By Jason E. Capstraw
“He’s good!!!” “I don’t have a shot!” “Stand Up!” “I still don’t have a shot!” “Stand on the roof of the truck!” I put one foot on the roll bar and the other on the seat; standing on the safari truck and shooting offhand, I pressed the trigger. My rifle boomed! This was the exchange between Professional Hunter Leon Small and myself as Leon ate his Hawaiian pizza and I took my first shot at a trophy kudu bull. I was hunting in the Mapungubwe area of Limpopo Province, South Africa with Thaba Mahaka Safaris.
The journey started almost two years prior as I was taking a shower and preparing to start my workday…
My wife, Kristin, asked if I was going to the weekend conference being held by the Alabama Chapter of Safari Club International at the Grand Hotel in Point Clear. When I said, “No” she stated, “There are safaris available.” I changed my mind. We had dreamed of going on safari since we began daTing 20 years ago. Unfortunately, time and life happened and our safari dreams stayed just that – Dreams.
The weekend arrived and I took Friday off. I had scheduled medical appointments before the start of the event. Needless to say, after visiting the doctor and being told I needed follow up testing to rule out a cancer risk, I was in no mood to attend (all medical issues later turned out fine). That all changed by the end of the evening. I walked away with a 10-day South African Safari with a day at Kruger National Park and a day of Tiger Fishing on the Komati River donated by Thaba Mahaka Safaris. I called Kristin and told her I knew what I wanted for my 40th birthday – tickets to South Africa.
I contacted Leon and he was kind enough to allow me to schedule the safari for late May / early June 2012. Deposits were made. Being I had not intended on going on safari, I needed time to prepare and make arrangements for the care of my two small children. Time passed and Leon and I stayed in touch. He was very patient with us. As safari neophytes, he provided us with additional information and thoroughly answered all of our questions and con- cerns. I prepared my rifle, worked up a new load and read everything I could get my hands on about plains game hunting in South Africa. After much preparation, the time had come.
We departed Pensacola International Airport headed for Atlanta, Georgia and our 15-hour non-stop flight to Johannesburg. Clearing security was no problem. Getting a crying mommy, upset about leaving her babies, on the plane was another story. We arrived in Atlanta and ate at the Varsity in the new International Terminal, feeling one last hotdog and hamburger was appropriate. We boarded the plane, where if you weren’t going on a safari or on a mission trip you didn’t belong. We arrived in South Africa, 15 hours later, to a beautiful setting sun. I will admit it brought tears to my eyes. My dreams of Africa had finally come true. We headed for South African Immigration and waited. When we were second from the front of the line all of the immigration officials closed their windows and got up and left. It was 5:50pm, shift change. At 6:00pm, the new shift came on and we cleared immigration with ease. We obtained our bag and proceeded to the South African police Station to obtain my rifle. Leon met us as we left the International Terminal. For the first time, I had a face to put with a name. We completed the required paperwork and retrieved my rifle with no trouble. Leon asked, “Did you see that dust cloud?” meaning that is us and it is time to go. We proceeded to the truck and met Norman, our Skinner/Tracker. Leaving the airport, Leon stopped at the rest area to get gas for the truck and Whimpy burgers and fries for all of us. I guess we weren’t that far from home. We ate on the hood of the truck and then started our journey. Four hours on paved roads and two hours off road resulted in our arrival at the Limpopo River on the South Africa/Botswana border and Mapungubwe.
The following morning we met Leon’s aunt and uncle, Alta and Eugene Small. Eugene is the property manager and caretaker of the Mapungubwe Private Nature Reserve. The first day was spent taking pictures of the wildlife and being in complete awe of the bushveld of South Africa. The number and diversity of animals was amazing. We saw giraffes all ten days and elephants eight out of ten. At one point, we came upon a herd of over 100 elephants rang- ing from babies to a 70-pound tusker at a distance of ten yards. Another time our truck was nearly stepped on by a giraffe. Our desire to return with our children in ten years turned into, “How soon can we get back?”
Day two broke and it was time to hunt. We left the lodge and traveled to a separate ranch. The morning was cool. To say I was excited was an understatement. We met Zamalek, a tracker working on the ranch, and got down to hunting. Shortly into the morning, Leon had Norman stop the truck and he motioned for me to come with him. Unsure, I complied. Leon set up the sticks and I asked what we were doing. Leon stated, “Do you see the Impala? He is a good one. Do you think you can thread the needle?” I looked through my scope and saw the impala’s shoulder through a 4” by 6” window in the bush at approximately 40 yards. My rifle bucked and I had my first African trophy. Handshakes ensued and pictures were taken. Complete with “bush photoshop” (i.e. pick the best side of the animal, cover the blood with dirt, place the animal in the best light, clear the surrounding bush etc.) While Norman skinned the impala, we went into town and got everyone pizza for lunch. Kristin and I ate in the truck. Leon drove. Upon arriving at the ranch we picked up Norman and Zamalet and again began to hunt. While Leon was standing on the tailgate of the truck eating his Hawaiian pizza, we saw horns moving through the bush. Leon yelled, “He’s good!!!” I didn’t have a shot. After being told to stand on the truck I put one foot on the roll bar and the other on the seat; standing on the safari truck and shooting offhand, I pressed the trigger. The kudu took off at the shot. Leon was still standing there holding a pizza box and eating a slice. Once Leon finished his slice we began to look for blood. We found blood but it was not what I would have liked. As we continued to track the wounded kudu through the bush, I became concerned and found myself praying to find this majestic animal.
My wife’s words continuing to reassure me. I have never lost a wounded or shot animal and hope that I never will. An hour passed and we were still tracking. When two hours passed and we had traveled many kilometers. I was very concerned. Then Norman and Zamalek motioned me hurriedly forward. My kudu was standing approximately 75 yards away looking at us through the bush. I mounted my rifle and again shot offhanded. I missed. Leon had earlier told me not to look for the best shot, just get another bullet in the kudu. I worked the bolt and my training clicked in. I immediately took a seated position and when the crosshairs rested on a Texas heart shot of the fleeing kudu, my rifle boomed for the third time. The circles the kudu made at the shot told me it was a good hit. The kudu went down in a bedding position under the tree where he had previously stood. I chambered another round and continued to watch the kudu through my scope. When the kudu showed indications he was to get up, Norman moved me to a better position. I placed a final shot center chest and the kudu was mine.
I approached realizing God’s grace and beauty and knelt and prayed over this wonderful animal. This is something I do with every animal I take. I will teach my children to do the same. It was time for pictures and handshakes now realizing my first shot had broken its front leg. My first true day hunting Africa and I took an Impala and a trophy Kudu. I was joyous.
Back at the ranch we relived the day around the fire with Amurula, “The Spirit of Africa”. Amurula is dangerous. That is all I am going to say about that. The next day I took a gemsbok with one shot. My confidence was back.
Odd events seemed to be the theme. I took a trophy warthog while we were having a picnic and eating sandwiches. At the shot, the warthog took off. I was able to watch him fall. One shot was all it took.
Hunting wildebeest was another story. Leon and I tracked a herd to an open plain. The only cover was a small group of trees about ten feet across. Neither Leon nor I are small. Hiding both of us in this small piece of cover was a challenge. With no rest available, Leon offered his shoulder. If you have never taken a shot using you guide’s shoulder as a rest when both of you are excited and breathing hard, you have to try it. It is refreshing to see how excited Leon got with every trophy pursued and taken. Again my rifle barked. One shot and I had my blue wildebeest.
During the previous days we continuously tracked zebra for four to six hours a day for six days straight. Never having a shot and only seeing zebra twice. Whoever said zebra hunting is easy lied. Although I now know what a zebra track looks like. After many days we had given up. With only one hour left in our hunting time, before we need to start for Kruger, Leon and I ran out of zebra tracks. We called for Kristin and Norman and decided a zebra was simply not in the cards. On our way back to retrieve our jackets we had shed while tracking, Leon abruptly stopped the truck. Jumping off the back he asked for my rifle and motioned me to come along. As I attempted to get out of the truck I got hung up and nearly fell to the ground. When I turned around Leon had my gun on a tree motioning me to the scope. As I looked through the scope all I could see was an 8” by 10” square of zebra stripes. I asked Leon, “Which way is it facing?” He responded, “I don’t know.” Just then the zebra shook and I found the shoulder. Leon whispered just wait for the shot. I had a shot and pressed the trigger. Instead of a boom, I got a click! In my hurry, I had never chambered a round after making the rifle safe. I quickly chambered another round and got back on the rest. Only I couldn’t find the zebra. Leon moved me back to the shot. I again pressed the trigger. This time the rifle boomed and the zebra took off. We heard it fall a few seconds later. I took my zebra in the last 30 minutes of our hunt. We refer to it as “stumpy”. At some point in its life the zebra lost most of its tail to a hyena or leopard. For me it only adds character.
Our hunt concluded, we toured Kruger National Park and went tiger fishing. Our safari was complete. Leon returned us to Johannesburg. Kristin and I boarded a plan and headed for Cape Town for Kristin’s part of our trip – spa treatments, wine tours and sea kayaking. To say we fell in love with South Africa is an understatement.
Leon works extremely hard for his clients. The lodges are clean and comfortable and all of your wants and needs are taken care of. Some of your needs you didn’t even know you had. As we left Johannesburg for Atlanta I met Jim from Missouri – an SCI member on his ninth safari. During our conversation he gave me a piece of advice saying, “Your two best safaris are your first one and your next one.” I can’t wait for my next one.