Hunting Modern South Africa with Powder and Ball
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South African Hunt Report

By Randy D. Smith


As is typical of most of today's hunting in South Africa, we used an open top Toyota Land Cruiser hunting car with rifle carriers and steel roll bar shooting frame. We cruised narrow hunting trails until we spotted game that we could either shoot from the car or stalk on foot. The bulk of our shooting was from the car.

Our crew consisted of our driver, Werner Bothe, and professional hunter (PH), Eon Kok. An excellent native tracker, Johannes, accompanied us in tougher conditions, during my search for a trophy gemsbok, and blood trailing a wounded blue wildebeest. We hunted from sunup to sundown with a brief mid-day rest. While we were based out of a car on a hunting preserve this was far from a "pasture shoot." The game was skittish and difficult to approach. Much of the thick brushy shooting conditions were extremely challenging. It was an excellent hunting challenge for muzzleloading firearms.

I scored first on a trophy class red hartebeest and later a very nice blesbok. Doc wanted to score on a kudu, a beautiful elk-like creature that had eluded him on his first safari in central Africa. He found a fine forty-seven inch bull and dropped it at a range of ninety yards. All three of these were taken with relative ease and I wondered aloud if all our hunting would be this easy. I spoke too quickly. As our hunt progressed it became increasingly more difficult and challenging.

Doc wanted to try for a black wildebeest so we drove several miles to an area where Eon thought there might be some nice trophies. We found a mixed herd of wildebeest, zebra, and hartebeest on an open grassy plain. The herd maintained a distance of several hundred yards from the truck. There was one exceptional bull in the herd and with some patient stalking we were able to close the distance to 170 yards that evening. The bullet drifted about four inches to the left, striking the bull in the shoulder. He almost went down but recovered and slowly rejoined the herd as Doc reloaded. I did not provide backup as I felt the range was far beyond my expertise and I did not want to hit one of the other animals.

After several attempts to close the distance and as the sun crept quickly toward the horizon, Eon, Doc and Carole left the car to wait in some brush as Werner and I tried to position ourselves to coax the herd towards them.

Just as it was growing dark, the herd bolted by us, the wounded bull coming to within a few yards before we recognized it. Grabbing the double I jumped in the front seat of the Land Cruiser to try for a shot to bring him down.

Taking aim with an open sight rifle in a Land Cruiser bouncing over rough grassland is difficult to say the least! My first attempt just missed to the left. He ran a couple of hundred yards and held up but by that time it was so dark that I could not make out the sights on my double. My second shot was just over the top of his back.

I recharged the rifle quickly but as we drew within range, the rear right wheel dropped into an aardvark hole. We weren't going more than five or six miles an hour but the force of the car falling into such a deep abyss dumped me over the front of the dash and threw Werner into the steering wheel. By the time we gathered ourselves and extricated the car from that chasm it was far too dark to continue our pursuit.

We returned to that spot at first light and after a couple of hundred yards of tracking found the bull dead under a tree. Ants were already working on the hide and we quickly gathered him up for transport back to the compound. It was an exciting and rewarding hunt. I was also reminded of my statement about things being "easy."

I took a blue wildebeest, impala, and a beautiful trophy class (perhaps muzzle-loading record book) gemsbok. All three hunts were difficult and challenging.

We lost my wildebeest in the bush and he was not recovered until some time later. Quite a bit of time was devoted to trying to locate him and a full day of hard hunting went into my gemsbok. During this time Doc passed on shooting a beautiful nyala because it was not originally on his list, but as time went on he became increasingly obsessed with that animal and stated that he would not pass up another. Unfortunately, Eon thought it highly unlikely that another would be seen, as they are extremely rare in that area.

Doc took a very good red hartebeest during our search for the wildebeest. By the time I had finished with my gemsbok hunt, I was pretty much at the end of my budget, and it was Doc's turn to fill some of the tags on his list. I did take a second impala later.

We then tried to locate another gemsbok for him. As evening approached we found a pair hanging close to a mixed herd of zebra and wildebeest. After several attempts to get a decent shot through the thick brush, Doc and Eon tried a foot stalk while the driver for that day and I waited near a break in the bush where we might see them cross. I chose not to accompany Eon and Doc because I felt that it would be difficult enough for the two of them to get within range without one more body present to alert the herd.

As darkness crept through the trees we heard a shot. A few minutes later the herd rushed in front of me at sixty yards but I saw no gemsbok. Several more minutes passed and I hoped to myself that we did not have another wounded animal to try to sort out, as was the case with my still missing wildebeest.

The radio crackled and we were summoned to an open area about a half mile to the north. Doc had his gemsbok with an excellent 120 yard shot through some tall weeds and grass. With both lungs gone the gemsbok still managed a couple of hundred yards before going down.

The next morning Doc took a very good blesbok with a perfect 120 yard shot in the early morning light. That evening he managed a steenbok, a surprisingly tough little antelope. Feeling that a nyala was not going to be located, Doc shifted his attention to taking a good water buck if one could be found. It was the following morning, our last day, when Doc took a nice Nyala bull.

Our Rifles

As is usual Doc was field testing a new muzzleloader design, working to improve the performance of the .45 caliber, smokeless powder loads and ignition, as well as overall rifle weight. He carried an experimental .45 caliber rifle with .32 S&W Short ignition system on a bolt action in-line configuration and a Christiansen Arms carbon fiber wrapped barrel. The result was a muzzleloader that weighed a bit over five pounds, was virtually contamination free, and was capable of taking game out to a measured range of 180 yards. The 350-grain .40 caliber projectile in a .45 caliber sabot proved to be quite deadly in Doc's hands, with most shots being on the long side of 100 yards. Every animal but one, ranging in weight from a few pounds to nearly eight hundred, went down immediately or within a few yards.

I carried two rifles that Doc had put together for me. My primary was a White Thunder Bolt .504 caliber with a shorter than standard 24" barrel, full length Bell & Carlson composite stock, 209 ignition system and was equipped with a Weaver Grand Slam 1.5 - 5 X scope. My normal load was 120 grains of Pyrodex RS powder driving a 435-grain Buffalo SSB sabot. It is an excellent rifle design and I used it to take all of the game that I killed.

My short range, knock down rifle was a custom White double barrel .504 with open sights loaded with 120 grains of Pyrodex RS or 100 grains of Triple 7 pellets, 600-grain White Power Punch conicals. Point of impact is the same with either powder charge as this rifle is not fussy about loads. It also has double triggers, and musket cap ignition. The barrels are twenty-two inches in length and the overall weight is just less than twelve pounds. Doc designed it to help satisfy my passion for dangerous game muzzleloader hunting. I have practiced with the rifle to the point that I can bounce a tin can along at fifty to seventy yards as fast as I can load and fire it.

Although Doc's rifle is a more advanced design, the double was the darling of the gun enthusiasts present. Several asked where they could get one like it. Although I shot it only on three occasions, I carried the double extensively in thick bush for fast action conditions and back up duties. It is a powerful, accurate, and magnificently smooth double barrel muzzleloader. Like its big cartridge firing cousins, it is easy to become enamored with a good double rifle and I have fallen in love with this one.

Clothing

Because of my hometown's size and location I had to order all my clothing from an outside source, with the vast majority of it coming from Cabela's. It is winter in South Africa in July and we experienced unusually cold conditions during most of our hunt. Temperatures ranged from the mid thirties to the high sixties during the day. Early mornings and late evenings in the back of an open hunting car were especially uncomfortable. Another trait of the South African bush is that almost every tree has some kind of thorn or "hook" to cut you or catch on your clothing. You need to wear your clothing in layers and it needs to be tough stuff.

Camouflage clothing is legal for hunting in South Africa but not in many Central African countries. I see little benefit in wearing camouflage for this type of hunting except that it is usually designed for hunters with roomier dimensions and more pockets. I chose khaki and olive colored clothing and got along very well.

My pants were Cabela's Outfitter Series Expedition Wear in mushroom color of 67% brushed cotton and 33% nylon. They were roomy, comfortable and warm.

My shirts were long sleeve Cabela's Serengeti Safari models of 100% cotton canvas. This shirt has a number of flap and zipper pockets and it very handy for carrying muzzle loading equipment.

I also bought a Rigby shooting vest from Cabela's, one of the best and most practical pieces of hunting clothing I have ever owned. I took along a Cabela's sweater of 55% wool, 20% acrylic and 25% polyester with patch elbows. I often wore it in the morning and evening. Next time I will take a heavier sweater.

My coat was a Remington upland game coat of heavy cotton canvas. It was great for providing warmth, protection from thorns, and pocket access. During much of the colder conditions I was dressed in layers of shirt, sweater, shooting vest and coat to keep warm, shedding them individually as the day warmed.

I was the only guy who thought to bring gloves and I was certainly glad I did. I have a pair of Cabela's heavy leather and elastic handgun shooting gloves with exposed fingers that I threw in at the last minute of my packing. I took them to protect my hands from thorns but like the exposed fingers for handling muzzle loading equipment and for trigger control. The gloves worked great for that but they also kept my hands warm. You can't do much hunting with your hands stuffed in your pockets.

My primary boots were Cabela's Rimrock Gore-Tex Hikers of leather with 7" uppers. My backup boots were Bass Pro Hikers with 7" uppers and a Gore-Tex lining. Both worked very well. They were light, comfortable and protected my ankles from thorns and contamination. The non-slip treads were important for climbing in and out of the hunting car safely. Heavy upland hunting boots are too bulky for this style of hunting and greatly add to your baggage weight, an important consideration.

Perhaps most surprising was the effectiveness of my choice of socks. While in the Kansas City Cabela's store I happened upon some Cabela's Ultimax socks that were on sale and advertised as "blister proof." At eight dollars a pair I probably would not have purchased them but I bought four pair at the sale price. Once in South Africa I dug them out their packages and realized that they also had a mild elastic ankle support sewed in as well. These socks were absolutely wonderful. I put in several five to seven mile days hiking and stalking the bush without a single blister or any pain from an arthritic ankle I have. I will gladly pay the eight dollars for more of them in the future.

And then, of course, I had to take my lucky Resistol cowboy hat. After twenty-five years and many of the best hunts I've ever been on, I couldn't leave it behind in spite of my wife's objections. Besides, how can you pass up wearing a hat that is almost as old as your PH?

Other Equipment and Considerations

The use of bipod shooting sticks is necessary for many of the longer shots, especially with a single shot muzzleloader. On any game farm in South Africa, once you pull the trigger on an animal, even if you wound it, you own it. Precise shooting is a must. I took along a set of Stony Point Pole Cats and they were called to duty twice. Before going to Africa you need to practice extensively and become proficient with the use of a bipod. Carry your personal set with you so that you can use something that you are comfortable with.

Binoculars are a must have piece of equipment. I took a pair of compact Pentax 8-16X21 UCF Zoom binoculars and used them several times each day. I carried mine in a belt holster rather than having them dangling from my neck. It worked very well.

Since most of the hunting takes place in a hunting car, guns are often carried in racks but they get minimum protection. I took along a pair of inexpensive Uncle Mikes padded gun cases with zipper openings that exposed the entire upper portion of the case. These rifles were placed in the rack with the top of the case open. When game was spotted it was a simple matter to simply lift out the rifle of my choice. These cases more than paid for themselves in rifle security since things got pretty hairy at times and the trails are rough.

Airline baggage handlers, the rough conditions of the hunt, and Mr. Murphy can be very hard on rifle scopes. Every single scope at camp whether it was an inexpensive Simmons or high end Swarovski had to be significantly re-sighted upon arrival. A second back-up scope should be taken. A straight power 4, 5 or 6X will do nicely. I had my Simmons 6X Pro Hunter packed for just such an emergency.

You will be a long way from medical attention if you get hurt. Serious consideration should be given to an insurance policy that covers emergency flights to hospital. My policy cost only $79 and covered flight cancellations and life insurance, as well as emergency medical procedures. This is very important unless you have $20,000 lying around the house to cover emergency medical services.

Good field spectacles such as shooting glasses protect the eyes not only from your muzzleloader but also from brush and thorns. I used my yellow tinted upland game glasses with excellent results. A yellow tint lens helps with definition of game in thick bush conditions.

My wife bought me a Wenger wrist watch/ compass as a gift before I left. I used the compass several times to get my bearings when separated from the rest of the party. I also carried a heavy drop point skinning knife with a three inch blade on my belt. I used it a number of times even though I didn't have to skin anything.

Last of all, don't let a PH or anyone else talk you into taking a shot you are not comfortable with. Practice your shooting extensively and know your limitations. Everybody gets excited sometimes including the PH but passing a shot you cannot make or are uncomfortable with saves you, the animal, and your pocketbook.

I ran several hundred rounds through both rifles before leaving for South Africa and knew my rifles very well. I set my limit at 120 yards and did a lot of 120 yard range work. When called upon to make a 145 yard shot, that experience paid off with a perfect hit on a trophy gemsbock. But I turned down a shot through thick brush earlier in the day on the same animal. Everyone was disappointed because he was an exceptional trophy. We tracked him for five hours and I did not believe I would get another chance at him. Suddenly, near sundown, we caught him on open ground with the setting sun at our backs and in his eyes. It was a near perfect shooting situation in spite of the range and I made the shot. Did I do the right thing by turning down the first shot? You bet! Patience is a crucial element of successful hunting. Knowing your limitations is the mark of a good hunter.

General Observations (Based on limited personal experience and a fair amount of reading.)

The Republic of South Africa has a lot of problems. The economy is not good and an AIDS epidemic is ravaging the black population. This AIDS problem in Africa is going to become a world-wide concern and may cause instability throughout the continent. On the other hand South Africa is malaria free, the water where we hunted was good, the exchange rate is greatly in our favor, the South Africans are hungry for our business, and the Afrikaners I dealt with were first class outfitters.

A muzzleloader is a credible tool for hunting African plains game. Heavy, soft lead projectiles are simply superior to light weight jacketed projectiles at muzzleloader velocities.

If I were going back to South Africa tomorrow, I'd shoot exactly the same loads that I chose for this hunt. I would not take a .45 with as light a bullet as Doc chose. He is an expert marksman but he also had my .504 double loaded with 600 grain conicals to back him up.

My longest shot was 145 yards at the gemsbok and the bullet impacted exactly where I aimed so a 120 yard practice routine worked for me. South Africa only allows two rifles to be brought in with a hunter and they must be of different calibers. A heavily loaded .45 and a .50 will work. I believe a .50 and a .54 will work better. If I was taking a Pedersoli Kodiak double as a short range, knock down rifle, I'd choose a .58 with 500+ grain conicals, and I'd convert it to musket cap ignition. It will work.

If I was going back to South Africa tomorrow, and hunting plains game of the same size we hunted, with a conventional cartridge rifle I'd take a .30-06 loaded with 180 grain soft points. When I go back to South Africa next time for Cape buffalo, lion and zebra I plan to take a CZ 550 Magnum in .458 Lott and use .458 Win Mag ammo in it most of the time. A two rifle battery for me would be my Ruger #1 in .30-06 and the CZ .458 Win Mag. A .338 Win Mag and/or a .375 H&H would be excellent rifles for plains game, but I believe most hunters can get the job done with the '06 with less recoil and more accurate shooting potential.

A lot of professional hunters carry the CZ .375 H&H in South Africa. The most common rifle that I saw was the sporterized Enfield .303 British and there were a lot of them floating around. One client arrived with virtually no hunting experience and was handed the outfitter's .308 Win. loaner. From what I understand, he had excellent luck on the game he took. If they can do it with a .303 Brit and the .308, I feel that most hunters can do very well on plains game with a .30-06.

If I go back for a muzzleloader Cape buffalo hunt, I'll take my White double and the CZ .458. Although I might take my first two shots with the muzzleloader I will not go after a wounded buffalo with any muzzleloader. I would load the CZ with .458 Lott solids for following up wounded game larger than 800 lbs. and .458 Win Mag soft points for less. The concept of a short range, knock down rifle worked beautifully for me this time. "Use enough gun" to me now means use "too much gun" for wounded game, if you can stand shooting it, and put the animal down hard. But, as always proper first shot placement is everything!

After being over there, I became enamored with the CZ 550 Magnum rifle. It is reasonably priced in the United States, has excellent express sights, is well balanced, and has controlled round Mauser-type feeding. The .458 holds four rounds in the magazine, and these rifles enjoy an excellent reputation among working class PH's and guides. I'd mount a scope on a .375 H&H, but I intend to go with the standard open sights on the .458 since I consider it a 120 yard rifle, much like my muzzleloaders. I will put a lot of rounds through it before I go and learn it the best that I can (which means hunting with too much gun on this continent). But practical field experience with any rifle is paramount for success. I'll take the ribbing from other guys in order to learn the rifle in the field.

Just when you begin to think that African hunting is not difficult, all hell breaks loose. Unless I am involved in a charge I do not intend to ever again try a face-on shot over there. I'll take a broad side or quartering shot but I did not have good luck with frontal shots. I have taken deer and hogs for years with them but African game is tougher than either of them. Do not be talked into taking a shot by a PH or the surrounding crowd that you do not believe in. Be conservative and put your game down with well-placed shots. Go to the practice range, practice a lot, and know your limitations. Own the rifle you intend to use for at least a year and practice with it every chance you get. That system worked fine for me.

For anything larger than a gemsbok I intend to get close (inside of 100 yards) and use as big a gun as I can manage. For gemsbok on down I'd recommend a .30-06, 7mm Mag., .338 Win. Mag. or .35 Whelen and rely on exact shot placement. If the odds weren't with me, I'd pass on the shots. I believe that a lever action .45-70 with custom loads would go gangbusters on African game. A Marlin Guide Gun with a 1-4X scope could do it all with the right loads.

If you make a budget and keep to it, resisting the temptation to take something you can't afford, you can enjoy a plains game safari for less than $12,000 including flight and mounts. Compare that to what they are asking for an Alaskan hunt or a trophy Texas Whitetail hunt. It is not out of the reach of a working class fellow who is willing to do a little saving for a few years. Is it worth it? I'm going back in three to five years if the Lord is willing!




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Copyright 2004 by Randy D. Smith. All rights reserved.

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