The spice of life
Tony Ball argues that it's the great variety of sport on offer in South Africa that makes it an attractive destination for the game Shot.
There is something very special about a hunting safari in Africa, especially when it can offer outstanding value in comparison to the ever-increasing cost of formal grouse, pheasant or partridge shooting in the UK. Perhaps there is a touch of the ‘Fitch Haddens' in many of us who hanker for the unpredictability of shooting wild quarry, and when this can be combined with a trip to some of the most beautiful and remote countryside anywhere in the world, which the southern and central African countries can provide in spades, it is no wonder that a safari can hold such a magical prospect.
In the early 90s, I had the good fortune to hunt in South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, and each offered a truly unique experience of bird shooting and plains game hunting, which I feared my limited financial resources in retirement might now put beyond my reach.
I was fortunate therefore when I met Wayne Dunne, the proprietor of Wildwing Safaris, a small and very personal hunting outfit, at the Game Fair at Blenheim last year. His main area of operation is in the scenically beautiful central Drakensberg, southwest of Ladysmith. Within two hours, we had settled terms for a week-long safari hunting dove and rock pigeon, with some plains game included.
It was thus that we met Wayne again at Johannesburg Airport, when he collected my old shooting companion John Paul, my son Jason and myself, and we set off on Sunday, April 12 for a two-hour drive to Potchefstroom, southwest of Jo'burg, for our opening shoot of rameron pigeon and ringneck dove on harvested sunflower. We were under the watchful eye of ‘Big Piet' – a giant of a South African who has shot pigeon all his life and clearly was an expert in the art.
Each of us was allocated a native picker-up, whose ability to mark the fallen, even in thick cover, was remarkable. We were also assisted by Wayne's thirteen-year-old pointer bitch, which worked tirelessly in the heat, and who should have been accompanied by his second dog, a two-year-old, which had jumped out of the back of his Toyota on one of the four stops on the four-hour journey to collect us at the airport in the dark. Remarkably, the dog was recovered and returned two days later, having been found wandering some 140kms from its home.
The bag mounted as we gradually got the measure of these small and highly manoeuvrable birds, which fly much like UK woodpigeon, taking evasive action with the least movement. All the collected birds were then given to the headman of the local village for distribution amongst the native population.
That evening, we camped in a very comfortable log cabin, built only six years ago on the banks of the Vaal River, which yielded two of the ugliest catfish of 6-8lb caught using local river crabs as bait – not a great gourmet delicacy but again highly regarded as a diet enhancer by the locals!
The next two days we spent shooting pigeon and dove over vast fields of sorghum, and with only two of us shooting, assisted occasionally by Jason, we had the pick of several flight lines out to the fields in the morning and back again at great height in the afternoon. Over these two days, we accounted for more than 650 pigeon – fantastic sport to test us to the full.
On Wednesday, we made an early start to travel four hours south to the Drakensberg region to shoot rock pigeon, again over fields of sorghum where literally thousands of these birds congregate in April and May – the autumn harvesting season in South Africa. These birds proved the most challenging of all. With a strong wind behind them, they flew just above the top of the sorghum, emulating driven grouse, ranging from twos and threes up to packs of 30-50 birds. Thankfully, we had got our eye in on the dove the days previous and accounted for just shy of 100 in two hours of continuous shooting. A party of 15 locals had achieved over 800 on these same fields the week before!
The following day we visited the Zingela Camp on the banks of the Tugela River, hidden away across river drifts and bush tracks in the deep thorn country of Northern KwaZulu Natal, a country of immense hills and narrow valleys. The camp was superb, with luxurious beds, antelope skins overlying the rock flooring, tree-hung showers providing piping hot water, and some of the best food we ate all week. Our hosts, Mark and Linda Calverley, had established this camp in 1983 and lived there ever since. It can offer game walks and magnificent hunting of the elusive greater kudu (known as the Grey Ghost with its ability to melt into the bush in a second in spite of its size), and large impala herds, out of which I was tempted to take a good buck. John and Jason had fun on the river, fly fishing for yellowfish, a species similar to the UK's barbel, landing four of these incredibly hard-fighting fish between 3-4lbs.
Saturday was spent at Weenen Game Reserve, a huge unfenced private reserve near Winterton and Ladysmith, in the central Drakensberg, where we shot an old blesbuck isolated from the herd, and enjoyed a fascinating visit to the top of the Spioenkop, where a fierce battle took place on January 23, 1900, between the Boers and 1,700 British troops under Generals Woodgate and Buller, with the loss of 343 British against some 68 Boers. This hill provides fantastic views of the Spioenkop Dam, and beyond that, the publicly opened Spioenkop Game Park, immediately adjacent to which, Wayne Dunne holds the exclusive game hunting rights to the unfenced Spioenkop Reserve. Here, one can shoot all of the major game species, as well as observe white rhino and giraffe at close quarters whilst on horseback.
As if this was not excitement enough, we were also treated to an evening's wildfowl flighting on two of the many reservoirs in the Winterton Valley. Although it was too early in the year for the hoards of geese and duck that frequent this area in the winter months of July and August, we nevertheless enjoyed an excellent flight, accounting for spurwing and Egyptian geese, and several species of duck including yellowbill and white-faced whistling duck.
Sunday afternoon we faced the long trip back to Jo'burg for our return flight, passing stunning views of the mountains of the Drakensberg and the great open spaces of the Freestate. With considerable sadness we said goodbye to Wayne who had looked after us with great humour and enthusiasm, endless patience and superb professionalism throughout our visit.
For anyone interested in bird shooting safaris, I can thoroughly recommend Wildwing Safaris. March, April and May are the favoured months for the pigeons (autumn in South Africa), or June, July and August for francolin and guinea fowl, as well as for spurwing, Egyptian geese and the 20 other different species of duck, which are plentiful in the winter months. It really was the trip of a lifetime, being very reasonably priced and with so much of interest beyond the pure sporting enjoyment. Definitely a trip not to be missed!