The Watcher

A remarkable hunt for Himalayan ibex in the mountains of Pakistan.

It was one of those moments when I had to close my eyes. I closed them to extract every ounce of mental toughness from deep inside. I was trying to block out the cold and wet soaking through my clothes and the shaking of my left leg as I lay prone on the small ledge. Only the toe of my left boot propped awkwardly up against a boulder was keeping me from sliding off the precipice to an unpleasant end. When I reopened my eyes, there in my cross hairs was the trophy for which I had come to the other side of the world.

The breathtaking mountains of Pakistan

Outfitter had everything in order when I arrived in Chitral, Pakistan, in February 2008, but I cannot say as much for British Airways, as only my rifle made it. My other bag, containing my hunting clothes, coats, and most importantly my ammunition, was still in London. In Chitral, we went to the police station to report in. I was assigned a bodyguard, Rahmet Nazeer, a handsome man in full dress uniform and ever-present AK-47. As we weren’t far from the Afghanistan border and Taliban villages, security was important. We then proceeded to the office of the North West Frontier Province Wildlife Department, where we met Wildlife President Safdar Ali Kash, park ranger Sharfat Ali, and a crew of approximately fifteen men.

We explained the situation regarding the lost ammo. There was no ammunition available, so my hosts began driving the streets of Chitral, commandeering rifles and ammunition from local residents in hopes of finding something I could use for my hunt. Most of the rifles were World War II-era Mausers and the ammo was of the same vintage. We chose five rifles out of the ones on offer; the owner of each one shared tales of unbelievable feats of accuracy and long-range shots.

We loaded up our supplies, rifles, and crew on two jeeps and headed into the mountains on a four-hour drive to our final destination, the mountain village of Goleen. The road to the village was passable only by jeep or on foot. It was extremely rocky and narrow—so narrow I often had to pull my arm back in the vehicle quickly as we passed within touching distance of stone walls and buildings. Word of my visit had gotten around, and the streets and rooftops were lined with locals trying to get a peek at the American. Several times we had to stop to let herds of goats retreat off the narrow passageway.

As we approached Goleen I spotted a thin man with an ice axe and binoculars standing on a knoll just off the roadway. I was told he was “The Watcher.” His name was Taj Mohamed, and his job was to watch the wildlife around the village. He climbed in and pointed up the road toward the village. My interpreter and guide, Waqar Younis Janjoupa, informed me The Watcher had spotted a big ibex above the village. The news was exciting, but I was very worried about my rifle situation.

Taj Mohamed (“The Watcher”), the author with the borrowed rifle, and Akbar near where the ibex was shot.

We pulled into Goleen and it seemed all the men in the village had come to greet me. Children were peeking from behind walls, giggling and whispering. I shook hands and received hugs from all in attendance then we moved into the courtyard of a guest house. We set up a spotting scope and got out binoculars to take a look at the large Himalayan ibex above the village. He was magnificent; all alone and feeding on some bushes in the rugged cliffs of a south-facing slope overlooking the village. I named him The Watcher after the man who found him and because of the way he stood on his lofty heights watching over all below. Wildlife President Safdar had come with us to the village, hoping I could kill this large old ibex so he could have his picture taken with it. (After it was carried down the mountain, he explained, as he didn’t want to climb up!).

The next morning I awoke to noise in the courtyard. I stepped outside to find it full of men, all keeping track of my ibex. They were all smiling and motioning me to take a look. We had a big breakfast and tea, then set off to shoot the rifles. We set a box out at 150 yards. The first gun we tried to my mind would not be enough gun, but the gun’s owner became loud and insistent, boasting he could shoot my finger off at 800 meters! I asked him to show us and he took aim at the box. After five misses he was humbled a little. I called this man “Bob;” he was always trying to take control of every situation, but he seemed to be an expert only at talking loudly.

Next we tried a nice-looking 8mm rifle of Pakistani manufacture. The first shot was a little high, but looked promising. The next dribbled out of the barrel and fell in the snow ten feet in front of us! So much for the 8mm. The results were the same for all of the rest of the rifles—horrible performance, unacceptable to chance on any animal. Waqar agreed and loaded some men in the jeep and headed back to Chitral. We hoped my bullets had made it; but if not, perhaps Waqar and his men could find a more suitable rifle.

I stayed behind and was treated to a tour of the village. I was taken to the girls’ school where they teach homemaking skills. Throughout the village there were no women outside the houses, although they could be seen peeking from the corners of windows as we passed. A man came up to me with an eight-year-old boy, asking if I had any medicine for the boy’s arm. I could see it was broken. I told them I could do nothing but give him some Tylenol for the pain and that he should see a doctor. They said they would take him to Chitral tomorrow. I knew the jarring four-hour jeep ride would be miserable for him.

The Pakistan hunt crew. The author is flanked by Wildlife President Safdar Ali Kash and bodyguard Rahmet Nazeer, in the uniform. In the tan vest is Taj Mohamed, “The Watcher.” The rest of the men are from the village and many of them helped with the recovery of the ibex.

We made our way through the narrow village paths to the home of a village elder, an old hunter named Ysman Ullha. He greeted me with the customary hug and a kiss on the cheek. We sat in his yard and had tea. He went inside and returned with an old set of very large ibex horns. The men had come to ask his advice about my hunt. The area we were in was a national park, and nobody had been allowed to hunt here in decades. This man had been a hunter here before it was designated a park. They discussed the situation with him at great length. He gave some advice, but “Bob” seemed to have his own ideas. I was informed we were going to try a drive. I objected, but “Bob” insisted. He handed me the gun and off we went.

Taj Mohamed, the Watcher, led the way, followed by “Bob,” me, and the ranger Sharfat Ali. They were all noisy. “Bob” yelled at the top of his lungs at a young goat herder who was starting up the mountain. We climbed the steep mountain and got into position, then waited two hours so the men could go over the top and push the ibex to us. I could see a possible escape route to the west across some snowfields. My guides insisted it was too steep for the ibex, but I argued that if it was flat enough to hold the snow, it was flat enough for the ibex.

We heard a commotion above us and I readied my trusty open-sighted .22 Hornet. The ibex appeared about 400 yards out, running across the exact snowfield I had predicted and having little trouble of it. The men looked at me and “Bob” gestured at me to shoot—a 400-yard shot at a running animal with open sights! I refused, much to their dismay. We worked our way back down to the village. President Safdar was angry I hadn’t taken the shot. I handed him the rifle and walked back to the guest house.

Ysman Ullha, the elder hunter, was waiting in the guest house. He greeted me and then had words with the other men. He looked at me and shrugged his shoulders in disgust. He agreed the shot was too far, especially with our gun situation.

The rest of the day was spent relaxing and drinking tea and awaiting the return of Waqar and his men and hopefully my ammunition. Fortunately, I’d packed my binoculars and digital cameras in my carry-on bags. The men enjoyed having their pictures taken. I snapped their pictures then showed them the image on the screen, and they responded with big, toothy grins and laughter.

Waqar and his men finally returned in the evening, but with bad news—no bullets. British Airways would not release my bag; it was hopelessly stuck in London. They brought back a different rifle they had borrowed from a local prince. It was an old sporterized 7mm Mauser with an old scope and exactly fourteen bullets headstamped 1946. They informed me it hadn’t been sighted in, but it would have to do.

The Watcher awakened me the next morning with a big grin on his face. The ibex was still on the mountain above, but much higher and unapproachable. The men were confident he would come down, though. We spent most of the day watching the ibex and drinking more tea. I zoomed my camera in on the ibex and took a close-up photo. The men were amazed, and after that every time he changed position they grabbed me and said, “Photo, photo!” A villager brought me some boiled potatoes from his fields. Another brought me a plate of walnuts. The Watcher showed up with a sitar he had made himself. He treated me to a song and enjoyed me videotaping his performance. During lunch, Rahmet, my bodyguard, picked up the sitar and played some songs. He played wonderfully.

Mealtime in the guest house was a social affair.

Another man I hadn’t seen before arrived. His name was Akbar, which means “the great one.” He was a stocky man with piercing blue eyes and a mischievous grin. Everyone began laughing and slapping me on the back, saying, “This is your friend, this is your friend!” I finally asked why this man was my friend. They informed me that Akbar was a poacher they’d let out of jail to help with my hunt because he was the only one who had hunted in after they told me this.

Eventually we climbed into the jeep and drove up the valley to the end of the road in order to put some distance between us and the ibex so as not to spook him while sighting in the rifle. Eleven shots later, I finally got the rifle to hit a box. Since we only had three bullets remaining, I adjusted the scope to where I thought it should be and we returned to the village.

The men were once again arguing over the plan of attack. “Bob” was voicing his usual loud opinion. I gestured to Akbar that he and I should go up the mountain and shoot the ibex. He looked at me and smiled his devilish grin. I explained to Waqar that I wanted to go up after the ibex but insisted that “Bob” stay behind. Several of the men began to point up the mountain and bite their fingers and shake their heads, meaning they didn’t want to go up there.

The next morning we began preparing for the hunt. All the men gathered and prayed for our safety. Ysman Ullah met me and told me the hunt was a sacred thing between me, the animal, and God. He left me with a hug and a prayer. Waqar, Akbar, The Watcher, and I began our ascent up the mountain, choosing a route to the east of the ibex’s position. We first had to cross a large boulder field. About halfway across, some boulders came bouncing down from above and sent us all scrambling for safety.

At last we reached the steep face of the mountain. It was a south-facing slope, and the sun was reflecting heat off of the boulders and melting the snow, creating a very narrow trough to walk in, about ten inches wide. I concentrated on placing one foot directly in front of the other. I have never been on a mountain so steep and dangerous. Twice, my camera case hooked on the boulders I was hugging, tipping me off balance just enough to take my breath away. As we neared the elevation where we figured we should be directly across from the ibex, Akbar and I moved ahead very slowly, taking one small step, then glassing, one small step, then glassing.

All of a sudden there it was: a scimitar- shaped horn sticking up on the skyline. We crawled into the uncomfortable position mentioned earlier. The old monarch was sleeping on a rock about 250 yards away. Now it was a waiting game, and that’s when every possible scenario plays itself out in your head. Would the gun shoot well? Would that 1946 ammo be reliable? The cold and wet began to soak through my clothes. My leg was shaking from the precarious position it was jammed into, keeping me from sliding away. I closed my eyes to regroup, and when I reopened them, the old ibex had risen and was standing in my cross hairs, but the angle was bad, so I waited some more.

Finally he turned broadside and I fired. The ibex bolted straight away and turned broadside again at 300 yards. I fired again and this time I heard a resounding smack! The ibex spun and headed directly toward us. I took one more shot—my last bullet—and the ibex disappeared in the cliffs.

Waqar slapped me on the back and yelled, “Very good, sir, you hit him twice!” Akbar gave me a thumbs-up and he and Waqar headed out on the cliffs, insisting I stay behind because it was just too dangerous. I felt sick with anticipation and doubt. Had I really hit him? How well? Waiting, I glassed the village far below. What I saw choked me up even more. The rooftops were lined with people watching all of this unfold. The kids were on top of the school, and the courtyard of the guest house was so full the crowd was spilling out into the field.

All of a sudden I was jolted back into the moment as I heard rocks rolling and horns hitting against rock, followed by cheers from the village. The ibex was dead. Tears streamed from my eyes. I looked down at the village again and saw people climbing up the mountain to where the ibex had landed. The Watcher gave me a big hug. Akbar and Waqar come into view. They made their way back to my perch and there were hugs all around.

We made our way back down the treacherous mountain, but it was much worse than before as the snow had begun to melt and what were good, solid footholds now gave way and sent snow sliding to the rocks below. We finally made it down safely, and when we rounded a corner, we saw a large crowd gathered around the ibex. When they saw me they swarmed me like a hero. Someone tapped me on the back; it was my bodyguard, Rahmet, in full dress uniform. He picked me up off the ground in a celebratory hug. Next to reach me was President Safdar. He informed me that I was the first person to ever come to this village and successfully take an ibex, and that I had climbed to over 16,000 feet, clawing my way up the mountain like a snow leopard.

Suddenly I realized why this hunt was so important to these people. The villages below had markhor, and hunts for those highly desirable wild goats bring large amounts of money to those villages. Goleen, though, has only Himalayan ibex, and until today nobody had ever hunted them successfully in this incredibly steep terrain.

At last I made it to my ibex and found that he was a beautiful ten-year year old, with horns that flared out wide. I’d hit him a bit far back, but he died within minutes. His skull was crushed in the fall, but the horns and cape were perfect. Everybody wanted their photo taken with the ibex. We had to divide the crowd into two groups to fit them in the pictures.

The author with his Himalayan ibex, the highlight of his hunting career.

Returning to the village, I received a hero’s welcome. Even the women were allowed to greet me briefly, then return to their homes. When I got back to the guest house, Ysman Ullah was waiting for me. He gave me a congratulatory hug and kiss on each cheek then seated himself beside the ibex for pictures.

All the men gathered in the courtyard for a ceremony of thanks. I was seated on a stage with the members of the hunting party, President Safdar, and the village elders. A holy man said a prayer and sang, then each man gave a speech. Ysman Ullah spoke of how I brought light to their village and would be forever noted in their history as the first person to come to this village and hunt successfully. It was a very humbling experience and the highlight of my hunting career.

The ibex was caped and the meat divided among the villagers. The line to say goodbyes was long. We loaded everything and everyone in the jeep for the long drive back to Chitral. Akbar rode part way with us until we reached his farm. As he got out I offered him a tip, which he adamantly refused. He said, “You are my brother. I did not do this hunt for money; I did it on my honor and from my heart. I only hope you will return to hunt with me again someday.” He gave me a hug and a firm handshake, then walked to his house.

For the rest of the drive to Chitral, I stared solemnly out the window. President Safdar asked what was wrong. I replied, “I feel like I’m leaving friends I’ll never get to see again.” I hope I was wrong, that someday I’ll get to return to this land to visit these kind and humble people, and once again hunt the magnificent mountains of Asia.

This Story Originally Appeared in Sports Afield
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One comment

  1. A very tough hunt because of the totally inadequate shooting and clothing paraphernalia, but truly well written in a gripping manner. It should be said that besides the eventually and very welcome success in the end, probably even more interesting is the extremely favourable introduction to the Pakistanis of Chitral. Among the dozens of uplifting little anecdotes outlined in the story, perhaps the most touching was Akbar’s refusal to take any rumination for his help during the hunt. In the end, reading up the whole little story is the only way to feel the full impact of the adventure.

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