I have wanted an impala ram in my den since I was a small child. Long before I actually planned to go to Africa, I dreamed of a home with tokens of travels to exotic places. What speaks of Africa like the graceful impala? Their lyre shaped horns and lithe beauty thrill anyone who sees them. So what reading room, with flickering fire, would be complete without an impala shoulder mount to stir memories of days afield in distant lands?
I planned my first African hunt thinking that I would try to find three animals: the Greater Kudu with massive spiral horns, the hardy Oryx gazelle with yard long rapiers, and last the graceful Impala. If I could succeed in taking even one of them, my trip would be a success. Bagging two of these magnificent animals would make the trip absolutely wonderful. I couldn't allow myself to dream of taking all three. I only had ten days to hunt in Namibia, so I needed to keep my expectations reasonable.
With a record book kudu on the ground at 7:30 AM of day four, I figured that I already been blessed with all the success I could expect from my first visit to Africa. The story of that hunt can be found under the title “Africa at Last.” Within minutes we were off again in search of game for my brother in law and hunting companion, John. My sister Sheila was also along as our “official” videographer. Our Namibian born PH Sigfried (Ziggy), Ziggy’s son Erwin and two Okavango trackers (Willam and 11 year old Elliot) rounded out our party.
By 9 AM the shimmering sunrise had been transformed into a glaring white orb changing chilly dawn to baking day. Jackets came off and sunscreen went on. Lip balm was needed to protect us from drying and cracking in the hot wind. It seemed strange to have no dew on the baked sand as we listened to the bush come alive with birds and small animals. By nine we had seen Ostrich and Steenbok, even a pair of young Hartebeest bulls that John passed on. But we did not see either a trophy Hartebeest or massive Kudu that John was hoping for. I wondered if Africa would even show me Oryx or Impala before my ten days slipped away.
Suddenly, ablaze in the morning sun, dappled with the shadow of budding Acacia thorn, a herd of nearly 20 impala stood appraising us. It took minutes to sort them out, but yes, there was a ram among them. Good heavens he was gorgeous! Tall spire horns in the classic lyre shape. Here was the impala of my dreams. My trigger finger ached - but I reached for the camera. It was John's turn to shoot.
The ram walked in and out of shadow among his harem and their young as the herd milled. A light breeze gusted over the bunches of dry grass sprouting from baked sand. It blew first one way, then another, and finally swirled...to the herd.
With flicking tails and a skipping trot, they were out of sight into the bush as soon as our scent reached them. John and Ziggy began to follow, but Willam stopped them. 200 yards behind us, a female impala had crossed an opening in the brush. We waited. A second, then a third, and a fourth female crossed. Someone said, "He is coming. The ram." I steadied my camera, wishing it was my rifle, and watched the opening. I saw him leave the brush, enter the center of my lens, and bound beyond. At my elbow, John lowered the rifle with a head shake and a smile. The ram had been too quick for either of us to capture.
The herd topped a low rise, halted briefly and began to walk (not run) away. Ziggy, John, and Willam took up the stalk and left the rest of us behind. They returned 40 minutes later to tell the same story of shifting winds that gave away their position. The herd could only be pushed so much. This time they did not halt. So we returned to the truck.
At noon we took a lunch of cold kudu cutlets made into sandwiches, boiled eggs and Namibian bottled pop. After an hour's leisure Willam guided us to another area in hopes of finding other Impalas. On the way we saw herds of Oryx and Zebra dash away at the sight of us. Neither showed any sign of slowing as they went out of sight, so we continued to a series of low swelling rises in the sand. A dry riverbed ox bowed between high banks where trees and bushes were actually green (something we saw only rarely in Namibia). It took less than an hour of creeping along before young Elliot threw out his arm and whispered something in Okavango. Willam translated in a whisper "Shhhhh-shhhhh-shhhhhh - impala, 2 rams."
Oh my goodness! It was still John's turn to shoot, but here was one for each of us! Willam pointed into the thorns and we caught glimpses of just two impalas. Their golden coats flickered between sun and shadow as they trotted away. They were a pair of old rams that Willam was familiar with. “Brothers” he called them. Past their prime, they had been driven away from the herd and spent their days only in one another’s company.
They were beautiful as they ran into the thickets. Ziggy put us back in motion wheeling the truck around the thickest of thorn bush, anticipating their path of flight to bring us ahead of them. He stopped the truck where a lane opened between thickets. We had seen the rams go into the thickets and now watched eagerly for them to emerge into an opening. My camera swung forgotten on its strap. Even though it was John’s turn to shoot, if he dropped the first ram, the second would be mine.
We waited with scopes glued to the shooting lane. In a moment we saw movement, not to the right of the opening as we expected, but on the left! I don’t know if the impala had crossed before we reached the lane and was now circling back, or if another ram fatally blundered into our ambush. But when he stepped into the clear broadside 200 yards away, John’s 35 Whelan spoke.
I saw the ram flinch, then he was off. A single bound carried him across the lane and back into the thickets. I kept my sights on the opening, but no second ram crossed. After a few moments we went down to collect him. Eighty yards from where he had been hit, he lay with a bullet through both front shoulders. I was again amazed at the hardiness of African game. A white tail buck of similar size would have dropped on the spot, but this ram had gone eighty yards before falling.
He was gorgeous! Thick bases and heavy ridges on curving black horns contrasted against his red/gold coat. He was a beautiful old ram. Like my kudu the same morning, Ziggy estimated that he was 10 years old. A fine old ram for John.
John and I took our oryx that afternoon, but that is another story. We failed to even sight impala the rest of that day or the next. Even so, my hopes were high for bringing home one of my own. We knew the area held at least one old ram, and the magnificent herd ram we had seen before. After hunting another area for a day we returned to seek the impala of my dreams.
It was only about 8 AM the following morning when Sheila spotted the herd on a low rise only 200 yards from the road. It was my turn to shoot as John had bagged his impala the day before. Ziggy, Willam and I poured out of the truck, and bending low to keep ourselves screened, we stalked to 125 yards from the herd. At this point the brush opened up. There were 30 yards of barren stony ground before the bush resumed. We could get no closer without being seen, but I could not have asked God for a better opportunity. The wind was straight toward us from them. The sun was to our backs and the ram was elevated on a slight rise.
By standing almost to my full height I brought the Steyr 30-06 (that John had given me for Christmas) to bear on the ram. My Simmons Prohunter scope picked him up beautifully. The 2.5 magnification (its lowest power setting) showed me the ram chewing, blinking, and tossing his head at a fly that settled on his eyelashes. I could see him and those gorgeous lyre shaped horns perfectly…but only from the neck up. A female stood squarely in front of him and another squarely behind.
The one on the far side casually browsed along. Slowly, ever so slowly, she fed clear of the bullet’s path and out of sight behind thick thorn bushes. The ram took a step to follow her, bringing the front half of a shoulder into view. He stopped, reached out and nipped off a leaf from the bush that threatened to hide him. At my elbow, Ziggy hissed “Wait for him to move.” The female between us and the ram dipped her head, switched her tail, and stepped away just as the ram turned to follow the first into a thicket of thorns.
I know now that I pulled the trigger instead of gently squeezing it. But I heard the bullet slap and, coming out of recoil, I saw the ram stumble forward. I chambered a second round as he staggered down the far side of the ridge and into the thorn brush. I was quietly pleased and smiled to myself as I thumbed the rifle’s safety on. There was no need for us to hurry. Like John’s ram, he would take a few steps and fall. We walked slowly forward listening to the crunch of stony ground. I breathed in the sweet dry scent of the land and welcomed the shade of where the herd had stood. Tracks seemed everywhere, but walking to where I had seen the ram disappear I looked confidently and found blood. Now we would just trail him to where he lay. But I was wrong.
The tracks and drops of dark blood continued straight away for a quarter mile. At that point we cast about walking circles on the bare, hard packed sand until John found the trail again 20 yards from where it had been lost. I thought I saw a flicker of white across a gully and sure enough the tracks eventually lead us there and beyond to a dry riverbed. Occasionally we would find a place where he had stood watching us while we relentlessly pursued. Amid the hardwoods at home the blood would have pooled, but here the dry sand blotted it at impact. The trail went into the thickest thorn for miles. At times we followed the trail on our knees through hindering thorn bush, vines, and trees. Finally, after crossing the riverbed twice, Ziggy went to one knee and pointed. I knelt beside him. Through a tunnel in the leaves I could see the front shoulder of an impala standing immobile. It could be no other. My shot through his shoulders brought him to earth.
He was the final of the three magnificent animals on my wish list for the hunt. And though he is the smallest antelope I took, I think he is the trophy dearest to me. At an estimated seven years old, he was in the prime of health with 22 inches of horn length on each side. It still takes my breath away to look at him, even in photographs.
I can’t help but think the old ram that outwitted us might re-assert dominance over the herd. He had probably been driven away by mine when the younger ram reached his peak of strength. Since then the old ram had been forced to live a lonely life on the fringes until even his old partner had been taken from him. Had I not taken the herd ram, the oldster’s life would have become one of utter solitude. But now he had the chance to take up leadership of the harem again and live out his remaining days in glory.
There is a balance in all things and blessing in every situation if you look for it in the right way. I know that I am blessed to have fulfilled my Impala dream.