Editor’s Note: In the fourth and final segment, we pick up the 14-day Central African Republic safari on day 11. The author has already taken one Lord Derby eland but he’s still holding a pre-paid tag for a second one.
Day 11: In Search of a Giant
This overwhelming drive to succeed is essential in pursuit of specialized game. Always keep your options open when stalking. Don’t ever count yourself out and always trust your team on the ground. They’re embedded with the wildlife. As a client/hunter, you’re really just a 14, 17 or 21-day short timer. The PH and trackers know the hunting lands, animal behavior and the bush far better than you.
This acceptance and patience propelled me through the next two days as we entered Day 13, still in search of our second Derby eland. I’d fully inspected the photos along with the cape and horns of the first one and noticed how much room we had for improvement. I believe there is a 60-inch giant eland out there somewhere. There has to be. So on Day 11 and 12, I passed on a couple shooters in the same neighborhood as the one already in the salt. I was looking for a big black-maned minimum 55-incher now, and urged Andre to not even take the tracks, unless they indicated something spectacular might be in the herd when we catch up to it. I was completely willing to forego and eat the license fee of the second one, in the best interests of conservation and selectivity, if that’s what it came down to.
Three hours into the hike here on Day 13, Andre still expressed optimism that something spectacular might lie ahead, if we could ever catch up to a herd of 40 eland they spot-counted at the morning salt lick inspection. Just to make sure, he asked tracker Francois. Andre’s right hand insisted we stay on the tracks and try to locate the herd. An hour later we took a water break and I wondered if doubt was starting to creep into the minds of the trackers, as to if we’d ever see this supposed big herd. Were they content with just the one we already had hanging in the shed, or could magic strike twice?
We took the water break in an open area adjacent to some large rocks that looked like the outside of a large medieval cave. The height of the rocks created just enough shade to prevent the sun from beaming down on us. Kappie, Andre and I made small talk and drank water sparingly to preserve what might be needed later in the day. Three of the trackers took a power nap but the fourth one and the tallest, Jean-Jacques, decided he’d use his length, and crawled on top of the big boulders to get a better vantage point of what might be in front of us. As soon as he made it to the top, he started yelling “Elan, elan, elan!” Pointing his right index finger in the distance, excitedly he yelled again “Elan, elan, elan!” As Jean-Jacques climbed down from the rocks, we all bounded to our feet. Renewed optimism surged through me like a bolt of electricity and we got back on the trail, chasing the herd.
Unfortunately, however, we took off with too much excitement and kicked up just enough noise that caused us to be detected by the herd, which at one point was only 300 yards in front us. I could see the backs of them, and once again, as I had seen them do so many times on this safari, the herd of giant eland stampeded off, melting into the thick bush. But wait a minute, Andre had spotted something in the commotion that prompted him to immediately veer left. He did a quick check through his binos. Then he took us about 100 yards to the west before heading north again.
Mad Dash | The Gamechanger PH
“Guys stay with me. Come on!” Andre yelled. And we were all jogging now at a light pace. This effort would have gassed me on day one, but I’d built up endurance after 12 days of hunting here. “What was my PH doing?” I thought to myself. Fair chase in wide open C.A.R., Andre was somewhat familiar with the terrain in this patch of wilderness, to be convinced that after heading north the herd would eventually veer west at some point. And if that all played out just right, this herd of 40 some animals would be walking right into our ambush. We just had to get there far enough to the northwest before they did.
When Andre thought we were in proper position, having gone far enough westward, he told me to get ready, asked the trackers to hide and ordered us all not to make a sound. This entire hunt, time after time, the giant eland had whipped us. But this time it was our turn to outsmart them. And there I was — still as a statue, solid as a rock, on shooting sticks, gun facing east, as the herd slowly made its way west, at a meandering pace as if they’d been on the run all day. They were coming straight at me…150 yards…140 yards…130 yards…closing the distance between us.
“Marc?” begged Andre?
“Don’t even ask ‘Dre. I see him,” I replied.
We were both looking at the same thing. An imposing extraordinary looking animal. For Andre it was the second time he had seen this freakish bull, after first spotting him during the commotion that spooked the herd after Jean-Jacques had first fingered them. He was tall, a full 10 inches above anything else within the herd. Thick black neck. Black nose. He was all by himself off to the side, parallel to the larger bunch.
As I was staring at them trotting slowly towards us, with dewlaps flapping, the giant of the giants was on the far right. The rest of the pack was to the left, coming towards us, slowly making their way into an open savannah patch…120 yards…110 yards. Here came this monstrous herd of eland in formation with a supreme bull off to the side. You get the picture? Hunt enough eland in Africa and you’ll notice behavior of the herd bull sometimes acting as if he wants to defect from the herd. I could hear the loud clicking noise (like castanets) their knees make when they move. If they come 25 more yards they’re going to walk right into the open area, outside the protective cover of mahogany trees and gardenia bushes.
As the herd guardedly approached the end of the wooded area, they slowed down but still made their way straight towards me. I wiped my forehead and thus the world from my mind. I concentrated on my scope as all background noise became silence and I became one with my rifle. The inner voice reminded me, “Breathe and exhale Marc. Expect the unexpected. Don’t yank the trigger.” …100 yards. ”Be a statue. Don’t move”…95 yards…Slower and slower they just kept coming. “Trust your instincts Marc.” And then at 90 yards, they all just stopped. They had winded us. We were busted! Not again, not right now. Not at this moment! Damn…and I had thought this plan Andre had masterfully choreographed was foolproof.
“Now Marc!”, Andre demanded, but–there was no need to. This was a special moment. A specialized moment should I say, and special measures are called for in specialized moments. I decided to take it upon myself to call my number. And at the precise moment that Andre ordered the shot, the Lazzeroni barked, because I had already committed. Mr. Lazzeroni was well known in the rifle shooting world as someone who built his reputation on muzzle velocity, and that speed coupled with accuracy produces deadly results.
Rocketing out of the rifle barrel at 3,330 feet per second, the 225-grain A-frame struck the target instantly. I heard the bullet rip through the bottom of shaggy dewlap, piercing the animal’s chamber from a frontal heart shot. For Kappie, Andre and the four trackers, life stopped for two seconds. Silence, as all we could see were the backs of the eland and dust. Then we heard distant clicking noises, as they retreated back toward the direction from where they had approached.
Nobody talked or did anything, except for me. I casually pulled back the bolt, exiting the cartridge, catching it in mid-air and then slung the rifle on my shoulder. Folded up the shooting sticks and started walking. My cameraman followed me from behind. He’s a filmmaker so he gets it. Also he’d seen this reaction from me twice before. In Zimbabwe, when I shot a 44-inch sable from long distance uphill. And in Tanzania once when I shot a leopard.
No one but Kappie and I really knew what was going on. The silence was deafening. Perplexing too, because the tracker’s behavior indicated they were all wondering what had just happened. With uncertainty, they murmured to themselves in their native Sangho. Anybody see the shot? Which bull did Marc try to shoot? What the hell happened? Andre begged to listen to what they were saying. There was no animal on the ground where the herd had last been standing. I just kept walking. We’d gone fifty yards. Confusion was the intent as my lips were sealed. Finally, Andre couldn’t take it.
“Marc, tell me about your shot! You shot really quick.”
“90 yards. He was looking straight at me,” I politely replied. “And no, that wasn’t a quick shot. I had been watching him for sixty yards in my scope.”
“Tell me you got him Marc! Please!” Andre pleaded.
I gave him a sheepish grin, a shoulder shrug and a head shake, as if to say, “I don’t know.” But I knew. Hell yes, I knew. Because down to my core I am a storyteller. Fifteen years as a TV network correspondent, author of two outdoors books and executive producer of eight safari videos. And right now, I was producing a good story. This was the fourth time, in 14 Africa safaris, that I pulled the trigger without a PH’s consent. When you do this, you better make certain as hell that you’re successful. The previous three times, my shot had been good. It’s the equivalent of a cleanup batter swinging at a 3-0 pitch when his coach gave him the take sign. You better hit a homerun or your ass is dead. And I knew I had just hit a grand slam. They just hadn’t seen the ball come off the bat.
Then, all bedlam broke loose, led by, of all people, the quietest tracker Nicholas, and the shortest too. At 5’ 7” he had the best depth of field into the underbrush, so he spotted it first. Followed by Bruno, Jean-Jacques, Francois and then, yes, Andre. The shy, guarded and protected personalities of the Sangho-speaking men had given way to exhilaration. They got silly loud! Shaking their heads in disbelief, they laid their eyes on the largest, longest and biggest ever, of the largest antelope of all the spiral-horned species. A mammoth, gargantuan specimen of a Lord Derby eland. Thick black mane and massive long horns. He had come to his final resting place alongside a tree.
“C’est bon! C’est bon!” (“It’s good! It’s good!”) Looking down at this trophy, admiring the animal’s girth and prowess, I could see what prompted Andre to execute the ambush. It was an all or nothing strategy here on day 13 and the kind of gamble I like in a professional hunter. It was the game-changing moment of this entire safari. You don’t want to go back home and say to yourself that you didn’t give it your best.
Specialized game hunting draws out the best in you and today as a team we were all our best. Andre’s silence in not telling me that he had spotted this big one, prompted me to return the favor after I touched off the shot. We both figured it out eventually, called each other some NSFW names, and then hugged it out in celebration of what we had just accomplished! The normally reserved Andre Roux got really giddy! It was the most giant of giant elands he had ever seen.
Kappie had a field day capturing all the action. Video camera and DSLR camera…doing it all interchangeably. “Bale Okou Omene! Bale Okou Omene!” the trackers yelled. That’s Sangho for “56,” the length of which they learned after Andre showed them with the measuring tape how long the horns were. Let there be no doubt the body size of the Derby eland is larger than the common eland. Zoologists who’ve examined the trophy photo have told me this animal likely weighed 2,100 pounds and was perhaps 17-20 years old. He was adorned with 14 side stripes and went into the record book at #5 SCI for Central African Giant eland. Further details of this C.A.R. safari are featured in my first book, The Royal Showdown. The complete story of this 14-day adventure and everything that led us to this spectacular trophy are included in this book, for which Andre wrote the foreword.
My next safari of specialized game will be a hunt for the bongo. I want to embark on this in C.A.R. despite the State Department’s recommendations, (so I might have to wait a few more years). Whichever one of these three specialized game animals are most desirable to you or most cherished, will again depend on your individual preferences based on your unique safari career. The order that I’ve chosen to go after them is a reflection of my priority. It’s that allure that’ll bring you back to Africa again and again.–Marc L. Watts