By Brian Watson
Wato – The Book is a beautiful 324 page hard cover compilation of some of Wato’s hunting adventures in wild Africa and other wilderness places.
The book can be purchased here: https://watosbook.square.site/
To give you a taste of what’s in store between the covers, here is just one chapter for your pleasure.
The Call of the Dove
The Cape Turtle Dove, endemic throughout most of the African continent, was doing its best to intrude into my thoughts as we trudged over the burnt savanna of North East Namibia. The echolalic call repeated thirty to forty times has been likened phonetically to ‘work harder’, but others have suggested it sounds more like, ‘drink lager’, a similarity I embrace enthusiastically, especially that excellent Tassle beer they serve in Namibia. Still, in this instance, work harder was far more appropriate, as we were on the spoor of a giant of a bull Elephant that was doing its best to outpace and elude us.
Hunting after the world’s largest Elephants in 9000 square kilometers of Bushman conservancy, it was presumed that a suitable target would be a given. With an estimated population of 2,000 Elephant, large old bulls are reasonably plentiful in this area and normally, a track would be picked up early in the safari, leading to a successful hunt. This year however, it had
rained heavily in the district and most of the big bulls and cowherds were enjoying ideal conditions in the south, where access by vehicle was impossible, except maybe for amphibious vehicles, or boats.
Ian as usual accompanied me, but on this occasion we hunted separately. He was being guided by Gerrit Utz, a quietly spoken man that Ian had used in his business previously when sending people from Australia on safari to Namibia.
Gerrit had picked us up from the airport in Windhoek and we drove in the front of his Cruiser. It was pleasant enough drive until night fell and Gerrit started to fall asleep. It was bit scary watching him nod off but luckily the roads were wide enough so that Ian or I could grab the wheel and avoid disaster if he veered towards the edge of the road. We arrived safely, had a good sleep and started hunting at first light next morning.
Subsequently, my guide from the Caprivi trip, Felix Marnewenke and I had, over the next seven days scoured the roads – or should I say primitive bush tracks – for a footprint that was large enough to suggest an old ancient bull that was well past its breeding days; one that would be a candidate for the serious business of a challenging follow up. Ian and Gerrit did likewise in another direction. Neither party had found anything, except tracks of young bulls – although huge – and, when all seems lost, Felix and I just got lucky. Day after day we traversed the barely drivable vehicle tracks, always on the alert for a good big track to follow. Day after day we were disappointed, finding only the spoor of cowherds or young bulls. After a brisk walk into a well-known pan one morning on the hope that big track could be crossed, once again nothing was found. A glint in the perimeter of the pan turned out to be some 500 mm of broken off tusk tip. The owner had apparently been digging for a food item at the base of a bush when the substantial end snapped off. We souvenired the heavy piece for display back at the camp.
The camp incidentally was my pick as the best, most unique camp I have stayed at. Not the most luxurious but beautifully unique. Situated in a region called Nyea Nyea, the kitchen and relaxation area was built under the massive branch of a twisted old Baobab tree. Not the most pristine clean place, it was to my mind full of the atmosphere you would expect of an isolated hunting camp. At night we sat around the ubiquitous campfire with a strong soothing drink and sometimes a cigar. Toes were rubbed in the soft dust while stories of past hunts were related or lied about in this magical place.
Once back at the vehicle we continued our search of the sandy tracks and came across something that was an amazing example of the life and death struggle creatures this part of the world dealt with daily. A dead Caracal was right in the center of the track. On examination of the large specimen and the surrounding spore it was determined that a massive fight between two rival males had taken place early that morning and the victor had partially eaten the front shoulder of the vanquished. I could only imagine the ferocity of that battle that had occurred only hours before, and presumed the victor was bigger than the dead combatant. I cut out the dewclaws as a memento of that ferocious struggle.
Some magnificent Roan were sighted, along with a 42 inch Gemsbok bull. We went after that bull but could get no closer than 180 meters with no cover whatsoever between us and that fabulous animal. I chanced my luck, and, at a target that was standing face-on watching my every move, took a shot with open sights but missed to the left of a very alert critter. A fantastic trophy went begging, next time I will carry the riflescope with me.
Seven fruitless days later, after staggering out of bed in the dark, and once again driving along the endless sand tracks, we were snapped out of our morning stupor by the casual tap on the vehicle by Twee, one of the two Bushman trackers with us. To our left and only one kilometer away, the backs and waving ears of two very large bulls appeared towering taller than the thick bush.
Felix threw his Zeiss binoculars up and without hesitation exclaimed, “That’s exactly what we are looking for”. Looking through my own Nikon EDG glass, I saw a young sixty-pound bull and a magnificent old fellow trudging along behind his Askari. Most agnostic hunters would say a prayer at finding a sixty pounder, but this was an animal in the prime of life that would only grow bigger over the next ten or twenty years. The old bull however; his tusks were very short, but thick, with maybe half of the right side one being broken off. The left tusk was not as well developed. We watched mesmerized for many minutes, not wanting to break the solemn procession of the two. Finally, almost reluctantly, Felix snapped out of the observation and willed his team to go and collect this grand old gentleman.
As I clinched up my ammo belt and checked one more time the correct load was in Miss Rigby, I had the preposterous thought that this would be a walk in the park. I should have known better as I have had Elephant elude me on more than one occasion before. We headed upwind to gain a shooting position but the early morning wind was fluky, and, sure enough, a cool waft of air hit me on the back of the neck. The response was almost instantaneous; both bulls turned and started a purposeful walk upwind. We still had a chance but the young bull was now on full alert and started to circle in a wide arc. There was nothing we could do but watch them gradually disappear.
Amazingly, they passed within 50 meters of our vehicle, which we had left one kilometer behind. Maybe we should have just sat on the bonnet and sent one the trackers to give the bulls his wind. They cleared the bush, crossed the road and headed across the burnt savanna on the other side. By now we had covered several kilometers and after regaining the vehicle position, took stock of the situation. We drank deeply, rechecked our gear, and prepared for a long walk. The animals were now barely visible in the distance even though there was nothing but burnt wasteland covering their progress. “Looks like the walk in the park has turned into a monumental trek”, I offered. Felix shrugged knowingly, nodded, and motioned for the trackers to set off. We followed.
Halfway across the wasteland, with powdered charcoal covering everything from our boots to our eyeballs, was when I became aware of the incessant call of the Dove in what remained of the burnt out trees they chose to perch in. By now the Elephant had disappeared from sight into the distant tree line, their tracks showing no sign of them slowing. They were well and truly spooked and ‘work harder’ would be the only way of catching them. Once again I shifted the weight of my rifle, then, paused to take a quick photo of my boot in the massive footprint we were chasing.
The edge of the bush was reached after an hour or so, but the tracks showed that the bulls had not slowed. I set myself for an all-day affair and hoped I would not let my team down by faltering. Finally the animals slowed. The bush gave them the sense of security they sought, although the young Askari was still nervous and constantly checking his rearwards position by circling, his elder then passing him and turning to face rearwards. Another hour and we caught sight of them.
Jockeying for position was tricky, as each time a shooting lane was gained on the old bull, his Askari would foil our move by getting between our target and us. He was doing his job of protecting his leader well. Several times we moved in only to have our position compromised and have to back off in less than ideal surroundings or winds. Eventually, the cat and mouse game fell our way when the young bull moved 80 meters forward of his fellow. He positioned himself in a copse of trees where he could observe any danger coming from the path just followed.
An approach was worked out with Felix before I moved in under the cover of a huge anthill covered by foliage, to within 15 meters of the old jumbo. Peering around the bush and trying desperately not to step on any loose twig, I saw up close an animal that took my breath away. A quick glance back to make sure of where Felix and his trackers were drew a frantic hurry up sign from him. Emboldened, I stepped into the open, but could not get a clear brain shot so ripped a heart/lung shot into the bull. A practiced reload, and another heart/lung shot as the bull recovered then started to move off. He accelerated up to top speed. What happened next will live in my mind’s eye forever; as the bull cleared the trees some 30 meters away and running at close to full speed away from me, I placed another Woodleigh Hydrostatic solid projectile over his shoulder and behind the ear, and found the brain.
Seven ton of Elephant bull was suddenly pole-axed, and the ground thundered as it came to earth. The dust swirled up while the leaves of the surrounding trees fluttered down in a cascade. The trackers went up in profound excitement, similar to a Toyota advertisement. Quickly reloading, I ran up and put in an insurance shot, then paused to relax. Felix was highly complementary in his appreciation of the running brain shot, and through all this I thought I was one hell of a cool dude, with the trackers Kaqece and Twee slapping my back in jubilation. But as I looked at my hands, they were shaking uncontrollably under the influence of bucket loads of adrenalin. So much for cool dude! It took several minutes to regain my composure.
Examining the bull, I was overjoyed at the sheer size of the animal. Never did I think that it would be written in my stars to hunt an Elephant of this magnificence. The tusks although short, and as previously mentioned, the right side was broken in half, were very thick, measuring 21 inches in circumference.
After a long spell, a couple of quick photographs and a deep drink, we started the return to the vehicle. After embroiling myself in all the happy thoughts of the hunt, it occurred to me to ask Felix did he know what happened to the Askari when I opened fire, and he replied, “He ran straight at us, but luckily turned when he saw his fellow running towards him”. Hmm! Perhaps it was good fortune that I could not initially shoot for the brain, as otherwise we may have had to deal with a very protective Askari.
By now the sun was at its zenith and the heat oppressive. I trudged on slower and slower. The Doves again let out their mournful drone of, ‘work harder’. We reached the vehicle and I had absolutely nothing left in the tank, my legs were jelly and my energy levels were completely depleted. Flat on my back for ten minutes rest however, a bottle of water and wet handkerchief on my face worked wonders, although the euphoria of the hunt was probably playing its part. I could drink no more without feeling sick, so found a sweet to suck on.
A massive sense of achievement and satisfaction is felt after a successful hunt, but some largely unexpected warm and fuzzies for ones fellow man came as well, and made me even prouder to be a hunter. We returned to dress out the dead bull to recover the meat for the local villagers, and several hours later had two Land cruisers, each with a large trailer following, loaded with fresh Elephant meat. The reception we got as we drove into a village and started to unload the precious cargo was amazing. I have a stored memory of a small boy carrying a large Elephant bone home to his mother. The joyous look on his face was of a lad that had been to ‘his’ supermarket, no styrene tray, no cling film, no refrigeration, but immense happiness that he and his family had been provided with a rare protein commodity and delicacy, meat.
Take it from me as I have eaten Elephant meat and though sweetly delicious, it is as tough as tough can be. An uncle of mine once proclaimed that an old rooster that the dog used to follow around the back yard was so tough; that when it finally ended up in the pot after 6 hours cooking, you could barely cut the gravy. I am sure that if Elephant meat were stewed at low temperature for a long time, it would be fantastic, and the gravy cuttable.
Two thousand five hundred Bushman live in the conservancy. They exist on a diet of maize meal that is boiled into grey, glue like consistency, being utterly tasteless and containing precious little nutrition. Every couple of months, an Elephant is hunted and its meat is distributed among the residents for a vital shot of protein and mineral. Some of it goes straight into the cooking pot, but most is cut into strips and hung in the shade to air dry. In this form it will last for some time.
Remember the figures: 2,500 people: 2,000 Elephant. The Bushmen that administer the conservancy allows 10 animals per year to be culled, 0.5%, and strict requirements must be adhered to as regards each animal’s status. Cows must be barren or carrying a genetic defect, bulls must be trophy bulls, or, non-trophy bulls past their breeding time, or carrying a genetic defect. The people also benefit from employment from the hunting.
The most compelling evidence for me that hunting was a positive thing was two beautiful newly completed schools; one primary, one secondary thatthe community had built mostly from the financial advantages that hunting brings to the area. In the one small decrepit town, there is evidence of massive poverty and appalling squalor, but the children heading down the road to school each morning were dressed in clean uniforms and carrying their books for their days education. I hope they too listen to the call of ‘work harder’.
The same day I shot that bull, word was passed into camp of Buffalo at a waterhole nearby. The Buffalo that infiltrate from other parks adjoining Nyea Nyea however have a disease that must be kept at bay. Not sure, but I think the disease was Foot and Mouth, and consequently all PH’s operating in the area must pledge to eliminate these beasts on sight.
“Do you want to shoot these Buff?” said Felix. “Hell”, I answered, “Is the Pope a catholic? Does water run down hill? Do Zebras have spots?” (Careful with that last trick question] “Of course I’ll have a go at catching up with them.” We waited until late afternoon and then went to the muddy waterhole in the hope that the Buff may seek a drink before nightfall, but they had already been and gone. Next morning it should be game on.
We arrived at the water immediately after sun-up but again the Buff were too clever for us, having drunk and moved on before the light came. We started to track with Twee leading, then Kaqece, Felix, and me following. We moved from light grass to light bush, then long grass and stunted bush to short timber. Every type of terrain was in evidence, although we could see well ahead.
Several hours later, the sun was up and the heat rising with it. We had tracked roughly 8 kilometers with no sign of the beasts. The tracks led through a small group of trees. We were bunched up close in the shade when suddenly Twee dropped to the ground, the rest of us following suit, but we did not know why. Carefully lifting our heads we could see the reason for Twee’s reaction. Seven Buffalo cows were laying down under the small shady trees chewing their cud in close proximity, the closest not more than 4 paces away. We all had a silent giggle that the cows had amazingly not heard our approach.
Neither Felix nor myself had a round up the spout as we thought the herd would be seen at a distance, allowing us plenty of time to load and stalk. After several minutes Felix indicated I should load my rifle. Although I tried to do so silently, a slip of the bolt made an audible click. The other three men rolled their eyes in dismay, but the Buff never moved.
The one furthest from us however got to its feet, and ever so slowly moved off. As if on notice, the others stood and also started to move. A frantic attempt to get to a shooting position before they discovered our presence led to the inevitable. One of the cows detected movement and moved away. One however, turned to see what the fuss was about and stood broadside at 60 meters. I let fly with a 450 grain Woodleigh soft nose pill and the cow lumbered off. Another shot failed to drop the cow. Hurriedly moving towards were we thought the cow had gone, we were rewarded with the sight of her dead, only 100 meters further on.
Fantastic, not very often do you get to bag two of Africa’s dangerous game creatures on successive days. This was turning in to one of my best experiences ever.
Unfortunately for Ian, he and Gerrit were still trying every trick in the book to locate an Elephant while we were cleaning up the pests. He never found a suitable bull, but did get to follow some decent tracks, even though they led to animals that did not qualify as shootable. As some sort of consolation, he bagged a beautiful Roan. Although I have never thought to collect a Roan, once having seen Ian’s trophy mounted on a pedestal, it now may be something to collect in the future.
Ian and I now had to drive back towards Windhoek together with Gerrit. We were heading back to his farm to collect a few extra plains game trophies. As well, we would examine the possibility of organizing a wing shoot in the near future. They set off in one vehicle while I followed in a hire car that had to be returned.
It was a long drive but I enjoyed the experience of loping along while viewing the distinctive countryside. Travelling some two kilometers behind my friends to avoid the dust of the gravel roads, I got into that trance like state bought on by participating in something enjoyable, that being the wonderful exciting memories of the past few days. The constant hum of the vehicle’s motion also had its effect.
I noticed from some distance that the others had stopped to irrigate a parched bush, so slowed so I could join in the ablution rites. As we had stopped on the top of a large hill, we achieved phone capability and Ian was just finishing a call. “Felix is in trouble”, he said to me, explaining, “Somebody has shot a huge Elephant”. Still half drowsy I presumed that poachers had killed another beast illegally, “No, I mean you”. “They have just extracted the tusks and weighed them”. He let this information sink in a little, noting my confusion. “Wato, they weighed 69 and 70 pounds”.
Wow! What a prize, but I couldn’t tell anyone as that was way over what a non-trophy bull was supposed to measure. As it was, the 70-pound tusk was broken off, so conceivably, it may have gone 80 if unbroken. We all did a hoop and holler before settling down and resuming the drive. No longer was there any trance like state, the thought of that magnificent Elephant kept me alive and kicking goals for the rest of the journey.
As we approached Gerrit’s farm it was clear that the area was rich in wild life. Warthogs and their babies ran across the road, tails held vertical in that comical fashion, only to disappear under the wire fence on the roadside. Beautiful Gemsbok did the same; you would expect such an athletic creature to leap over the fence, rather they got down on their knees and pushed their head under the bottom wire, then lifting it slightly, seamlessly wriggled under while holding the wire up with long rapier like horns. Greater Kudu with a standing jump, simply sailed over the wire.
We had a day, two days, to organize the wing shoot, and look around the expansive property. Guinea Fowl were everywhere. It seemed that several clearings could be baited with grain to hold the birds in place before they had time to run for the thick bush. A shooting lane was envisaged just back from the clearing so once the shooting started the Guineas should fly towards cover, thereby offering some sporting targets.
Later that year when I went back with some shooters for the big event, we discovered to our horror that when Gerrit lay down the expensive grain to attract the birds, all that was attracted was several hundred bloody Baboons. So much for that brilliant idea! As it transpired, we went back to the first principle of, ‘walk up’, or ‘rough shooting’, which worked fine, and I think the participants enjoyed themselves immensely. One of the guys was my own next door neighbor of the last 10 years, Tom Tweedie, and apart from chasing Guineas and Doves every day, he managed to bag some lovely trophies including a Kudu and a wonderful old Warthog. He stills gets a silly smile on his face every time we sit around a barbeque with a red wine or whiskey and reminisce about that trip.