The sun was sinking quickly. Soon it would disappear behind the distant trees on the Botswana side of the Marico River. The warthog we were after, a big male with impressive tusks Shadrack had spotted two days prior, was unlikely to make an appearance at this late hour. Two duikers present an hour earlier had fed out of sight. The dozen or so smaller warthogs that dotted the landscape throughout the evening had long since retired to their burrows. Rutting impala rams, spewing their guttural, seemingly unnatural roars, had fallen silent. So had various doves, sparrows, hornbills and francolins that had serenaded us since our late-afternoon arrival.
With darkness slowly enveloping the veldt, it wouldn’t be long before Shadrack would bring the truck to take us back to camp for the final time.
As I watched that orange orb slip away, I couldn’t help but feel one of the great times of my life was fading with it. There would never be another “first” Africa for me—that I knew for certain. More pressing was the realization that, though still young at 52 and 30, respectively, there was no guarantee Dad and I would ever share an adventure like this again.
We arrived in Johannesburg on the evening of May 13. Upon clearing passport control and customs, retrieving our luggage and completing the rifle-importation formalities with the South African police, we were out of O.R. Tambo International Airport and on our way to our first hunting area. We would begin our safari three hours to the west in the open country of South Africa’s North West province near Swartruggens (Afrikaans for “black ridges”). It’s a small farming community that served as a British supply depot after the famed siege of Mafeking during the Second Boer War.
As we bounced along the dirt road into camp, drained from our 17-hour flight from the States, the sight of eyes in the headlights jolted us back to life.
“Sable,” said Pieter Potgieter, our professional hunter and the owner of Motsomi Safaris. He swung the truck off the track so we could get a look at the bull’s sweeping horns. “Looks like a young bull with pretty good potential.”
Farther along, we spotted more eyes, this time from a herd of blesbok. Then as we crossed the breastwork of a dry earthen dam, a lone waterbuck bull eased down the embankment. I actually get to hunt here? My mind raced with the possibilities morning would bring.
It was too dark to get an accurate picture of our surroundings when we arrived in camp, but daybreak confirmed what I had suspected: We were in hunting paradise. The lodge, a well-appointed brick structure with a traditional African thatched roof, sat atop a high bluff with 360-degree views of the countryside, which was awash in golden sunlight.
Like kids on Christmas morning, Dad and I were up with the sun, despite Pieter’s advice to rest after our flight. We were soon joined on the veranda by Mom, who, though not a hunter, didn’t want to miss the fun. Already keyed up from seeing so much game on the drive into camp, our anticipation level was heightened when we laid eyes on the scores of mounts lining the lodge’s walls. Pieter indulged our many questions regarding the different species, and he gave us a thorough tutorial on gauging trophy quality using the mounts as teaching aids.
Although a kudu was at the top of my wish list, one unassuming species in particular caught my eye among the many mounts, so it was only fitting that we would hunt blesbok first.
After a light breakfast we drove over to the skinning shed and picked up our tracker, Shadrack, then headed to the range to sight-in our rifles. I was shooting a Remington Model 700 in .30-06. Dad bought a Model 700 XCR II in .375 H&H Mag. in advance of our trip, a purchase made with an eye toward someday pursuing Cape buffalo.
From the shooting bench we could see herds of blesbok and springbok in the distance. Stalking within range in the wide-open terrain with so many eyes would be difficult, so we circled around and used a crease in the land to flank them. There were several good springboks to choose from, but we decided to try our luck with the blesbok first, after Pieter spotted an exceptional ram.
Dad, like so many times through the years, was adamant that I take the first shot, and he wished me luck.
Employing a tactic familiar to pronghorn hunters, Pieter opened a giant camouflage umbrella to hide our forms, and we advanced behind it, cutting the distance to perhaps 150 yards. We crawled the final span to a scrub bush, and Pieter put up the shooting sticks.
Our boy was covered in the back of the herd, but it was easy to keep track of him—his horns were longer and heavier, and his body darker, than the others. As we waited for the shot, my mind wandered back to the words Dad had spoken when we booked our trip at the 2012 Harrisburg show: “I can’t wait to see the look on your face when you tip over your first African animal. Once Africa gets in your blood, life will never be the same.”
Dad knew that lesson well, having fulfilled his lifelong dream of hunting Africa three years earlier (also with Pieter). Now we were on the Dark Continent together. It was only fitting that after a lifetime of sharing his love for hunting with me, my first taste of Africa would come with Dad by my side. This is the same man who was there when I shot my first limit of squirrels; the man who was there when, to my surprise, I connected on a 200-yard shot to kill my first deer; the man who helped me call in my best gobbler to date just five seasons ago.
The herd began to part, snapping me back into the moment. When the shot presented itself, I settled the crosshairs on the blesbok’s shoulder, slowly pulled the trigger and ... blew the shot. The herd froze. I ran the bolt on the Remington and shot again. The herd took off, and my blesbok immediately fell behind. Though probably unnecessary in hindsight, I shot again and broke his back, putting him down for good.
I looked back at Dad and gave him a thumbs-up. I couldn’t tell you whose smile was bigger.
“Just like the mounts we saw at the lodge last night,” Dad said, running his fingers along the white-ringed ridges on the blesbok’s horns.
“He is an old ram,” Pieter added. “Those white ridges are a sign of age. His horns are very thick and will likely go 16- or 161/2-inches long. I know score isn’t important to you, but that is a gold-medal blesbok.”
To boot, Pieter reminded us that although blesbok are found in many areas of southern Africa today, they are indigenous to the part of South Africa we were hunting.
After handshakes and photos, we noticed the springboks hadn’t moved far, so I passed the 06 to Dad. Using our umbrella trick again, we were able to get in range, and soon Dad had his springbok, an animal that had eluded him on his first safari.
We were two for two, with virtually our whole safari in front of us. I couldn’t wait to explore more of this land, and I was thankful to be sharing the experience with the man I respect most, the man who taught me everything I know about hunting and shooting. Dad never said it in so many words, but I know the feeling was mutual.
That afternoon we were admiring a herd of zebra on a steep hillside when Dad spotted a gemsbok in the distance. We had seen a few gemsbok earlier, and we could tell instantly this one was larger.
“It’s a bull,” Pieter said as he studied the animal through his Swarovski. “He’s not the biggest one you’ll find, probably about 34 inches, but he’s a good representative gemsbok for this area.”
We were on the back side of the property, and it was steeper and brushier than the open terrain we had hunted that morning. The bull stood atop the next ridge, feeding in a field lined with brush.
“He’s farther than he looks, but we should be able to get to him before dark,” Pieter continued. “Do you want to try?”