It was late morning when our hunting team found a good track. Okay, it wasn’t the first track of the day; at dawn we followed a buffalo bull, waving off after we bumped him a third time in really thick stuff. But this was the track we’d been hoping for, the rounded, slightly oblong track of a big bongo bull, not just fresh, but over our own tracks from a couple of hours earlier. We marked it carefully and headed back to camp. By agreement, this was not to be my track; we thought my hunting partner, Jason Hornady, might need it.
We were in northern Congo with Congo Forest Safaris — me hunting with Christophe Morio, Jason off in another direction with Yannick Exalto. Also in camp was Jean-Luc Damy, a partner in Congo Forest Safaris and Attacora Safaris in Benin. All three are seasoned forest hunters with long experience in Central Africa and a lot of bongo hunts behind them. We were in good hands, and we were in a good place. The Congo operation was just in its second year. Starting with near-virgin forest, they’d developed a trail network and too many salt licks to count. The camp was easily the best I’ve seen in the forest zone with sturdy chalets (air conditioned!) and awesome camp fare.
Jason and I had been planning this hunt, his first forest safari, for nearly five years. Scheduling had been difficult; we’d gone back and forth, finally settling on late May 2018 in Congo. Everybody has their own ideas and, like everything connected with hunting the African forest, right times and places are a bit random.
I like late May because that’s a time when it should rain frequently. Rain is important not only because it keeps tracks fresh but, in my experience, Africa’s forest animals are most active just after a rain possibly because they feel more secure when the forest is quiet. It’s a fine line — the old adage is “no rain, no bongo.” Too much rain and the roads quickly become impassable. We settled on Congo in part because I’d never hunted there, but also this area was interesting because, though somewhere beyond the end of the world, was accessible without a costly charter — Commercial from Brazzaville to Ouesso, and reasonably good roads.
The plan sounded perfect, but sometimes life intervenes. Jason had some commitments develop and had to cut his hunt short. That was worrisome. A bongo was Jason’s primary animal. The Congo forest has plenty of bongos, easily the most numerous large animal. The area is huge, with much development needed, but the outfit has focused on developing bongo hunting first. From the start, they’ve been dramatically successful, taking several exceptional bulls. Still, a bongo is a bongo. They’re tricky, conditions need to be favorable and it’s a hunt that can’t be rushed. A good, fresh bull track must be found, and in order to leave tracks the bongo must move.
At the outset it appeared that Jason would have a full seven hunting days. That’s minimal, but in this area—at this time—nobody was concerned. The schedule got complicated because that marvelously convenient Ouesso flight only runs a couple days a week. When things were finalized, he lost a couple of days. I wasn’t concerned for myself—I was there for the duration—but I figured we were pushing it for Jason to get a bongo, especially if it didn’t rain (or rained too much). Roll the dice, nothing to be done about it.
Travel was long but simple, Ethiopian Air through Addis, the only issue was that Jason’s bag didn’t arrive and that was solved by a short hike to a mall just down the street from our hotel. Brazzaville proved a surprisingly nice little city, with the skyline of huge Kinshasa just across the broad Congo River. The commercial flight from Brazzaville to Ouesso was a dream. This was my 12th safari in Africa’s forest zone, and by far the easiest access. We were in camp for a late lunch with plenty of time to check the rifles that afternoon.
It’s almost impossible to bring your own firearms into Congo, so you’re at the mercy of your outfitter’s equipment. These guys had it wired. They had two Ruger M77 Hawkeyes in .375 Ruger with our choice of low-power Leupold scope or Aimpoint, already set in Ruger mounts, and plenty of Hornady 300-grain DGX Bonded. The rifles came into zero quickly; Jason chose the scope while I went with the Aimpoint for tracking buffalo and bongo. After Jason left, we switched around a bit and I used a magnifying scope for sitting in machans for sitatunga.
A big rain fell four days before we arrived, but already the forest was a bit dry with little movement at the salt licks. Christophe and I had little trouble finding buffalo tracks to follow, but in climax forest following tracks and getting a shot aren’t quite the same. On the second morning, Yannick and Jason found and followed a good bongo track, but he joined a small herd and that was that. The pygmies and their dogs are marvelous, but to avoid disaster a clear bull track is needed.
We were having a great time. The camp was friendly and comfortable, and the trail cam photos of bongos, gorillas and all the other forest animals were amazing. But we had made a risky gamble; no matter how hard we tried to keep it light, the pressure was there, and it was building. Fortunately, the clouds were building, too, with lightning on the horizon and distant thunder. I woke up at midnight to gusting wind, followed by serious rain continuing until long after dawn. That scotched our opportunities for that morning, but in the forest the second morning after a big rain is often the ticket.
That second morning after the rain wasn’t Jason’s last day, but his clock was ticking. On that perfect morning, Jason and Yannick went east to check the primary bongo salt licks, while Christophe and I went north with the agreement that we’d mark any good bongo tracks and meet back at camp at midday. That could give Jason an afternoon backup plan. Midday came and went, lunch was on hold and I was starving. It’s a half-million acres of dense forest, anything can happen and, in the distance, I heard Jason’s pygmies singing the bongo song.
Yannick and his team had found a good bull track at the first salt lick they checked. They followed for half an hour and his bongo was down before full daylight — a gorgeous bull with long, heavy horns. My turn would come a few days later, but for now all pressure fell away and we celebrated a perfect bongo hunt in a perfect forest camp.–Craig Boddington