The Worst Shot I Ever Made

The huge Kalahari gemsbuck was hit, but it wasn't ready to go down.

_The shot had felt perfect, but now the massive gemsbuck I'd come halfway around the world for was racing away across the amber dunes of the Kalahari with my bullet in him. We'd have to chase him down before the jackals claimed him._Outdoor Life Online Editor

The shot was well earned and I was determined to make the most of it. The distance was long, but not too long-about 240 yards or a bit more. It was hard to say for sure because of the uneven terrain and downward angle. I would have liked to have been closer, as would any hunter, but we were as close as we could get without crossing open ground and spooking the herd of wary animals.

We'd hunted hard for three days, searching for one special animal, a Gold Medal trophy, which was now only a trigger pull away. What breeze there was came at a cross angle and rippled the lacy tops of dead grass only slightly, not enough to be a factor in my bullet's flight. With the rifle nestled at the balance point atop Dirk's stiff-legged tripod support, I tested my aim, taking a breath and holding it. The crosshairs settled and vibrated on the spot I wanted to hit. Given the distance and the known accuracy of my rifle and ammo I calculated that the bullet would, at worst, hit within three inches of my aiming point and with luck even closer. A three-inch margin of error was plenty for an animal with more than four square feet of chest area. Still, there was something I didn't like: The animal was lying down.

I've never liked shooting at lying game, not for any particular personal reasons, but because the angles and aiming points we normally use for standing game are different when the animal is down with its legs tucked under or around itself.

Taking my finger off the trigger and flipping the Ruger's safety on, I shook my head toward Dirk and Jim, "Not yet," I whispered, and they nodded their agreement, each letting out a big whoosh of long-held breath.

Since arriving at our tented safari camp three days earlier, we had hunted from near-freezing dawns through blistering middays, tracking and cross-tracking endless miles of one of the most notoriously inhospitable places on earth, the Kalahari Desert, in search of one of Africa's most exotically beautiful antelope-the gemsbuck.

Although the popular image of a desert is that of treeless dunes of shifting sand bestrode by Lawrence of Arabia, deserts actually come in an astonishing range of climes, topography and geology. Seeing it from above, as we did when we flew in to camp from Windhoek, the Kalahari looks like waves in a muddy pond. But seen closer up, the rings become ridges of a garnet-colored sand separated by flat valleys about a half-mile wide.

It was winter, with temperature dips that called for down jackets in the morning and tucking our canvas chairs close to the campfires in the evening. Life in the Kalahari is decreed by water, and the summer's rainy season had dumped record amounts of it. The barren valleys had bloomed richer than I could remember, followed by an explosion of animal life. Now, in winter's dryness, the waist-high grasses stood stiff and prickly, a lucky windfall of cover for the animals but a factor that made hunting doubly tough. One particularly abundant type of grass we called "Velcro" because of the way the spiky seeds stuck to our clothes. Wherever there was bare ground, the fine-grained sand was rippled with the urgent tracks of creatures tiny and large, all predators or prey.

I'd hunted gemsbuck years before, taking a pretty good one in Botswana. There I had spotted them only in lonely ones or twos, but here, close to Gemsbuck National Park, where they roam by the tens of thousands, we were seeing plenty of them, often in herds of 20 or more.

On the first afternoon of hunting, after checking our rifles at a makeshift range near camp, Dirk and I made a scouting run and located a good-size herd slowlpicking its way across a grassy vale. "They can't stand peace," Dirk remarked as we crouched under the cover of a sterbos shrub. "Watch how they're constantly fighting." The females seemed especially ill-tempered toward each other and every few steps one or the other would make a raking slash at one of her sisters. They seem to be constantly aware of their rapier-like horns, and like a young warrior with his first sword, cannot resist applying them at every opportunity.

Oryx Tales
Gemsbuck are members of the oryx family and one of the most distinctive of African antelope. They have a grayish coloration and long, straight horns set atop a black-and-white face that seems to have been painted by a surrealist mask maker. They are powerfully muscled, weighing between 400 and 500 pounds, and have thick, wide-hoofed legs designed more for endurance than speed. But with antelope, speed is only relative; they're all fast.

Despite the harsh living conditions, survival is not a problem for gemsbuck. They drink when water is available and don't seem bothered if it isn't. Deep-rooted, softball-size melons thrive in the Kalahari and offer moisture. Early trekkers who ran short of water when crossing the Kalahari discovered that the stomachs of gemsbuck held a reserve of water. I doubt if it tasted all that great, but few men dying of thirst would quibble. The gemsbuck is perfectly suited to its environment and I've never seen one that didn't look sleek and healthy.

A peculiar thing about gemsbuck is that females are virtually indistinguishable from males (unless you look carefully at the right places), being of the same size and having the same markings and horn configuration. The horns of male gemsbuck tend to be thicker at the base than those of females and somewhat shorter. Longtime observers of gemsbuck, like one of our guides, Hannes Steyn, say that the males wear down their horns by rubbing and polishing them in the sand. True or not, the record books list many females. In trophy-book terms, horn length over 35 inches is pretty good and anything over 42 inches is spectacular. Most of the gemsbuck listed in the record books were taken in the general area where we were hunting, and Dirk, my guide and expert judge of trophies, was confident the animal we were watching would easily top 40 inches, perhaps by several inches. But it was possible that the almost perfectly matched horns gave an illusion of extra length because the animal was lying down. We'd have to make a final judgment when the animal stood up. As the minutes ticked into mid-morning the warmed Kalahari atmosphere began to boil with mirage, making the horns of my gemsbuck seem to wriggle like snakes dancing on their tails.

The German Influence
Although the Kalahari stretches into Botswana and Republic of South Africa, it is mainly associated with Namibia, formally known as Southwest Africa and a colony of Germany before WWI. Namibia is one of the more modern of African democracies, with beautiful towns and cities and paved streets lined with airy, well-kept Victorian-style homes from its colonial past. Along with English and African dialects, a large part of the population speaks German as a first language. Bavarian-style homes and open beer gardens give many towns a distinct German feel. If I were to take up residence on the African continent, Namibia would probably be my first choice.

My hunting pals were big shots in the shooting industry: Jim Morey, the top honcho at Swarovski USA; Rob Fancher, who handles Swarovski's PR chores; Bob Stutler, who heads the big Sturm-Ruger plant in Arizona; and my longtime co-conspirator, Dave Petzal of Field&Stream. It was the first safari for Stutler and Fancher, but the rest of us had heard the roar of lions and drunk from many hippos' pools. (True to the rule that "you can never go to Africa only once," both Stutler and Fancher have since returned.)

Jim Morey had been to Namibia the year before and hunted with Nimrod Safaris, a guiding operation jointly owned by Dirk DeBok, Hannes Steyn and Pieter Stofberg. All are seasoned professional hunters with outstanding reputations. I would have been content to be guided by any of the three, but it was decided that Dirk DeBok and I would make the best match. I had come primarily for gemsbuck and wanted something bigger than the 37-incher that hung in my trophy room. Dirk prefers trophy hunting over mixed-bag hunts and is a Master Measurer for Safari Club International.

Raised on a farm and a big-game hunter since he could shoulder a rifle, Dirk joined the legendary Namibian Special Forces Police (roll Navy Seals, Afrikan Kommando and Selous Scouts into one and you'll get the idea) at 18. Eventually, he became the youngest-ever Sergeant Major in the force, using his farm-bred, hunting-honed skills to track down communist terrorists infiltrating Namibia's rugged northern bushland from Angola.

Spot and Stalk
Unless you happen to be one of the nomadic Bushmen who have hunted the Kalahari since before time was measured, hunting on foot is out of the question. Dirk's technique is to go as far as possible by truck, then climb the sand ridges on foot and glass the valleys beyond. If nothing is spotted, or no trophy-size gemsbuck seen, it's on to the next sand ridge and more glassing. This may sound monotonous but it isn't, because every mile of the Kalahari offers something worth seeing, and every ridge a different vista.

We were seeing plenty of gemsbuck, sometimes in herds but more often in groups of six or eight. Some had tantalizingly long horns, close to 40 inches or more, but after a long look Dirk would shake his head. "We'll find bigger," he'd say, and off we'd go to the next sand ridge and another climb and more acacia thorns to dodge and more itchy Velcro seeds to pluck from our pants and socks. Since the three guides were shared by five hunters, Jim Morey and Rob Fancher would swap with the other three of us. On the third day Morey opted to come with Dirk and me. "Bring some luck with you," I'd kidded him as we loaded the truck with spare cans of water and gas, preparing for a long day.

"Red sky in the morning, gemsbuck take warning," he replied, pointing at a distant layer of clouds that reflected the amber glow of a Kalahari sunrise.

We drove deep into the desert that day, using trails that hadn't been driven since the rainy season and were already growing over with thick-stemmed grasses and thorny brush. The first ridge we climbed was higher than most, steep on one side and sloping off on the other into a wide valley dotted with tall leadwood trees and scrubby acacia. Also spread out across the valley below us was a herd of gemsbuck. The gemsbuck we'd seen on previous dince returned.)

Jim Morey had been to Namibia the year before and hunted with Nimrod Safaris, a guiding operation jointly owned by Dirk DeBok, Hannes Steyn and Pieter Stofberg. All are seasoned professional hunters with outstanding reputations. I would have been content to be guided by any of the three, but it was decided that Dirk DeBok and I would make the best match. I had come primarily for gemsbuck and wanted something bigger than the 37-incher that hung in my trophy room. Dirk prefers trophy hunting over mixed-bag hunts and is a Master Measurer for Safari Club International.

Raised on a farm and a big-game hunter since he could shoulder a rifle, Dirk joined the legendary Namibian Special Forces Police (roll Navy Seals, Afrikan Kommando and Selous Scouts into one and you'll get the idea) at 18. Eventually, he became the youngest-ever Sergeant Major in the force, using his farm-bred, hunting-honed skills to track down communist terrorists infiltrating Namibia's rugged northern bushland from Angola.

Spot And Stalk
Unless you happen to be one of the nomadic Bushmen who have hunted the Kalahari since before time was measured, hunting on foot is out of the question. Dirk's technique is to go as far as possible by truck, then climb the sand ridges on foot and glass the valleys beyond. If nothing is spotted, or no trophy-size gemsbuck seen, it's on to the next sand ridge and more glassing. This may sound monotonous but it isn't, because every mile of the Kalahari offers something worth seeing, and every ridge a different vista.

We were seeing plenty of gemsbuck, sometimes in herds but more often in groups of six or eight. Some had tantalizingly long horns, close to 40 inches or more, but after a long look Dirk would shake his head. "We'll find bigger," he'd say, and off we'd go to the next sand ridge and another climb and more acacia thorns to dodge and more itchy Velcro seeds to pluck from our pants and socks. Since the three guides were shared by five hunters, Jim Morey and Rob Fancher would swap with the other three of us. On the third day Morey opted to come with Dirk and me. "Bring some luck with you," I'd kidded him as we loaded the truck with spare cans of water and gas, preparing for a long day.

"Red sky in the morning, gemsbuck take warning," he replied, pointing at a distant layer of clouds that reflected the amber glow of a Kalahari sunrise.

We drove deep into the desert that day, using trails that hadn't been driven since the rainy season and were already growing over with thick-stemmed grasses and thorny brush. The first ridge we climbed was higher than most, steep on one side and sloping off on the other into a wide valley dotted with tall leadwood trees and scrubby acacia. Also spread out across the valley below us was a herd of gemsbuck. The gemsbuck we'd seen on previous d