September 23, 2010
A bird-savvy shorthair is anything but comical on the plains Of South Africa.
In the dark, the ride from the O.R. Tambo International Airport through the town of Johannesburg, South Africa is pretty much like a trip through any large city--lots of lights, lots of traffic, lots of merging, exiting and confusion.
And even when our professional hunter, Matthys van Vuuren of Likhulu Safaris, had navigated his vehicle into the countryside, it was impossible to tell we were traveling through the Free State province of South Africa, a day and a half of plane rides from our homes in and near Spokane, Washington. 'This seems just like the country in eastern Washington," said Len Kutkey, one of the three friends who had joined me for this long-anticipated bird hunting safari.
Mike Sweeney, the other friend in the car (a third friend, Larry Downs, was in a second vehicle driven by Matt's brother, Christian) on this early May shooting adventure was about to also concur when suddenly, his head jerked wildly to the left and he stared with astonishment into the dark. "Except for that!" he shrieked. All but Matthys gawked in astonishment as a giraffe ambled across the highway and melted into the darkness on the other side.
Our destination was the Villa Siesta, a bed and breakfast in Welkomen in the Free State Province, and we still had a long drive ahead. We were looking forward to beds and a little pampering after almost a day and a half in airports and cramped economy class plane seats, but most of all, we were looking forward to the bird hunting.
Matthys (Matt) filled us in on the way. "The dove and pigeon shooting will be fast," he told us. "It always is. It has also been a good year for francolin, quail and guinea fowl.
The waterfowling could be tough, as the peanut fields are just now being harvested."
To tell the truth, I most excited about the prospects of shooting guinea fowl. My other bird hunting adventure in South Africa had been eight years earlier. The guineas had run me ragged and I had bagged a grand total of none. This was my chance for redemption, a chance to bag at least one of the black and white sprinters with the pterodactyl head that the bird books told me had a brain much too tiny to give it much sense.
Ostrich and blesbok inhabit the same country as francolin, quail and guinea fowl.
I didn't care if I shot a bunch of them, but I did want to get one, just to prove I was as smart, if nothing else. "It will happen," Matt assured me, mentioning that he had a "pretty good" shorthair named Bibo (Beebo) that would hold them with a point.
"You have a shorthair that points guinea fowl?" I questioned skeptically. "I thought guinea fowl just ran." I didn't say so, but I was already wondering about the name, "Beebo." It sounded like a clown name to me--Klixie or Bobo or Weird Bippie with the big feet and painted frown who let himself be shot from cannons.
"He'll point most anything," Matt assured me in his distinctive Afrikaner accent that dictated I lean closer to understand. "Francolin, quail--whatever's out there."
Around nine p.m., we stopped for nourishment and petrol. Then I slept while Matt drove, keeping his truck headed southwest toward Welkomen. We arrived at the luxurious Villa Siesta close to midnight, and the congenial proprietress was waiting for us, looking surprisingly cheerful in her blue bathrobe. "Didn't you get a nap, Mike?" I asked as my friend stumbled groggily toward his room.
"Someone had to keep the driver awake!" Mike exclaimed. "He was driving on the wrong side of the road!" Indeed, the left side steering wheel and the left lane driving was something none of us ever quite got used to. Numerous times during our two weeks in South Africa, I could feel my body tensing and my right foot reaching for the non-existent brake pedal as we rounded a corner in the "wrong" lane and encountered a vehicle that appeared to be coming toward us.
Bibo, Matthys van Vuuren's shorthair, proved his master correct by pointing tough guineas.
The next day we hunted doves and pigeons, taking stands on dirt roads between huge tracts of corn and unharvested sunflowers. Then, following two more gloriously successful days of dove, pigeon, impala and goose hunting, we drove to Matt's hometown of Reitz, where we checked into another beautiful bed and breakfast, Poelanie's Gastehuis. That evening, we traveled a short distance toward the town of Tweeting for francolin and an evening go at guinea fowl, and Matt introduced us to Bibo.
The farm country around Tweeting looked very much like eastern Montana or Washington's Columbia Basin. Huge fields of corn were tucked on the flats between rolling bluffs. Small lakes (dams) dotted the landscape, surrounded by eucalyptus trees, yucca and low bush.
There were miles of relatively flat grassland, and this is where Bibo made his first point.
At the flush, however, I nearly wet my pants when a common duiker, an antelope about the size of a Brittany, bounded from the grass and made a frantic, zigzagging escape.
Bibo's next point came a few minutes later. Larry and Len walked in, and after kicking the grass for a few seconds, a drab bird the size of an English sparrow buzzed up and away with no shots being fired.
"Quail!" Matt said. "Why didn't you shoot?"
"I thought it was a bumble bee," Len laughed. "You don't really shoot those things, do you?"
"Coturnix coturnix," Matt said--the common quail. " Very good eating."
"Well, they could fly right through a pattern," Larry said. "I don't know if I want to waste my ammo on the things."
A First Afield
Bibo went on point again in the same field. This time, a larger, darker bird got up and Mike dropped it at 30 yards. When Bibo made the retrieve, all of us took a few minutes to examine the first Swainson's francolin (spurfowl) we had ever seen. It was not a drop-dead gorgeous bird, but the bare re
d skin around the throat and eyes highlighted the otherwise dull brown plumage. A male, this one had long, dark leg spurs and was about the size of a ruffed grouse.
"We will also shoot Orange River francolin," Matt promised as we continued our stroll behind the beautifully quartering shorthair. Bibo was making long, graceful casts from one end of the line of hunters to the other. We passed an abandoned homestead where spiked agave plants, the source of tequila, grew next to what had been the yard.
In a few minutes Bibo pointed again, and Matt's promise proved good. The Orange River francolin looked more like a Hungarian partridge and was about half the size of the Swainson's. After we had admired it for a few moments, we hunted on behind the steady Bibo. Funny name or not, this dog was no clown.
We had about an hour of light left when Matt suggested we try for guineas. "I think we should start there," he said, pointed toward a moving black blob. In a grass field a couple hundred yards away, a hundred or more birds pecked at the ground.
"They will head for the corn," Matt continued, "but we may get a few to hold."
As predicted, the ornery black and white, chicken-sized fowl headed for the corn as we approached. Bibo was working fast, and none of the birds showed any inclination to hold.
Just as I had done eight years previously on my other visit to South Africa, I found myself shuffling (I was going to say "sprinting," but I'm 65 years old) through tall corn, chasing gray shapes just out of gun range.
Members of the hunting party noticed how much the countryside resembles stateside upland hunting locales.
Anticipating their tactics, Matt had stationed the other gunners at the end of the field, and as I moved sluggishly through the tunnel between rows, the sporadic gunfire told me I was once again in the wrong spot.
Matt joined me at the end of the row. "Some of then doubled back," he yelled. "Run up the road about 200 yards and get back in the corn. I will try to push them to you."
Being mindful not to step on my tongue, I "ran" as bid, entering the corn again as quietly as is possible with lungs just a few seconds from implosion. Three minutes later, I could hear Matt and Bibo coming toward me, and then, just as they came into sight, a great, gray mass of feathers exploded from in front of me, rose quickly, and quartered off in easy range above the corn, at about the speed of a cock pheasant. I had time for only one shot, and I missed.
I had to grin. "I'm making progress," I said. "Last trip I didn't even get a shot!"
At dusk, we headed toward the roost trees surrounding a small pond, weaving around tall, red termite mounds. I truly felt like I was in Jurassic Park. Spurfowl, ibis and guineas were making a terrible racket in the eucalyptus and steenbok and duiker flushed from the grass.
Bibo was on point every 20 yards. A guinea flushed and Larry got it on the rise. Then a pair of Swainson's francolin also flushed and we took both of them. We could see the flames coming from our barrels. The birds in the trees sailed out into the approaching night and we called the day complete.
The next morning we went to a different farm in the same general area and hunted close to the Wilge River. Bibo pointed a lot of birds, and I was able to boast that I had shot at four different species, including another guinea fowl on one drive. Off to my right, Len Kutkey was having problems with guineas. "How can I hit three of those little quail in a row and then miss a bird as big as a chicken?" he lamented.
Following a riverside lunch, we were in the corn again. Finally, I connected with a pointed guinea fowl--a big male with a hooded, pterodactyl head and beautiful plumage.
Then there was another in the corn, and another over Bibo's point. Finally!
Hunting Free State guinea fowl, I decided, had many similarities to hunting Chinese pheasants. Sometimes they ran and sometimes they held. Sometimes they seemed like the smartest bird on the planet, and sometimes they made silly, fatal errors.
In any event, the stink was off. Eight years later, thanks to Matthys van Vuuren and a shorthair who wasn't a clown, I had my guinea.
If You Want To Go€¦
Traveling with guns to hunt in Africa need not be an ordeal. Only rifles and double barreled shotguns are allowed, however, so leave your beloved semi-auto at home. You will purchase your shotgun shells from your outfitter, but take your own big game ammo. In the beginning, contact a good travel agency that specializes in African destinations and have them book your plane seats. I used Custom Travel (1-800-728-5301) and recommend them highly. They will make sure you have all the paperwork you need for a smooth trip through customs and acquiring a firearms permit.
The PH you choose is up to you, but mine, Matthys van Vuuren of Likhulu Safaris, came highly recommended. I cannot imagine having a better organized, worry-free, fun experience, from pick-up at the airport to bird and big game hunting, to guided side trips through game reserves. Matthys even helped us "negotiate" on souvenirs. He can be contacted via the Internet at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.likhulusafaris.com.