On June 17 Shawn drove us the six-and-a-half hours from Dendro Park to Bird Estate, Balla Balla's sable-hunting grounds. For the first half of the drive we were the only motor vehicle on the road, alone with the bicyclists and foot traffic. As we moved farther down the road, and forward in time on the scale of human civilization, we began to overtake cotton trucks and an occasional battered car. Shawn, driving quickly but competently, overtook and passed them all. We reached Bird Estate in the early afternoon, and Shawn said Dene would be coming at 3:00 to take us out hunting.
Dene picked us up forty-five minutes late in a good facsimile of a World War II-era Willy’s Jeep. Dene said it had a fiberglass body made in South Africa. He had bought it as a kit and put it together himself, after finding a diesel engine and old Ford chassis. It was two-wheel drive, but it went everywhere Dene asked it to go, at least now, in the dry season. He had a little rack on the dash in front of the passenger’s seat to hold the stock of a rifle and a bracket on top of the steering wheel for holding the barrel. Every now and then I caught a whiff of diesel fumes as we went. My wife was as delighted as a child to ride in a camp chair resting in the back of the two-seater jeep and wanted her photo taken in that position.
We saw a lot of sable over the several days we spent hunting them, and with Dene there, being under his tutelage you might say, I was enrolled in a graduate-level course in sable hunting. I could see now that some of the photos I’d seen in hunting books and internet sites of dead sable, posed beside the hunter, made me now question whether the bull was fully mature. They were not all black, except for the brown in their ears and the white on the belly, and their horns were not dark enough or were not long enough. Had I not enrolled in Dene’s course I would not know how to tell the maturity of a ram, where and what time to look for the bulls, and most especially how to see them in the stands of acacia trees. The challenge was to try to find the black form of the sable amidst the shadows and patches of light, when the animal’s legs are the same size and color as the trunks of the acacia.
As we rounded the pond at Bird Estate a small bird of prey chased smaller shorebirds, twisting and diving in the air above the lake. I never did see the outcome of the pursuit, but I was rooting for the hawk, fellow hunter. Egyptian geese, cranes, small ducks arose squawking. All of the water birds we saw in Zambia were very skittish, as if they’d been shot at before. We were crossing the earthen dam that formed the impoundment when we flushed from a nearby bush the most gorgeous bird I have ever seen, what Dene said was a lilac-breasted roller, brilliant dark blue, light blue, and lavender in the sunlight.
Dene turned at a fork in the jeep trail. We passed tall, strange-looking cactus with their branches spreading out from a single level, looking like brushes painting the sky. We saw termite mounds the size of our tent, bigger even, and the regular small depressions of ant lion traps in the dust on the road, almost in a line, like the tracks of miniature ski poles in the snow. I didn’t see any ants, so the odds of any particular ant lion getting a meal looked pretty slim.
We saw no sable that afternoon, but late in the day we stalked a herd of impala until I had a clear shot from about 120 yards away, while they stood looking at us.
“The third from the right is a nice one,” Dene told me.
I found a tree and braced my rifle against it. I counted over three impala from the right, and fired. The impala flopped over, kicking.
“Why don’t you walk over to him,” Dene said quietly, “while I get the jeep?”
As I drew near the dead impala, I realized something was wrong. The horns were way too small for a mature ram.
Dene and Setsuko arrived in the jeep and climbed out. “You shot the wrong one, I’m afraid.”
I nodded, embarrassed. I still don’t know how I made the mistake, but the most probable explanation is that I saw a different impala from my position against the tree than the one Dene was talking about. Either that, or I can’t count to three or don’t know left from right. Whatever, it appeared that my impala jinx was still in effect.
Dene was a good sport about it. He could have charged me a trophy fee for the impala. I was the one who pulled the trigger. But he said we needed camp meat, and that was that. My wife had to ride with the chair sitting on the impala, and she didn’t like it much, with the chair wobbly from two legs resting directly on the animal; and her hat got bloody when it fell to the floor of the jeep. Dene asked a camp assistant, Nando, to clean the hat; over Setsuko’s protests, he took the hat away and had it back to her spotless by the end of the following day.
June 18 - We spotted plenty of sable the first full day of hunting them, mostly cows and immature bulls. The females and immature males were typically in mixed groups, but the bulls were solitary. The sable ignored the jeep or drifted back further into the acacias as we drove by. They were shy of the jeep, but not alarmed by it. Dene and I were by ourselves. My wife enjoyed going along on the hunt, but today she accompanied Dene's wife Jan to the town of Choma.
We crept along in the jeep, glassing likely-looking shadows in the acacia. Dene spotted two bulls standing in the trees on the driver’s side of the jeep. They were eating the acacia seedpods, he said. Dene inspected the bulls for what seemed like a long time. I couldn’t see a damn thing.
“That one on the left has nice horns, but there’s damage to one of them. Maybe he got shot there or injured himself in a fight.”
We drove on without my ever seeing the sable he mentioned, and after a while Dene spotted another bull. I finally made him out, sitting down in the shadows, apparently ignorant or indifferent to our presence.
“Nice one, that,” he said. “But his horns flare out quite a bit. Is that what you want?”
I found the sable in my binocular and thought about it. This was my first difficult decision to make as a trophy hunter. I’d already decided I wanted a sable with closer-set horns. The gamble now was whether I would see a better sable than this one. I might not, in my three remaining days of hunting; I might wind up with a lesser bull or even get skunked. On the other hand, this sable hunting didn't seem that difficult. We were seeing lots of sable. Why not spend some time shopping for the right horn configuration? Why not hold out for the perfect sable? I told Dene no, I didn’t want this one.
At 11:30 we went back to camp for brunch. Dene cooked eggs, bacon, sausage, and potatoes in what Americans would call a wok but he called something else.
“Sorry, I’m going to have to do the cooking, with Jan gone. Nando is still learning, and none of the other boys know how to cook.”
On our hunt that afternoon Dene spotted a good bull on his side of the jeep, and naturally I couldn’t see a damn thing. The acacia trees stood at almost uniform height and distance apart, as if they were part of an abandoned, overgrown orchard. Somewhere in there was a sable bull Dene was looking at. Finally I made out the shape of a sable where his black body blended with the shadows and his legs merged with the lower trunks of the acacia. All black, no tint or tone of brown. Dene drove on by and stopped a few hundred yards up the road. There was a good crosswind blowing right then. Hunching low, we crept back along the edge of the acacias.
Just then the wind changed and I felt it on the back of my neck. Oh, crap. And stronger words to the same effect. A moment later we heard the sound of a sable galloping away. A while later, another stalk on a different sable was spoiled by a duiker that seemed to materialize right out of the ground in front of me and bounded off toward the sable.
That afternoon we saw no sable, just lechwe, impala, guinea fowl, and eland. And many duiker that bounded away from the jeep like Arctic hares wearing summer colors. Dene offered me the chance to shoot a duiker male for free, and I was willing to consider it, as revenge for spoiling our stalk; but I couldn’t see how you’d ever hope to get one without a shotgun. Or even tell the difference between a male and a female. I decided to take Dene up on his offer of a free duiker, if a shot presented itself, and so long as it didn't interfere with the pursuit of sable.
“Okay, the next one we see, how do you tell what sex it is?”
“The females have a tuft of hair between their ears, looks like a single horn. The males look hornless, unless you look close to their ears.”
Later that day, in the coming evening dusk, I did get my revenge. Dene spotted a duiker ram watching us from the shadows of the trees, and then I saw him, his two little horns standing up like spikes beside his ears. He must have felt safe in the tree-shadows because he stood there watching us while Dene set up the sticks and I shot. The rifle’s recoil caused me to lose the sight picture for a moment, and then I saw a duiker bounding off unharmed.
“Did I miss?”
“No, you got him. There was a female with him.”
The ram never twitched. I’d shot him right in the shoulder like I was supposed to, and the 200-grain bullet from my .300 Win Mag left the off-shoulder hanging by a strip of skin to his body. The duiker had two little spike horns, smaller than my index finger, set near the ears and pointing straight up. After photos of of me holding up the good side of the little antelope, Dene lifted the duiker with one hand and put it in the back of the jeep. It was almost dusk, and we hunted our way back toward camp until it became dark enough to need the headlights, and then we just drove.
JES Adventures, while I was sable hunting at Bird Estate I did hear that a woman of the party that went into Dendro after us had got a buffalo too. Did you follow up the buffalo hunt with a hunt for sable, like I did?
My wife was with us again, waiting in the jeep, while Dene and I stalked a sable in the acacias. It was impossible to walk quietly because of the bed of small dried leaves on the ground. To our left we heard a kudu bark in alarm and then go crashing into the brush. Another kudu further ahead barked, and barked again. Then there came two crashes of the brush and silence.
“Do you think they’ve spooked the sable?” I whispered.
We worked our way forward, under the thorny acacias, through a crosswind. Dene slowed. Two more kudu barked and took off, crash, crash. Dene stopped and sat on his heels and smoked a cigarette, watching the direction of the smoke. Unable to assume the same position due to knee problems, I stood there and waited.
Dene finished his cigarette, got to his feet and nodded, and we moved forward again. A duiker flushed ahead of us, bounding off in the direction of the sable. Dene and I exchanged a look. Oh, crap, and double crap. And stronger language to the same effect. Next we saw the guinea fowl, and they saw us, flushing ahead of the duiker. We gave up sneaking and walked to the area where we’d seen the sable. Gone. Probably gone well before the guinea fowl detected us, gone when the kudu barked or the duiker flushed.
It was the third blown stalk we had put on mature sable bulls since morning. So much for shopping for a particular bull. The jeep itself didn’t spook the sable or other game we saw, but I think the sight and noise and smell of it put the animals on alert, so it was that much harder to stalk up on them. The sable were still on alert by the time we got out of the jeep several hundred yards down the track, and they were gone well before we could get within range.
We saw sable cows and immature males, but most of the afternoon was occupied with the routine of spotting a sable bull, then spooking him on the stalk. I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining. Stalking big game is one of the most thrilling things I know, even if it isn’t successful. There are no guaranties; anything might happen, and the odds of success on any given stalk may be against you. Even when looked at as playing the odds, though, I began to wonder how I would ever get a shot at a sable. One time a bull spooked as soon as we set foot out of the jeep; we could hear his hooves thudding and body crashing through the trees, and that was that, I never even saw him. The afternoon wore on until it was nearing dusk, and I realized that in less than an hour I’d only have one day left to get a sable.
Dene put in the clutch, staring intently at the acacias, and let the jeep roll to a stop. Then he looked at me and there was no need for words. He pulled on ahead a few hundred yards and stopped, shut off the engine. We were getting out to stalk again, and I unhooked my rifle from the rack. My wife knew the drill too and took out a book to read while she waited. Dene didn’t want more people in on the stalk than necessary, so he wanted her to stay in the jeep. I think she had quit expecting something to happen. To make things worse for her, she said the book wasn’t very good. I felt bad leaving her in the jeep like that, but the sable were proving as spooky as whitetail deer, and I figured Dene would know his business.
We had given up on trying to stalk the sable through the acacias, so we just walked down the trail quietly and slowly. If we stick to it long enough, I told myself, maybe we’ll get a lucky break. Back to playing the odds again, eh? What other way was there to play it?
Then Dene froze, hunched over, and I saw the sable bull standing fifty yards into the trees, directly opposite the road, looking right at us. The sable started moving in the direction from which we had come, toward the jeep. I could see he was about to move into an opening in the acacia trees, but he looked ready to run at any time.
The sticks went up in front of me and Dene gave me a look and a vigorous nod. The sable was stepping faster now, and, afraid of hitting him too far back, in the guts, I lined up on the base of his neck and fired. At first I thought I must have missed him completely. The sable broke into a gallop, hooves thudding, galloping at an angle toward us, his head beginning to drag him down now, galloping himself headfirst into the ground. I’ve never seen an animal drive himself into the ground so forcefully, so hard you could hear the thud and feel a tremble in the earth. The bull rolled over, hooves still galloping in the air, then his legs swung down and he struggled to right himself. I cycled the rifle bolt, but stopped myself, clicked the safety on.
“I can’t shoot again,” I said, glancing sideways at Dene. “He’s too close to the direction of the jeep.” The jeep was out of sight down the trail, but I knew full well where it was.
“No, don’t shoot that way.”
I started walking down the trail toward the jeep, closing the distance to the bull, which had obviously been hit, but was just as obviously still alive. I wanted to change the angle of any follow-up shot I might need to make. From my current position I couldn’t shoot without endangering my wife.
“Watch out, he’s still dangerous,” Dene said, as I moved down the jeep trail. Well, what else could I do? The sable looked on the verge of getting back to his feet, and if he did I couldn’t shoot because my wife was downrange. I wanted to follow the PH’s instructions, but Dene hadn’t really told me to stop. I think he could see the dilemma as well as I could.
When I reached about ninety degrees between the location of the jeep and the sable, I stopped. I was ready to shoot again if the bull got his feet under him. The bull had driven himself into the ground only a few yards from the jeep track, the same few yards from where I now stood. I could see I’d shot him in the neck, and the blood was pooling beneath him where the bullet’s exit wound must be. The bull was still kicking, trying to roll back on to his feet, but he couldn’t lift his head. A horse has to get up first by its head and neck; maybe it’s the same for sable, I thought. My bullet had ruined the sable’s neck muscles, and without being able to hold his head up, the animal was unable to rise. It was just a matter of how long the bull would take to bleed out on the ground.
I raised my rifle to shoot again, but Dene said to wait. A few seconds later I saw the light go out of the bull’s eyes and I could almost feel his strong, wild heart stop beating. I touched the sable’s glassy eye with my rifle barrel to be sure, and there was no reaction.
My initial feeling of elation turned to sadness for the sable’s death, and irritation that I hadn’t made the shot to hit on the bull’s shoulder.
“First time I ever saw an animal shot in the neck that didn’t drop on the spot,” Dene said.
“The bullet must have missed the spine. I was trying for the shoulder, damn it! I led him too much.”
“You hit him right in the jugular vein, looks like. We won’t have to bleed him.”
“I led him too damn much,” I said.
The bull was coal-black on his back and flanks, partly brown on his legs and ears, and white like an ermine on his belly and face markings. He had a long sweep of ridged, worn horns, and there were callused, hairless spots on his back where his horns must have rubbed whenever he held his head up. He was beautiful.
“He’s about the size of a caribou,” I said. “But heavier in the forequarters.”
“Oh, yeah?” Dene said. I made a mental note that although Dene was an accomplished African naturalist, able to answer every question I put to him about local animal and plant life, he did not seem terribly interested in Alaska wildlife. This wasn’t Alaska, so why should he be? Comparisons that helped me keep a frame of reference meant nothing to him.
The sable I had taken was an old solitary bull, past his breeding prime, and of no further social or genetic benefit to his kind. (Much like the author of this story.) I felt bad about ending the life of this magnificent animal, unhappy that I’d not done it as quickly and cleanly as intended, and rueful that his life had been ended by a poorly-placed bullet hitting the carotid artery. Bad luck, or bad karma, for him. Bad juju on you, James.
In a little while we rolled him over and propped him up for photos in the fading African light, and he began to take on a semblance of his dignity and nobility in life, and my spirits picked up. This wonderful sable was mine! I had captured him in a moment of memory that I would treasure the rest of my life.
Great narrative on the stalk and kill. I'll bet the adrenaline was amped up when that first shot went off.Congratulations on a fine ol boy.Just curious but what ammo type did you use on the dagga?? Congratulations!!!
Hey Jim, I read that you’re from Dequincey and just returned from Africa. I’m from Lake Charles and went there in April. What outfitter did you use and would you share your experience and pics? I won our trip to Kuche through DU.
Hello! Nice rifle! I have IDENTICAL rifle in 375 H&H so i was wondering what gunsmith did the work on it? Appreciate it and if you decide there is anything you are willing to take in partial trade, let me know. I have quite a few pistols, long guns and sxs & o/u shotguns as well.
Let me know if you are looking for anything in particular.