Story and Photos by: James C. Reed
A New Era Dawns for a Historic Property in South Africa’s Karoo
In the heart of South Africa’s Great Karoo lies a very special place, a onetime livestock farm known as Karreekloof. It dates back to the mid-1800's when a great influx of Boer settlers and their herds of livestock moved into this region; at that time, Karreekloof was a trading post known as Lilienfeld & Wright. Although farming was the primary activity in the area, trade in Afrikaner cattle, Catalonian donkeys and Persian sheep was also important.
In those early years, dawn would often greet the settlers with views of their cattle and sheep grazing among herds of springbok, blesbok, red hartebeest, black wildebeest, ostrich and quagga. Other species were also present, including rhino, buffalo, giraffe, roan antelope and other predators. Unfortunately, as the settlers and their livestock increased, so did predator/farmer conflicts, leading to the ultimate removal of carnivores, and eventually other native wildlife, from the land.
I became aware of Karreekloof after doing several hunts with Wintershoek Safaris, when one of Wintershoek’s owners, Wiaan van der Linde, introduced me to Peter Wright. Peter was the owner of Karreekloof, and the farm had been in his family since 1881. He wanted to do something special with this 84,000-acre tract. Peter approached Wiaan with an idea. His dream was not only that the property remain intact, but that wild animals, especially rhinos, would roam free on the property as in the days of old. This dream tied into Wiaan’s vision of getting vast privately owned areas in South Africa to contribute to the conservation of natural habitats. Wiaan struck a deal with Peter and the transformation from cattle farm to wild game preserve was born.
Work began at Karreekloof to restore the wildlife to naturally occurring breeding herds as well as renovations to all of the original buildings and the creation of a museum in this history-rich area. A few years ago, my wife, Mariah, and I had seen the beginnings of the work and were privileged to help with the translocation of the first white rhinos to be restored to the new preserve. Three years later, I was eager to return and see how much had been accomplished.
In 2017, Mariah and I and our nine-year-old daughter, Josie, pulled up to the gates of Karreekloof with professional hunter Yvan Nieuwoudt of Wintershoek Safaris. Not only were we filled with excitement to see the transformation of the property, but also this would be Josie’s first big-game hunt. She is a very driven person who excels at everything she attempts, as was the case with her shooting. She started out with a .22 shooting squirrels and rabbits around home and now shoots a 7mm-08 with great accuracy. Loaded with Hornady’s Custom-Lite ammunition, the rifle recoils so mildly that her 65-pound physique handles it with ease.
Pulling up to the main building, Yvan had us sign in on the guest register. We then went outside to a bell tower where we rang the large bell to announce our arrival. It was a beautiful morning and as we were walking to the main lodge we had the pleasure of being greeted by Mr. Wright himself, who still lives on the property and was out for his morning walk. We could see the pride and excitement beaming from him as he talked about Karreekloof’s new era. We settled our luggage and gear, then headed out for a morning hunt.
I was hoping to find a good old sable bull for myself, but my main focus was to help get Josie and Mariah a couple of animals and to see the reserve. As we drove into the hunting area, we were startled by a loud huff from the bushes as a large white rhino bull voiced his displeasure at our interrupting his morning nap. Being in the Karoo, the landscape is very open, mostly grasslands and rolling hills with little cover, divided by valleys with thick brush. I could see it was going to require some stalking skills to approach animals in such open terrain. Game was present in every direction, feeding on the now drought-stricken grass. We hadn’t driven far when we spotted a herd of gemsbok with some great bulls. Yvan surveyed the situation, then he and Mariah headed out on a stalk. Josie and I stayed near the truck on a hill, spectators of the hunt.
Working their way down into a draw for cover, Mariah and Yvan began to close the distance on the wary gemsbok. We lost sight of them for a bit, but it wasn’t long before they appeared on the far side of the brushy draw. They had run out of cover but were still too far for a shot, so they abandoned the stalk and we moved on. This was the recurring routine for much of the day — a few more stalks were attempted, but either the hunters ran out of cover or got busted by other animals hidden in the bush. The vastness of this place was incredible and we spent much of the first day visiting historic sites and exploring.
The next morning, we hadn’t gone far when we came across a herd of impala. Yvan, Josie and I grabbed Josie’s rifle and shooting sticks and headed out. The impala were feeding on a brushy hill with lots of rocks and boulders scattered about. We kept catching glimpses of the big ram but with Josie being so small, we just couldn’t get her set up where she could get a clear shot. We set up several times, but she never had a comfortable shot. I was really proud of Josie’s patience; she made her own decisions to pass instead of rushing her shot and risking a bad hit that might result in wounding an animal. The impala finally spooked, so we left them and moved on. Around midday, we headed back to the lodge for lunch and a swim for Josie (and a nap for Dad and Mom).
That afternoon we were joined by Karreekloof’s manager and PH, Gideon. He had quite a time showing Josie the wildlife and teasing her as we searched for a springbok. Upon reaching an area where there were abundant springbok, we began looking for not only a good, mature ram, but one in a favorable position that could be stalked by a height-impaired hunter. We made a few approaches but the springbok kept working just out of her comfortable range. Spotting some springbok in some thicker cover, we hoped this would offer a better chance. As we closed the distance, I noticed a ram just in front of us, feeding behind a tree. We waited for the ram to feed into a good position. This ram fed back and forth behind the tree, never offering a good broadside shot. The anticipation was agonizing for Gideon and me, but Josie seemed cool as a cucumber.
Finally, the ram spooked a bit, ran right out into the open, and stopped 50 yards away, standing perfectly broadside. Already on my knees, I offered Josie my shoulder, and she took the shot. The ram went only a few steps and fell from a perfect heart shot. Hugs abounded from two ecstatic men and a very happy little girl. Mariah joined us, so proud of our little hunter. I took Josie to the fallen ram and showed her the great shot she had made. I explained to her the respect we give the animals we hunt, showed her the obvious signs of old age of this ram, and we both thanked him for his life. As we were taking care of the ram, Josie found a big old leopard tortoise and enjoyed its company. She was falling in love with everything Africa.
After taking care of the springbok, we were driving in the late afternoon when Yvan spotted two sable bulls bedded in the distance. We glassed them and quickly determined one was a very large old bull with several inches of “posting” at his horn bases, just the type we were looking for. Unfortunately, they were bedded right out in the middle of a huge grass flat with no cover for an approach in any direction. We assessed the situation and decided to wait for the sun to get just above the horizon so it was at our backs and directly in the sables’ eyes. We watched the bedded bulls from afar, and just as the sun was low and above the horizon, we began our stalk. Yvan took the lead with me directly behind him to keep our silhouette as small as possible. We moved steadily and fairly quickly to get as close as possible before we lost our sun, the only advantage we had.
I kept ranging the bulls until we were finally within 250 yards. At that point the bulls finally stood, first the smaller bull, then our target bull. I stepped out from behind Yvan and set up on the sticks. At the shot, I could see the bull was clearly hit hard. He turned and ran directly away, stopping again just before entering a draw 400 yards away.
Yvan said, “He’s hit good, but hit him again if you can.” I was already on the bull and he dropped at the shot.
Mariah and Josie joined us as we walked up on the beautiful old bull. I had wanted a sable for years, but didn’t want just “any” sable. I wanted a sable bull exactly like this old bull. He was magnificent. We took pictures, loaded the bull in the vehicle, and headed to the lodge for the night.
The following day we had several fun but unsuccessful stalks on gemsbok. It was nearing noon when Yvan said he had a surprise for us. We drove to a grove of trees along a creek where the staff had met us and were setting up a picnic. The meal wasn’t quite ready yet, and Yvan and Gideon wanted to show us some ancient Bushman paintings on the rocks nearby. We hadn’t walked far when I saw an impala ram bound across the trail in front of us. Yvan immediately said, “I’ll be right back!”
He ran back to the truck and grabbed Josie’s rifle and shooting sticks. He said, “Josie, this is a very old ram, and one we should take.” The ram had worked its way up over an escarpment, so we circled downwind and made our stalk. Yvan was watching farther out in front when just ahead of us, about 50 yards, I spotted horn tips. I pointed them out to Yvan and we dropped down to prepare Josie for the shot. We got her setup and the ram stepped out and stood broadside. Josie made a beautiful heart shot, and the ram ran over a rise out of sight.
Upon following him, we found he had expired right in the middle of the area where the Bushman paintings were. It was truly a special moment to share a hunt not only with my wife, daughter and friends, but also with the ancients who had memorialized this spot. We admired the very old ram; it was obvious he wouldn’t have made it through the drought. Yvan picked the ram up on his shoulders and down we went to enjoy the picnic awaiting us.
On the final day and after several more tries for a gemsbok for Mariah, we spotted a mixed herd of gemsbok and wildebeest about a mile distant at last light. We hurriedly made our way across the valley and started to approach the herd as it fed through the thick brush. Yvan kept glassing as new animals would appear in the small openings.
He finally said, “Mariah, I see several gemsbok but no exceptional ones. But there is an exceptional wildebeest. Would you like a wildebeest?” Without hesitation, she answered “yes,” and moved into position. The wildebeest bulls were feeding across an opening about 100 yards off. Every time one stepped into the opening, Yvan would evaluate it and say, “Not him, not him, not him . . .” then finally he said, “Yes, him!” Mariah took the shot and the brush erupted in wildebeest and gemsbok. It took us a bit to sort out which tracks were which, but once we did we found that the bull hadn’t gone far and had piled up in mid-stride. Mariah was thrilled with her last-minute bull.
Although Karreekloof had been a well-established livestock farm and trading post since the early 1800s and was well known as one of the best farms in the Karoo, a new era has dawned on this land. This is why Wiaan has put so much effort into keeping the history alive at Karreekloof through a facelift of the original buildings and a museum telling the stories of the region’s past. Wiaan’s and Peter’s shared dream for the land itself has become a reality as Karreekloof has been converted, in just three years, from a livestock farm to a 105,000-acre game reserve with more than 6,000 wild animals, including both black and white rhinoceros, thus creating one of the leading self-sustaining conservation models in Africa and a true rhino sanctuary. Karreekloof already has the biggest free-roaming herds of sable and roan antelope on any private game reserve in Africa. Their ultimate vision is to create the first Big Five game reserve in the Northern Cape, a true wildlife haven in an extensively restored Upper Karoo ecosystem.
This is the Karreekloof dream — returning part of nature to what it once was. Although much has changed since the first settlers laid eyes on nearly endless herds of game, at Karreekloof, the dream of a restored African wilderness and a shimmering hope for a new era of conservation remains.