Intense heat and low visibility make this Cameroon bongo hunt a challenge!
It’s 9:00 am on the 12th day of my bongo hunt. The team of pygmy trackers, their dogs, my PH Guav Johnson, my outfitter and temporary cameraman Dean Stobbs and I have spent the past three hours tracking a bongo. We are walking as fast as the dense jungle permits and I frequently stumble as vines and creepers alternately grab my ankles or attack my head, often at the same time. Even at the snail’s pace at which we move, the rising heat of the Cameroon forest belies the early hour and foretells another uncomfortable day.
The dogs suddenly begin to bark. My excitement immediately ramps up to a level matched only by the humidity. Visibility being what it is in the dense forest, we can’t see the dogs, but we know they’re close. We are trying to get to them before the animal can escape. As we get closer to the sound of the baying dogs, I vaguely see our trackers behind large trees or actually climbing trees. They are taking no chances. I see a flash of orange, but can’t see a head, or much at all, for all of the greenery in the way. My PH is whispering to me to stay close to him. And then . . . “Female.” He silently motions us to back out as quickly as we safely can.
I am not only physically spent, I’m emotionally exhausted. In the first five days of our hunt, the rains were non-existent, and we had been unable to follow any bongo tracks, even if we’d been able to find them in the dry soil. This was the rain forest where they say it rains every day—but not for the past five days. We had tried nonetheless, rising early every day, eating lunch in the forest, and returning to camp after dark.
When the rain finally comes on the sixth day of my hunt, it comes in biblical torrents and the humidity reaches levels unknown in the arid part of Western Canada where I live. I am soaked to the skin by 9:00 am every day and dry off only when I stand up in the back of the truck when returning to camp in the evening. Neither a shower nor a bed provides any respite from the humidity and I find it almost impossible to sleep in the stifling air of my hut, tossing and turning as I sweat into my sheets and pillow. The 4:30 am wake-up knock comes too quickly every morning. Even so, we’re in the truck by 5:30 am, the pessimism of the previous evening replaced with fresh hope that comes with the dawn of every new day on the hunt.
But still no bongo.
I quickly learn the three cardinal rules of bongo hunting—Fresh—Large–Alone. Tracks have to be fresh, as in the same day, or there is no point to following them as the bongo will have wandered so far in a day that following old tracks is a waste of precious time. Tracks have to be large, since there is no point in tracking a female, or an immature male (although, as we found out, even females can have big feet!). Lastly, there must be only one set of tracks. If you follow a group, the dogs will invariably bay the weakest animal, and that’s never the bongo you want.
These rules are important. Tracking bongo is a difficult job. Those parts of the forest most congenial to bongo tend to be the areas that have been logged of high canopy trees. As the sun reaches down to the forest floor for perhaps the first time in years beyond reckoning, shrubs, vines, creepers and smaller trees grow in profusion, protecting bongo and making walking an ordeal.
I quickly find that in the forest, every living thing wants to eat you, bite you, sting you or suck your blood (and in some cases multiples of these), and even much of the decor is covered in thorns or is otherwise noxious. Having the trackers swinging machetes ahead of us helps, but only marginally. The dense growth almost guarantees you will see no animals as you walk through the forest. As the long and uncomfortable days pass, I rarely see any animal, let alone anything I might consider taking a shot at. Never before in any hunt have I gone this many days without firing my rifle, other than by choice. My morale is not helped by the one other hunter in camp finding a bongo not a kilometer from the Mayo Oldiri Safaris Lokomo camp on the 10th day of my hunt, and after only a few hundred yards of tracking through the forest. Yes, I am happy for him; but at the same time I can’t shake the feeling that I’m fated to be unlucky on this hunt. I am angry with myself for having these feelings, and that only reinforces the downward spiral.
As I toss and turn in my sweat-soaked bed on the 11th night of my hunt, and with only three hunting days left, I begin to reconcile myself to leaving empty-handed. Even worse, given my goal of getting the nine spiral-horned antelope, is the prospect of having to return to the jungles of Cameroon where the heat and humidity combine to make me more miserable than I can recall being on any hunt.
Not long before noon, we meet the other hunter in camp who is driving with his PH, taking pictures and generally passing the time, since he’s filled his license. His PH, Herve, upon hearing our tale, tells Guav they drove by a large track some miles up the road. Herve hadn’t paid much attention to the tracks, and couldn’t say how fresh they were, but since we have nothing else to go on, we decide to take a look.
Not long after, we arrive at our destination. We find the tracks readily enough, and after some minutes of scouting around, peering at the tracks, the head tracker and Guav engage in a quiet discussion. Guav tells me he thinks this is a bongo worth following, but given that it is now after noon, we have to move quickly to try and catch up to the animal, and so begins our second march of the day.
The walking is painfully slow, even by the standards we have set over the past 12 days, and the sun is at its peak, as are the heat and humidity. Sweat is pouring down my face within minutes, but we push on. We encounter swamps, the like of which we have not seen before, with mud that creates an almost unbreakable bond with our boots, but we push on.
By 3:00 pm, I am done in. With every step I take, I think of nothing other than the fact that I will have to retrace these same steps to get back to the truck. We haven’t eaten since 5:00 am, and I am going through our water far too quickly. Guav can see that I am nearing my limit, and he calls a halt to the procession to have a brief chat about what our plan should be. I can see he is torn between continuing to follow the track, and his concern that we have to be out of the jungle before darkness sets in. Night–as black as tar–comes quickly in the forest, and Guav has no intention of spending the night there.
As we discuss our options, one of the dogs, not far away, begins to bark. We quickly glance over, and seeing more guinea hens, assume the dog is chasing them as before. Guav tells a tracker to shut the dog up, and we resume our discussion. Within seconds, the tracker comes running back, eyes agog, whispering over and over again “le bongo est là – le bongo est là” (the bongo is there; the bongo is there).
Adrenaline is a wonderful thing, and I am never so grateful for a shot of it as I am at this moment. Guav grabs me by the shirt and we run about 10 yards and from that distance I can barely see the bongo about thirty yards away with a couple of the dogs barking at him. Guav must have had a better look, because he says it’s a good one and we should shoot it, quickly, because there aren’t enough dogs there to hold it, and asks if I think I can get a shot into him and I say I think I can. Without thinking, I quickly find a tree limb to support my rifle, and take the shot, and then we run up, closing about half the distance, but we can’t see the bongo anymore. We start to close the distance even more, but slowly now since we think we’re getting closer. More dogs are barking, so we’re confident the bongo must still be there and, as we get closer still, we see the bongo lying on the ground, trying to fight the dogs with his horns. He gets one dog in the mouth and send him flying. The bongo is behind a large tree, and I am on one side with Guav on the other. I have a clean shot at him, but Guav tells me to wait until the trackers can call the dogs away. As soon as they move a few feet from the bongo, I put one more round from my iron-sighted .375 H&H Kilimanjaro African rifle into him and he dies on the spot. I actually fall over, exhausted.
As it turns out, when I reconstruct the action, I find that the initial shot, which broke the bongo’s spine, had in fact gone through a tree on its way to the bongo. Two inches higher, and it would have been a miss, and had the tree been larger or made of harder wood, or had I been using a lighter caliber, the bullet would never have reached the bongo at all. When luck finally turns, it can turn 180 degrees.– Henry W. Sykes