Flashback Friday – Gemsbok, the Desert Warrior

SafariND1992CoverEditor’s Note: On Friday we search the extensive SCI archives and reprint a story from the past. This week’s story is a tribute to the majestic and aggressive Gemsbok. This story originally appeared in the November/December 1992 issue of Safari magazine.

One of my earliest and most vivid memories is of my father almost being impaled on the horn of a wounded gemsbok in South West Africa {now Namibia). I was five years old and just big enough to see over the dashboard of the 1936 Oldsmobile-if I stood on the front seat.

We weren’t really hunting, but in those days everyone carried a rifle in the car and took what meat presented itself. There were no hunting ranches then, and no one paid to hunt. Sheep and cattle ranchers considered most game animals a nuisance, especially gemsbok which were known for breaking fences.

We rounded a sharp bend on the dusty road and stampeded a large herd of these magnificent antelopes. My father grabbed the old military Lee Enfield that was propped up between us and chambered a round as he got out of the car. Most of the herd had disappeared into the nearby bush, but he was just in time to swing on a straggler still visible behind the massive cloud of dust following the herd. It collapsed at the shot but immediately began struggling to get up again. The bullet had broken the spine just ahead of the hips. As he approached the gemsbok suddenly dipped its nose and flicked out those deadly twin sabers slashing sideways with a vicious twist of the neck. The tip of one horn caught the fly of his trousers and popped open all the buttons, leaving him a profoundly shocked man. He was lucky! The animal’s broken spine had prevented it from lunging forward, and that saved him.

That incident left a lasting impression on me. I have hunted these animals for many years now, and my fascination with them has never waned. The gemsbok may not be as lordly as the sable, it lacks the regal splendor of the kudu, but there is no more ruggedly handsome flashbackfridaygemsbok1animal in all Africa. The bull’s athletic build and streamlined markings lend a gladiatorial grace that I find compelling. There is a certain arrogance about the gemsbok as it flicks its long tail, struts off a few paces and then turns to look back at you like a knight with lance at the ready. It is aggressive yet graceful, beautiful but deadly. It is the warrior of the antelope world and looks the part.

The true home of the gemsbok is Namibia. I was born there and Jived many years of my life there, so I have a special affection for this desert nomad.

My first gemsbok bull fell to my .30.06 late one autumn afternoon in 1975, in a setting as picturesque as a painting. A long stalk had brought us to within 200 yards of the herd, and I picked out a bull that was typical of the huge specimens that inhabit this arid region. I was nervous, having heard all about how hard these animals are to kill. Since it was getting late, I decided to aim for the shoulder to break bone and get it down. I broke the shoulder, but that didn’t put the bull down, and I watched anxiously as it galloped off with the herd. After about 100 yards however, my gemsbok slowed and then went down in a cloud of dust.

My friend Thys (pronounced Tace) Louw has a hunting ranch in this area bordering the vast wilderness region of the Namib Desert Park, said to be the largest game reserve in the world. It is a gemsbok paradise and I have yet to meet a visiting hunter who has not been successful there, or who has not been thrilled by the scenery. I shall never forget the sight of a herd of 400 gemsbok on the Louw ranch, and the long slow stalk we made with no cover other than the carpet of yellow grass that flows between scattered koppies and rugged little mountains. As we inched forward, stopping every few yards, flashbackfridaygemsbok3the herd got nervous and split in two – one half moving off to safer pastures while the rest fidgeted anxiously to and fro. We were still 300, maybe 350 yards away, but any attempt to get closer would probably have spooked them. That’s the way it goes in this area. You have to be prepared to take long shots on occasion.

Ernie Shoemaker, a Texan I had taken there for a hunt was carrying the right rifle for the job -a 7mm Remington Magnum handloaded with 175-grain Nosler Partitions. From a comfortable dead rest he dropped a trophy bull so dramatically that Louw promptly turned to him and said, “I want that rifle! When he left, Shoemaker sold him the Remington.

A gemsbok bull weighs 400-500 pounds, stands 48-50 inches at the shoulder, and is plenty tough. Heavy, strongly-constructed bullets are best. The shooting is often done at fairly long ranges, so you need a cartridge powerful enough to push those bullets at useful velocities. The 7mm Rem Mag is a good choice with the right bullets, and the various .300 magnums – with bullets weighing 200 grains and up- do the job very well. The .338 Win. Mag. is another excellent choice.

If you don’t hit a gemsbok just right, you’ve got problems; it can run for miles. I was on a culling operation once with a man whose shot broke the front leg of a gemsbok bulL and it ran nearly 11 measured miles on three legs while we chased it in a 4×4 vehicle. Eventually we got close enough to shoot from the moving vehicle, and a lucky shot brought it to a stop. Most hunters expect trouble only from the Big flashbackfridaygemsbok4Five, but believe me, it is very easy to get yourself killed or maimed by a gemsbok. A friend of mine was hunting with a client who had wounded a gemsbok. The animal went on despite his wounds and eventually the guide left the exhausted client behind and tracked it alone. When he came up on the wounded animal, he tried to finish it off with a headshot from his .308 but misjudged the height of scope and missed the brain. The gemsbok, though mortally wounded, decided to go out fighting and charged the guide. My friend was able to grab one horn to keep it from impaling him in the stomach, but the other horn skewered his leg. The gemsbok reputation as a fighter means a hunter should never approach a fallen gemsbok until you are certain it is dead.

The gemsbok is an impressively handsome animal and a challenging quarry and hunting it in the vast splendor of the Nambibian desert is an unforgettable experience.—Gregor Woods

2 thoughts on “Flashback Friday – Gemsbok, the Desert Warrior”

  1. Enjoyed the gemsbok article. I took a large male and an equally large female in Namibia in 2007 and 2009. Both were taken with my bow. Neither made in over 100 yards before succumbing. They are shoulder mounted in my cabin and are my favorite mounts. They also draw the most comments and questions. Despite four kudu bulls having fallen to well placed arrows the gemsbok remain as my most memorable game.

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