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Bongo Hunting Can Be A Wild Adventure

hunter and guide

When my wife, Lanceine, went scurrying by with her .416 and a one-word message: “run,” I was slightly stunned, but when the guide was next with the same message, I followed post haste in the jungles of Cameroon.   It seemed they had closed to a very short range of a bongo and decided it wasn’t the one they were looking for. 

We stopped shortly in the rain forest to catch our breath as I questioned what was going on.  Geoffrey, our guide, explained that at close range the bongo is extremely fast and dangerous in its jungle environment.  He would later show us scars on his arms from close encounters with bongos. 

As this explanation was going on, I noticed we were standing in a huge bed of leaves and brush that was packed down from a night’s sleep by a very large animal.  Turned out it was a silver back gorilla bed.  No way would I like to run into that big boy in this jungle! 

Next behind us came the pygmies carrying one of their dogs that had been gored by this very same bongo.  The dog had been speared through the side by a horn. The pygmy carrying him had the dog’s mouth clamped shut by a hand. They gently laid him down in the gorilla bed. 

We weren’t too far from the vehicle, so we started walking back with the dog being carried.  We quickly loaded up and went back to camp.  Geoffrey had a stapler like they use to close human wounds and proceeded to staple the dog’s side back together.  I was amazed to see the dog walking the next day even though he didn’t look too hot.  

This was our second bongo camp on this trip, close to the Congo River on the east side of Cameroon.  The first camp was located over halfway across Cameroon in a very remote area.  To get to the first camp we had to travel from our arrival point in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capitol.   

The mode of transportation from Yaoundé to the first camp was a Toyota 4-door pickup with two locals who didn’t speak any English.  We traveled most of the day until almost dark and at road’s end, met our first guide, Juan.  There we loaded up into a huge hollowed out log boat with an old Evinrude motor attached.  Sitting one behind the other, we proceeded down a very large river just as dark approached. 

Juan sat me up front in this log boat on an old lawn chair, handed me a 12-gauge shotgun and said “shoot when I say” as we needed meat for the pygmies back at the camp.  It was close to dark when we entered the river and we didn’t make camp ‘til well after midnight. 

camp from river

This camp was on a high outcrop of rock that gave a fantastic view of the river and rain forests.   Behind the camp was a group of pygmies, including women and small children, that gave us a glimpse of how remote their way of life really is.  The pygmy men would assist in the hunt.  A pygmy’s house is a real short, one-room affair.  Our first day was an easy hunt around camp that helped us get a true taste of the Cameroon rain forest.  

We hiked and investigated some large grassy saline areas, believe it or not, from shaky tree stands that the pygmies had built.  I refused to attempt some of their spindly looking ladders, ascending high into the trees.  My weight was a whole lot more than the pygmies.  That didn’t stop my wife, Lanceine.  She made every one of the tree stands, some being more than 25 feet in the air.   Honestly, I believe you could throw a cat between the pole floors of these tree stands! 

That evening at dinner Juan asked if we were up to an adventurous hunt into a further remote area of the rain forest for a few days.  Lanceine, being the hunter and never liking to miss an adventure, quickly replied: “sure.”   We couldn’t afford two bongos, so with some prior arm wrestling and negotiations, Lanceine was the bongo hunter, but the Lord Derby eland was to be mine on a future hunt. 

The next morning started with backpacks loaded with food and personal items and rifles in hand.  We had three pygmies, the guide and his right-hand man in single file as we left camp.  Juan had also convinced a woman to come along to cook on this adventure for a bonus of a pair of new tennis shoes.   

Under the 100-foot rain forest canopy, it was amazingly peaceful with very few bugs.  One did have to be careful because everything had stickers.  Another lesson that was quickly learned is when you see a pygmy jumping up and down, be prepared to do the same while going forward as fast as possible.  The reason—ants and lots of them!  

The forest floor would be moving with them up to 20 feet wide.  We didn’t need to worry about much else as the pygmies had everything spotted ahead of you, such as the occasional snake.  Being above 6-feet tall and having pygmies hacking a trail thru the jungle proved to be a face-scratching experience.  One doesn’t just walk through this rain forest.  This adventure also proved that women can sweat in a big way.  After a couple of hours, Lanceine’s clothes were as soaked through with sweat as were mine. 

After six hours we came to a large saline and dropped the backpacks to rest.  The decision to camp there was being made when we could hear something large breaking brush at quite a distance.  Juan smiled and asked Lanceine if she wanted to try for an elephant or at least have a look.  “Why not?” she replied. 

We left the packs with the cook and a pygmy.  Even in the middle of large saline areas there were patches of jungle to go through or around.  We started closing-in on the noise, but it was a lot further than I originally thought.  It was hard to be quiet in this environment.   At least for some of us!   

Author wife and trackers

The pygmies were almost silent.  The sound of an elephant feeding ahead in this thick environment made our pulses grow quicker with every step.  I was a distance back, trying to be quiet when the lead pygmy knelt and pointed.   I could hardly see the lead pygmy, let alone anything ahead of him.  Lanceine was kneeling and I could tell by her head movement that she was also trying to see through the entanglement of jungle. I could hear that the brush was breaking and then the brush shaking got a little too close.  “Shoot,” Juan spoke with firm voice.  The lead pygmy was quickly fading back past us in a determined survival mode.   Lanceine’s .416 broke the jungle silence.  Things got really loud quickly as that elephant tore through the thicket and then, total silence.  

Bullet deflection or what?  How anything that big could go that silent was beyond me.  “Let’s go,” Juan said, “I don’t think he will go far before stopping.  We must be quiet”. 

After another forty-five sweat-drenched minutes, the pygmy knelt, pointing ahead and then quickly faded behind us with that same survival mode look as before.  We were in really thick jungle and I couldn’t see a thing. 

After a moment or so I motioned to Juan’s head tracker if he could see anything.  He pointed and said: “Yes, there.”   I didn’t see a thing, but I surely heard that elephant leave.  “Let’s go again,” Juan said. “I think he might stop once more.  Maybe in a better spot.  That’s a nice bull.  Worth going after.” 

Trying to move quickly and quietly in this jungle is a full body sweating ordeal.  My clothes were soaked with sweat as were Lanceine’s.   Darkness was setting in and it was apparent that this elephant had experienced us twice and didn’t want to again.  We had traveled a long way from where we left the packs, supplies, food and water. 

I mentioned to Juan that my thirst was quite “large” as we had left all water with the cook and after the last several hours with no water, a drink of anything would help.  The pygmies spread out and returned with large water vines.  The taste of the water from these “water vines” was unbelievable.  This sweet water was a welcomed relief.   

After some rest and discussion, Juan asked if we would be comfortable staying at our present location by ourselves.   He needed everyone else to help move our supplies up to us.  Sure, why not?  How Juan and the pygmies would find the cook and the other pygmy that had been left behind in this approaching darkness bordered on the edge of mythical. 

Lanceine and I backed up against a very large tree, shoulder to shoulder, after checking the ground for crawly or slithering critters, rifles at hand.  The group faded into the dark. We could hear the pygmy knives marking the trees as they left.  This was reassuring that they would find us on their return. 

When you’re under a 100-foot-high forest canopy and it gets dark out, you begin to understand the term “total darkness.”  No flashlights. No lighters.  We had absolutely nothing for light.  We couldn’t see each other with our shoulders touching, back against the tree.  Hearing fruit fall from the trees and duikers scurrying by was quite exciting.  We laughed and enjoyed the adventure.   

drinking from vine

Nature called, and I had to leave the tree, but I assured Lanceine I would not go out of voice range, due to the total darkness.  It was pitch black.  Settling against the tree on my return, we started laughing and joking around.  We were talking about that elephant returning for revenge after scaring the hell out of him. Not many couples would see this as funny, but we couldn’t keep from laughing.  There could have been a leopard smelling our feet and we would not have seen him.  I glanced in the direction I had gone for the nature call an it seemed the ground had a slight glow in this pitch blackness. 

I kept looking away and looking back at it.  I finally mentioned to Lanceine that the ground was glowing where I had walked.  “What?” she said.  Look over my body and see if that ground isn’t glowing, I asked her.  The next remark from her was: “IT IS glowing.”  I felt around and found a small branch.  It seemed where I had disturbed the ground with my feet, it let light out.  I dug up some of the dirt as best I could in the dark and made dirt balls. We could see parts of them glowing.  It must have been some type of light gathering mineral that was covered by leaves from the forest and when disturbed it emitted a slight glow.  Wow! We had never seen that before or since.  

It was over four hours before we heard the welcome chopping from the pygmys’ knives on their return.  Juan explained it had taken longer because they decided to cook some chicken before starting back.  The cook had stayed where she was.  She felt she didn’t need the exercise, knowing that eventually we would have to return by her on the way to the main camp on the river. 

Thank goodness they had cooked a chicken for us.  The only problem with our chicken was the size.  They don’t grow large chickens in Cameroon.  We tore into that chicken like we hadn’t seen any food for a week.  I was down to sucking the leg bones and couldn’t keep from laughing.  Lanceine was working over her half and laughing.  At least we had flashlights now.  Next was the stringing of the hammocks.  Lanceine and I had a very large hammock that we slept in together.  We slept crosswise in the hammock, head to toe.  Just before going to sleep, I told Lanceine: ” I sure hope we don’t have an elephant stampede between these two trees.”    

The pygmies gathered branches and twigs, built a bed on the ground and went to sleep.   Lanceine did some complaining the next morning that I kept throwing a leg across her face.  I pleaded ignorance.  

It seemed a short night’s sleep and it didn’t take long to break camp in the morning and start hunting.  We could hear a bunch of gorillas close by.  We stayed clear, as shooting a gorilla was a BIG problem that no one wanted.  I would later learn that gorilla cooked to a mush had been a favorite food of the pygmies in the past.  Especially the feet and hands! 

 We hunted all day, not finding much but a lot of jungle.  At dark we ended up back where Juan had left the cook.  This night Lanceine and I slept in a small pop-up tent.  We almost felt more secure in a hammock than on the ground.  

Author and wife with duiker

Early the next morning we headed through the jungle to another saline that the pygmies knew of.   We didn’t see much going or returning but what an adventure. I had changed my sweat-soaked t-shirt when leaving that morning. I hung the used one out to dry by our small tent.  Upon returning it looked like it had been hit with a 12-gauge shotgun.  Lesson learned.  Forest ants love sweat.  It had been mostly eaten. 

We decided it was time for the forced march back to the main camp on the river, hunting along the way.  It was another sweat-soaked day, but Lanceine shot several duikers along the way, with the pigmies calling them in.  We kept rehydrated with the sweet water from the water vines.  

The river camp was a welcomed sight at nightfall.  Our guide Juan had other engagements and needed to be in Doula in two days.   Doula was on the ocean and we were over halfway across the interior of Cameroon. 

We started early the next morning from the river camp.  It took three hours upriver in that hollowed-out log to reach the nearest dirt road.  Once there, we loaded everything up, including extra people, one monkey and headed for Doula.  That Toyota was squatting, but fortunately we unloaded people along the way.  We drove until midnight and finally checked into a motel on the ocean at Doula.  Juan said: “Sleep in until 9:00. I have arranged a ride for you on a plane to another bongo camp.” 

The plane was waiting at 11:30 the next morning.  It was to fly across Cameroon close to the Congo border to pick up a bongo hunter for his return. We got to hop the ride.  It was quite a flight.  We landed on the dirt runway and the returning hunter was waiting with Geoffrey, who would be our new guide.  When we exited the plane, the hunter stuck out his hand and remarked: “I heard you got to ride my plane.”  “We did,” I replied.  “It was a great ride.  Did you get a bongo?”  “Sure,” he said. “You want to see the pictures?”

The hunter asked which one of us was pursuing the bongo.  I pointed at Lanceine and they began visiting about the hunt.   We watched the plane leave as our gear was loaded into another Toyota and we headed for our second camp in the direction of the Congo River.  This was a nice camp that Geoffrey had built and hunted out of for the last ten years.  Grass-roofed sleeping huts and a nice dinner hut.  Way different than the first camp. Geoffrey was a bongo hunting machine and he knew this area like the back of his hand.  The hunting in this camp started with early mornings looking for bongo tracks on dirt trails and letting the pygmies decide if the track was big enough to indicate a bull worth going after.  

It was our ninth day in Cameroon when we finally closed on a bull bongo that Geoffrey’s sole command “shoot” got the action started.  I could see Lanceine’s rifle being shouldered, but no way could I see the bongo.  This jungle was thick.  The .416 barked and I could tell by Lanceine’s movement that not all went according to plan.  She lunged thru the jungle and I moved up to keep her in sight.  The rifle shouldered again, the shot sounded, and she lunged forward once more.  I got in view just in time to see her put the finishing shot into a bongo as it lay on the forest floor kicking.  I could tell the pygmies were excited and they kept pointing at the bongo.  Geoffrey told me that the bongo had 14 stripes down its back, very rare in this area as most had just 12.

During this whole trip the dead bongo was the only one I got to see.  That is a true testament to how thick this jungle was and possibly how poorly I see.   Lanceine’s eyes have always been good and in this jungle hunting that is a real plus.  The pygmies made short work of the skinning and butchering. The pygmies made a pack frame from vines and we headed back to camp. It was a great feeling knowing the bongo was finally in the salt. 

author with bongo

We had a couple of days left and Lanceine enjoyed some duiker hunting with the pygmies.  What a great time it was watching the pygmies make a grunting noise through their noses, all the time watching for duikers to run by.  A 12-gauge shotgun was the selection for duiker hunting. 

The hunt was winding down and we had to decide whether to fly back to Doula or drive.  It was about $3,000 more to fly.  That amount would help buy airline tickets for the next adventure, so drive it was.   We got to see a whole lot of the real wild side of Cameroon on the 17-hour drive from the Congo River to the capitol.   The next day we drove to Doula on the ocean and boarded the flight home. 

This trip was over the top and not to be forgotten.  It was an amazing adventure.  Two camps. Two guides.  It was two hunts.  The real trophy was the hunt and the bongo mount will always bring back the memory of this great hunt. 

Thanks to Safari Outfitters of Cody, WY for an adventure we will always remember.  Sweat, salt, stickers and all.–Jon E. Ziegler

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