with any regularity. We spent three days baking in the blind from dawn to dusk without seeing any of the majestic Bushveld bulls that call South Africa home, and we finally elected to head back to the Highveld. It was a hard pill to swallow, but we left the Bushveld—and my dream of taking a kudu bull—behind for good.
That night I could tell Marius was frustrated at the lack of opportunity over the previous three days. I kept reminding him that when it comes to bowhunting, things don’t always go as planned. We definitely were putting in our time.
The next morning found us stationed in a blind watching for a large herd of blue wildebeest that had been frequenting the area. A few blue wildebeest cows visited the waterhole near our blind that morning, but nothing else. Soon after the sun had reached its peak, two francolins began working their way into the water. These grouse-like birds make for remarkable table fare. After getting the green light from Marius, I quickly anchored two of the beautiful birds.
We sat for the rest of the day with renewed enthusiasm, but no other animals made their way in for a drink. Once again we were disappointed, but I remained optimistic that the last day held promise. Before drifting off to sleep that night, I couldn’t help but think that Africa was shaping up to be anything buteasy.
Last Chance on the Highveld
The final day of my African bowhunting adventure passed quickly. Before I knew it, the sun started its descent. Taking in the cascade of colors with a reflective sigh, I was caught off guard when Marius said, “Big blesbok coming. Get your bow.”
My heart rate immediately picked up pace as I grabbed my bow and focused on the waterhole. Three blesbok, one with giant bases and curved tips, were making their way toward the water. With the blesbok drinking at a fevered pace, I slowly began to draw my bow. Then, without warning, a gust of wind created a whirl of dust, and the small herd bounded off in an instant. I was disappointed, but having witnessed this before, I also knew there was a chance they would return before last light. Just as I was giving up hope, Marius gently tapped my shoulder and said, “They are coming back. Get ready.”
As the blesbok meandered toward the water, I waited for the right angle to present itself, settled my pin and launched my arrow. The giant blesbok bolted from the water, ran in a small circle and quickly expired. I gave Marius a celebratory hug and then left the blind to admire my trophy.
I had imagined that an Africa hunt would be a free-for-all with shot after shot presenting itself. But, looking back, I’m grateful to have had a great hunt with no guarantees. It reminded me that the challenges we face are truly the essence of any bowhunt, along with the experiences we garner, friendships we make and the dreams that take us to faraway lands. It truly was the adventure of a lifetime, and perhaps one day I will find my way back to this special place, nestled near a waterhole, patiently waiting for whatever Africa has in mind.
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