Rhythm of the Bongo

Few countries in Africa are similar to Cameroon, an alien land that adds to the mystique of chasing bongo.

Chris Dorsey, middle, with a spectacular bongo.

 

For globe-trotting hunters, the experience of traveling to the other side of the planet, expending tremendous physical energy and significant expense, and failing to get the animal you want is nothing short of daunting. Yet such potential is part of any safari — we’re buying a hunt, the fair chase, a sporting chance, after all, and not an animal. 

The “failing” I mentioned is the reality I looked back on as I boarded the return flight from a bongo hunt in Cameroon in March 2014. The “daunting” took place in-flight, as I replayed two weeks of chopping through the equatorial forest and all the chess moves that fell short. Before the plane touched down stateside, I concluded that my 20-year dream for a bongo needed a second round, even though it would require another epic expedition that cost a lot of money, plenty of sweat, and some measure of blood.

When I returned in June 2015 to the western coast of Africa, I noted that of all the strange lands and exotic creatures I’ve seen in my 25 years of exploring the far corners of the Earth, few places seem as foreign, as alien, as Cameroon. Especially the capital of Yaoundé, with its clouds of flying foxes. They cover the skies in broad daylight, making one wonder if Bela Lugosi was holed up somewhere in the city.

 


Jungle streams are likely places to find bongo tracks.

 

My previous trip to the forests of Cameroon found us in the presence of apes and chimpanzees, as if I was part of some National Geographic expedition in search of Kong. Many hunts around the globe are simply variations of previous outings — not so with bongo and the jungles of West Africa. It’s like no other place on Earth.

Having kicked around in plenty of developing African nations over the years, the most dangerous part of any safari — including hunts for the Big Five — is traffic in the cities.

Yaoundé, Cameroon, is no different. The litany of close calls as we left town made me wish I had a pair of headphones and dark sunglasses — to shield my senses from the chaos of the streets. It would have been better not to know that death could be imminent with the next lane change — even though most Cameroon drivers pay little attention to lanes.

If that weren’t enough, West Africa is now a place best known for Ebola outbreaks and the terrors of Boko Haram. If Africa were a brand, its slogan would be, “Sh** Happens. Deal with It.”

For 30-year-old Frenchman Matthieu Radot, the traffic and the chaos of the city are a stark contrast to his life running a bush camp that’s a seven-hour drive north of the capital and seemingly centuries from his rural hunting roots in southwestern France. But the bush has been his home for the last two years, if for no other reason than his heart now pulses to the beat of the bongo.

Matthieu took my previous failure personally — though it was no fault of his, as the rains simply hadn’t arrived. Without steady monsoons, following spore in the foot-thick leaf clutter of the forest required an exorcist rather than a tracker.

As Africa goes, the jungle of Cameroon is an anomaly in many ways. The obvious differences in climate and vegetation — seasonal monsoons and equatorial steam that support a lush rain forest compared with the savannahs and low bushveld of much of the rest of Africa — are only part of the distinction. The other is a nearly complete lack of predators — no lions, leopards, hyenas, or even jackals. Cameroon is home to only a modest amount of game. There are no vast herds of anything in the jungle, save for aggressive armies of ants so fierce they could be added to the Big Five. But the lack of predators means the bongo tend to stay in their territories, because they don’t get pushed out by carnivores.

In years past only two countries in the entire world offered hunts for bongo—the Central African Republic (CAR) and Cameroon. Thanks to a governmental collapse and anarchy in the CAR, bongo hunting is now confined for all intents and purposes to Cameroon. Nothing interferes with hunting in Africa like geopolitics and impromptu war.

 


Professional Hunter Matthieu Radot and a chase dog catch their breath in the steamy jungle air.

The jungle here is otherworldly — more exotic than the tundra or even the great swamps of Botswana’s Okavango Eden, the limitless Pantanal of southern Brazil, and our own Cajun bayou. As I join Matthieu and his assistant PH, Nicolas Leboucher, along with a posse consisting of three trackers, two dog handlers, six dogs, and a pocketful of hope, I’m once again mesmerized by the enormity and mystery of the jungle, with its canopy of green so thick that it turns day to night.

There are two ways to hunt bongo. One, you can sit in a high stand overlooking salt pans frequented by the animals. This tactic was common in the CAR — and very attractive to many hunters because it’s a lot easier than chopping a trail through the jungle.

Two, hunters, trackers, and dogs can follow a bongo through the muck and mire of one of the world’s thickest forests. Busting through the thorn-laden stems is like walking into a car wash as the rubber tentacles whirl until all the dirt — or in this case, your skin — is removed. Once you get near the end of the track — be it in ten minutes or ten hours — you release the chase dogs to get the 400-pound, aggressive beast to turn and face the dogs long enough to provide a shot. In years past, when dogs weren’t used, hunters seldom had more than a mere instant to shoot.

We took option two, and about two hours into a machete-chopping hike down a small creek, one of the trackers found the fresh print of a bull bongo. The other two trackers joined him, and all three hovered over the impression and discussed options like doctors diagnosing a patient. It had been 14 months since I had seen a similar confab, so optimism began to consume the moment.

Matthieu said that it was a good track, perhaps made by the behemoth they saw on a trail cam placed on a small salt pan in this remote stretch of the concession.

Off we went, making good time and covering significant ground — for a few minutes. Then the trackers began struggling to stay with the beast in the thick forest litter, and I started to get that same feeling a stockbroker does when the bears come out of a Wall Street hibernation.

 


Once a bongo is jumped, the native handlers release the dogs, hopefully to entice the bull to stop and square off against its pursuers.

 

Just as suddenly as the track and hope appeared, they evaporated in the quicksand mulch of the forest floor. So swung the emotional pendulum that is the hallmark of bongo hunting. You go in knowing and accepting this as part of the experience or you’ll surrender your sanity in the jungle. A good bit of the frustration is knowing that with each prolonged commitment to a track that doesn’t produce a bull, you can etch another mark on the prison wall that is bongo obsession.

Sometimes when I awake in Africa I feel disorientated. It’s a spacial and time disconnect, as though I’ve been in this moment before in some sort of previous life. The place has a way of stirring emotions and thoughts that disrupt the flow of the safari at hand, for so many sights, sounds, and even smells recall previous African moments.

After some 40 trips to the Dark Continent, I begin to adhere to the notion that a safari never really ends because you don’t truly leave Africa. The last hunt in Africa is just a continuation of your first; you simply go farther down the same path with each foray — and Cameroon takes you even deeper.

Each morning began with a tour of watering holes and salt pans where the hope is to find a fresh, big track to follow. And as we find a new track, the pursuit is on and there is palpable electricity in the hunting party. But after five days of looking for a bull in the usual locations and coming up empty, Matthieu channeled his inner bongo and gambled on a long-shot that two previous safaris may have pushed the bongo to a different part of the forest.

 


PH Matthieu Radot.

 

He was right. Not only did we find one bongo track, we found many — a mother lode. Matthieu’s face lit up as the trackers began to decipher hours-old tracks from those made a day or two earlier. Settling on one set of large hoofprints, the three trackers began their leap-frogging technique, which continued nearly two hours. With each machete-chopping step into the forest, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was finally the track that would help my 20-year dream of getting a bongo bear fruit.

Methodically, we made our way through the jungle, a monotonous and seemingly never-ending expanse. Finally, and very suddenly, circumstances changed. A tracker raised up, straightened from his crouched position, and cocked his head to listen. In the same instant the lead chase dog that Matthieu was holding by a tether lunged forward, reacting to the suddenly intoxicating scent of a bongo that had just flushed perhaps 50 yards ahead of us. It was undoubtedly spooked by the last machete chop, the sound of which was swallowed up in the dense forest.

Matthieu released that dog, which was followed immediately by a two-year-old fox terrier, Pato. In under a minute we could hear frantic barking a couple hundred yards ahead. The rest of the dogs were released and suddenly our calculated step-by-step maneuvering through the jungle turned into a thorn-slapping sprint to the dogs and, with hope upon hope, a bongo.

Bleeding but euphoric, we arrived breathless to the dogs and witnessed the most magical creature to walk the planet since the Irish elk of the Pleistocene. Until you see a bongo in the flesh, they seem almost as mythical as a unicorn — as if you’re chasing little more than a rumor. After 20 years of waiting and countless campaigns into the jungle, a simple shot was all that was left to close this unforgettable chapter in my hunting life.

 


The bongo’s horns and cape begin making their way out of Cameroon.

If you adhere to the belief that a great game animal is determined by the toughness of a hunt and the sheer magnificence of the beast, it’s hard not to put a chop-your-way-through-the jungle-for-eight-hours-a-day safari for bongo at the top of your list. Few trophies ever mean more to a hunter than a bongo — the beast that lured me across the Atlantic and through the jungle where every bush and vine has teeth and where ants attack in biting battalions, sinking their mandibles into your calf in unified assault.

Through it all, Cameroon has become a part of me as much as any place I’ve hunted. From the amazing trackers to a young French professional hunter who sees great hope and promise where so many others struggle for reasons to be optimistic. Memories of Cameroon will always be indelible to me — just like the bongo that calls it home.

On the return flight home, I slept contently knowing that the years of dreaming of a bongo and the actual difficulties of the hunt made the successful track even more rewarding.

Note: For more information about Cameroon bongo hunting with N’Gavoh Safaris, visit www.safaris-cameroun.com or phone 011-33-1-44-26-2727.

Photography by John MacGillivray.

 

 

“Rhythm of the Bongo” originally appeared in the Guns & Hunting 2015 issue of Sporting Classics.