• Kev Thomas Writes

In Quest of Jaws

We first saw him on our third day of hunting. By then we’d already looked at a number of other impala, and even put in a few stalks on some likely looking shooters, before passing them up. Killing an above average trophy impala was Chuck’s single most important thing on his 2008 plains game agenda. It was his second African safari. His first had seen him hunt Nambia, and although he’d made it clear a good impala ranked high on his want list, he went away with an extremely representative one, and was understandably disappointed.

With the group of five males standing in the road some 250m ahead of us, I hit the brakes and quickly reached for my binoculars. The ram that’d caught my attention was standing in the middle of the group staring straight at us. He was tense and alert, his nostrils flared. All four of his companions were youngsters, but ‘Jaws’ as I dubbed him warranted a closer look. He truly was a magnificent impala. However, I’d hardly settled my glasses on him, when with a contemptuous nasal blast in our direction, he led his younger colleagues away in an explosive series of leaps into the dense spekboom thickets lining the road, and was immediately lost to sight.

Chuck had also seen just how awesome Jaws was, so both of us baled out of the truck, Chuck lugging his Ruger .308 Winchester and I the shooting sticks. We quickly made our way down the track to where the impala had disappeared. Even with the wind in our favour and despite tip-toeing around inside the spekboom we couldn’t find them again. They’d vanished. Ambling back towards the rig, I told Chuck we’d seen the one we wanted and all we now had to do was find him. Easier said than done on 30,000 acres of rugged Eastern Cape bushveld.

I like impala; hunting them, watching them, photographing them, and listening to them during the rut, and I also like dining on well prepared cuts of their venison. Some folk say impala venison is dry, if it’s well-prepared I’d beg to differ. Impala could be referred to as the wild goats of Africa, and they're not only beautiful and graceful; they really are representative of our sub-continent’s antelope family.

During our initial correspondence about Chuck’s safari, and despite his also wanting an East Cape kudu, black wildebeest, bushbuck, blesbok, warthog and one or two other smaller species, he’d emphatically emphasised an impala ranked right at the top of his want list. There was to be no compromise on trophy quality – it had to be an excellent trophy, and not merely representative, otherwise he’d rather go away without one. During this early phase of his safari planning, he’d also wanted assurances from me that I could come up with a good impala for him, and if I couldn’t, he’d look elsewhere. I’d replied in the affirmative.

Although curious about Chuck’s seeming obsession with his impala, I felt I understood him. I’d grown up with, and cut my teeth hunting impala in Rhodesia’s (Zimbabwe’s) Sabi Valley mopane woodland. Whenever I see a herd of impala moving through the bush, ever alert, I still feel a pang of nostalgia for my early boyhood. Many a young hunter in Southern Africa’s northern regions has been ‘blooded’ on impala, and I’d assume in South Africa’s Free State, the same can be said of blesbok, or in the Karoo and Northern Cape, springbok, and in the Eastern Cape, bushbuck. As one of Southern Africa’s most prolific prey species, impala need no introduction. Be that as it may, they make for a wonderful trophy, and value for money are hard to beat. I’ve always said that each time a client comes to Africa, he should collect another impala.

When we arrived back at the Woodlands ranch HQ, ever jovial Keith Gradwell, the manager and resident PH asked if we’d shot anything. He invariably used to take a quick look into the back of the truck and there’d always be a bit of banter if the load bay was empty. Gradders knew an impala was an important trophy for Chuck. After we’d told him about our having seen Jaws, I received a quizzical look because there are a fair percentage of good impala on Woodlands, and some of my previous clients had already taken some beautifully shaped trophies at around 23 and just shy of 24 inches. This time though, I didn’t even want to try and give Keith my call on Jaws. I had a gut feel he’d measure well.

As the days went by, we hunted hard, and the other species the Montana native and Deputy US Marshall was after, soon piled up in the salt. They were all good trophies too, and although we frequently saw impala, we couldn’t find Jaws. During one late afternoon we were hunting way south on the property, still on the high ground but looking down on some undulating flats covered by patches of scrub. Suddenly, tracker Tami tapped the roof and pointed towards the boundary, and there, far out, in the fading afternoon light were four bachelor males. Mature, proud, and feeding quietly. Looking at them through our glasses they all looked good, so we left the rig, and moving down off the ridgeline carried out a stalk.

When we eventually got within range of them, a freakish storm suddenly blew in from the north. Heavy, black, moisture-laden clouds, tinged with orange, threw our world into temporary darkness, and when the sunlight managed to punch through the gloom, the bush and flats around us took on an eerie yellow orange hue. Our impala, so relaxed minutes before, suddenly became skittish and took off, chasing each other across the flats towards the west, and in next to no time were lost to view in the thick stuff. Rather dejectedly, and with heavy rain drops causing dust strikes on the parched ground around us, we made our way in this sudden world of strange light, back to the truck.

Back at HQ, we were subjected to Keith’s ready teasing about the impala that was nearly in the salt, but that’d then been saved by the freakish squall. I promised Chuck the next day would be better.

With about three days to go on the safari, we then began to see Jaws on a more regular basis. He was always with his same group of four younger members. It was a sort of gentlemen’s club he presided over. Each time we tried to stalk them though; they’d duck into the spekboom and disappear. Almost literally. Jaws was an alert team leader and not given to any form of lingering if his suspicions were aroused. When they were in the open, even the reflection off a far distant windshield, or the sound of a diesel engine approaching his locale, set him off in a brown explosion lasting mere seconds before he and his underlings were absorbed by the impenetrable sea of greenery. Trying to find him once that’d happened was an exercise in futility. If anything, our aimless blundering around inside the greenery would have chased them out of the area, and I didn’t want that to happen.

We found and tried to close with Jaws on at least three more occasions, but he always got the drop on us and we came away from the encounters empty handed and frustrated. Finally, it reached the stage where we only had one more full hunting day left before an early morning airport run, so we decided on the last day, we’d go out and look for any impala we could find which might go 23”.

We departed HQ at first light and motored south, periodically stopping to glass the forward slopes and open areas, beyond and to our flanks. Out to our east, the sun was just peeping over the far distant mountains. Eventually we entered Jaw’s territory, and the general area where we’d been seeing him and his younger admirers. Driving slowly down a spur that sloped off to the south, we hadn’t gone far when out to our front in an open patch which the sun was just starting to warm, we saw the brotherhood. Jaws stood out majestically, glaring defiantly in our direction, the morning sun glinting off his lyre shaped horns. Immediately stopping the vehicle, we’d hardly had time to raise our binoculars, when once more with a loud warning snort he led his colleagues off the spur and into the shadow of a deep kloof to our right front.

We let them go, giving them a few minutes to settle, before Chuck and I quietly departed the vehicle, initially walking towards where they’d been standing, before swinging right and using what cover there was, making our way to the edge of the drop off. Once there, we glassed the area below us but couldn’t see a thing. Trying not to make a noise on the loose rocks and shale, we slowly moved to a lower elevation. It was a flat shelf, and when we reached it was just becoming sun washed. Again, we glassed and suddenly jointly whispered, ‘There, to the right, impala!’

Below us, one of the youngsters stood alert on the fringe of a spekboom clump. He was staring upwards in our direction, but fortunately, the sun warm on our backs, was directly in his eyes. As we watched, Jaws impatiently barrelled his way out of the thicket to see what was going on, and the other three youngsters came out in his wake. Somewhat slowly, and holding my breath, I opened the shooting sticks and equally slowly, Chuck eased onto them. Both of us willing our wily quarry to hold still. It was a long shot, getting out to 300m.

As the noise of the .308 shattered the morning stillness, Jaws reared backwards, nearly went down, then lurched into the spekboom wall and was gone from sight. After Tami arrived with my Jack Russell, Bounce, we made our way down to where the impala had been standing. The ground was scuffed and chopped up from sudden hoof action, but there was no blood. Casting wider, we still couldn’t find any blood, until Tami whistled, he’d found three spots of the red stuff on a stone. At least we knew Jaws was hit, so I released Bounce who excitedly took off into the dense cover.

Thereafter, followed a painstakingly slow search because we kept losing what little blood sign there was. The dense Eastern Cape bush isn’t exactly hunter friendly; everything tries to stick or hook you, even more annoying when you can’t stand upright in the stuff. Suddenly, Bounce gave tongue and we heard a commotion, then his excited baying fading into the distance, followed by silence. As quickly as possible, we tried to fight our way through the thorns and spekboom, in the direction the terrier had gone, but we made slow progress. Bounce then re-appeared his tongue hanging down by the ground, but he couldn’t tell us anything. We then found a more defined blood trail. Spread out spots leading steadily downhill, so we continued to follow, until Bounce once more ran off in the direction we were moving, to then pull up short not far to our front and commence worrying something lying in the grass. It was Chuck’s dead impala, and the dog tracks around it suggested Bounce had been there at the death, then typically, lost interest in it, and come back to us.

I don’t carry a tape measure when I hunt, but close up, we could really appreciate Jaw’s quality. After recovering him we set him up in the open for photos. We then loaded him and drove back to the skinning shed, and let Keith do the tape-measure exercise. It was a satisfied Chuck who when Keith was done measuring, looked at where his thumb and forefinger clamped the tape – a fraction above the 25” mark.

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