Armchair Safari – Walia Ibex in Ethiopia

Excerpts from Simen Its Heights and Abysses by Major H.C. Maydon

armchair-safari-maydon-book-spine-111816Let me draw attention to a rough map of the Simen country which I made at the end of a six weeks’ hunt there. Imagine a tableland 20 miles square from 10,000 to 14,000 feet high, shut in on west and north by abrupt precipices, descending 7,000 feet in steps to broken down country. Down the eastern side a ravine, 4,000 feet deep, separates Simen from the detached plateau and mountain spurs. Southwards the tableland slopes gently to lowlands of 7,000 feet. The main features of this are long, narrow plateaus, or hog’s backs, all running parallel north and south, with the highest point at the northern extremity where they are cut off sharply by a precipice wall. Watercourses separate all the plateaus. They start as mere streambeds in the north, and increase to huge ravines in the south. Thus, the northern route, running parallel to the watercourses, is the easiest, and there the four plateaus almost merge into one unbroken tableland, where the vegetation is nonexistent, covered only with a pale dry grass. Patches of scrub line the ravines. Scattered trees are found above the precipices at the edges of the tableland. Below the brink of the precipice wall, on sheltered ledges, or buttresses, and down the lower slopes, are wood similar to pine forests. This is ibex country, where we would be hunting.

Several local guides came to camp to meet Blaine, my hunting partner and I. We went out and a short half-mile from camp the valley ended, abrupt is not the word, it just broke off into space. You could have dropped a stone 3,000 feet or more. We were staring at a chasm 1,000 yards long and perhaps a mile wide. At our feet, a narrow single file causeway ran 100 yards out into the chasm. Blaine and the guides led me, in fear and trembling, onto the extremity. Facing us was the opposite side, which appeared as a black and menacing sheet of rock. Directly opposite, a stream flowed over the brink and down into the background. Scattered over this piece of rock, like flies on a windowpane was a herd of ibex, ten to be exact.

View of the great escarpment of NE Simen looking toward Loorie.
View of the great escarpment of NE Simen looking toward Loorie.

Even at that 900 yards’ distance, two males were easily distinguishable. They could not have chosen a safer, more inaccessible place of refuge. Our hopes of bagging them sunk, while our respect for them rose. The next day we skirted a chasm island and reached an inclined plateau, eight miles long by four wide. It is a rolling, desolate country with a few very poor inhabitants. We pitched camp by a grove of trees and shot some fowl for the pot. This would be our camp for several days, and we would have to barter for supplies.

On our first reconnaissance we found that it was possible to make a partial descent into the abyss by scrambling 500 feet down a precipitous bank into a little promontory from which one had an almost 360 degree view. Every day we learned more about possible descents. The locals must have known about them but were unwilling to help. The first evening Blaine and I split up. I scouted along the brink searching for a route and for ibex. Three hundred feet below, a broad grass-covered ledge jutted out and lower still was a mass of rugged wooded ravines.

After a bitterly cold, frosty night, dawn came with a leaden look at this 10,000-12,000 foot elevation. Fortunately, it was dry. Two of the guides and I found our way down to a little spur by following

Key to descent of great cliffs at B’s final ibex camp.
Key to descent of great cliffs at B’s final ibex camp.

cattle tracks. I did not expect to find ibex in this cattle country. Suddenly a quaint little man appeared from out of nowhere. He agreed to show us, for a fee, ibex. I was too intimidated by the steep countryside so agreed quickly and off we went. I was not confident of finding ibex, but this was a good way to learn more about the country and a new way of descent. We followed the spur until it finished at a pinnacle overlooking dead space. One of the men tugged at my sleeve, and I knew long before it was translated into English that ibex had been spotted, close by. The thrill of intense excitement, the essence of all hunting, gripped me. I followed one hunter off the slope while the other took a different route. The guide soon dropped to his belly, peeped down and beckoned me. Creeping up, I saw one ibex with a broken horn. That is all I remember before he fell to my shot. I never did get down to him, but had to content myself with packing up and down along the brink and hoping for the best. One man returned to inform me that the body of the ibex (with many broken bones) had been located and that the next day some men would go to skin it and bring back the horns if they were to be found.

This was heartbreaking news. And the men refused to hunt here again. The native promised to show me ibex, but to leave the dangerous work to my guides. However, he promised to show me more game. The next day we followed some old tracks but in a hopeless place to look for game: no view and all one’s attention was required to find the way forward. After some time we reached another rocky outcropping which gave us a commanding view of several grassy ledges. After a fruitless afternoon of glassing, we returned to camp. Yes, I had actually bagged a Walia ibex but the moment of admiring and photographing him in the flesh has been lost. The true glamour of a successful hunt had been spoiled. It had been bush shooting and not a long stalk, a difficult approach and the anxieties of a long shot.

Blaine returned later that evening and reported that the herd I saw earlier returned to their old haunt, on the face of the rock near the water slide. His guides hauled, pushed and lowered him down the cliffs to within a few hundred yards of the place I had descended two days before. Because of the terrain, he was hidden from me. It was blood curdling, but there were trees or long grass to cling to and to hide his drop. Then his scouts lost the herd. However, at sunset, Blaine heard a noise and turned to see, at 200 yards, a fine ram slowly picking its way up the steep brush-covered slope on the opposite side of the water.

Last ibex, taken at the spot where he actually fell (this from a different hunt that the one described in the article.)
Last ibex, taken at the spot where he actually fell (this from a different hunt that the one described in the article.)

Blaine’s ram fell dead to the first shot, and he had the satisfaction of seeing the ram anchor itself behind a tree trunk rather than taking a 2,000 foot drop to total destruction. It took his group the better part of the next day to recover the skull and horns, intact, by lowering natives on a long rope. Daylight removed any hope of reaching the body itself. It was amazing that there was any foothold at all. But such were the illusions of Simen we would learn in the future. (Meanwhile I learned that my men never recovered the horns of my ram.)

The next day we decided on a farther reconnaissance, to try to descend even farther into more favorable ibex habitat. Keep in mind that the Walia ibex are not found in groups as large as the Nubian ibex of the Red Sea Hills. So I kept dreaming of a place where one could stalk a really fine ram at leisure. The native promised to show us more ibex if we increased the reward. He knew the country like a book but was loath to share his knowledge. However, he seemed a luck man. In a piercing cold wind, we continued on the stiff uphill walk to another summit below which was an occasional broad, grassy ledge, a deep walled rock ravine and a detached pinnacle. Far away was low bush country.

Agile as cats, the men scouted from each vantage point but saw only mothers and young. Toward noon, we reached a point where the escarpment turns away and we were shut in on two sides. Here fate set the stage for the greatest stroke of luck I have ever known. We had reached the end of our tether for the day. It was close to noon; we drew a blank. Ahead stretched an uncompromising country of bare precipices and sheer drops. Exactly at the bend of the summit, there was a slope down to a small razor-backed ridge, running out to an isolated pinnacle. There, two impossible ravines, one on either side of the ridge were on either side of two stony peaks that crowned the summit and gave a wonderful view of the low country to the north and west.

The main escarpment.
The main escarpment.

From one of these peaks both hunters spotted ibex, just as I was giving up for the day. My tired boredom morphed into mad excitement. The spotter’s job for the day was done while mine was just about to begin. The ibex were 1,000 yards away, hard for me to distinguish through a scope, but easy for the natives to find with their naked eye. We made an easy stalk to the brink of the chasm, which turned out to be 300 yards across. We could not see a ram among the herd grazing on the far side. And it was impossible to get nearer. Consoling myself with the thought that had there been a ram, it would have been too far to shoot, I sat down to a meager lunch.

Suddenly one of the guides whistled to indicate “things were happening.” Our old herd was in retreat and joining the first lot was another small herd. At the rear of this second herd was a ram whose head, even at that distance needed no second glance. My first shot missed. But as he paused at a real bad passage my second shot knocked him over. Then, to our chagrin, we saw him slowly kick and roll to brink and plunge into space. Again, I was denied the triumph of seeing my trophy lying in all his glory. Men had to be lowered by ropes, as the ibex was caught in a crevice 500 feet below. His skull was badly damaged and the horns were broken off but undamaged and the skin was intact. He had fine horns measuring 44 inches.

I returned to camp in jubilation and found my partner with his skull and horns that had also just been brought in. Blaine’s horns were shorter but thicker, i.e., more typical of the race. Walia are bigger and heavier in body than Nubian ibex, and their coats are longer and richer in color. Their horns are more massive though the length is about the same. A bony prominence on the sorehead is noticeable in large rams. Both races have white knee markings.

The next morning, as I was preparing to hunt, the head man came over to say that we were only allowed four ibex between us, and that I had to cease hunting. This was a fishy story since we had a written permits (both from Addis and locally) that did not specify any limit. However, the man was adamant and we contented ourselves with writing back for permission to shoot four ibex each.

Tree heath and giant thistles.
Tree heath and giant thistles.

Meanwhile Blaine saw ibex every day but always in herds unaccompanied by any full grown rams. Thus when our permits to shoot four rams each finally arrived we decided to push on and try new ground. It would be nice to try new country and so we headed east-northeast, and then northwest. The slopes in this new area looked easier to negotiate but soon I was to learn better. It was not until we were well across the lower plateau that the true grandeur and hugeness of the higher plateau burst upon us. Mountains in the Himalayas were more impressive and beautiful with their snow tops but they were truly more awe inspiring with their long precipice walls stretching into infinity. We hunted here for several days without success, but never saw anything to make us hopeful. Eventually, the longing for movement prevailed and we decided to move to different, thankful for the three ibex we had bagged in that awesome country.–Selected and edited by Ellen Enzler Herring of Trophy Room Books


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