I like hunting roan, especially in West Africa. I think they are harder to hunt than Lord Derby’s eland, for example, because the big, lone roan bulls seem never to stop walking – they feed as they walk – and then, by mid-morning, they start looking for a shady place to stop, ruminate and while away the hot, midday hours. It is then they start walking a figure of eight pattern, not unlike big, lone bongo bulls and, sooner or later, if you are following hot on their heels, you inevitably give them your wind and they are gone. So, when the opportunity arose to hunt roan in Burkina Faso, a country where I have never hunted, I agreed provided I could have two licences without needing to book two hunts. That way, if I saw a really good bull early on in the hunt, I would not have to go through all that mental torment – should I, shouldn’t I? You know the arguments. “The hunt has hardly begun. If I shoot this one what will I do for the rest of the time?” Alternatively, “If we have seen such a big/old one so soon, maybe in all the time left over, we will surely find a much bigger/older one?” And then, as the days tick by without seeing anything remotely as old or as big, you started to hunt differently. You scurry hither and thither and, ultimately, settle for an animal that was not what you were looking for in the third place!
So, I booked a hunt in Burkina Faso over the dark moon period in the second half of February 2017, although it was probably going to be hotter than I would have liked but probably not the crippling plus 45 degree heat of March/April before the rains come. With luck, I might also miss the Harmattan, the hot, dust laden wind off the Sahara, which turns day into an eerie half-light with air you feel you can cut and eat with a knife and fork. No-one likes it, especially the game, which prefers to hide in the thick brush until the weather changes.
Burkina Faso, previously Upper Volta, and which loosely translated means the land of the honest people and, from my days when I managed a company with a gold prospecting subsidiary in the country, I think the name is well-deserved. Certainly the people were the hardest working I have come across in Africa and were Burkina’s biggest export. Everyone was happy for the Burkinabe to come and work in their country. In fact, there were times when it was quicker and cheaper to hire manual labour there to do the work rather than use earth-moving equipment to dig the holes and trenches that were an essential part of prospecting.
I remember my first trip there early on in the formative years of the company I worked for, Randgold Resources Plc., primarily for four reasons: the vultures perched ghoulishly on the telephone wires overlooking the local market, my room at the Frontier Inn with its floor to ceiling mosaic tiles that made it look like a public urinal, the name of the capitol, Ouaggadougou (pronounced Wugger [to rhyme with bugger] do goo) and the nunnery that ran the best restaurant in town. Of course ‘best’ should not necessarily be confused with ‘good’, although the food was wholesome and edible, which was more than could be said for some of the roadside establishments where the rule was that, if for any reason you lost sight of the chicken – it was usually the only item on the menu that I could eat – which was to be your lunch, the staff had to start over with the whole process of catching, beheading, plucking and cooking.
I was looking forward to returning even though I had hunted just across the Pendjari River, which forms the border with Benin and the hunting area would be similar, if not the same, as regards both wildlife habitat and wildlife. D.V., Burkina would be the eighteenth African country in which I hunted.
I had hoped to hunt roan in Tanzania but the cheapest quote I could find for just two plains game species – I also wanted to try for an East African suni to go with the one I had been lucky enough to find in the sand forests of Zululand – came to $47 000, which was simply something I could not stomache. To make matters worse, the outfitter then reneged on the quote and amended it to $80 000 and implied in an email, inadvertently sent to me as well as his other partners, that I had not only fabricated the quote from their general manager but was well-known for trying to extort cheap prices from other outfitters, something I have never done.
I do have some sympathy for Tanzanian outfitters, however, as government fees make up a good percentage of the total costs, sometimes close to 30% but, for the longest time, they have been the most expensive in hunting destination in Africa by far. As many have predicted in the past, this is starting to have a seriously negative effect on hunt bookings, particularly as the government persists in handing out hunting concessions as political favours, which genuine outfitters have to sub-lease at increased costs, coupled with the division of these concessions into smaller and smaller units each with the same game quota, which substantially reduces the overall hunting experience. This year, for the first time in my experience, some of the top outfitters are offering what they consider discounts on hunts and even then they are far from fully booked.
I came to hunting roan quite late. Almost by accident actually. I saw one for the first time on the late Norman Atherstone’s game ranch near Dwaalboom, South Africa. I was immediately attracted to this huge, calm, statuesque, if dull coloured coloured, antelope, one of the hippotrage family to which sable and oryx also belong. For some unknown reason, the eccentric Norman always liked me and, back then in the mid 1980s, offered me one at a good if still expensive price of R4 000 ($300), provided he could keep the meat.
After three days of fruitless searching for one on his 28 000 hectare (60 000 acre), game fenced property, my tracker, Frank, and I bumped into a big bull early on the fourth morning and, without ceremony, I shot it beneath the chin as it faced me at what I estimated was about 200 paces – laser measuring devices had not been invented yet. The problem was that, in those days, hunting new animals, particularly expensive new ones, made me nervous and, although I had a good rest over the shooting sticks, I was trembling so badly I missed my aiming point in the middle of the bull’s chest by at least two feet.
When I got round to measuring the horns – in those days I was busy transitioning from a pure meat hunter to a cross meat and trophy hunter, which I guess I still am some 30 odd years later – they were the second biggest ever recorded in South Africa. I was chuffed. My friends were impressed. I thought I might like to do something like this again. So I did.
What confirmed my first impression of roan was seeing my second one in Botswana. It was about the only good thing about the hunt. Instead of reconnoitring the area up in the far north east corner of the country near Pandamatenga in advance and burning the grass as promised, the outfitter arrived in the concession after we did. This inconvenient fact was a little disturbing as we sat at the deserted dirt landing strip in the middle of nowhere from 08h00 to after 15h00 not understanding why no-one had come to fetch us as the arrangements for the safari had been discussed at length and confirmed in writing many times. When a battered Land Cruiser – the staff had rolled it en route in a desperate attempt to make up time – eventually fetched us, we found the camp had not been set up nor was there any food in camp other than the little we had brought with us in one small cool bag. Before we called off the safari, we were reduced to ground sluicing ducks on a lake with our .375s for food.
But the roan was absolutely magnificent. The huge bull stood with his forefeet on the side of a termite mound, the early morning sun burnishing his hide to a sleek, bright, smooth, coppery bronze. He held his pose until we were quite close and then, with a proud toss of his highwayman’s head, thundered off at a compact canter, puffs of dust rising from his hooves like miniature landmine explosions. At that moment, I thought he was one of, if not the, most impressive antelope I had ever seen.
It was about this time I started researching roan and found that what I read did not accord with what I was seeing. In the record books they classified roan according to their different colours but, in the herds I saw in East, West and South Africa you could find all the different colours in the same herd. I became disillusioned and thought they were all the same and so, when I had the opportunity to hunt them in Tanzania again and again, I stupidly declined. I mean, they were not going to make a fool of me and get me to pay my hard earned money to hunt something they said was a different subspecies when it wasn’t.
It was only later, at the end of a hunt in CAR, with nothing much to do before the charter plane arrived, that I tried to hunt one again and found out how difficult they were, that my interest was rekindled. Then, of course, they outwitted me again and again.
Alain Lefol, that iconic, French, West Africa professional hunter, was the one who helped me break the jinx before he was speared and axed by those bastard nomads from Sudan who, after devastating their own corruptly led country, have done and are continuing to do the same to most, if not all of CAR and Chad. This is what I wrote about our hunt: “Shoot ze big one! Go!” As I ease open the Land Cruiser door, it occurs to me that the urgent, stage whispered instructions imply that there is more than one. And yet, protruding over the large, flat, ochre coloured termite mound to my front, which sprouts a thin tangle of vegetation like the stubble on a tramp’s chin, all I can see is one, copper tan coloured back.
The uncertain, hot, midday, blustery breeze puffed from the tree dotted savannah to my right towards the sluggishly flowing, thin, charcoal green of the Aouk River, about five hundred metres to my left – all that separated us here in Chad from the Central African Republic.
We were driving back to camp. We had not planned to come this far south on our sixth hunting day. Instead we had wanted to investigate a series of green oasis-like waterholes in the middle of the bottom half of Pascal Giou’s 1.3 million hectare sport hunting concession, or Parc de Sportif as it is called here, leased to him for ten years by the government pursuant to a state convention. Instead, what we found was thousands of head of cattle, goats and sheep, tended by their nomad Arab owners, in total command of each and every available bit of water.
Still later, after much to-ing and fro-ing, we discovered that the Governor of Salamat Province, in which the Parc was situated, had in return for a substantial “royalty”, granted the nomads written permission to illegally occupy the land in direct contravention of the state convention. His disgusting, corrupt and cynical action was to have dire consequences.
My professional hunter, Alain Lefol, now the only big game safari operator in Chad, had on three occasions tried to explain to and reason with the nomads but to no avail. Their attitude was consistently a combustible mix of aggression and arrogance emphasized with much spear waving – the weapon of choice, along with bows, arrows and throwing axes.
Alain is a pocket battleship of a man. At 1,70 metres and 78 kilograms, this ex French military climbing and master ski-instructor, belied his 54 years and radiated a sense of restless energy and efficiency. He has an explosive, emotional and excitable temper, the brunt of which was born by his able, well trained staff at least every other day. There was also no room for discussion of hunting tactics, methods or strategy. He was the boss. He had an unshakable belief in himself and his hunting methods built on the rock solid foundation of 30 years of huge hunting success throughout West and East Africa. “Zis is ow we kill ze … for over… years in …” (fill in the names of the animal, period of years and country, respectively, yourself) was a summary of his invariable response to my hesitant suggestions. I soon stopped making them and decided “When in Chad do what Lefol says.” If not exactly better, it was certainly easier.
In fact, in all my own 54 years, I had never been criticized, sometimes justifiably so I might add, so often, by one individual, directly and indirectly, (at times I felt I was being held responsible for all the wrong doings of South Africans everywhere), in public and in private. So, in time, almost inadvertently, I also found myself waiting for instructions.
Cuddling the stock of my 24 year old, customized Brno .375, I studied the long, thin, 30 inch, dark black, scimitar shaped horns of the bright copper and black flecked pelt of the western roan as it stood facing towards me, huge tufted ears pricked, massive big brown eyes and wet black nose searching for a clue to the conundrum facing it. I couldn’t see the penile sheath and the horns did not have the bulk of a bull’s. I disobeyed Alain. In an instant, I was aware of his presence behind me. Then “Wait!” I waited. “Not that one. You nearly make a bad mistake”. Really?
“Come” he instructed. I did. Sort of. Peering through his 10×42 Leicas he said, “Ze bull is at ze back behind a cow. Can you see it?” No. The cow moves clear. Can you see now?” Yes. As I moved back to the termite mound and the rock steady rest it provided, he grabbed my rifle and put it on his shoulder. “No. Shoot from ere!” Size wise, my 1,88 metres does not fit with Alain’s 1,70 metres and, in the few seconds I had before the bull turned to his left, took four paces and disappeared, the crosshairs of my Zeiss Diavari scope bounced in, on and around the chest of the almost silvery tipped skin of the mature, 26 inch roan bull some 220 metres away. I did not pull the trigger. I was just not sure.
I came in for a lot of criticism. “You must take your chances. You must do what I tell you – aim up ze foreleg, tup, boom, up ze foreleg, tup, boom. You must learn to shoot moving. You should have climb up on ze back of ze vehicle and shoot from zere. Ow you an experience hunter not know ow to do zis? My God, we (for “we” read me) really stuff up our chances. The bull he stand for five minute, five minute!”
We followed the herd. It was a long afternoon. The plus 40 degree heat was merciless and I went through two litres of water. We had two half chances. First, as I snicked off the safety catch, the bull abruptly spun on his heels and disappeared behind a cow and, second, when the bull did not follow on the heels of the two youngsters and re-appear behind the large, spreading, bright green leafed Iserberlinia tree but reversed course through 180 degrees. That got me a “Why you not look over your scope instead of tru. You look over you see the bull turn back.” Right. And if I had been looking over the ‘scope and was late in getting off the shot when the bull appeared behind the two youngsters as we thought it would, no doubt I would have been lectured, “Why you look over your scope not tru?”
Down on the Aouk River, we saw nomads up close and personal and a most unedifying sight it was. To me, they exemplified all that was wrong with Chad. Short-sighted greed. Live for to-day. Never mind tomorrow. (I shall never forget the trail of Acacia Senegalensia chopped down to feed their goats stretching almost 160 kilometres from Hadjer Beida, near the Sudanese border, to Gos-Beida). Lie, cheat and steal and, if caught, resort to violence. The nomads treated Chad like a lot of people treat car hire vehicles – use, abuse and lose.
Day eight. Djeme directs us in the dark through the Borassus and Mlala palms fringing the Aouk River and on into the interior where he remembers regularly seeing a big roan bull. When we get there, even in the dark we know it is a waste of time – the stench of cow dung and the bellowing of cattle herald our arrival. We cannot summon up the enthusiasm for yet another encounter with these bastard nomads who have pillaged the wildlife, in some cases, to the verge of extinction in the Parc. Thousands of western kob and waterbuck that roamed the river banks as recently as two years ago have been reduced to solitary survivors skulking on the fringes of thick cover at dark and dawn. All the buffalo and eland have gone and so too the lion. Lelwel’s hartebeest and korrigum or Senegalese hartebeest, the largest member of the Damalisc family (which include bontebok, blesbok, topi, tiang and tssessebe), remain in small scattered herds but their days are numbered. And the herds of roan for which the area was well known – well, they are conspicuous by their absence. As Alain says, “In the past, you no hunt roan eight day. You go hunt and like bubal (hartebeest) you see every day and when you see a nice one, you take.” Similarly, Nigerian bohor reedbuck and oribi were very scarce – easy prey for spear toting Arabs on horseback. The only game in real numbers were baboons and warthogs because the Muslims do not eat either species.
In a funny kind of way, the nomads gave me the roan. We turned away through 180 degrees and headed aimlessly almost due west through the savannah. Any direction as long as there were no cattle. Undecided as we were, the Land Cruiser was merely crawling along over a smooth, grey brown, mud coloured, two tyre track. We were moving so quietly I could hear a profusion of Senegalese coucals calling on, on and on into the distance, their beautiful, melodious, water-tinkling calls disappearing into the enveloping arms of the tree clad savannah. Suddenly, Djeme’s heavily tattooed face appeared upside down in Alain’s driver’s window. He whispered one word, “Aberouf!”
In controlled and whispered confusion, we stopped, swopped places on the back of the truck with Ali Hassan, our driver, and were in time to spot the heads of over 20 roan trot off parallel to our track. “Vite, vite” Alain ordered as we sped up in pursuit and then past the herd some three to four hundred metres away. We stopped in a cloud of billowing “Fesh – fesh,” the talcum powder fine dust found on well-travelled tracks, as Alain’s loud “Arret,” plus fist thump on the roof brought an instant response from Ali’s right boot on the brakes.
I joined Alain and Djeme on the ground. In the distance, the herd had stopped, broken up and was milling around waiting for one of the large cows to provide direction. We moved forward on foot for about 300 metres or so until one of those big mamas pinned us behind the excellent cover of a white flowering gardenia shrub with its twisted, tortured stems of yellowy brown bark. To our left front, a small, dry, magunda tree provided further camouflage.
To the right of the cow I could just make out a heavily built torso shining with health and vigour as dawn picked out the russet, copper coloured tones of the coat and made the bull’s body gleam with an almost ethereal glow. Show us your horns! Come on! Turn! Take a step forward. Yes! As the cow lost interest and turned away the bull stepped towards her. My bipod was already extended as I moved in behind it. The sight picture was very tight. I would have to thread the needle down a 200 metre avenue, criss-crossed by finger thick grass, burnt scarecrow scrub, shrubs, twigs and branches.
“Shoot from ere,” Alain interrupted my concentration by picking up my rifle barrel and putting it on his shoulder as he knelt in front of me. I could happily have shot him instead but, amazingly, after all the past effort that I had invested in this one moment, I was unexpectedly calm and remarkably steady. As I let the shot go I felt the rifle twitch involuntarily upward. Before I recovered from the recoil, I heard the “Sssssshtup” of the bullet hitting and was in time to see the head of the bull flop onto the powdery black and silver surface of the burnt mbuga like the last coil of a hose pipe as you flick it to clear the tangles in its length. The high shoulder shot severed the spine and, seconds later, a 300 grain solid provided the coup de grace.