East Africa: 2014
Done and Dusted – Diamond in Sight
By Michael Ambrose
As the sun was sinking over Lake Victoria, the dogs began to barking and the drivers began yelling, the noise of breaking brush increased, and near the water’s edge suddenly appeared what I had not seen all week…
Since I started hunting Africa in 2007 I have enjoyed six safaris to Tanzania, and booked my seventh with Harpreet Brar of Rungwa Game Safaris during the 2014 Convention. The idea this time was to go to an area in western Tanzania and hunt the swamps and lowlands for East African species I had not taken. As Harpreet did not have an area with these, he made arrangements with Robin Hurt Safaris to hunt their Luganzo block. I flew direct from my ongoing contract job in Thailand as I was going to use Harpreet’s two Austrian-made Hambrusch custom rifles, in .416 Remington Magnum and .300 Winchester Magnum. Harpreet was also going to hunt a number of species he had not taken before.
After my 2 a.m. arrival I was taken to Harpreet’s home in Arusha and I got some much need shut-eye in the guest quarters. An early lunch, and we were off on a three-hour charter flight to far western Tanzania. As we landed on the air strip we could see herds of topi, and after unloading the plane and gear into the hunting trucks we loaded the magazines of our rifles. We were about 1½ hours from camp, and both had topi on license with plenty of daylight left, so the next two hours were used hunting, with both of us taking Gold Medal bulls.
We passed one of the large swamp areas on the way to camp and took time to familiarize ourselves with the best machan (tree stand) locations. Turning in early to recover from the long trip allowed me to be rested and refreshed when we rose at 3.30 to head to the machan. A beautiful dawn greeted us as the sun came into view over the expanse of swamp. We saw movement in an opening in the papyrus, but we needed more light to be able to check what it was. Thirty minutes later there it was – a mature bull, (what animal??? – sitatunga,???) and a single shot from the .300 made my hunt for one of the most elusive animals in Tanzania seem simple.
We spent the rest of the day getting familiar with the concession and spotted East African roan and defassa waterbuck, and hartebeest. All the animals seemed very spooky and stayed well out into the large expanse of flat plains. They were on the move at the first sight or sound of the vehicle. (Although this is a Wildlife Management Area, and not supposed to have permanent human inhabitants, there were many fishing camps established throughout the area, and people were plentiful as one of the legal fishing seasons was in full swing for those with permits. Unfortunately, there are many cattle and herders, and much evidence of farming and cultivation.) I was able to take a very nice defassa waterbuck late that afternoon with a long shot on a lone bull.
The next morning found us in another machan, with Harpreet manning the rifle this time. In the early light we spotted a couple of female sitatungas and a male. Then another bull appeared which delayed a decision on which was the trophy, until suddenly both of the bulls disappeared into separate sections of the papyrus swamp. For the next hour we thought we had missed our opportunity, when I noticed some movement about 150 yards out. This was also a bull, but in very thick and tall cover, and for much time could only see horns and horn tips. Finally, he stepped into the open long enough to be judged as mature and a good trophy, only to disappear again into the reeds! Luckily he reappeared in a few minutes and Harpreet made a great shot to collect his sitatunga.
It was clear that everyone was not a fisherman, even though they all claimed to be when questioned. Most were here illegally, and there was apparent poaching causing the animals to be very wary, and over the next couple of days we found a number of snares. The camp manager said they were trying to get some action from the local ranger station, but with the rains it would be next season before anyone could get in there.
Hunting proved to be challenging in this environment. We spent a lot of time on the ground in order to get in range of the wary animals, with long shots of 250 to 350 yards, but we were able to take our roan, and Harpreet also managed a great old common sable bull, a Lichtenstein’s hartebeest and waterbuck. East African greater kudu was also on my wish list, but in five days we had only caught a glimpse of a couple females and a few young running in thick cover. As Harpreet was checking with his camp manager the availability of a kudu tag in his Lolkisale concession in Masailand, we spotted our first buffalo. The small herd entered the plain and then turned to look at us from a 40-yard distance. A mature, closed-boss bull of about 36” width stared a bit too long, and will now be getting a Texas Driver’s License.
Luckily, there was a kudu tag available in Lolkisale, so arrangements were made to have the charter pick us up the next day. We would spend a day in Arusha, and then we were off on the four-hour drive to camp.
What a huge contrast in the two areas. Lolkisale and Lobo, both open areas, contain a huge number of Masai herdsman with many hundreds of cattle, but huge quantities of impala, Coke’s hartebeest, Grant’s and Thomson’s gazelle, fringe-eared oryx, buffalo, elephant, lesser kudu and other species, and all very relaxed. Harpreet has anti-poaching teams on all his concessions year round, and the difference in animal behavior is striking.
East African kudu are not called the grey ghost for no reason, but on Day 2, I was able to connect with a very nice 50” bull – everything I could accomplish had been achieved. The only animal in Tanzania I have not taken is the Roosevelt sable which exists in the Selous Game Reserve, but as the rainy season was in full swing, going there was not an option.
At the HSC convention in January I talked to my good friend James Jeffrey of Lost Horizon Outfitters and Bruce Martin of Lake Albert Safaris in Uganda. We decided there were seven East African species I had not taken, and Bruce put together a plan to try to change that. Beginning March found me arriving in Entebbe early in the morning and traveling to Kampala late that day to spend some time with Bruce over a meal and some wine before heading up north the following day to Karinga and Karamoja.
A half hour out of camp on Day 1 we ran into one of the oldest buffalo I have ever taken and the only one of the Nile species I had ever seen. He was extremely old – worn horns, thinning hair – and was absolutely what I had come to Uganda in search of. The next day found us sorting through many different herds of Jackson’s hartebeest until we finally located a lone bull, and he turned out to be the new pending #4 SCI of this species. We had to do some traveling the next day near the Kenya and Sudan borders to hunt the mountain reed buck, and, due to the influx of nomadic tribes from both countries following grass and water with their cattle, we were required to have armed guards furnished from the local army outpost.
When we finally got to the mountain we found it had recently been burned. Although we spent a few hours glassing the barren landscape and spotted a couple of reed buck, there was no way to make a clandestine approach, so we just headed back to camp. A three-hour drive the next day to Karamoja, the stomping grounds of the famous elephant hunter ‘Karamoja’ Bell, found us hunting the antithesis of the elephant, the tiny Gunther’s dik-dik. They were plentiful, but trying to get one to stand still long enough took some time, but eventually we succeeded in taking a top 20 of the species.
Back to Karinga for the night and charter flight to Entebbe next day; a drive to Kampala and another lovely evening, this time with Bruce’s wife and daughters, and we were ready for the next adventure the following morning, a four-hour drive to Kaboya where Bruce has a safari lodge which also services photographic adventures in the National Park part of the season. Here was a lovely 5-star resort on Lake Albert, simply teaming with game, including our next two targeted species, Uganda kob and Nile bushbuck. We stayed for two nights and enjoyed the resort’s luxuries while taking our time in finding mature trophies. They were plentiful, and we looked over literally hundreds of kob and more than 30 bushbuck before collecting them and heading back to Kampala.
A Thai massage, a good meal and a night’s rest, and we were off to Sesse Islands for the last of the species, the Sesse Islands sitatunga. It was during our time on the ferry that I began to realize that in the eight years of hunting Africa, I was only seven species shy of achieving Diamond Africa Status, and three of them could be taken in the Congo where I was heading in July. Even if I was not successful here on the second sitatunga species required, I had the western sitatunga on license in the Congo. On my last day I became convinced that was how I would have to accomplish my new goal as we finished another unsuccessful drive at about 4.15 p.m. The Sesse Islands sitatunga is as much a forest, as a swamp animal; driven hunts in the forest near the swamps is the preferred method employed here.
I was resigned to not finding one when Bruce insisted on one more drive, although we were going to have to hurry to get it in before dark. As the sun was sinking over Lake Victoria, the dogs began to barking and the drivers began yelling, and the noise of breaking brush increased, and near the water’s edge suddenly appeared what I had not seen all week. As he broke from cover and slowed to look in my direction his huge horns silhouetted against the calm waters of the lake, I found his shoulder in the open sights of my Blaser, and this portion of my quest was fulfilled.
I am off to the Congo in July, with seven species on license. Two of these will leave me only four species shy of my new quest – Africa Diamond!
East Africa: 2014