I looked at the magnificent, old – no, ancient – animal as it lay stretched out at my feet. I could not speak. I had a huge lump in my throat as my eyes absorbed the awesome sight. His once rich, reddish tan hide, interspersed with dull white stripes, was faded and bald in patches. His ribs and hip bones poked through his skin which hung on his old frame like a badly tailored suit.
Other than a deep and abiding sadness, I felt both guilt and awe. Guilt that I had ended the life of this incredible, old animal and awe at the truly massive, once-in-a-life-time trophy this bongo bull represented. He was, without a shadow of a doubt, the biggest and best animal I have ever shot or, for that matter, ever would. Involuntarily, my mind wound the clock back some sixteen years to my first hunt for this amazing animal which I still consider the top African hunting trophy.
I know that some animals may be more difficult to hunt (such as forest sitatunga), or more dangerous (such as buffalo) but, when you mix together all the factors which are often required if you want to hunt a bongo successfully – skill, courage, scarcity, habitat, weather, patience, endurance, fitness, fortitude and the magnificence of the animal itself, then Tragelaphus euryceros euryceros remains number one – at least in my book.
The charcoal gloom of early dawn found me sitting with my head between my knees next to the glutinous, grey, mineral mud of a salt lick. I was dog tired, hungry and sore and not necessarily in that order. The night before, in desperation, we slept on the rain forest floor (without food or shelter), on the tracks of the bongo bull we had been following for the last ten days and I had been bitten to pieces by mosquitoes, ants, ticks and fleas. We did it for two reasons, firstly, to save the three hour trek to camp and back so that we could pick up and follow the tracks at the earliest possible opportunity.
Secondly, we thought there was a good possibility that the bongo might visit the lick in the light of the full moon. Last night, filled with excitement at the thought, it had seemed a great idea. The next day, every bone in my 43 year old body made its presence felt and my badly blistered feet burned like the fires of hell every time I put my weight on them.
The huge bongo bull we had been following had not grown old by accident. By now we knew his routine fairly well. He would visit one of the salt licks in the region at night and feed back into the forest by the light of the moon. While he seemed to wander and feed aimlessly during the early morning, he nevertheless always followed in the general direction of a small herd of females and young. By about 10h00 he would start looking for a place to lie down and while away the midday hours. And that’s where he nailed us time and time again.
He would walk in a rough figure of eight and, inevitably, we would give him our wind. Sometimes we were so close we could hear him run. Other times, only the deep gouges in the leaf litter of the rain forest floor told its own tale.
More often than not, the bull would run out of the rain forest in this south eastern corner of the Central African Republic (only some 80 kilometres from the Sudanese border), across a stretch of open savannah and into the next bako. Bako in the local Sango language simply means forest but the French professional hunters use it to describe the fingers of rain forest, on either side of a water course, which extend into the savannah. And this was partly to blame for the state of my feet.
My boots became sodden from fording the many little streams in the rain forest – annual rain fall here is measured in metres – and my water softened feet blistered during the hard, fast hikes across the savannah trying to make up time on the bongo. My PH used an old paratrooper trick – sucked some fluid out of the blisters with a syringe and replaced it with mercurochrome. It burned like merry hell but I could walk the next day and my feet never became infected.
By starting nearly one and a half hours earlier on the tracks, we hoped to catch up with "our" bongo before he went into his figure of eight, bedding down routine. That was the plan but my all but sleepless night seemed to have drained my previous enthusiasm and it was all I could do to blunder along in the wake of our five man hunting team – two trackers, Martin and Antoine, a baggage man, Albert and my professional hunter. My mental state mirrored my physical one. Who did I think I was? What was I doing here? If the famous, East African, white hunter, J.A. Hunter, had not been able to shoot a bongo after trying for some 30 years in Kenya, why did I think I would find one in less than 30 days in C.A.R.? I was an idiot to have had the presumption to try. I should have listened to the Belgian hunter I’d met in the lift of the Sofitel Hotel in Bangui. "You’re going to the wrong place, with the wrong person, at the wrong time" he said in a superior and certain manner. It had irritated me enormously at the time but now seemed so accurate. Of the four hunters who had preceded me, only one had taken a bongo and then a small one of some 25 inches.
Rowland Ward’s Records of Big Game had a minimum horn length requirement of 27 inches for bongo and, as The Book was my bible when establishing what a trophy animal should be, I thought 25 inches was a little on the short side and probably did not belong to an old, lone male who had passed on his genes and was now out of the breeding cycle.
The lightening dawn failed to lift the depression that enveloped me and I remained seated as the others wandered toward the edge of the lick looking for fresh tracks. It took me a moment to respond to Martin’s low whistle. As I looked up, he vigorously waved me over. With an inward sigh, I heaved myself up and ploshed through the ankle high mud and rust stained water. I hissed involuntarily as the water entered my boots and soaked my bandaged feet causing them to burn all over again.
As I reached Martin he pointed to a clear set of huge bongo tracks at his feet. This was our boy all right and, what was more, the mud was still slowly settling in the spoor. "Le bangena ici (the bongo is here)" he whispered. Adrenalin suddenly suffused my system. My pulse rate doubled immediately and I looked around for the others. We caucused quietly. In the end, the decision we reached was the only logical one. There had been no rain for three days. The forest was dry and noisy. Two was company but … Martin and I would have to take the tracks on our own.
Martin Voungouessi Tito, to give him his full name, was the son of the local Zande chief in Mboki, an accomplished elephant poacher and the best tracker I have ever hunted with. He was a strong, fit and passionate hunter. A born leader with a lively sense of humour and a man I had grown to like and admire over the past 17 days. I gladly walked in his cautious footsteps as we followed the spoor out of the clearing and along the banks of a small stream dotted with delicate, white orchids that the bongo bull was feeding on with gusto. Then Martin heard the bull. Then so did I. The tension was palpable. All my senses tested the forest around me as we listened to the sucking sound of hoof in mud and then the splash of water. At most, the bull was 20 paces away but we could see no sign of him. Not a tinge of tan and white striped body filtered through the green on green of the rain forest. It took me a while to realize I had stopped breathing.
Martin crouched at my feet peering through the bottom layer of the forest foliage. I remained standing but bent over from the waist, my rifle clutched in both hands across my chest as I leaned against a rough, grey brown tree trunk. My dark, olive green khakis, intentionally mud streaked face and thin, brown leather gloves blending into the dark background of the full canopy forest as I probed the middle layer. After an eternity, as the hoof sucking sounds faded, pace for careful pace we began to follow the knife sharp tracks again. And then the fickle forefinger of fate played a filthy trick on us. The pitch black and snow white colobus monkey in the tree above us saw us at the same time I saw him. His panic stricken "Hurr – hurr – hurr" and branch smashing crash as he hurled himself bodily into the neighbouring tree was all the invitation our bongo required and, noisy as the monkey was, beneath the branch breaking sounds, we heard the drumming of heavy hooves and the ripping noise of tearing creepers and lianas.
Two hours later, as Martin and I emerged from the cool, dim recesses of the full canopy rain forest into the sunlit savannah, the harsh, bright sun reflecting off the bleached blonde, head high elephant grass, I thought we were in for an action replay of the day before. Hike across the savannah, walk the figure of eight, spook the bongo and follow until dark as the bongo watched his back tracks. I lost concentration. My mind began to wander. I hooked my right foot under a length of creeper while standing on the end of it with my left. I nearly went sprawling as I hopped to clear my foot and crashed around like a novice. Martin stopped, turned and stared at me sternly, "Doucement (slowly). Lentement (careful). Le bangena ici (the bongo is here)" he warned before slowly pushing his way forward again.
How he could see a track through the intertwined grass and shrubs at his feet which all but obscured the ground, let alone know that the bongo was close by, I will never know but Martin had made a firm believer of me and I did not question him. I immediately unslung my rifle and held the broad, webbing strap tight against the wooden fore-end of my custom made .416 Rigby (fitted with a 1.5 X 6 power Zeiss Diavari scope) so that it would not catch on the surrounding vegetation.
We had not covered 200 paces when the crashing of grass and shrubs erupted from our right front. A blur of tan body thrashed through the thick grass to our front and stopped behind a dense, green, no-name bush from which a thin, straggly tree protruded. I could see maybe 18 inches of white striped, tan rump but, in my mind’s eye, I could clearly see the rest of the animal. The crosshairs came to rest in line with the slender tree trunk but exactly where I imagined the shoulder of the antelope to be. I did not hesitate. I knew this was the shot to take. The .416 fired itself and the rump vanished.
Martin grabbed a handful of my shirt and, together, side by side, we stepped cautiously forward, on red alert, lifting our legs high over the intervening grass and shrubs. We both saw the length of tan through the grass at the same time. Martin mimed a second shot off his shoulder and I slid a 400 grain Federal solid between the shoulder blades of the already dead bongo.
As the reality and enormity of what we had achieved slowly sank in, Martin grabbed both my shoulders in his hands, looked me full in the face and, without a word, shook me gently and repeatedly backwards and forwards. As I turned from him, a butterscotch dappled, soft brown butterfly fluttered down and rested, wings apart, on the head of the incredibly handsome, tan, white and black head of the bull. It was too much for me and the tears streamed down my tired face in an uninterrupted flow.
Some six months later when the bongo horns arrived at my taxidermist in South Africa, the longest horn was officially measured at 32 1/8 inches. He was an unbelievable bull, just past his prime and still ranks as the thirteenth largest bongo entered into Rowland Ward’s Records of Big Game.
In every sense of the word, a bongo is an awesome animal. Everytime I see one in the flesh or even in a photo, something in me stills and I search for the elusive essence of this magical animal which creates this tension, awe and wonder in me at the sight of its strong, compact, dramatically coloured body; with its highwayman face; powerful, log-lifting neck and elegant, lyre shaped horns.
Sixteen years later, Christophe Morio, my highly skilled and experienced French professional hunter, shook my shoulder as I lay dozing on a thin, foam mattress on the wooden floor of a machan, built 25 feet above the forest floor, in a sturdy Ngreki tree overlooking part of the two kilometer long series of Batou salt licks in north central C.A.R.. It was my fourth and last attempt to try for a forest sitatunga. Previously, I had hunted them on foot along the fringes of papyrus beds in C.A.R., tracked them on foot and staked out glades in the Cameroonian rain forests and now, on the advice of Christophe, was, for only the second time in my life, using a machan to wait for the appearance of a big forest sitatunga he had seen more than once at these salt licks. It was our third trip to the machan.
Christophe whispered in my ear, "Peterrh, you mus come look zis zing" as he handed me his big, green Swarovski binoculars and pointed to the shooting port at the foot of my mattress. My Brno .375, loaded with 300 grain Norma softs and topped by a 1.5 X 6 power Zeiss Diavari scope, sat on its bipod, fully loaded, safety catch on, next to me. The folded blanket, which put me at exactly the correct height to shoot through the diamond shaped hole in the reed matting wall, was in its place beneath the shooting port which looked down on the closest of the two salt licks some 90 metres away.
Ignoring the binoculars, I sat up, scrunched over on my backside to the shooting port and slid my rifle quietly through it as I had previously practiced. I looked over the top of the scope and could clearly see the bongo standing sideways on, eating the mineralized mud at his feet. My first impression was that it was young as its neck was thin and so was its banana shaped body. But the horns! Oh my! The horns, seen from the side, stretched up and up and up but appeared thin and almost translucent. Dropping my head to the comb of my Monte Carlo stock, the view through the scope (set to 6 power) confirmed my first impression. I wasted no time at all, moved the safety to fire and murmured to Christophe, "I am going to take him."
As I recovered from the recoil, I was in time to see the bongo (lying prone on the mud) stretch out a quivering right hind leg, raise his head about twelve inches and then relax into death.
A number of surprises awaited me at the lick. Firstly, the bongo was the oldest animal I have ever shot. Secondly, the horns were even longer and more worn than I had seen through the scope. Christophe and I stood next to one another and stared and stared and stared. We could not believe our unsought after, bald-faced luck. Back at main camp two days later we measured the horns. Not as easy as it sounds as they were so old and battered that the raised keel around the spiral (and which dictates the course of the tape measure) had been worn away. Even so, as conservative as we could be, we could not reduce the length of the longest horn to below 36 inches which, after the compulsory 30 day drying out period, should make it the new Rowland Ward number one by almost a full inch, a fact confirmed by two Rowland Ward master measurers who taped the longest horn at 36 1/8 inches.
The third and by far the most important thing that soon struck me was that the only emotion I shared with those from my first bongo was the one of sadness. That I had been the one to kill this truly magnificent, once-in-a-life-time animal, whose horns in his hey day must have been all of 41 inches – six inches more than the current world number one!
Yes, of course I was delighted that Diana had granted me this wonderful piece of good fortune but none of the joy, elation, happiness, relief and other complex emotions of my first bongo were there. I thought how fickle hunting fate was. Here I was, trying for the fourth and last time for a representative forest sitatunga and the hunting gods gave me an animal that almost every rain forest hunter would, in return, give a sensitive part of his anatomy to own. And because I had not sought it, hunted it or suffered for it, I would gladly have swapped the one for the other. It reminded me again of the definition of a trophy in my Oxford Universal Dictionary – "a token of victory, courage or skill – a memorial" I shall obviously keep this incredible trophy but I guess because there was no victory or courage, and because the skill consisted purely in placing the bullet in the right spot, even the skill was minimal and, in my own mind, so was the value attributable to the trophy. Am I wrong to feel this way?
I have one small consolation, however. As I have grown older and, hopefully, a tiny bit wiser, I have tried not to shoot – as a trophy as opposed to meat – an animal that was smaller than the ones I already have. I mean, what’s the point? OK, I confess, in my youth there were times when I was obsessed with certain animals like kudu and buffalo – still am if the truth be known – and hunted them time and again for the sheer joy of it and regardless of size. And there’s nothing wrong with this but to deliberately look for a trophy animal and then shoot one that is smaller than those you already have, well, in my humble opinion, that almost defeats the object of the exercise. As trophy hunters I always assumed it was quality not quantity we were after.