Hunting Lord Derby Eland in CAR
Long neck hair, big dewlap and 50" of spiral horn!
"Café, Monsieur?" quizzed Rudy Lubin, the French PH who has been operating in the C.A.R. since the early 1970s.
"Oui, merci." I replied.
"Tu veux un petit déjuener américain?"
"No. Je voudrais seulement du café et un peu de céréale, s'il te plaît."
I think I had just told Rudy, in my most rudimentary French, that I didn't want a full breakfast, just coffee and cereal; but maybe I'd said I wanted a roasted puppy for dinner instead. One way or the other, the kitchen staff showed up with what I'd requested. Mack, the former pig farmer, made it simple and asked, "Ya'll got any grits?"
Rudy had a slight chuckle but carried on in his usual serious manner, not quite sure what to make of the two of us yet. Maybe our jaded sense of humor on this first morning of a two- week hunt in the Central African Republic was not fully appreciated, at least not yet.
Our trip to the C.A.R. obliged us to pass through Paris, as all to Bangui flights must, to catch the once weekly Air France flight to the ramshackle capital. Yes, one flight per week from Europe. One plane in, and the same plane out. If you want to visit this god-forsaken corner of Africa, you need be on that flight, that's it!
Arriving in Bangui at 6.00 a.m. and being met by the black mob that preys on white hunters, we went through the usual "formalities," customs and gun permit fiascos, and paid our bribes to assorted officials to speed things up. Our "meet and greet" person, a wonderful English/French speaking local woman, took us to her office while we waited for our charter plane due to fly us into camp at 8.00 a.m.
And then we waited, and waited, and waited.
Seems the three charter planes that are available in the C.A.R. had more important customers than us, or maybe they'd paid a little something extra, perhaps?! It's always something in Africa...
We finally arrived at Rudy's camp, after an hour and a half flight over the continuous green bush, at 4:00 p.m.
Rudy was in a mild panic due to our late arrival and the fact that we had lost a whole day of hunting. Every day counts when you only have 12 days to pursue the wily Lord Derby (also called giant) eland.
We checked the rifles and made sure they were still on the money. The trusty .375 H&Hs performed as expected. We were both shooting Barnes X-Bullets, and the ½ inch groups we shot on Rudy's airstrip "sighting-in range" gave us no excuses if we missed a shot later in the safari. As darkness enveloped the camp we unpacked, got ready for the next day's adventure, and then all met in the dining area for a much-anticipated sundowner. That first meal in camp was a delicious preamble to future French fare yet to come. Rudy gave us the rundown on tomorrow's plan over a bottle of France's finest wine, and then it was off to bed where dreams of trophy record book eland danced through my alcohol-altered mind as I fell fast asleep.
I woke up at 4.30 the next morning to the incessant crowing of a deranged rooster, which was obviously also from a different time zone because dawn wasn't until 5.15! I tossed and turned and felt a little queasy, not sure whether it was hangover related or excitement build up. I finally got up, chased the saucer- sized spiders out of the en suite shower, then let the cold water wash the cobwebs out of my jet-lagged brain and cool my fevered skin. The temperature was already in the 80s as I wandered over to the dining area just as Mack and Rudy emerged from their respective bungalows.
"Comment ça va."
"Moi, ça va bien."
Forcing the cereal down (I'm not much of a breakfast eater), knowing I needed the energy for later in the morning, I followed it up with a cup of great café au lait from the French coffee press I'd wisely brought with me. There are some things a civilized gentleman just can't do without...
Suddenly, I felt a cold chill rack my body, and my face started to sweat.
"You okay?" Mack asked.
"Why?" I replied.
"You look like shit," he responded in his less than diplomatic way. I jumped up from the breakfast table and ran to the dirt that surrounded the dining room and proceeded to vomit breakfast, last night's dinner, drinks, and assorted other items I didn't remember eating. As I huddled, holding onto a tree for support, I thought to myself, "I don't remember eating corn?! How come there's always corn in your puke?"
As if on cue, the lower half of my body told me that it was not just orally rejecting whatever had upset me, so I ran and stumbled for my hut, arriving just in the nick of time to prevent a premature change of shorts.
"Alain, you alright?" Mack asked from outside my door a half hour later.
"I'm going to be a while," I coughed as another spasm wracked my guts.
The morning hunt was shot; I was useless until noon. I finally emerged from my hut and climbed into the back of Rudy's Land Cruiser. Driving around looking for tracks, I had to make several emergency stops. Every time I took in fluids, in 10 minutes it would come, up or down.
Rudy Lubin's office
We saw some Lelwell's hartebeest and C.A. savanna buffalo sign and older eland tracks, but nothing to get excited about, thank God, as my walking ability was zilch due to the weakness from food poisoning or whatever other vermin had decided to host a shindig in my bowels.
Arriving back in camp at dark, I got a couple of Cipro (ciprofloxacin) and Imodium to finally stay down and ate a little dinner, which also stayed where it was supposed too.
The next day, although weak, I was able to get up and get going. Rudy and the trackers demeanor was one of solemn worry. Everyone was concerned about my health and ability to hunt, but there was no way I was staying in bed.
After a rugged drive, we parked and walked to a natural salt lick, or saline, and scouted the surrounding bare ground for fresh signs of the elusive beast. Elephant, buffalo, hartebeest and hyena had all been at this salt lick during the night, but not eland.
Checking a saline [salt lick] for Lord Derby eland tracks
We walked from there to the cliffs overlooking the valley below and found some fresh sign of a small group of eland that had passed by not long before. Zumbula, the head tracker, was on the bull's track like a bloodhound on a hot coon scent, so off we went into the forest of tall, grey-trunked Isoberlinia doka and gardenia trees that is the giant eland's preferred diet.
We moved quickly on the track; it was easy to see where the eland had passed. The Lord Derby eland is one of the few animals that use their horns as a tool. Catching a tasty, green branch in the middle of its 50-inch horns, and twisting its head, the thick branches snap and hang down lower, allowing the eland to dine on the more tender, sweet upper leaves of these trees.
Zumbula kept a steady fast pace on the tracks, but as the heat of the day rose I was getting nauseous and could feel yesterday's sickness catching up to me. It must have been apparent on my face as well, because Rudy called a halt to our journey and we had a chug off the water bottle. A powwow was held between Rudy and the trackers, and it was decided that this group of eland was moving too fast towards parts unknown, and it would be wiser, in view of my condition, to head back to the Land Cruiser and find another herd to pursue.
Reaching the vehicle several hours later, we found our driver, Bin Laden (so nicknamed for his daily prayers facing Mecca and raggedy goatee), sitting next to a large smoldering fire 50 feet from the truck. Seeing us coming, he walked over to the vehicle and, swinging leafy branches, started scaring away the thousands of African killer bees that had been attracted to both the diesel and water in the vehicle. He jumped behind the wheel and took off away from us at high-speed, trying to get rid of the bees before we got in the truck. This technique worked well on the majority of the swarming stingers, but several dozen were still crawling out of every nook and cranny of the open vehicle. Carefully climbing into the back, not making any sudden moves, it didn't take long to get bitten by these aggressive pests; the swelling that resulted from their stings was as painful as all get out. Unfortunately, this truck/bee fiasco became a daily occurrence...
At least the sickness was passing, and I was able to keep dinner down that night.
Red-flanked duiker slow cooked over the coals
Day Three found us at another salt lick analyzing the pugmarks of the previous night's visitors. No eland had made an appearance, so we hiked back to the truck, ran off the bees, and started down the dirt path that served as a road. Not even a mile from where we had started, Zumbula hissed, "Arrêtez!"
He jumped out of the truck to study the fresh tracks of eland that had just crossed the road. Not needing any more inspiration to get ready, Mack and I peeled off our coats, grabbed our packs and weapons, and stood ready to go as Rudy translated the spoor to us, "A big heard of eland with several big bulls crossed here this morning. Be very quiet, we go now."
The trees and brush were thick in this area, and we soon started finding a swath of broken branches and freshly nibbled-on leaves – some still wet with eland saliva. Zumbula halted and held his hand up in a motion for everyone to stop and be quiet. We all strained to hear what he was listening for. A branch broke in the distance, and then another one broke closer, then another one off to our right. Rudy turned to us with a knowing smirk on his face and silently mouthed the word, "Eland."
A faint guttural grunt would occasionally come from the invisible herd as they communicated between each other as they fed through the dense thickets of Isoberlinia, terminalia and acacia scrub. Rudy continued to ease forward, checking the wind, which was in our favor, and scanning the bush with his bino's for any sign of movement. He suddenly froze as we crossed a small, red-sandy opening in the forest. Straight ahead of us, we saw two sets of majestic horns floating above the brush, stopping here and there, anxiously browsing.
Rudy waved his hand behind his back, implying that Mack and I and the two trackers should ease up to the fallen tree he was standing behind. Zumbula set the shooting sticks into position in front of me, just in case something appeared. Now bits and pieces of eland could be spotted moving to our right and directly in front of us. All you could make out was a leg, a patch of hide, or a piece of horn, but that was it in this barely penetrable patch of forest.
Rudy pointed straight ahead and whispered into my ear, "That's a good bull there. Keep an eye on him in case he moves into an opening."
I watched the patch of tan/gray hide moving one slow step at a time, trying to size up the horns on the beast not more than 30 yards away. Everyone in our entourage was concentrating on him as I caught some movement out of the corner of my eye to my left. Emerging from the thicket 40 yards away was a huge bull with long, thick spiraling horns and a heavy black mane on his Brahma-bull size neck. His huge hair-covered dewlap swung to and fro as he disconcertedly fed towards us.
I slowly grabbed Rudy's elbow and moved my eyes towards the animal approaching from our left.
"Is that a good one?" I quizzed.
"Yes, yes, shoot as soon as he clears!" whispered an excited Rudy.
The unsuspecting bull continued feeding unperturbed, and passed directly in front of us, not 30 yards away, slowly clearing a bush and exposing the sweet spot directly behind his shoulder. He was so close it was hard to see where to aim through the Zeiss scope. I squeezed the trigger, and at the explosion of the .375 in the still morning air, all hell broke loose in the woods surrounding us. There were a lot more eland than I'd thought, running pell-mell, crashing through the trees, and trying to distance themselves from the surprise of the rifle. The bull I shot humped up and ran 60 yards into the open before lying down from the effects of a classic heart shot. As we approached, the bull struggled to get up, and Mack and I gave him a couple more shots to end his misery. As we walked up, the sheer size of the aptly named "giant eland" became apparent.
Long neck hair, big dewlap and 50" of spiral horn!
The bull had the fantastic, black, hairy neck mane of February, and his horns would push the magic 50-inch mark. What a magnificent trophy! After the obligatory, although quick photo shoot due to the invading swarms of tiny sweat and African killer bees, which appear out of nowhere and soon take over your prize, Rudy and the boys got at the process of skinning and quartering the one-ton animal. Smoky fires had to be built all around the carcass to help ward off the incessant swarms of stinging bees.
Rudy and the crew skinning in the smoke to keep the bees away
Look at the African Killer bees already swarming around the eland's nose
Mack and I gathered green leafy branches and kept the fires stoked at locomotive levels, trying to help. We donned our mesh bug suits and facemasks to ward off the worst of the swarms, but we still got stung.
"Well Mack, that takes the pressure off this hunt!" I said through my net mask.
"I'll say. Why don't you reach into the cool box you're sitting on and release a couple of those lukewarm beers, that is if you're feeling okay?"
Suddenly, my stomach felt just fine.