Twenty yards away, the lioness dropped to her belly in the thick grass and examined us like appetizers on the lunch menu. There were a number of things that seemed inherently right about her position: the grass that matched her coloration perfectly and concealed everything except the top half of her face; the crouch that would enable her to launch like a sprinter from the starting blocks; the rock-steady position that allowed her to study us thoroughly without moving a muscle.
On the other hand, there didn’t seem to be anything good about my position, sitting in a open jeep with my hands fluttering between my .44 Magnum Classic Hunter and 35mm camera. Our professional hunter eased himself and his .375 H&H out of the jeep while murmuring reassuring words.
My indecision was based on the fact that while this was my first safari and there were no lions on my trophy list, I didn’t know what was on the lioness’ list.
I finally managed to click the shutter a few times which resulted in some of the worst focused pictures of the trip. After an incredibly long 14 or so seconds, the lioness turned and trotted off into the bush.
I knew I had just experienced one of the great hunting moments of my life without firing a shot, and it was the kind of incident that just can’t happen on an annual stateside deer or elk hunt.
My hunting partner for this trip was Phil Briggs. After a dozen years of handgun hunts together in Colorado, Wyoming and Arizona, we were pretty comfortable with each other’s habits, unusual camping noises, and various other behavior patterns not always acceptable in social, civilized circles.
Most importantly, we enjoyed each other’s company and didn’t get on each other’s nerves in remote, sometimes confined conditions.
Picking The Guns
There was no question that this was a handgun safari.
If you’re a gun nut (excuse me, that’s firearms enthusiast) no element of the planning process is as much fun as the selection and preparation of the weapons and loads.
Like many handgun hunter, I wanted a scoped, single-shot pistol of serious persuasion as the primary hunting weapon. I also wanted a belt gun that was compact, delivered sufficient power for penetration of big game, and yet was suitable for other potential social situations.
The caliber decision was relatively easy – the .375 JDJ seems to be the choice of those who hunt big game with single-shot handguns. It’s not magic, but it’s balance of brute power, flat trajectory, bullet selection, and gun manageability is better than any other caliber I have handled.
A good recoil suppression system is essential to maintain control with the heavier bullet weights. Since my choice of weapon was the XL Pistol (formerly Merrill)made by Jim Rock of Rock Pistol Manufacturing in ucson, I selected his variation of the famous JDJ caliber called the .375 Rocket.
It’s the same .444 case necked down to .375 with a slightly different shoulder angle, but comparable performance. Topped by a 2X Leupold, the XL pistol handles and balances perfectly, particularly when shooting standing.
It groups under ¾ inch from the bench at 50 meters which might be improved with a higher power scope. However, 2X feels right for standing shots, and I can never find a bench when I’m hunting.
Just in case, I took another single-shot XL/Merrill, this one in .30-40 Krag with a 15-inch barrel and 4X Leupold that shoots 50 meter groups under ½ inch. I couldn’t handle it nearly as well off-hand, but for long range shots from any kind of rest, it looked good for medium-sized game.
.44 S&W Belt Gun
For the belt gun, I was looking at S&W four-inch configurations in .41 and .44 caliber when I stumbled on a .44 Hunter Classic with three-inch barrel at one of my favorite local gun stores. In my usual suave a debonair style, I slobbered and drooled and stammered until we came to terms.
I didn’t have much time for load development, but 18 grains of AA #7 with 220 gr. Sierra FPJ match bullets gave over 1,200 fps, excellent accuracy, good penetration and manageable gun control.
I was ready or as Ward Bond kept saying in the old western movie Hondo, “Hell, I was born ready!”
We were booked with Roc Safaris, owned and operated by Rocco Gioia, who has hosted a number of handgun hunters and understands the difference between us and the long gunners. We were met at the airport for the 200 mile drive to the ranch.
I had forgotten that South Africans drive on the left side of the road and work with kilometers, not miles. Doing 120 down the wrong side of the road had me ready for a pre-dinner shiskey by the time we reached the ranch!
Over dinner we began to get acquainted with our two professional hunters, both of whom carried .44 Magnums. When they discover that Phil has a pretty fair wine palate, the PH’s cheerfully took on the additional duty of wine stewards and presented us with an excellent selection of premium South African wines over the next two weeks. When the wine steward is packing a .44 Magnum, no one ever sends a bottle back!
The basic daily schedule begins with a wake up visit around 5 a.m. followed by a light breakfast in the main lodge. You’re out on one of the ranches (each about 20,000 to 30,000 acres) at first light hunting until late morning when it’s back to the lodge for a big brunch
You’re free for a couple of hours to siesta, read, write letters or just enjoy the African camp until about 2 p.m. Then you’re off huntingagain until dark, about 6 p.m., when you head back for dinner.
Back at the lodge, everyone shares their hunting successes of the day, paying strict attention to the truth. It’s fun watching a PH trying to keep a straight face as he supports his hunter’s outlandish story.
Hunting yarns are followed by dinner, which frequently includes the better cuts of meat from game taken. About twice a week, the hunters and staff wandered over to the outdoor campfire area for a barbecue dinner. These were very pleasant evenings with the fire playing a nice role in the cool winter air.
I’ve enjoyed the coyote choirs of the western U.S. but it’s not the same as the grunts and coughs of lions and leopards hunting outside your boma. Depending on your mood after dinner, you can adjourn to the bar or return to your rondavaal (cottage). Yes, I gained weight on this trip!
The first morning started after day-break with sight setting checks and a look at the ranch’s trophy preparation area. It was late in the afternoon, just before dusk, when we spotted a herd of impala leaving a waterhole. (I say “we,” but for the first couple of days, it was my PH, Johann Grove, who spotted everything we saw.)
The heard ram looked “pretty good” to Johann and absolutely fantastic to me! Johann suggested that since they were unaware of us, we might beat them to a nearby clearing and get a reasonable shot at the ram. Since I had no clever counter-suggestions, we were off for the clearing.
Apparently the hunting gods were pleased to see me in Africa because I was comfortably seated in the grass with the .375 braced over one knee when the herd emerged from the brush about 120 yards away. As all the does and non-voting herd members crossed the clearing at a fairly relaxed walk or trot, I seemed to be the only really nervous animal within miles.
And then the head dude appeared, carefully bringing up the rear of the parade. I watched in total fascination through the scope until I realized I had come halfway around the world for this guy.
The .375 roared just before the ram reached the far side of the clearing. From what I could tell, there was a part-jump, part-hunch and he was gone. We didn’t wait 15 minutes over a relaxed cigarette for the game to lie down and die. It was getting on toward dark, and Africa is known for its incredibly efficient dead protein removal teams that operate at night.
We were off to track and find my ram. You don’t stay out tooo long after dark either, because Africa has some different, but equally efficient, live protein removal teams.
Not to worry, “California Dundee,” we found the ram about 50 yards away.
You don’t think I was excited? I was like a virgin facing the sacrifice selection committee chairman! I immediately began trying to convince Johann that my 120 yard shot was more like 250 yards. He smile and applauded by conservatism.
Curse of the Kudu
With such an incredible start, I doubted that anything could go wrong. Unfortunately, as the poem says, “Let me count the ways.” We did several unsuccessful stalks on different kudu, one of whom had horns over 52 inches and would have probably put me in the handgun record book.
I didn’t see the world record grey duiker (greater than six-inch horns) that Johann put me on until he spooked. I blew a stalk on a really good warthog and missed a shot at another.
Warthogs are an exceptional animal in many ways; in addition to being so ugly even your daughters don’t object to you hunting them, God deliberately made them dimensionally incorrect (warthogs, not daughters.)
A warthog’s head is disproportionately long compared to its body which causes you to shoot low when it faces you. But what great hunting animals, prolific as rabbits and a sheer joy to watch in their natural habitat!
(Their entertainment value continues as I now argue with my wife about where we should display such ugly animals. But I digress.)
I finally did get a shot at a good kudu bull, and things went seriously wrong. We had seen a kudu cow cross a clearing about 100 yards away just before dark. We waited and saw another cow cross the same spot a few minutes later.
Shortly thereafter, a large bull appeared about 100 yards beyond the cows. Johann said, “Take him; he’s a good 52 inches.” I put the crosshairs high on the shoulder, and just before he left the clearing and reentered the bush, I squeezed one off.
Both Johann and I thought we heard the sound of bullet impact but did not see any animal reaction. No waiting with darkness coming on; we beat feet to the last visual contact spot and started looking for tracks and blood.
Nothing! Johann couldn’t sort out a trail before dark in the thick grass which extended for more than 100 yards into the bush along the kudu’s path. Talk about a long, miserable night.
Despite hours of intensive tracking effort the nex day with an additional PH, we only found a slight trace of blood at one of the kudu’s rest stops that apparently came from a superficial muscle would high in the shoulder.
Going back and checking distances showed that he had not been 200 yards away when I fired, but more like 150 yards, which was dead-on for the .375 Rocket. The slug had hit high in the shoulder beneath his hump, exactly under the crosshairs. This was absolutely the low point of the safari, but it didn’t last.
A few days later, I got my kudu. Again, there were several hours of intensive tracking and worrying, but the final result was different. He won’t make the book with horns just under 50 inches, but I don’t even have to negotiate with my wife about where in the house this guy goes on display. Well, maybe there will be a little negotiating.
Phil and I spent a total of two weeks on Rocco’s ranch, and neither of us was ready to come home. There were highs and lows in terms of hunting successes and failures, but our enjoyment of the safari just increased the longer we stayed.
Rocco is right when he recommends no less that a 20 day safari with two weeks being better. Kruger National Park is quite close to the ranch, and with so many species of game within its boundaries, it represents an excellent opportunity to fill your photo album, but not your trophy room.
On the next trip, we’ll probably spend a day at Kruger, but our first safari was spent hunting.
From the time we are children, we hear incredible stories about the hunting lure of Africa. They’re all true! For diversity and quantity of game available to a hunter, Africa is unbelievable.
Even after your trophy fee budget has expired, there are unique “varmints” weighing hundreds of pounds still available for hunting at no additional cost that are unimaginable stateside.
Does it sound like I want to go back? Like a good friend said: Hunting Africa is like having peanuts; nobody can eat just one.” Hell yes, I’m going back!
Published: American Handgunner March/April 1992