The rainforest of Cameroon

Ghost of the Rainforest

Julia and Oleg with bongo antelope
The author (r) and Oleg (l) celebrate the success of a challenging hunt.

It’s always exciting to hunt a trophy you never did before or to go to a new destination. But when Oleg and I planned our first bongo hunt, it did not seem anything extraordinary—we’ve been to Cameroon in savanna already and bongo is an antelope—we’ve done dozens of them before in different African countries. The only parameter that sounded really new was the “rainforest,” but for us rain was not frightening and forest was only attractive—that’s how I felt about it. Even the beginning of the trip with the delay of the flight and changing all the rest of the schedule couldn’t make us upset.

In Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon we spent a day while our guide was busy with formalities. “Do you have shin guards with you?” he asked. No, we didn’t, and the question seemed rather strange as we thought we had the right gear with us. The next morning, after three hours of driving, the real forest appeared on both sides of the road. It was spectacular and I couldn’t hide my admiration. “You like the forest?” Reinhard asked. “That’s good. You will stand it a couple of days longer than others do.” I was silent it was nonsense for me not to like the forest. His next question was puzzling “No claustrophobia?” This time we were sure our PH was joking and continued the dialogue rather playfully. “You’ve got our papers from the doctor; we are fit for the hunt,” I said. “That’s bureaucracy, not practice, we’ll see tomorrow,” he replied.

The rainforest of Cameroon
The Cameroon rainforest is thick, challenging and spectacular.

Our day started very early. It was dark, cool and wet. It was still dark when we entered the forest, and the team started working hard with their machetes. All those stock phrases like “the fifth ocean,” “lungs of the planet” or “the green giant” were absolutely true. Up close, the forest is not friendly. It is untidy, rotten, dark and slippery. Thin lianas are hard like wire, often thorny and trap the legs.

Shoes swelled, became too big and very heavy. Every step aside ended with an SOS cry and the team had to come and rescue me from liana captivity. In two hours we reached the natural salt lick where we started to look for bongo tracks. There was no air movement at all on our level of the forest. It was very still and empty. Our first day ended without any sign of bongo, but so what? It’s hunting!

The second day started the same. Everything that was cut yesterday seemed to recover during the night and formed a thick wall again.

Our camp is located on the edge of the forest. It is a small “all in one” house (cuisine, storage, shower – in different parts) and private tents on wooden platforms. The freezer (a bar) and the table (restaurant) are open-air, but covered with a rain shield. The cold shower makes us alive again and we start to discuss the first two hunting days. The bad news is that our feet are bleeding; there are wounds and blisters in every place where the skin touched seams—elbows, knees, waist—they all hurt. And we were so proud of our well worn-in comfortable hunting shoes only two days ago! Oleg realizes that his hunt is over.

Bearer with loaded pack
A bearer packs out the bongo using an improvised pack.

Next morning Oleg’s passion to hunt overcomes the pain and common sense and we decide to continue. If there are no fresh tracks, we’ll immediately return to camp. The minimal walking time will be seven hours, but if the hunt begins it will be 12 to 15 with the last three hours in the darkness. We go, limping. We stop often to change bandages and one pair of wet socks with another. We have to take care of our feet, because if we can’t walk, there will be no hunt.

We woke feeling much better and Reinhard proposed that we change the place and look for tracks at another salt place, but the trackers insist we continue. Finally our trackers discover bongo tracks. They started to examine the tracks and declare that the track is two days old. How can we catch up with the bongo? But we did not give up. “We are lucky to follow a lazy bongo,” Reihard jokes.

The next day’s tracking was even shorter, but much harder for us as the trackers, being excited, did not cut the lianas properly and walked faster and faster. But our bongo surprised us—it crossed our morning track and went toward our “exit signs.” We realized that the track is really very fresh and we are very close to the main goal of our hunt. Still seeing nothing, we rush into green. As nobody is cleaning the way now, Oleg practically hangs, trapped by thin hard lianas and one of the trackers has to return to save him. Two steps more and we see something red and white covered with green leaves. It looks like a scattered puzzle game, and the hunter can’t understand where the head or the tail of the animal is. The distance is less than 10 meters. The antelope is so close to us, that we hear it breathing and smell its adrenaline. I wonder if it smells ours?

Oleg and guide with bongo
Oleg (l) and Rheinhard (r) with the elusive bongo.

It starts to become dangerous. The sound of the shot was unexpected for everyone but Oleg himself. After the second shot, the bongo crashed down. As soon as our hearing returned, we all started to congratulate the hunter. We stared at the bongo, which really was beautiful and extremely bright. “Why such a beautiful animal lives in in this rotten environment,” wondered Oleg. “It’s like a dolphin in sewage.”“ You’ve got five minutes for photos, ”Reinhard says, bringing us back to reality. We agree. The trackers chop and cut everything around the trophy to let in some light; otherwise no photos are possible even with a flash. “Not a world record, but good enough,” Reinhard says.

The bongo hunt is unpredictable and that makes it mysterious. The animal seems to come from nowhere and vanish in the huge forest. It’s easy for bongo to escape, but it stands and stares at dogs and people whom it lets come so close either out of curiosity or self-confidence. The bright, big animal avoids people, but is not afraid, and is always ready to attack. Frankly, we know the life and behavior of the bongo only along the roads, having no idea what happens deep inside the rainforest.—Julia Zvereva

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