Armchair Safari – McElroy Antelopes of Africa

Five Hunts to get the Elusive Kenya Bongo

To me there is no greater trophy in Africa than the Kenya bongo, an animal that is found only in the forests of Mount Kenya and Mau mountains and the Cherangani Hills. It is not easy to hunt a bongo, and that is not just because it is wary and intelligent. It is because it lives in the worst kind of bush imaginable. Kenya’s bongo country is so steep and thick that it is impossible to move through it in the dry season and any strange noise will send a bongo running. Not many people hunted bongo in Kenya before it banned hunting but those who did usually hunted during Kenya’s winter, when rains soaked the bamboo thickets and forests. We hoped the wetness would muffle our sounds and make tracking easier. Unfortunately it kept us wet and miserable. 

The beautiful bongo is perfectly camouflaged, but rarely seen in daytime. It is an animal of the night that keeps to the shadows and bamboo jungles during the day. I was infected with bongo fever early in my hunting career. My first hunt in Kenya with Glen Cottar wound down with my never seeing a bongo, let alone getting a shot. I spent days on end sloshing through wet, thick brush and bogs. My first bongo hunt in 1965 was one of the toughest things I ever did. We hunted on the side of Mount Kenya in the thickets where bongos feel safe. It was so thick we could not walk through the stuff standing up, and in some places could not even crawl through it. Where we could get through, it was impossible not to make noise and spook everything in front of us. After ten days of rain and uncomfortable cold at night, I ended my first bongo hunt without seeing a thing. 

The New Stanley Hotel in Nairobi was my first stop when I arrived in 1966 for my second bongo hunt. I was again hunting with Glen Cottar. We had to make a stop first, to get a map showing the exact boundaries of this new hunting area. After delays it was night before we were back on the road, if you could call it that. The rain was coming down. The trail up the side of Mount Kenya was muddy and slippery and washed out in several places. Our heavily loaded Land Rover kept slipping off the track into deep mud and the men had to get out and push to get it unstuck. We didn’t reach camp until 2 a.m. The long, cold, miserable day ended with the men having to set up camp and tents in rain and mud. 

The sun was shining the next morning and the men were still glum. I understood that a safari in the mountains of Kenya was always hard on the crew. The forest can be depressing for anyone. There is little to see and when it rains the mud makes the situation even worse. For the workers, camping in the forest means long trips downhill to get water and cold nights without proper bedding. 

Each morning we followed elephant trails along the ridges and walked along trails of buffalo and wart hogs along forest streams. If we did not find fresh tracks by 2 p.m. we returned to camp. We could not start on a track after that because it took from five to seven hours to track a bongo to the thicket where it was bedded. And finding a bongo did not mean that I would get a shot because it would always be in the thickest stuff you could find. 

Typically we would be 20-30 yards from a bongo when the tracker would suddenly stop and drop to his knee. I would peer over his shoulder hoping to see the animal the tracker indicated was there. Often I would see nothing, even when I raised or lowered my head or swung side to side I could not see what the tracker was seeing.

Then there would be a grunt, a rustle of bush and silence. The bongo was gone and I had that, I failed everyone, feeling. They had all worked so hard to get so close. They were excited at the prospect of success only to experience the disappointment of my failure. After that, numbness would sweep over me as I thought of the long trek back to camp. The return trip was usually made in the downpour because the rains always came in the afternoon. 

For 15 days we hunted in the rain before fate decreed that my safari was over. We began the day by heading to a ridge from which we could spend the day watching the trails below. We waited until the rain hit before leaving the spot. The drive from camp had not been great in the morning, but that afternoon, in the rain, it was awful. On Mount Kenya, water means mud. We got stuck often. The trackers pushed or cut branches. The prospect of staying on the mountain that night did not appeal to me so I opened the door and got out to help the trackers. Back in the cab I felt a pain on the left side of my groin, but I ignored it. 

The next morning I underwent surgery in Nairobi’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital. When I finally left the hospital I hired the noted Jackie Blacklaws to fly me back to Glen’s camp. Later that afternoon I was able to get moving pictures of a pair of mating lions. I ultimately ended my unsuccessful bongo hunt by taking a very nice leopard. 

Before leaving, I dined with Bill Winters, Game Warden at Nanyuki and he recommended changing Professional Hunters, specifically Mike Horsey. Mike has a farm at the foot of Mount Kenya and he knows that mountain like the back of his hand. Mike has been going up and down Mount Kenya for years but had never actually taken anyone hunting. But he agreed to try. 

And so once again, for the third time, I landed in Nairobi hoping to get a bongo. By this time there were lots of political problems in Kenya and Mike’s prime farm at the base of Mount Kenya would be a prime target for terrorists. We took the same road (in fact there is only one) up the mountain and had two places to hunt from: the swamp or my old campsite. 

The next morning we were up early, plowing through the same frustrating bamboo thickets. After several consecutive days of rain the sky finally cleared. Mike and I took advantage of this to walk across a deep ravine where we could see across to a few openings. The tracker suddenly stopped and Mike shouted, “SHOOT, SHOOT!” But then we realized it was a female. 

Heavy rains returned in full force the next morning and Mike predicted that we would be stuck in camp the next four or five days. Mike suggested we come down off the mountain and try to hunt elephant.  As we descended it became clearer and Mike sent the tracker to look around for … anything. The man returned waving his hands and led us to the biggest Cape buffalo I had ever seen. I had only my.300 and that’s what I used, two shots, to bring him down. Fifty-and-one-half inches. 

That evening we made plans to hunt elephant but for two days we saw no big bulls. The third day we saw a herd of elephants leaving the park so we ran to the truck to try and catch up with them before they went back into the park. Finally we were able to get out of the truck and quickly get to where I might have a shot. Mike picked out the biggest bull and told me to shoot quickly before he ran back across the park boundary line. I obviously would not get a brain shot so when the elephant turned slightly, I put a .500-grain solid just behind the shoulder, hoping for a heart shot. I put four more solids into the bull as the herd trumpeted. Mike shot once at the base of the spine. The bull dropped less than 100 yards from the park. Its tusks weighted 120 and 110 pounds! 

For the next year I booked my fourth bongo hunt, again with Mike. We went to a salt lick where another hunter previously shot a bongo after sitting and waiting for 10 days. The lick was across a swampy area with water in the middle, perhaps 200 yards wide. Mike said all the animals in the area eventually came here to get their salt. The first animal I saw was a giant forest hog, which I could not shoot because it would scare the bongo away. What hurt was that I passed up a giant forest hog and NEVER saw a bongo, male or female on that trip. 

At the end of the hunt Mike introduced me to Tony Seth-Smith who had a ranch at the foot of the Mau range. I promised to return to hunt with Tony when the rains came.  Few hunters take the Kenya bongo without a lot of hard work but I had a friend who shot his bongo while hunting buffalo! He never knew how lucky he was. And so it was April 1968 when I returned for my FIFTH bongo hunt. I met Tony at his vehicle, which was overloaded with gear and grub, plus a driver and four men. 

As we neared the edge of the mountain a discussion with the men turned into an argument, and Tony finally shouted, “To hell with it, I’ll do it myself.” Apparently Tony made a deal with the men to carry our gear up the mountain. But once in the truck they doubled the price and on principal he would not do it. So we were going to do it ourselves. Tony gave me some instructions, pointed to me and one of the men, and off we went, hoping to meet Tony at the appointed spot. 

The old elephant trail has been used by men and beasts for centuries. It was wet and slippery. The elephants, when they slipped, sometimes went two or three feet, thereby removing anything that might provide footing for us. I fell down a few times before realizing that I should avoid the places where the elephants had slipped. Several hours later I found a small tent. It wasn’t much but I was happy to see it. Two hours later Tony showed up carrying a load that I would have thought impossible for any man to pack up that mountain. Two men with similar loads were behind him. Four hours later Tony and the men returned with the rest of the equipment and I could see they were exhausted. They managed to get most of it so we should be okay. 

The next morning I noted how bad the weather looked. But Tony remarked that it was good bongo weather. We left camp with two men, a tracker and another man carrying the things Tony thought we might need that day. We found tracks where bongos had crossed the ridges and Tony examined them. It was nothing that Tony thought we should follow. So we headed to the top of the mountain where we again found tracks…fresh, four males. One of them was worth trying for. 

Thirty minutes later, as we were approaching a small clearing, Tony told me to get ready and be prepared. We walked slowly, myself and Tony putting our feet exactly where the tracker stepped. It was not raining and the mist in the air was not quite a drizzle but it was enough to dampen our sounds. A half hour later, when we were approaching a small clearing, Tony told me to get ready to shoot, that I would only have a second or two. We took a few steps and bongos literally exploded out of the thicket. They were gone in an instant and I had no time to take a good look at any of them. 

We were doing okay until the wind changed and they got our scent. I wondered whether I would ever shoot a bongo. The next morning we jumped bongos twice and saw only glimpses of red shapes charging through the bush. Two more days passed with similar results. But on the fifth morning, again with misty weather, we started up the trail and 30 minutes later were on fresh male bongo tracks. The ground was so wet we were able to follow the tracks without making a sound. Tony led the way but suddenly he stopped and pointed. I stared at the bush and almost panicked when I could not see a thing. Then I saw a red spot about six inches in diameter. Tony whispered for me so shoot. I did and down went the bongo. I was absolutely overjoyed. Tony was thrilled. The bongo’s best horn was 29 3/8 inches long. I had worked hard for this bull and was proud of it. 

When Tony took me to the airport I thanked him for helping me take my first bongo. He replied, “Now you need to try for a western bongo!” I intended to do just that.

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