Blackpowder Springbok Slam – A Brilliantly Colored Adventure
This South African adventure was conceived with my spouse Debbie to commemorate our three decades of marriage. As a life-long hunter, plains game provided an irresistible attraction, but the special nature of this trip called for something more than a run-of-the-mill rifle hunt. Additionally, my writer’s psyche imposed remarkable influence that demanded fresh and interesting story angles. We discussed our plans with many of my contacts in the outdoors industry and decided to spend the first week bowhunting in the Port Elizabeth area (UHM June/July 2013). With Knight Rifles providing one of their new “Mountaineer” muzzleloaders for testing, the second week of our trip would necessarily be fashioned around blackpowder. A quick look at the record book maintained by Safari Club International showed that only a handful of people had taken qualifying copper springbok with a muzzleloader and furthermore, Craig Boddington mentioned that he had not taken a copper springbok in his many treks across Africa.
The springbok is the only gazelle occurring in southern Africa, and despite its’ uniqueness and status as South Africa’s national animal, the “common” springbok is often overlooked in favor of more glamorous species. Not so common are the color variants; black, white and copper. My interest peaked when Jim Shockey acknowledged the copper deficiency in his own world class collection – which has since been amended – and the mission was set to hunt the four springbok, with blackpowder adding to the challenge while raising the ante. After all, opportunities to one-up a couple of hunting legends don’t come along very often – and neither does a diamond anniversary!
We met Neil Barnard, owner of NB Safaris headquartered in Sterkrivier, Limpopo at the SCI convention, and he agreed to arrange the hunt. Professional Hunter Koos Nel was dispatched to collect us at the Johannesburg airport, and we made the 8+ hour drive to the Kalahari Basin near the “Diamond City” of Kimberly, Northern Cape. The first morning hunt was not unlike many I have taken in my home State of Arizona. At first light we hiked a poorly defined trail up a rugged, rocky hillside to glass the arid landscape below for our quarry. The surroundings featured thorny low-profile brush, and it wasn’t long before our veteran guide made a welcome declaration: “There’s two feeding together, and one looks really good!”
First of Four
PH Koos led Debbie and me down the mountain on a roundabout approach to keep the wind in our favor that admittedly, had me questioning our direction. Except for a close but uneventful encounter with a small herd of eland, the half-mile stalk through grassy shrubland littered with camelthorn trees went smoothly. As we rounded a tall patch of acacia scrub Koos suddenly thrust an open palm rearward. A few more cautious steps and the PH set the shooting sticks while I primed the new Knight .50 caliber muzzleloader for a shot. The pair of rams was feeding and moving slowly into view 150 yards away when something dawned on me. In 20+ years of hunting with muzzleloaders, I had never fired one from sticks in a standing position. Rookie! Fortunately, the lapse in confidence faded quickly and a well-placed shoulder shot dropped the older of the two rams in the colorful red sand.
Collecting the common South African springbok before 9:00 AM, we had nearly the full day remaining to search host Greg Edwards’ Magersfontein Safaris property for a black or white ram. With the customary “hero” photos complete, we loaded my trophy and PH Ricus deVilliers, owner of White Lion Safaris in Kimberley, escorted us on a tour through the lower end of the ranch. Here we found several herds of springbok containing both blacks and whites. The grassy plain in this area was featureless except for a few barren pans, with cover limited to small scattered termite mounds and the occasional thorn bush. This would not be easy… particularly with a muzzleloader! After glassing up a couple of mature white rams, Koos and Ricus invested an hour in careful observation to identify a travel pattern. The springbok appeared to be favoring a modest depression in the surrounding open terrain. A distant windmill served as a landmark while we drove a two mile roundabout to the opposite side. Ricus dropped Koos and me off to find cover and establish an ambush position, then he and Debbie set out to circle the nearest herd.
Ricus’ plan to force this group to change direction back toward the depression worked to perfection. Koos and I found refuge under a bush, with less than three feet of earth-to-thorns clearance. The surrounding grass was too tall for a prone shot, and Koos’ shooting sticks were unfortunately too tall to be useful in our tight crawl space. With the herd approaching quickly I fashioned a make-shift gun rest from a forked stick. My half-sitting semi-reclining position was awkward, but the rest seemed solid and comfort was not a practical option, as springbok were already moving into the depression. Koos picked out a mature white ram with horns surpassing the 12-inch benchmark, and began counting off the yardage; 184… 168… 152… Preparing for a shot I realized that a couple of items were missing – my eyeglasses and my “possibles” bag containing spare powder and bullets were both left at the lodge – so true to the muzzleloader premise, this would necessarily be a one shot deal. As the crosshairs settled on the handsome ram he suddenly bolted forward. Maintaining a sight picture of the moving animal required some torso twisting; a somewhat less than smooth maneuver in that awkward position. When the ram stopped I started to squeeze… the gun discharged as it slipped off the crooked stick, sending 300 grains of saboted lead into the next province. This morning’s hunt effectively ended in a cloud of white smoke and book blue language.
True to their titles, the two PH’s were consummately professional; showing not even the slightest sign of unhappiness with their klutzy, forgetful client. After a savory lunch and a bit of rest at the lodge, we headed back out for round two – with plenty of blackpowder and bullets – but this afternoon hunt was not without its’ own misadventure. The plan was similar to the late morning strategy; locate a herd with a good black or white ram where we could setup an ambush point within muzzleloader range on the nearly barren plain. As if made to order, a small group of nine with a beautiful pure white ram peeled off from a herd of 30+ and moved in the direction of the landmark windmill.
Koos took the lead as we hustled to make the depression ahead of the group, but they had decided advantages in both speed and proximity. In danger of being caught out in the open, we had to make due with the only cover around; a narrow dirt rise no more than 3 feet at its’ highest point. Heads down we crawled up behind it, laying side-by-side on our bellies – Koos, then me, then Debbie, then tracker “Boetie” – just like newborn puppies at feeding time. To assure muzzle clearance, Koos placed my rifle on a tiny bush growing just above an aardvark hole. Slithering around the excavation into shooting position triggered painful back spasms, so just seconds before the springbok would emerge from the depression we had to improvise. I rolled over and switched ends to sit in the hole, like one would sit in a stack of old tires. Using my elevated left knee for a rest I cradled the rifle in my lap, but needed to curl up like a pillbug to keep my head out of sight and still see through the scope!
As you might imagine, this was a wreck waiting to happen… and happen it did. I held remarkably steady on the approaching snow white animal. At 120 yards he stopped, and the lights went out as the powder ignited. I heard the bullet hit but saw next to nothing, as the 50mm Burris Black Diamond rifle scope smacked me squarely between the eyes. Along with an instant headache, I now sported my first scope cut in 50+ years of hunting. When the surroundings stopped spinning I staggered to my feet, with Debbie tending to the blood dripping from my forehead. Koos and Boetie were already tending to the dazzling white springbok ram, with its’ long-haired white dorsal crest in full bloom. That evening after dinner we visited around the campfire with Greg and his wife Jackie, who told us about Rhino poachers operating in the area. They asked us to record descriptions and tail numbers of any passing helicopters. It had been quite a first day!
Locating and collecting a “proper” copper springbok – one with well-developed coloration and no vestigial white on the body – was a top priority. Our outfitter had made arrangements for us to hunt a property near Moolmanshoek almost 400 kilometers distant. Owner Adam Boshoff had a well-developed copper strain, and his ranch was magnificent! The rolling hills and grassy plains held ample thornbush scrub and large acacia trees, ideal for walk-and-stalk hunting. Ricus knew the property well and took us on a driving tour that showcased plenty of blue wildebeest, blesbok and a few gemsbok and eland, but not many springbok. Near the center of the property we parked on a ridge in the shade of two sizable acacias to do some glassing. It didn’t take long to locate a group of springbok a mile below with two very nice copper rams. Koos and I made a plan to circle ahead of the herd using the available tree cover, and we were off on the first stalk of the morning!
The springbok were feeding and moving along briskly at times, following the hillside contour. We would move down as close as cover allowed, then back out, rush ahead and approach again… and again. Our approaches were stymied each time, as cover ran out at about 250 yards. Although the new Knight “Mountaineer” rifle demonstrated remarkable accuracy at this distance and beyond with synthetic blackpowder stateside, I lacked confidence in the “genuine” blackpowder that was available locally for shots over 200 yards. Our last approach was the closest; and standing alongside a large thorn tree I closed the bolt on a primer while Koos ranged the longer horned, darker colored copper ram at 211 yards. As the magnificent ram moved a few steps closer and paused for a mouthful of grass, I placed the horizontal crosshair on his back figuring 5-6 inches of drop at that distance. Steady… squeeze… ka-boom! Koos said: “What happened?” Dust flew directly behind the ram, but he did not appear to be hit. Debbie said: “You missed!” My gut retched and my spirit sank. Ricus was watching through high-power magnification and later confirmed it was a clean miss.
More stalking and additional opportunities consumed the remainder of the morning and early afternoon. One of these was indeed a close encounter, with a group of 20+ including a fine copper ram passing within 30 yards of our hideout under a thornbush… but I did not shoot. “They were all over you, what happened?” Ricus asked when we met up. I had no shot… they were moving too fast… the sun was in my eyes… take your pick. Truth is, my heart was set on that long-horned, brilliantly colored ram I missed earlier, so we split up to try to locate him. An hour into the search, Ricus radioed that he had located the ram, now separated from his herd. That was good news… but there was bad; he was bedded with three others in the middle of a totally barren pan, half a mile wide and two miles long. In our haste to cover the considerable distance down to the ram on foot, Koos and I bumped a herd of zebra that ran all the way into the pan, crossing it in a cloud of dust. What luck! The disturbance started the four springbok moving, led by a black ewe. She nervously changed direction several times but finally committed to a course out of the pan, and once again we scurried to locate a suitable ambush point. While I tested and re-tested the rest-worthiness of a shoulder high branch in our hardwoods hideout, Koos confirmed that the copper ram was the one I wanted. He was grazing and relaxed as he advanced, still accompanied by the same two outsized common rams that were with him earlier. A final yardage check at 141 and three steps later, the “Dead Center” bullet manufactured by Precision Rifle in Manitoba, Canada lived up to its’ name.
A slight breeze cleared the smoke quickly enough for me to witness a couple of moving visions; my ram falling in the reddish sand after a brief stagger, and the surprisingly agile hulk of our well-seasoned PH sprinting toward the downed animal! Koos’ excitement was a not-so-subtle clue that we had something special. When Ricus and Debbie arrived, the local PH immediately confirmed: “That’s the biggest copper I have ever seen on the ground.”
After a wonderful dinner back at Magersfontein – seared springbok filet, of course! – the two PH’s carefully measured the horns at just a tick under 15 inches. With a “green score” of 41 inches, my copper ram would contend for the #1 spot in the SCI record book! We had three mature rams in the salt – all Top 15 candidates – so discussion focused on completing the color “slam.” Since we had seen only young black rams so far, Koos placed a call to old high school chum H.W. Gutter; a rancher and breeder of color phase native animals including springbok, yellow blesbok and black impala. One very short night later we were on the road again; this time to Winburg, Free State, nearly 3 hours east. On arrival we loaded essential gear into our host’s Toyota Hilux, then motored to the top of a hill overlooking the property. “Ha-Vir” (H.W. pronounced in Afrikaans) was proud of his operation and true to his promise, it did not take us long to locate a herd of springbok with a couple of good sized black rams. A long ridge topped with trees would provide the cover we needed to stalk within muzzleloader range. Near the end of the hour-long procession we were surprised by a lone sable bull bedded in the shade. He was surprised too… and of course, the bolting bull spooked the springbok.
Ha-Vir asked if I thought these rams were worth pursuing. I replied that the heavier horned charcoal and chocolate colored one was a real beauty. They had vanished into a well grazed but enormous grass valley, but the landowner said he knew where they would likely pass later in the day. We back tracked then drove around the valley and over a ridge into a giant bowl, where we setup on a 20 foot mound of dirt at its center, shaded by a few trees. Ha-Vir left to post watch, while we waited… and waited! The call finally came that the springbok were heading toward the bowl. As they appeared on the rim looking nervous, I suspected they had been shot at from this position a time or two before. The first, then a second, then a third animal sprinted across the lower lip of the bowl to our open side at well over 200 yards, and disappeared. Suspicion confirmed.
“There’s your ram!” Koos hissed, as a couple of black heads appeared, moving well inside the line taken by the others. I lasered the closest point on the slope where I thought they would pass at 177 yards, then planted my toes, my chest and the rifle stock solidly in the loose dirt. Koos advised “he’s third in line,” as the first black ram neared my mark, then bolted to safety like a drag racer leaving the starting line. Number two followed the same script. As number three walked into the field of the big Burris scope cranked up to 16x, I settled on a spot and the Knight rifle and Dead Center bullet closed the deal.
“You son-of-a-gun!” the startled PH exclaimed, while administering a hug in the dirt that must have looked more like a wrestling maneuver. The big beautiful black ram had dropped in his tracks, and although our hunting method for the last was not my favorite, we had nevertheless taken four world class animals. The unofficial but colorful “Springbok Slam” with blackpowder was complete. It’s a shame that hunters often overlook the springbok I thought; reflecting on what would become a stunning 4-color addition to my trophy room. This will no doubt change, as more outfitters offer this challenging and affordable hunt. Debbie was all smiles as she joined our “slam” celebration. With my mission accomplished it was now time to begin her hunt… for diamonds!
Muzzleloader Springbok Slam
Published in Universal Hunter Magazine, All rights reserved.
Muzzleloader Springbok Slam Hunting Story Written by Outdoor Writer, Tony Martins. Published in the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of Universal Hunter magazine.
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