by Michael Arnold

Over pre-dinner beverages, Francois Rudman asked: “So, how many times have you hunted Africa?” “This is my first time,” I replied. I’ll give Francois credit, it would have been completely appropriate for him to follow up with: “Does insanity gallop in your family?!” Instead, he carried out a slight spit-take and asked bemusedly:
“You chose to hunt the vaal rhebok as your first African animal?”

This was one of many near-identical interactions, first between myself and my PH, Arnold Claassen, and subsequently with every PH and every client with previous African experience. Simply put, they thought there was something seriously off, maybe even pathological, reflected in my insistence – as a first-time African hunter – to hunt the South African Cape mountains for the ‘vaalie’– an animal that would likely require longer shots than I’d previously attempted, and even worse, would probably go no more than 50 pounds soaking wet, with a two-pound weight strapped to each hoof. But, as I explained at each successive inquisition, it wasn’t my fault. It was Craig Boddington’s. Apparently, he felt compelled to write the wonderful stories relating the challenge of hunting and the joy of collecting this strangely attractive pygmy antelope. The photos of his trophies showed the completely ridiculous bulbous nose and eyes, woolly coat and outrageously disproportional horns that seemed to be as long as the diminutive animal’s neck. For me, it was love at first sight.

The animal the author wanted most of all from his first African safari, though diminutive in size, was truly magnificent.

Rewind two days before my confessional with Francois, and I was leaving the fourth-oldest South African city, Graaff-Reinet. Regardless of how this choice of mine played out, I was in the middle of the Karoo, an area that reminded me of the Western US, with its wonderful high-desert feel, breathtaking sunrises and sunsets, but with bizarre animals and plants that kept my scientist’s inquisitiveness on full-burn. But what kept me humming (literally humming, just ask my longsuffering PH), was the question of what my first-ever African game animal sighting would be.

Just after entering the property where we would hunt, my humming stopped – there were blesboks with their rocking horse gallop heading in one direction, black wildebeest shaking their heads and launching out in another, followed by springbok and kudu that scattered like quail. I should mention that this property was not a managed game ranch. The animals came and went as they pleased. I would come to understand that the trophy quality of this plains game was nowhere near that on the 100 000+ acres of the main Blaauwkrantz Safaris property situated about two hours to the south and east, but I couldn’t have been more captivated if I had been viewing a herd of unicorns.

The author mounted a 4 – 14 x 56 Nightforce SHV scope on his 7mm Remington Magnum, specifically because of the predicted distances of the shots at vaal rhebok – distances that frankly terrified him!

The author continually found himself looking for pronghorn antelope as he and his PH, Arnold Claassen, took their early morning drive through the Karoo landscape.

Two hours later found Arnold and me retracing our trip into one of the many valleys bordered by perfect vaal rhebok habitat; though you could not prove it by the lack of sightings. Arnold was looking for the narrow track that would allow entry into the next valley. I asked Arnold if he was concerned that we had not yet seen the object of our search. He didn’t sound too worried, but he did express that he had seen more on the last hunt in this area. For the umpteenth time, I was questioning whether my decision to pursue this animal as my first African trophy reflected an Ahab-esque compulsion. Of course, Moby Dick at least had a substantially larger bulk to help in spotting and harpooning.
As we moved over the rough terrain, I stared to the front, not paying much attention to the surrounding landscape. Suddenly, Arnold stopped, grabbed his binoculars and hissed: “There’s your buck!” As I came out of my trance, I saw movement on the slope to our right. Arnold got the rest ready, peered through his binoculars / rangefinder and announced: “He’s 248 yards.” Rock steady, I got onto the diminutive buck, held just behind his shoulder and … pulled the shot low. Fortunately, I was chambering a cartridge as I came down from the recoil. The animal had run further up the rocky slope and by the time I acquired the target once again, Arnold announced: “Now at 285 yards.”. Once again I was rock steady prior to firing, but this time I managed to pull to the right of the animal’s chest.
In the Southeast United States, we have a saying that when a major correction needs to occur in a person’s attitudes or actions, they are taken aside by a friend or family member and forced to have a ‘Come-to-Jesus’ session. (Unfortunately, this would not be the last of these sessions needed on my safari.) As I came out of the recoil for a second time and heard Arnold’s “You missed to the right!”, I went into an intervention with myself that would have made a heroin addict blanch. Over the next several seconds I convinced myself to settle down, breath and, now that the vaalie was 325 yards out, make the sight adjustment (2 inches above his backline and just behind his shoulder). Once again, I lost the animal in the recoil, but this time when I recovered the rhebok had disappeared. I managed to croak: “What happened?” The response: “He went over the ridge”, hit like a hammer. I guess Arnold could see something in my eyes, and decided he didn’t want his client committing suicide on the first hunting day. So he added: “Your third shot hit him hard.”
As I shouldered my pack, I could not help thinking that I had blown my one and only chance at my dream animal. But as we climbed up out of the valley, Arnold kept assuring me that we would find the vaalie. To pass the time between my wheezes, I told Arnold that I had never seen the horns and, for the first time, I asked him if it was a big vaalie. He reminded me that he would rather I go home without a specimen than collect an average trophy. And he also reminded me that I had agreed to abide by his code. (Since Arnold had previously played rugby, there was little likelihood that I would NOT abide by any code he suggested!)

Typical Karoo landscape

Arnold Claassen seems as happy as the author – especially after watching the vaalie nearly escape!

Because I was attempting to keep both of my lungs in my chest cavity, Arnold topped out on the ridge before me. As I came up, he was already kneeling down beside the animal I had come so far – both in time and distance – to obtain. I hardly noticed the splashes of heart blood from the destruction of the buck’s aorta by the 175 gr Nosler Partition from my 7mm Remington Magnum. My eyes instead took in … the completely ridiculous bulbous nose and eyes, woolly coat and outrageously disproportional horns that seemed to be as long as the diminutive animal’s neck. The horns aren’t, in fact, as long as the buck’s neck, but at 8½ and 8¾ inches in length, with bases of 2½ inches, the little guy actually places well in the SCI Record Book of Animals. Not too shabby for the Strangest Client, regardless of the fact that the successful outcome hinged on a ‘Come-to-Jesus’ intervention. ASM

The perfect end to the collection of the author’s vaal rhebok: Arnold and farmworker, James, prepare a South African braai.

Arnold and farm manager, Karl, seem to be discussing where the ‘really large’ vaalies hang out!