Trackers – The other forgotten half

For those who have hunted the Big Five on more than one occasion, and have had a bad experience in doing so, think of your right-hand man standing his ground next to you, unarmed, whilst all hell is breaking loose in front of you.

Thinking back to all those years of pursuing animals, I can only raise my hat to all those great and fearless individuals, who made hunting so much easier. To all these brave men I would like to say, “Zikomo, Zikomo Kwambili!” (Thank you, thank you very much!)

 

A TRACKER NAMED MUGWA

By Geoff Wainwright

Author overseeing camp building. Mugwa is wearing the green shirt.

Author overseeing camp building. Mugwa is wearing the green shirt.

Our party of eight men were on an anti-poaching patrol during breaks between safaris in West Tanzania. We walked in single file along a game trail, flanked on either side by tall miombo forest. Leaves rustled overhead and a Heuglin’s robin greeted the morning with its melodious call. The distant sound of chopping reached our ears. Our officer in charge paused. He raised his hand in the way of sign language and we instantly sank down on our haunches – the hunter’s natural reaction to any alarm. A smile creased my face. At long last, after many frustrating attempts, the noose was tightening for a group of poachers. We had information!

As a splash of crimson smeared the horizon, we had left my tented camp, situated among pod mahogany trees on the banks of the Moyowosi swamp. Accompanying me, dressed in brown overalls, were my trackers, Manduna and Labson, also skinner, Jacob – each armed with hunting rifles. The air filled with the rank smell of shag tobacco as a cigarette was shared among the government game scouts. They were kitted out in military green and armed with AK 47s. With us was our informant – our trump card!

Author’s camp in Moyowosi.

Author’s camp in Moyowosi.

The scouts’ officer approached me. The air was tense. Speaking Swahili, we set out our plan of action and split into two groups. With my Krieghoff double in hand, my men followed quietly and we melted into the surrounding bush. As we advanced towards the sound of chopping, it grew louder. We had to twist and turn to avoid fiercely thorned shrubs on ground that sloped steeply down to a cluster of trees. There we stalked forward and took cover behind dense bush.

Binoculars glued to my eyes, I took stock. At the waterhole, shaded by a giant fig tree, I saw the poachers’ camp. Two men were going about their chores. At my elbow the “informer” excitedly pointed out my sworn enemy, Mugwa, a notorious poacher. This man had actually ringbarked a tree in my camp and written a death threat to me after I had arrested a family member for illegal hunting! A rifle slung over his bare back, he was stoking a fire below a smoking rack packed with meat. The flames made shimmering heat waves that had no colour. The other man, wizened, old and no bigger than a bushbuck, squatted and stirred a cooking pot. Tension running high, we waited for the signal from our counterparts. Without warning, a honey guide flew into a tree and started its reedy chattering.

Land Cruiser from which rifle was stolen.

Land Cruiser from which rifle was stolen.

Mugwa rose to his full height, eyes drilling in our direction. With deadly menace, he unslung the rifle and worked the bolt. There was a barbaric shout for him to surrender as the air was torn by automatic gunfire. We charged down the slope to cut off his escape. Mugwa was quickly surrounded and tackled to the ground by a fleet-footed scout and in a flurry of rowdy, close-quarter wrestling, was disarmed. They pulled him roughly to his feet and handcuffed him. Face etched with defeat, he spat on the ground. The old man was manhandled and forced to join him. Then the rangers’ officer, voice filled with venom, began to interrogate our captives. How had a sporting rifle come to be in their possession? At first their lips were sealed in defiance – later loosened by blows to their heads. Mugwa collapsed to the ground with blood dripped from his nose. The old man claimed to be Mugwa’s father. He pleaded with them to stop. I recognised the rifle – a .375 Cogswell & Harrison!

This brought to mind an incident I clearly recalled; a time during my early days in Moyowosi. My hunting vehicle had been parked on a bush track surrounded by flat-topped acacia trees, their canopies dancing to the tune of the wind. Our hunting party had debussed. With our double-barrelled rifles in hand and high hopes of getting a good buffalo bull, we set off on foot. Unbeknown to us, Mugwa was poaching the same herd, some distance behind us. Armed with his muzzle gun, he had blundered onto our truck as it stood in solitary silence. He instantly took cover to take stock of the situation. As the minutes ticked by he heard only the incessant cooing of doves. Then Swai coughed. This learner driver/watchman was dozing in a pool of shade!

Mt Meru where safari headquarters is located

Mt Meru where safari headquarters is located

Mugwa smiled when he saw the rifles standing in their racks in the back of the truck. His mind thrilled at the prospect of enriching himself by poaching for ivory with a modern rifle! He stalked up to my vehicle. Cautiously he crept aboard – he had time on his side. Apart from robbing us of the biggest bore rifle and a belt of ammunition, he then rubbed salt into our wounds by helping himself to a Coke as he ate our cold guineafowl lunch. He also deposited the bones on my seat! Then, rifle slung over his shoulder, he melted back into the bush. And so, Mugwa entered my life!

But now he was in our custody . . . I stared at his grave face. This man had gained fame by being a commercial poacher. He sold meat to the villagers and tusks to Indian businessmen. He had mocked our every effort to apprehend him over the years. I had identified the carcasses of buffalo and elephant, all killed by a single shot from the .375, as his handiwork. Satisfied that we finally had our man, the culprits were marched to my truck where they joined the armed rangers in the back.

Steven Dall’s second buffalo with visiting anti-poaching unit.

Steven Dall’s second buffalo with visiting anti-poaching unit.

We drove out of the game reserve on its well-worn track, dragging a cloud of dust behind us, to finally reach Kafura headquarters. Under the eyes of senior officers (who eagerly handled the .375), reports were filed and charges laid against Mugwa. On the strength of our evidence, they were detained!

The rains signalled the end of my hunting season. We broke camp. Our little convoy of two Land Cruisers and a lorry loaded with equipment, finally arrived in the town of Arusha. There our headquarters lay in the shadow of Mount Meru. Six months later, after the rains had abated, I was back in Moyowosi, the landscape now lush in shades of verdant green, the waterholes brimming. We were hard at work building camp, when suddenly a stranger appeared out of nowhere. Dressed in a torn khaki shirt and dirty shorts, he greeted me in Swahili, saying, “Hodi.” (I am here. Am I welcome?) I almost recognized the voice. Then he said, “I am Mugwa. My anger for you is sheathed. I have come to work as your tracker.” A statement – no need for any explanation!?

Steven Dall’s first buffalo as featured in story.

Steven Dall’s first buffalo as featured in story.

I was taken aback. This man was supposed to be in jail! I told him to sit. Over a period of perhaps an hour or two, he told me many things, especially how his case had been thrown out of court when the rifle had mysteriously gone missing. There was nothing for me to say. Finally my hand shook his and he became one of my trackers!

As the season progressed, Mugwa proved his worth. One day our hunting party left camp with my American client, Stephen Dall, the surroundings still shrouded in mist. Trackers Mugwa, Swai and game scout, Perrie, were dressed in military greatcoats. The bitter cold smoked their warm breaths in front of them. We headed for Lake Samasi. While glassing, I sighted a good trophy buffalo. We stopped the truck and stalked on foot. Once it was within range, we stood rooted to the spot in anticipation as we watched Dall, his double cradled in the shooting sticks. The moving barrel kept pace with the buffalo. It was unaware of our presence. Fingers stuck in my ears, I whispered urgently, “Wait for it to stop!” But he pulled the trigger anyway. The blast shattered the air as the thump of the bullet hit home. I knew instantly that the shot was not fatal.

The buffalo wheeled about, hooves thundering on the ground. Dall fired a snap shot at its rump from the second barrel, but missed. The bull vanished into the tangles of a dense thicket. For a few moments the sound of crashing bushes filled our ears as the bull retreated, then nothing. Sticks snapped – then an eerie silence. Dall was breathing hard, his emotions running high. I asked him about his bullet placement. With hands trembling, he grimaced, then broke his double and ejected the shells, shaking his head in dismay. “I should have held my fire – waited for a perfect killing shot…” Fear prowled my gut as I reflected on the dangers of hunting a wounded buffalo. Mugwa walked over to the earth churned up by the bull’s hooves and pointed to specks of blood. He casually rolled a cigarette, then blew the smoke skywards to check the wind. The sun provided a welcome blanket of warmth after our chilly start and Mugwa and Swai spread their greatcoats over the ground for Dall to lie on. The air clogged with silence, we waited.

Would our quarry stiffen up, or give out its death bellow and die? But no such luck. I informed Dall of what lay ahead. Hunting a wounded buffalo was inherently dangerous. I suggested that he return to the truck with one of my men. But no, he was a “true hunter” and insisted on accompanying us. An hour later our rifles were loaded with both solid and soft rounds.

My tracker, Mugwa.

My tracker, Mugwa.

Mugwa, a blade of long grass in his hand, pointed as he studied the spoor of the buffalo. His powers of observation were so acute, that he instantly had the details locked in his mind. No dent or chip-mark in the tracks went unnoticed. Once more he checked the wind with his cigarette. My .470 Krieghoff held at the ready; Dall followed in my wake. We took up the spoor, our party down to three.  Mugwa carried the shooting sticks and canvas water bag. The buffalo had followed a well-worn elephant path. In places we had to stoop low and thread our way beneath arches of thicket. Shafts of sunlight wove a pattern of shade on the trail. Our eyes cast nervous glances as we made silent progress.

Mugwa stopped to pick up a leaf covered in blood. He sniffed the air and stared ahead, fixed on something. He turned his head slowly to me and indicated our quarry ahead with his eyes. Slowly I raised my rifle, snuggled into the butt and peered hard over the iron sights for the bull. My eyes slowly grew accustomed to a tapestry of mottled, shaded greys. Then I made out a vague, dark shape, camouflaged behind wispy leaves. My excitement under tight control, I took aim at perhaps where the shoulder might be and squeezed off my first shot, followed by the second in quick succession. The bushes in front erupted violently, the buffalo bulled its way deeper into the thicket and our surroundings whimpered into silence. We held our ground and listened – the bush so quiet it seemed to be holding its breath. We waited for what seemed ages, then pressed on, keeping our wits about us. The evidence of no extra blood did not bode well. As we went, Mugwa pointed to each track with his blade of grass and we continued tracking.

Twice we flushed the bull. Both Dall and I fired, the sound of our shots dampened by dense thicket. Not one shot proved fatal. It is common knowledge among big-game hunters that buffalo can soak up many poor shots. And, charged with adrenalin, a wounded buffalo is hard to stop. I looked at  Mugwa with new-found respect. Armed only with the shooting sticks, his life was in our hands. We followed the spoor for the rest of the morning, while he painstakingly tracked over grasslands, stony ground and back into looming thickets. We came across buffalo dung with a crust starting to form on top. Mugwa stabbed a finger into it and in doing so, broke Nature’s code of time and distance.

As the sun shimmered overhead, my foolish pride forbade me to drink from the canvas water bag, although I was desperately thirsty. We came to a sand river, the bed littered with old elephant dung and wind-blown footprints. The buffalo spoor led us to a “seep”, where the damp earth attracted moisture-seeking butterflies and wasps. Mugwa dropped to his knees and skilfully dug until water appeared. He moved back politely for me to drink, then cupped his hands and drank his fill. He rose to his full height while the wind tugged at his shirt, then sniffed the air and watched the flight of oxpeckers for clues. When he deliberately turned off the tracks, I was afraid we would lose the buffalo. I was about to lock horns with him, but bowed to his superior knowledge. He had done his homework. As we followed, Mugwa climbed a bank to enter lush forest that edged the sand river. Then we set off at a good pace. As daylight and skyline approached, we heard impala snorting in alarm. We broke out into the bright day and came to a halt in grassland surrounded by low bushes and dotted with small trees. Mugwa scouted around and found the tracks exactly were he had said we would find them.

Once more on the spoor, we had barely gone 50 metres when the sound of a “chirring” oxpecker drew us to an instant halt! Mugwa crouched low and pointed to the buffalo that was no more than 30 yards away, bellied down and watching us. Its ragged, thorn-torn ears flicked at flies while it strained to pick up any sound. A nervous knot fluttered in the pit of my stomach. I slowly set up the shooting sticks and ushered Dall onto them. The oxpecker on the bull’s back “chirred” incessantly as it lumbered up on all fours to stand. Then, as it wobbled forward, his chest shot mercifully brought it down. The heavy, horned head straining towards the heavens, it sounded its death bellow and its life ebbed away.

Mugwa, tracker extraordinaire, imitated the death song – “Mmmmmmbaaaaawwww…” Then, his job done, he sat below a shade tree and rolled another cigarette.

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