Big Things In The Water

Hippo Hunt, Fisherman Polling boat
A fisherman volunteered to handle this recovery, earning a nice tip and all the meat he could carry away in the process. He polled the hippo nearly 200 yards to a sloped bank, where a waiting throng quickly handled the butchering.

If looks could kill, the mean-mugging woman on the fishing boat would have done for us all right there and then kicked our corpses straight to Hell without a flutter of remorse. As circumstance kindly permitted, we passed close enough to give her a good and proper judging right back. I’ll simply relate that she appeared to be the kind of gal who planted vegetables in a communal garden with hope of earning enough money for another body piercing. Something about her ill-fitting attire and unrefined carriage also suggested she maintained nothing more than a shirttail relationship with soap and possibly razors.

Her reaction was a most spectacular demonstration of disgust. Perched atop the fishing seat on the forward platform of a sleek metal-flaked 22-footer, she commenced a fevered clucking the moment our humble craft strained into sight. Her loathing glare never wavered as she swiveled to keep us square, tracking our anemic progress like the nose gunner of a B-24. An accompaniment of gesticulations rose quickly to a frenzied crescendo, rocking the boat to the point that its capsize became a distinct possibility.

We had every bit of it coming.

The professional hunter skippering our boat had cut hard into a bend of the narrow, meandering channel to follow its deepest part. My side of the hull was plowing reeds when we popped out within spitting distance of where the startled fisherpersons were anchored. Moonbeam didn’t have a line in, but the poor fellow in the other chair was frantically reeling to keep us from snagging the lure he’d cast across the slack.

Big-things-in-Water-hippos-in-riverSeveral of us cradled rifles, their cases soaked with water and slathered with cow dung during the rescue of a herdsman’s drowning day-old calf just upriver. Any other time, we would have been cased up so as not to ruffle any genteel feathers while passing through the tourist area.

Anyway, the woman began chittering as soon as she noticed the rifles, but what pushed her over the edge was the dead hippo being towed along in our wake. In truth, the hippo was actually submerged but for an errant leg periscoping well clear of the surface. The leg rocked slowly back and forth like a metronome’s pendulum, or better yet in a motion similar to the peanut butter-spreading wave favored by the British Royals–minus a white glove. I’m surprised the spectacle didn’t bring her to stroke.

From behind someone whispered, “Don’t do it, Dwight,” but the words were already forming. “Catch anything today,” I asked, with as much innocence and sincerity as could be mustered.

Instead of answering, the woman whirled her chair toward the unfortunate men in her boat and began pitching a fit. The driver/guide from one of the lodges downstream wilted during the initial stages of the onslaught and politely turned away. The other guy must have been her husband, for he took it all without breaking eye contact and shook his head in commiseration.

“Was she speaking German or French,” I wondered out loud. One of the younger guys still had most of his hearing and assured it was the language of love, which of course explained everything.

Big-things-Water-wadingNone of this was planned. Only four hours before, our assorted half dozen had piled into Jamy Traut’s double hull river boat and let 60 Yamaha horses scoot it down Namibia’s Chobe River and then upstream in the Kasai Channel of the Zambezi. Two of us were hunting, me for the elephant of my dreams and a friend for hippopotamus and crocodile. As required, we stopped near Kasane to collect a game ranger and while doing so learned that some locals were having some trouble with a hippo. From the translated description, the bull had come out on the short end of a territorial fight and taken refuge in a backwater just in front of a village. Once there, he’d been threatening the fisherman and making a nightly mess of the ripening crops. “That, or the headman just wants some meat,” observed the PH. “Either way, he might be the kind of bull we’re after. It won’t take long to find out.”

Thanks to a cell call, the headman knew we were coming and had men picketed along the bank. They enthusiastically directed us into a backwater pool that was maybe 150 meters wide with the hippo’s head in evidence near the other side. We tied off and hid along the bank until the bull moved closer and the angle was right. I shot the range and my friend shot the hippo where his ear joined everything else. An hour later we saved the drowning calf and soon after got a rope on one of the bull’s hind legs.

The river was running low and the banks were steep thereabouts, so the game scout made a call to his boss and a plan was formed. “We will pull the hippo down the river until we find a place for butchering. Men are coming in another boat and will meet us so we can move him out of the water. They are worried, because blood brings crocodiles.” Three of us exhibited some degree of foresight and suggested it might not be a good idea to troll with a hippo, tourists and all, but the game scout was unrelenting and the high banks really didn’t offer an option.

Bull Hippo
The author killed this spectacular bull on land after stalking inside 25 yards. A Kimber Model 8400 Caprivi in .375 H&H proved itself a good choice when a quick brain shot was presented.

We managed to find a sandbar not long after the encounter with the fishing boat and the butchering crew arrived shortly thereafter. Following more effort than I care to remember, the hippo was rolled clear of the water. The fishing boat zipped by while we were taking pictures and took a few of their own, then whirled back and beached. To my absolute surprise, the glaring woman hopped out, came toward me and extended her hand. “Our guide explained,” she said through an accent, “that this meat would be given to the people and the money you are paying will help them as well. He also told us people had been threatened by this animal. I apologize for my earlier reaction, but have never been around hunting of animals and thought you would just chop off the head and leave.”

“I’ve heard that before,” I managed, “but the truth is nothing goes to waste.” She stayed for some time and even had her picture taken beside the bull. Try as I might, she wouldn’t do the same holding my rifle.

Sometimes hippo hunting is like that, little more than waiting for the right angle when the keg-size head pops up. Only a year before and in nearly the same place, I’d had a much different experience.

Two of us wanted hippo and tossed a coin for first-shot honors. I lost, as always. Jamy took the other hunter up the Kasai Channel. Another PH and I followed what our game scout thought was a promising branch. We met up with Jamy’s group some time later, and before a word was spoken I knew they had seen some action.

Big Things in the Water tall grass
Sorting out a hippo in the tall grass is always exciting and sometimes dangerous. This time it ended well. The time before turned into a gunfight, so everyone was on edge.

“We found a fantastic bull,” the hunter related. “He was standing on the bank and hit the river as soon as he saw the boat. We watched him go into the reeds and decided to follow. Jamy got me right on him. I shot for the heart and then put two more in somewhere as he ran away.”

They waited for some time, then took the trail and got close enough to hear labored breathing. At that instant the bull came crashing toward them, either charging or simply running in their direction. In either case, there was no opportunity for a shot due the impossibly thick cover. They backed away in a hurry.

“On the way out,” the hunter continued, “the game scout found another big bull in the same patch of reeds. Here’s the plan, we’re going to sneak in past the wounded bull and let you try for the other one. After yours is down, we’ll follow up on mine. Five rifles are better than two, right?”

Being a product of a public school system, I thought this to be the makings of a fine idea.

Up the channel and into the reeds we went, solids being the order of the day. I had a .375 H&H Magnum, just enough gun on paper. Still, I couldn’t help but wish for the .500 N.E. double I’d left back home. After creeping along for some time, people in front of me began pointing. Jamy turned and mouthed “25 yards,” but I couldn’t see half that distance. I was signing my frustration back when Jamy’s cell phone rang loudly, his ring tone being that of an elephant trumpeting.

Rifle and sunset in Africa
In hippo country, big rifles are the norm. A .375 H&H is good and one of the .416s about right. Bigger is always better, especially if you catch a bull on land.

Caught between laughing and crying at the irony and timing, I managed to keep it together when the hippo stood and quickly turned in our direction. Thankfully, there was nothing between my front sight and the inverted “V” on his forehead except what we measured later as 22 yards. The old bull collapsed at the shot.

We took our time with photos then went to “sort out” the wounded bull, as Jamy wonderfully declared. Like before, the cover was so dense we could hear breathing several minutes in advance of a shot being fired. The finisher was triggered at about ten feet. Another followed, just to make sure.

I’ve never been involved with a hippo hunt that wasn’t both intense and enjoyable, but the one I remember most fondly involved a friend on his first trip to Africa. He’d never been after anything larger than a mule deer, so every aspect of the experience was something of a wonderment. Of course, the rest of us weren’t above having some fun at his expense.

It had come pass that a bull had taken up residence in a swampy area next to a village of several hundred people. They seemed to look past his nightly vocalization, but there were several instances when fisherman polling the tippy dugout boats called makoros and women washing clothes along the shore had been intimidated. This community had recently lost someone in this same channel to a crocodile, so they hadn’t yet regained their sense of humor about such things.

We stopped at the village each morning to see if they had a fix on the bull, and after doing this several times managed to be in the right place at the right time. “The bull was heard not long ago, just over the hill,” the game scout relayed. “He is in a good place to hunt.” Down we went, our little group looking like the Wild Bunch with culling belts. A significant number of villagers trailed along in our wake.

After casually asking each member of the party how many rounds they were carrying, I hooked a thumb over my shoulder at the parade. “You’d better shoot straight,” I said flatly to the designated shooter, “or we might have some trouble getting back to the truck. These guys look pretty hungry, and they brought their butchering tools.” Indeed they had, for every last man and most of the women was casually brandishing an axe, machete or long-bladed knife.

Big things in the water elephants along river bank
Hippo hunting often means long treks between isolated pools, with the added bonus of spotting other species along the way.

The hippo was in the water and some distance away. After looking things over, Jamy asked the game scout to speak with the headman regarding the need for stealth and patience. The villagers soon took up something of a festival seating arrangement in a grassy area. “This looks like Woodstock with guns,” I said to lighten the moment. As soon as a hint of calm spread across my friend’s face, I prodded him again. “Just take your time and don’t blow it.”

Jamy shot me one of his polite “enough is enough” glances, explained what was about to happen and then took us on a brisk 30-minute hike to a high bank above where the bull was last seen. A stolen glance showed him about 80 yards out and looking in the other direction.

As soon as the hippo submerged, everyone scrambled into position. When the bull popped up, the shot went off and the head simply disappeared with little more than a ripple. Jamy then set about assuring everyone the shot had been perfect, which it was.

We backtracked to the waiting throng and shared the news. One of the fishermen brought his makoro into play and soon located the still-submerged hippo with the pole, then tried to snag him with the anchor line. This went on for a bit, at which point a brave individual who had clearly been celebrating in anticipation of the upcoming feast threw himself into the water and thrashed toward the salvage operation. Talk amongst our party quickly shifted to crocodiles and several bolts click-clacked at about the same time. In contrast, those with journalism degrees scrambled to find a good vantage and soon had their cameras standing on tripods.

Although without incident, it sure was something to watch the fisherman and his helper relocate the hippo to the near bank. Once in the shallows, the bulk was soon rolled far enough out of the water that butchering could begin. Of course, the crowd first acknowledged the contributions of the captain and his first mate, then someone encouraged a big cheer in honor of the hunter as he posed with his trophy. “Too bad you’re already married,” I whispered. “A couple of these gals seem pretty impressed.”

We carved a good chunk of meat for ourselves before leaving and feasted on it the next night. The other hunters spent most of the following day fondly recalling their dinner “from the bushes.” It didn’t bother me in the slightest. In fact, the meat was most toothsome and I can’t wait to try it again. With hippo, there’s always enough to go around.

Hunting a hippo is a fantastic addition to an elephant or Cape buffalo safari in places like the Caprivi Strip. As trophy fees go, it is an absolute bargain and a hippo skull is a striking trophy. More importantly, it’s fun, and I can’t wait to do it again. Even better, I’ll tag along with someone after their first hippo and enjoy the experience through their eyes.–Dwight Van Brunt

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