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.
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 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.
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.
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.