by Ken Elliot - Monday, July 14, 2014
The afternoon sun warmed Botswana’s Okavango Delta and the breeze was just stirring the leaves of the mopani trees as a group of about seven kudu bulls crossed the two-track road we were hunting about a hundred yards in front of us. “From what little I saw of the trailing bull in that bunch, he appeared to be pretty good and well worth taking another look,” opined my professional hunter, Andrew Walker. “Are you ready for a walk in the woods?” With that we took up the track of the band of bulls and began a stalk for the kudu I had traveled more than 10,000 miles to find.
Although the breeze was slight and the sandy footing was ideal for quiet going, the trees were just thick enough to make it nearly impossible to spot anything that wasn’t moving. That, coupled with the fact the slight breeze was constantly changing direction, meant the advantage in this stalking game went to the kudu. But the Delta sand gave us a trail almost anyone could follow, and our trackers weren’t just anyone, they were some of the best Africa has to offer. So we knew where the kudu had been. But our wafting scent meant the bulls knew exactly where we were, and every time we got close they moved deeper into the trees, keeping one step ahead of us. Sometimes we saw flashes of gray hide, other times we just heard them as they bolted off just out of sight. After about 45 minutes of this cat-and-mouse game, Drew, our PH, decided a new approach was in order.
But I get ahead of myself ...
This adventure really began the better part of 25 years ago, when Robert E Petersen, then chairman of the board, owner and founder of Petersen Publishing Company, at the time, the world’s largest publisher of special-interest magazines including such titles as Motor Trend, Hot Rod, Guns & Ammo and Petersen’s Hunting, took delivery of a George Honig custom rifle. Pete, which was what those of us who knew and loved him called him, had asked George to create the rifle based on a Winchester Model 70 action, sporting a full stock (Mannlicher-style) and 22-inch barrel, in .375 Holland & Holland Magnum. The little gem was topped with a Burris compact variable scope in 3X-9X. The whole package with four rounds in the magazine barely topped 9 pounds and, in my opinion, came as close to sex as wood and metal can become. George Honig, being the master gunsmith that he is, doesn’t just create beautiful rifles: All of his creations must also shoot, and this little beauty was no exception. Once we got the rifle zeroed, we sat down with no less than three different brands of factory ammo and produced three-shot groups nearing the magical 1-inch mark with consistency—spectacular performance for a short-barreled big-boomer.
Pete, in addition to being CEO of a major corporation, was first and foremost a firearm enthusiast—and sometimes called a gun nut—and he had this rifle built for a specific purpose: as a short, fast-handling safari rifle. The 22-inch barrel is perfect for getting in and out of a safari car, and it’s handy for over-the-shoulder carry. The .375 H&H Mag., with well-placed shots, is capable of downing any animal on the planet. And the full stock, well, to him and me, it just looks sexy. All in all, it’s a package with “safari” written all over it. It’s a special rifle for a special job.
At the time the rifle came into being, I was working for Pete as publisher of one of his magazines, Petersen’s Hunting, and after playing with this little gun for the better part of a half-day, I said to him, “When you die, this rifle is mine.” I’m not sure I remember his actual response, but I’m pretty certain it was something less than complimentary and a long way from confirming my eventual ownership. But, you know, I have pretty thick skin and I thought he was probably only kidding and that someday this little rifle and I would become one.
As I mentioned, Pete was a dyed-in-the-wool gun nut, and over the years he nurtured his passion by accumulating one of the finest collections of firearms ever assembled. Although this rifle was a minor player in his vast collection, in terms of value or specialness, it became an important part of his hunting battery, his “go-to” rifle if a .375 was in order.
To digress for just a moment, I should mention that a portion of the wonderful collection Pete put together is now on display in the Petersen Gallery, a part of the NRA National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, Va. In this special room of the museum you will be surrounded by 420 of his finest rifles, shotguns and handguns from the world’s best makers, some highly engraved and inlaid with precious metals, others special in their uniqueness, most one-of-a-kind, all displayed for the pleasure of everyone, even if you are not a nutty firearm enthusiast.
Included in this special display is probably the finest collection of mechanical machine guns (Gatling guns) ever put together, even the actual gun that went up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt during the Spanish-American War. If you ever find yourself in Northern Virginia, be sure to do yourself a favor and spend some time in the museum, especially the Petersen Gallery. You won’t regret it, I promise.
Over the next decade or so I had the pleasure of hunting with Pete in various parts of the world chasing everything from red stag to big Rocky Mountain elk and some of the biggest of Africa, where the little .375 performed just as it had that first day so many years before. In fact the last safari Pete and I took together was in Zambia where we, among other things, celebrated his 70th birthday. He used the Honig .375 H&H Mag. almost exclusively, taking a 43-inch sable, a beautiful roan, a Cape buffalo and a huge zebra stallion. It was a special safari rifle doing what it was created to do.
Following that final safari, the inevitable happened and Robert E. Petersen, my boss of 35 years and my good friend, passed away. After the mourning was over, Margie Petersen, Pete’s wife of 45 years, said to me, “I know you have coveted that Honig rifle of Pete’s, and I think he would want you to have it.”
I’ll never know if that is what Pete actually wanted, but I would like to think it’s so; what I do know is that rifle conjures memories of the man and the good times we spent together, times as important as anything this life has given me. At the 2013 Safari Club International Hunters’ convention, I found myself in the booth of Calitz Safaris, sharing the story of the Honig rifle with Johan Calitz, professional hunter supreme and owner-operator of Calitz Safaris. I had hunted with Calitz Safaris in 2006 and my wife, Elizabeth, and I had been on three photo safaris with Johan in Botswana’s Okavango Delta out of his Qorokwe Camp (pronounced gil-loc-we). Johan and his crew provide a safari experience unsurpassed by any operator in all of Africa.
When I explained to Johan that I wanted to take my newest rifle on one more safari in Pete’s honor, and take one more animal, he suggested that we book a trip in late August as it would be the final safari in the Okavango, as the Botswana government, in all its wisdom, had decided to close the area to hunting after the 2013 season. To make the trip even sweeter, we would share the camp with my old pal Tony Makris of “Under Wild Skies” TV show fame, and his wife, Warner. Tony would be taping a few episodes for upcoming shows. Although the season was pretty well booked, if I wanted to take just one animal, Johan said he could probably come up with a kudu license, and after the hunt Elizabeth and I could spend the remainder of the trip on a photo safari.
It all sounded almost too good to be true: I would be hunting one of Africa’s premier animals, in arguably one of the continent’s best safari areas during its final season, with a special rifle designed for just this place, in memory of a man who, through his publications and philanthropy, had done so much for hunting and guns, with some very special friends. It was a fitting tribute to the man, Botswana’s Okavango Delta and this one-of-kind custom safari rifle.
On Aug. 12, 2013, we were clearing customs in Maun, Botswana, and rendezvousing with Tony’s TV crew, and Warner’s cousin, a fellow named David Hilton, who would ride on the photo safari car with Elizabeth until I joined them after my kudu hunt. Once the bureaucrats were satisfied, we took the 20-minute hop to the Qorokwe Camp. A more inviting spot in Africa would be hard to find. The camp staff heralded our arrival with some African singing and dancing, a welcoming that everyone should experience once in their lives. I realized being back in Africa on safari is about as good as it gets!
The first morning, all hunters took part in the pre-hunt sight-in, a ritual in all camps when extensive travel has been involved to ensure everything is in order and that nothing has been knocked loose. Most importantly, it also gives PHs a chance to see how their hunters handle themselves and the rifles they will use. The little Honig .375 and I put two “checking” shots right where we had back home with a box of ammo while getting reacquainted. The gun was all that I remembered, except now it belonged to a new owner, and that fellow’s hair color had changed in the interim.
Now it was time to go hunting to see if we could find a kudu worthy of Pete’s memory and the rifle he left behind.
Drew and I had discussed the animal I was looking for: He needed to be a mature kudu bull that had been around long enough to grow the two-and-a-half curls with ivory tips that make the greater kudu such a prized trophy throughout Africa. I explained that he didn’t have to be a record-breaker. However, I did want to wait for one that taped at least 55 inches around the curls from skull to ivory tips. If we happened to find one even bigger than that, it would only be fitting. After all, as I detailed to Drew, Petersen took a bull in Zimbabwe years earlier that measured near the magical 60 inches! Drew smiled and attempted to educate me on the realities of kudu hunting in the Okavango. Even though it was great country for kudu, he said, we would be very fortunate indeed if we could find something in the 54- to 55-inch range, as that was about as big as they get in the Delta.
So here we were chasing a bunch of bulls, at least one of which might be what we were looking for, but to this point they had the upper hand. Drew decided our best chance was to abandon the chase and go back to the car and see if we might be able to cut them off. He felt that even if we were unsuccessful, we now knew where they hung out and we could always come back and take up the track when the conditions might be more favorable. He was the professional, this was our first day out and we had been hunting for only about four hours, so I happily agreed.
In the safari car, we circled around the stand of mopani hoping to get to where the kudu were heading before they got there. This time, the hunting gods were in our corner and our trackers spotted one of the bulls near the edge of the stand of trees. We ditched the car and, on foot in the Delta sand, we set off to find the sighted bull. In less than 30 minutes, our lead tracker began stabbing the air with his forefinger in the direction of a lone bull standing near a termite mound. It didn’t take long for us to realize this bull sported everything I was looking for: long, beautiful spiraling horns with polished ivory tips—he was the bull I had come so far to find.
The old bull was quartering toward us. On the sticks, I settled the crosshairs just inside his left front shoulder, and after the .375 bucked I heard the telltale slap of the bullet. In an instant he disappeared from view, and Drew said, “I think you hit him!” I knew I had hit him—and good. The only question was how far he would go. Now it was up to the trackers to do what they do so well. They got us to the spot where the kudu bull was standing when I shot, and his easy-to-follow trail proved he hadn’t gone 20 yards before he fell.
After the back-slapping, the picture-taking and cleaning of the bull was over, Drew asked, “Should I put a tape on him to see just how big he is?”
My response: “Of course. Let’s see what we have.”
The longest horn measured a whopping 62 inches, the shorter of the two just a tad less than 61. The magnificent old bull was outstanding in the horn department, but in body he was near the end of his time, skinny and in really poor condition. I knew Petersen had to have had a hand in this. I knew he was smiling down on us while providing the bull of bulls for his favored Honig .375. I was merely along for the ride—and what a ride it was! The kudu turned out to be the biggest bull ever taken in that part of the Okavango, and the last bull ever taken there.
The rest of the safari turned out to be as spectacular as my part. The following day, for instance, Tony Makris dropped a 451/2-inch Cape buffalo, the biggest of his lengthy African hunting career. Was it divine intervention? I seriously doubt it, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Petersen played a part in the outcome. There may be other safaris, but not in the Okavango—that’s over. Petersen and the old kudu are now in other hunting arenas. I will spend the rest of my days with the rifle in my care, and thus close a couple of special chapters in the lives of a couple of old men. But I may have a few miles left. So now that I own this historic Honig .375, who knows?
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