by Keith Wood - Wednesday, December 14, 2011
We crested the hill on hands and knees and spotted a mature impala ram among a harem of copper-colored ewes. Three sets of binoculars came up andafter a few whispered phrases of English and Afrikaans we all agreedhe was our man. After a hushed plan, PH, tracker and hunter crouched and crawled from one island of scrub to another until the cover ran out and exposed the 500 yard sea of Kalahari Desert that separated us from the ram. With nothing to hide us from the herd’s watchful eyes I was sure we’d have to call off the stalk.
“Ostrich walk,” Professional Hunter Eugene Roberts said matter of factly. I looked at him like he had 10 eyes. He explained that we would arrange our bodies in the shape of an ostrich with his shooting sticks held up to form the neck and head. With the blazing afternoon sun firmly at our backs, the impala would see nothing more than the silhouette of a familiar cohabitant. This was just ridiculous enough to work.
Off we went, a couple of 6-foot-plus hunters hunched over a tiny Zulu tracker trying our best to mimic one of nature’s strangest creatures. Feeling very much like an idiot, beads of sweat ran down my face as we crossed the hot red sand for what felt like hours. I didn’t dare look up but I guessed that we had covered about half of the distance to the herd when Eugene signaled us to stop.
I snuck a quick peek and saw a cluster of alert eyes on outstretched necks staring in our direction. We only had a few seconds before our disguise would fail us and the herd would bounce out of range. The ostrich’s head went to the ground and resumed life as a set of shooting sticks as I brought the Mauser-actioned .270 camp gun to my shoulder and found the ram in the scope. The trigger broke just as the duplex reticle crossed the vitals, and a moment later I heard the fatal sound of bullet hitting bone echo back across the desert. The recoil made me lose him in the scope, but he died without taking a step.
The rifle’s report set off a flurry of antelope, previously unseen impala and springbok exploded from their beds in all directions. As we approached the lifeless ram, we spotted an even-larger impala ram standing on a rise like a general assessing a battlefield. Even with naked eyes we could tell that he was an outstanding trophy. Though the Kalahari isn’t known for true “record book” impala, his heavy horns were longer and heavier than most seen in the area. I got a quick glimpse of him through my binoculars before he dashed away with his followers. As he retreated down the hill and out of sight I knew that we had to hunt him. While pleased to have taken a nice, mature ram after a great stalk, we had more on quota and I could not shake the image of the second impala. Over the next several days we were successful in taking more great animals including a hard-won mountain reedbuck, but each night in front of the fire I found myself thinking about that heavy-horned ram. Eugene read my mind and gave a knowing nod. “Stunning, wasn't he? We’ll find him.”
For some reason, “Africa’s whitetail” hold a special place in my heart. To my eye there is no antelope species that it so gracefully African as the impala. Each antelope indigenous to that continent has its own grace and charm, but nothing matches the quiet nobility of a dominant, yet gentle, impala ram. From a practical perspective, impala are plentiful and trophy fees are generally inexpensive, making them fun to chase without the economic pressure associated with “greater” game. Though often seen as game of opportunity taken in the pursuit of more glamorous trophies, to me they are worthy of their own safari, which is why I couldn’t forget that ram.
It was late afternoon on the last day of our hunt when we spotted him. No words were necessary to confirm that he was the old boy that had dominated my thoughts over the previous few days. Once again the problem was terrain, we were hundreds of yards out of range and the herd was already getting nervous. There was no way they were going to fall for the ostrich trick again and light was beginning to fade. Our only chance was to back away from our observation point and run as fast as we could to the treeline on the far side of the field in hopes that they would feed in that direction.
Our trip took us in a large loop, leaving us beyond the open terrain where the antelope were feeding. We played a game of hide and seek from dozens of peering eyes as we tried to spot the ram among the clusters of thorn. The herd fed closer and closer and we still had not seen our man; the closest female was almost on top of us and it was only a matter of time before she caught our scent in the afternoon crosswind.
Finally Zulu, the tiny tracker with eyes like a hawk, spotted the ram feeding toward us. At under a 100 yards the shot would be a piece of cake from the prone position, but luck put him on the wrong side of a thick tangle of thorn, as well as one of his wives. We were far too close to the ewes to risk moving for a clear shot. Finally, my chance came as he reached up for a bite from the thorn bush and his vitals cleared the smaller female that had been blocking the shot like a hostage. I could see feeding heads rise up in the corner of my eye just yards away as I took the slack out of the trigger and made the tricky shot at base of the ram’s neck.
As we admired and photographed him in the fading light I felt a tinge of sadness along with ample excitement. His days on Earth had ended but his strong genes remain. I’m sure it didn’t take long for a new suitor to take over his harem. One thing is certain—my obsession will bring me back.
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