The first “golden oryx” I ever saw was in Dick and Mary Cabela’s trophy room in Sidney, Nebraska. I thought it was really beautiful—and different—but I actually didn’t give it any further thought until Barry Burchell asked me to join an auction hunt at his place in southern Namibia for exactly that: The golden oryx.
Hmmm. I am neither a strong proponent of “color phases” nor of intensive breeding programs, so I actually needed to think about it, and do a bit of homework. The “golden oryx” is an odd color phase of gemsbok wherein the colors are “muted.” There is no black anywhere; the normally gray body is a pale tan, and the facial markings that should be black are, well, golden. It does occur naturally, and perhaps occasionally wherever the gemsbok is found. The first known reference to one was near Swellendam, in the old Cape Colony, clear back in the 1700s when a traveler reported seeing a “roan with gemsbok horns,” which is a pretty good description. One of the guys I worked with on the Weatherby Foundation board shot two back in about 1965 near Meriden in what is now Namibia…and that isn’t far from Burchell’s place. So they do occur naturally, and in that area.
Some years back, Barry Burchell and his father, Fred Burchell, now deceased, scoured the countryside in southern Namibia and obtained enough of these golden oryx to start a nucleus herd. It is apparently a recessive gene, so there is no such thing as a “pure” herd—but today most gemsbok herds on Burchell’s 95,000-acre farm will have a couple of “golden” individuals. Some have been gathered up and sold to start other herds, but there are now enough that a few older bulls with horns starting to wear down can be taken. So Barry put a hunt for one on the auction block at our 2014 convention, and I agreed to go along.
I think it was one of those auction items that sort of slipped past. It was purchased by Jill St. John, retired Marine and niece of a friend of mine, J.C. Bell. She paid a good price for the hunt…but after the auction was offered quite a bit more. She declined to pass it along, so in July we met up in Windhoek for the long drive down to Barry’s place near Keetmanshoop.
I have been around Burchell at the shows for years, but I’d never hunted with him. He’s one of the good guys, well organized, fun to hunt with, and has an amazing family legacy in Africa. A great-great uncle, explorer and naturalist Dr. William John Burchell, came to South Africa early in the 19th Century, well before Cornwallis Harris. The Burchell’s zebra and Burchell’s sand grouse are named for him. His brother, Barry’s direct ancestor, came out a few years later and the family has been there ever since, now farming and hunting in both Namibia and Eastern Cape. It was a good camp and an interesting camp, set high up on a ridge with an awesome view in all directions…but with the fire circle walled in, both to contain heat and escape the wind. Never forget, July is dead of winter in Namibia, and this area was very far south, with the Kalahari Desert closing in on one side and the Namib on the other. Nights and mornings were chilly! It was big country, with open valleys dominated by fantastic rock formations…and there was lots of game.
Jill actually took her golden oryx early in the hunt, a heavy-horned old bull that gave us quite a runaround before we got him. I almost hate to admit it but, after I got a close look, her bull was so beautiful and so unusual that I shot a golden oryx for myself a few hours later! And after that we just had fun, hunting plains game as opportunities were presented. Jill had hunted Africa before, in Mozambique with my friend J.C. Bell, but not in Namibia. And although I’ve hunted Namibia a number of times, I’d never been this far south, so the country was wonderfully new. Jill took good springbok, “regular” oryx, hartebeest and more. The one animal we tried so hard to find for her was a greater kudu, but although we saw several nice bulls we just couldn’t get into position. She shot extremely well, sort of like I would expect a Marine to shoot. After all, since she was a Warrant Officer the proper term of address is “Gunner.” On the other hand, she got hurt pretty badly in the battle for Fallujah before she retired, and is fairly new to hunting. There’s nothing like a good plains game safari to make us all better!– Craig Boddington