A Hunt in the Okavango
Elephants playing in the Okavango
When the smiling face of the camp boy roused me with morning tea I realized that I had been dreaming perhaps prophetically about scoring on a sitatunga. After dressing then washing up with the ubiquitous smoky water of an African tent camp, thoughts turned to the day ahead. Things were not going quite like one hopes, not a rare situation while hunting by any means. This would be the fourth consecutive day spending time in a very low freeboard dugout canoe called a makoro in search of the soggy, long haired antelope. Two other hunters and their PH Alistair McFarlane had arrived at my remote fly camp a couple of days earlier also in search of sitatunga and one had already scored. Having not yet had a chance at sitatunga with less than a week left to hunt, a level of frustration was beginning to set in.
We left camp earlier than usual this a.m., the other two hunters and McFarlane would go their way and I mine, with two fresh polers in the makoro. It was hoped that changing polers and trying a different “spot”, might change my luck as well. Part way to the makoro landing the diesel Land Rover which had swallowed too much of the delta on the way sputtered and died, so the remaining mile or so had to be finished on foot. My PH Willie Engelbrecht stayed with the Land Rover to effect repairs. Not a great beginning, but I pointed out to any who would listen that often a bad beginning portends a good ending. Thus began another jaunt in the makoro starting out in much the same way as the previous trips out into the swamp. Nothing much of note happens except an occasional distant splash of a red lechwe, crocodile, or hippo. Not many sitatunga had been seen in the first few days of hunting the channels and papyrus reeds. Several females and one young male with horns of around 20 inches were all that had been seen thus far. I was beginning to wonder if perhaps I should have taken the young bull despite the insistence of the polers that bigger ones would be seen, very soon, maybe just around the next bend in the reeds – be patient they said.
As the morning turned to near noon and the sun began to beat down in earnest I was trailing my hand in the water both out of boredom and for the cooling effects on mind and body. As is often the case while hunting, boredom can quickly turn to excitement and near pandemonium. The polers ducked down low and began pointing excitedly off to our left side. They had definitely seen sitatunga! Almost as one, the two polers stood and jabbed their poles deep into the soft delta mud bringing the slowly moving makoro to a stop, then quickly motioned for me to stand…
It’s fair to say that Heaven on earth for the big game hunter is that vast land sometimes referred to as the Dark Continent, Africa. Here the game is wild and varied like no other place on the planet. Even on so called ranch hunts where fences often run every which way, the game may be just as spooky as or perhaps even more so than on more remote government owned concession style hunting lands that are often roadless except for 4X4 tracks and game trails.
One such remote area is the Okavango delta region in the southern African nation of Botswana, formerly Bechuanaland. This inland river delta is fed year round by the Okavango River whose origins lie to the north and west of Botswana in Angola. Here pristine water flows through the delta in channels, some wide some less so, before petering out into the Kalahari sands. The delta is dotted with palm islands of varying size that rise up out of the water at random and provide a convenient resting and drying out spot for the inhabitants of the swamp, both man and beast. Some islands such as Chiefs Island, some 1000 square kilometers in size are quite large.
The Okavango is home to many species of game animals, some of whom are on the trophy hunters “A list”. Lion were fairly numerous when I was there but are now under a very strict quota or closed altogether and as they are everywhere always challenging to hunt. Elephant are seen fairly frequently though closed to hunting when I was there, but are open now and doing well. Leopard hunting remains open as of this writing though again under very strict quotas, and of course there is buffalo, lots of buffalo! The more common plains game is all here in good numbers from kudu to impala. Some of the rarer species are here as well, lechwe, roan and sable (currently closed) to name just a few. And of course the swamp dwelling sitatunga, though according to Jack Atcheson most unfortunately also closed at the time of this writing.
This was my second foray into the African bush, and like most second safaris this one actually began at the end of the first one. The first was a seven day buffalo and plains game safari to the classic East African country of Tanzania some 5 years previous. As anyone who has hunted Africa knows doing so just once serves only to whet the appetite for further journeys to this popular hunting destination. For this second trip, two particular animals were chosen to pursue. One would be lion, the other sitatunga with whatever plains game was available in the specific areas. A trip was booked with VIRA Safaris of Maun, Botswana through Jack Atcheson and Sons of Butte, Montana. Jack was confident that for the animals desired, chances would be as good or better with VIRA as anywhere else in Africa.
This semi-aquatic antelope is one of many coveted animals African has to offer, in part because it is one of the spiral-horned antelope of the genus Tragelaphus. This race, Tragelaphus Spekei, is usually called the Zambezi sitatunga. The sitatunga shares this genus with several antelope including the kudu, nyala, bushbuck and others. All of the spiral-horned antelope are popular quarry throughout most of Africa. The sitatunga is not a large animal, being about the size of a mature mule deer. His horns, while attractive as are all spiral-horned antelope, do not grow to the huge lengths of the Greater Kudu. A very large sitatunga will grow horns to just a little over 30 inches, and it only takes about 24 inches to make the SCI record book. However, any mature sitatunga is a real trophy and usually well earned.
So one might ask, what makes the sitatunga special? The answer is three-fold it seems. Relative rarity, accessibility and the unique hunting methods employed. This is not your usual spot and stalk hunt.
Jack Atcheson stated recently that for Zambezi sitatunga today, Zambia to the north of Botswana is the only viable option, but the best places in which to hunt sitatunga when I was planning this hunt some years ago were Zambia or Botswana. The record books seem to bear this out. This is why Botswana was chosen for my own hunt for this rare antelope. Perhaps most attractive would be the hunting method employed. Some outfitters hunt these creatures from elevated tree stands that look out over swampy areas where the sitatunga is encountered. Others use a barge type affair with a raised shooting platform that allows the hunter to see over the top of the sometimes very tall papyrus. The method used in the camp out of which I hunted would be the dugout canoe known as a makoro, mokoro or even mekoro. However one spells it, this may be the most interesting and challenging way to hunt this and other swamp dwelling creatures. All makoro’s encountered with VIRA were real wood chopped out with axes, adzes and knives. Often what looks like old plastic schoolroom chairs with the legs cut off are placed in the bottom of the makoro to sit on, which is highly preferable to nothing - also common. Most makoro’s seen were between about 12 and 18 feet in length and when loaded with people and supplies had very little freeboard, often just a few inches. These seemingly unstable little craft take some getting used to as does any type of canoe-like vessel. Most seen had various pieces of tin or aluminum cans tacked over the inevitable checks and cracks that real wood will exhibit over time. Regardless there is always some water in the “bilge” of these tender craft.
After hunting in a somewhat dryer area for the first week and having already taken buffalo, kudu and impala, we began the move to the sitatunga camp called Oomdop. After a couple of hours drive to the first makoro landing we were met with an intriguing Tarzan like jungle. Here tree branches hung low enough to almost touch the water and the papyrus began to grow very thick and tall. Myriad sounds and animal calls greet us; Monkey chatter, hippos grunting, the scream of a fish eagle.
The first wet leg of the journey was about an hour in the makoro, a small fleet of makoro’s actually as there were several people, supplies and gear to move to the camp farther out in the delta. After landing at the next stop we had to offload the “fleet” and pack all the gear on our backs to the next landing. The last makoro leg was the longest. In near silence we wend our way through the channels of varying width towards our destination. Hippos are seen a few times as are crocodiles. One large croc picked the moment of our passing to enter the swamp whereupon he set a course seemingly straight for us. It looks as though a collision is imminent and the polers freeze. I frantically begin looking for my rifle which is both buried under stuff and empty anyway. I realize there is scant time to get it into action so can only observe events as they unfold and hope for the best. The croc submerges at the last minute avoiding any further misunderstanding and we are able to watch the croc pass like a torpedo under our makoro in the clear, still water and continue on about his business. The polers and I exchange nervous giggles and sighs of relief as they put their poles back into action and get us underway once again to rejoin the “fleet”.
Landfall was finally made again and we then walked for a distance and picked up the diesel Land Rover that had been driven around the long way on mostly dry land and stashed in some thick bush prior to our arrival. From there it was only a short drive to what would be home for the next week or so.
The first few days at the new camp would be broken up for the most part in the same way, mornings out for lion and plains game hunting, afternoons out in the makoro for sitatunga. While sitting in a dugout for several hours a day may sound like fun, it can grow to be a bit tiresome. When the delta is quiet, and it usually is, there is little activity of interest and not much is seen besides the backside of the forward poler. Of course conversation between the polers and myself is rare both because of the language barrier and because quiet must be maintained as sound carries a great distance over water. The polers also endeavor to keep their poles from hitting the side of the makoro as it makes a distinctive sound foreign to the creatures of the swamp. Often when the channels peter out for a stretch all must disembark to help push the craft thru the shallows and ever present papyrus. This does at least provide some occasional diversion.
And so it goes for the first few days…
When the polers had motioned for me to stand, it took a few precious moments to get it together after the hours of sitting and not seeing much and I was at least momentarily skeptical about what the polers had seen. When finally able to stand in the makoro the poler Moses, signed for me to use his pole which was anchored in the mud, as a rest from which to fire my Whitworth Mauser .375 H&H. The other poler meanwhile did his best to keep the makoro from sliding around on the water so as to allow a reasonably steady platform. A tricky task you can be sure. I had been cautioned beforehand not to stand sideways in the boat when shooting, as the recoil could knock me right out of it. As luck would have it, the position of the makoro and the direction of what could now be seen as an actual, shootable sitatunga, there was little choice. As the shaggy creature was trying very hard to put some distance between him and danger I fired and predictably missed and yes did indeed almost fall out of the makoro! The polers quickly grabbed handy parts of my anatomy and tried to steady us all for a second shot. This time the hunting gods were smiling and the 300 grain Nosler bullet found its mark and the bull was mine. The happy and excited polers were slapping me on the back and we were shaking hands and jabbering away in our respective languages about our good fortune. We jumped into the channel, about three feet of water, grabbed the animal and dragged him to the nearest palm island for field dressing, a couple of hasty pictures and a spot of lunch consisting of my favorite reedbuck sandwiches. Nothing ever tasted better!
Just like that the quest for a sitatunga was over and all that remained was the trip back to the landing and a walk of unknown distance back to meet the Land Rover. With renewed vigor in our step, we began our trek. When Willie drove up after a while in the resuscitated Land Rover, he quickly saw that we had been successful this day. He offered his congratulations and asked for the whole story which was quickly given in two languages.
My sitatunga is not a real big one, however does just qualify for the SCI record book, but you won’t find it in there. I put up with a fair amount of discomfort in the form of heat, mosquitoes and a really sore butt, for this quarry, and of the trophies brought home from Africa, this one is perhaps the most prized.
Unfortunately, as the hunting gods are not always charitable, the lion part of the hunt was not fulfilled, (a disastrous flubbing on my part), but that only lends impetus for a return to that greatest of all hunting grounds, Africa.