Willem owns some 6,000 hectares near the south east border of the Free State in South Africa. There’s the usual farm animals here. Cows, sheep, and I suspect the occasional goat though I never saw one. What makes this place different are the thousands of Blesbok, Sprinbok, Zebra, Gemsbok, Black Wildebeest, and the occasional Oribi, Duiker, and Bushbuck. (Sorry if I missed anything Willem, I was a bit overwhelmed.) It’s a game ranch primarily and during the season hunters will come from all over the world to hunt both common and uncommon South African antelope. To shoot a Sable Antelope, a rarity on these game reserves, could run you 50,000 dollars.
These game ranches are increasingly common in South Africa. They are strictly controlled, but there are still a lot of issues. Big five hunting is legal in South Africa and is a sensitive subject. Many of these hunts are “canned hunts” where the lion will be injured or drugged beforehand, put into a cage in the back of a truck and released to be shot shortly afterwards. This is illegal but as I understand it still occurs widely. Of course none of this occurs on Willem’s ranch but the less savory practices of other ranches have soured the ranching business as a whole. I’m not a hunter so I won’t ramble further on any ethical questions that might arise.
Some years ago Donny, another ranch owner and friend of Willem, was looking for a way to make some extra money during the off-season. He was in the States and was introduced by some way or another to Daren, a herpetologist at the University of Arizona. They got to talking and Daren suggested taking students out on his land for herp collection and general wildlife viewing during the off-season. Through the magic of transcontinental flight and a general love for herpin’ Daren and Donny (followed later by Willem) hit it off and Daren has been coming back every other year ever since.
And so years later in a roundabout sort of way I find myself on the back of a pickup truck swaying violently, rumbling over potholes and aardvark dens, my hip bones occasionally slamming into the roll bars as we crest the first ridge. The scene in the valley below cues the Lion King soundtrack in my head, thousands of antelope can be seen grazing over what looks like miles and miles of green green grass. We spook some nearby Wildebeest and they take off running, a veritable waterfall of animals start to stampede up the valley flowing over the landscape like water. A truly spectacular sight.
Above us on the horizon is Potberg mountain. It is covered with sharp cut ravines and rolling hills. Dramatic cliffs on one side of valley oppose rolling hills on the other. And it’s so very green. Every inch of soil is covered with delicious green grass. Truly an antelope’s paradise.
Switch backs and slow climbs later we reach the top. We are on the edge of the Drakensburg range so other rolling mountains can be seen in the distance towards Lesotho. Hills and valleys roll off in every direction. You could see for a hundred miles. A nice breeze was coming in and the early morning haze was starting to burn off.
All I could think was how I wanted to plant a little hut just there near the cliff-side. Big picture windows, a nice chair to read in, and a bed to sleep in (with a wood stove for the winter months) would be all I needed.
Yessir a fine thing it would be to own your own mountain.
The rest of the day was spent flipping rocks, eyeing birds, and generally stumbling about in a stupor, but more on all of that some other day.