The author and the ghost

Hunting the Midlands of KwaZulu-Natal during the last few seasons has been an amazing experience for me. The people of the region are warm and welcoming, and the countryside is stunning. Located in the interior of the KwaZulu-Natal Province, the Midlands is close to both Pietermaritzburg and the Drakensberg Mountain range. Many parts of the so-called Midlands Meander resemble the Northern European countryside, with their lush
green pastures on which milk- and cheese-producing cattle graze. Spread across this region are many species of European trees and bushes planted by the early English and Dutch settlers.

The week before my latest hunt I was sitting in traffic and decided to check the weather for the next week. As I opened the YR weather app my heart sank as I saw the weather forecast: rain, rain and more rain! I had been planning this hunt with Evan Couzens from Umziki Hunting Safaris for over a year. I had booked these dates specifically because it was a dark moon and almost at the end of the season. Therefore I did not expect rain to be a factor, and the dry weather would mean that food sources would be concentrated. However, as I quickly learned, the weather patterns in this amazing area changes hourly, and not daily!
Umziki Hunting Safaris, owned and operated by Evan Couzens, is based in the little town of Nottingham Road. Born in 1983, Evan grew up on a dairy and sugar-cane farm where his love for hunting and the outdoors began. Umziki Hunting Safaris was started in 2008 and Evan has been running the business for the past eleven years. He focuses on free-range hunting areas across the country. Umziki has some of the best hunting concessions in South Africa. If you are looking for African trophy perfection, this destination must be on your list.
A few days later I left a cold and clear Johannesburg and headed east towards KwaZulu-Natal with the magical Midlands as destination. This area had grown on me in the last few years and I had fallen in love with it. I went to the Midlands for three reasons: bush pig, bushbuck and common reedbuck. I have never hunted bush pig over bait before and from what I had heard and read, it seemed an amazing challenge. The poor man’s leopard hunt, I was told. I was hoping for a massive boar and the photos that Evan had been sending me of a boar that was visiting the bait frequently had my pulse

racing. He was massive in the shoulders and had a great pair of warts. However, this boar had been around the block and about a week before my arrival, he stopped visiting the bait.
I reached the Midlands just before lunch on the Thursday and met Evan at the hunting lodge. I unpacked and got settled in. Then, over a cup of coffee, we sat around the kitchen table discussing the strategy for the hunt. We had a lot to do and the weather wasn’t playing its part in this movie. It was cold and rainy and a perfect day to spend before a roaring fire, reading a book. Fortunately, as Evan put it: “At least the wind isn’t blowing, Mr Jennings. Pigs don’t mind the cold and rain but they do not like wind. If that changes, we are in for it.”
However, my luck was on the upside. Evan revealed that, after a week of not visiting, the boar had started hitting the bait again. It was now or never, and with the bad weather rolling in, we had a window of one night before the wind would change and the blind would be out of position.

The hunt for a Midlands monster
Our plan was to visit the bait just after lunch in order to put down some more feed and check the cameras for any activity. I wanted to see the setup and if I would be comfortable, so that if any adjustment had to be made, we could do it then and not when we started hunting. We wanted to be in and out quickly and leave as few human traces as possible behind. On reaching the bait, we saw that it had been eaten. There was nothing left – another good sign! The fortunate thing about baiting pigs is that they tend to stick to a certain time when they start feeding. This allows you to plan accordingly and not have to sit for hours, running the risk that you might spook them. According to Evan, this sounder of pigs usually came in between 18h30 and 19h30. The night before they had been at the bait by 19h30 and spent quite a while there. Evan checked the lights and I checked my position in the blind and the shooting lane, and everything was perfect. By then it was 14h00 and we wanted to be in the blind by 17h30, so we left the bait and headed back to the lodge.

View of the bait after the pigs had eaten

New bait under the red light

For me, that afternoon was one of the longest ever. I could not sit still, and I was in excitement overload. We checked my rifle and all systems were go for that night. I was using my trusty Remington Model 700 chambered in .30-06 Springfield. I have hunted a lot with this rifle and its performance amazes me every time. The rifle is fitted with a Steiner Ranger 4-16×56 mm riflescope with a 30 mm tube and the 4A-I illuminating reticle. The illuminating reticle helps me with the night hunting. In addition to this I had added ballistic controls to the turrets. This is a great help with distance shooting and after testing the setup on the range, I was confident in its capability up to about 400 m. My preferred choice in my .30-06 is a 165 gr bullet, leaving the barrel at 2 750 fps. This combination allows me exceptional groups up to 200 m and I really had confidence in this round and rifle setup.
Finally, the time came when we had to leave for the blind. The wind had picked up a bit and it was cold and misty. We were in the blind by 17h15 – and the wait started.
After several hours, my attention started to wander ­– but the snap of a twig brought me back from my dream. I was a bit confused at first as the direction of the sound was wrong. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up and all my senses went into overdrive as I try to figure out where the sound was coming from. Evan leaned over and said in a whisper so soft that I almost missed it: “Get ready! He’s coming!” The icy coldness of the night had numbed me from my neck down and sitting in one position for over four hours did not help either. I listened, straining every nerve, to catch another sound of the ‘ghost’ that was lurking just beyond the blind. In the complete darkness, the silence seemed even more acute.
The branches of the wattle trees above blocked out even the faintest starlight. Everything was perfect, the wind blew from the right direction and we had specifically picked the darkest part of the moon cycle when the moon would not be rising. We knew this ghost was old and very clever, and would not be fooled easily. The ghost knew this fortress of his like no-one or nothing else could.

Sitting in the blind just before dark, waiting for the ghost

Steiner Ranger and my .30-06 ready for action

View of the blind from the bait

Every tree and every rock he knew intimately, as he had been wandering the area for years. The best and fastest escape routes were imprinted on his mind. If anything was amiss, he would disappear effortlessly – changing his routine and area for the umpteenth time. We had tonight to make this work as the wind would be wrong the following day.

My concentration was complete as I stared at the bait that I couldn’t see. The pigs were eating by now and we could hear them clearly. Evan turned on the red light and at first it was only a small red dot above the bait. Very slowly he adjusted the strength and the backs of the feeding pigs came into view. I switched on the illuminating reticle on my Steiner Ranger, just in time to see the pigs being illuminated by the red light. “He is on the right,” whispered Evan, and at that moment the boar turned around and almost walked out of the light.
Everything froze, and the seconds ticked by slowly. A hundred questions went through my head. Did he hear or smell us? Would he come back? Then slowly the females started feeding again and the boar returned. He was facing me directly and I decided to try for a shot. Although not my preferred angle, the cross hairs settle between his eyes and I adjusted my aim a little for the shot.
I took in the slack of the trigger and the rifle kicked back into my shoulder. All hell broke loose and I lost sight of the boar. As everything went quiet, Evan slapped me on the back. “Well done, buddy, you got him!” I was not sure if he was down but Evan got up, and as I stood up, I could see the boar kicking right where he had been standing. I had dropped him in his tracks.
Walking up to the beast of a bush pig, I was lost for words. He was truly massive! Ugly and at the same time beautiful. We stood in silence for a few minutes, taking in the moment. A lot of hard work and preparation had gone into this hunt. And boy, was it worth it!

The ghost – dropped in his tracks

Next morning, I was up before dawn, waiting for the kettle to boil and wondering what the day would bring, when Evan walked into the kitchen. “Lovely morning,” he said jokingly, referring to the mist and rain outside. Not ideal weather for hunting common reedbuck! We drank our coffee in silence on the veranda and watched the rain pouring down. I suggested that we head out anyway in the hope that the sky might clear. I had a strong inkling that it would be a good day and for some strange reason, we were both rather excited about the day that lay ahead. Something just said tat the day would be special. Looking at the weather, however, I had my doubts.
We got our gear together and headed out to the hunting area. It was a 45-minute drive to the property and as we got closer the rain stopped. The earth was drenched and the vegetation was dripping wet with the life-giving water from above. We waited for a while in the hope that it would give us a break and that we might see something. Then the mist came rolling in over the hills and to say it was turning into a beautiful morning, would be understatement. The combination of the sun, mist, rain and the picturesque landscape made me feel as if we were hunting in the Rocky Mountains – just like in one of those Cabela ads. It was beautiful and we stopped just for a few minutes to ‘smell the roses’.

We will continue our exciting Midlands adventure in the next edition of AFRICA’S SPORTSMAN MAGAZINE. ASM

Evan and I with my bush pig