Junior Hunting at Pongola Game Reserve

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Post Date: 22 Oct 2019

By JJ De Valence

During the July school holiday, I had the privilege of going and hunting with some junior members of the KZN Hunting, Shooting and Conservation Association. The group of junior hunters were led by my dad, Willem De Valence, and Oom Sijmen van der Merwe; both of whom are experienced hunters from our Association.

The hunt took place over three nights in the beautiful Pongola Game Reserve. We stayed at the Sondaba bush camp in the reserve. The hunt took place in a completely remote area of rugged hill country. It is interesting that this camp is named after the highest hill in the reserve – Sondaba. Accommodation is in thatched huts along the most beautiful boardwalks in the bush camp. Solar powered lights are used in the camp, whilst the stove, fridge, freezer and geysers operate on gas. We had to arrange, without my dad and Oom Sijmen’s knowledge, to charge our cell phones at the gate, where the butchery and security are located.

The camp has its own swimming pool and boma area with a braai and chairs. The swimming pool water was too cold for swimming during our stay, but we managed to make good use of the braai area to cook food and to build a campfire every night!

Following the severe drought over the last few years, we had to work very hard and smart to harvest some animals. Our hunting budget consisted of quite a number of animals, but primarily Warthog and Impala. We arranged the necessary hunting licences from the Association office. These licences included Warthog, Impala, Blue Wildebeest and Nyala, as we did not really know what we were in for during the few hunting days. I have hunted on this farm few times before, and I really wanted to hunt a Blue Wildebeest after hunting a Nyala with a bow last year.

On our way to Pongola, we somehow managed to get a flat tyre. With kind assistance from a gentleman named Joseph from a garage in Westville, we were soon on our way again. Upon arrival in the camp on Sunday, we unpacked all the vehicles and settled in. We then prepared for hunting the following day.

At 5am on Monday morning, after a good night’s rest, we were getting ready for the day in the field. After a short meeting, we split up into two hunting groups, and all of us left on board hunting vehicles. Despite working very hard on our first hunting day, we did not manage to harvest a single animal. We did, however, see Warthog, Impala, Zebra, Nyala, Blue Wildebeest and Buffalo. Due to recent rain in the region, it was extremely difficult to hunt in the long grass and thick bush. It was impossible to even see a Warthog – never mind hunt one! Also, the temperature was between 30˚C and 33˚C for most of the day, and we noticed that the animals were in hiding most of the time. We were, however, presented with three opportunities to take a clean shot, but we failed to take advantage of this. We ended day one with an empty cold room.

On day two, we left the camp after breakfast, just after 7am, and we took our A game with us. This time, we split into three groups, with Sijmen JNR and I in a hide with a crossbow. We didn’t have any success from the hide, and we left it after a few hours. I then joined my dad hunting in the field, and managed to harvest a Warthog at around 10.30am, using the 6.5mm rifle, with a shot over about 50 metres.

Cliff also managed to harvest a Warthog about an hour later, and then later in the day an Impala was successfully harvested. I really thought that this broke the ice for our party, as hunting conditions were very challenging this year.

Wednesday was our last hunting day, and the pressure was on to harvest some of our planned hunting quota. I had had a brief chat to my dad the previous night around the campfire and again that morning, trying to get him to understand that we have been losing out on some Blue Wildebeest opportunities which had been presented to us over the past few days.

We left camp just after 7am, and we were all very focused on harvesting an animal from our quota. First thing in the morning, we spotted some Blue Wildebeest in the distance on our way to the hunting areas. I used this opportunity to check with my dad once again whether I could take this opportunity to harvest a Blue Wildebeest. After some intense negotiations, I got him to agree that I was to take the challenge of hunting this species. I left the vehicle with the field guide, Dumisane Mathenjwa (Maduna), and we had some 5km to walk to get closer to the Blue Wildebeest. As we closed the distance between us and the Blue Wildebeest, I could see why the animal is called “the poor man’s Buffalo”. The beasts had spotted us, and some of them were running in circles, showing off their large upward-curved horns and black beards. At the angle at which we were walking, I could clearly see the difference in body size and horns of the males and females.

We took a break until the beasts started to graze again. The herd consisted of more than 50 animals. I noticed how some feed on grass, while others were eating shrubs and leaves at the top of the mountain. We spotted from Zebra not far from the Blue Wildebeest and we continued to stalk our way to an area from which a safe shot could be attempted. I finally made it to the top of the hill, and would need to take a downward shot to the chosen animal. I made myself comfortable on an animal game trail with shooting sticks, and looked through the scope at the herd, which was feeding some metres away from me.

I looked at the shot placement through my scope, and could clearly see where my bullet could enter the “engine room”, which would result in a quick, ethical kill. In my mind, I could hear my dad’s advice to not risk a frontal shot, as this was too risky and could result in a lost and wounded animal. I could also now see that these animals could be just as tough as Buffalo. I was sure that they could take a lot of punishment before they went down for good. I started wondering and doubting myself as I continued to seek a broadside standing animal through my scope. I wanted to get closer to make sure that I was getting a safe shot. I could see that if I wounded an animal, there was no way I would ever find it in the thick bush which covered the mountain. The guide signalled to me that it was now time for a shot, as some of the animals were already watching us keenly, and getting more and more irritated by us being in their area. Time for action – I continued to look through my scope at an animal that was separated from the herd and at which I could attempt a safe shot. I took a deep breath and squeezed the trigger slowly. I heard the sound of the shot echoing through the mountains and tried to locate the animal that I had shot amid the bizarre chaos of approximately 50 animals now all running downhill.

We continued to look, but with no luck – we had no idea what happened. I recalled my sight picture through the scope and confirmed with the guide that there was no way I missed that shot. I was confident that it had been a clean side shot in the engine room. We walked 150 metres and spotted some drops of blood in the sand and vegetation. Now we were far more confident, and continued to look for blood drops and other clues that would help us to locate the wounded animal. After searching for 30 minutes, we located my animal, which had expired on her way down to the valley. It was indeed a clean shot into the vitals that did the trick.

It took four hours to carry the beast from the valley to the nearest road where the vehicle was, and to eventually get the carcass skinned and into the cold room. I was so excited, and it is impossible to accurately describe one’s feelings after such a hunt. It was most certainly worth the effort and the wait. That night, around the fire, we discussed this hunt at length – the strategy, the challenges and the hard work that followed.

In closing, many thanks to my dad, Willem De Valence and Oom Sijmen van der Merwe who took us juniors hunting. Thanks also go to the KZN Hunting Shooting and Conservation Association for giving us the opportunity to go hunting with a group of juniors, and to Oom Karel Landman and his staff at Pongola Game Reserve. Without Oom Karel Landman supporting junior hunting development, us juniors would not be able to learn about ethical hunting – we probably wouldn’t be hunting at all! Pongola Game Reserve is certainly still one of my favourite hunting destinations in KwaZulu-Natal!

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