Nights leading up to our departure were sleepless as Lisa and I monitored Hurricane Irene and the massive flight delays. Still, we departed Monday night and arrived in Maputo on Wednesday evening, then took a couple more flights to Lichinga where we met our PH, Matt Hulley-Miller and his tired-looking Toyota Land Cruiser.
We drove 3 1/2 hours north and just before turning to the hunting camp, passed an abandoned village where lions had been eating and tormenting the inhabitants, and elephants raiding the crops. Lisa would be in camp for two weeks, while I planned four to finish my Big Five and Dangerous Seven. Videographer James Peters was with us to film my elephant and lion hunt for television.
Grass around camp was as much as 11 feet tall and I wondered how we would ever find any animals. I quickly learned what had been practiced there for thousands of years — the use of fire. It has been said that Mozambique burns to the ground yearly, and the head tracker, Kashier, and his assistants, Martindika, Watson and Pedro, spent a lot of time lighting fires.
Since lion and leopard were on my scorecard, we started by hunting the Majuene West concession on the Lugenda River in search of hippo for bait.
The following day, we looked at new territory and did lots of burning there. The plan was that animals would be visible two days after the burning, so we headed back to Majuene West to look for more hippos while we waited. We travelled for several grueling hours through brush and terrain along what could generously be called a goat path to a section of river that had been promising the year before. This year, however, it was bone dry so we retraced our steps back to the oxbow lake where, fortunately, we found a bull hippo. A 300-grain solid loaded by Jim Peters performed flawlessly.
I quickly learned insect repellants do not phase tsetse flies. I was getting 40 to 60 good bites a day and would occasionally see bugs that resembled ladybugs, only they were tsetse flies filled with human blood. Our cameraman, James Peters, swatted a couple under his shirt that, when crushed, made it look as though he had been shot. Matt was fairly ill by this point and we gave him a course of Cipro as the malaria meds he was taking weren’t helping all that much. There were also Mopani flies to entertain us. Think of a fly about the size of a gnat with a high-pitched whine like a mosquito. By day three I relearned not to breathe through my mouth, or I would inhale a couple of flies. To keep the Mopani flies at bay, we burned elephant dung. We usually set about three piles around the lunch table so that even if the wind swirled, we were still afforded comfort.
A nice warthog was encountered while going from bait to bait and he, too, wound up as bait in a tree.
Camp was interesting. There was a 2.5Kw Honda generator that ran for two hours in the morning and evening and a 55-gallon drum with fire under it that served as our warm water, direct from the river. Our meals were cooked over a steel plate and we had fresh bread every day that was baked in a hole in the ground. There was no cell phone service, no Internet, no TV –nothing but silence and an incredibly starry sky at night. It seemed like the entire sky was like the Milky Way on clear nights.
Leaving camp on the morning of Day 6, we encountered a bush pig, but the three of us stalking with a camera through crunchy grass and leaves were not successful. Before we got to the road to travel on, we also found a warthog and bull eland, so it was shaping up to be a promising day. Immediately upon entering the concession, we spotted a group of Boehm’s zebra.
By the time Lisa left camp, some of the baits were getting a bit old. We enhanced the route we covered every day with baboons, bush pig and other surprises. I got a very nice Livingston eland and Boehm’s zebra while checking the baits, and those also went in the trees for bait.
Each day we were getting to know our vehicle a little better, as each day there were new surprises such as overheating up to four times a day. The vehicle continued to break down regularly and one day had a total electrical failure. Another day the tie rods fell off the front end and we used baling wire to hold them together, but there was so much wire wrapped around the parts that the tire would not go back on. A couple of chain shackles were used, but they made the steering loose as a goose, which made for some interesting bounces off trees we tried to steer past. The radiator was replaced, but with the wrong one, so the temp gauge on the dashboard no longer worked. Instead, when folks in the hunt seat began feeling water droplets, it was time to let the engine cool down. A new pair of tie rods was eventually delivered to camp. They were the wrong size, but better than chain shackles.
We named the 1994 Toyota Land Cruiser “Hope.” We hoped it would get us back. We hoped it would start. We hoped it would run. Sometimes it was “Hopeless.” There was nasty terrain to traverse in the dark once, and while driving we heard a new noise from Hope. We lifted the hood and couldn’t find anything, then a few hundred more yards farther along there was a new, more serious noise. Lifting the hood we still found nothing, but looking underneath, found that we had lost our front drive shaft. The trackers took torches back over our path and found the section of drive shaft and two of the four bolts, but no nuts or lock washers. Nuts the wrong size were cross-threaded on the bolts and we made it home.
After one long, hot day, I decided to shower before dinner. I grabbed a pair of clean pants to put on and, when I put one foot in, thought I hit a thorn. It felt like a razor slashed my toe and it started burning like mad. I pulled my foot out and out fell a scorpion. How does something that small cause that much pain? I stayed calm, went to the dining area and mentioned I had just been stung by a scorpion and inquired about the seriousness. It was very bothersome for four days.
Several weeks into the trip, we were desperate for a leopard. A track was encountered that could have been a small male or a medium female, so a blind was hastily erected and we settled in. Cameraman, PH and I, all sat silent as darkness fell. The wind was swirling and the PH decided the set up would not work. Matt picked up the walkie-talkie to call for the truck when we heard a cough behind us in the grass. A leopard was sitting five feet behind us and started growling. Matt called the trackers back to tell them not to come get us, and after about 40 minutes of the hunters being the hunted, the leopard moved in front of the blind.
I went on several treks for elephant, and though every single one resulted in finding elephant, Matt kept telling me, “No, that one is too small,” their ivory was in the 35 to 40 pound class. One day we tracked a pair of males roughly 18 miles only to find one of them had huge feet, but only 40-pound tusks. On these treks, we would leave the truck and start out for who knows where or for how long.
The very first elephant we tracked resulted in a mock charge. It is one thing to see those on TV, it is entirely different when a fairly full-grown African elephant is running at you, bellowing and screaming, ears flared, trunk in the air and the PH says, “Stand there! Don’t run! Don’t move!”
The 18-mile stalk took us through the abandoned village where the elephants were probably wondering why the crops were gone. We were on our way to check leopard baits another day when we cut a pair of elephant tracks that we followed for about eight miles. The wind was swirling and we were afraid of startling the pair of bulls so we rerouted our approach through a couple streams and thick brush and made a safer approach. How amazing it is to see these huge animals taking down individual trees to get what they want to eat. While looking at one through the trees, Matt said, “That is your elephant, but bad news, it only has one tusk.” We were only three days from the end of the 28-day hunt, so I wasn’t going to argue over the tusk.
I cannot tell you how hesitant I was when Matt said to shoot it on the shoulder. I was feeling pretty small and that bull looked mighty big. The bull had just torn down a palm tree and I shot one shoulder, Matt shot the other as it faced us head on. It disappeared behind some brush and I instantly thought, “How long will this tracking be, this time?” There was no time to think about it more as the bull came around some trees, saw us and charged. Even the trackers scattered to the wind. I shot once just above the eye and dropped it 14 small steps from where I was standing.
It turns out that in the brush, the other tusk was not visible — the ivories should go close to 70 pounds.
Cape buffalo tracks were occasionally seen, mostly after the rainy season, but buffalo had never been spotted in that concession. The following day while driving and looking for leopard sign, we found fresh buffalo sign. I jokingly said, “Let me put you on the map. Let’s go find that buffalo.” Word of advice — don’t say that to someone half your age. Over hill, over dale, through thick brush, through burned out areas, we tracked hard. Something was making the buffalo move. We never saw lion tracks, but the buffalo did not want to stop.
Late afternoon, we thought we were getting close when a huge gust of wind came through and just about broke everyone’s spirit. They were sure our scent was blown to the buffalo. I said, as a person familiar with wind and water, I thought we should look just off the direction of the wind and miracle of miracles — we found them. Matt had me get down on my butt, feet forward, and crab walk through grass about 250 yards with the Model 70 across my stomach so as not to scare them off.
Matt was hurrying me for a shot as he suspected the buffalo had spotted us. I fired the .375 H&H and we paused. About eight buffalo ran past and one went off at an angle. Matt screamed at me not to shoot that one; it had been wounded by something else. About 10 seconds after the shot, a small tree collapsed in front of us. I had fired the soft point through a tree about 1 1/4 inches in diameter. There was extreme disappointment with all the work we had put in, but I wanted to venture that the single that was hobbling was the one I shot. PH would have nothing to do with that idea as we were miles from the truck and it was getting late. Then one of the trackers found blood. Game on! Matt was worried and said there was a 99 percent chance we would encounter a charge in thick brush.
We were finding a good blood trail with bits of bone occasionally. The buffalo made it about two miles before we found it and had our way with it.
And the TV show? Matt came down with malaria, the PH in the adjoining camp came down with malaria, the PH assisting and running for parts and supplies came down with malaria and the videographer came down with malaria and was in camp the day I shot the elephant and the day I shot the Cape buffalo.—Tom Mattusch