Zulu Waters game reserve in KwaZulu Natal was originally bought as a fishing retreat but it has been expanded to cover more than 7,000 acres, which are being carefully restored. The priority is to encourage native species to flourish, and reintroductions have been made where necessary. Alien scrub is removed and erosion repaired; conservation brings invaluable work to the community.
Reserve manager and professional hunter Anton Martyn is engineering this “rewilding”. Most recently, he has been tackling the property’s jackal problem and his work has transformed the oribi and impala lambs’ survival rate. “When you’re missing apex predators, people think it will sort itself out but it never will when you have missing links like leopard and lion,” Anton explains. The difficulty with jackal seems to be that they are not stupid; they will target the easiest prey and can come close to wiping it out before moving on to the next most easy pickings, so these delicate, attractive antelope had been drawing all the jackals’ fire and suffering accordingly before Anton stepped in. It is striking how the basic tenets of conservation and wildlife management are universal. From grouse moor to bushveld, the techniques remain the same.
Even arriving in the dark one can appreciate the modern architecture of Shaka Lodge, designed by Koop, a Durban firm which is still involved in a project to produce furniture from alien timber as it’s cleared. There was already a row of horses tethered in the mist when I came down from my cosy eyrie in the morning. A leather rifle holster was strapped to my saddle, as ours was a hunting party.
I fired a couple of test shots and Anton’s belt crackled as his walkie-talkie sprang to life. Unexpected gunfire does not go unreported here. Next, there were the formal introductions: Nova was to be my steed and Laurence, our photographer, gamely mounted Rocket, carrying two cameras and various lenses. Nova and I had it easy with just the rifle.
As we walked out of the lodge, Indian file, a gentle mist hung in the valleys. The rustle of long grass was distractingly loud in such an open and mist-damped landscape. We might have been alone in the world, but as we mooched along and the mist burned off, our eyes tuned into the environment and the rich wildlife became apparent. At first, we only noticed the spiders warming on their webs as we rode through, then we saw the birds soaring, and finally the plains game, stepping out to sun itself during the morning feed.
We were looking for a southern reedbuck. It is a native indicative of the South African game revival. After being hit by the usual problems with loss of habitat and predation the common reedbuck almost had the dubious honour of making the endangered list but it has recovered sufficiently, with the help of parks and private reserves, and is now firmly back on the game list. It is a species whose whistling call would have been well-known to Jock of the Bushveld.
The early morning is a favourite time for feeding in the open and there were many wonderful ungulates grazing that we were not looking for. Waterbuck were everywhere along the watercourses and among the reeds that we hoped would hold their cousins. Hartebeest, eland, black wildebeest and kudu were also catching the rays, often with juven-iles in tow. There was so much to see that I had almost forgotten what we were really looking for when two dark, scimitar horns turned towards us. We rode to higher ground for a good view of the buck through binoculars; then Anton and I dismounted to stalk in.
Being more accustomed to crawling up burns and taking a shot while prone on a hag, sneaking through the swaying grass in the warm felt strangely exposed. Once in pos-ition, I made the mistake of looking into the buck’s soft, brown eye and clean missed him. The sound of the shot brought me back to my senses and, with what could obviously not have been a wink, he was over a stream. We saw him dive for cover on the far side in another island of long grass.
A crowd of ibis, startled from a tree, gave their mocking call, which could have been aimed at me alone. But Anton was unruffled. We had seen where he’d gone, roughly, and would catch him later. It seemed easy but, in fact, it was impossible. The beast melted into the grass like a mirage. They can hunker down and slink off in a “commando crawl”. Our long and exhaustive survey proved fruitless, and I would have swapped the rifle for a shotgun to deal with the still-mocking ibis. We had no choice but to return to the horses and press on.
In an apparent sea of game, the only other reedbuck we saw were a couple of females, each one unaccompanied and not hanging around to tell tales on their menfolk. But it was impossible to be disconsolate when there was so much to see. On horseback, we were able to approach a white rhino and her calf near enough to notice a surprisingly animated button eye and smooth-looking skin. The mother was careful to keep her calf close and breathed hard in our direction. It was incredible to be so close to such power in the open. Still no reedbuck though. A likely spot lay ahead and Anton and I dismounted to hunt up the Heatherspruit, a scrub-banked stream, on foot and meet the horses downstream. Here, the going was rougher with patches of thorn to push through. Anton paused to whisper that we should go carefully as there might be a lone male buffalo about. “They like these places,” he explained. Oh. Watching the ground for fear of snakes now had to make room for watching my back for Cape buffalo. These animals have been one of the reserve’s success stories and its disease-free herd is a valuable resource for the country.
As it turned out, neither buffalo nor reedbuck was at home and our steady march took its toll on our legs. Even Anton who, given the choice, would always get behind a wheel rather than into a saddle, admitted it would be nice to be back on his horse.
It was well into the afternoon before we were hacking back towards the lodge for a cold feast of homemade pies and salads. Mbongiseni Makhaye is the resident chef and a delight to hunters home from the hill. The lodge nestles in the centre of the property and, while we were out roaming, one of the elusive reedbuck had been spotted close at hand so we were soon out again, on foot. The sun lowered, turning the Drakensburg peaks gold enough to make Cleopatra’s barge look tawdry. There was a distant fork of lightning and a huge rainbow but the reedbuck were watching the sunset from somewhere else.
The next day was long. We set off in the dark with determination and Anton was as positive as ever. Stopping at a ford we could see striations, made by generations of tribesmen who had sharpened their spears on the water-scoured rocks. Here are millennia of hunting history.
Many plains animals love to sunbathe, so sunrise is a great chance to see them stepping out of their night-time shelter to catch the first rays. That morning, we were treated to a rare sight. A beautiful bushbuck marched forward and sniffed the air. But he was not alone. Another equally handsome male arched his neck, and the pair goose-stepped round one other, each displaying his more impressive side, and giving us a breathtaking floor show in the process.
I had a licence to take a bushbuck or a reedbuck and Anton advocated stalking in while the boys were distracting each other but, having missed a chance at a reedbuck the previous day, it felt like cheating to “change horses midstream” so, reluctantly, we pressed on. Hours and miles passed. Even white rhino were in danger of seeming “common or garden”, and the rifle stayed in its slip.
Then, there was a glimmer of hope when our scout spotted something. Even through binoculars I’m not sure whether I could see him or not; I wanted to, which is nearly the same. I’m pretty sure he saw me, though. We must have covered the ground as thoroughly as any spaniel before admitting the chance was gone. The radio crackled: “Were we ever planning on coming back for lunch?” Not without success; we were adamant. Walking through head-high grass on the appropriately named Mtziki Hill (mtziki means reedbuck in Zulu), we saw a beauty briefly. Only a flick of his dark horns gave him away before he fled.
Eventually, Anton told me to look through the rifle scope and asked tactfully, “Do you think there is still enough light?” I had to admit that there was not. I was elated by the day’s experience. We had been unsuccessful and were covered in black jacks – a spiky equivalent of goosegrass that prick like needles and pins – but, in 12 hours, not a moment felt wasted. Fortunately, stressed muscles can be soothed in a bath with a view, or a roof-top hot tub, while steaks are seared on the braai.
The next morning was our last chance but everyone held their nerve. The weather helped. There was more cloud and a breeze, so we concentrated on sheltered valleys, working our way below the skyline of Mtziki Hill and glassing the low ground. Waterbuck, serval and zebra browsed below. I was beginning to lose heart and was gazing blindly at a rock or mound of earth until I felt an urgent tap on my shoulder: “Look there.”
Like a magic-eye picture coming into focus, the mound at which I was staring suddenly became a reedbuck. All the others had evaporated in front of us but this one did the exact opposite. Cursing every loose stone, we inched farther down the hill to rest in a perfect spot – a little, level nest with a small bush, just big enough to accommodate two friends and partially hidden from the valley floor. Hunched here, at last I made the successful shot.
The reedbuck came down in the grass; we marked him but he still wasn’t easy to find. Their camouflage works just as well in death. Standing out of sight and sound of the modern world, with a warm scent of rust and malt from the blood and the beast, and the air heavy with a storm, I was transfixed. There was a distant, deep rumble of thunder.
That evening, we had supper at the River Camp, with its thatched, stone rondavels on the bank of Bushman’s River, and watched a heart-shaking display from the prize-winning Zulu dance troupe that the property sponsors.
There is so much to enjoy here, be it hunting, fly-fishing, history or simply landscape, while feeling entirely at home. Robert Redford may not be included but for a while at least you, too, can have a farm in Africa.
Daily hunters’ rates are from $550. For further information, please visit www.zuluwaters.com.