Chobe challenge

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Kevin Thomas recounts taking a client after a trophy Chobe bushbuck in the fierce heat of a Zimbabwean river valley

If ever there is a noble and majestic spiral horn, it is the bushbuck. They fascinate me, and always have. Tenacious and wary, they dwell in the dark, shadowy world of the forests and thick bush and are seldom seen unless one actually goes out with the specific intent of hunting a bushbuck. Impala, warthog, kudu, eland, and so many other species can often be ‘bumped’ into, leading to a quick, successful stalk and a relived hunt around the campfire a few hours later.

It seldom happens that way with the wily bushbuck, because normally, if you bump into one, you’ve invariably caught him by surprise, and under those circumstances he’ll seldom linger – all you’ll see is a flash of white as he flags his tail while disappearing into the forest gloom, and if you’re lucky you might hear his throaty warning bark, pure bush music to the ear.

Concession holder Dudley Rodgers brought Kevin’s client Bill Porteus into the remote main camp by air

Concession holder Dudley Rodgers brought Kevin’s client Bill Porteus into the remote main camp by air

A bushbuck’s cryptic colouration is natural camouflage at its best, his white markings and spots contrasting with his dark brown body, and when he stands immobile in his shadowy forest habitat he merely becomes another patch of light shards penetrating the forest gloom amid the dark shadows.

Some years back, genial British client Bill Porteus and I had been hunting a buffalo in Zimbabwe’s Gokwe North on a CAMPFIRE (Communal Area Management Program for Indigenous Resources) block, which at the time was allocated to Dudley Rogers’s Tshabezi Safaris. We’d eventually lucked out on a buffalo after some extremely hard physical and frustrating hunting in a heavily poached area (not at all unusual in the Zimbabwe of today).

High on Bill’s bucket list too, was a good Chobe bushbuck – without doubt one of the prettiest of the bushbuck species and, as any seasoned PH will testify, once the pressure is off on the dangerous game species, the safari morphs into a more ‘relaxed mindset’ hunt mode.

En-route to Kausige fly-camp, the track still at a higher elevation than the Ume River valley

En-route to Kausige fly-camp, the track still at a higher elevation than the Ume River valley

More relaxed we may have become, however, hunting a bushbuck is a challenge, and among the antelope species it is one of my favourites. Plus, I really wanted Bill to get a good trophy – he’d been trying for long enough on various safaris.

Our base was at Kausige, a rustic ‘Batonka’ style fly-camp on the Ume River flood plain, in a valley. It was already late September, a month away from October which is often called ‘Suicide Month’ on account of the extreme heat. It is a parching, dehydrating, and draining heat. A heat that sucks the energy out of you and dries your mouth, your perspiration saturating your clothing, and often this heat and humidity combination forces you back into camp by 11am. Keeping re-hydrated is vital, for the heat can quite easily kill you, and here, I talk from hard-learned experience – back in 1975 it very nearly killed me.

The midday glare is unforgiving, keeping your searching eyes to mere slits if you aren’t wearing shades. In the distance, everything – animals, humans, and trees – shimmers and dances in this mirage-generating daytime furnace.

Buffalo, waterbuck and Chobe bushbuck had all used this pool in the Ume River – the heat haze is clearly visible in the background

Buffalo, waterbuck and Chobe bushbuck had all used this pool in the Ume River – the heat haze is clearly visible in the background

If you want a really good bushbuck though, I’ve always believed that this midday heat furnace in places like the Ume River valley is when you should be out there. Going with this belief, we tried that, numerous times – putting up with the heat, humidity, and swarms of sweat bees, not to mention the heavy going in the heat-loosened sand in the riverbed – as we moved among the reed-banks, watching, and glassing the waterholes.

For his safari, Bill had brought out one rifle, his cherished 1951 pre-64 Winchester .375 H&H, wearing a Leupold 1.75-6×32 on detachable Talley mounts. The only ammunition he had was factory loaded Remington 300gr swift ‘A’ Frame – a good choice, he’d done a one-bullet job on the buffalo and they’d be perfect for his Chobe bushbuck.

Despite the CAMPFIRE block having been heavily poached, we saw a fair amount of Chobe bushbuck and, like a number of my PH colleagues, I’m of the opinion that because bushbuck are such slow and wary movers in their shadowy habitat perhaps, and hopefully so, they see snares, and step around them. If they do, it’s a good thing.

The team cross the Ume River, where even in the dry month of September, water was plentiful

The team cross the Ume River, where even in the dry month of September, water was plentiful

Often, we’d see a Chobe way out on the riverbed, and we’d watch with the glasses as he seemingly, while out of his preferred environment, tottered uncomfortably across the sand, only to then leap into the thick stuff once he had gained the far river bank, and immediately disappear from sight.

On one occasion, we were walking as quietly as we could, Indian file, close to, and trying to stay in the shade by hugging the one river bank, while constantly but quietly sweeping sharp-leaved pragmites reeds away from our faces. Suddenly, the keen-eyed trackers froze and dropped to their knees – Augustine pointed through the swaying reeds – and in one fleeting second, in deep shadow, we caught a glimpse of a magnificent Chobe bushbuck decamping into the gloom: the mental image of his magnificent horns was still with us over cocktails around the campfire that night.

The fallen flowers of a sausage tree proved a draw for a bushbuck in the area

The fallen flowers of a sausage tree proved a draw for a bushbuck in the area

However, where we’d seen him offered hope. He’d been feeding on the fallen cup-shaped soft velvety maroon flowers of a lone sausage tree (Kigelia africana), growing in the dense combretum thickets on the river bank. These flowers, visited by bats at night, are often knocked to the ground, and they’re a favourite of bushbuck. Our feeling was we had a possible natural ‘bait’ station – it just meant watching and waiting.

Next day, we drove as far as we could, and then took to the riverbed, walking north on the still cool and compact sand, yet to be loosened by the sun’s heat. When we reached Shapa springs, we lingered, savouring the scenery, and marvelling at the crystal clear cold water bubbling out of the rock face above a fish-filled pool. Buffalo spoor was present, though there wasn’t much, as was bushbuck. There was also barefoot human spoor from the adjacent tribal area, and lots of fish scales and still-warm embers – sadly, Chinese made gill-nets in the wrong hands are now plundering many of southern Africa’s rivers.

Pushing on and staying with the riverbed, we eventually saw the canopy of the sausage tree sticking out above the riverine thickets on the Ume’s west bank, still some way to our front. By this time too, the day was warming up considerably, the river sand loosening and making for heavy going, beads of sweat running down our faces, so it was with relief that we finally reached the stand of reeds behind which we were going to sit.

The base was at Kausige, a rustic ‘Batonka’ style fly-camp on the Ume River flood plain

The base was at Kausige, a rustic ‘Batonka’ style fly-camp on the Ume River flood plain

As we quietly hunkered down to begin our wait, my watch reflected the time at 11:45. There was no shade, and the sun was merciless – yet I felt positive. The trackers cautiously spread out, and with them, Bill and I, all keeping a keen eye on the deep shadows beneath the sausage tree. We were sure that if the Chobe showed, he’d definitely be headed to the salt – it was about a 65m shot.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be because despite our staying put in the oppressive heat, at about 13:25, Augustine suddenly gave a low ‘tsssskkkk’ and turning, I saw him pointing downstream, and there, a long way off, was our Chobe, crossing from the west bank to the east bank and already two-thirds of the way across. We hardly had time to bring our glasses up before he disappeared into the thickets.

Moving towards where he had disappeared, I got the trackers to circle in through the brush in an attempted drive, while Bill and I remained on the sand, hoping the bushbuck would break for the opposite bank. All we got by way of return was a throaty warning bark, before he went deeper into the thickets.

Rather dejectedly we walked the long, hot, sandy route back to the rig and, sweat-soaked, finally got there, plundered the cool-box for cold water, and then headed back to camp.

That night, as we sat round the campfire under a vaulted black sky, the stars above us clear and abundant, I began to fret a little. Time was running out and we only had the morrow to go. Bill, a wonderfully ethical client to be guiding, was relaxed, so I really wanted him to get lucky. As always, and being an absolute gentleman, he made light of whether he’d get a Chobe or not, yet I knew deep down he wanted one badly – it was his sixth attempt.

In one fleeting second, in deep shadow, we caught a glimpse of a magnificent Chobe bushbuck decamping into the gloom

However, and after a few more glasses of the worst local red wine we’d ever tasted – a more apt description would have been ‘plonk’ – the chef informed us dinner was ready, so we enjoyed Bill’s stewed buffalo tail (and in desperation forced down another glass or two of the atrocious red), before hitting the sack.

The heat was still oppressive at 17:30 on the eve of Bill’s last day – still without a chance at a bushbuck

The heat was still oppressive at 17:30 on the eve of Bill’s last day – still without a chance at a bushbuck

Next morning we were out early and, despite our every effort, didn’t even see a Chobe. Eventually, although the hunt had been a bit frustrating, the oppressive heat – undoubtedly the hottest day of the safari – forced us back into camp by about midday. Back there, we found PHs Clinton Rogers and Monty Jenkinson had arrived with their clients who were from Bend, Oregon. One client, an old man, looked positively ill from the heat, so much so that I expressed my concern for his well-being because by that stage the heat was brutal.

This was Bill’s last day and we’d already lost half of it, which had me worried, so while we sat chatting under the thatch I suggested that maybe we should face the heat and try one last time for a bushbuck – it was 13:30.

Bill immediately agreed, so, forcing ourselves out of the shade beneath the thatch, we called the trackers and drove downstream along the flood-plain. About one kilometre from the camp we parked and moved towards the shimmering sandy riverbed on foot. As we sat among the reeds and glassed the east side of the Ume, I ranged the far bank and got a reading of 285m, and I’d hardly done that when Augustine whispered ‘imbabala’. Looking in the direction he was pointing, Bill and I both picked up movement on the far bank. A male and female Chobe were moving through the brush directly above the riverbed.

A 15in Chobe bushbuck with 6in horn bases was a fitting eleventh-hour closure to a challenging safari

A 15in Chobe bushbuck with 6in horn bases was a fitting eleventh-hour closure to a challenging safari

One quick glance with our binoculars told us the male was a worthy trophy, so grabbing the shooting sticks, Bill and I went out onto the hot sand and, bent over, moved single file towards the centre of the riverbed. We didn’t get far because of my concern we’d be spotted – there was no cover – so at 193m I set up the sticks and Bill quickly moved onto them, and settled.

The male was following in the female’s wake, about 10m behind her. As I knelt and watched through the glasses, the shot reverberated across the riverbed, and simultaneously the bushbuck tumbled down the vertical bank and came to rest on the sand, he raised his head once, and then stilled. As I stood up and congratulated Bill, the trackers in the reeds to our rear broke into applause – it’d been an excellent shot, giving Bill a 15in Chobe with 6in horn bases – a fitting eleventh hour closure to a challenging safari.

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