Challenge in the Cape

My Pennsylvanian friend Bill Haslett was scheduled to fly into Kimberley for the start of our second safari together. During our planning, Bill had expressed that his main trophy wants were a gemsbuck (oryx), Cape eland and a few other true plains dwellers. As a result, my choice of primary destination was the Northern Cape.

Before departing, I mounted a Bausch & Lomb Elite 4000 1.5-6×36 scope on my 7×57 Mauser. Unfortunately,  I didn’t get a chance to sight it in. After driving 700km to the hunting lodge I set about zeroing the rifle. However – Murphy’s Law – I couldn’t get the shots onto the paper at all. I eventually traced the problem to the old scope mounts, which were totally zonked, so at that late stage there was nothing I could do. Fortunately I’d brought along my .375 H&H, so I used that instead.

Bill’s plane landed on time, but minus his rifles and luggage. We now had a situation where Bill would have to use my .375, leaving me with only the shooting sticks as a back-up tool – hardly ideal.

On the first day we spotted a large herd of gemsbuck in the distance. After moving in as close as possible, we had to get down to leopard crawling. Northern Cape terrain is mainly red sand, knee-high grass, low prickly scrub and a variety of acacia trees. This mix makes for a challenging stalk. By slithering along on our butts and then crawling on our bellies we slowly closed the distance. Each time a gemsbuck stopped feeding and looked our way we froze, and as soon as it dropped its head again we moved. The going was slow and extremely uncomfortable, and before long we were perspiring heavily.

The herd, which numbered about 40, were slowly moving along as they grazed. We just kept after them, snaking our way through the low grass. Eventually, we reached an acacia with low-hanging branches, so we rested and watched. It isn’t easy to select a bull in a big gemsbuck herd – the tricky part is waiting for him to present for a killing shot without endangering any animals near or behind him.

We saw several quality bulls, but only fleeting glimpses before they disappeared amid the moving herd or behind some brush. One particular bull had caught my attention, but he kept moving behind other herd members, showing only his magnificent horns above their backs.

At times during our gemsbuck hunt we’d throw up a temporary blind – even that didn’t work

Just then, four kudu cows with a non-trophy bull caught our eye as they sauntered towards the gemsbuck. Moving straight through the herd, they began to feed on the acacias, and as they browsed they slowly moved in our direction until they were no more than 50 metres from us. The cows halted, while the bull wandered to our left and lay down about 40 metres off, fortunately facing away from us.

We now had to watch the kudu and the gemsbuck, so we remained lying where we were to see how things unfolded. Suddenly, a kudu cow stared intently in our direction, lowering her ears until parallel with the ground. Unable to make us out, she was trying to be inconspicuous. A waiting game began, with hunters and cow both as motionless as statues – though I doubt she was getting cramp in her hamstring as I was.

The kudu bull then sprang to his feet – perhaps an eddy of wind had carried our dreaded human scent his way. As if on cue, the cow abruptly gave up trying to appear invisible. She pricked up her ears, swivelled them towards us and then snorted loudly. Then she spun on her heels and fled.

As one, the gemsbuck herd stampeded away in a cloud of red dust. It’d been a textbook stalk, but when you’re hunting herbivores, never forget nature has programmed them to spot predators, and they’re very good at it.

Back at camp, and close to midnight, a courier arrived with Bill’s missing rifles and luggage, so next morning we went to the range to check scopes. Bill had brought his favourite plains-game rifle, a .300 H&H built by Kilimanjaro on a Winchester Model 70 action. Since its debut in 1925, the flat-shooting
.300 H&H has, to my mind, proven itself one of the most reliable and effective cartridges for African plains game. Bill’s superbly built rifle was wearing a Leupold VX-7 2.5-10×45, and he’d handloaded 200 grain Sierra Spitzer boat tails for 2,850fps at muzzle. His second rifle was new to me, a .240 Weatherby with a Leupold VX-3 3.5-10×40. I’d heard of the calibre but never seen one on safari. For this neat little rifle, he’d loaded 100 grain Nosler Partitions for 3,300fps muzzle velocity.

The camp shooting range is where a PH quickly learns how much time his client has devoted to the most important aspect of hunting preparation – sighting in his rifle. If his shot placement on the zeroing target is where it should be, you can immediately get on with hunting and making clean, one-shot kills on your chosen trophy species.

After departing the range, we once more went in search of the gemsbuck herd we’d crawled up to the previous day. Unable to find them, we’d returned to camp at noon, and went in search of them again that afternoon, again without success. We saw a lone bull of trophy quality, but he galloped away and quickly disappeared.

Next morning was cold, but we were out by 6am regardless, blissfully unaware that it was going to be a challenging day with a grunt of a stalk ahead of us. At about 10am we found the big herd again, though our attempts to close with them were an exercise in futility. With about 80 pairs of eyes watching our every move out on the plains, we soon gave up.

We drove on, and suddenly the tracker tapped the cab and said he could see another herd of gemsbuck resting in a shallow basin beyond a slight ridge. Bill and I alighted from the rig and began a slow approach, dropping to our knees once we hit the skyline.

I glassed the herd and saw a few good bulls in two groups near a clump of mature acacia trees. The intervening ground was virtually bare, aside from short grass and small scattered boulders. My rangefinder gave me a reading of 390 metres, and getting any closer without being seen was going to be difficult. However, Bill and I were up for the challenge.

We moved off at a crawl along the ridgeline, trying to get directly opposite the resting gemsbuck. Whenever we reached a decent boulder, we rested. Once we’d covered 100 metres we swung directly in towards the herd. They were in a depression, so we couldn’t see them unless we rose to our knees and looked from behind a rock or patch of scrub. Any higher and we would’ve spooked them.

We had to get closer; there was nothing for it but to grit our teeth and continue, despite the discomfort. Eventually my knees and elbows, still tender from our first gemsbuck stalk, forced me to sit on my butt, place the shooting sticks ahead of me, then, with palms face-down on the ground, lift myself up a few inches and propel myself forward, repeating this move hunters call the ‘butt shuffle’ or ‘bum walking’. Glancing back, I saw Bill doing the same – and he had his rifle to contend with.

Bill with his hard-earned trophy gemsbuck after a few challenging stalks

Ahead of us was a scraggy little tree about a metre high, and I figured if we reached it we’d be inside 230 metres – shooting distance. But it was not to be: on reaching it we could only see female gemsbuck; the males were hidden from view, just below the lip of the level we were on. This meant more slow butt shuffling to a clump of boulders a further 20 yards ahead. On the way, I squeezed through a narrow gap between two boulders. Bill, slightly wider in the beam, couldn’t fit through, so he quickly slithered over the top like a lizard! Finally, we reached the closest position we could achieve without compromise; the rangefinder measured 195 metres to the herd.

An extremely good bull lay off to the right, but most of his body was hidden by an acacia. It was impossible to move either way without being seen, so we waited. Eventually, some in the herd stood up and began moving off. Glassing carefully, we picked out another bull standing next to a female.

By this stage I’d opened the short shooting sticks, and Bill very slowly moved his rifle into position, readying himself for my whispered call. Then, as if on cue, the bull standing next to the female moved out into the open and stopped. He offered the perfect broadside shot, and although he didn’t go the horn length of the bull lying behind the acacia, he was fully mature and very representative of the species.

Giving Bill the word, I’d hardly whispered it when the bull’s legs gave way and he collapsed in his tracks as the shot reverberated across the plains. That’s how a challenging hunt should end.

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