“You’ve really lost it… this is above and beyond the call of crazy, and you’ve completely lost your mind…” That’s what the small, rational part of my brain was trying to tell my body as I boarded a plane in 2002 to start my career as a PH in Africa.
All hunters have experienced various states of insanity at one stage or another, but seldom has it taken place on such a grand scale – and in Mozambique. Yet I attribute my success and skills as a PH today to those first two years I spent as an apprentice in Mozambique.
Getting From Here to There.
Two weeks prior to leaving I submitted my letter of resignation. My family and the multi-million dollar company I worked for were stunned. Dr. Askew (my father) said that was the exact moment my mind disappeared. I was 23 years old, had a degree in biology, and a secure, well-paid job in the States only two positions removed from the company president. By most people’s standards I had it made, but I never cared much for what most people thought.
This croc was anchored with the first shot into his neck from a .416 Rigby with solid bullets. The shot was taken at 60 meters from a blind built to hunt this specific croc; we waited approximately four hours for him to come out. I had located the croc weeks earlier near a small fishing village.
The hunting company I signed on with put me and another apprentice PH into a Land Cruiser in South Africa and pointed us towards Tete Province to find the ‘camp,’ which didn’t technically exist yet. Our instructions were pretty basic: drive to the area, find the PH in charge, and do whatever he said for the next six months.
We passed through Beit Bridge, then Harare, and continued north to the tiny border town of Mucumburo. The border posts, police road blocks, donkey carts, crashed and burned vehicles, mud huts, and machine guns were enough to open my eyes to the fact that this was definitely ‘old Africa’ and not some hunting lodge near Cape Town – exactly what I’d been wishing for.
This elephant was found near a fly camp, about seven hours from the main camp. We called the office from our satellite phone and the main camp was radioed with the information. The next day the tracks were taken and the elephant was shot approximately six hours later.
Eventually we made it to the site where the camp would take shape and I met Leon Lamprecht – the PH and operations manager for Mozambique. He was an experienced professional, hard worker, and great teacher. After the first week I was convinced he was the right guy to learn from. I set my mind to soak up every bit of his knowledge about Africa and hunting, and asked him no less than 50 questions a day for the next year; he truthfully answered all of them.
I also noted what a great and fast-disappearing opportunity it was to be training as a PH in the wilderness of Mozambique. We were building camp, opening new roads, and generally exploring a vast government concession, which had pockets of local people, pockets of game, and a lot of space in between. As was most areas in Mozambique, it had been hammered by poaching. This part of Africa was unforgiving and extremely difficult to operate in. Yet it reeked of history and adventure, not to mention the dangerous game species we were after. It was a blessing to learn under these tough conditions – you had to know exactly what you were doing to keep a client happy and the equipment rolling.
I traveled with my rifle (a .416 Remington that Leon kindly loaned to me for the season), backpack, bed roll, and trunk. Sometime we would leave the main camp for days looking for animals and opening roads.
Hunting In Tete Province.
All the areas in Tete Province/Lake Cahora Bassa are tough to hunt. I mentioned that earlier but it’s worth saying again. The area was very large with a low density of animals, including leopard, elephant, croc, hippo, bushbuck, impala, Sharpe’s grysbok and duiker. There were also lion, buffalo, sable, roan, warthog and a few bushpig; we hunted a few of these, but I felt they shouldn’t be on quota. I also saw caracal, serval cat, and two wild dogs passing through.
The better hunts in Tete were combination croc and hippo safaris, elephant, and traditional baited leopard hunts. The combination hunts were a slam-dunk and we shot some monster crocodile and fantastic hippo. Instead of baiting crocs, we preferred to scout the banks from land or boat; the water level of the dam dictated which method would be the most effective.
Lake Cahora Bassa is formed by the Zambezi River as it enters Mozambique; the dam is at Songo. There is a large hydroelectric station there providing electricity for the surrounding countries.
The idea was to find a place where a big croc was sunning. If left undisturbed, they will frequent the same mud banks to warm their cold blood. We set up ambushes or planned an attack to sneak within range. I came to respect the survival instincts that the crocodile has refined since the time of the dinosaurs. Many of them were so big they seemed prehistoric, and I estimated their ages to be well into their 70s, if not older. The death toll around the lake can be as high as 50 people per year – every village had a recent story about a person getting taken by a crocodile, and we witnessed one fatality near our camp in 2004.
Crocs can see as well as most antelope, but often you can trick them by moving extremely slowly, even in plain sight. They can smell very well, and approaching a large croc downwind is a must. They listen to shorebirds’ warnings, and I believe they can feel vibrations through the ground and in the water. You often see the biggest crocs with part of their body still in the water even when sunning. This alerts them to approaching danger – especially in the form of boats, as many old crocs have bad experiences and good memories.
You should shoot a croc in the neck. Many PHs – and even some books – promote a headshot, but I feel it’s an irresponsible shot on an animal that may be three times older than the person pulling the trigger. Theirs brains are very small and, even if you manage to hit it, the muscular reaction can accidentally send a trophy croc into the depths. They don’t float and you will seldom get any volunteers to go swimming for it. The neck is a bigger, better target. A well-placed shot here disables a flat dog where it lies. After a successful neck shot, the only thing that works is the mouth. You definitely shouldn’t just run up with a stick trying to prop it open for a trophy photo!
Jim Bucher was my first client that I booked and guided. He managed to shoot several animals on his multi-country 25-day safari. This is his trophy croc taken in Mozambique.
The elephant hunting was difficult, but very rewarding. We tracked these giants for many kilometres, most of the time just to turn around and return to the vehicle, as the ivory was not heavy enough. I quickly came to respect this animal’s physical capabilities, intelligence, and ability to hide.
I learned about elephant hunting on safari, from scouting on my own while the clients hunted with the PH, and on problem-animal control with the government game scouts when elephants damaged the locals’ crops and grain bins. Unfortunately, the elephant in this area were extra irritable due to human pressure from the war and poaching. They regularly chased the villagers and even killed some during my time there. Very few elephant didn’t have an AK-47 bullet or homemade musket ball lodged somewhere in their bodies. Once, an elephant stepped on a land mine and blew off a portion of its foot, anchoring it to a long, terrible death if not for Leon’s mercy killing. On the same hunt, a German hunter killed a 92-pound tusker from a group of five bulls after only a few hours of tracking.
I also accumulated leopard-hunting experience and shot my first two leopards with clients, assisted by the knowledge of many others. We were constantly baiting and looking for leopard sign. Due to the limited plains game and the size of the area, we used goats and other livestock for the first round of baits, and tried to get the meat swinging before the clients arrived to effectively add hunting days to their safaris.
I made a rookie mistake by thinking I would snap a quick picture of this elephant while the road crew was finishing up a creek crossing. I left the vehicle and was charged after only walking 20 meters. Lesson learned – carry your rifle whether it’s a 5-minute walk or an all day tracking excursion.
These Mozambique cats walked a large area and only came past the same spot every 8 to 16 days. Even if we knew where a cat preferred to patrol his territory, we most likely had only one chance to bait him on a typical 14-day leopard hunt. This caused us to bait many different cats while also hanging multiple baits for the same cat. We often had as many as 10 baits going at one time. Anyone who has hunted leopard knows how difficult it is to keep even half that many baits active. Some baits were more than a two-hour drive apart.
The number of baits, distance between baits, and the lack of roads in the area made leopard hunting long and tiring work. Many days exceeded 14 hours of moving through the bush checking baits, making drags, building blinds, and generally searching for these secretive cats.
I learned to hang the meat ‘correctly’ thereby forcing the leopard to feed in a good position for a proper shot; the practice of making scent trails to the bait intersecting the cat’s most likely travel routes; how to select a bait site in an area where a cat will feel comfortable enough to feed and then stick around; and envisioning the position of your blind first, then working the bait position back from there.
Construction of the blind and client management turned out to be a crucial aspect in the killing of a leopard. Even though the bait is usually less than 70 yards away, the shot is often misplaced due to the client’s level of excitement and nervousness; a bench rest should be built into every blind. The camouflage and arrangement of the blind is of the utmost importance as leopard are very aware of their surroundings and can be finicky at best. Even with the best of tactics, hunting leopard still depends on some luck. However, with enough brains, baits and hard work you can create a little of your own luck on leopard hunts!
A wounded leopard that we tracked for seven hours resulting in several charges. The final charge was stopped by my friend and fellow apprentice at the time, Dominique Maarte
Mozambique, where I learned what it really means to be a PH, is largely responsible for me being afloat in the African safari hunting industry today. I learned more about Africa from the people I met in Mozambique’s bush than any other place to date.
Mozambique’s future should be fantastic as many areas, with time and the correct conservation plan, are slowly getting back to their original state. Unfortunately, there are too many fly-by-night operators and crooked deals going on in several parts of the country. There are also problems that the government must address, from corruption to American hunters not being allowed to legally import their ivory. The country needs better organization pertaining to the allocation of hunting areas and quota, as the current system is often abused.
‘Old-timers’ talk about how Mozambique’s hunting used to be as good, or better, than any of its neighbouring countries. I believe it can be again. With more resources, education and assistance, the Mozambican people will welcome this improvement and understand how important the country’s wildlife is for its future. I welcome any chance I get to take hunters to Mozambique – it’s a beautiful country with a great history and a bright future.
PH Nathan Askew was born in Sikeston Missouri in 1977 and is one of the few American PHs in Africa. He has hunted Tanzania, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa. Askew, the owner of Bullet Safaris, lives in Africa.