I can clearly remember the bitter cold of that Karoo morning on the back of the truck. There were 15 of us, piled into every available square inch. As the Toyota sped away gaining momentum over the many kilometers of dirt road, I picked up the familiar smell of Balbal’s tobacco. I watched him crush the raw tobacco in the palm of his hand before tearing off a piece of news paper, and rolling a flawless cigarette. He leant over, lit it, and sat back to enjoy a small ritual we’d all become accustomed to.
We had been in this situation many times before. We had seen him do the same thing over and over, before taking on the same Vaal Rhebuck. That Vaal Rhebuck had been stalked, beaten, chased and even shot at by many a hunter on numerous occasions, but still he survived. He had read each hunt like a playbook, at times toiling with us as if he were making a mockery of us.
Balbal, our Bushmen tracker, for one believed the ram possessed special powers that protected it from all forms of danger that man could throw at it. For a 6-year-old boy, his story certainly captured my imagination.
It was only the following year, 1990, that I finally lay eyes on the ram we had been hunting for, for over 4 years. We were distraught finding him dead like that, lifeless and motionless, when the only memory we had of him was his white tail disappearing over the next horizon, only to skunk another hunter with his agility and ability to escape from the trickiest of situations.
It was obvious – the drought of ’89 had got the better of him.
That Vaal Rhebuck had captured my imagination for life. In some respect, he’d been the culprit for many of my firsts as a young hunter. He had provided my first mountain hunt, my first frustration of failure, my first feelings of anxiety to succeed, and my first real “want”. He carried the magical 10’’ horns that all Vaal Rhebuck hunters dream of, but rarely ever see. He had outsmarted my father and beaten us to his resting. He lit a fire inside of me that I still carry with me to this day.
Early October 2010. My nerves were killing me. Ed Wilson had called that morning. He had found one. I felt like jumping into the Land Cruiser and heading north immediately. I needed to see this Vaal Rhebuck myself. We were both excited for about a day, and then the anxiety set in. Would the ram make it through the summer without being killed by another, and could we find him again in 2011? Season 2010 was a thing of the past, the waiting had begun……..
January 2011 finally rolled along. I was at Safari Club when our old friend Brett Nelson stepped into the booth with a cold beer in his hand. Brett had been on 5 previous hunts to John X Safaris. He has hunted every available specie in the East Cape, yet he returns year after year. Season 2011 would be his 6threturn trip and a Vaal Rhebuck was at the top of his list. I knew Brett well enough to know that I could mention the monster without any regrets. If the ram was still there in March, then great. If not, we’d still have a blast and go hunting!
March 2011 – Brett and his group had arrived safely and were hunting from our Coastal Area, before heading north. Brett and good friend, Jeff Edland, together with Professional Hunters, Carl van Zyl and Ed Wilson, had set their hopes on the mountains.
We set out early that first morning, glassing the ridgelines and the many sheltered valleys and cliffs. The first group of Vaalies was spotted at 7am, a young ram with 6 females. As the morning continued, so did our climb onto the higher ridges of the Stormberg Range. We must have glassed over 70 Vaal Rhebuck before calling in for lunch. A quick bite and we were off again, the tension levels were running high; we were fast approaching the valley where the big ram was last spotted.
We crept to the edge and peered over, keeping our bodies as close to the ground as possible. Vaal Rhebuck poses the most amazing eyesight and they have the ability to know that you’re there before you even know it yourself. At first – nothing. We glassed every bush, every tuft of grass, just as we were about to give up, Boy whistled off to our left. He’d spotted them.
The group was tucked away under a shady ledge above the valley floor. Within minutes they started rising, one by one, feeding directly towards us. Ed and I crept further forward and set up the spotting scope. At first we weren’t convinced, he was feeding with his head down and facing us head on. He turned, lifted his head, and in an instant we knew it was our ram.
Crawling back to the rest of the guys, even lower than before, we confirmed our find with the group.” We’ll have to have our wits about us”, Ed started. He had thought about his plan long before Brett’s arrival and had a meticulous strategy worked out for every possible situation. Our plan was to sit tight until the Vaalies had fed to within 500 yards, only then would Brett, Ed and I, start our slow descent towards them. The sun would be directly at our back, while the shadow of the valley provided some much wanted cover.
After an hour we felt it was time to move, the setting sun was moving quicker than expected. Staying low, hugging each other as much as possible and keeping our formation as best we could. We finally reached our predetermined spot and rested, Ed and I dared looking up for a second. They were still there – relaxed. We signaled for Brett to take up the prone position on a tuft of grass and to steady himself on the animal feeding off to the far right. I glanced over at Ed; he smiled and gave me a nod. I had worked so hard at achieving this with my dad, but never had the opportunity to be along whenever he bumped into a monster Vaal Rhebuck. Then Ed and I had been at it for another 8 years, always pushing each other to find “that” ram. Here we were – with “THAT” ram.
Brett squeezed off his 7 mag.
That evening we celebrated well into the night, reliving the events from the days hunt and basking in the glory of success. At 12.30 we called it a night, the next day was Jeff’s turn. The stakes had been set high and the mountains were even higher…..
At first light we headed directly west, away from the area where we’d hunted Brett’s monster the day before. Ed had scouted a bunch of Vaalies with one particular area catching his attention more than any of the others. Within minutes of arriving we spotted our first group.
Throughout the rest of the day we spotted a host of other groups and the usual high concentration of Mountain Reedbuck. Towards the early afternoon we noticed a storm approaching from the north, a strange occurrence for that particular area. We hoped that the approaching storm would drive the animals into a feeding frenzy, and allow us to spot the ram that Ed had seen on a previous occasion.
As the rain started dripping Boy spotted 2 Vaal Rhebuck a mile off. They had just stood up, possibly relocating from their resting spot to take shelter from the storm. I picked them up in the spotting scope, the ram looked very good, but I was puzzled to why such a big ram would have only one female with him. Never the less, we had a ram to hunt.
We started our stalk immediately; it would be a long one, all the time hoping that the heavy down poor would give us the required cover for the first 500 yards of open country. It worked. We crested the plateau cutting up from the plain and followed its contour, sticking to the edge. Approaching the final valley we dropped to our knees and started crawling. The Vaal Rhebuck would be lying down, sheltering from the rain. It would make it harder to spot them, but at least they’d stay put. As best we could, we glassed and glassed, not spotting a thing. Then I saw them, watching us, not sure if they should take on the rain or stay to watch the strange creatures crawling around in the rocks above them. I tried steadying Jeff onto a rock, but the movement was just too much. The Vaalies were off, running directly to where we had left Ed and Brett.
Through all the commotion, they’d run straight to our original position and bedded down. Brett and Ed had front row seats to both Vaalies no more than 200 yards below them, oblivious to the danger that loomed. Jeff and I circled back around and took up our position next to Ed.
So the question that all will be asking: “Did Brett’s Vaal Rhebuck reach the magical 10’’ mark and how big was Jeff’s?”
No it didn’t. We could tell the story in as many ways as we like, but we missed it by a 1/8 of an inch. Jeff’s ram came in at a whopping 8 3/8’’, making for a fantastic trophy in its own right.
Would it really have made a difference to the hunt, the excitement of the buildup, and ultimately the entire experience? For the men involved it was not about what the tape would finally score or what the book would rank. It was about the camaraderie we shared and the opportunity of a dream.
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