If you are a passionate eland hunter, then October in Northern Mozambique’s massive Niassa Reserve is where to be. It is the time and place when the huge – and I do mean huge – old, blue-black warlords emerge from their thicket strongholds and join the herds of elegant, tan, white striped, thin horned cows to pass on their impressive genes. It is the one time of the year they seem to relax their guard and rely on the guardians – those old, experienced cows that patrol the rear of the herd in motion or are always head up and alert even during the hottest and drowsiest midday siestas, when the rest of the herd is snoozing in a thicket.
You can then often find the dominant bull in the middle of these herds, calmly gazing into the middle distance, relaxed, possibly contemplating his next conquest, at ease with himself and his world, secure in the knowledge that his eagle eyed, radar eared, moist nosed companions are as eager to preserve his hide as he is.
There are downsides of course. Niassa has still not recovered from the ravages wrought by the 17 year old civil war which raged across Mozambique until 1992 and recently threatened to rear its ugly head again. Game is still scarce and the Reserve, a vast, 4,2 million hectare (i.e. over three times the size of Kruger National Park), unfenced wilderness, which the original public/private partnership called SGDRN (or Sociedad para a Gestao e Desenvolvimento da Reserva do Niassa, to give it its full name), between a Portuguese concessionaire and the Mozambican government, has only partially helped to restore. The partnership is now no more and the future of wildlife and wildlife habitat now less certain despite the attempt to recreate the past successful working arrangement with an agreement between the government and the Wildlife Conservation Society headquartered in New York.
The region is littered with the corpses of literally thousands of elephants slaughtered to supply the Chinese ivory carving market and, on my ten day safari, I came across no less than eight of them, all juveniles, as full grown animals seem thin on the ground. In fact, three days before the end of my safari, these well-armed, commercial poachers – they make no attempt to keep the meat – shot a juvenile male and female plus a baby elephant (no more than five feet at the shoulder), some eight kilometres from our camp, hacked out the tiny tusks and left, secure in the knowledge that no police or army would attempt to interfere with their escape.
The luxurious Kambako Safaris camp we used – one of three operated by the company in the concession – complete with rim flow swimming pool and five air conditioned chalets, was situated on the banks of the broad Lugenda River, which flows into the Ruvuma River, the border with Tanzania, some 100 kilometres to the north. The camp is in Block B, comprising 210,000 hectares, although the safari company also has the right to hunt in Block A and a neighbouring communal area, Coutada Nicage, which adds approximately 214,000 hectares to the hunting area.
And air conditioning in October is a blessing. It is brutally hot! On my second day on the tracks the temperature reached 40° centigrade by 08h00 and did not drop for eight hours. In fact, the temperature peaked at 43° centigrade at midday and so the hunting, to be blunt, is not for the fat, unfit or faint-hearted.
"Clack! " The short, sharp sound turned the hunting party to stone. Eyes darted immediately in the direction of the noise. Binoculars were instantly raised, the bush ahead minutely examined. The PH turned to the hunter, "It’s the bull using his horns to break a branch to access the tender, new leaves sprouting from the top," he breathed more than whispered. "We are very close. Check your rifle – cartridge in the chamber, safety on. "
They moved forward cautiously and carefully, stopping every few paces to glass. "Clack! " The sound froze them in their tracks again. It was right here! No more than 30 paces away in the well treed, miombo woodland, the ground still showing signs of the early season burn and littered with straight, thin, black sticks and stalks, the more robust of which sprouted fragile, soft, pale green leaves.
"Clack! " Closer now, they could tell the sound was at ground level and, in addition, could just make out the barely discernible pitter patter of little paws over the cornflake crisp, pink, brown and tan leaf litter, the exact same colour of a Gaboon viper! Then movement. Two banded mongooses scurried, tumbled and fought one another for possession of a browny beige, miniature rugby ball. No! Not a ball. One of the giant African land snails said to harbour the bacteria which gave rise to meningitis in the region.
One mongoose gained possession of the snail, which was almost half his size. Holding it in his front paws, he lifted it up high and then, like the centre in an American football game, flung it with all his might between his hind legs into the tree trunk up against which he had backed. "Clack! "
Then the game was on again as each mongoose fought to gain possession of the "ball" convinced he could do a better job of breaking it than his partner. They ignored the hunting party and their grins and stifled laughter and, after 15 minutes or so, had the last laugh as they scuttled off with the flesh they had torn out of the broken shell.
So, apart from wanting to hunt one of my all-time favourite game animals, why was I here? The first seeds were planted when I made contact with Anabele Rodrigues, the woman in charge of SGDRN. Anabele kindly provided the information I needed to write and edit Safari Guide II with Jacque Neufeldt, the second edition of a book on the top 11 hunting countries in Africa. I was fascinated by Anabele’s photographs, descriptions of the region, including the inselbergs – literally, island mountains – and, more importantly, by the steps being taken to integrate both photographic and hunting operations in the Reserve as well as the wildlife and wildlife habitat conservation efforts which allowed sustainable consumptive use to generate much needed revenue and jobs. These latter efforts were rewarded when CIC gave SGDRN the prestigious Markhor Award for Outstanding Conservation Performance in 2008.
It was an uphill battle in the beginning and the first hunters struggled to find game to hunt. As she herself later wrote to me:
"Niassa National Reserve does not have the huge herds of game that is a feature of other hunting areas in Mozambique, but it does offer the discerning hunter and tourist a unique blend of experiences. The sheer beauty of huge granite inselbergs towering over miombo forests, open grasslands, bamboo thickets, flood plains and riverine forests gives the sense of being in a truly wilderness area. Hunting is hard work but the discerning hunter will be well rewarded after securing that magnificent trophy through the tenacity and satisfaction of hunting the hard ‘old’ way. If one is not inclined to hunt in this fashion, then Niassa is not the place for you."
That statement tickled my fancy and I wanted to go and see for myself. Secondly, I wanted to hunt the Livingstone’s eland found there because recent research has caste doubt over whether they are an independent subspecies – which I respectfully think they are – and I wanted to provide DNA specimens to Professor Bettine Van Vuuren of the University of Johannesburg to hopefully verify this.
The day old eland bull tracks we had been following led to no fresh ones and, after an hour or more on the tracks, we reluctantly concluded we were wasting our time. I then made a stupid mistake. I decided to harness my energy for the next day and let my young professional hunter, Ryan Cliffe, make the walk back to fetch the truck alone instead of accompanying him. On the way, Ryan bumped into a 30 strong herd with two younger bulls as well as an ancient warlord.
He filmed the herd from cover and, although his pocket camera had no high tech, high definition lens, the massive, old bull, his thick, gnarled horns worn down to stumps, towered over the accompanying cows and calves. He was blue black in colour. To the naked eye, his chevron had vanished and his stripes had disappeared. He was just starting to lose condition. His rump was thinning and his hips beginning to show but his massive forequarters and thick, black ruff, all but obscuring his eyes, spoke of his impressive past and his imposing present. He was all that a Livingstone’s eland bull should or could be and immediately became the sole focus of my hunt. If it took the remaining nine days of my safari to find him, well, so be it.
Days two and three past in a blur of tsetse fly torment, bumping along narrow, dirt tracks, long hikes into hidden springs and waterholes hoping to cut the tracks of the herd and the relentless, suffocating heat that sapped energy from dehydrated bodies.
The evenings passed swiftly. We were all weary by then so, one beer, a cold shower, mixing rehydrate for the next day, supper, anti-malaria pill and early to bed. The gentle "knock, knock" on my chalet door arrived all too soon at 03h30 as the team wanted to be in the field before the sun rose, before the temperature hit the forties and the light breeze, such as it was, started to swirl.
Day four. We pick up the first tracks at 05h10. There are many. Is this the herd with the old warlord? How far are they ahead? We cannot find any fresh dung, urine or recently broken branches to help age the tracks. The herd is on a mission, moving steadily and without stopping to feed. What to do?
"I think they are heading for the nearest water," says Ryan looking at his inseparable companion – his GPS. "There is a track leading there. Why don’t we drive as far as we can. If they have come and gone at the water, it could save us at least an hour on the tracks. If not, we can come back and take the spoor from here. " It was a good plan. The only plan.
We tiptoe into the water hole – two uninviting patches of fast drying, muddy green brown water overlooked by a small copse of trees within a barren wasteland of powdery grey sand. Eland had drunk earlier but not in sufficient numbers to be our herd and there is no bull track. Disappointed, we leave. An hour and a half’s walk later we find ourselves frustratingly back at the selfsame water hole. If we had merely stayed there, the herd would have come to us! This is the best possible situation – where you are still and in cover and the unsuspecting prey is moving toward you. But that’s not hunting is it? Sitting at a water hole?
Off we set with Jeevers Ncube, our sole tracker, in front, carrying water, shooting sticks and my rifle, then Ryan with his open sighted, .450 Ackerly and a belt full of equipment – GPS, radio, camera, knives, Leatherman and ammo slide – and, lastly, me, unencumbered except for a knife, all purpose tool, ammo slide and tsetse fly jacket. Saide Faustino, our second tracker and usual water carrier, has left to vote in the national elections and Ryan’s driver has been fired for driving over the maintenance manager, so we are a little short-handed.
After leaving the water, the herd starts to meander and feed as it winds its way up a typical, open, miombo clad hillside with minimal undergrowth covering the soft, grey, sandy soil. The leaves are off the trees and visibility is good, which is both a blessing and a curse. Tracks lead hither and thither and it takes a while to figure out the direction in which they have headed. We find slightly shiny, black pellets of dung – the intense heat dries them quickly, which makes them look older than they really are – still moist inside and the thought crosses my mind that we are no more than half an hour behind the herd. I am wrong. Fifteen minutes later, heading downhill, Ryan raises his right hand and then points. Through my indispensable 10×40 Leica Geovids, I can just make out the tail of the herd, brought up by two guardian cows, ghosting through the treeline across the shallow valley to our front, which separates the two groups into which the herd has split.
The breeze is at right angles to us, moving from left to right and, as we watch, the second group crosses the valley floor and heads up the incline towards us on the right. We have to move immediately else they will hit our scent trail and that will be, "Good night, nurse! "
We half walk, half jog uphill to come out ahead of the herd. As we take a breather from the cover of an anthill – me panting like a tired dog – Ryan spots the warlord at the very tail end of the herd. "Come quickly," he urges. "We have to move within range before he gets to that opening," he points down hill to a narrow avenue through the trees, sticks and shrubs. Subtlety goes out the window as, crouched over, we make a beeline to intercept the bull. Would we make it in time? If not, it is going to be a long, stern chase through the middle of the day with the odds very much in the elands’ favour as they are now moving with the wind. It is going to be touch and go as the unmistakeable, huge, grey mass of the bull approaches the opening at a tangent. Suddenly, Ryan stops, sets up of his homemade shooting sticks and says quite loudly, "He’s coming. Do you see him? " "Yes," I reply as I simultaneously slide my 37 year old, Brno .375 onto the twin "Vs" of the home made shooting sticks.
The sudden movement does not escape the eland. He stops in the avenue about 200 metres away with foliage covering his head and neck and sticks and shrubs his belly, with an additional inconveniently placed, bow shaped branch obscuring his right shoulder. I probably have no more than five seconds to make the shot and slide the crosshairs left and up, away from their natural resting place in the vital triangle. It is nearly my undoing. There is a small but perceptible delay between the crack of the bullet breaking the sound barrier and the dull thud as it hits the beast. "Yes, yes, you got him. He bucked at the shot," I hear Ryan say. Jeevers mutters something over his shoulder in his native Shona, as he runs forward. "He says the shot is high," Ryan translates. "How does he know," flits through my brain as I scramble to keep up. "Wait," I huff, "we must start from where the bull was standing," I insist, having learned too many hard lessons when, out of impatience, I failed to do so.
We find the deep bull tracks gouged into of the soft, grey soil. They look as if they have been excavated with a small spade they are so big and deep. And then every hunter’s worst nightmare begins. The tracks thunder downhill with the herd flattening the light shrubs and sticks in their path. Dust hangs in the air and makes me sneeze. One hundred metres. No blood. The bull track is obliterated by the second group of the herd. Two hundred metres. The chances of a quick follow-up halve. Three hundred metres. The chances halve again. Twenty five per cent. The smallest pimple of blood accompanied by a pin head of meat spots a dry leaf. We find the unmistakeable bull track leading away from the herd to the right. Hope springs eternal. Badly wounded animals do not stay with the herd.
Ryan calls a halt, "Let’s take a break, have some water and think." He is the thinking man’s PH and hunts with his head. I like that. "If we stay hard on his heels like this, all we’ll do is keep on pushing him. Let’s wait a bit and let him stiffen up," he adds.
Good advice. We zip open the water rucksack. As Ryan lifts his bottle to drink, he suddenly drops it and grabs the shooting sticks. I rip my rifle off my shoulder and move up behind him as he sets up the sticks. Immediately I see the blue black rock three-quartering away through the trees and drive a 300 grain Swift A Frame bullet into it. The hunt is over. This is it. This is a Livingstone’s eland bull of note! In the flesh he is much more impressive than his photograph and, up close, I can see vestiges of the thin, white stripes that once clearly intersected his flanks.
Standing next to him, I feel the deep sadness I always do at moments like this. I am also relieved in almost equal measure that I have not wounded this magnificent, old warrior. And grateful too that, at 66, I am still able to hunt an awesome animal like this, in the last year of his life, on foot, in "the hard ‘old’ way" that Anabele described, in his natural habitat, where he was able to feed himself, procreate and evade his predators – or most of them.
To my mind, this hunt is the closest thing to hunting Lord Derby’s or giant eland in West Africa. It is every bit as challenging and the bulls every bit as big, although maybe not quite as beautiful, but then beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Isn’t it?