His royal highness the kudu

Some 30 years ago, the future of African game was in jeopardy. Poaching, war and habitat loss had exacted a serious toll. In the 1970s, some predicted the end of wildlife and hunting on the Dark Continent.

Today, thanks to national parks, a multitude of private game ranches and the influence of groups like the Safari Club International and Namibian Professional Hunting Association, the future is bright.

In southern Africa, the country of Namibia now plays host to many of the safaris held on the continent.

Much of the country is thirsty land — a red-brown desert, cracked and fissured by heat — and inhabited by a multitude of wildlife.

Several species that were headed for extinction — black wildebeest, sable, black-faced impala, mountain zebra and white rhino — are now found on many ranches. Kudu, gemsbok, hartebeest and springbok roam the countryside in great numbers.

My quest was for a kudu. The greater kudu, what some have called the gray ghost of Africa, is a large, heavy antelope gifted with camouflaged coloring and a sly, secretive nature.

His short, gray coat is striped in white across his flanks and fringed and maned on his back and neck. His crown, a pair of tall, spiraled horns, can reach 60 inches in length.

He is a wandering creature of rocky habitat, woodlands and thick bush that is often found in herds and never far from water.

For this hunt I had trusted to a single-shot 50-caliber, Austin & Halleck muzzleloading rifle. More than a few self-proclaimed "experts" told me I was crazy taking it on the hunt of a lifetime. Had I made a mistake bringing it on safari?

As the sun rose, the ground sparkled with golden mica and quartz. Dry river canyons cut through the hills, and game trails led in and out of the brush. Unlike the Kalahari, which I had glimpsed from the airplane, here the vegetation was thick. Almost every bush and tree had thorns.

In the early light, gemsbok, hartebeest and kudu were easily spotted by the reflection of sunlight on horn. We stopped to glass on top of one hill, and a troop of baboons took off running along the road below us.

Riding high in the spotter's seat, our professional hunter Hannes Steyn of Kalahari Trophies stopped the Land Cruiser whenever something caught his eye. On one hillside, we watched a small herd of black wildebeest. We made a short stalk on a big bull hartebeest, then spooked a small one that warned all the others.

By midmorning we left the rig in the shadow of a rocky hill and eased up over the top, dropping down onto a long ledge overlooking a canyon in a dry, sandy riverbed.

A few trees and a multitude of green and gray "wait-a-bit" thorn bushes covered the opposite hillside, but game trails led through to the sandy bottom and the water. Tracks led in all directions.

Shielded from view by rock and bush, we could see much country without being seen. Steyn was on my left and hunting companion John Milton sat to my right. My eyelids began to sag as the air warmed. Then something hit me in the shoulder. Milton had thrown a rock.

When I looked over, he pointed up the hill, mouthing one word, "Kudu."

I lifted my binoculars. The kudu bull materialized from the bush on the opposite slope. Walking downhill, he looked like a prince, with his head held high, nobility in every step. The white chevron over his eyes gleamed like a crown and the mica in his coat glinted like golden threads in a royal robe.

Steyn shook his head; after decades of hunting and guiding, he knew what to look for. "No. Wait a minute," he said.

Indeed, we waited, watching the kudu in the canyon below us. Its horns held two deep curls and tips that pointed straight to the sky. Steyn nodded; he'd made up his mind. This was the one we'd waited for. "Use the sticks," he instructed.

He'd set up the three-legged shooting sticks. I eased the rifle into the rest, waiting for the bull to turn; he was 68 yards, downhill. With his head down, his horns blocked my shot to the vitals.

For what seemed like 15 minutes (but what was probably no more than 60 seconds), I waited, heart pounding, knees shaking. The bull looked up, then put his head down again. As he began to turn, I brought the crosshair a third of the way up the body and squeezed the trigger.

As the gray smoke cleared, the great bull took five steps, staggered, then turned and went down. One shot from the muzzleloader was all it needed.

Weighing 500 pounds or more, he wore a coat of blue-gray, cut with thin, white stripes on its flanks. Sitting in the sand beside him, I ran my fingers through his rich coat and up the long, spiraled horns.

Steyn held the tape at the base and ran it up the horn, following the spiraled ridge. It read 50 inches. This bull would make a fine trophy to help me remember this dry, beautiful land.

Lessons learned

By the time the sun went down on the final day of our safari, the muzzleloader no only had accounted for the 50-inch kudu, but two red hartebeest and a big blesbok, as well.

My friend Milton, who had brought his 300 Weatherby Magnum on this hunt, had even taken one of the animals with the muzzleloader. All four trophies will be entered in Safari Club's record book under the muzzleloading classification.

We learned a few things along the way that should help others looking to bring a muzzleloading rifle to Africa.

A modern muzzleloader is effective to 100 yards and beyond, depending on the target. Bullet placement is the key. With a muzzleloader, you wait for a broadside shot. If you don't get it, you don't shoot.

My kudu was taken at 68 yards, and the hartebeest fell to a 78-yard shot. Milton, when he used the muzzleloader, killed his hartebeest at 118 yards. The blesbok ram was taken with one shot at 160 yards.

Namibia is the perfect proving ground to challenge the muzzleloading hunter, his rifle and the opinions of the "experts" who stay at home. The variety of big game is astounding, and every day brings a new adventure.

Gary Lewis is an outdoor writer and photographer who makes his home in central Oregon. To order a signed copy of his latest book, "Deer Hunting: Tactics for Today's Big-Game Hunter," send $24 (includes shipping and handling) to Gary Lewis Outdoors, P.O. Box 1364, Bend, OR 97709. For more information, visit his Web site.