My wanderings through Africa – by Mike Cameron

My wanderings through Central Africa heralded a time of adventure, excitement, hardship and great hunting – a time filled with nostalgic memories that will remain imprinted on my soul for the rest of my life.

Forest elephant (Illustration: Alan Ainslie)

Forest elephant (Illustration: Alan Ainslie)

The forest of the Central African Republic (CAR) had many interesting trophies which one could collect, these being giant forest hog and yellow-back duiker. I loved hunting the duiker, either tracking them or finding a heap of droppings in the forest, which indicates that you are in an individual’s territory.

My trackers would then take a leaf from a tree, fold this around and blow on it. The sound that emanated imitated a distress call. Being very curious, the animal would then approach to investigate. Both male and female yellow-back duiker carry horns, the horns of the male being much thicker than that of the female. It was now up to the professional to identify the animal. We did not shoot females of any species and if you did, your licence fee would be double the amount that you had to pay for the male. The yellow-back duiker is the largest of the duiker family and with its chocolate-coloured body and enormous patch of yellow on the back, made for an exceptional trophy.

Giant forest hog was common in all forest areas and a big male is indeed a sight to behold. Standing well over 3 feet in height at the shoulder and weighing close to 600 pounds, this is the largest pig on the African continent. It has tusks similar to that of the warthog, but much smaller.

While I was operating in the forest and with all the poaching that was taking place, all one had to do was earmark one or two elephant carcasses. The hogs loved eating the worms that poured out of the rotten elephant carcasses and some excellent trophies were obtained.

When shooting my first hog for my staff while building camp, I unfortunately killed another, not seeing the second hog behind the old male that I was aiming at. This happened around a salt lick and I was using my .458, the only rifle I had taken with me to the CAR. The hog was on a slope and it was late in the afternoon. I felt pretty bad about the whole episode, but at least my staff had plenty of njama (meat) for quite some time. I had thought of having my cook prepare a titbit from the pig, but the smell was enough to dispel that notion immediately!

I believe that I was the last professional hunter to collect a Derby eland and an elephant in the forest of the CAR before elephant hunting was closed permanently. The reopening of elephant hunting came about in a rather unusual way. Flying out from Paris en route to Bangui, I happened to be sharing numerous bottles of new red wine with the chap sitting next to me. The young fellow spoke excellent English and I discovered that he was working for the French Government.

I had booked three clients for elephant but while in Paris, I heard that no more elephants would be on permit. And so, during the long journey, I told my sad tale to my companion who seemed much clued up on the current situation in the CAR. On arrival at Bangui, he gave me his name and a telephone number on a piece of paper and suggested that I phone him in three day’s time. The situation was rather gloomy at our headquarters as several other professionals had also booked elephant hunts. I was on the point of sending telexes to my clients as regards the closure of elephant hunting when I remembered the telephone call. I called the gentleman and was invited for lunch. After a superb meal that French restaurants in the backwoods of Africa are famous for, I was told that the total ban on the hunting of elephants in the CAR had been lifted. I could now continue with my hunts. I will always be grateful to this young man who wielded such a “clout” amongst the nitwits who ran the CAR.

Hunting elephant in the forest was most enjoyable, compared to following these animals in the heat of the savannah. Once inside the forest, it was cool but humid. During the time that I hunted there the rainy season had started and it was the only time in my life that I enjoyed being wet for most of the day. A most strange incident happened with two of the finest double rifles made by the Brits. We had two double discharges within 10 minutes of one another; one rifle was a .465/500 Holland & Holland Royal and the other a .470 Rigby sidelock.

Having hunted in most terrains on the continent where safari hunting took place, it has been a privilege for me to watch and work with some outstanding indigenous trackers. For me, the very best and worst that I have had and booted, was in the CAR. On my first visit to the forest I was assigned one Maurice, a rather elderly chap who used to guide the one-time French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. My esteemed tracker Maurice lasted exactly one day. This was the only time that I got lost with a client. I had the rather difficult task of building a camp and hunting at the same time. The camp was being constructed on the banks of the Voodoo River. As there were no roads in the area, I made use of a Zodiac inflatable boat, which came in exceedingly handy, except that I was restricted as to how far I could go because of the numerous rapids in the river. On my first day out on a recognisance of the river and adjacent areas, looking for elephant and bongo tracks near salt licks, my presidential tracker got us hopelessly lost. Floundering around for several hours, I instructed them to turn and go due west. I had waited for the sun to start dropping down in a westerly direction before we marched in the direction where I hoped to find the river. By now my clients were completely exhausted and we were running very low on water. After a few hours of hard slogging, we came across our tracks. An hour later I stopped for a rest and looked at my two clients, totally disorientated, covered in perspiration and in the throes of throwing in the towel. In the distance I could hear the roar of the rapids and turning to the one client, I asked him if he could hear anything. His reply was in the negative. All I told him was that we should be in camp just after sundown.

Great was the joy when we came upon the river at last. My one client had only one kidney, and as such his water had to be as pure as we could boil and filter it. It was with a certain amount of amusement that I watched him storming into the swirling waters of the river and using his cotton hat to filter the water before drinking it. Thank goodness he never picked up some of those strange diseases from that part of the world.

My esteemed presidential tracker was banished to work on camp building the next day. I had 10 or 12 workers building camp and called them together. I made a random selection of one individual, an elderly fellow with grey hair. My clients decided to spend the day in camp after their horrendous walk and so I decided to try out my new fellow. Quite close to camp I picked up the tracks of a lone yellow-back duiker. Pointing at these tracks I indicated that he should follow it. What a revelation to watch a real bush expert in action! No matter where the duiker turned or walked, my chap was on his tail until we flushed it. I went to bed that night knowing that if ever we found a track, this local Zandi could find whatever he was following. And so it came to be. An interesting bit of information as regards the Zandi tribesmen – during the French colonial period, Zandis were cannibals and the French maintained that these chaps were experts at selecting the choice bits of njama by running their fingers over a captured meal . . .

What really impressed me about my new discovery was the virtually impossible way that he could track an elephant deep in the forest. As you never have fires in the forest, a carpet of leaves will gather on the ground. During the rainy season when everything in the forest is soaked, he could follow the trail of an elephant by picking up a wet leaf on the ground, studying this, looking for a difference in the colour of the leaf or by running his finger along some roots, detecting the minutest bit of sand on his fingers. I was never a great tracker but it gave me great pleasure to watch this chap in action.

The only problem with the indigenous was that they would eat anything.

The rivers had very few crocodiles, as these chaps would remove eggs from the nests to eat, and very few hippos, as they had disappeared into the cooking pots also. But to illustrate what I am saying: One day while on fairly hot tracks of an elephant, a monitor lizard appeared from nowhere and crossed our path. Like one man, my three trackers dropped whatever they were carrying and took off after this insignificant little reptile which soon disappeared down a hole. I found my tracker down the hole with only his feet sticking out. In camp we had buffalo meat plus several other species that had been collected. Africa can be a strange place at times . . .

My old friend and hunting companion, Eric Stockenstroom, and I went up during the month of December once and it was decided that we would meet at a fly-camp on the banks of the Mboumo River, the international boundary between the CAR and Zaire. The idea was for Eric to catch enough fish so we could enjoy a great fish lunch, while celebrating the passing of the old year and welcoming in the New Year.

Not very far from the fly-camp was a nice outcrop of rocks and it was here that Eric was going to produce not just lunch, but supper also. I happened to be carrying my .458 and, sitting back, enjoying a cigarette, I watched while my good friend went through the motions of casting. Suddenly he had a bite; it was obvious that whatever fish he had hooked was quite large, and as he slowly brought this in, I suggested that I dispatch it with a .458 solid. Eric would not hear of anything so unsporting, and I watched with abated breath as our lunch slowly approached. No sooner had the fish been brought onto the rocks, when in a last desperate attempt it flipped around and was gone. This happened so quickly that I had no time to attempt a shot. Well, thank heavens we brought a few tins of bully beef with, otherwise it would have been a starvation celebration.

It was also during this period that a strange Frenchman suddenly appeared in camp. Now, we were miles off the beaten track, and here was some fellow trying to tell us he was looking for a job. By putting two and two together, it was obvious that as there were two South Africans together in some remote part of French Africa, the French Government had to make sure that we were not out there to torment, assist or train dissidents that may have been in the area. A few days later the chap disappeared, never to be seen again.

I had another amusing incident at the village of Obo, our closest airstrip from where we collected clients chartering in from Bangui. As one approached the village, the first building that you passed was the police station. I had to see the fellow in charge for something or another, and as he was not in his office, I walked around to a collection of derelict buildings in which he lived. From a distance I could see seven or eight small children sitting around a pot of cassava or manioc, from which they were eating. It struck me that one little fellow had rather large ears and was quite hairy. I only realised that I was looking at a small chimpanzee when I came closer. I eventually tried to buy the little chimp from the policeman, but he would not sell. I knew it was only a matter of time before the little fellow would die, as small chimps could not survive on the same food as the locals. On my return three weeks later, the chimp had either died or they had him for dinner.

On a fly-camp close to the Zairian border, late one afternoon, I heard the distant thumbing of rotor blades. This was a strange appearance indeed, a Puma chopper from the French air force, on its way to the Obo airstrip. I departed for the main camp early the next morning but had to go through the village.

On arrival at the village, I could not believe what I was looking at. The French army had arrived, soldiers and vehicles everywhere. Overhead a C-130 cargo plane was coming in to land. I managed to find the Colonel in charge and as my French was virtually non-existent, and his English even worse, he called a young soldier and I understood him to say, bring the American lady to my tent.

Now, I knew in my heart that no American lady, or any white female or European for that matter, was in the village. Strange things happened that day. From nowhere an extremely pretty young lady dressed in a T-shirt and shorts arrived. I looked at my client, a robust fellow of my age. He stood there gaping at this unexpected pleasure to our eyes. I walked over, introduced myself and enquired about the activity that was unfolding around us. Perhaps they had come to quell an uprising or invade Zaire, but no, their mission was to eliminate the Sudanese poachers. I could detect my friend Stockenstroom’s hand in this whole operation, as I knew that he was sending back situation reports on a daily basis to someone in Bangui.

I was asked if I could accompany the chopper and point out possible spots where a team of sharpshooters on board the chopper could perhaps eliminate some of the poachers. To this I agreed immediately and it was arranged that at a prescribed hour, the chopper would collect me from my camp.

My client took the opportunity to invite the young lady to visit our camp, to which she agreed. She was absolutely stunning, but on closer inspection I discovered that she had more hair on her legs, arms and chest than you could shake a stick at. Not that all was on display, but with a button or two undone, I noticed this abnormal growth of black hair. It is common knowledge that European men find hairy women exciting, but for me, a poor South African backwoodsman, it was simply not my cup of tea.

Before we took leave of the Colonel, he asked for as much meat as what we had in camp, for his staff. Once on the road, my client, a German national, turned to me with a twinkle in his eyes and enquired politely how we would be doing it. “Doing what?” I asked. “Well Mike, shall I hold her while you shave, or shall I shave her while you are holding her down?” In all my life I had never seen such a pretty but hairy woman.

As luck would have it, on the way to camp we ran into a Derby eland and after a few hours of tracking, collected a fine specimen. The following day, at the time that was agreed on, the Puma arrived, with the hairy lady on board. I had arranged with the client for him to stay in camp, while I had a unique opportunity of scouting the area from above. Numerous signs of poachers’ camps, trails and elephant carcasses were seen on the open savannah areas around the forest, but no poachers. After two hours of flying we returned to camp. I handed the good Colonel all the eland meat and it was arranged for me to accompany them again the following day.

That evening around the campfire, my client informed me that the young lady had managed to scrounge a lift on one of the planes that landed and that she was from Paris 13 University, out here to study Zandi culture. And to think that I had a camp full of darned Zandis!

I continued flying the area for a few more days, while ground patrols went everywhere to try and stop the wanton poaching in the area. Eventually, after a week, the military disappeared as quickly as they arrived. Not much damage was done to the poachers, but the countryside was littered with plastic water bottles and sardine tins. The French military establishment had at least “shown the flag”.

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