“Back to School” Impala

By Russ Gould


The first rains of the year had yet to fall but the Acacias were in full blossom in the Soetveld region of South Africa. The grass underfoot was sparse and brittle, and the red sandy soils were thirsty. A herd of impala flitted through the head-high giant aloes as I peered through the brush, periodically wiping the sweat from my brow. It was past noon, and despite having emptied both of my one litre water bottles and one refill an hour earlier as we ate our late morning sandwich, my mouth was dry. A Francolin flew up hurriedly in front of us, voiding its bowel as it gained elevation and speed. The impala held steady but they were nervous. We had been playing cat and mouse with them for a while without a decent shot opportunity.  They were close now but the bush was very thick, obscuring their bodies. To my front, an opening allowed me to see one or two of them at a time, but only ewes showed themselves. Suddenly, without apparent reason, the herd exploded to our left, making impossible leaps as they gracefully bounded away, for the third time.


This seemed like a good time to take a nap under a large Umbrella Thorn, its delicate fresh green leaves providing welcome shade and relief from the heat. We lay down on the yellow straw beneath it and rested for an hour, waiting for the heat to go out of the day.


The balance of the day proved to be no better for us, but toward dusk we got a call on the radio requesting help with a Kudu that was down. When we arrived at the place, up against the flanks of the Spitzkoppe mountain, we noticed a Kudu’s feet sticking up from the back of a white bakkie, and as we got closer we could see it was a good one with deep curls and tips pointing well forward. In addition, there was a good Steenbok lying alongside the kudu, its diminutive body made all the more so by the bulk of the bigger animal. Off to the side, about 40 yards into the brush, the hunters beckoned to us and as we approached we could see that photos were being taken of a second Kudu, almost identical in size to the first. The story soon spilled out. The pair was hunting Steenbok, looking for a good-sized ram. They were plentiful in this area, and one was soon taken with a 375 H&H using solids. A large Kudu then broke in front of the party and was taken running again with solids, shot twice. That Kudu was close to the road and while it was being loaded, an almost identical Kudu appeared through the bush. The second hunter elected to take it, not 100 yards from the first. We came up on the party just as they were taking photos of Kudu no. 2, with big smiles all around.


Circa 54” Kudu Taken While Hunting Steenbok

Nice Steenbok , Note Horns Longer Than Ears


Brace of Kudu Taken by a Pair of Good Friends


En route to this place of bountiful Kudu, I noted a small group of Impala rams grazing at the edge of a large clearing, their bodies clear in the late afternoon light. So the next morning, we went straight to the same place, reckoning that we would have better odds with fewer sets of eyes to avoid. We spotted them again, this time on the far side of the clearing, near a little tongue of brush that jutted out from the side where the mountain loomed. We parked the Toyota at a good distance and began our approach through the brush, keeping well back from the clearing and flushing tiny quail about every 50 yards or so. When we felt we were at the right spot, we cut in toward the opening and found our Impala, three of them. The glass showed one to be mature, one to be very young, and the third a “knyphoring”.  Phineas, my tracker, fell back while I made the final approach, first on hands and knees, then on my belly. The Impala were unaware of our presence but were further into the opening than they appeared to be, when first sighted. So I got as close to the edge as I could, removed my fanny pack to use as a rest, and took the shot prone at around 150 yards, holding a little high on the shoulder. Fortunately, this late in the season the grass was short and the shot knocked the largest of the three to the ground immediately, before the loud “thwok” made it back to us. His white belly was plainly visible and the other two impala ran a few steps and then stopped. Phineas wanted me to shoot another but I declined, so we started to walk toward our prize. We hadn’t gone 50 yards across the grass stubble when our impala got up, stood for a few seconds, and then started to move off in the direction the others had taken when we showed ourselves. I called for the sticks, having reloaded my drilling in preparation for a coup de grace should one be necessary. As I lined up on the wobbly Impala, the sticks were suddenly removed from my grasp. I looked at Phineas with amazement. He said to move closer and was already running that way. But now the Impala had regained its balance and was fast disappearing, showing us its hindquarters. With no steady rest, and not wanting to ruin the meat, we followed at a trot, hoping for a better shot. However, our Impala was pulling away along a cattle fence. When it came to the corner of the fence, it stooped to go through the wire but could not find an opening. It then turned 90 degrees to our left so we cut the corner, hoping to turn this to our advantage. By now the Impala was trotting strongly and he knew we were following, so it put even more distance between itself and us. I kept expecting it to topple over and at one point it stopped, encouraging this belief. We attempted a fast stalk using an intervening bush, but as we came around the bush expecting to be within 30 yards or so, we lost him. He disappeared.


At first I thought he was down, but after walking the area, we found no Impala and no blood. We backtracked, thinking perhaps we were following a fresh animal while the wounded one lay behind us. After casting about without success, we went back to the fenceline found a small amount of blood and were able to follow the track in the dry sandy earth to the place we had seen him turn, then about 200 yards further, stop, and then beyond more tracks but no blood. This puzzled me as I was shooting an 8x57JR cartridge with a very soft 196 grain bullet. How could the animal fall as if pole-axed, then get up and run away leaving no blood spoor?


Phineas whistled to me from up ahead. I went to him and he gestured. Against the far side of the clearing, but now about 400 yards downwind, were four Impala. Through my binoculars they all looked very normal, but three of them did fit the description of the group we had fired on. So we made a large detour, by Toyota and then on foot, to come up downwind of them. This time we were closer. Peering over an earthen wall, I could clearly see three of the four. Studying them through my Pentax 8x30s, I could see no wound on any of them. Frankly, I was hunting for sport and meat and hadn’t paid a lot of attention to horn size, so I wasn’t sure which of the group was our potential escapee. But none showed any blood or discomfort. At this point, Phineas, who seemed very eager to put some meat in the bakkie, urged me to shoot at another one. I picked the one with the middling horns as it looked like there might be a mark high on his shoulder, a possible bullet wound, but it wasn’t a sure thing by any means. At the shot, again from a dead rest over the top of the wall of earth, he flinched but didn’t move off at all. The others pranced a bit but for all intents and purposes all three just stood there looking around. I was now very perplexed, as I was sure the impala was hit. So sure was I that I just watched for a minute or so, sure that he would sink to the ground as the broadside shot behind the shoulder took effect. When I realized this was not happening, I felt for another round and found the last one in my pocket. Chambering the round, I found I could not get a clear shot due to intervening brush. I moved to the side and found another rest with a clear shot. He was now looking at us, straight on. The others were grazing as if nothing had happened. I had learned from past experience that an impala facing head on is not a safe shot, but this one was close, I had a dead rest, and he was wounded. I took the shot, but instead of a meaty hit, I heard a clack and then the bullet whining off into the distance. A miss! My mind went into tilt for a few seconds. The impala hardly moved, nor did the others run off. There I was, an empty rifle in my hand, and no cartridges in my pocket. A short wave of panic hit me. What to do?  I looked at Phineas, and gestured that I was out of ammo. He came alongside. I got my binoculars out and looked over the animal I had just shot at. There was no sign of any damage from either shot.  As I glassed the larger impala now behind him, I saw for the first time a large wound high on the shoulder. This had not been evident before as the animal was facing the other direction. Great, I thought wryly, two wounded impala, no ammo, and a rifle that was shooting who knows where. It had been at least an hour since the first shot of the day, and incredibly this impala was grazing as if he was perfectly healthy.


I gestured to Phineas to look in the pocket in my fanny pack for more ammo. He did and thankfully produced one more cartridge. I loaded this, took aim at the biggest impala that I now knew for sure was hit, and took a head-left quartering away shot. Thankfully the animal was hit hard and went down. The other two, having had enough of this by now, bounded away and we watched them run about 250 yards before they cleared a low fence and disappeared into the brush. So much for having hit the middling one, it ran off looking very healthy indeed.


Impala no. 1 was now laying in clear view, not 40 yards from us. His head was not down though, but I was sure he was going to expire shortly. Besides, I was now definitely out of ammo, so there was nothing to do but wait for the animal to bleed out. Phineas, however, was inclined to rush up and “catch” the animal. We argued, I won, but conditionally. Phineas was not willing to do any more tracking that day for me. About the time we reached this agreement, the dying ram stood up! The word “gobsmacked” probably describes best how I felt at this point. Fortunately, after tottering a few steps, he went down again. Phineas rushed back to the vehicle to radio for backup, with ammo. I watched as my Impala laid his head down, picked it up, and laid it down again. After a few more minutes, I decided to sneak closer. The animal was laid out but still breathing. Taking my sheath knife in hand, I moved closer, ever so carefully, thinking the beast would jump up and run off again if he saw me. Fortunately, there was a little bush between his head and me. I dove the last two paces, grabbed his horn with my left hand, and buried four inches of sharp steel behind his shoulder. As I did so, I noticed a bullet hole centering his shoulder blade, a perfect shot if he had been broadside, but too far forward for the angle of the shot I had just taken. The exit wound was low on his neck. The first shot had taken him high, a barely noticeable entrance but the exit was the size of an apple and just as red.

Just as I was administering the knife,  Phineas showed up and informed me that his boss was also out of ammo, wherever he was. I think this was merely an excuse, but the implication was the same. Phineas now held the rear hooves while I held the horn of the still-breathing impala. He indicated that I should knife it again, this time lower down on the chest. I did so. The impala struggled briefly, then seemed to relax, so I stood up leaving Phineas to hold on. It was surely over at last, I thought.


Just then, the ram got to his feet, almost throwing Phineas off balance. He was not a large man, certainly bigger than this Impala though, and he was having a very hard time hanging on. I recovered my senses and grabbed the other horn. For a few seconds, we held on as the ram worked his head, trying to throw us; then we wrestled him to the ground like a steer. Phineas gestured to me to cut the animal’s jugular, but I wanted a photo so I inserted my knife into the earlier wound, stirred it around a bit, and we held on until he finally expired.


The Impala that Refused to Die


A wave of relief washed over me. But at the same time, I was very embarrassed at my poor shooting; and was further embarrassed at running out of ammo. After taking the photos, we loaded him up and took him off to be gutted and skinned. Examination confirmed that the first shot had not entered the body cavity at all, nor had it broken the animal’s spine. It passed between the two. The shock of the bullet obviously knocked him down, without causing any real damage. The second shot had entered the body cavity, breaking the near side shoulder, putting him down but not causing enough damage to put him out. The knife wounds appeared to have done that.


Once the necessary work was done, we set off for the rifle range after collecting my backup box of ammo. The rifle barrel of my vintage German drilling was shooting about 4 inches to the left and about 6 inches low at 100. This puzzled me as I had sighted in before leaving home, getting a very good group, and again upon arrival in Namibia. I had not bothered to resight upon arrival in RSA. But I had noticed that my gun, freshly rejointed (put on the face) before leaving home, was now noticeably loose. I had shot about 4 boxes of 16 ga shells through it in Namibia on Sand Grouse and Guineas, and another couple of boxes on Guineas and Francolin just prior to attaching its claw-mounted Kahles scope for this hunt. Perhaps all that shooting at birds with modern ammo had loosened up the action, allowing the barrel to pivot downwards ever so slightly under pressure before the bullet left the muzzle. But this did not explain how I had made the first shot, the longest of the four by far, hitting exactly where I had aimed.


I always keep my empties, and as I returned them to the factory cartons, I noticed that one was missing. At first I thought I had lost an empty. But rummaging around in my fanny pack, I found the missing cartridge, unfired. This time I said nothing to Phineas, as we set off for that Warthog I wanted, a lot wiser for the experience.