The Lucky Chinko Fly Camp
by Peter Kennedy
It got off to a bad start. On checking in at international departures in JHB, the Kenyan airways supervisor refused to allow me passage to Bangui routed via Nairobi on the basis that I did not have my CAR visa. No amount of explaining from either myself or Erik Mararv in CAR, that I would be issued a visa on arrival could convince her otherwise. This futile discussion lasted close on an hour.
Adding to the problem was that my flight was at midnight-and no airport officials of any kind in CAR could be contacted to confirm this- Erik knew the people who could do this it's just that they were fast asleep! She was not budging and it appeared the end of the road before it had even begun, that is, until I asked whether, as a South African, I needed a visa to fly to Kenya. Her answer was "no", to which I said, "Ok, I would like to fly to Kenya please" - she could not deny my request, and I was allowed to board with suitcase and rifle, despite her assurance that I would be sent straight back to SA on arrival in Nairobi because I did not have a CAR visa. Fortunately, she was wrong, it was no big deal, and so I arrived at Bangui, on time, shaken but not stirred.
I was promptly greeted by CAWA's representative, the formalities completed in minutes, and we were on our way to meet Erik Mararv at his home in Bangui.
I was to be hunting Lord Derby Eland in CAWA's 2 000 000ha block in the east of CAR situated on the Chinko River not far from both the Sudan and DRC borders. With the charter due to leave early the following morning, I was met with the bad news that Christophe Morio, my guide and arguably the best PH in central Africa, had been involved in an accident that morning in which his foot and ankle were run over by a truck, that he was in a bad way, and probably unable to walk. At this point I was beginning to wonder what else was going to go wrong, as you hunt an eland with both your head and your feet- there is a lot of walking involved.
The charter flight went smoothly and on landing, I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted by a bandaged up, but in high spirits, Christophe Morio. What I was to realize over the next few days that this was one of the toughest men I have ever met. After quickly checking the rifles zero, we were on our way, hunting right from the get go. Christophe explained that he wanted to be based on the Mbutu River, which was 4 hours drive to the north. The drive was both wonderful and dusty, and I took in the different vistas of this primitive scorched land, all the while Christophe and I discussed the hunt.
Two days later, after countless miles walked through featureless terrain where everything which was not already burnt, was set alight by us, with many more miles driven on dusty bad roads behind us, and Christophe incredibly soldiering on uncomplainingly, but in a lot of pain, we concluded that there was very little game sign in the Mbutu region. It was as result of late unseasonal rains having swept through the south just prior to the hunt, causing the game to move southwards and out of the area we were in.
It was decided that we would set up a fly camp on the banks of the Chinko river, a 3 hour drive south east, leaving in our wake a trail of smoke plumes reaching high into the sky, as any section of savannah which we encountered unburnt, we set alight, as this was the fire season. The trip showed extensive sign of Mbororo tribesmen and their cattle, coming in illegally from Sudan, to hunt elephant and graze their cattle, but on nearing the Chinko area the Mbororo sign ceased and we picked up our first fresh sign of an eland herd of around 20 animals. It was too late in the day for us to take the tracks, so we drove a forward grid of roads trying to determine where the herd had headed. This proved inconclusive. On dusk we arrived at the fly camp, which had been set up by a vehicle sent in advance, where, hot and tired, I washed down in the Chinko River, crocodiles and all. After eating we retired early and I got a good night rest under the stars, serenaded by hippo, frogs and mosquito's - thank heavens for mosquito nets!
At this point Christophe ankle had gone from bad to very bad, it had swollen tremendously and the open wound was red, angry and showing all the signs of infection and he carried a terrible limp. I insisted that he stay in camp and rest, and that I would hunt with his trackers on the basis that I wanted to get into a herd and stay with it the entire day if necessary - which could entail walking 30kms in the sweltering 40 degree heat, something I believed would be way too much for him in his condition, but he refused.
We were up early the next morning, and over a welcome cup of black coffee, we discussed his ankle and our strategy. Our plan was to drive a circular route around the area where we last saw the tracks, checking the saline on the way in the hopes that the herd would have visited one and we would be able to pick up fresh tracks. On completion of the loop, if we were unable to find fresh tracks, we were going to pick up the previous days tracks and follow - expecting a long hard day ahead of us. Christophe said he would go as far as he could, and leave us to proceed if he were unable to keep up. We left the fly camp at the onset of dawn and headed to the first saline.
That's when our bad luck finally broke and we disturbed a big herd still on the first saline we got to. Jumping off the truck, we quickly gathered rifles, bags and water. After waiting a short while to let the herd pass and settle, the brilliant trackers Mahatma, Samson and Guy quickly took the smoking hot tracks and we were on our way- finally what I had dreamed of! Christophe gave the thumbs up saying the herd would want to feed shortly. We quickly came onto the stragglers of the herd at a second saline, but there we saw no bulls amongst them. The wind was marginal and a young cow spooked. After waiting for the animals to clear, we again took the tracks. Judging from the tracks, we could see that there were at least two big bulls in the herd. After no more than half an hour on the tracks, flashes of animals could be seen through the trees ahead of us as the herd spread out and fed as Christophe predicted. They were moving along the edge of a bako which arced away in front of us in a semi circle from right to left. From here, we slowed it down completely, shadowing the spread out herd and hoping for an opportunity at a bull.
The occasional glimpses of animals through the thick vegetation, and the sound of branches snapping like rifle shots as the eland broke them whilst feeding raised my adrenaline levels considerably. The rear most animals were no more than 120m in front of us, the vegetation thick and the wind was less than ideal, blowing across our backs right to left and just past the herd - too tricky, and we risked spooking the herd. Christophe correctly predicted that the herd would follow the forest edge and that we should attempt to make a big loop to get in front of the herd, the wind in our favour and hopefully a shot opportunity. This was easier said than done, as Christophe was battling to keep up and we would need to move quickly. Testament to his incredible toughness, we did it.
We completed the loop and reached a relatively open area with the herd already halfway through it. We were immediately bust by a cow, which fortunately just starred at us, not knowing what we were. Christophe hissed that he had seen a big bull walking at the back of the herd and that I should get ready, which I did, resting my Dakota 375 H&H in the fork of a tree. Luckily the bull then walked up and stopped directly at the rump of the cow who watching us, and was in plain view. At this stage, I was solely focused on being ready to take the shot. From my position I could see the cow clearly and I could also partly see a second animal standing to her rear. The entire front section of the second animal was obscured from my view, but not Christophe's, who was standing to my left, but I could see from behind the shoulder backwards . I asked Christophe to explain the bulls exact position in relation to the cow, I then described what I was looking at. I said it appeared that the bull had his head low. Christophe agreed we were looking at the same animal and that it was the bull we were after. I told him I was steady and asked whether I could take the shot, to which he replied yes. With the bull slightly angled away from me and facing to my left, and very careful not to hit any branches between me and the target, I threaded a bullet through the trees to the target approximately 200 m away- an unusually long shot for eland. The shot was aimed a hands width behind the shoulder and angled forward. I was very careful not to hit the tree on the left which screened the elands forequarters.The shot felt good and the herd erupted and then disappeared in seconds. Mahatma said he saw the bull jump to the shot. We quickly found a heavy blood trail showing lots of pink frothy blood indicating a good lung hit.
Having read that eland were not particularly tough, I fully expected the bull to go down quickly, instead, what followed was nothing that Christophe, his trackers or I had ever seen before. The blood trial slowed, and the bull simply did not go down. At this point Christophe said that I must have hit him badly and that I must be ready for a second shot. After about ten minutes of careful tracking, we bumped the bull and I missed a snap shot at him running through the trees. Trying to get a second shot in, I crouched down and was just about to fire, when Christophe's young dog "Luck", thinking that I was getting down to his level to give him a bit of love, proceeded to jump on me. I grabbed him with one hand and threw him out the way. Afterwards, Christophe, in his heavy French accent, said " ze dog, he flew like ze francolin!", needless to say, I never managed the shot. We tracked for a further half hour before I got a second chance in fairly thick cover and put in a good raking shot. The bull then entered the thick bako which the herd had originally been skirting; where visibility was reduced to under 20 m. fortunately we had a constant blood trail to follow. The bull was walking at a steady pace, and without stopping. It then left the bako and crossed into the savannah on the other side. At this point I was convinced something had gone horribly wrong with the shot. All the emotions that come with wounding an animal flooded through me, not sure of the outcome, desperately praying the blood trail would hold, and hoping for another chance.
After the second hit, the bull seemed to go an age. Shortly before the two hour mark, and after covering at least 3kms, as one, the trackers stopped and hissed, pointing forward, where obscured by brush and grass, I could make out the swishing black tip of the tail of the otherwise motionless eland, still on his feet. Knowing that I had to make this shot count, I fought the temptation to shoot quickly into the middle of where I guessed the bull to be, thinking that he was facing away from me. Thank heavens I did this, as shortly thereafter I saw movement to the left of the swishing tail, which materialized into his thick neck- he was broadside and facing to the left. Shooting offhand, I aimed into the middle of this and fired at which he fell, I then sprinted forward and delivered a coup de grace into the top of the junction of his massive neck and shoulders. It was finally over!
For the second time, The flood of emotions running through me were indescribable, part relief, part elation, part sadness and part awe as I admired the magnificent bull before me - he was everything a bull could have been and completely exceeded my expectations.
Due to the heat, we had to move fast, we took photos, and then the work began. Two trackers stayed behind and two left to fetch the vehicle, for which a road had to be cut to reach the bull.
The dead bull attracted hundreds of bees which made the work of collecting the scientific samples needed for research and skinning the bull impossible, as we were all getting stung badly. Fortunately the bull had fallen in an area of long unburned grass, and after clearing the immediate grass away from around the bull to prevent the fire from burning both it and us, we lit fires to smoke the bees away, which were only partially successful, but at least they stopped stinging us. And so we worked, skinning and quartering the bull in the incredible combined heat from both the sun and the fire, which had spread and become a huge inferno, making the sky black from smoke.
As we began, I was more than curious to see where my first shot had gone. To my surprise, the bullet had hit exactly where I was aiming, entering 8" behind the left shoulder and incredibly exiting on the opposite side, right up against the opposite shoulder. A shot that should have ended it all in under 200m, and the first time in 25 years of hunting that Christophe has ever seen an expanding bullet exit a big Lord Derby eland bull on a broadside shot. The exit wound was tiny and would suggest that if the bullet expanded at all, that it did so marginally. I was using PMP African Elite ammo loaded with 300gr Swift A frames - something I won't do again. Knowing that we had witnessed less than textbook terminal performance, we then cut the eland open and took numerous photos, including those showing a double lung hit, knowing full well in that relaying what happened, would raise doubts from many and that I would be asked to substantiate my claims.
Reflecting on the situation, I can only think that a hard bullet (Swift A frame), combined with PMP's relatively mild load (advertised muzzle velocity of 2400fps), combined with a longish shot where the velocity had dropped off, and which missed heavy bones (broken rib on entry) was not sufficient to expand the bullet, resulting in a long and unpleasant follow up.
As for Christophe, his ankle just got worse and worse, to the point that it was frightening everyone, and he had to fly back to Bangui on the charter flight with me, to get to a hospital. As I write this, and two days after the hunt ended, he is undergoing treatment to heal the crater in his ankle, where the open wound is scraped daily to remove all the dead cells and prevent further infection. When will he be able to hunt again? - exactly tomorrow, when he flies back to the hunting area to guide a Mexican client on a 4 week hunt for a bongo, two giant eland, leopard, lion, and a host of other species.
One tough eland and one even tougher frog...