The way we hunted bongo there in the early days might not have been the right way to do it, but the bongo regularly came into salt licks at night, and that’s where we shot them. We didn’t use a spotlight, we were high tech, we had night vision. We had night vision binoculars and attached to them, we had a little laser pointer. You’d light up the bongo with the red dot and then the client would shoot the red dot. If you worked with a spotlight you would have very little or no time at all to tell whether it was a male or female – let alone judge the trophy. If you had a single animal, you had a fleeting shot at an animal running away from a light. So we figured it was best we use the night vision with a laser pointer…
Was it right? No, it wasn’t right, but shit, how old was I and was I phased? In 2006 I was a youngster hunting in West Africa for the first time and I was game for anything. Besides from a dead one at the skinning shed, I had never seen a bongo in my life. So was I going to say no, I’m not going to do it because it’s unethical? Hell no! At that stage I would have done anything. It was a whole new experience for me. I went up there to become an apprentice and the next thing, a month later, I was guiding clients!
On my first Lord Derby hunt, I still hadn’t seen what a good Lord Derby eland bull looked like, and there I was guiding. My first client, a Mexican fellow, who later became a good friend asked me, “How many of these have you done?”
“How long have you been here?”
“It’s my first year.”
“So how many have you shot?”
“None, this is the first one this year.” He laughed. “We don’t want to shoot a small one,” he said. “No, I understand that, mate.” But anyhow, at that stage anything was just an opportunity to do something in a wild, exotic place that a couple of years before I never ever thought animals existed.
I thought I knew something about wildlife – I had studied and qualified with my Honours levels in Wildlife Biology and Nature Conservation. I didn’t even know animals existed in that part of the world. I grew up as a naive South African. Other than Botswana, parts of Namibia, and Zimbabwe, I knew absolutely nothing of life and wildlife further north on the continent.
When I went to my first PHASA AGM in 2000, I met André Roux and Lance Aylife, both for the first time. André was hunting in CAR and Lance hunted in Cameroon. So it was quite something that these guys were going all the way up there to hunt. Ever since that day meeting André and seeing a photograph of a Lord Derby, I said to myself, “I want to hunt those eland.” Fast forward seven years, and I was finally getting an opportunity to do it.
Adam Busky, a Zambian PH (who we were having a couple of drinks with at the SCI convention in Reno) was hunting in CAR with Scoundral & Swanepoel in those days. Scoundral & Swanepoel PHs were hunting big game all over the place and we (as South African PHs) were a little jealous of some of their adventures.
Anyhow, somewhere that night when I was questioning him a little about work in the CAR, he just said, “Man, just go up there. Just rock up there, someone will find you a job.” I was thinking that was quite a bloody big step just to “rock up there.” Anyhow, speaking to a couple of folks abouth working up there, that was eventually what I did… I had spoken to the folks at Club Faune and I was going to go up and work for them, as they were looking for an apprentice. I had spoken to them at the Safari Club show and many emails went back and forth. Then, as before, the e-mails started slowing down and finally there was no response from them at all. In the end I just sent an e-mail and said, “I’ve booked a ticket, I’ll be arriving on Bangui such and such a day, will there be someone there to meet me?” And of course, then the e-mails came back: “Whoa, whoa, we need to sort this and that out.” And then they said Christoff Lemmee would phone me. He was one of their operators there. And that’s how I ended up in Bangui – I finally pushed them into a corner and I got there.
Anyway, the first Lord Derby bull was just a dream come true. We’d tracked a herd of eland into a bamboo forest when suddenly there was this strange smell and I just had a funny feeling. In big-game country I make sure I’ve got my gun on me all the time, it doesn’t matter how heavy it gets, I always carry it myself. Anyhow as we got into this bamboo forest, I grabbed the shooting sticks and I gave my gun to the tracker. I must have walked five steps to go around the thicket of bamboo and I saw this little thing in front of me. At first I thought it was a warthog and then I saw the tail and there was a tuft at the end of the tail. It was a young eland, a little calf that was walking its way through. So I snuck around the bush and I saw a tree shaking in the background, but I couldn’t see what was causing the tree to shake like it was. I put the shooting sticks up and I said to the client, “Something here doesn’t look right.” With that, as the client got onto the sticks and this “thing” arose out of nowhere. I mean, it was on its knees just tearing up this tree. I still had a look through the binocs, and I think I got “Shoo..” out, before the shot went off. The client looked at me. “Was it a good one?” he said. “I think so,” I told him.
In those days everything was an adventure. It was an opportunity to see some incredible stuff.
Coming back to where we started with the bongo, was it the right thing to do? Probably not. Are they doing it now? I guarantee you they would be, because sometimes, there’s no other option. The forests are too dry to be able to track, you make so much noise going through. There are so many tsetse flies you can’t take dogs in to try and bay them, the dogs end getting sleeping sickness (trypanosomiasis) from the tsetses and dying. It’s the only other viable option. Guys in CAR that hunt on foot are right down in the south-eastern corner, and there you’re back more to a heavily wooded savanna than you are in the gallery forests that we hunted in.
So yeah, my first bongo was the last bongo of the season, not even the right time. What we would do was visit the salt licks every morning and see if there was any bongo sign. If so, they would generally come in for two or three days in a row and then you would set up in the machaan. The only reason this particular clients was hunting bongo, was because of a cancellation safari, and we ended up with surpless quota. Christoff had said to me, that it was the wrong time of year for bongo, and that we probably wouldn’t get one, but we had a 21-day hunt, and we were going to go for it. So there we were sitting for a bongo.
We’d shot most of our quota already and we still hadn’t seen a bongo track, till one day late in the safari there was a track, so we had nothing to lose. I was sitting in this machaan which was overlooking the salt lick, and trying to figure out how to work the damn night vision. Twenty years ago night vision wasn’t much, but it had an infra-red light as well. I was told that if I couldn’t see it clearly that I was to turn on the infra-red to see better. Also, how was I to tell the difference between the male and the females? If you have a herd of them, sure, you can see which is the biggest one, easy. What if there is only one I had asked. As they say, advice is free, and I was told that it would more than likely be a bull, and if I was uncertain, that it would be easy to see the bull’s penis. Easy. What you don’t realise, when you’re 30 foot up in the air, you can’t see underneath the bongo. You can see the top half, but not the bottom half!
Anyhow, we were set up on the salt lick and something came in. I turned on the night vision as I was instructed, and everything was just white. I couldn’t see what was going on and was getting flustered because I was trying to figure out what light went where and how it worked. Next thing there was a big flash of lightning and I got a glimpse of a bongo disappearing from the salt lick. The flash of lightning had spooked it from below us. So I thought, well shit, that’s the end of that one. Luckily, Bazil my tracker was there.
I quickly sent Bazil down to the salt lick with my headlamp, telling him to check if it was a bull or a cow track. He scurried down with my headlight, shone it around, and came running back laughing, “No, it’s a bull”. So there we sat and and thought that our chance at a bongo was gone. Finally I figured that with the infra-red light, if I could stand up and get above the grass and I could actually see what was going on. We finally ended up getting a shot at the same bongo two days later – we wounded it while sitting up high and shooting down at quite a steep angle. Unfortunately it was not well hit and grazed across the brisket, so we ended up having to following it in the gallery forest for four days.
We had already hunted all of our allotted quota, and we still had another week left of our safari. We had a bongo track, and every now and then, a couple of drops of blood, or a blood smeered leaf. So we followed it, even after being told that we stood no chance…
The trackers that we were privelaged to hunt with up there, were absolutely phenominal!! Jacques and Bazil, my tracking team were just unbelievable. There would be no blood for six or eight hours, and the next thing there’d be blood on the ground. “Where do you think this thing’s hit?” I asked Jacques. He was just as uncertain as the rest of us…
Anyhow, after probably three days of not checking in on the radio (every evening or morning we had radio check with all the camps, just to see who had shot what, and if there were any issues etc.). We had 30 minute “window” at 8 o’clock every evening before it was another company’s turn to use the same frequency. I was so far away from camp, that by the time I’d get back to camp it would be almost 9 o’clock at night and I’d missed the radio check-in. So the camp chef would relay the message: “No, Patron is still looking for the bongo. They shot a bongo but they’re still looking for it.”
Finally after 3 full days of tracking we finally got it! We’d been tracking him down river, and it was quite difficult tracking ‘cause the river bed was sandy, and we couldn’t see the tracks in the running water. The whole time we were walking in the river and hoping that we could see where his track would come out, not knowing if we could have missed it somewhere behind us. Finally we cut the track where the bongo came out the stream and climbed up a very steep bank. I remember looking at the bank and thinking that a wounded animal would never climb up such a steep bank…
“What’s the story?” I whispered to Jacques when I saw his facial expression. Looking down there was just blood everywhere and the ground was still wet where this bongo had climbedout the river and up the bank. “Patron, ‘je suis tres confusé’” he laughed. With my bit of French I knew he was very confused! Anyhow, as we were cresting the bank I thought that there was no way, with this blood so fresh that this bongo could be far away, he had to be right there in front of us somewhere. All we wanted to see was a foot or something in the undergrowth there. On our hands and knees searching through the brush we couldn’t see a damn thing. And as we stood up, the animal bolted in front of us. He couldn’t have been 30 yards from us and we couldn’t see a dambed thing.
We stood up and walked over to where the animal had been standing cussing and swearing thinking this was our only chance in 3 days of tracking, and now it was gone. We were just standing and staring at one another, and at the pool of blood where the bongo had been standing, when I looked up and thought something ahead seemed out of place, not sure what it was, I shot into the middle of it.
“What the hell you shooting at?” everyone asked. I said, “I said I wasn’t sure, but there was something there.” Hearing something crashing in the thicket, we rushed around to see what it was, and there was our bongo!
When finally got back to camp and our radio check in, Christoff asked, “So is it a good one?”
“Well look, the one horn is broken off on the top, but the other one is long,” I told him.
“I don’t know. I mean, I’ve never measured a bongo.”
“Is it bigger than 30?” “I think so, it looks bigger than 30”.”
“No man,” he said, “we very seldom shoot bongo bigger than 30” here.”
“Well,” I said, “I’ve shot a fair number of nyala and this thing looks like it’s bigger than that.”
Anyhow, the next day when we finally made it back to base camp and the whole French welcoming committee was there waiting to see what this young first time South African PH had done. All four PHs came walking down towards the garage to hear what we had been up to.
We were going to leave the skins at the other camp as they were all still wet and in the salt, but Jacques was adamant that we should take just the bongo horns back with us and leave the salted skins in camp. Not wanting to separate the skins and horns as they were not yet tagged and labled, I finally gave in and we tagged what we could and brought the bongo horns with us.
Anyhow, we stopped the car there and we got out, and Christoff walked down, chuffed that we finally got the last bongo of the season, and he asked, “Is it a big one?”
And with that, Jacques picked this thing up out of the back of the truck and three of them just turned around… “Must be new world record!”
It wasn’t quite, but I mean, we’d constantly shoot 28, 29 inch bongo, and this one was over 34”, so it was an absolute sight. A week’s worth of antics!