around the camp fire - zambia - By Craig
I’m no fatalist but it is interesting how events can turn on a single decision. A few years back, Mike made one of the most generous offers a hunter could ever receive. He let me accompany him on his Tanzanian lion safari to hunt a few of the critters on my wish list. The plan was for my results to “keep the baits fresh”. Mike let me do all the hunting early in the safari (he had already taken these species on previous trips) and the results far exceeded expectations. To this day I cannot thank him enough.
So when Mike found out I was headed to Zambia to hunt two different areas he asked to tag along for a few days as one of the areas held great Crawshay Defassa Waterbuck, one of the species remaining on his “plan”. We would go there first, get Mike’s waterbuck to the skinning shed, then my safari would follow. It wasn’t even a decision for me to say “absolutely” and I looked forward to again hunting with Mike greatly. Unfortunately, business got in the way for Mike and ultimately he was unable to come. This single unfortunate turn of events altered my safari tremendously as we hunted the two areas in reverse order. While the results may have been very different, they could not have been better. So once again, thanks Mike! You should have been there!
The safari initiated originally via a conversation with Ken Wilson of Sportsmen on Film fame. Having booked with Ken before, he was aware of the handful of species I’m seeking. He recommended a company he’d hunted with previously, Balla-Balla Safaris in Zambia. Once we secured the annual permit for Southern Roan, the deal was done. Given the species I sought we needed to hunt two areas – Bird Estate and Dendro Park.
I was met in Livingstone by Shawn Bird. Shawn is the youngest of the three hunting Bird brothers and travels between RSA and Zambia. Since Mike could not make the trip it was decided that we’d head to Bird Estate first. Bird Estate is about 1.5 hours from Livingstone via the Great North Road about half way to Choma Town on the Zambezi Plateau. It is cattle and tobacco country called Miombo woodlands. In a word it is beautiful. There I met eldest brother Dene Bird, his wife, and his son (who called me uncle). They run the Zambian operation and live at Bird Estate full time.
I was shown to camp, a new tented camp where the Birds have plans to make it even nicer. For my purposes it was plenty fine already. The camp’s dominant view overlooks a large pond where Kafue Lechwe were constantly nibbling the sweet moist grasses. The water attracted many waterfowl, egrets, fish eagles, and any number of other species. After days of travel I felt back in Africa.
Since we’d made good time from Livingstone we used the first afternoon for a rifle sight in and a game drive. I don’t think we were really hunting so I made some video and took a lot of pictures. At dusk, on the way back to camp, it looked like Noah had emptied the ark as seemingly every animal was grazing together in the wide open. I also noticed there was one heck of a moon.
Zebra & Lichtenstein Hartebeest grazing
I tend to believe clear skies and full moons are not great for hunting. My rationale is the animals feed in the evenings and at night, hence are less visible during the day. Regardless Shawn and I left camp at 6:00 AM after I made the mistake of telling him the place seemed pretty flat so I could walk all day. The plan was to cover the roan area quietly. Right or not with regard to the moon, we surely saw little during our 6 hour jaunt over many miles of Zambia. Shawn travels between camps with free weights I could barely lift with two hands. Even he was tired!
Returning for a late breakfast and a warm shower we made plans for the afternoon. The plan was for Dene to drive us a bit to hopefully create some spot and stalk opportunities and give our weary legs some rest. Mainly we were looking the roan, we spent a bit of time in the Sable area as their preferred flora is a bit different. We saw many bush duikers the entire trip. We saw several other species I’d hunted previously. Hope for something new is always just around the next turn and just before sunset we made a successful stalk on a beautiful Lichtenstein Hartebeest.
Craig and Shawn with late afternoon first hunting day Lichtenstein Hartebeest
The next day mirrored the first with the full moon making most animals miss the wakeup call. Around midday we ran across three roan but never got a great look at the bull. Like the two days prior the animals seemed to come out only at dusk. On a last walk through very thick Sable country we saw a jet black male holed up in a thick bush. It was almost dark but the sight picture through the scope seemed fine, so I took the shot. Immediately he broke from the bush, I shot again. He went down only to get up and disappear into more brush a few yards away. We followed for a bit but by then it was full dark and further pursuit was deemed too dangerous.
Shawn and Dene were sure we’d find him dead at first light. Regardless a hunter never likes to leave an animal overnight be it suffering or lost to scavengers. We returned as soon as we could see and found the original bush with unseen branches sticking out in every direction. We found no blood as we walked to the point he was last seen. Advancing slowly I followed the trackers while Shawn took a more circular route. All of a sudden I saw a Sable running right in front of me and into yet another thick area. Shawn said he’d gotten within a few yards of him but he wasn’t sure the Sable was “our Sable”. There are a lot of big Sable there and you don’t want to shoot two!
We found good blood where Shawn jumped him and where the big bull had bedded for the night. From there the trackers took over. How they find animals in dense bush country is beyond me but after ½ hour and perhaps 300 yards we ended it with a freehand shot from 15 yards.
Craig and Abraham Kabinda, the scout who was able to track down this wonderful bull
Following some serious relief for not losing the sable, the afternoon and the next day were entirely focused on finding a good Southern Roan. We drove. We walked. We glassed females and even found a newborn hiding in the tall grass. We saw glimpses of a bull who seemed to like an area and late afternoon on the day following the Sable we had him dead to rights. He was definitely a mature bull. I’m not one who chases inches but I’ve hunted Roan before, unsuccessfully in Mozambique and successfully in CAR (Western Roan). I was looking for an old bruiser with a sagging gut and some miles on his hooves. This Roan looked absolutely in prime condition and even though I’d flown a hell of a long way to hunt him I made the decision to look for something different. I’ve only done this a couple of other times and never did the outcome work in my favor. But it felt “right” and I’d have to accept the consequences.
our hunting vehicle - Toyota land cruiser
We packed up the next morning for a 5 hour drive to Dendro Park. The “shortcut” road through Kafue National Park was still closed from the rainy season so we chose the longer route. The first hour to Choma Town was on the paved Great North Road. Shawn, Dene, Charles (our cook), Abraham (lead tracker), and I stopped in Choma for some supplies and a visit to a classic African colonial bank. The Birds came out with a stack of cash for monthly staff wages. From Choma Town it was dirt road the rest of the way to Dendro Park passing tiny remote villages and people waving to the knuckleheads sitting on piles of gear in full sun. It reminded me of the Clampetts leaving the Ozarks though I’m confident the locals are unfamiliar with Beverly Hillbillies show.
Dendro Park is special. It is big. It is wild. Bordering Kafue National Park a local chief gave the Birds permission to build a permanent camp and hunt there many years ago. Classic African mopane bush, it has huge trees, plenty of grass, and natural water. It is true buffalo country. We encountered many. Lion and leopard come and go and unfortunately a huge bull elephant was poached nearby a few weeks prior. We settled into camp, ate a late lunch and again went looking for roan. I spotted one before dark about 300 yards distant running at full speed in 8 foot high grass. As forewarned, this was not going to be easy!
Leaving at daylight the next morning Dene thought a bush walk might be our best chance. The roan at Dendro are spooky having endured near constant pursuit by big cats and two legged poachers (Note the Birds have made a great investment in full time anti-poaching staff with obvious results). After seeing how spooky the roan were the prior evening I must admit I was skeptical of our chances going in blind on foot. But hey, I was in Africa having a great time in beautiful country so how could one complain?
Not thirty minutes into our walk we locked up like English pointers on quail. 250 yards away at the edge of the forest stood an ancient roan bull feeding quietly facing away. Immediately we set up the sticks and through the scope saw his vitals were perfectly positioned behind a tree. We waited and waited. Finally he was onto us and I was sure we were busted. But instead of vaulting forward and out of site he took a step back to get a better look. I let him have it and a second follow up secured the prized bull.
Dene, Craig and Abraham with a very old Southern Roan
With my three “targeted” species in the salt I was a happy guy. I’d have easily taken the remaining days to read books and take photographs. In my mind the safari was over. I did that for one afternoon before the hunter in me started thinking of other opportunities. I’d never hunted a puku. We looked over dozens of puku before finding just the right combination of age, horn length and shape. At the shot the well hit puku took to the trees zigging and zagging and disappearing. I was sure we’d lose him in such thick bush. Well he did not go far and happened to drop in a wide open “sendero”, the only open ground for a mile in any direction.
The one which proved to be the “right” puku.
Not far from camp was a local fishing village. Fisherman are great in hunting areas as normally they won’t bother the game. As I like to meet and interact with native people, arrangements were made our last night in camp for the villagers to visit. Most of the adult men were fishing so our visitors were women, children, and some elderly. They sang and we all danced by the fire. I shared snacks from home and we emptied the camp soft drink supply. Mostly I videoed the festivities and a great time was had by all. In thanks we made arrangements to deliver the puku meat to the village the next morning.
Our last morning I was ready to relax again thinking the safari was finished. Shawn however suggested we make a try for Crawshay Defassa Waterbuck, the only species (outside of the Angolan, which I’m not aware is currently huntable) I had not previously collected. We only had one morning so I thought “what the heck”. Either the full moon period was over or the animals thought we were no longer hunting because we saw critters everywhere. We watched from 50 yards the largest kudu I’ve ever seen for ten full minutes. We saw puku and buffalo herds. Reedbuck and warthog. Hartebeest and wildebeest. It was a menagerie at every turn. We even saw a few Waterbuck but nothing we wanted to take home.
The Birds don’t shoot from vehicles, something I wholly agree with. So we decided to take another walk and after a grueling 10 minutes (ha, ha!) we busted the old boy in some trees. A hurried shot a bit too far back locked him in place for a perfect shoulder finisher that ended the safari. This time for good.
A very good Crawshay Defassa Waterbuck, the smallest of the waterbuck both in body and horn.
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