by Laurence Jennings | Part 5 – Sharpe’s grysbok
Raphicerus sharpei is considered by most hunters to be the most difficult species to obtain in the quest for the Tiny Ten. This shy little antelope has eluded some of the most dedicated hunters I know and has resulted in them needing several trips to finally harvest their trophy. I’m referring to the Sharpe’s grysbok, or northern grysbok, that is found in the northern regions of Southern Africa. Hunting both grysbok species back to back wasn’t planned but it sure made for some great stories around the campfire. Join me for the 5th part of this series in my quest for Sharpe’s grysbok in the mountains of Louis Trichardt, hunting with Lianga Safaris.
This small and very elusive antelope is found in the northern parts of Limpopo, the Caprivi Strip in Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania up to Lake Victoria. Sharpe’s grysbok, or sharpies, as they are referred to, are closely related to the Cape grysbok that you will find in the Eastern and Western Cape regions.
In 2017 Clifford Williamson from Savuti Taxidermy called me and to say that he had contacted Herman Scheepers from Lianga Safaris in Louis Trichardt, Limpopo Province. Herman had two permits available for the year and Cliff asked me if I would be interested in joining him to hunt Sharpe’s grysbok. I still had not yet hunted a sharpie and knowing that permits are limited, there was only one answer – and so our hunt was booked for 2017.
After several months of dreaming and reading up on Sharpes, suddenly the hunt was only a week away. I was nervously excited because I knew the success rate in harvesting one of these beautiful antelopes was very low. On the weekend before the hunt, I realized that it would be full moon during the hunt. This, as you know, is not a great time of the month to hunt, especially an animal that is extremely nocturnal, like grysbok. I called Herman to ask him about our chances of success with the full moon and if we shouldn’t move the hunt to a later date.
To successfully hunt a Sharpe’s grysbok is already difficult in the best of conditions and I wanted to maximise my chances. Due to work commitments, Clifford would not be able to hunt with us. After my conversation with Herman, during which he told me: “Laurence, on the best days it is very difficult to successfully hunt a sharpie,” I decided we might as well give it a try.
As with the Cape grysbok, the Sharpe’s grysbok is nocturnal and most trophy rams are hunted at night. Because they are so shy and elusive, they only start grazing at night, under the cover of darkness, and spend the daytime in well-hidden hide-outs. One hunts them at night with a spotlight. This is a very controversial way of hunting but what I have experienced on both my grysbok hunts, is that the light doesn’t affect them as with other game. It is not just about showing up, finding a grysbok and shooting it. Both my grysbok hunts have been extremely difficult and the most challenging hunts mentally to date. Grysbok are extremely tough to hunt during daylight, and most hunters that harvest one during these hours, stumble upon them rather than seeking them out.
As soon as they see the light, they start moving off into the darkness and on finding a gap, which is usually seconds after you spot them, they disappear. Keep in mind that the terrain on which you hunt sharpies is usually thick bushveld with a lot of thorn bushes and undergrowth. They prefer habitats that can be described as hard veld, within rocky hill country. However, they do prefer the fertile zones on the lower slopes of these areas. These nocturnal browsers spend the day in the protective cover of tall grass or shrubs and a hunter has very limited visibility in these conditions. Sightings are usually less than 15 m in this dark underworld of thorn and grass. Sharpies are so small and agile that they can use the smallest of openings and paths to manoeuvre undetected and unhindered in this tangled undergrowth.
Our hunt took place on the slopes of the Soutpans-berg Mountain range in the Louis Trichardt area. For me the distribution of the grysbok was very interesting. The grysbok in this area tend to keep to the rocky lower slopes of the mountains and prefer certain valleys and properties. Some valleys might have grysbok and yet the next valley won’t. The same applies to the properties in this area – some have Sharpe’s grysbok and some don’t. It is as if somebody drew an imaginary line and only placed grysbok in certain pockets, spread across the valleys and mountains.
The Sharpe’s grysbok is slightly smaller than the Cape grysbok. Standing 500 mm at the shoulders, sharpies weigh, on average, about 8 kg. They are sensitive to changing weather patterns and when a wind picks up unexpectedly or the temperature drops suddenly, they tend to disappear. Sharpies have a rich, rufous-coloured (reddish-brown) coat, which is streaked with white hairs that give them the greyish appearance. Only the rams carry horns. They have relatively large territories and a hunter will usually encounter them on their own, but males and females do form brief associations for breeding purposes. This was evident on the hunt, as we only saw three animals, and on every occasion the animal was on its own. The Sharpe’s grysbok has an off-white ring around the eyes and mouth, and this white colouring continues all the way down the throat and the underside of the antelope.
The short neck and face are set on a long-legged body and this results in a high-rump posture when the animal is browsing. Because of their habitat the food is typically hard and tough. A really awesome aspect of sharpies is that their jaws and teeth structure is designed for this type of browsing. In the dry season they mostly browse on leaves, young shoots of shrubs and bushes, seedpods and fruits, but they will browse on planted crops when available. Like the Cape grysbok they use a communal latrine and mark sticks in its vicinity with pre-orbital gland secretions. Single lambs are born after a gestation period of seven months but because of its secretive nature, very little has been recorded of these animals’ habits.
Leaving Johannesburg a bit later than expected, I only reached Lianga Safaris at about 15h00. There I met Herman and Annette Scheepers, who run this operation just outside Louis Trichardt. I put on my hunting clothes in record time and tossed some biltong and sweets in my backpack, for which I would be very grateful later on. Grabbing my rifle in the one hand and shoes in the other, we headed off to the range to check my zero. It was a bit of a drive to the hunting area and Herman wanted to get there just before sundown to set up everything for the hunt before it was dark. My first shot on the range confirmed that my rifle was ready and we headed off to the property where we would be hunting.
Scenic view of the hunting area
Calibre selection on the small antelopes is always one for great debates. You need something that will kill the animal fast but will not destroy the cape. My hardware for this hunt would be my CZ .375 H&H, using hand loads of 270 gr Peregrine at 2 575 fps. This calibre has great knock-down power, which is ideal because, believe me, it is no fun crawling into the thick undergrowth looking for a small wounded animal. Don’t get me wrong, shot placement is still the most important aspect here, as a bad shot is still a bad shot, but it is unbelievable how tough these small guys can be. The .375 with a solid performs really well on these small antelopes, and it only punches a small .375 diameter hole in the animal. There is no damage at all to the cape, and it gives the hunter a little more room for error.
We reached the property that was on the southern slope of the mountain just before darkness fell. The previous season’s rainfall had been good and the grass and sekelbos were extremely thick. As soon as it was dark, the moon started to rise. It was a beautiful sight and it was so light that you could see the surrounding terrain and roads without any artificial lights. For the next six hours we scoured the property, without seeing a grysbok. The roads here are those typical mountain property roads with lose rocks and gravel, and you are constantly driving against some kind of slope. The roads hadn’t been maintained after the last rain and were washed out in some places and extremely uneven. It was just after 0h00 when Herman suggested we head over the mountain to another property.
This property was very large, consisting of several thousand hectares. The roads here were much better and we started at the northern end, working our way south. Several hours later, during the early morning, it started to get cold and, combined with the little sleep and the continuous driving, my thoughts started to wander. It was a struggle to stay awake and the moment you lose your concentration, the bakkie (pickup truck) would drive over a rock and the railings, slamming into your ribs, would shock you back to reality, really fast! At about 04h20 we saw a grysbok ewe for a split second, and at about 05h30 Herman suggested that we should head back to camp.
After getting a few hours’ sleep, we headed out again in the late afternoon to a new area on the northern side. Reaching the property at around 17h00, Herman suggested we try a new tactic. The full moon would make it possible to move around the property at night and with flashlights we might be able to pick up a grysbok. Herman and I walked to the far end of the property on an old road, which was covered with loose rocks. We waited here until it was dark and slowly started walking back.
The property was in a valley and consisted of bush surrounding several planted fields. On both sides were mountain slopes with thick undergrowth and a lot of rocks of all shapes and sizes. Our strategy was to use the bush on the edge of the fields to walk in and examine the fields with our flashlights.
The rocky road refered to in the texta
At the corner of one field, we spotted a pair of eyes right on the edge but still in the bush. Picking up the pace, we crossed the field and walked straight towards the last spot where we had seen the eyes. Herman told me to get ready as we closed the distance and all of a sudden there was a grysbok in a clearing, about 20 m away from me. I took aim at the grysbok – my heart was beating really fast – and then I saw that it was an ewe.
Herman wanted to try another field not too far away. It was about 21h30 and my body and mind were on autopilot. We were heading towards the other field and as we were about to leave, we saw movement ahead. We realised it was a grysbok. It ran over a road and disappeared into the bushes. Herman said: “That looked like a nice ram. Follow him, Laurence.” I started stalking the grysbok that was now walking straight away from me, deeper into the bush. Every now and then I would see a glimpse of him but he didn’t give me any chance at a shot. He was angling away from me to the left and I saw there was a bit of an opening ahead of the ram. If I moved forward about 2 m, he could possibly provide me with a shot. By now the CZ was getting heavy, and not having a rest was going to make my shot even more difficult.
Taking a few steps forward, I saw that the opening that would give me a good view of the ram, if he crossed it. The ram stepped into it, quartering away to the left. The crosshairs of my telescope were bouncing all over the place and I took a deep breath. For a split second the crosshairs steadied and I saw that it was a good ram. I felt the slack in the trigger go out. At the shot, I lost sight of the ram in the recoil but as I recovered, I saw he was down and kicking. Running forward, I almost half jumped, half fell onto my Sharpe’s grysbok as I was scared he might jump up and run away. Later I discovered that the 270 gr Peregrine had entered just before the back leg and exited where the neck and shoulder joined. It only made two small holes with no damage to the cape of the animal at all.
Sitting in the dark next to my Sharpe’s grysbok, the emotions came rolling in. I had just harvested, in my opinion, the most challenging member of the Tiny Ten – and on my first attempt!
This was more special than anything else I could think of at that moment. Herman joined me and we shook hands as he congratulated me on my ram. I still struggle to find the words to convey my appreciation about this special hunt and, even more, this special animal. What an absolute privilege it is to be able to take part in this great sport of ours. We, as hunters, need to ensure that generations to come will be able to experience these special moments that only other dedicated hunters would understand. ASM