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Safari Days

Safari Days

From June 2008 American Hunter magazine

I zipped my brown Dickies coat, grabbed my rifle and headed to the sliding door of my new digs. Outside, the chill of sub-equatorial winter stung my summer-seasoned face as I briskly made my way to the smell of fresh coffee in the dining quarters. A hot mug and rusks (common hard biscuit treats for dipping) replaced my rifle. A more substantial breakfast was available, but I was too keyed up to eat a full meal. It was day one of my 10-day "virgin" safari in Namibia. Over rusks with Johan Koetze, our PH (professional hunter and partner in Kalahari Hunting Safaris of Namibia), I probed for a hunting strategy. Johan was cheerfully optimistic. "Let's go see what we can find for you!" he said, smiling knowingly as my confidence rose. By day's end, I would sense what it's like to live, rove and even to perish in the Kalahari Desert's rusty red sand.

***
I was accompanied on my nine-animal safari by friend and business associate Mark Chesnut, editor of NRA's America's 1st Freedom. We loaded into the Land Rover and rushed to a crude firing range to be certain our rifles were still zeroed following our 8,000-plus-mile airline trip from the United States. Our scopes were surprisingly on target, a testament to today's quality gun cases. We hurried back to the ranch house to pick up Sakmin, our keen-eyed tracker, and a three-legged dog named Junti, then we headed for the dunes.

On the way out, Mark and I flipped a coin for the first shot. I lost. I'm not sure how many kilometers we traveled before the Land Rover halted abruptly. Johan grabbed Mark and they disappeared over a dune. As a shot whizzed across the vast valley of sand, I thought, It can't be this easy, can it? They scurried back, jumped in and Johan asked if my camera equipment was ready as he shifted gears. I frantically began loading batteries and formatting memory cards. Mark had shot a springbok, and it was imperative we get to it immediately for a trophy shot because, as Johan explained, the pronounced white hair on its rump pricks up for only a few minutes after expiration. Johan's not only a master hunter, but he's also a heck of a cinematic director. Always with clients in mind, he considers lasting photographs just as important as horns.

Soon we were back on the dusty trail, and it was my turn. My hunt would last a little longer than Mark's, a recurring theme throughout the trip. We had a rule: The hunter and gun would always ride in the back. It seemed I spent more time bouncing around the exposed back of the Rover clutching my rifle waiting to bail out in pursuit of something, while Mark reclined comfortably up front.

As we topped the road, a large herd of gemsbok had just crested over the farthest dune. We made our way quickly up another dune to glass them and look for a mature bull. I was in awe of the tall javelin-horned beasts as they kicked dust across the desert plains. "Al die koei," Sakmin said. This was the first Afrikaans phrase I would learn, and at times it made me sigh. Loosely translated it means "they all cows." Regardless of the species, we were shooting only bulls, rams or stallions.

The engine started and off we went. For some 30 minutes we traveled over dune after dune, then stopped in the middle of the road as Johan and Sakmin chatted in Afrikaans. Translation: "fresh gemsbok spoor." We turned off the "main" road, got out and crept across a secondary road of sand to another dune. As I followed Johan to the top, Sakmin whispered, "Bull." Now, I'd never hunted gemsbok, and after being in country only 24 hours I was suddenly acting like I knew the program. "Which one is the shooter?" I asked, considering all gemsbok, male or female, had horns and looked alike to me. "Eighth from the right," Johan said, and if that was not enough clarification, he added, "Wait till he turns backside, then you'll know for sure."

More discussion between Sakmin and Johan ensued. "Okay, Pete, let me get a distance for you ... um, 329 yards." Johan advised. "He's now broadside, shoulder high, when you're ready." Aiming my trusty T/C Pro Hunter in .30-06, I fired my first shot in Africa.

The bullet hit slightly far back but still punctured the lungs. The bull crashed in the sand and I was thrilled—until it stood and bolted over the dune. We quickly followed over another dune until we saw him in an open area. "Hit him again!" Johan ordered.

Thwack! He was down for good.

As I stood admiring the splendid animal, I understood what I'd heard from colleagues all these years: There is nothing like hunting in Africa. By the end of our first day, Mark had taken a gemsbok, a record-book red hartebeest and a springbok, and I had my first taste of Africa with a mature gemsbok.

***
The next day, I shot my second gemsbok at 200 yards with the new .375 Ruger. Mark shot a monster 40-inch gemsbok, which seems to be the magic number for trophy enthusiasts. Neither of us knew SCI (Safari Club International) scoring methods at the time. Every creature was a trophy to us.

The next morning was brisk and breezy, making shooting challenging. My face was chapped from the abrasive desert air. I shot a springbok and spent the rest of the day in pursuit of a red hartebeest. Finally, we had him pegged, or so we thought. I jumped out of the truck and asked Mark to carry the sandbag rest for me. Here we were in a desert, surrounded by sand, yet we needed to haul 20 pounds of sand. The hartebeest gave us the slip so I ended up shooting another springbok. While we each had two "trophy" springboks in our hunt package, this one was for the kitchen. The backstraps were so tasty that staff had asked us to shoot a few extra rams. We caught up with the hartebeest later as day three came to a successful end.

***
The following morning I stepped outside looking like one of the Dalton gang. To combat the wind, I'd cut a makeshift bandana from one of my military surplus T-shirts. Johan and Mark noted I was dressed more for a hold-up than a hunt.

We started the morning hunting the diminutive steenbok. Mature steenbok generally have horns that are 4½ inches or better; horns must top the ears to make the "shooter" category. After a few failed stalks, Mark and I got our steenboks and pressed on to another ranch, where Mark would look for an optional impala. I still had one more trophy springbok tag to fill, and these animals were common throughout the Kalahari. What happened that afternoon frustrated me to complete anguish. Of course, hunting can be humbling.

We arrived at a new ranch and found an impala almost out of the gate. I told Mark, "They just let him out of the barnyard for you!" It was just Mark's lucky streak again. He'd be in the shooter seat 30 minutes and score. Now it was my turn. The winds were stronger than on the previous day. While the springbok would stop at 350-400 yards, here they seemed to prefer standing behind trees, making a clear shot hard to find.

I finally fired and missed. "It felt right," I told Johan, adding, "I didn't jerk the trigger." Apparently, I'd shot left, in front of the animal's chest. We caught up with another group—another miss. We repeated the cycle several times, again all misses to the left. I was frustrated. On the way home, I thought about each scenario and asked Johan to take me to the range the next morning to check my scope.

Over dinner as I replayed my story to Johan's wife and son, I realized what I'd been doing. Because of the wind, I'd tried cinching the sling above my left elbow for more stabilization. Competitive shooters use this technique, so I thought it would work for me, but mid-week of the hunt was no time to experiment. Apparently, I'd wrapped the sling so tight that it was actually straining the fore-end, causing pull on the barrel. The following morning, on a sandbag rest in a calm wind, all my shots were dead-on.

***
Our next animal was a blesbuck. Going for the same species made it convenient, as both Mark and I would have to stop at the halfway point on our travel north toward the Khomas—the mountain region where we would conclude our safari. Crossing the Tropic of Capricorn, it was about a four- to five-hour drive. We unpacked for a night's stay. Over dinner, Johan gave us a history lesson on the Afrikaaner nation and the Boer War, which fascinated me since both Americans and Afrikaaners had fought the British for independence.

We lingered outside the house waiting for Andres, our host for the day's hunt. Blesbok herd up during winter months so you usually find them in a group. When we approached the first group, Johan, Andres and Sakmin appeared excited. Johan said there was a monster white blesbok amongst them, and we were going after him. White blesbok are a color-phased part of the species, usually less common and a noble trophy, especially when adorned with tall, thick horns.

We stalked the herd several times, which took the better half of the morning. The rangefinder pinned the "shooter" at 300 yards, but he was on the move. This time I was using the .375 Ruger, which, despite the heavy bullet, performed admirably at 340 yards. An initial "green score" put the animal high in SCI's Record Book of Trophy Animals.

***
The final jaunt in the Land Rover was a five-hour drive to the Khomas for Hartmann's zebra and greater southern kudu. The climactic hunt of these large animals was just the way to conclude our trip.

When I'd told folks at home I was hunting zebra, their response was, "That's like shooting a horse." Well, I have hunted zebra and it's nothing like shooting a horse. In fact, my mountain zebra stalk was one of the most difficult of all. These animals are swift and can get well out of range and into places you can't. Moreover, they are hard to find and camouflage well in the brush. It's astonishing that those stripes work so well in the natural world.

I loaded the "big gun." The zebra were grazing at the top of the mountain, but by the time we got there they had disappeared. Sakmin indicated they'd known our position and were now two peaks over to the north. "You have got to be kidding me!" I said. We went as fast as we could toward them. The mountain crossing was difficult and I had to wonder how my scope would hold up to the beating.

Near the top, we saw them in the brush. I placed the crosshairs behind the stallion's shoulder and squeezed. He reared, staggered slightly and fell 20 yards from where he'd stood. From our vantage point, it looked as if he went down in the bush.

Now the work would begin. We climbed the road in the rugged Toyota pickup. Sakmin and the skinners started cheering when we realized the zebra had died right in the middle of the dirt road. This was a relief as Johan estimated the animal weighed more than 750 pounds.

Our final hunt was for the coveted kudu bull. Its majestic deep-spiral horns are synonymous with African safari. Kudu hunting is similar to deer hunting in that one day they are everywhere, then the next day you can't find one. The first day we hunted kudu we saw only cows and calves, making it easier for me to remember the Afrikaans word for cow. Where were the bulls? The mountains of Namibia are covered with brush and mesquite—like trees that can hide a large Kudu even at close range. We ended the day with Mark shooting the only mature bull we encountered.

***
With two days left, I still needed a kudu and Mark needed a zebra to complete our hunt package. As we glassed the hilltops, I began to realize the trip was coming to an end and how much I would miss this place. As a hunter, it had been perhaps the greatest experience of my life. I perked up when Sakmin said, "Big bull!"

Johan pointed out the location at 250 yards as I glassed him with my binocular. The bull was certainly impressive, appearing like a painted mural in my field of view. It was a textbook scenario as he stood broadside. I fired and ended my safari with a massive, 57-inch kudu. By dusk, we had seen seven quality bulls. Mark opted out on his zebra and instead shot a second mature kudu bull.

By the end of our 10-day, nine-animal hunt, I had taken a total of 12 animals and Mark had taken 15, providing plenty of additional springbok backstraps for the kitchen. I shot four animals with the Ruger .375 and eight with my T/C Pro Hunter in .30-06. All our animals made the minimums for the SCI and Namibia record books, exhibiting how Johan and the Kalahari Hunting Safari staff know the quality of animals on their various properties. We hunted more than 100,000 acres in total and the only high fence we saw was at the airport.

It certainly is true that Africa has an overpowering effect on a hunter's state of mind. Hunting there is addictive, and if there's a rehab for it, I refuse to go. I was obsessed planning for this trip and, now that I've returned, I'm more obsessed with going back. What's more, the trip is affordable and uncomplicated. The next time you're thinking of booking a hunt, contact the T. Jeffrey Safari Company. You'll make a trip of a lifetime without busting your wallet. 

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