Gemsbok in the red sand

Kevin Thomas recounts a frustrating hands-and-knees hunt on the trail of gemsbok in South Africa’s Northern Cape

Pennsylvanian Bill Haslett was scheduled to fly into Kimberley for the start of our second safari. During the planning phase Bill expressed his trophy wants wishes a gemsbok, a Cape eland, and a few other true plains dwellers.

After I’d arrived at camp and settled in, I took my 7x57mm Mauser down to the range to zero it with its new Bausch & Lomb Elite 4000 1.5x-6x 36mm. Friend Murphy ensured I couldn’t get the rifle to print on paper at all. Luckily the only witnesses to my inability to hit the target were some kids from the labour lines, probably hoping that their father didn’t have to hunt with me.

A lone kudu bull standing way out on a ridge, spotted while stalking the gemsbok

A lone kudu bull standing way out on a ridge, spotted while stalking the gemsbok

Eventually I noticed it was the old scope mounts that were zonked, and there was nothing I could do until my return home. Plan ‘B’ then came into effect – use the .375 H&H I’d also brought with me.

In Kimberley Bill’s plane was on time, but his guns and baggage weren’t. We now had a scenario whereby Bill would initially have to use my .375 H&H and I’d only have the sticks – not ideal.

We hit top gear from the outset on the first day, ending up engaged in a fantastic stalk on a large herd of gemsbok. After spotting them in the far distance, we stalked as close as we could before getting down and belly crawling. Northern Cape terrain is mainly red sand, knee high grass, prickly low scrub, and acacia trees, making for a challenging stalk.

A puff of dust rises away from the target as Bill zeroes one of his rifles

A puff of dust rises away from the target as Bill zeroes one of his rifles

Between belly crawling, leopard crawling, and slithering along on our butts while staying as low to the ground as possible, we slowly closed the distance. Bill was lugging my .375 H&H and I was dragging the shooting sticks. Each time a gemsbok looked our way, we froze, and as soon it dropped its head to feed, we moved. It took time and was immensely uncomfortable, with both of us perspiring heavily.

The herd numbered about 40 and as they slowly moved on, we continued through the low dry grass. Reaching an acacia with low branches, we rested and watched. It isn’t easy to select a bull out of a herd of gemsbok – identifying a bull is not the tricky part, it is waiting for him to present a shot. Although we saw a number of quality bulls, they were fleeting glimpses before the animal disappeared into the herd or behind brush. One bull in particular had attracted my attention but he kept moving or keeping behind the others, just his magnificent horns showing above their backs.

We now had a scenario whereby Bill would have to use my .375 H&H and I’d
only have the sticks

Our attention was drawn to four kudu cows and a non-trophy bull sauntering towards the gemsbok. They moved straight through the herd and then began browsing contentedly on the acacias, slowly moving towards us, until they stopped no more than 50 metres to our front. The kudu bull wandered to our left and lay down about 40m away. Luckily he was facing away from us.

Keeping an eye on the kudu and gemsbok, we waited to see how things would unfold. Suddenly the one kudu cow stared intensely in our direction, then dropped her parabolic ears parallel with the ground – not knowing what we were, she was trying to be inconspicuous. Our waiting game continued with the cow and us frozen. The only difference was she wasn’t getting cramp in her hamstring, and I was.

RSKT076The kudu bull to our left leapt to his feet – perhaps a shifting wind eddy with our dreaded human scent. As soon as he was up, the ‘now you can’t see me’ kudu cow act came to an abrupt end. Lifting her ears, she swivelled them towards us and snorted, a loud Bwoh! Then spun on her heels and bolted, and as if on cue, everything was up and stampeding in a cloud of red dust. End of stalk.

That evening a courier arrived with Bill’s missing guns and clothing, so early on day two we were at the zeroing range. He’d brought his favourite plains game rifle, a .300 H&H built by Serengeti (now Kilimanjaro) on a Winchester Model 70 action. Since its debut back in 1925, the .300 H&H is to my mind one of the most proven calibres for African plains game, flat shooting and highly effective. Bill’s superbly built rifle was wearing a Leupold VX-7 2.5-10×45 and he’d hand-loaded 200-grain Sierra Spitzer Boat Tails using IMR4831 powder, giving him 2,850fps of muzzle velocity.

His second rifle was new to me: a .240 Weatherby dressed with a Leupold VX-3 3.5-10×40. For this, he’d loaded a few boxes of 100-grain Nosler Partition using IMR4831 and was getting a blistering 3,300fps.

At the zeroing range a PH soon learns how much pre-hunt time a client devotes to this all-important aspect of sport hunting. If the client’s bullets go where they ought from the onset, you can quickly get down to doing what you’re meant to be doing on safari – putting one-shot trophies into the salt.

Departing the range, we searched for the gemsbok herd we’d spent the previous day crawling around among. Late in the day we saw a lone bull – he was a shooter but galloped away and quickly disappeared.

Next morning, it was cold, the kind of cold that makes you hold your coffee mug with two hands. But we were out by 6am, neither of us yet knowing it was going to be a challenging day with a grunt of a stalk ahead of us. At 10am we found the big herd again, but with 80 pairs of eyes watching our every move out on the plains, we couldn’t get close.

Moving on, the tracker suddenly tapped the cab and said he could see another herd of gemsbok resting in a shallow basin beyond a slight ridge running west to east of us. Bill and I alighted from the rig and began a slow approach, initially climbing the ridge then dropping to our knees once we hit skyline.

From a crouch, I glassed the herd and saw a few good bulls, standing and lying in two groups around a clump of mature acacia trees. But the surrounding ground was virtually bare, aside from short grass and small, scattered boulders. My rangefinder gave me a reading of about 390 metres; getting any closer without being seen was going to be difficult.

But we were up for the challenge. We moved off at a crawl along the ridge, trying to get opposite the resting gemsbok. It was a long, slow crawl, our knees and hands taking a pounding. Whenever we reached a decent boulder – most of which were about knee high – we rested. Each time I chanced a quick peek at the gemsbok; they were still relaxed and unaware of any threat.

A herd of Gemsbok in the Auob River valley, Kalahari Desert

A herd of Gemsbok in the Auob River valley, Kalahari Desert

Once we’d covered about 100 metres we swung directly in towards the herd, which was now situated to our front. But because they were in low ground, we couldn’t see them unless we rose to our knees. Needing to get closer, we had no option but to grit our teeth and continue. Eventually my knees and elbows, still scabbed and sore from our first gemsbok stalk, forced me to revert to sitting on my butt and facing forwards, place the shooting sticks ahead of me, then with palms on the ground, lift myself up a few inches then propel myself forward, before repeating the move that hunters call the ‘butt shuffle’. Glancing over my shoulder, I observed Bill doing the same, and he had his rifle to contend with.

Finally, we reached the closest we could go without compromise; the rangefinder reflected 195 metres to the herd. After recovering our breath, we glassed the herd. One good male was lying off to the right but most of his body was hidden behind an acacia tree. It was impossible for us to have moved either way without being seen, so we waited. Eventually some of the herd stood up and moved. Glassing carefully, we picked out another bull standing next to a female; the first big bull we’d seen was still lying down and impossible to get a bullet into.

Gemsbok on an extermely rare misty morning in the Kalahari Desert

Gemsbok on an extermely rare misty morning in the Kalahari Desert

By this stage I’d opened the short shooting sticks, and Bill, hunkered down alongside me, had slowly moved his rifle into position and readied himself for my whispered call. And then, as if on cue, the bull standing next to the female moved off and walked out into the open then stopped between the two groups of gemsbok. Broadside on, he offered a perfect shot, and although he didn’t go the horn length of the gemsbok lying behind the tree, he was fully mature and representative of the species.

I gave Bill the word and hardly had I whispered it than the gemsbok’s legs gave way and he collapsed in his tracks, the sound of the shot reverberating across the plains – a good way for a challenging hunt to end.

Hunt with Kevin Thomas Safaris – contact 00 27 46 5250201 or www.ktsafaris.co.za.

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