By L. Barbee Ponder IV
I’m in Southern Africa for a month on business with meetings scheduled further apart than I otherwise would like. So how should I spend a three-day weekend? At the hotel bar in JNB? Nope.
I have always wanted to take a massive bull hippo. Not sure why. Maybe it is because they are responsible for the most human deaths in Africa. Maybe it’s simply their sheer size and the idea of having to get dangerously close enough to the water’s edge – their world – in order to make it happen.
My friend, Conrad, arranged for me to spend the weekend with Jason Stone to get the hippo job done. Jason and I had never met or even spoken or emailed prior to this weekend. I told Conrad that I would land at Pietermaritzburg Friday morning as per his instruction. That’s it.
After spending two days in the same business suit and having flown overnight from Molabo to get there on time, Jason and Clinton were the first two people I saw inside the airport terminal, and it was game on.
I had no idea where we were heading; I only knew that Conrad had confirmed that the hippo would be massive, and that Jason’s track record is sterling.
On the way out of town, Jason said we were heading to a game reserve where hunting was not permitted, but they were having a serious issue with a 30+ year-old male hippo named (apologies to my father-in-law) Barry. The reserve only contained about 14 hippo in total, and Barry was the undisputed monarch. There was only one other mature male hippo there who was covered in scars from prior encounters with Barry.
Barry had run all of the other mature male hippos off the reserve and onto neighboring farms where they then had to be put down. (It’s a rare landowner that wants a 35 mile-per-hour, multi-ton killing machine on his farm.)
Most recently, Barry had started killing the new-born calves. John, the park manager, said that Barry unfortunately had 10 dead hippo calves to his discredit. So, the management had decided that Barry must go, and I was lucky enough to get the assignment.
After dumping our luggage in the Mahogany Bungalow and changing from suit to hunting clothes, we were off to an area of the property where I could take one shot with Jason’s Blaser .375 H&H with very nice Swarovski Optics. I was on with my shot, and we were ready to go to the various reservoirs to spot and view the quarry.
There were several large ponds that supported the hippo population. Barry could be in any of them, as hippos travel from one to another at night while grazing. During the day, they stay in the water as this is their safe place.
With only two mature bulls around, and one of them covered in scars, identifying Barry was not much of a problem. There he was, lying among the females and their calves. Though there were females with much larger bodies, Barry’s enormous head gave him away, with the massive bumps on each side of his snout caused by the upward protrusion of his lower tusks.
John confirmed that he was “hundred per cent” that it was Barry. Clinton set up the sticks on top of the bank looking downward at Barry about 60 yards away. He was quartering to me, so I waited till he was broadside. Jason and Clinton had spent the time in the vehicle with me that morning, schooling me on shot placement — an inch below the ear broadside should make a perfect brain shot.
Barry finally presented me with a clear shot. I squeezed it off, heard the report, heard the smack of the round into the hippo’s skull, and saw the tall spray of water caused by the round hitting the waterline.
Barry immediately sank beneath the water. The surrounding females were not at all startled. They held their ground. We all knew it was a perfect shot; Barry’s knees had buckled, and he was resting, dead, on the bottom. A piece of cake.
We were wrong.
After the shot and Barry’s immediate disappearance, everyone standing on the bank just knew he was done, him having dropped straight to the bottom. Two videos of my shot had been taken, and we watched them both to confirm that the shot was on the mark. All that we needed to do was wait about an hour for Barry to float to the surface. When a hippo expires, it releases all of the air in its lungs, causing it to sink. What then happens is that gas builds in the hippo’s stomach over the next couple of hours, causing the hippo to float back up to the surface. Once he does so, you (not me) swim out to the corpse, attach a rope, and pull him into shore.
An hour went by and Barry had not resurfaced — alive or dead. Then two hours went by, and Jason remarked that we were now at his all-time record for waiting on a dead hippo.
The weather was turning bad. Cold and raining. We thought that perhaps the cold weather was delaying the inevitable gas build-up in Barry’s stomach. And then three hours went by.
Jason sent three of his trackers into the water with a hook and rope to locate Barry. Please note that they could not swim, and all of the other hippos were maintaining their ground. There were three professional hunters with everything from .375s to .470 NEs standing at the water’s edge in case one of the females decided to charge.
The trackers were not able to make out where Barry was last seen, as the water was too deep, and one massive female hippo was none too pleased with their intrusion. So they came back in.
Still, no Barry.
Clinton then went and obtained a kayak and paddle from one of the neighbors. He hopped in the kayak, attached the hook and rope to it, and slowly paddled out to where Barry should be resting. He used the paddle to probe the bottom, but no Barry.
Clinton had been out there probing for a good 15 minutes when a hippo calf surfaced right next to him in the kayak, and then a female surfaced about 10 feet away. Yikes! Clinton came paddling to shore.
I asked Clinton if that was the closest he had been to a live hippo. He looked right at me with his perpetual smile, and said, “No.”
There were about 10 sets of eyes on that pond for the rest of the day, and a hippo can hold its breath only for about seven minutes, max. Jason showed me videos of what a wounded hippo will do when shot in the face with a .375. It isn’t pretty. Yet, night was falling and we had absolutely no explanation.
He can’t be dead, because he never floated. And he can’t be alive, because we never saw him again.
Did my round simply explode upon impact with the water? Had Barry made a run for it out the other side of the pond while we were too busy congratulating each other? When Jason, who has taken a thousand hippos, says he is totally perplexed by the situation… what do you do?
We went to bed that night with nothing but questions.
At first light the next morning, we raced to the pond, hoping to see a dead body floating. No such luck. We called John to ask him to check the other ponds to see if Barry had given us the slip the day before. We then decided to check the edges all the way around the pond to make sure he hadn’t somehow got in among the tall reeds and expired. Dangerous work in very close quarters.
Having spent about two hours checking everywhere around the pond, still no Barry.
We then decided to go to the lodge for breakfast while making sure that someone would remain at the pond looking out for him.
After breakfast, we returned to where I had taken the shot before, and found John who said he was sure that Barry was lying in the water on the other side of the pond near an old covered deck known as the Hippo Hide. Of course, that’s where Barry would be.
John, Jason and Clinton walked down the bank to get a closer look. They returned a few minutes later and all proclaimed that that was our guy. There he was, the same old Barry, up among the females and their young calves, acting like nothing ever happened. Perhaps our work along the edges earlier that morning had pushed him out of hiding?
We decided to make our way over the levee to the other side of the pond and set up in the Hippo Hide to take the shot. There I could shoot from a more solid rest than on sticks, but the shot would be a bit further than my last attempt.
We got to the Hippo Hide without spooking Barry, and took a good look at him. There were several other mature hippos in the water as well as calves that would pop up here and there. We all needed to agree on the one that was Barry. He was about 75 to 80 yards away.
I built up a rest with a couple of jackets on top a deck rail on which to place the rifle. I had no chair, so was in a half-split to get down to the necessary height for the shot. The deck was so rickety that any movement by anyone caused it to sway.
After some further discussion, everyone signed off on which one was Barry, and I was given the OK to take a shot when the opportunity presented itself.
Then, a cow went and put her head on Barry’s bum while some calves popped up behind him. A massive female that had not moved once from her same spot in two days suddenly decided to move next to Barry for a moment.
It was as if everyone knew what was about to happen and were saying their last goodbyes to him. I could not hold my current position forever. The shot would need to come soon.
The big female finally moved off and Barry was now in the clear. When he turned his head broadside to me, I would be ready. And I was determined not to hit water this time.
Here we go again: Barry turns to his right and I have a perfect view of the left side of his skull. I squeeze it off, and the smack of the lead into his skull was definite. There was no spray of water this time. Barry went down and then came up rolling violently. We saw his head and then we saw his feet sticking up kicking, all in a constant death roll.
The big female obviously felt threatened by this and moved forward to attack him. She went under water, digging her tusks into his side and pushing him away from the other hippos.
Jason told me to chamber another round and take a second shot if possible. I had to make sure I didn’t accidentally hit another hippo. I turned the scope to lower power and waited for an opportunity. I saw Barry’s head break the water going skyward, and let fly another round. I believe I caught him under his chin, and his rolling turmoil quickly ceased. We saw him go under for the last time, and watched the bubbles come up as the final air in his lungs was released. Barry was done.
An hour and 15 minutes later, Clinton spotted one of Barry’s feet breaking the surface of the water, right where he was supposed to be.
Clinton retrieved the kayak from the other side of the pond and then paddled out to the body to affix the hook into the corpse. The females were never far away and not happy with the intrusion. (It is difficult to convey in words a description of the tremendous personal risk taken every day of such a hunt by the PHs and their crew)
We all then grabbed the rope and towed Barry to shore until his massive body began to drag in the weeds. We then tied the rope to the buggy and dragged his upside-down, 3-ton body onto the bank. Additional help arrived from the kitchen staff to assist in the effort. It took everyone pushing in unison to then roll his body over onto his belly so we could prepare him for some final photos.
After rolling him over, we noticed small traces of blood coming from Barry’s right ear on the opposite side of my shot. I then looked on the left side and saw the hole from one of my shots with a thin flat piece of copper jacket embedded into Barry’s skin right next to the bullet hole. The flesh inside the bullet hole had darkened from being in the water for a day, so we concluded that my shot the previous day had penetrated deep into Barry’s jaw about six inches below his ear. I traced the bullet hole through a foot of flesh, but didn’t find the slug.
Absorbing my shot from yesterday must have been painful for him, but not enough to make him freak out. Barry had maintained his composure perfectly, even after being walloped in the face with blunt lead force. Barry could take a punch. This was the only bullet hole that we found, and concluded that my first shot today went directly into his left ear. However, after further investigation by the taxidermist, we learned that my first shot did go directly into Barry’s left ear, but exploded, and did not penetrate the skull. It was my second and final shot that pierced Barry’s spine and put him down quickly.
After using a log to prop his mouth open to expose Barry’s tremendous gift of ivory, we took plenty of photos and then began to skin him out.
It took a solid eight hours to cut, slice, hack, chop and finally chainsaw Barry into manageable pieces. Nothing about Barry was small. Even after eight hours, with him having been quartered, it still took between three and four men to pick up and hang each piece of meat on hooks in the cold storage room. Barry totally filled the entire room.
Many, many thanks to Conrad, Jason and Clinton for one hell of a weekend – I hope to visit the Hippo Hide in the future to see a much larger and diverse population. Meantime, I look forward to having Barry’s massive skull and ivory sitting next to me by the fireplace.