Editors Note: On Fridays we dust off some of the old issues in the Safari Magazine archives and visit the past. This week we follow Capt. John H. Brandt (ret) on a very… interesting safari to Ethiopia. This story first appeared in the September/October 1993 issue of Safari Magazine.
Have you ever been on one of those hunts where nothing monumental or particularly exciting ever happened, a hunt that went just like the advertisement in the magazine or propaganda brochure?
Then there is the rare hunt, which seldom comes by, so packed full of odd happenings that when you tell the stories no one really believes you anyway.
Such an exception was a hunt to Ethiopia I took with my old hunting companion Jim Longley.
Col. Negussi Eshete met us at the Addis Ababa airport and guided us through the tangle of bureaucracy known as Customs and Immigration. Eventually, we were on our way to the Danakil Desert northeast of the highlands where the capital is located.
The Danakil is a place where the dedicated trophy hunter can collect animals found in few other places in Africa. Beisa oryx, Abysinnian bushbuck and Cordeaux’s dik dik interspersed with populations of gerenuk, Abyssinian greater kudu and lesser kudu dwell there. The environment is as inhospitable as any a Death Valley realtor ever cast eyes on. Parts of the Danakil Depression which are as much as 300-400 feet below sea level, are so inhospitable that human survival hangs on a thread. Being too far, or too long, from a water supply may mean the inability to get back in time to offset the extremes of dehydration that afflict every living thing there. Parts of this area were only traversed by westerners in the years just before World War II – the most noted being the 1928 expedition through the area by L. M. Nesbitt. Somewhat north of the hunting area earlier expeditions by Murzinger, Gialetti and Bianchi had all met with disaster, human or natural. Even today governmental control has only left a thin facade over the area.
The people indigenous to the Danakil are the Afars and the Issas, and the government seems to have established an understanding with these tribes of: “We won’t bother you if you don’t do nasty, inhospitable things like highjacking trucks on the Addis to Djibouti or Asmara run, robbing buses, waylaying European tourists or shooting at big game hunters.”
Dependent for survival on tending starving bags of bones -goats, sheep, donkey and camels – the Afars jealously guard water supplies, which is understandable in an environment where water is the difference between life and death and is not a commodity to share lightly with anyone. Consequently,misguided individuals who innocently or with malicious intent partake of an uninvited drink from a waterhole may find it their last chance and biggest mistake.
The Afars are a handsome nilotic group of sun-baked warriors with European features. Every man is an arsenal, and the AK-47 assault rifle is the recognized symbol of manhood. Only the poorest indigent carries a bolt action anymore, which means they must have felt truly sorry for us poor hunters carrying rifles that were obviously no match for their automatic weapons of mass mayhem. Condescendingly, they examined our rifles and were fascinated by the contraption on top that made distant things come close and close things appear distant depending on how you looked through the gadget. We were equally interested in the Kalashnikovs complete with candy-striped stock decorations and an ostrich plume stuck in the muzzle to keep out the sand.
As we made our way across the flat desert grasslands north of Awash, towards some low hilly areas bordering the depression, my Ethiopian companions said quite emphatically that they would not go beyond a pile of rocks to which they pointed and insisted I also go just so far and then turn back. Inquiry about their reluctance disclosed that just before our arrival in the area another hunting party had accidentally stumbled across a cache of smuggled Afar contraband. The hunters knew better than to interfere with matters of local commerce and left but also, inadvertently, left behind tire tracks of the hunting vehicle. Later the camp boys, not recognizing honor among thieves, returned to steal the smuggled items hoping to turn a quick profit after the safari. Needless to say, the Afars did not take kindly to this breach of protocol and set up an ambush to even things out. The tire tracks convinced them that the safari hunters must be involved. The car took a burst of gunfire that missed the client but wounded the PH before the fire fight sorted itself out and both parties judiciously headed in opposite directions.Beyond the invisible trespass barrier my people would not go and to save face, I quickly made it known that it didn’t look like there was much game in the area anyway.
In the southern Danakil is a vast plain called Aleaduga – flat as a billiard table with only grass stubble and virtually no rocks, bushes or other obstructions to block miles of clear visibility. Out hunting one day near a place called Ali Degi we spied a cluster of objects in
the distance that didn’t look like part of the normal scene. Driving a bit closer, we could see through the binoculars that one clump was an obviously dead oryx and the other clump, about 15 yards away, was a delegation of vultures. We scrutinized the situation and wondered why, with a feast before them, the vultures weren’t feeding on the carcass.Throwing the hunting car in gear we closed the gap to get a closer look.
Pulling up next to the dead oryx caused the vultures to flap off a few feet but then a scenario unfolded that made it one of those stories that you’d better have pictures to support or no one would believe you.
From the abdominal cavity of the oryx a head with big yellow eyes popped out and very carefully looked us over. Our first learned identification, clouded by shock, was “it’s a caracal! No, it’s a cheetah!” Then the rest of the creature behind the yellow eyes emerged and we could see we were virtually face to face with a half-grown leopard! Figuring that there was no reasonable place to run or hide the leopard blasted one of those blood curdling snarls that conveyed the “don’t mess with me, buddy” message only too clearly. Then very slowly and nonchalantly, it walked away from us. It took a few moments to regain our composure but then the chase was on. We had no permit for leopard, but we figured – without giving the idea much sensible thought – that we had to catch it. Now, catching a leopard barehanded is not advised for anyone concerned about their complexion or who can’t stand the sight of blood. These were thoughts in our mind but the camp boys were experiencing an adrenaline high and, pulling up next to the leopard, they bounded out with a gunny sack, a T-shirt and some assorted rags from the truck and dived into what I expected would be like grabbing a running chainsaw. Since there is no script for such a scenario, neither the leopard nor the would-be captors knew what to expect of the other and without so much as a scratch (remember, I have the photographs) one boy grabbed a tail,another a leg and a third throttled the startled leopard who in its own state of shock at this treatment, was making more noise than doing what it should have been doing – biting and scratching.In seconds it was trussed up like the proverbial pig in a poke and, still snarling a blue fury, was lifted into the back of the truck. For safaris that comeback empty handed, time after time, in a quest for a leopard – I can now tell you how it is done bare handed! Back at camp I wondered what disposition awaited the leopard. We had no cage stout enough to hold it so a window was rolled down in a spare Land Rover in camp and with loosened bonds the cat was dumped in. Some meat and water was added lo the ersatz cat cage but the leopard was having much too much fun demolishing the inside of the vehicle to take time out to eat. Made to with stand rough treatment, I am sure the manufacturers of the Land Rover never envisioned such an event or such indignities to their vehicle. I’m glad I didn’t have to use that vehicle for hunting after that because it just wasn’t the same anymore. A few days later we gave the leopard to the superintendent of the Awash Park. Getting the leopard out was a reverse play by play of the capture. With the boys each holding a cowboy loop on a stout string attached to a stick,they maneuvered the noose over one foot at a time until the leopard was spread-eagled then wrapped back into the gunny sack to go on to its new home- again without a disemboweled camp boy or even a scratch!
Our camp on the banks of the AwashRiver was a verdant location and it was hard to believe that the beautiful stream with its riverine forest would fritter away into nothingness in the sands of the remote reaches of the Danakil Desert many miles to the northeast. The river was full of huge crocodiles that soon found that the eviscerated goodies from our animals, which were dumped into the river by the camp boys, proved a lot easier to fill the gut than trying to catch fish. It got to the point where audacious crocs hauled up on the bank and tried to carry off trophy carcasses before we were finished with them!
The last part of our safari was a cross-country trek to the Arussi Mountains in south central Ethiopia with a short side jaunt enroute to collect Meneliks bush-buck in the Munessa Forest. Bv this time our accumulation of hunting trophies included oryx, kudu, gerenuk, reedbuck, bushbuck and a multitude of lesser lights that filled the back of a now scruffy Land Rover trashed by the leopard. The memorable part of our convoy was that none of the heads had been boiled out or cleaned and had, with an assortment of legs, ribs and other possibly edible meat products, been thrown into the back of the vehicle. The 100 degree heat after several days had developed a situation in the vehicle that is hard to find words to describe. When the tailgate was lowered I truly believe grass wilted for 50 yards in every direction. Everyone astute enough to see that the tailgate was to be opened made a quick retreat to get on the upwind side or suffer the consequences of seared lungs. I often had looked out of the window to see if vultures were following us across Ethiopia but I think that we were a bit too much even for them. I truly pitied the poor taxidermist who had to under-take the job of cleaning up the putrid mess back in Addis Ababa at the end of the hunt.
We made our camp several miles from the main road near the base of the mountains. A spear toting Oromo was appointed as camp guard to keep the hyenas at bay and to keep petty thievery at a minimum. Although the Arussis are hunted primarily for mountain nyala it also harbors the most beautiful hyenas in all of Africa. The cold produces heavy shaggy coats and several times I saw polka-dotted individuals with beautiful pelts – if that adjective can ever be fairly applied to a hyena. Our arrival coincided with the arrival of a weather front that brought in rain, fog, wind and all the other things a hunt can well do without. When we got up in the morning to mount our scrawny little mountain ponies, led by a local mountaineer, it was still pitch black out as we felt our way towards the base of the mountain. With the approach of daylight we could see that visibility was zilch and our wanderings for the next several hours were like groping around in a bowl of milk. Jim and I split company, naively hoping the fog might be less dense on one side of the mountain than the other. Scout teams left us to scour the hillsides futilely looking for nyala.
On the third day of this ordeal I rode my pony under an overhanging rock outcrop on one of the peaks to get out of the weather as best I could. Sitting on my steed I looked down and saw a pile of weathered human bones lying on the ground under the overhang. I asked the interpreter what they were.
“Man die here,” he said.
I started to say, “Damn it, I know that,” but he quickly expanded on his original observations.
“Many more inside,” he told me. When I asked them where, the men all pointed toward a shallow crevice at the base of the overhang. I got off the pony and found that the opening they pointed to was about the height that a man on hand and knees could crawl through. I could see inside what appeared to be two huge rock-walled rooms. There were crack fissures at the top allowing daylight to enter. I could see quite well – and got the shock of my life! The rooms were filled with human skeletons lying in a jumble of craniums, pelvises, ribs and limb bones. As I started to enter, the men grabbed my legs pulling me back, shouting and insisting that there may be a leopard in there. Fully convinced that no self-respecting leopard would have stayed around while all this commotion was going on I deferred and crawled back out into the rain. Besides, catching one leopard bare-handed was enough for any safari!
Yes, there are safaris where nothing unusual ever happens. Then, there are safaris where the events are such that you had better have affidavits and photographs to back up your stories or no one will buy them. Our safari to Ethiopia was one of those!–Capt. John H. Brandt (Ret.)