August 19, 2016
A single rifle, two barrels — one for big bullets, the other for small ones — and a plan for a hunting adventure in one of the most sparsely populated but game-rich areas of the world. It may sound like the stuff of dreams and fables, but tightest shot groups and clearest glass are of no consequence when Africa chooses to raise her hand and change the game.
Twenty-four hours of travel from my home in Utah brought me over the ocean and through the dust to the Groot Gamsberg and Mt. Barry Wilderness area to the west-southwest of Windhoek, Namibia. Namibia sits just north of South Africa on the Atlantic coast.
Roughly the size of Texas and home to only 2.1 million people, it has two distinct advantages for hunting. First, it is the second-least densely populated country in the world, just behind Mongolia, so the human growth and development that have plagued so many African habitats remain largely manageable. Second, the sustainable use of wildlife is part of the country's constitution, making active management a priority.
These factors brought legendary East African Professional Hunter (PH) Robin Hurt and his wife, Pauline, to Namibia 12 years ago. Having witnessed the corruption of his Kenyan homeland that banned hunting, ended active wildlife management and ushered in the decimation of wildlife by poachers, they found Namibia to be a paradise.
In the Groot Gamsberg and Mt. Barry Wilderness area, Hurt has established a 250,000-acre wildlife conservancy. What was once a cattle and sheep farm almost entirely denuded of game is now a largely fenceless wilderness teeming with herds of plains game and mountains covered with the once-threatened antelope and zebra, the primary quarry for this hunt.
My PH for the hunt was Daniel Mousley, a native of Kenya and manager of Hurt's property. Mousley is that special blend of talent and training. His familiarity with the terrain and habits of the local game would prove critical over the course of the hunt when sudden variables such as wind changes or spooked game had to be managed.
A good PH should not only be an exceptional hunter but a naturalist and teacher as well. Mousley is all of the above, and like truly great professionals, he leaves his clients with a richer experience for having hunted with him.
In a nod to Namibia's history as German West Africa, the rifle I carried seemed like a natural fit. Made in Suhl, Germany, the Merkel Helix RX is a straight-pull bolt-action rifle designed to quickly switch between calibers by simply exchanging the barrel and magazine.
Merkel builds bolt heads in three sizes: mini (.222/.223), standard (.243 to 9.3x62) and magnum (7mm Rem. Mag. and .300 Win. Mag.). This system allows the owner to purchase one complete rifle and change calibers by switching out barrels and magazines. Also, within one bolt head, there can be several calibers, further reducing the cost as compared with purchasing a new rifle.
This is particularly helpful for countries such as Germany where regulatory constraints to purchasing an additional firearm can be both costly and time-consuming. The Merkel Helix RX owner has but to practice with one stock, one trigger and one optic system and can then switch between calibers depending on field requirements.
The RX is the more affordable field gun of Merkel Helix line. Because it is available in builds with presentation-grade wood furniture and lavishly engraved receivers, its price can land out of range for many buyers.
However, the Merkel Helix RX is also available with a matte-gray synthetic stock and rubberized grip panels for all-weather use and no heartbreaks if the stock is knocked against African rocks or soaked with rain in a Bavarian forest. The barrel and receiver group sport a flat-black Parkerized finish that functionally and visually complements the rifle. The rifle features three-dot red or green fiber optic open sight pairs as well as Picatinny scope rails.
I topped the rifle with a Meopta MeoStar R2 2.5x56RD scope. Made in the Czech Republic, the glass from this company is fantastic, and price is half that of many of its European competitors. The MeoStar R2 features a European-style center-dot illuminated reticle with an eight-stage adjustable intensity control, allowing the hunter to adapt to changing lighting conditions.
My strategy with the Merkel Helix RX in Namibia was to carry one rifle and two barrels to flexibly hunt everything from the sprightly klipspringer to the bulky Hartmann's zebra and other large plains game. The standard bolt head of the Helix can accommodate eight calibers from .243 to 9.3x62, so I could hunt from 85 grains up to 286 grains by simply changing the Merkel's barrel and magazine. My plan was to put to the test whether one rifle could do it all in Africa.
I chose the .243 for the klipspringer. The cartridge is the smallest of the calibers for the Helix's standard bolt head and certainly adequate for the rock-dwelling pygmy antelope. The klipspringer has made a dramatic comeback in recent decades after being nearly decimated, as its hollow, spring-like hair was the preferred filling for saddle seats in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. "Klippies" are curious animals and respond to game calls. Our strategy, however, was to spot-and-stalk among the granite and quartz mountains and kopjes of the Mt. Barry Wilderness.
Mousley; our trackers, Simeon and Gabriel; and I traveled slowly up and through the valley floors, glassing into the cliffs for a glimpse of the agile and elusive klipspringer. Several times we were distracted by darting mountain hyrax, a small mammal that resembles a large groundhog but is actually the closest living genetic relative to the African elephant.
Our search continued for several hours throughout steep but scenic country that turns a rust red as the sun begins to set. After several hours, we spotted a pair of klipspringers bouncing among the rocks. They had seen us and moved quickly to higher ground, stopping occasionally to look back. Several times I was in a position for a shot, but the ram moved just seconds before I could set up.
Finally, as he neared the summit of the ridgeline, I got a small window and put a single 85-grain Double Tap Barnes TSX round in precisely the right spot. The gold-medal klipspringer dropped in place, saving us a precarious track through the cliffs.
With one box checked in the Namibian adventure, I switched to the larger-caliber 9.3x62mm cartridge. The conversion required only a one-minute change-out of the barrel and magazine and a 3-inch vertical elevation adjustment on the Meopta MeoStar. The 9.3x62mm was designed in 1905 by Otto Bock for the Mauser 98 action.
The cartridge was created specifically for big-game hunting and was never a military round, thus avoiding periodic caliber bans by colonial governments. Considered the general ballistic equivalent of the .375 H&H Magnum and .338 Winchester Magnum, the 9.3x62mm is capable of clean takedowns of large-bodied African plains game. Loads vary from 250 to 320 grains, but most loads are either 250 or 286 grains. As with the .243, I used a Barnes TTSX loaded by Double Tap Ammunition. I had both 250- and 286-grain versions.
The larger-caliber ammo opens up the vast possibilities of the Groot Gamsberg range. Traveling through the valleys rimmed by red granite and white quartz, herds move freely across the plains from shade to water and up to higher elevations to browse, graze and ultimately bed down. Seeing 300 springboks fly through the acacias is heart-stopping, particularly in light of the fact that a decade earlier this had been a cattle farm nearly stripped bare of wildlife.
Our strategy was to stalk the Hartmann's zebra in the badlands in the north section of the property. This region is aptly named. It is made up of rugged, steep and tightly rolling hills that hide draws and pocket canyons around every turn. There is only one way in and out of the section, and the zebras know it. They use the wind and terrain along with their keen hearing and eyesight to put several terrain features between themselves and a threat. They also have help.
A troop of baboons had taken up residence in a draw just forward of the first opening of the rocky badlands. They guard the gate with barks and howls, letting every animal within 5 square miles know when there is trouble about. They get plenty of practice, too, as this area is also home to a healthy leopard and cheetah population that doesn't go home at sunset for cocktails and stories.
We found the zebras, sometimes in small groups of two or three, other times in herds of several dozen. The Hartmann's zebras are larger and more rugged than their Burchell's cousin and can accelerate up and over the rocks. Day after day, we were thwarted, some days by baboons, other days by shifting wind and once by a startled young bull kudu who went ripping across the adjacent mountainside just as we were setting up for a shot. Whatever luck I had brought with me had been used up the first evening on the klipspringer. These zebras were strong, smart and cagey, and taking one would be a grinding test of perseverance.
Though we spent most mornings in the badlands pursuing the zebras, the afternoons and evenings left me free to explore the vastness of Hurt's conservancy. The area is heavy with game that is free to roam the territory. Adjacent cattle farms are kept in check by an ingenious fence set up by Mousley that takes advantage of the zebras' and antelopes' ability to creep.
Cows can't bend down and crawl, but the plains game can, thus allowing the game migratory passage across farmland while the cattle are kept inside the fences. On the first afternoon, I took a respectable oryx that became table fare for most of the week. The 9.3x62 dropped the bull antelope with only a minimal track.
We weren't the only hunters in the area; along the way back to the lodge, we found the remnants of a freshly killed oryx downed by a cheetah. It was a brutal reminder of the checks and balances nature enforces.
Adapt and Adjust
South African hunter and Kruger Park Ranger Harry Wolhuter once wrote, "Fortune is apt to act freakishly at all times." Such was the case, despite my best efforts to the contrary. A firing mechanism problem developed, causing frequent misfires. Was it ammo, a bad part or the consequence of global travel?
It was impossible to determine, even after a visit to an Austrian gunsmith in Windhoek. The concept had been sound. We had taken both small and large game with the same rifle, adjusting calibers to the conditions mid-hunt, but Africa had reasserted herself, and we would have to find a new tool to pursue the zebras.
Our answer came in the form of a rifle built by Gall for Robin Hurt several years earlier. Edmund Gall had built a magnum-action safari rifle chambered in .340 Weatherby Magnum from a rifle whose barrel had been one part of a multibarrel takedown rifle. There is nothing subtle about Gall's rifles. They are strong, precise and European in feel.
Topped with a Schmidt & Bender 3-9x50 scope, Hurt's magnum felt like carrying a BAR. The intelligence of his custom design choices became clear in handling the .340 Weatherby Mag. The mass of the rifle diminished the recoil considerably. After a long stalk on a red hartebeest, the .340 loaded with a 255-grain Barnes TSX buckled the animal in place, the same for another oryx. I had not fired or studied the .340 in detail before this trip, but it proved to be a flat-shooting, devastating round.
With practiced confidence and a bit of anxiety, we departed early on the last morning of my safari to try once more for a Hartmann's zebra. The wind was in our favor, and Simeon, our tracker, spotted a modest-size herd in the bottom of a small draw where they would have to exit past us into the larger valley.
After a considerable stalk, we knelt atop a rock outcropping. Mousley wedged the shooting stick at an angle between the ground and the trunk of a small tree. The zebra came into range, and just as I pulled the trigger, the shooting stick slipped off the tree, and the shot went into the dirt in front of the zebra.
For once, the terrain was in our favor as we peeled off the hill and into a lower shooting position above the zebra's route out of the draw. I put a single off-hand shot into the stallion from above and behind. The big .340 dropped him in his tracks.
As the old proverb says, "Man plans; God laughs." I suspect the same could be said for Africa. At the very least, she has a sense of humor. While we were able to take a klipspringer and two species of large plains game with the Merkel Helix RX, external forces conspired against us, and it took an Austrian ex-patriate's custom rifle to finally bring down the Hartmann's zebra. Then again, there is no glory in convenient victories.
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