Barefoot and Hapless: Saga of a Bowhunt in the Gobi

Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Barefoot and Hapless: Saga of a Bowhunt in The Gobi

The plan worked perfectly. Or at least partly. As in I didn’t do my part quite right. It was a beautiful sunny day at 2800 meters elevation, 20 degrees C with almost no wind and big, fluffy cumulus clouds in late August 2008. A perfect day to be hunting. The four huge Gobi Ibex rams crested the Argalant mountain ridge 90 meters from the position I had painstakingly crawled barefoot into in order to make absolutely certain that I did not make a sound. Gambo, the local guide from a nearby village, had done his job perfectly to spot these beautiful goats and get us to them unseen. The big horned rams were curiously looking over their shoulders at my interpreter, Amra, who had gone on a round about stalk to get behind the wary animals and push them toward me. He had done his job perfectly as well. I tried to remain calm, but with my heart racing I quickly drew my Matthews Black Max 2 and centered my 100 yard pin on the chest of the nearest massive Ibex. As I triggered my release, the deadly arrow flew toward the unwitting target. A loud THWACK! echoed back to me as the missile buried itself in the Ibex. Unfortunately, a moment later, I realized that the arrow had fallen out and not passed through the ibex. All four of the rams ran off in big hurry, glancing only briefly back at me, and covering the distance rapidly and disappearing over a far off ridge. I rushed to take a look at the arrow and realized that it had only penetrated six inches and the broadhead then broke off in the upper leg bone. I was so close, but so far away from success. The ram had limped noticeably, but still moved quickly in its haste to escape, even with an arrowhead buried in its body. There was very little blood as we tracked the animal over several kilometers of the rough Southern Mongolia mountains a couple hours west of Dalanzadgad. Twice, in the distance, we were able to spot the wounded ram with one of its companions, but the closest I was able to get was 200 meters. Eleven hours more of stalking, tracking and patient waiting and we decided to leave the ram and his friend for the night on a steep cliff shelf 250 meters away. Because I had no rifle, I was unable to finish the job. The sun set and we began the dejected trek in the dark, returning to the poor abused Toyota Land Cruiser. Amra, my interpreter, who had been assigned to get me through this adventure in a very foreign land, seemed hesitant to speak to me, but Gambo and Idersaikhan, the herdsman from a nearby camp, had plenty to talk about with each other. I suppose they were disgusted with me, as I had blown my third chance in eight days of getting a big Ibex ram with bow and arrow.

It had been my goal to hunt all six continents for big game with bow and arrow and I had now accomplished that with this Mongolian goat chase. Little consolation it seemed to me though, as I retreated to my own world of misery and disgust. Previously, I had a nice goat jump the string at 90 meters and the arrow went safely sailing by four meters behind, exactly on target with where the ram had been! [And the other failed incident kept playing through my mind where I had come over the top of a ridge on a stalk with my boots off and hanging around my neck in order to be quieter on the treacherous, rocky, gravelly ground, praying not to cut up my feet, but I had been surprised by the ram which I was stalking as he started coming around a cliff towards me!] In a split second, I determined the range to be 70 meters, and took a hurried shot. At my position the wind had seemed negligible, but apparently down range because where the goat was basking in the sun, the wind velocity was extreme. I almost threw my bow off the mountain as I saw my arrow slip sideways a meter in the air just before impacting the boulders behind my quarry. It had not been going well and the patience of my team was being tested to the extreme. I figured that this had been my last chance, and that I had screwed it up. I had been so gung-ho about doing it with bow alone and adamant about not bringing a backup rifle because of the paperwork, and this reliance on ancient methods was coming back to bite me big time. Technically the hunt was over with eight days of the planned eleven gone. My guys would not talk to me, and I was sure that Amra was not doing an actual interpretation of the conversation I was hearing. It was decided that I could have another day or two to track down the wounded animal, but I was not to get a chance at another animal. It was all or nothing with this recovery. If I did not agree to use a rifle, the guys would quit on me and make me accept the wounded Ibex as my tag being filled. The only other option was three days of chasing gazelles in the Gobi with little chance of a fair chase success. I had been warned about the difficulty of this Ibex hunt and the low rate of success, but I figured I could beat the odds. Dejected, but not yet willing to give up, I agreed to take a day off and spend it hunting the country side for a suitable rifle to follow up the massive horned Ibex ram. I ate by myself in shame and fell asleep feeling pretty low. In the morning we climbed into the Toyota to visit the neighbors. The roads are absolutely horrible and we bounced like crazy men as we followed the Mongolian superhighway across the Gobi over rutted, washboard dirt paths stretching to the horizon. Along the way we stopped at a Yurt tent every so often to ask if the man of the house had a weapon we could use. I was embarrassed at each stop, imagining what was being said about my lack of hunting prowess. We were welcomed into each home and sat on the floor as we were offered Vodka, fermented horse milk called Airag, goat marrow, and a cottage cheese like mixture of semi solidified goat milk. I felt very far from home, even though at each stop, the solar panel powered satellite televisions were tuned in to the Olympics. I could hear English in the background, but the commentary on the Greco Roman wrestling was totally lost on me. I was thankfully able to refuse the offered hospitality gracefully and hope that grave insult was not taken. I was deathly afraid of ending my trip with a case of crippling diarrhea caused by a disastrous reaction in my bowels to this exotic cuisine. Mostly the herdsman had no firearms, but occasionally they knew of someone who had an ancient .22 Russian bolt action rifle from pre -WWII. We did locate a mystery caliber open sighted bolt action from the Korean War Era. It was stamped 1952, and it was amazing to be able to read this for all the rust and corrosion covering the weapon. I was to be allowed 4 bullets for a fee of $100US- a fortune in these parts, but with the availability of ammunition extremely low, I reasoned that it would have to do. I was warned that the rifle shot high-very high- so aim low. I tried two practice shots at 100 yards and was missing the target by at least 5 meters! I was worried. The owner assured me that I would hit the bullseye dead on if I aimed four meters to the left and two meters low! Yeah right! Luckily another weapon was located before I blew up this deadly contraption in my face. A decent scoped .30-06 was identified, but it would be a three hour drive back to Dalanzadgad to retrieve the weapon from the storage location in a locked hotel room. A note from the owner of the gun allowed the proprietor of the hotel to access the rifle, and I was pleased to find a relatively modern looking weapon and a full box of rounds to use. A stop at a local welder, whose operation would cause an OSHA inspector to die of fright, to make some rough repairs to our vehicle’s motor mounts and exhaust brackets. Several bottles of vodka and a couple packs of Marlboros later and we were back to the hunting camp. Then began the race to sight in the rifle before dark. After six shots and maxing out the travels of the scope adjustment, I had the gun shooting on the paper at 50 yards! Yikes! With only two days left of my odyssey, this was the only chance I had left. I gulped and assured the hesitant crew that I would be able to make it work this time. They were dubious and I guess I had given them good reason. I slept intermittently, wishing I had brought my nice .300 Ultra Mag custom rifle built by Bob Odenthal. It was yielding to my pride as a bowhunter that I had passed on bringing it. I woke up early and we drove back into the mountains. In the ten hours of spotting and climbing we were unable to locate our quarry, so with one more day left I was pretty nervous. The guys agreed to give me their best effort one more time and we set out up a drainage gully at 5AM. An hour later as Gambo was answering the call of nature 300 meters behind me and Amra was adjusting his pack a kilometer back, while the herdsman named Idersaikhan and I , with whom I could not communicate verbally at all, spotted a nannie goat and kid on the ridge top 150 meters away from us. I looked through my Swarovski binoculars and took the range with my Opti-Logic laser just for the heck of it. I must have been living right this day, because as the nannie became aware of me she attracted the attention of the four rams lying with her just over the ridge. Unbelievably, one had a bloody shoulder that I recognized positively as the beast I was after. In slow motion I rolled the .30-06 off my shoulder, chambered a round and took aim 2 feet lower than the chest cavity of the animal, as I had figured I needed to based on my range experience. I was surprised when the gun went off , almost on its own, I don’t remember pulling the trigger, and the Gobi Ibex rolled over, legs in the air with a broken back. I was ecstatic to have finally made up for all my mistakes. Gambo and Amra probably thought I had just shot myself for all the confidence they had left in me, but they were quite relieved that they could finally get back to their vodka and Marlboros instead of trekking the rugged mountains with this fool of an American who couldn’t hit a darn thing. I ran up the ridge and looked over the goat. He was a mess from the prior wound, and I was very happy to put him out of his misery. I thanked the Lord for the gift of this beautiful animal and for not giving up on me. A real struggle ensued trying to get decent pictures. Shadows, lighting, and animal positioning were all a mystery lost in translation. As far as the Mongolians were concerned, the goat was down and we were done. We ended up with some decent pictures and then got the hide off in a respectable manner with some argument over the proper method to do so. I compromised and Gambo compromised, and hopefully Marv and his team at Taxidermy Unlimited can put it all back together looking better than it ever did in life. Luckily, I made it back to the truck and off the mountain before my wonderful experience of two days of diarrhea actually did end my hunt. A 30 hour, 700 kilometer drive from the southern Gobi through Dalanzadgad and back up to Ulan Baatar was a real treat. We only broke down for eight hours in the hard blowing rain as the truck bogged down and stalled with a dead battery before another vehicle came along and was able to give us a tow start. The brakes leaked causing billowing smoke to come from the left front wheel well, but with a jury rig fix we were on the road again. The wipers quit working, the defroster did not function, and the motor mounts were broken again causing an awful rattling that made my head feel like splitting. The driver’s window was off its track and would not close all the way, causing an annoying whistle. Despite this torture of being cramped inside this decrepit vehicle, we eventually made it back to what passed for civilization. It was better than waiting another couple days for the plane to come back. Due to the heavy rain and fog we were slogging through on the ground, all flights into the area had been cancelled. In all honesty, the road was a muddy-rutted hellacious journey, but I had gotten what I came for and made it back safe. It took everything I had: patience, endurance, luck and a good team assembled by Ari at Amazing Steppes Adventures to keep providing me with opportunities and not giving up on me. A few hours of sightseeing in the capitol city coupled with a unique banking experience, and I was back on a Korean Air jet headed for the good ole USA. I bet they were pretty glad to see me go! What do you think they will say when I tell Ari I want come back next fall for an Altai Ibex?