Blackpowder and the ‘Beest
By Gary Lewis
I pulled my hat down and turned my coat collar up against the chill of the winter morning. 32 degrees Fahrenheit. By midday, the temperature would reach 90.
Hannes Steyn, our professional hunter, reached down from the observation tower of the Land Cruiser and took my rifle, then reached out a hand to pull me up.
I'd loaded the muzzleloader, a 50-caliber Austin & Halleck. Two pellets of Triple 7 down the barrel, followed by a 50-caliber sabot and a 45-caliber 260-grain Nosler Partition HG bullet. For safety, I'd keep the primer in my pocket.
John sat up front. Boeteman was at the wheel and Adrian rode up in the back, sharing the high seats with us.
We lurched away from camp, taking the high road along a ridge. Then we followed a dry river bed back down into a valley. Hannes tapped smartly on the roof, "Stop," he said, and Boeteman rolled us to a stop. Hannes had glimpsed something.
We were hunting Namibia's highlands, north and east of Windhoek. As the sun rose, the ground sparkled with golden mica and quartz. Dry river canyons cut through the hills, and game trails led in and out of the brush. Here the vegetation was thick. Almost every bush and tree had thorns.
There. A troop of baboons took off, running along the road below us. 500 yards away.
"Boeteman, ry aan," Hannes said. In Afrikaans – drive on.
Crossing the river, we rolled on, topping out on a low hill.
"Stop." Hannes swept his binoculars to his eyes and whistled. "Now we hunt."
We eased over the side and slipped into the bush. "Hartebeest," Hannes explained. "We'll see if we can get closer. There's a good bull in the group."
With my binoculars, I swept the herd. Their coats shone, reflecting the shiny red hair and the tiny bits of mica they'd picked up from the soil. Morning sunlight glinted on burnished horn.
We had the wind. I bunched the leather sling in my left hand and held the rifle low to keep the sun off the oiled, blue metal and polished wood.
After we'd followed for 300 meters, Hannes ahead, showed me the palm of his hand. I stopped in mid-step and scanned the hillside, moving only my eyes. Hannes pointed.
They were on the opposite slope. With the herd were several eland, but bedded between us and our red-coat quarry lay a young bull hartebeest, looking right at us.Hannes eased behind a tree and John and I followed suit. We backed out and retraced our tracks to the road.
"We'll find them again," Hannes said. "No use in pushing them too hard on the first day."
Mid-morning, we left the Land Cruiser in the shadow of a rocky hill and eased over the top, dropping down onto a ledge overlooking a small waterhole in a dry, sandy riverbed. A few trees and a multitude of green and gray ‘wait-a-bit' thorn bushes covered the opposite hillside.
After a short hike, we stopped to rest. A few minutes later, a 50-inch kudu bull walked down the opposite slope. We waited and the bull turned sideways. I rested the rifle in the sticks and made the shot. Sometimes it comes easy.
That evening, we walked into a deep canyon with a water hole in its bottom. Hartebeest again, but nothing Hannes would approve. Daylight would bring another chance.
Puffs of white cumulus drifted across the July sky. Concealed beneath a thorn tree in the valley, we were thankful for the shade. Behind us, Hannes stirred and pointed. John shifted position and showed me movement in the trees. Something was coming.
Two kudu, a cow and a calf, came in, clouds of dust kicking at their heels. Soundless, watchful. Another herd of kudu moved out of the brush to our right, nervous. A cow came first, then a small bull and another. In all, we counted seven bulls in the herd. Then we saw the hartebeest.
A lone bull walked among the kudu. "That's a good bull," Hannes whispered. "But no shot." He was right. With kudu on both sides, there was no way I could shoot. Suddenly, the bull spun and wheeled away. "He'd have made the book," Hannes said. "But we'll get another chance."
The hartebeest is a grazer of the grasslands and high desert savanna. It has high, humped withers, a sloping back, a slender neck, and a long, narrow head. It has pointed ears and gray horns that grow back, then forward, then back again, tapering to sharp points. Its coat is red with black hair on the legs, face and mane. A good bull can be one of the most difficult of animals to stalk. In a herd of 20 or more animals, you have to beat 40 eyes and ears just to get close.
When judging a hartebeest, it is essential to get a good look from the front and the side. You're looking for height and mass first, then length of the tips second. Safari Club measurements include the length of both horns, plus the circumference of the bases. A minimum score of 62 inches is required to make the book. The biggest bull on record with SCI measured 80-5/8 inches of horn. The Rowland Ward Book requires the measurement of the length of one horn. A minimum of 23 inches is required. The biggest on record stretched the tape to 29-1/2.
The opening in front of us was 150 meters long and 90 meters wide. I rested my rifle against a log.
We heard him before we saw him, his hooves striking stone. He galloped onto the hard pan of the dry riverbed, hooking his horns this way and that. A lone bull hartebeest. He stood his ground and danced, like a boxer warming up before a fight, dipping his head, swinging left and right. I waited.
"Shoot this one." Hannes whispered.
Dropping his head, the big bull walked stiff-legged out onto the sand and stood at an old wallow, broadside, his head turned away. I steadied the rifle against one leg of the shooting sticks. Finding the bull in the scope, I held one-third of the way up the body on the point of the shoulder, and squeezed. The smoke obscured the target in the scope, but the crack of my bullet against beesty flesh told me he was down. And he was.
Hannes was happy. He put his hands on the animal's horns and ran a tape along one horn. "23 inches," he said. "A good hartebeest. That one we saw earlier would have made the book, but this one is much better."
As we loaded the animal in the Land Cruiser, I looked at John. He'd been there on my kudu hunt and seen the smoke from my muzzleloader. He'd smelled the burnt powder when my gun spoke in the riverbed. Now he wanted to try it for himself. We'd hunt for zebra in the morning, but I could tell, if he had anything to say about it, we'd be back, ghosting through the thorn bush again.
John had two days to think about hartebeest. He'd use the muzzleloader, he'd decided. With no time for him to try it on the range, I had him dry-fire the gun, dropping the hammer on an empty barrel and a fired cap.
We dismounted in the same riverbed where we'd started two days before. John dropped the powder into the bore and started the sabot and bullet, ramming them home. He slipped a primer on the nipple of the rifle and checked the safety. As the sound of the Land Cruiser faded into the distance, we began the hunt, a steady wind in our faces.
We found their tracks where the animals had come down to drink at a little pool. Over the top of a hill, we spotted three giraffes, a few moments before they spotted us.
Minutes later, we glimpsed a small herd of kudu. Spooked by some movement or a wisp of scent, the animals were jumpy. One female walked right up to us, barking, before she retreated.
Then we saw the hartebeest. Two of them. And one was big enough. John began to raise the rifle. But Hannes' hand on John's shoulder stopped him. "Don't shoot," Hannes said, "we'll wait and see what else we can find."
As the other two hartebeest moved away, a sound on our left caught our attention. There they were, less than 200 meters away, nervous, feeding across the ridge, trending toward the riverbed. Two split from the herd and walked right by us, less than five meters away. We held our breath. When they had moved away, Hannes tapped John on the shoulder and led him through the thorn bush to a small hill where they lay down on their bellies. John held the gun at the ready, while Hannes peered through the bush with his binoculars, trying to find a bull in the herd moving through the trees in front of them.
Patient, Hannes waited. "A very good bull," he said finally. Pointing it out to John, he waited for it to move clear of the rest of the animals. The herd fed through an opening and back into the scrub. If it was going to happen, it was going to happen soon.
"Now," Hannes whispered. The bull had moved into the river bottom. "120 yards."
John had the bull in the scope. He thumbed the safety to ‘fire' and found the target in the crosshair. Three pounds of pressure launched a 260-grain Nosler.
John reached the bull first. He stood motionless then reached forward and touched his treasure. Hannes hung back, an enormous smile on his face. "This is a good one," he said. Later, Hannes strung the tape along the horn. "Twenty-four inches," he whispered.
In two hunts in the space of three days, we had taken two bulls that would rank among the top five red hartebeest ever killed with a muzzleloader. Trophies and memories we'd treasure our whole lives. For tonight, we'd eat impala steak, stare at the stars and dream of the morrow.
Note - The first bull measured 23 inches with massive bases for a total SCI score of 71. It is currently ranked No. 2 among red hartebeest taken with a muzzleloader. The second bull, with a horn length of 24 inches, had smaller bases, but, when entered, will rank in the top five ever taken with a muzzleloader.