Plains Games

posted on June 5, 2013

As a young boy growing up in rural Virginia, every spare minute was spent hunting, fishing or reading about the adventures of others who were doing it. We had no Internet, no computers and no video games so, unlike the youth of today, we spent our time outdoors. While my friends were reading comic books about Archie and Jughead, I was captivated by the pages of Outdoor Life and Field and Stream.

When I was about 10 years old, I found my first copy of Horn of the Hunter by Robert Ruark, which was heavy reading for a boy that age. As I read of his safari, my mind raced at the thought of all those exotic animals. I knew that one day I, too, would make my way to the “Dark Continent.” Until then, I would have to be content hunting squirrels, rabbits and the deer that filled our Virginia woods.

After high school I began my career in law enforcement. Family and work obligations kept me busy but I always found the time to escape to the woods every hunting season. The years passed but my dream of hunting Africa was ever present. I spoke to everyone I could who hunted Africa but believed the cost of such a hunt would be far beyond a cop’s budget. I am very fortunate to have married the best, most supportive wife in the world, who always told me my dreams of hunting kudu and gemsbok would come true someday. We raised our family and after 30 years I decided to hang up my badge and retire. We discussed my options for making a journey to Africa and I spent hours researching hunting safaris on the Internet. When I came to the conclusion that a 10-day plains-game hunt would be no more expensive than a four- or five-day trophy elk hunt here in the states, I realized maybe I could afford this trip after all.

I read everything I found on the subject. In late 2010, I found an advertisement for an African hunting show scheduled for Atlanta in January 2011, so my wife and I made a reservation at the Hyatt Atlanta where the show was taking place. My daughter Kelly and her fiancé, Dave, began expressing an interest in going to Africa, so in January they joined my wife and me on the trip.

I spoke to numerous outfits during this two-day show. We focused our attention on plains game and spent most of our time talking with outfitters from South Africa and Namibia—two countries that appeared to be very stable with good road systems and were relatively easy for American hunters to access. I decided I really did not want to hunt a high-fenced concession, regardless of its size, in favor of pursuing free range animals like the ones Ruark and Peter Hathaway Capstick hunted.  However, I learned at the show that most plains-game hunting in South Africa is high-fenced hunting. Though I have no problem hunting those areas—as some concessions measure thousands of acres and you would never see a fence—I just wanted something different.

After eight hours at the show the first day, we went to our rooms and sorted through the materials we had collected in hopes of coming up with a short list of outfitters to revisit on Sunday. We whittled the number down to about half a dozen. We returned the next morning with more specific questions, requested references and pricing information and discussed the best time of year for our trip. By show’s end, we had cut the list to two outfitters, one in South Africa and one in Namibia.

Over the next few weeks I spoke to references and researched airfares. Dave and I decided to book with Johann Veldsman of Shona Hunting Adventures in Namibia. While in Atlanta we met Johann, his wife, Vera, and their little daughter, Zoe. Johann offered us a package that included a 10-day hunt for zebra, kudu and gemsbok with the option of taking additional species for a trophy fee.

It was hard to believe we could do this for less than the cost of most trophy elk hunts. We set the dates for the last part of August 2011. That time of year would be the latter part of winter in Namibia so temperatures would be moderate and, more importantly, there would be less chance of running into snakes. Few things in life scare me—armed robbers, murderers, no problem—but snakes turn me into a scared girl.

The next few months were spent deciding on guns and equipment for the hunt and conducting numerous shooting sessions, testing different loads and practicing with shooting sticks. Johann had said most shot opportunities would be within 200 yards. I felt confident at that range with both of the rifles I was taking: a Remington Model 700 in .30-06 that I have had for 30 years and a Winchester Model 70 Express in .375 H&H Mag.

Dozens of emails were exchanged with the outfitter. Johann asked what type of hunting experience we were looking for and what kind of trophies we wanted. I told him we were most interested in spot-and-stalk hunting rather than sitting in ambush at a water hole. I added that neither of us cared about getting our names in a record book and that we just hoped for good representative animals.

Any international hunting adventure takes a little extra thought and planning. We had to complete U.S. Customs Form 4457 and then drive to a Customs office with our rifles to have the information verified and approved to ensure we could re-enter the states with our guns. Since we would be flying into Johannesburg and spending the night there before flying to Windhoek, Namibia, we also would need an “invitation letter” from the outfitter outlining the rifles and ammunition we were bringing and a South Africa Temporary Import Permit (SAP 525), which is available online. We packed multiple copies of our passports and, to be safe, updated our vaccinations. Though the area we planned to hunt was malaria-free, I was not taking any chances. I also got the malaria tablets.

August rolled around and I found myself, Kelly and Dave at Dulles International Airport boarding the plane. Could this really be happening?  I wondered. I waited 40 years to make a trip to the place I had always dreamed about hunting. The flight was long but my mind was occupied with thoughts of kudu, Ernest Hemingway’s “Gray Ghost of Africa.” We arrived in Johannesburg and spent the night at the Afton Guest House, which specializes in catering to international hunters.

The next morning we were at the airport to fly to Windhoek, Namibia. A couple hours later we were met by Johann and began a six-hour drive to Shona. On the way we saw kudu, gemsbok, ostrich, warthog and a troop of baboons. Each sighting only raised the level of excitement. We reached the lodge, a truly spectacular place with private chalets for each guest. We loaded the Land Cruiser and headed to the range to verify the zero on our rifles. The old .30-06 was printing perfectly. Next I shot the .375, which for some reason would not group. I checked the screws, the scope and mounts and verified that the barrel was still free-floated, but the rifle would not shoot as it had back home. I was thankful I had thought to bring two guns. Dave shot his Model 70 and it was perfect. Then it was back to the lodge for dinner. We went to bed early to be ready for the morning hunt.

The hunting at Shona is done using the spot-and-stalk method. You climb and glass, searching the plains and nearby hills and mountains to locate an animal or herd. Stalking makes for a physical hunt as you are not sitting in a blind overlooking a water hole. Then, if all goes well—and the wind is in your favor—you get within range. Johann and his trackers are extremely good at their jobs. They have eyes like eagles and can pick out and identify animals that appeared only as dark spots through my binoculars.

The first morning was spent glassing and getting the lay of the land. At midday we went back to the lodge for a wonderful home-cooked meal of wild game then in mid-afternoon we headed out again. We spotted two lone gemsbok bulls, one of which Johann said deserved a closer look. After a little walking and a little crawling, we were in range. Both bulls looked like giants to me but Johann explained the horns on the second bull were much thicker and longer. The only problem was this old bull had bedded down and only the top of his head and his horns were visible. I stood 80 yards away with my rifle on the shooting sticks for what seemed like hours. My arms and legs began to cramp, but I didn’t dare move. In this vast land there are always eyes and ears ready to catch your every movement and when that happens, every animal in the vicinity disappears. After about 30 minutes the old bull stood, turned broadside and presented the perfect opportunity.  I made every effort to calm myself, found the bull in my Leopold scope and squeezed the trigger. I had just collected my first African trophy. As I approached the bull, I was overwhelmed by its size. It was truly a trophy!

We hunted hard over the next several days. We collected several zebra and Dave harvested a magnificent 55-inch kudu bull, but I had not been able to close on my own kudu. On the morning of day five, while atop a mountain glassing, we spotted two large kudu bulls halfway up the next mountain. Two hours later we were in position to witness the bulls crossing the third distant mountain. This was not an easy hunt but it was a wonderful, rewarding experience.

On day seven, Johann decided to try a different area where he had seen kudu in the past. Around 11 a.m. my dream of harvesting a mature kudu bull finally came true. While walking up another mountain, Johann and our tracker suddenly stopped as Johann pointed out two bulls moving up the rocky terrain above us. Johann called, “Come, come, come.” I found the larger of the two in my scope and as the crosshairs settled, I took the shot. The old bull was an amazing 56 inches and was estimated to be between 13 and 14 years old. His gray coat was beautiful. After climbing to where the kudu fell, I sat down beside the regal beast and remembered my childhood readings and the promise I had made to myself. What could be better than this? I wondered.

Our last days in camp were as exciting as the first. Dave and I collected another pair of gemsbok and I shot a nice springbok. I recalled how Johann had asked what types of trophies we were looking to take. Though neither of us had cared about the record books, as it turns out all the kudu, gemsbok and springbok easily would make the SCI record book and were all Gold Medal trophies for Namibia. We had collected everything on our list and more. We were bringing home memories and photographs that would last a lifetime and now had new friends halfway around the world.

Gary “Hoot” Gibson is a fellow NRA employee who serves as staff instructor for the NRA Law Enforcement Division.


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