• Kev Thomas Writes

In Tribute to Bill 'Mbejane' Haslett

This post is in tribute to a good friend and safari colleague, Bill 'Mbejane' Haslett who passed away in Johnstown, Pennsylvania on 20 July 2020, at the relatively young age of 51. Sadly, Bill had been suffering progressive Crohn's disease since 1999 when it forced his retirement. Eventually, he developed Interstitial Lung Disease which was the ultimate cause of his passing. Bill and I had a number of fun safaris in South Africa and Zimbabwe. He was a truly ethical sport hunter, and indeed, it was a privilege to be on safari with him. My Zimbabwean trackers gave Bill the moniker Mbejane (Sindebele/Zulu for black rhino) after we were seen off on numerous occasions by a grumpy black rhino while we were hunting on the BVC in Zimbabwe. Bill is survived by his wife Tammy, and sons William IV and Benjamin. I will always remember being on safari with my friend Bill Mbejane Haslett. RIP.

Above: The drive to the Northern Cape hunting concession from my home in the Eastern Cape was 700km along back roads, much of it through timeless wide open country.

My Pennsylvanian friend Bill Haslett was scheduled to fly into Kimberley for the start of our second safari together. During our planning phase of the safari, Bill had expressed his main trophy wants were a gemsbok (oryx), Cape eland, and a few other true plains–dwellers. As a result, my choice of venue as our primary destination was the Northern Cape.

Prior to departing my home in the Eastern Cape, I mounted a Bausch & Lomb Elite 4000 1.5-6x36 scope on my 7x57 Mauser. Unfortunately, before leaving I didn’t get a chance to sight it in. After driving 700 kilometres to the hunting lodge, I set about zeroing the rifle. However – Murphy’s Law – I couldn’t get the shots onto the paper at all. I eventually traced the problem to the old scope mounts which were totally zonked, so at that late stage there was nothing I could do. Fortunately, I’d brought along my .375 H&H, so I used it instead. In Kimberley Bill’s plane landed on time, although minus his rifles and luggage. We now had a situation where Bill would have to use my .375, leaving me waving the shooting sticks around as a back-up weapon! Hardly ideal.

On the first day, we spotted a large herd of gemsbok in the distance. And after moving in as close as possible, we had to get down to leopard-crawling. Northern Cape terrain is mainly red sand, knee high grass, low prickly scrub, and a variety of acacia trees. This mix makes for a challenging stalk. By slithering along on our butts and then crawling on our bellies, we slowly closed the distance. Each time a gemsbok stopped feeding and looking our way, we froze. And then, as soon as it dropped its head again, we moved. The going was slow and extremely uncomfortable, and before long we were perspiring heavily.

The herd, which numbered about forty, were slowly moving along as they grazed. We just kept after them, snaking our way through the low grass. Eventually, we reached an acacia with low hanging branches. Stopping, we rested and watched. It isn’t easy selecting a bull out of a big gemsbok herd. The tricky part is waiting for it to present for a killing shot, without endangering any animals near or behind it. We saw several quality bulls. However, they were fleeting glimpses, before the bull disappeared amid the moving herd, or behind some brush. Patiently, we glassed, watched, and waited. One particular bull had attracted my attention but he kept moving behind other herd members, showing only his magnificent horns above their backs.

Just then, four kudu cows with a non-trophy bull caught our attention as they sauntered towards the gemsbok. Moving straight through the herd they began to feed on the acacias, and as they browsed, they slowly moved in our direction until no more than 50 metres from us. There, the cows halted, while the bull wandered to our left and lay down about forty metres off. Luckily, he was facing away from us. We then had to watch the kudu and the gemsbok, so we remained lying where we were to see how things unfolded. Suddenly, a kudu cow stared intently in our direction, lowered her ears until parallel with the ground. Unable to make us out, she was trying to be inconspicuous. A waiting game began, with the cow and ourselves as frozen as statues. Although I doubt she was getting cramp in her hamstring like I was.

Suddenly, the kudu bull sprang to his feet. Perhaps an eddy of wind had carried our dreaded human scent his way. As if on cue, the cow abruptly gave up trying to appear invisible. She pricked up her ears, swivelled them towards us, snorted loudly; Bwoh! And then she spun on her heels and fled. As one, the gemsbok herd stampeded away in a cloud of red dust. It’d been a textbook stalk. However, when you’re hunting herbivores, never forget nature has programmed them to spot predators. With their self-preservation at stake, they’re usually very good at it.

Back at camp, and close to midnight, a courier arrived with Bill’s missing rifles and luggage, so next morning we went to the range to check scopes. Bill had brought his favourite plains-game rifle, a .300H&H built by Kilimanjaro on a Winchester Model 70 action. Since its debut in 1925, the flat-shooting .300H&H has, to my mind, proven itself one of the most reliable and effective cartridges for African plains game. Bill’s superbly-built rifle was wearing a Leupold VX7 2.5-10x45 and he’d handloaded 200gr Sierra Spitzer boat tails for 2850fps at muzzle. His second rifle was new to me. A .240 Weatherby with a Leupold VX3 3.5-10x40. I’d heard of the calibre although I’d never seen one on safari. For this neat little rifle, he’d loaded 100gr Nosler Partitions for 3300fps muzzle velocity.

Above: After his wayward rifles arrived, Bill put their scopes to test on the safari camp range.

The camp shooting range is where a PH quickly learns how much time his client has devoted to the most important aspect of hunting preparation. Sighting in his rifle. If, from the outset his shot-placement on the zeroing target is where it should be, you can immediately get on with what he came for. Hunting. And making clean, one-shot kills on his chosen trophy species. After departing the range, we once more went in search of the gemsbok herd we’d crawled up to the previous day. Unable to find them, we’d returned to camp at noon, and then, at 15:30hrs we went in search of them again. Once more without success. We saw a lone bull of trophy quality, but before we could do anything, he galloped away and quickly disappeared.

The next morning was freezing cold. The kind of cold that makes you grasp your coffee mug tightly. With both hands. However, and despite the cold we were out by 06:00hr, blissfully unaware it was going to be a challenging day, with a grunt of a stalk ahead of us. At about 10:00hrs we found the big herd again. Thereafter, our every effort to close with them was an exercise in futility. With about 80 pairs of eyes watching our every move out on the plains, we soon gave up.

Above: At times during our gemsbok hunt we’d throw up a temporary blind – even that didn’t work.

After returning to the vehicle, and driving on, the tracker suddenly tapped the cab and said he could see another herd of gemsbok resting in a shallow basin beyond a slight ridge. Bill and I alighted from the rig and began a slow approach. Dropping to our knees once we hit the skyline. I glassed the herd and saw a few good bulls in two groups near a clump of mature acacia trees. The intervening ground was virtually bare, aside from short grass and small scattered boulders. My rangefinder gave me a reading of 390 metres, and getting any closer without being seen was going to be difficult. However, Bill and I were up for the challenge.

We moved off at a crawl along the ridge-line. Our want was to get directly opposite the resting gemsbok. It was a long, slow crawl, with our knees and hands taking a beating. Whenever we reached a decent boulder, we rested. After we’d covered about 100 metres, we swung directly in towards the herd. They were in a depression, so we couldn’t see them unless we rose to our knees and took a quick looked from behind a rock or patch of scrub. Any higher and we would’ve spooked them. Compromising our stalk in the process. We had to get closer, and had no option but to grit our teeth and continue despite the discomfort. Eventually my knees and elbows, still tender from our first gemsbok stalk, forced me to sit on my butt, place the shooting sticks ahead of me, then, with palms face-down on the ground, lift myself up a few inches then propel myself forward, repeating this move hunters call the ‘butt shuffle’ or ‘bum-walking’. Glancing back, I saw Bill doing the same. And he had his rifle to contend with.

Ahead of us was a scraggy little tree about a metre high and I figured if we reached it, we’d be inside 230 metres. Shooting distance. However, it wasn’t to be. When we reached it all we could see were female gemsbok. The males were hidden from view. Immediately below the lip of the level we were on. This meant slower butt-shuffling to a clump of boulders a further twenty yards ahead. On the way, I squeezed through a narrow gap between two boulders. Bill, being slightly wider in the beam, couldn’t fit through, so he quickly slithered over the top like a lizard! Finally, we reached the closest position we could achieve without compromise. The rangefinder measured 195m to the herd.

Well pleased, we recovered our breath and glassed the herd. An extremely good bull lay off to the right, as luck would have it, most of his body was hidden by an acacia tree. It was impossible to move either way without being seen. So, we waited. Eventually, some of the herd stood up and began moving off. Glassing carefully, we picked out another bull standing next to a female.

By this stage I’d opened the short shooting sticks and Bill very slowly moved his rifle into position. Readying himself for my whispered call. Then, as if on cue, the bull standing next to the female moved out into the open and stopped. He offered the perfect broadside shot, and although he didn’t go the horn length of the bull lying behind the acacia, he was fully mature and certainly representative of the species. Giving Bill the word, I’d hardly whispered it, when the bull’s legs gave way and he collapsed in his tracks, as the shot reverberated across the plains. Exactly how a challenging fair-chase hunt should end.

Above: Bill with his hard-earned trophy gemsbok after a number of challenging stalks.

Above: During our northern Cape safari Bill also took this magnificent steenbok, an excellent Cape eland and a tsessebe.

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