Trek for a Record

Field & Stream
August, 1958

“The heat haze in the distance obscured the faraway animals, but on our side of the river we could see perhaps a thousand. A black mass of wildebeest and zebra drifted down the slope of the valley toward the water. A vague cloud of dust rose from the many parallel game trails in their wake. Also moving toward the river were scattered bands of Grant’s gazelle, their rumps and hind legs showing a brilliant white seat patch. A herd of Thomson’s gazelle were at rest under some widely spaced thorn trees to our left. Beyond the tommies, the red forms of several impala contrasted with the lighter brown of a straggling line of female eland. Just below us a cow rhinoceros with an enormous front horn ambled doggedly down a rutted trail worn by generations of rhino. Behind her a large calf trotted to keep with her shambling pace.

‘The game in this valley is of good quality,’ said Andrew Holmberg quietly as he looked through his big bell-mouthed 10 x 30 binoculars. ‘That rhino there will have a 25-inch horn or better.’ He shifted his glasses again. ‘Look at the biggest of those buffalo bulls. That one on the right has a good boss and a good spread – a 44- or 45-inch head – very good indeed.’”

“This might have been in the middle of the best game preserve in all Africa. Or it might have been a scene viewed by some early explorer in the East African highlands, one of those intrepid pioneers who led a line of natives carrying bundles on their heads several hundred miles up from the coast to a spot such as this. But this place was no game preserve. And the time was not in the early 1800’s, and we hadn’t walked here. We had driven here in a modern safari car, which had been an adventure in itself.”

“We rounded a lava shoulder and came out on a high tableland. Here we saw our first rhinos, a cow and a calf. The cow was standing asleep in the shade under a tree, her calf lying beside her. There was no way we could circle wide to avoid the inevitable. As the safari car rolled by she pricked forward her ears and her tail went up. Apparently she thought the car was another rhino – possibly a bull – invading her privacy. With a snort like a diesel truck she came after us.

‘Nice horn,’ Holmberg commented as he skillfully manuevered the car among the scattered lava boulders in the high grass.

Damn the horn, I thought. If that old cow rhino catches this safari car, it will be a piece of junk in two seconds. But metal and gasoline triumphed. The car did not falter and we did not hit one of the awful rocks. After two or three hundred yards the rhino gave up and stood there in our dust cloud, snorting triumphantly.”

“Lower down the side of the valley we sighted an unusually large band of eland. The females were accompanied by one large male – the herd bull. Holmberg looked him over carefully with his big binoculars.

‘A very nice head,’ he said, ‘a very nice head indeed. Most safaris don’t bring in one nearly as good these days. Shoot him straightaway!’”

“Nervously the females began to move off. But the grayish blue bull lingered a few seconds in the rear. He turned to stare regally at me. This haughty attitude was a mistake. The solid-patch bullet struck him through the shoulders. Such a shot would have killed an ordinary animal instantly, but not an eland. He trotted perhaps a hundred yards and turned again. He was still on his feet when I came up and finished him.

After we’d photographed the eland I looked around for Holmberg. He had disappeared but in a few minutes he returned. ‘Come with me,’ he said.

I followed his bulky form with only Ngoro, my Masai gunbearer, behind me. Ngoro carried my .470 double rifle as rhino insurance, and I lugged the Weatherby. I had no idea what Holmberg had in mind.

‘Oryx,’ he said.”

“’That oryx will be a record,’ Holmberg whispered over his shoulder as he crawled through the grass. ‘I have never seen a fringe-eared oryx with horns that big.’”

“Even as I leveled the rifle a zebra barked like a dog close to one side. Then another and another of the animals took up the challenge. They had winded us or seen us, or both. The oryx threw up their heads. Two or three that had been lying down jumped to their feet. For a moment I lost the big one as the animals jostled and shifted.

There he was! I could just see his shoulder. I put the crosshairs a little high and squeezed off the shot.

At the report the whole clearing jumped into motion. Zebras that I hadn’t even seen before galloped past. Impala and Grant’s gazelles bounded a few yards and then stopped to stare, turning their heads from side to side. Holmberg and Ngoro came rushing up. ‘Did you get him?’ the guide asked.

‘I don’t know,’ I groaned. ‘I can’t see a thing.’

There was dust and confusion all around us.”

‘There he is,’ Holmberg said, leveling his finger.

Our single oryx stood alone. His long horns spread wide at the tips. He stood broadside and stared at us, apparently unhurt. Frantically I bolted another shell into the rifle, aimed quickly and fired again. There was no visible effect. I looked in consternation at Holmberg. He was smiling at me. When I turned again to look at the oryx, the animal was down and stone dead.

Both shots had gone through its shoulders. Each was a trifle high but certainly lethal, and yet the animal had stood there a long time. Holmberg was right when he said that these African animals had greater vitality than those in any other part of the world. Now he took out his steel tape and began measuring the horns.

‘Thirty-six and a half inches – it’s the world record.’ He jumped up to shake my hand.”

“As I stood by the beautiful-bodied antelope and looked at the graceful horns I realized that I had at last bagged a world record. I am sure that there was a silly grin on my face, and Holmberg was talking rapidly. Suddenly the low throated roar of a lion rumbled directly behind me. The thing was so close that I could almost feel the hot breath of the cat, and I whirled around. Ngoro was crouching there with his head thrown back, and from between his lips came the sound of a hungry lion hunting for meat.

‘Ngoro always does that when we make an important kill,’ Holmberg explained. ‘I told him he’ll get shot some day, roaring like that.’

He wouldn’t be shot by me, I decided. He was far from a world record.”