A Drilling in Africa
As jy n Vlakvark sien, brand hom!" ("If you see a warthog, burn him!") With this remark, my host, Willie Smuts, dropped me off at one end of a dirt track cutting through the thorny brush of the soetveld (sweet-grass) country of the North West Province of South Africa. I popped a pair of royal-blue 16-gauge Eley shells and a single 8x57R cartridge into my vintage German Drilling and slung the gun over my shoulder. I then moved into position and awaited the signal to move in on the large flock of guinea fowl feeding in the nearby alfalfa crop circle-an emerald-green mirage through the screen of acacia thorn and golden grass of late winter.
My colleagues, unseen, were positioned around the cultivated land in an effort to outfox the hundred-strong flock of guineas. Our strategy was to move forward, constricting the circle in an unusual tactic known as the "Natal Surround" -so named for the province where it was devised. Once the birds are trapped, fast and furious shooting ensues as they flush over the ring of guns. Blue-sky rules are in effect, requiring muzzles to be pointed skyward at all times, and of course low shots bring the risk of exclusion from the rest of the hunt.
The area we were hunting is home to a variety of gamebirds, including guinea fowl, three species of francolin and three species of doves. Taking advantage of endless sunshine and good groundwater, pivot irrigation is employed to raise crops of potatoes, pumpkins and alfalfa amid the acacia thorn scrub. Local practices and soil conditions dictate that each circle be left fallow for three years following a crop, providing weedy cover for birds. In addition the varied terrain combined with the geometry of circles ensures good cover in the irregular strips and blocks of brush between the croplands.
Free-ranging kudu, impalas, bushbucks, warthogs, bushpigs, Steenbok and duiker are commonly sighted while hunting birds. Predators include African wildcats, caracals, jackals and hyenas. There are also very large high-fenced ranches in the area with a huge variety of big game, including Cape buffalo. This combination of fine wingshooting, plains game and high-fenced properties adds up to a true sportsman's paradise. And because of the altitude, the area is malaria-free.
Helmeted guinea fowl are notoriously wary birds with long necks and sharp eyes. They are larger than any North American gamebird except the turkey. Guineas have red-and-blue wattled heads with bony spurs, or "helmets," and distinctive hump-backed profiles covered in charcoal feathers with white spots. They are common throughout South Africa, and thanks to good rains in the spring of 2006, unusually large flocks of 50 to 250 birds were everywhere last year.
When feeding in the open, guineas are almost impossible to approach. If a hunter attempts to get close, the flock will begin a chattering alarm call and soon will run for cover. Any attempt to outrun the birds will result in them accelerating or flushing wild into the nearest brush. Once in thick brush, they are more apt to sit tight, especially if the flock has been broken up; this often allows the Guns a second go at the birds.
Typically, guineas feed in planted, plowed or fallow lands in the morning and late afternoon and seek the shade of brush during the heat of the day. Hunting them is thus a group effort, requiring either surrounding them or employing beaters in open country and using pincer movements or walk-up drives in the brush. Dogs are almost never used, because of the birds' tendency to run and the large numbers of birds in a flock-the only exception being in very heavy cover when a scattered flock will hold long enough for pointing or flushing dogs to do their work. The most common shots are at low to moderately high birds passing overhead or at birds flushing out front. In windy conditions guineas can fly at duck-like speeds, and they are always hard to anchor. A stiff load of No. 4s or 5s (English shot, which runs a size smaller than American) is the wise choice.
Where guineas are found, francolin, or spurfowl, are also often present. There are several subspecies, including Swainson's (which were the most common in the area we were hunting), grey-winged (which prefer mountainous habitat like our chukar) and Natal and crested (which are also found d in the soetveld). In local parlance these birds are all called "fisant" (pheasant), although they resemble a large partridge and possess similar speed and acceleration. Unlike guineas, francolin sit tight and often will flush from ground recently covered after the guns are broken and the shooters are comparing notes at the end of a beat. They provide excellent sport, offering fast, high overhead and crossing shots. Many hunters pursue them exclusively over pointing dogs, a truly grand sporting experience. A one-ounce load of No. 6s or 7s (English shot) is adequate, although many birds are taken with No. 5s and 4s by guinea fowl hunters. The francolin is considered one of the world's finest gamebirds, and as a hunter who has taken guineas, pheasants, grouse, tinamou (Argentine perdiz), chukar, quail and various waterfowl, I wholeheartedly agree.
On this recent hunt a dozen or so Guns hunting about three hours in the morning and two in the afternoon took both guineas and francolin in large numbers. In two days 237 birds were recovered, with about 60 percent being guineas. Of course a number of birds were hit but not recovered, due to the thick thorny brush. And many francolin were passed up. Often while moving into position on a flock of guineas, Guns were instructed not to fire on flushing francolin, to avoid alerting the ever-moving masses of guineas. Once the first shots were fired, however, any birds were fair game, and it wasn't uncommon to trap francolin in the same circles as the guineas. Most of the francolin were taken while pushing abreast through strips of brush where flocks of guineas had sought cover after being flushed off of the croplands.
The constant action on bigger birds, the coordinated hunting tactics requiring periods of no shooting, and the "ho-hum" factor spared the plentiful Cape turtle doves and laughing doves. (The area's long-tailed Namaqua dove is protected.) A few hunters did shoot the diminutive quail during walk-up sessions, but these are so tiny that one often regrets the act once the bird is brought to hand.
A typical maneuver begins with hunters driving the sandy farm roads until a flock of guineas is located-often with binoculars. In the mornings and afternoons the birds are almost always in the croplands. The hunters then park their vehicles and gather for a quick strategy session. Most times the vehicles are left out of sight, and the Guns are loaded onto two pickups (known as "bakkies," or little trucks) to move closer. Then lines are "pulled" through the brush. This entails everyone setting off in single file in a specific trajectory, with hunters dropping off every 50 to 60 yards. Often the young and fit take the end of the line, with the experienced hunters dropping off first. Sometimes the two or three point guns have to run to cut off an escaping flock.
While this is going on, a second line is forming on the opposite side to meet up with the first, or sometimes just a few Guns approach openly from the opposite side of the field to flush the birds toward the waiting Guns. Two-way radios are used to coordinate the groups. When the trap is set, the circle is closed, or the flushing Guns show themselves and advance toward the standing Guns. The birds usually flush in waves, with a few nervous individuals flying first, then the majority making their escape, and finally the diehards flush in twos and threes-sometimes when the circle is closed to 50 yards or less. This calls for fast shooting at birds flying directly toward the shooters.
Once the birds are out of the circle, the mopping up begins. The Guns sweep through strips or patches of brush where birds have been seen taking cover. At this point francolin are fair game, and the shooting is now at birds going away. This second phase of the hunt is usually more productive than the first because the birds are scattered and won't flush en masse. Although on our trip most hunting was done without dogs, a pair of black Labs was on hand to find lost birds, and we did employ an English pointer when working francolin in the brush-a truly delightful thing to behold.
One evening just as it was getting dark, our convoy of four vehicles was returning to base when we drove past a field of harvested millet full of birds. Our vehicle was in the lead and quickly turned onto the road that encircled the field. The rest of the vehicles followed, and soon we were speeding clockwise and counterclockwise around the nervous birds. In about 45 seconds the vehicles were positioned and parked, and two or three hunters were piling out of each, stuffing shells into their guns and rushing to fill the gaps. As this was happening, the birds were flying for cover. It was dark enough that long tongues of flame could be seen as the Guns opened up and birds began falling. It was an amazing spectacle in the African bush.
My own "memorable moments" included some wonderfully satisfying high crossing shots on francolin, the most gratifying being those where the bird already had dodged a left and right (or under and over) from a colleague in the line; an evening push through the brush where I took one flank in a bull's-horn maneuver and dumped five guineas with six shots as the blood-red sun sank below the horizon; a pair of fast and high guineas that flushed overhead when the circle was down to 50 yards; a left and right on two very fast francolin that flushed behind the circle of Guns and flew toward a patch of brush where I was searching for a downed guinea; and an evening drive where I took a francolin, then a guinea, and then a high crossing francolin in the final moments of the hunt.
In addition to taking a satisfying number of birds, I was able to put my Drilling to use on plains game later in the trip. On the first morning of a three-day hunt, I took a very good blue wildebeest bull with a leg injury that looked to have resulted from a fight with another bull. A careful stalk put me within 75 yards of the old brindled bull, and he went down to a single heart shot (a good thing, as a Drilling is slow to reload, due to the need to open it almost 270 degrees to access the rifle barrel). On the final day I dropped a nice impala ram at around 150 yards. Feeling rather satisfied at this performance, I was amazed to see the ram get up and run off as we approached. After some tracking and maneuvering, we found him again about a half-mile away, grazing with two of his buddies as if nothing had happened. A second shot to the shoulder anchored him, and we later noted that the first shot had passed above the vitals and below the spine, knocking him off of his feet temporarily but causing neither death nor (apparently) discomfort. On the final day we also saw seven kudu bulls, including two exceeding 50 inches, but I did not attempt a shot as one already adorns my trophy room wall.
The true test of the quality of a hunt is its aftertaste. Too often the reality of a trip fails to live up to the pre-departure fantasy. This hunt was one of those golden experiences where the reality surpassed the fantasy-the ambience of the African bushveld, warm camaraderie around the coals of an acacia-wood fire, memorable scenery, brawny birds bursting into the air, and feathers floating in the sky as birds fall to the red earth.
See you in the soetveld.
Author's Note: For those wishing to sample the soetveld experience, a six-day hunt, including up to two days of plains-game hunting taken in pairs in rotation, is being offered for the 2008 season (May to September). Groups of six or more Guns pay $1,800 each, inclusive of airport transfers, meals, lodging, vehicles, guides, dogs, refreshments in the field and trespass fees. A "no frills" version of this hunt, conducted from a comfortable tented camp with hot shower and flush toilet is available for $1,200 per Gun. For more information, contact wsmuts@network retailing.com.
Russ Gould owns and operates Doublegun hq.com, an online marketplace dedicated to fine doubles. He also arranges hunting safaris for clients to Southern Africa as well as Argentina.
- By: Russ Gould