Story by Dan Mortensen-Campfire Stories
Dan and Rusty with Dan’s trophy Kudu
All too often, I find that some of the very best experiences in my life only happen once in a blue moon, or in many cases, only once. From the gift of children, to a first buck, to fishing with grandpa that last time. As so it is with hunting. I often wonder if some of the places I see will ever be visited by me again–whether it be a secluded treestand in the depths of some dark swamp, to the auburn tundra of northern Alaska in August. After bringing my CVA Apex to Africa in 2012, I had to ask myself the question–”Would I ever set foot here again?”. And so, when my friends at Fig Tree Safaris asked me to return in 2013, I couldn’t possibly let that question be unanswered.
As I wrote about earlier last year, my trusty Apex rifle in .270/.50 cal traveled with me to take a number of plains game species. It performed flawlessly, but I knew my caliber selection should be expanded if I was to return. A .270 is wonderful for small to medium sized game on any continent, at ranges up to 400 yards. But in this part of South Africa, especially at Fig Tree Safaris, shots rarely range over 100 yards, and the thick thorny brush makes for some challenging hunting conditions. For my return trip, I added a new Apex barrel to my collection- a .45-70 gov’t. Although factory loads for this 45-70 are somewhat anemic, handloads (especially in the 25″ Bergara barrel) are ‘lights out” on large game. Capable of nearly 3,500 ft pounds of energy or more, the modern .45-70 loads are perfect for short range, dense brush conditions.
One of the most beautiful, and iconic critters lurking in the shadows of the South African bushvelt is the Kudu. Appropriately titled “the grey ghost,” the Kudu is one of the most skittish and reclusive of the plains game species. With a body size roughly equivalent to an elk, and with long spiraling horns of 5′ or more, the Kudu may be the pinnacle of the plains game species. After 5 days of hunting at Fig Tree Safaris, it was obvious that it was going to be a challenge to get one on the ground, as we had yet to lay eyes on one. Whether it be years of a devastating drought or the abnormally windy conditions, the Kudu had eluded us the whole trip.
I had “conned” my best friend from college Rusty Byrd into joining me on this African adventure, and after he had “tagged out” on his hunt package, I shoved a video camera in his hand and begged him to follow me the last few days. My PH (Professional Hunter) Gert Brits, made the command decision to expand our already 20,000 acre + hunting grounds to a new piece of property a few miles farther to the east. This property had more open areas of grass, but denser areas of brush than our previous hunting grounds.
About a mile down the dusty trail, the Land Crusier’s brakes halted the vehicle suddenly. From the edge of the brush, and no more than 50 yards away, three Kudu bulls stood bug eyed at the three hunters scrambling around in the back of the truck. In fact from the looks of the property we were on, we may have been the first humans these critters had seen in weeks—maybe months. But there was no doubt in our minds that the Kudu knew exactly who we were and what we were up to. In a matter of seconds, the three bulls vanished as quickly as they had materialized. The red African dust drifted slowly from the once occupied opening, then quickly vanished as a sudden gust of wind burst past the truck and into the open space.
Gert knew this area well, and it didn’t take long to circle downwind of where the creatures had vanished. Banking on the theory that the vehicle may not have spooked them terribly far, and that the dense brush offered them security, Gert picked a nearby trail downwind from their location, and pulled over. We jumped off the truck, and with a skeptical look on his face, Gert warned Rusty and I that a Kudu’s ears are extremely large, and that we could make absolutely no noise. As the sun worked low on the horizon, we anticipated the animals would start to feed, breaking branches to retrieve the leaves, and giving us the advantage of being able to hear them first–if we stayed silent.
For the remaining two hours of the afternoon, we stalked, making a zig-zag pattern into the wind. The brush seemed devoid of any creatures at all. Several times we cut Kudu tracks, but wind direction demanded we continued on our obscure route. Just as the sun hit the horizon, we were alerted to a disturbance in the brush in front of us. Deep in the middle of this expanse of thicket, a family of warthog was rooting in the dirt. Although only 40 yards away, only flashes of hairy hides and feet were visible.
And then there came another sound. Crack. Crunch crunch. Crack. Gert’s eyes widened a bit when he turned to us, and I could already tell what it was. He didn’t need to say a word as the look on his face told Rusty and I exactly what had made that noise. We still didn’t dare move as any movement at this point before locating the animals exactly could be disastrous. The wind had calmed to a standstill, offering us no cover noise to continue through the thicket. After what seemed like an eternity, Gert slowly reached out to me with his left arm, grabbed my shirtsleeve and tugged me towards him, while at the same time, pointing at our 2 o’clock. It was the biggest of the Kudu bulls, and I could tell by the look on his face, it was larger than most. The 5′ tall spiraled horns were all that was visible at first. As the beast lifted his head up to strip a branch, Gert and I sidestepped again about 6′ to a slight opening in the brush. Now, I could see his head and neck, at about 45 yards. The Apex slowly topped onto the shooting sticks that Gert had so quietly pre-arranged. By the time I got him in the crosshairs, his head and neck had disappeared back into the brush, exposing his shoulder, and with the direction he was headed, that shoulder wasn’t going to be visible for much longer.
The brush line was covering the bottom 1/3 of the animal, and this was going to be a tricky shot, and my time was running out on this window. I knew my Apex was a tack driver, even with the large .45 caliber loads, and I knew that 300 gr Nosler Partition could do the job–as long as I was able to avoid the brush.
Instinctively I centered the crosshairs behind the shoulder, and aimed a bit higher than normal, but well within the animals vital region. I can’t say I remember the sound of the shot, or the feel of the Crushzone recoil pad pound into my shoulder, but I’ll never forget the sight of that animal literally flying through the brush. Bounding over 6′ bushes with ease, the Kudu would appear, and vanish much like a 800 lb jackrabbit–except these bushes were taller than I was. His horns were laid back along his sleek grey body as he gracefully disappeared into one final swirl of thorny limbs. The brush all around us was alive with unseen creatures dashing for safety, but the sound of my bull stood out over the rest. As things calmed down, the silence was preceded by one large final “crash”.
The bull had disappeared a little too gracefully for my liking, and our sneak to where the Kudu stood may have been the longest 40 yards of my life. A spot of blood confirmed my bullet had connected. In fact, for the first time in all the African game I have seen shot, this animal was actually leaving a good blood trail. Light for the first few leaps, it quickly developed into a red carpet of dark red blotches in the sand and on the bushes.
Less than 100 yards later, Gert turned to Rusty and I with a big grin. “Congratulations Dan, that is a HUGE Kudu bull.” Rusty and I silently walked up to without a doubt one of the most magnificent creatures either of us had ever seen. Upon investigation, my bullet had not completely cleared the brush after all. The 300 gr partition, somewhere in that 45 yards, had separated in two equal size portions. One portion had zipped completely through the 800 lb animal, while the other one had landed within 3 inches and had also done significant damage. I looked at my Apex, and that gaping .45 caliber hole in the end of the barrel, and breathed a sigh of thanks—and relief. You can bet that this barrel will be following me on all my close range hunts from now on.
As the three of us marveled at this animal, and loaded it into the back of the truck, the top of the sun was just disappearing below the horizon. As we made our way back to camp, under the dark, cloudless South African sky, the stars twinkled above me as we pulled off the trail onto the pavement. Somewhere inside I wondered if I would ever be down this trail again. A twinge of sadness was quickly replaced with a new realization that it would not matter. There are more adventures with good friends, thickets, and creatures awaiting in the future. And the anticipation of those experience is as good as the memory of them.
CVA Apex in Africa with Dan Mortensen