column By: Lee J. Hoots | March, 19
Africa covers 11.7 million square miles and is home to the world’s most diverse and unique assemblage of game animals. The legendary Cape buffalo and African elephant have lured intrepid, well-heeled riflemen since the first Europeans began taking safaris to explore, trade, hunt and eventually settle on the world’s second-largest land mass. Most hunters, however, are not rolling in spare cash, including me; yet scraping and scrimping over the past 16 years has allowed for a double-handful of enlightening hunts for plains game.
“You beat him on oryx,” Pop said.
“What’s an oryx?”
“He’ll look damned handsome when you get him home.”
“I’m just kidding.”
When I think of Africa, Hemingway’s kudu immediately comes to mind. Another favorite is the smaller spiral-horned bushbuck, a scrappy little chap that appears to have no great fear of dueling with anything, including man. A trip to Africa for just one or both of these unique game animals, if planned properly, including hunting on foot over fenceless ground, can be as rewarding as tracking a mature whitetail buck anywhere in the U.S. A hunt taken specifically for another favorite, the equally distinguished oryx, would be equally worthwhile, even if Hemingway might have disagreed.
It could be argued that kudu are far more handsome and emblematic of Africa, but its smaller bushbuck cousin is without dispute exceedingly more secretive and thereby more difficult to hunt. A compelling argument against hunting either of these animals would be difficult to make. Yet the oryx embodies the spirit of Africa, too; it can be as difficult to hunt as kudu, is far more interestingly marked about the face and flanks and deserves equal consideration. In my humble opinion, stalking an old bull oryx is as difficult as stalking a mature kudu bull.
A great deal of plains game hunting in southern Africa takes place under high fences, and I admit to having experienced such situations early on when invited by firearms manufacturers. However, it’s equally important to note that many “farms” in southern Africa far exceed game ranches in the U.S. in size.
On one particular conservancy in Namibia, for example, a man could walk in a straight line for a day and never find a fence. That property was so expansive it held elephants and black rhinos, animals that would easily push over or through any wire barrier if they felt restricted in any way. Even the common eland, known to jump high fences with ease, remained content. There were gemsbok on that ground, too, and I eventually shot one after stalking it through the bush for more than an hour.
As further indication that a large, properly managed concession can provide fair-chase hunting, I had intended to shoot a sable bull, which I was told “Should be no problem given a week’s hunt.” More rhinos and elephants were seen until, with a day and a half left before scheduled departure, a big black bull was more or less stumbled into at point-blank range. Lady Luck is fickle, however. The old bull, with its massive, sweeping corrugated horns was standing straight-on; with the rifle shouldered, the only clear shot I had was at its face; its neck and forelegs were covered by dense thorn brush. There seemed no reason to wreck such a fine animal with a risky shot, so I stood ready for long seconds before the bull finally bolted into the bush. With an eye out for puff adders, the PH and I then slithered across the sand under the thick brush and tracked the bull for about an hour before losing the spoor altogether.
Oryx are not as rare as sable. Bulls and cows are almost identical in appearance, with cows generally carrying longer horns while bulls generally have shorter, heavier horns – this last trait is not a universal rule. Either makes for a fine trophy when hunted in country unhindered by wire fencing. On the wall at home is the first free-range oryx I brought home from South Africa. A cow, its right horn measure 34½ inches while the opposite horn measures 34¼ inch. It was shot during one very interesting day.
The PH (whose name has escaped me) and I went looking for oryx and parked about 50 yards away from a 60-foot-tall kopje from which we could glass a large grove of dried-out mopane trees. Upon reaching the top of the rock, a leopard hopped out of a crag, apparently having been rudely awakened from its late-morning nap. At about 15 yards, it stood like a statue for long seconds, glaring at us with a piercing stare of agitation then turned and ran off in a flash through the mopane below.
We spent most of the remainder of that hot morning looking for gemsbok among various groves of mopane, alternately following somewhat fresh tracks or climbing ridgelines to glass, all without any luck. On a hunch, in the early afternoon we drove back to and climbed the leopard’s kopje to glass the surrounding trees again, this time flushing a brown hyena at about 35 yards from the opposite side of the leopard’s layer.
Though moderate in size, that chunk of rock protruding from the parched earth in the middle of nowhere had its allure. From its top we glassed another 15 minutes or so and almost decided to leave for the day when the big cow oryx walked out from the thin shade of the butterfly trees. It fell within 30 yards when struck low through the foreleg with a .338 Winchester Magnum.
Currently hunted oryx are divided among three subspecies. The gemsbok of southern Africa is by far the most common while the fringe-eared oryx and the East African oryx are both found in East Africa. Mature oryx bulls can weigh nearly 500 pounds, and the legendary toughness of African big game applies here. However, a .338 Winchester Magnum is probably more rifle than is necessary, and any accurate .30-06 loaded with heavy, penetrating bullets such as the Swift A-Frame, Nosler Partition, Hornady GMX, Barnes X (or others of similar design) should prove adequate.
Having written that, I’ve only seen two oryx fall in their tracks, one of which I shot in Namibia with a Thompson/Center Encore .375 Holland & Holland. The other was shot by a hunting buddy on the fringe of the great Namib Desert while hunting for mountain zebra.
As the sun began sinking in the west and the shadows began stretching east across dunes and rocky ridgelines away from the sandy coast, I gently tapped on the cab of the Toyota and pointed out a lone bull oryx working its way up a jagged outcrop. It wasn’t my turn to shoot so, due to lack of stalking cover, I hung back in the truck and watched as my hunting buddy and the PH worked their way up toward the ridge a quarter mile away. As luck would have it, the oryx stopped to survey the landscape. From a semi-hidden position in the rocks, one very careful shot was fired from (of all things) a .30 TC – a now somewhat-forgotten short-action cartridge that, with the use of a proprietary powder, more or less duplicated or slightly exceeded .30-06 ballistics. My chum now had a truly free-range oryx, and before it got dark he followed up with a Hartmann’s mountain stallion.
In the remaining days we each ended up bagging Hemingway’s kudus elsewhere, but hunting them in no way overshadowed the hunts made for oryx. If Hemingway’s perceived sentiment toward oryx was real, he had it all wrong.