Twists And Turns

An Epic Safari Results When All Things Eventually Go Right In South Africa. 

 By Glenn W. Geelhoed

“There he is,” said John McLaurin. “He’s moving out just behind that clump of acacias.” 

We slipped out of the Land Cruiser and approached the sable upwind through the bush on foot. 

“He is a beauty, well above the 36-inch curve we had hoped for,” said guide Charl Watts of Watts Trophy Hunting Safaris. 

McLaurin and I were into our third day of the hunt in Mabula, a vast game farm along the Waterberg Mountain ridge. The property adjoined the similar highveld game farm of the current South African President Cyril Ramaphosa in the Limpopo Province. 

It’s usually much more than a happy coincidence that brings lifelong hunters (and Life members of SCI) together for special occasions. Watts Trophy Hunting Safaris is a premier hunting outfitter throughout Southern Africa. At the time, we were experiencing the re-opening of the country after the pandemic. For 20 months, no international clients visited the outfitter. Charl, his PH brother Gee, and the entire staff of the Mabula Lodge, had been looking forward to this hunt. The hunters were equally excited. 

In the past, Charl and his wife Nelia and I had shared dinners at the last two SCI Conventions and discussed the prospect of a “good sable,” and well, just any other suitable targets of opportunity that we might come across. All details can never be expected to go right in the unknowns of an open-ended hunting experience. But as it turned out, things were about to go better than we could have expected. 

I am frequently in Africa as the founder and CEO of the humanitarian organization, Mission to Heal, which delivers free medical and surgical care while teaching the principles and practice of modern medicine to indigenous people. We use M2H Mobile Surgical Units to access remote areas. My hunting partner, John McLaurin, is also the founding Board Chairman of M2H, and we were discussing the plans for the itineraries and special applications of the M2H MSUs following the pandemic travel restrictions. 

“If we don’t push him or disturb him, we may be able to circle around later to approach when he is bedded down and the sun gets higher,” said John regarding the sable. We backed away from the retreating bull. 

We had driven through a portion of the vast game lands of the thousands of acres, and had seen breeding herds of impala, about the only species that had been hunted locally in the interval, largely for culling purposes to prevent them from exceeding the carrying capacity of their habitat. We had seen brindled as well as golden wildebeest and giraffe and wart hogs. But, of special interest to me were the beautiful twisthorn nyala we had encountered at dusk browsing on acacia pods. The nyala moved up to second place on my wish list as targets of opportunity after a good sable bull. The sable should be, as Charl and I had described it, “a sable with character, and a good hunt story.” 

We were developing that story by having encountered isolated single bulls on Day Two of the hunt. We had stalked upwind to within the range of the .308. We were able to judge two bulls, but then we backed off. They were fine bulls. Abram, a superb tracker who has worked closely with Charl and Gee for nearly 30 years, also understood that the hunt was perhaps even more important than the trophy size. We pressed on in search of the right one of each. 

On Day Three, we spotted a big bull while it headed into an open savannah with scattered acacia tree shade. We came back at noon to scout where it might have bedded. Abram saw him first. The bull was lying down, facing us and ruminating. We stalked closer. I waited to see if he would stand up, but the bull remained seated. 

John whispering to me that this bull appeared even bigger than we first thought. It was a truly outstanding trophy. I looked at it through my scope in the crosshairs. It only needed to stand and offer better shot placement. 

When it did decide to get up, it did not stand but launched at top speed downhill and into thick cover. So much for our strategy of holding off on good to wait for perfect. 

We circled around a long loop to return upwind again. As we completed our turn and came back upwind, it was Gee who spotted the bull standing facing us at 112 meters, looking in our direction around a low acacia tree. This time, there was no “good,” only “perfect.” I aimed just behind the shoulder of the forward leg. The .308 fired. At the muffled sound of the shot, the bull hesitated for a split second and then swapped ends and bounded away into acacia cover out of sight. Advancing to the point where it had stood, we found no hair or blood traces. But Charl and I continued on the course it had taken when it fled directly away from us. 

I was moving forward, with Charl holding the shooting sticks as he motioned to have me look through my Zeiss binoculars. “Over to the right of that white rock,” he said. I pounded him on the back and laughed when I saw that the “white rock” was the underbelly of a big black sable bull! It had made an 80-meter run with no cardiac function and had collapsed before reaching dense cover. 

The steel tape showed the shorter of the sable’s two horns was 46 1/2 inches. 

We cheerfully called the Mabula Lodge to announce that we might be a bit late for lunch. We admired the trophy. It was now a check mark on the bucket list. 

Gee was especially delighted and was roused from a slightly under-the-weather feeling he had described as “nothing a good hunt wouldn’t fix.” 

Following the impala tenderloin lunch, we went over to the skinning shed to measure the sable bull. Indeed, it was bit better than the 36 inches. The steel tape showed the shorter of the two was 46 1/2 inches! That gave it character plus. 

Continuing our safari, we were planning to go out on a game drive toward a newer region. We got a later start after admiring the sable in the trophy preparation room. 

Earlier, I had expressed admiration for the nyala bulls we had seen days before. Charl and Gee reminded me that we would be going through the ridges where the acacias would be dropping pods. They told me keep a lookout for anything moving under the trees. 

We turned west into a flaming sunset straight ahead. As we crested a rise, I heard simultaneous exclamations from both Gee and John. I saw a blur directly west standing majestically on a ridge in front of the orange ball of the setting sun. But the dazzling glare in the scope obscured any vision, and I dropped the rifle from my eye. We had to maneuver around to get a better angle with a tangential sunburst. 

There were three nyala cows and a smaller bull to my right. The young bull might have distracted me, but I still had the retinal after-image of the beautiful nyala bull posing on the horizon. I looked for him, and he was still there. Instinctively the crosshairs aligned. At the shot, the bull crumpled. Triumphant shouts rose from three directions around me. 

The first view author Geelhoed had of this nyala was a glimpse of it standing on a ridge, the sun setting behind it. He was later able to stalk it and get a shot. It was bigger and better than he had imagined. “This is my twist-horn whole-mount!” he said.

As I walked up on the nyala, “ground shrinkage” happened in reverse. It was bigger and better than I had imagined. My first words were, “This is my twist-horn whole-mount!” 

With the team gathered to pull the bull into position, the setting sun tinted the tableau. I held up the spiral-horn head, the full moon rose opposite the sunset. The setting was as good as the trophy in this premier hunt. 

After a dinner of sable tenderloin, we went out for a night drive amid the roaring of lions. Charl had spotted just a glimpse of a serval cat, and John connected with an instant shot. It completed the perfect slam of those wish-list items we had discussed before the pandemic. 

In over a decade of annual medical missions in the Congo, I had accumulated a series of forest buffalo that were taken largely for purposes of feeding very hungry groups of the Azande people. As we reminisced at the Mabula Lodge, fireside over gin and tonics, I had expressed an interest in a big old dagga boy. 

Charl and I had worked out a plan as the midday rising heat had pushed some of the buffalo into the dry riverbank shade. If a stalk upwind might be worked out, we would attempt a try in mid-day try after a morning game drive. 

An amazing vignette occurred before our eyes that day. As we drove out of the dry riverbed and up the bank. Two impala rams were tussling for dominance as a breeding herd stood by indifferently. Our approach distracted the two rams. One turned and ran away, and the other made a soaring leap past us, and missed the landing. He crashed into the dry clay bank. Gee spotted the ram. It was head up but did not move. On getting closer, it was apparent that it was paralyzed. It must have broken its back in the crash landing. The animal had no hope of escaping the hyenas and baboons whose prints were in the sand at the riverbank. Gee dispatched it, and we brought the impala ram back to the skinning shed to add to the larder. I had snapped photos with my phone and with a small digital camera of these events as a backup. Only later did I realize that the camera was missing. If I were to choose to lose something, where, and with whom, here is no better scenario than in the company of the sharp-eyed trackers in the Highveld Bush. We made a circuit over the terrain we had covered and kept a lookout over the next days but saw no glint of any artifact in the sand. Three days later, it was Gee who called a halt and walked back to pick up the small silver camera augured into the sand of the scrub bush. Our mid-day upwind riverbank strategy worked flawlessly. It was a near perfect hunt without a shot fired. 

The 220-grain Barnes X in .375 H&H dropped a 3,000-plus pound Cape buffalo.

Later, Abram was in the lead and Charl and I walked with a chambered round in the Mauser action. As Charl and I stood on a scenic backdrop of an eroded river tributary and were preparing to snap a selfie, a simple hand signal from Abram interrupted us, and we crawled forward to a bluff and looked straight down. At first, I saw nothing due to the density of the brush. Then a big black mass moved forward bulldozing its way through the brush and half turned — at 10 meters away. This is too close. A scope is more hazard than help at this range and even a lethal hit does not preclude the possibility of the buffalo closing the distance from its annoying intruder. I had dropped the Mauser bolt on the .375 but did not aim and refrained from shooting. The hunt strategy worked, and Charl and I congratulated Abram on an excellent stalk. 

In a final full day of hunting, we took off early in pursuit of a small herd of buffalo whose tracks we had cut earlier and came upon them an hour later. We saw four bulls, each in the bachelor herd were reasonable width mature bulls, but we had limited view of the herd and each buffalo was in clumps of trees. We moved on a short distance and saw another group coming toward the first group as a larger herd coalesced. From the larger group on our right, I spotted a bigger bull among big bulls when I heard a sharp intake of breath from Charl and John. 

“The boss! Oh, the boss!” 

PH Charl Watts (Gee’s older brother), author Glenn W. Geelhoed (center) and John McLaurin admire the tremendous dagga boy buff Geelhoed shot during the premier Mabula safari. It was Watts Trophy Hunting Safaris’ first hunt after the pandemic shutdown ended.

This one was undoubtedly the herd bull but that was not what was meant by the short gasp using that term. We had talked of a good symmetric horn spread of about 36 inches. This was well above that. But the single most distinguishing feature was a very thick boss that covered the whole skull, double the height of that of the other bulls. It was apparent when its head was down, but after that quick glimpse, it brought its head up, with nostrils flaring and ears flapping like radar dishes at our intrusion. It seemed to be staring past us as a near-sighted rolling ton-and-a-half tank ready to express its displeasure with interruptions in its right of way. 

The other buffalo milled about nervously with always one or two in front or behind him under the trees. 

“Break both shoulders, and keep shooting,” whispered Charl. 

The familiar heft of the .375 packing a Barnes-X 350-grain bullet was a comfortable match for me, as I waited for an opening. The other herd bulls kept milling around the big bull, but he then sidled warily out of the trees to the right of them and faced directly at me. When he had turned 15 degrees to his right at 140 meters, I put the crosshairs on the left neck and frontal chest as I squeezed. 

The solid thump seemed louder than the rifle’s report, and the big bull just stood there. 

“Shoot again!” said all three in chorus. The buffalo bore straight ahead for 60 meters and collapsed with its head down. The heavy thud caused the other buffalo to spook. They milled around back into the trees, leaving the big bull on the open savannah. 

Charl was behind me with the .458, and I had the Mauser bolt down on a live round. I walked forward to touch the eye with the rifle barrel. No reaction. The big bull was so heavy that it broke the truck power takeoff winch. We each posed with the big bull. Later, it was said to be one of the truly happy moments of Gee’s life as a PH. 

PH Gee Watts of Watts Trophy Hunting Safaris in South Africa celebrates a tremendous Cape buffalo author Glenn W. Geelhoed shot in Limpopo Province. Gee had been feeling low during the safari. Tragically, the 48-year-old man died unexpectedly in his sleep soon after the adventure. This epic buffalo hunt — huge continuous boss, great stalk and good friends — was one of the best moments of his professional life, according to his family.

John was genuinely delighted to congratulate me on this outstanding trophy. The big dagga boy measured 42 1/2 inches across with 18 inches vertical confluent bosses. It was a dream fulfilled for Charl and me. We had hoped to hunt and work together in the humanitarian missions in Africa. My new Derwood Game Rooms back home had been designed to accommodate the new African trophies, and host Charl and his wife Nelia when they came to the USA for the 50th SCI Convention. 

In the course of making the plans for a return to continue the hunts and plans for our missions, I learned that Gee had passed away quietly in his sleep soon after our safari. He will be missed on our early return, and we will toast his memory next month on the hunt he so much enjoyed.

This article originally appeared in the March/April issue of SAFARI Magazine.