Early morning. The grey of early dawn is lifting over the two and a half kilometre long glade on either side of the Batou River in the north central region of the Central African Republic. Around me, as I sit in the 20 foot high machan, built around the stem of a tall, sturdy Ngreki tree, a dozen or so broad billed rollers with their bright yellow beaks, honey brown bodies and purple wings dart, zoom and stoop after their insect prey like small planes in an unsynchronized aerobatics display. The waking calls of a huge variety of birds, some melodious, some harsh and croaking like the grey heron I can see poised, still as a statue, in the shallow water to my left, reverberate to and fro across the forest clearing and create a clattering cacophony. Underlying it all is the steady but rising hum of bees, drawn to the Batou River by the shrinking pools of water in the savannah and the mineral rich, dove grey mud of the salt lick to my front which my professional hunter, Christophe Morio, has enriched with coarse salt.
We are hunting with Idongo Safaris, named after the tiny village in the south of their 270,000 hectare concession, almost due south of the regional town of Ndele. The concession is well known as it was established by Ecofac, a European Union aid agency. Unfortunately, persistent and heavy poaching, predominantly from Sudan, caused Ecofac to stop its funding and the C.A.R. government, as per usual, did nothing.
My research has shown, however, that the area has produced excellent results over the last few and it is one of the very few areas in Africa where you can hunt both rain forest and savannah animals out of the same concession. This was the main reason why I was here. I wanted to try, for a fourth and last time, for a forest sitatunga, red river hog and yellow-backed duiker, in that order, and then, with whatever time I had left over, I wanted to indulge myself in my all time favorite hunt for giant eland.
C.A.R. is one of my favorite hunting destinations and ranks right up there with the Kalahari, the Karoo, the Okavango Swamps and the major valleys that form part of the Great Rift Valley. It is the variety and differences in the bird and animal life that draw me like a magnet to C.A.R. There are bushbuck but they are harnessed not Cape. There are hartebeest but they are Lelwel’s not red. There are waterbuck but they are Sing-sing not common. And then there are the major prizes like bongo, forest sitatunga, giant forest hog, yellow-backed duiker – I can go on and on.
There are, however, many problems to hunting in C.A.R. and they have put me off from returning for this my third hunt for almost 14 years. The grossly corrupt, incompetent and criminal governments that have tormented this sparsely populated, 1 400 kilometer long country, smack bang in the middle of the continent, have produced a series of presidential kleptomaniacs who have bled the country dry. So much so that civil servants and other state employees such as teachers, hospital staff and even military personnel, are not paid for months on end resulting in local tensions boiling over, civil unrest, rebellion and, ultimately, one coup-des-etat after the other.
On my first hunt, people were gunned down in the street outside my hotel on the evening of my arrival. On my second visit, at the end of the hunt and on my return to Bangui, the capitol, I had to shelter in a private house for seven days – all flights in and out of the country were cancelled – while the army ran amok and shot and killed people indiscriminately in the streets. The hotel where I had stayed on my arrival was closed and someone had lobbed a mortar bomb through the window of the bedroom I had occupied.
And do not forget that the various immigration and customs officials, police and soldiers in and around Bangui who use any and all means possible to extract bribes from all and sundry and foreigners are their favourite targets. As such, careful and up to date research is necessary if you want to hunt here and, it goes without saying, that only reputable safari outfitters should be used. There are no bargain hunts in C.A.R.
Almost immediately after arriving in Idongo Safaris’ main camp, we left for a small fly camp some three hours away over a dusty, two-tyre track on the banks of the small, fast flowing, ice cold Manovo River. This was to serve as our re-supply and R and R camp when we returned from spending our days and nights in the machan.
Up until now I had always been opposed to hunting from a machan. I did not consider it "real" hunting, waiting for the animal to come to you instead of vice versa. I considered it almost unsporting. But then again, when I considered Christophe’s original invitation to come and hunt in this particular manner, I thought of a hunting lions and leopards over bait; of the European "high seat" hunts; of bow hunters shooting from blinds situated at water holes or over game paths and became unsure whether I could be so categorical in my condemnation. In the end, I decided to give it a try, firstly, because it was something different and, secondly, after my three previous unsuccessful walk and stalk attempts, I was ready to try a change of tactics.
Our three machans were at either end and roughly in the middle of the two and a half kilometer long glade. On foot, the two were roughly an hour and half an hour away, respectively, from the middle machan which we occupied. We posted two man tracker teams in the other machans, although only one pair had "talky walkies" as my French PH call them and once we missed a huge giant forest hog – if the tracks were anything to go by – as it took just too long for the tracker to reach us, give us the news and for us to return with him.
Personally, it took an effort of will on my part to sleep, night after night, on these small, wobbly, wooden platforms high above the ground with their fragile reed screens for walls – I had broken my back in two places some years ago when a machan collapsed within a few minutes of me sitting down on it during a hunt in northwest Tanzania. In the beginning I froze at every creek and sway in the platform and prepared to dive for the tree trunk behind where I sat on a comfortable, fold-up, safari chair. The long hours in the machan also tested my patience. Being an impatient person to begin with and a "walk and stalk" hunter by preference, it was difficult in the beginning to sit silently, for hours on end, gazing at the same scenery, even if the bird life was so varied and prolific.
My second three day stay in the machan provided me with an unexpected gift. As I wrote the first few words of the preceding paragraph while sitting in the machan, our head tracker, Deme Charles, a member of the Banda tribe from Ndele, appeared barefoot and wearing only shorts at the edge of the salt lick and the beginning of the rain forest to our right. He and Luc, our drive-come-spare-tracker-and-water-carrier, had been sitting in the machan to the east of us, about 30 minutes fast walking away. His right arm was wind milling frantically. From these and other signs he made, we knew he had spotted a sounder of giant forest hogs and wants us to follow him. RIGHT AWAY!
Giant forest hog boars are aggressive. They are the biggest of all the wild pigs in Africa – the others are warthog, bushpig, red river hog and Barbary wild boar – and can weigh as much as 275 kilograms. The most distinguishing feature of the males is the grotesquely swollen, pre-orbital glands of the face which give the big boars a mean and squinty look. And the bigger the boar, the meaner it looks. The Behaviour Guide to African Mammals by Richard Estes states that the boars are mutually intolerant of one another and I guess that is one way of putting it. The Kingdom Guide to African Mammals is a bit more explicit and goes on to add that although "most confrontations ended in one male withdrawing … stalemate among larger, more evenly matched, mature males culminates in both backing-off and charging from about 30m distance. When their massively reinforced foreheads meet in such clashes the impact rocks one or the other back on its haunches. If the concave foreheads meet in exact opposition a loud rifle-like report is produced by the escape of compressed air. Repeated charges may continue for up to half an hour with jaws champing, spittle flying and urine squirting every time." Can you just imagine watching that!
Major H.C.Maydon, in his classic book, Big Game Shooting in Africa, written in 1932, stated that, "If the male sees a sow is wounded, or is hit himself, he can be counted upon to make a determined attack, and once he succeeds in knocking a man down, not even a cutlass will induce him to leave his victim." He goes on to add that, "These Hogs seem to be one of the most difficult of the forest animals to stalk, for they can travel a great distance in a single night. They go under bush so thick that time and again they hear one and clear right away."
In Rowland Ward’s Records of Big Game, the minimum length for a single tush is 7 7/8 inches and the world record, shot by Dr Rodriguez, in Semliki, Uganda, in 1963, measured a whopping 15½ inches. Over the 116 year existence of The Book, there are only 91 entries and the top ten are made up of a five from Kenya, three from Ethiopia, one from Uganda and one location is unknown. This compares, for example, with the 467 entries for that other rarity, bongo.
The giant forest hog, whose taxonomic name is Hylochorus meinertzhageni, was first described for science in 1904 from a specimen shot by the British staff officer and well known author and naturalist, Brigadier Richard Meinertzhagen. Probably the reason for the late discovery was that, although they are scattered across tropical Africa in localized populations and through various vegetation types, from sea level to nearly 12,000 feet above sea level and from hot lowlands to cold uplands, their range resembles that of bongo. To compound the problems of hunting them, they like dense cover, feed in open areas usually only at night, are low to the ground (less than a metre at the shoulder) and are black in colour making them almost invisible in their chosen habitat. One saving grace for the hunter is that, like bongo, they love mineralized and salty earth which they excavate mainly using their lower incisors.
Down the 16 rung wooden ladder we fall more than climb and cross the empty saline to the south and into the forest. We half trot half walk and I struggle to keep up with the two youngsters in front. We jump over exposed tree roots, swing around tree trunks jutting into the rough, leaf littered game path and, for some unknown reason, the thought appears in my head that the leaves are the precise colour of the gaboon vipers that inhabit the rain forests!
My heart is hammering in my chest with the exertion and excitement. Unexpectedly, we bump into Luc hiding in the forest just off the path to our right. The thought that immediately runs through my mind is that the hogs have left the salt lick beneath his machan and he has foolishly tried to follow them through the dry and noisy forest. He pretends to show us the direction in which they are heading – back to the salt lick opposite our machan. In my heart of hearts, I know that he has spooked them. Despair, the frequent emotion of trophy hunters, washes over me.
Christophe, however, seems to believe Luc and turns to me and says, "We go back now. We must get to ze machan before ze ogs." We hurtle through the forest, on tiptoe initially and then in the same half trot half walk. As we approach the salt lick, from the protection of the forest fringe, we stop to glass the surrounding area. My binoculars fog up. Perspiration stings my eyes and my shirt is sopping wet. Nothing. We walk briskly across the ankle twisting mud (churned up by the buffalo herd that visited the lick last night) and onto firmer ground. Another quick sprint and we fly up the ladder leading to the machan like the tiny, local, grey green, tree squirrels.
We wait. My breathing slows. My pulse returns to normal. Perspiration dries. Every second that passes merely serves to confirm my pessimism. Eventually I pick up my writing pad and start scribbling. I write what you have just read. Christophe, nevertheless, remains on red alert like a pointer over a grey-wing francolin covey in our Karoo koppies.
Five minutes become ten, become fifteen. "See," I say in my head to him, "I was right," even though I have not expressed my doubts out loud. Just as well. Next to me he suddenly stiffens and whispers, "Zey come. See ze backs sroo ze grass." I grab my rifle in disbelief and scan through the scope in the direction in which he points. I see nothing.
"You see ze two, straight, sin trees next to one anozzer behind ze big green bush?" he points at a slight angle to our left. "Behind zem to ze right is anozzer straight tree. Look to ze right in ze grass." Bingo! About 160 metres away I see a long, dark shape above the new, bright green grass. And then another shape. And another. As my pulse rate rockets from nought to 100 in eleven nano seconds, I apologize silently but sincerely to Luc.
After four rain forest hunts (75 hunting days in total so far), these are only the third sounder of giant forest hogs I have ever seen. My breath catches in my throat. The hogs fossick around behind a thick screen of grass, first to the right and then to the left. Just as well. It gives me time to calm down. Not so Christophe. This experienced, 42 year old, African pro is wild with excitement. Despite all his years in West Africa, he has never shot one either for himself or with a client. He keeps up a running commentary. "I see seven, no eight. Now comes a big sow. See behind? Zere is ze mal! Do you see him?" I do but only for a fraction of a second. He is like a lighthouse – now you see him, now you don’t.
"I sink zey are going to come to ze salt lick," he whispers hoarsely. Do I wait until they do or do I take the first available shot? The lick is clear and open but I worry. We have added salt to it only an hour previously. Our scent will be all over the place and giant forest hogs have an incredible sense of smell. What if a herd of buffalo or elephant or even poachers arrive and chase the shy hogs away? All these thoughts tick-tock through my mind as I lock myself away in the tube of my Zeiss Diavari telescopic sight.
Only my steady pulse blips the crosshairs up and down, up and down, as I focus on a gap in the long, thick grass, some 145 metres away according to Christophe, and through which I think the hogs will eventually appear. Suddenly, the boar is there!
He stands directly facing me, his huge, oblong disc of a snout raised in the air, his mouth opening and closing. He is chewing but it looks as if he is either tasting the air or talking. I catch a glimpse of two sets of startlingly white tushes against the coal black of his monstrously distorted, bulbous face. The lower tushes, shaped like curved daggers, are clearly thinner and sharper than the massive, thick, top ones. He moves his huge head slowly from side to side, smelling, questing, testing. Eventually satisfied, he drops his head to take a bite at the fresh, green grass at his feet. It is the last bite he ever takes. The 300 grain, Swift A Frame, loaded by Norma, hits just behind his head in the middle of his back, sears through the length of his body, destroying the top of both lungs and smashing to a stop against his right rear hip bone.
Christophe turns to me with the strange look on his face. "You killed im dead," he says simply. But have I? I look up in time to see the sounder of hogs, in line astern, led by two, huge, black shapes, stream back into the forest. I look back to where the boar dropped. No boar. I scan the area to the left and right. Could it be? Have I only wounded him? Could he have run off? The hunter’s nightmare freezes my blood and scrambles my brain. But no. Huge relief floods my system. I catch a glimpse (about ten metres to the right of where I shot him) of legs waving feebly in the air as the massive boar – we estimate later that he weighs well over 350 pounds – fights the inevitable. Nevertheless, I rapidly re-focus and fire a quick second shot between the front legs into his chest. I am not convinced I have hit him but the legs disappear from view. Later we find that the bullet has traversed his torso and emerged almost through the first entrance wound, giving it a keyhole shape but, at that moment, doubt re-surfaces. This is just too big a prize.
"I run to im," says Christophe. He grabs his .458 Lott and heads down the ladder. I follow but am much slower and, from a distance, see him quickly shoulder his rifle and fire. Probably not necessary but better safe than sorry and certainly no one wants to prolong the suffering of any animal. "Unbelievable" he says as I reach him, "as I arrive, e stand and start to run away." Unbelievable is right, certainly once we examine the two wound channels from my .375 and note the pink, frothy lung blood bubbling out of the hole behind his head. These are seriously tough animals!
He is a huge, ancient, right handed hog. The four inch thick, right tush is worn down to a stub and the left one, newly broken, is missing at least 1½ inches off the tip. Days later, back at the main camp, it still stretches the tape measure to 8 ½ inches while the right hand tush measures only 5½ inches. The truly massive protuberances below his eyes give him a mean, calculating look and I would not want to meet him in a dark alley. His big, blocky body is one solid mass of meat and muscle. He makes my first giant forest hog boar, which I shot two years ago in Cameroon, look like the before picture in those old Charles Atlas body building advertisements. This hog is Mr. Atlas in person.
Apart from the little rarities in the duiker and dwarf antelope world, giant forest hog are, along with forest sitatunga and dwarf forest buffalo, in my opinion, the three most difficult animals to hunt in Africa today. Not because their numbers are scarce but because of their protective forest habitat, acute senses, camouflaged colouring and shy and retiring natures. To have been able to shoot not one but two of these amazing animals counts as a rare privilege and an extraordinary stroke of luck. Suffice it to say, this is the last giant forest hog that I will ever shoot.
I remind myself to store away the incredible emotions that are washing over and through me for a rainy day when things are different. When I am stuck in a traffic jam and late for an important meeting; when the flight back to my home in Cape Town has been postponed indefinitely; when I inevitably miss an easy shot; when I come home from a hunt empty handed … yet again. If I can bring back this moment at one of those times, I am sure my broad, ear to ear grin will confuse a lot of people.