by Michael Waddell
As a boy, I never thought I would get to go to Africa. It was the setting of some Tarzan movies and the backdrop for some pretty cool National Geographic documentaries where lions were caught on film running down the occasional gazelle, but I honestly never dreamed about going there to hunt until later in my life after I had traveled throughout much of North America.
In conversations with other sportsmen, I was increasingly asked whether I had been to Africa to hunt. Those who had been there all loved it, and
from what I was hearing, there was a lot of stuff to shoot over there. I was sold and soon found myself on a long, boring flight across the Atlantic to South Africa.
South Africa was incredible. As soon as I landed in Johannesburg, it was clear that I was no longer in Georgia.
Natives, skyscrapers and roads filled with Land Rovers were a clear sign. We boarded a small plane for the town of Polokawane in the Northern Province of the country, where I would be hunting with Ken Moody and PH Niko Neuhoff. I would be toting my bow on a plains-game hunt and get a chance to arrow a kudu, gemsbok, impala, blesbok, warthog, duiker and a host of other animals I still can't pronounce. It was like being a kid turned loose in a candy store and told he could have as much as he wanted.
Our hunt began with us sitting in a blind over a waterhole, waiting for game to show. While that style of hunting doesn't normally appeal to me, it would be the best way to score shots close enough for a bow. Various animals were constantly visiting the water's edge, and it was like having a front-row seat in one of those nature documentaries I used to see on TV. We hadn't been sitting there a half hour when a steinbok with nice four-inch horns walked in and stood broadside at 25 yards.
To tell the truth, at the time I honestly wasn't sure if it was a steinbok or a duiker, but I knew I was allowed to shoot both, so I put the smackdown on my first African game animal less than an hour into my hunt.
I sat back and watched throughout the day as animal after animal, species after species came into the waterhole. Toward the end of the day, a blue
wildebeest bull slipped in. From what little I knew about African species, this guy was a nice trophy, and unlike with the much smaller steinbok, Neuhoff had to bring the winch to pick up this one.
In only one day Africa had me hooked. It affected my spirit and soul like no other place I've been in my life. There is a feeling in the air that you can feel the entire time you're there. I fell in love with that feeling even more than I did the hunting.
Before my hunt was over, I shot an eland and two impala in addition to the wildebeest and the steinbok. It would have been easy to shoot much more, but as every animal carries with it an individual trophy fee, I always keep in mind what I can afford. My hunt was over before I knew it, and looking down at the country as my plane lifted off for home, I knew I would be counting the days until I could return.
Soon I did return, but this time I went a little more remote and headed for the country of Botswana. Roughly the size of Wyoming and Montana combined, Botswana is home to the Okavango Delta, the world's largest inland delta, where millions of gallons of water simply run into the desert and soak into the sand. The whole country only has a couple of airports and roads, and it's one of the most remote places I have visited.
On this trip, instead of a menu of plains game, we were going after dangerous game. I was shooting for a Cape buffalo, while Aaron Neilson of Global Hunting Resources would be shooting an elephant on film. My goal was to take the buffalo with an arrow, just as Fred Bear had done so many years before. I cranked up the poundage on my bow, practiced shooting heavier arrows and was ready to go — then the government decided suddenly to outlaw the use of bows for the hunting of dangerous game. I guess a few too many visitors and trackers were getting stomped and mauled after some hunters made shots that didn't kill quickly enough. I was bummed, but I decided to go the next-best route: I took a Thompson/Center muzzleloader instead.
We hunted with Ronnie Blackbeard of the legendary Blackbeard family — a long line of hunters — and since Neilson and I were hunting different species, the decision was made that we would hunt together. If we cut buff tracks in our travels, we'd go after buffalo; if we saw a good elephant, we'd put the stalk on that.
MILES TO GO
After several days of riding miles and miles in search of a suitable bull elephant or Cape buffalo, we finally cut the tracks of a sizeable herd. We hit the ground at top speed, and after an hour and a half of tracking, we caught up with the herd. We spotted one good bull only 30 yards away, but Blackbeard wasn't impressed. As we began to glass other bulls, the wind shifted and the herd blew out of sight.
After another hour or so of tracking, we caught up with them, only to have them wind us again. After more than three hours of this cat-and-mouse game, we circled around the herd to where the wind didn't mess us up. We eased up on the herd and were preparing to put the stalk on a couple of nice bulls when a real monster stepped from the brush a short distance away and spotted us. He was quartering toward us and only 35 yards away. I took the shot. It would be the biggest mistake I would ever make in my short African hunting career.
Despite launching a 450-grain jacketed bullet with 150 grains of Pyrodex, it wasn't enough to penetrate through that front leg bone where I had aimed. As the smoke cleared, we saw the beast fleeing with the rest of the herd. The blood we did find was low on the brush, a clear sign that it was running down his leg, not spraying out like blood from a good vitals hit.
We tracked him and did catch up, but he took off before I could squeeze off
another shot. With the blood clotted from dust and the bull rejoining the herd, we never did find him. Since I had drawn blood, my hunt was over. That counted as my bull. I had flown halfway around the world and spent a lot of money only to leave with the memory of a bad shot and a wounded animal to carry home.
I spent the next 18 days in Africa as a cheerleader for Neilson and the other hunters in camp, and I finally got the chance to watch my friend make a perfect brain shot on one heck of a bull elephant with his .375 H&H. Despite my blown opportunity, I wouldn't have traded either African experience for the world. I still dream of the day I can return, as the spirit of that country will forever stir deep within my wild soul.