Editor’s note: Each Friday we feature a story from the Safari Magazine archives. This week we join the Sowerby brothers on safari in Ethiopia. This story originally appeared in the July/August 1991 issue of Safari Magazine.
“Dan, the guy who was supposed to go to Ethiopia with your brother just backed out. Are you still interested?”
When I asked Rich Elliot of Ethiopian Rift Valley Safaris at the 1988 SCI Convention to call me if my brother’s hunting partner cancelled, I actually never believed he would. But here he was, doing exactly that! What about the money, time and the other thousand things, which shout at you not to go on safari?
After an entire day contemplating whether or not I should go, I decided I probably should not. After all, think about being gone for three weeks, spending that much money, not to mention both real and imagined dangers. But, this was my brother – and this was safari…
The sights, sounds and smells of Ethiopia’s capital city Addis Ababa, are uniquely its won and so are the dogs barking incessantly all night. As you drive through Addis, your impression is one of extreme contrasts – utter poverty, total lack of sanitation, widespread shortages of practically everything. The Hilton Hotel seemed dramatically out of place with its luxurious accommodations. What we saw was a post-revolution society that really makes you wonder if the proletariat actually made out for the better. But we were here as guests and observers of an ancient society, not to judge their present political system. After a day of hanging around the pool at the Hilton, our firearms and ammo had cleared through customs and we were on our way to the Omo Valley.
The 1959 Aero Commander was loaded with copious amounts of gear, introductions were made to the camp staff traveling with us and brother Dave took the front seat next to the charter pilot. Dave is a licensed pilot, with around 4,000 hours experience flying many types of planes, so the expression on his face was telling. I asked him if there was a problem. He replied, “This is an honest-to-God antique plane, no kidding!” But it was also a flyer and a pretty good choice for a bush plane in Ethiopia.
After a two-hour flight through the mountains and clouds, we touched down at the Omo dirt strip for two weeks of excitement and hard work; but mostly to have a tremendous amount of fun.
The native people and camp staff who met our plane appeared quite primitive even by African standards. Dave made a point of showing me several cosmetic approaches to beauty used by both men and women. What was attractive to them was certainly bizarre but intensely interesting to us. It reminded us of what Africa must have been like before many areas became “civilized.”
Our professional hunters, Alex Harmanis and Kidane Byadgo were at the airstrip to meet us and after brief introductions we were whisked off to camp.
First impressions really do count and are certainly lasting. After a cold Meta beer and some conversation with our PHs, everyone seemed comfortable with each other. Camp was stoic by East African standards but certainly adequate with clean beds, shower, toilets and a kitchen hut amidst a pleasant overlook of the Omo River. The river was less than 13 yards away from camp and was crawling with very large crocodiles. We saw hundreds of these trophy-sized reptiles while we were there. It was mind-boggling to us that CITES restricts importation of sport-hunted crocodiles into the United States. Native people practically begged us to shoot some, and to keep others at bay while they watered their goats and cattle. We actually saw a croc take a goat while we were sitting on the riverbank eating lunch one day! Crocs are impressive beasts.
Dave would be hunting with Kidane and Alex would be my PH. Each of us had our own vehicle with a tracker on one or two porters. The weather was near perfect – bright and warm, with sunshine and an occasional welcome and cooling shower.
After sighting in our rifles, the first order of business was to procure some meat for camp and trophies for us. Dave went in search of Grant’s gazelle and I was looking for topi and Newman’s hartebeest. Dave made his usual 25-yard on-shot kill (once in a while he does miss) and a 27-inch Grant’s was his. I had good luck locating topi with Alex and successfully stalked a large bull in a plain that had to contain several thousand animals. The amount of game was overwhelming. Both of us had been on safari before but neither of us had ever seen such variety of species and quantity of game. It was not at all unusual to see herds of hundreds of animals, several times a each day. I guess that’s what makes Africa what it once was and continues to be in certain areas. There is something about this kind of Africa that pulls at you after you’ve been exposed to its aroma. With us, it’s become almost an addiction.
Each day, Dave and I would hunt for the species of most interest to us. For Dave, That meant lesser kudu, Abyssinian greater kudu, lion and Nile buffalo. Dave’s greater kudu came relatively easy: a quick shot at 10 yards after a long stalk on the second day. The tape measured 46 ½ inches around the spiral, which should place it in the top 10. These greater kudu are physically smaller than their southern cousins, and this is reflected in their horn size as well. Believe me, the native staff was impressed!
Both of us remarked that hunting lesser kudu was a lot like hunting whitetail deer back in our home state of Maine. Taking a trophy would involve all our skills and a bunch of luck. Dave’s lesser kudu would come only after several days of stalking the brushy lowveld. He took a 29-inch lesser kudu with one shot at an honest 350 yards. I was most impressed with his animal, and I think, a tougher trophy than people give them credit for. Dave sensed my desire to obtain one and sympathetically told me not to be disappointed if I didn’t succeed.
Later that same day, just a few minutes before dark, a beauty jumped out in front of our Land Rover and after a running stalk through dense brush, I shot it at two yards. I told you they have a lot in common with whitetail deer! The bulls horns measured 33 inches. I couldn’t believe it and neither could Dave. He grabbed a couple of ice cold beers and we toasted to a very difficult but successful day. There are special times in all our lives, and this was one in ours.
One animal that managed to consistently elude us was the Nile buffalo. While not as large as the Cape buffalo, this subspecies provides the same hunting stamina, tracking skills and close range shooting ability. These buffs have learned, through local harassment, to become nocturnal creatures of the thick bush. The thorns in Omo are mostly of the wait-a-bit variety, which the buffalo actively seek out as protection from predators. If you decide to pursue buffalo in this habitat, be prepared to shed some of your own blood in the process! This simply cannot be avoided, as the thorns will literally rip you up after a few short hours. I wish I could say that I was successful in obtaining this species; unfortunately I was not. After several days of bulling our way through the bush, I decided to go with Dave on his buffalo hunt; scouts had spotted a herd just before dark one day.
We approached from down wind in a classic single file fashion doing a low crawl and found the boss bull just to our right. Dave gave it a 416 monolithic solid through the shoulders, which knocked it down but the tenacious and resilient buff jumped back to its feet. Dave chambered another round quickly and pulled off a Texas heart shot as the animal ran. The second shot wasn’t necessary, but you keep shooting buffalo until they go down. No one particularly wanted to follow up a wounded 1200 pound buffalo through thick bush. When we cautiously approached the fallen bull, it struggled vainly to gain footing, but the solids had done the job effectively. Dave’s buffalo was representative of the species, but – more to the point – he had taken a unique and tough animal out of the area. The camp staff was thrilled. They had not had buffalo in camp for several weeks and this one provided much food for everyone. No matter where you go in Africa, everyone likes buffalo.
The tough trophy for me was the Abyssinian greater kudu. These kudu are hunting in mountains that rise from the floor of Omo Valley. While not exactly the Canadian Rockies, they are plenty steep and covered with thorns. Day after day Alex and I would diligently climb these hills in 100 degree heat and dust, picking our way through thorns to glass from high points. The heat and humidity up in those hills was really oppressive and affected everyone in my party. After the fourth unrelenting day of this, I nearly gave up the chase. Then, coming back down the mountain, Alex stopped to glass one last area and turned to give me a smile that told the entire story. I just asked “where?” and he pointed to a distant peak in the setting sun, about a mile distant. We set up the spotting scope and low and behold, there were three trophy-sized kudu bulls feeding together on the hillside. My heart sank with the sun. It suddenly dawned on me that we were out of time for a stalk. After all these hours and effort, to run out of time.
“Alex, what can we do?”
“Dan, tomorrow morning you will get your kudu bull – if you can shoot across that valley,” he said, pointing to a hill parallel to the kudu. I mentally computed the distance at 400 plus yards, what Dave and I call an LFW. Dave and I had practiced all the way out to 350 yards and knew the theoretical trajectory of our .300 Winchester mags out to 500 yards.
The next morning I was nervously awakening Dave for our pre-dawn breakfast.
“What is your problem?” Dave asked, annoyed.
“Today’s the day,” I replied, downing a third cup of coffee. In every hunt as in life, there comes a certain point where events either come together or they fall apart, totally. I know today would be that day.
The climb over the mountains was long indeed, perhaps five or six miles in the early morning coolness. The thorns didn’t seem to hurt as much and my legs found new energy as the anticipation of the day’s events built steadily inside me. After two and a half hours, our forced march slowed to a stalking crawl, then on hands and knees to a proper vantage point. The binoculars showed absolutely nothing after fifteen minutes of glassing. Waves of depression saturated my now fleeting enthusiasm. Where were they? Suddenly, there was movement in the ravine below and out ran the prettiest kudu bull I had ever seen. Regal is probably a better term to describe a running kudu bull, the way they hold their head high with those spiral horns, that prancing stiff legged gait.
Two other bulls were mature but obviously inferior to the lead bull.
The range was 350 yards and my bull was rapidly expanding the distance. I generally refuse to take long-range running shots at game unless they’ve already been hit; but the frustration of this kudu hunt was quickly changing my mind. All I had time to do was sit down and get it in the scope. Then, the bull made the fatal mistake so many animals do – it stopped to look back to see if the pursuers were still coming, somehow thinking itself out of danger. The range looked will over 400 yards; the cross hair waved ever-so-slightly a foot or so over its shoulder; and then, the gun fired. The full flinched and began to run up the other side of the hill only to stop once more after 50 yards. I fired again and put it down. Jubilation, excitement, relief and finally sadness were the emotions felt at the time. When we approached this monarch of the mountains, we saw it was everything we had worked so hard to find and more. The tape measured 48 inches around its horn with those beautiful ivory tips. All the signs of an old bull were there – gray muzzle, very heavy gnarled horns, scars everywhere. Alex aged the animal at 10 – 12 years old. While not a monster by southern standards, it was a beauty for this region, placing somewhere in the top ten.
Alex and the tracker caped the kudu and packaged its meat for the journey back across the mountains and to the valley below. Daganou, our tracker, built a fire and the porter roasted some choice cuts while he followed a “bee bird” to a beehive in a hollow tree about 100 yards away. I’m not sure if anyone knows the origin of the relationship between this bird and man, but I’ve actually seen it work on several occasions. The bird makes a distinctive call and will actually lead a native to the hive, whereupon the man smokes out the bees and absconds with the honey. In exchange for the bird’s help, the man leaves him a portion of the honeycomb.
I sure the bird probably consumes many of the groggy bees as well. According to legend, if the man fails to leave the bird some of the honey, perhaps the next time the bird will lead him to a cobra, hippo, croc or other dangerous thing.
We sat there eating kudu and wild honey and I had to believe it just doesn’t get much better than this. The long walk out in midday heat was tough but was made infinitely easier by our success this morning. When we hit the Land Rover, the adrenaline high that had carried me this far evaporated, I fell into a deep sleep on our ride back to camp.
That afternoon, Dave remarked about all the doves we’d seen, seemingly thousands around our camp. We decided to recruit a few of the youngsters in camp to shag birds and proceeded to the sandbar where the birds were drinking. I took a few shots and went about 50 percent then handed the shotgun to Dave who proceeded to put on the finest exhibition of wing shooting I had ever seen. Dave went 45 for 50 with the camp side-by-side double trigger shotgun, with its taped together stock and a tendency to double fire. I sat next to Dave and watched the kids scurrying to pick up downed birds and throw rocks at overly curious crocs.
Dave and Kidane proceeded to the mountains in search of the elusive klipspringer. Neither of us had ever seen this tiny antelope and had previously asked Alex and Kidane what they looked like and where to find them. Kidane laughed and told us to look for them on the rock ledges and to look for something green. Green?
Dave and Kidane began the long trek up the mountainous terrain during the heat of the day. After reaching their objective, they glassed for about thirty minutes before Dave spotted his first klipspringer, And by gosh, it was sort of green! Dave estimated the range at about 300 yards with no way to approach closer. With the animal facing him, Dave held just about between the horns and touched off his .300 Winchester. Suddenly, the klipspringer made a dash for the brush, escaped unscathed and left brother Dave scratching his head.
“The bullet should have dropped about six inches at 300 yards and I should have taken him cleanly holding just between his horns,” he said. They walked off the distance to the rock where the klipspringer had been, and to their amazement the distance measured only 150 yards. Indeed, the bullet had traveled precisely where the sights had indicated.
Before dusk, Kidane located another and estimated the range at 200 yards. Dave had a perfect rest over a ledge and the trophy was his. A beauty. You have to see and observe these unique animals to appreciate them. Their nickname, “rockhopper” fits them perfectly.
During the remaining days, we would take trophies of beisa oryx, gerenuk, Defassa waterbuck, Newman’s hartebeest, lion, warthog, klipspringer, dik dik, jackal, and several types of small wild cats indigenous to the area. Those trophies provided many thrills and required all our combined skills to obtain. Each evening, we recounted the days adventures over highballs beside a campfire and afterward, a hearty meal. A particular event one evening late in the hunt, left both Dave and me with goose bumps and a warm comfortable feeling inside.
To show us their appreciation for providing so much fresh meat and also for dispatching a problem lion, the entire population of the local village came to dance and sing about the hunters that killed the buffalo and lion, how happy the villagers were, how courageous the hunters must be, who the natives were that helped them and how brave they must be as well. Native honey beer flowed, roasts and ribs were cooked over open flames, and there were big lies and bigger eyes around the campfires that evening.
All good things eventually come to an end and when we finally heard the whine of the Otter’s engines above the clouds, we knew our safari was over. We had spent time in a place visited by very few and felt privileged to have done so. And we had done it together, not only as brothers but as good friends.—Daniel & David Sowerby