The First Safari

Anyone who says he or she has no desire to hunt Africa is making one of the most egregious errors in their entire hunting career. I was 13 years old when the Africa bug first bit me, but it would be another 16 years before I would ever travel to the Dark Continent.

After watching a DVD of SCI Past President Gary Bogner arrow the Big 5 on one safari, a spark was instantly lit in me to bow hunt Africa, and it burned brighter each year. Fast forward to an auction when the auctioneer said “Sold!” and suddenly my 16 years’ worth of Africa dreams were becoming a reality. I was going to Botswana in July for a plains game safari with Clive and Linda Eaton of Tholo Safaris.

It was an easy trip from Atlanta to Johannesburg, where I overnighted before catching a quick flight up to Maun. My PH Jason Bridger picked me up at the airport and we began our three-hour drive through the Kalahari Desert to Tholo’s camp. The accommodations were excellent and the staff gave us a warm greeting before helping me get settled in for the duration of the hunt.

After dinner that evening, Jason and I sat around the campfire to discuss the plan. A few yards from the fire was a pool of water where two bull hippos lived. Waterbuck, eland, warthogs, honey badgers and even a female leopard frequented the pool all night and could easily be seen with the aid of a floodlight shining down on the area. The sunset, sights and sounds of my first night on safari was everything I had dreamed of and more.

Our plan was to bow hunt from ground blinds located on the enormous property. The first morning started out a little slow as far as shot opportunities go, but we were seeing game. The beautiful thing about Africa is that at any point during the day an animal, or herd of animals, could come in, with peak times being early in the morning and late in the evening. This, in conjunction with the excitement of being on my first safari caused me to constantly stay alert. It is amazing how fast a day can fly by when you are seeing game. Jason was just about to radio the trackers to come pick us up when a pair of male warthogs came in. He gave me the go ahead to take whichever boar presented a shot first. When the larger of the two looped around the water, coming within 10 yards of the blind, I took it. The pig only made it about 50 yards and just like that, I had taken my first African trophy.

The following morning, we were back in the blind. Within an hour a kudu bull came in to drink and I reached for my bow, thinking this was the bull of a lifetime. Much to my disappointment, Jason looked up from his book and nonchalantly said “Eh, only 53 inches. We don’t shoot the small ones here. Let’s hold out for a 55 or bigger.” I pled my case to Jason to let me shoot it as this kudu was 53 inches larger that my current largest kudu, but my objections fell on deaf ears and the bull, having filled his tank, walked away.

Never guide the guide, they say. Just before dark there were eight different species at the waterhole at the same time. I did not take anything that day, but it was another incredible day in Africa. Jason told me that there would be days we did not kill and others where we would kill two or three animals.

Day three, July 4th, was a great hunting day. Jason and I were in a new blind several miles away from camp and were again seeing lots of animals. A few warthogs, some zebra here and there, a lone giraffe bull and others came in throughout the day. Kudu are referred to as Africa’s grey ghost and for good reason. My heart skipped a beat when Jason tapped me on the leg and said: “Big kudu bull!” I slowly looked up from my book, expecting to see a bull walking in from a long distance away, but much to my surprise, just 15 yards away stood a 56-inch kudu that Jason had promised would eventually come. The bull had slipped in like a ghost!

I slowly picked up my bow as Jason began filming. It was a tense few minutes as we waited for the bull to offer a shot. He walked to our right a few yards and stood broadside long enough for me to put an arrow through him. The Grizzly Stik arrow tipped with the 200-grain Maasai broadhead passed right through the bull. We found him at the end of a great blood trail less than 75 yards from the blind. I was certainly glad Jason did not let me shoot the smaller bull from the day before. Again, never guide the guide!

The following morning Jason asked if I would like to borrow a double rifle they had in the vault and stalk eland. I have an unhealthy love affair with double rifles and jumped at the opportunity to take a .470 Westley Richards on a hunt in Botswana like I had read about from Africa’s good ol’ days. We drove the Land Cruiser for a few miles until the trackers saw where the eland had passed through the night before. I could not believe how well these guys tracked in sand. It was very impressive to watch them work their magic following game.

Soon we caught up to the herd. We were crawling on our hands and knees when Jason stopped and pointed at a blue-ish grey patch about 50 yards away. I used my binoculars to piece together the animal through the brush and he was quartering to me. Once I figured out where his vitals were, I put the first 500-grain bullet into the bull’s chest. The huge round staggered the bull momentarily but he quickly regained his feet and was tearing through the brush along with the entire herd.

The second shot hit him on the left side but the bull kept going. We quickly regrouped and began tracking again. The bull was beginning to wobble and one leg was broken, based on his tracks, but he was still on his feet when we found him. I put another round in the bull’s back right hip as he was facing directly away, dropping him to the ground. Once again, he regained his footing but was unable to go anywhere as the fourth and final 500-grain bullet hit low into his chest. That was 2,000 grains of lead into a roughly 2,000-pound animal. Eland are surprisingly fast and agile to be so large and are some of the finest tasting animals I’ve ever eaten.

We went back to camp to drop off the eland before having lunch, then headed back to one of the blinds to sit for the duration of the day. Earlier in the hunt I had multiple close calls on gemsbok but could never get a clean shot. While sitting in the blind the afternoon after taking my eland, a lone female gemsbok came in and presented a perfect 30-yard broadside shot.

I made the best shot of my life, hitting the gemsbok right through the shoulder. I may have made a luckier shot before, but I can’t recall at the moment. The gemsbok was down and I had my second trophy of the day.

There were still a few hours left before sundown, so we got back in the same blind. It did not take long before a group of Kalahari springbok came. There was a great ram in the bunch and although the springbok was not originally high on my list of animals to get, I quickly changed my mind after seeing them up close. Africa tends to have that effect on you. I had my third trophy of the day down within sight of the blind! It was another epic day in Africa.

I still had impala, blue wildebeest and zebra on my list of trophies to take and we were nearing the end of the safari. We concentrated on impala the following morning and hunted a new blind on a new part of the property. We had action all morning and after a few hours, a pair of big impala rams came to about 25 yards from us. Impala are very jittery and notorious for jumping the string. These two rams never relaxed and kept twitching and jumping around, even though the other animals were perfectly calm. They are just high-strung animals and rightly so, based on the number of leopards and cheetahs in the area.

My saving grace for the shot was a flock of birds, (red-billed quelea, I believe), that made enough noise to mask the sound of my bow going off and the approaching arrow. The ram barely moved as the arrow disappeared into his shoulder, completely passing through and sticking in the sand behind him. He bolted after being hit and left another great blood trial less than 50 yards long. It was a great shot on a fine trophy impala.

That evening Jason and I were back in the same blind where I had arrowed the big kudu a few evenings earlier. It had been our most productive spot and held a healthy concentration of the last two animals I needed, the blue wildebeest and zebra. Although I had already taken one warthog, when another huge tusker came in, I could not resist the temptation and put him down, as well. His tusks were much longer that the first warthog and I could not leave Africa without him.

Within an hour of taking the second warthog, a group of blue wildebeest came in. We had seen them on just about every sit, but the bulls either were too small or never offered a shot. Finally, a big bull read the script and with one well-placed shot, I had my blue wildebeest and the third trophy for the day. The gorgeous African sunset made for a perfect backdrop for photos on another perfect day in Botswana.  

Early the next morning we were tracking zebra and I was once again carrying the .470. Our encounters with zebra while bowhunting proved frustrating as, like several of the other species, they never offered a clear shot on one animal. Our plan was to stalk them in the morning with the rifle and if unsuccessful, try them again with a bow that afternoon.

It was 9 a.m. when we first got on the herd and it took us three hours to catch up to them after getting busted multiple times. It was hot by noon and we finally found the herd in the shade of a tree grove trying to escape the sweltering mid-day sun. We crawled to within 80 yards of the closest zebra and I took a shot, hitting it high and dropping it in its tracks. Much to my surprise, there were close to 50 zebras in the group and they stampeded off at the sound of the shot. How that many black and white animals can hide in the green and brown brush so well was astounding. When I took the shot, I literally only saw three of them standing there. Zebras are such beautiful animals and I will try to get one every time I go to Africa.

After spending a day culling a few blue wildebeest for camp meat, the safari was over. I had come to Africa with extremely high expectations and my overall experience surpassed them. My goal was to take four animals on this trip and after it was all said and done, I had put 12 in the salt… Africa will do that to you, too. I am even more excited about my next safari than I was for my first. After experiencing the Dark Continent firsthand, it will not take another 16 years before I see her again! Every other year will possibly suffice… possibly. Thank you, Clive, Linda, Jason and the whole team at Tholo Safaris for making my first African safari a perfect one.–Cameron Mitchell