Hunting Crocs and Hippos on the Caprivi Strip
May 23, 2014
My party was off chasing hippo deep in the Caprivi Strip and had sighted two pods by boat, following their wide paths deep through the 10-foot-high reeds.
The animals we found were too close to a park to shoot, but we watched two big bulls posture like Godzilla, flexing and popping their giant jaws. One finally bluff-charged our skiff, and we buzzed out of there.
That's when PH Jamy Traut got the call.
Three of our guys had just survived a gunfight after being charged by an elephant. Rick Stoeckel of Federal Premium Ammunition had perfectly brain-shot a nice bull, killing it instantly, when the herd scattered and a trumpeting cow with long tusks peeled off, rounded a bush, and spotted PH Anton Esterhuizen.
Instantly, she flattened her ears back (elephant for "I'm not bluffing") switched her gait and came. He shot it at 5 yards, and his off-brand .416 Rigby jammed as he leapt back, just as Dwight Van Brunt and Stoeckel fired more shots into her head with their Kimbers.
"She was coming so fast you were just raising your gun the entire time," Van Brunt told me an hour later.
Anton is a compact man of endearing, effortless calm. He appeared to have just enjoyed tea with friends, not narrowly survived a charge — hardly surprising. A veteran of the Southwest Africa bush wars, he used to parachute into Angola and fight his way back to Namibia. He has lion teeth marks in his scalp. He doesn't bluff, either, in other words. What did you think when the rifle jammed? I asked him.
"I knew the shot was good. I just had to create some space, and Dwight was behind me, so you don't have to worry. He's been there before."
Anton smiled at my amazement. Welcome to Africa, rookie! Growing up on Ruark and Capstick, I revered Africa as the end-all for big-game hunting adventure. Black mambas reared up in my dreams, and unstoppable m'bogo lurked with menace. As a kid, I actually worried about whether lions could climb trees.
As an adult journalist with the good fortune to hunt abroad, I somehow never made it to Africa and began to worry if it would live up to my dreams when I did. I'd learned South Africa is a game park with few truly wild lions or elephants, and with Capstick's penchant for hyperbole, I feared my first buffalo would probably tip over like a large black cow. Would Africa prove to be a paper lion? I needn't have worried.
The Caprivi is a strange place, a giant swamp full of monsters that is full of people, too. An eastward extension of Namibia traversed by the Kwando, Zambezi, and Chobe rivers, it is full of game and Africans, thriving amid the puff adders, leopards, hippos, mambas, elephants, and giant crocs.
During my three-week safari in this place, I would have many chances to struggle with fear. In truth, death rarely visits hunters here, but you feel like it is always there, ready to tap you on the shoulder.
Charging Into Danger
Dwight, who organized the hunt for Kimber and is a veteran of many dangerous game campaigns, had asked me what I wished to chase. I knew hippos kill a lot of people and that their skull just may be the coolest trophy in Africa. But I was unsure if they presented a challenging hunt.
Mike Schoby laughed at my question. "On land, they will charge, and hunting them on the water, you're way out there in this tiny boat, and you have just a tiny target. If you miss, they'll sink the boat, and if they don't get you, the crocs will before you ever reach land."
I asked Craig Boddington, and he told me hippos are excessively paranoid on land, three times the size of a buffalo, and "it is the only animal that will charge you consistently without being shot or wounded." The most dangerous place in Africa is between a hippo and the water, he said.
That was that, and Dwight threw in a bonus croc tag. The day I'd waited all my life for, the day I'd take a shot at dangerous game in Africa, was coming. Boddington's warning ran through my head. "What most rookies do their first time in Africa is try too hard. Don't try too hard."
I asked Anton if it were true that hippos kill more people than crocs. He said in some places, yes, but when he worked at Etosha National Park (in Namibia), they lost one person each month to hippo, but every two weeks a croc got someone. Something to think about as I walked to my tent at water's edge each night after the bloody red sunsets (caused by fires) faded to darkness and fearsome sounds brought the night alive. Hippos splashed and grunted up and down the Kwando River just outside the canvas walls'¦URRnnt UUrrrnnnt'¦so loud the first night I wore ear plugs, or I'd never sleep, and kept the .416 handy.
Head PH Jamy Traut assured us the hippos would indeed charge. A modern Harry Selby, as Dwight describes him, Jamy is a man of polished social graces and formidable comedic timing. He is a regular bush biologist, constantly catching small animals like meerkats — a handsome version of Steve Irwin. But his calm, even voice did not temper the danger implied during his pre-hippo-hunt safety talk on day one, as we sat in the boat.
"There are many hippos here, and they are very feisty in this area. We don't know why, really. But if you see one, he will most likely come for you. If I say shoot, you must shoot. Aim at the head, even if he is under the water. Don't shoot each other."
Ominous words that proved true. Twice on the trip, dinner was interrupted by a dash into the darkness with flashlights and guns, trying to find a hippo that had charged camp staff.
On day two, we were all on edge (after the charging elephant business) as we headed out for my hippo. I found myself stalking with Dwight and Jamy in the cool pre-dawn along a lakeshore near the village of Singala, looking for a lone bull locals reported had moved into the lake. It was a hairy business. I looked to the right for the bull to come rushing from the water, even though we are really hunting for him on the left, hoping to catch him grazing in the open, knowing he would run straight for us to get to the water.
And the hippo was not all I feared in the tall waving grass on the lakeshore. There was also the small matter of the huge man-eating croc that killed a child here recently and was never accounted for. But we saw nothing and ran off to check the leopard baits Dwight was hunting over.
We found a huge tom had wrecked the rotting zebra (he paid the price two days later, when Dwight surprised us all at dinner by showing up with a huge tom draped over his shoulders) before returning to the lake. Jamy spotted the bull hippo on the far side and made a plan. One at a time, we wedged our butts into skinny, tipsy, mokoro canoes and crossed to the island to stalk the bull.
The crossing was frightening, as I peered around for the man-eating croc, thinking how a hippo could pick his teeth with the canoe. We'd seen much larger canoes on the Chobe that had been bitten in half.
Back on land, we crept hundreds of yards through the thornbush, searching for the bull. Jamy was glassing far down the lakeshore when suddenly the bull's head popped up from the water to my left. I hissed an alert and pointed. So close!
We crawled to the lake, slithering toward the small target — only the top of his head was sticking up. Then he saw us, and my small target grew much smaller as he quickly submerged until only a few inches of skull showed at 75 yards. Worse, his head was angled oddly. I propped my Kimber .416 Caprivi in a tree and Dwight trained his .416 on the bull, too, in case it turned into a gunfight.
I pulled the crosshair down to the hippo's eye, which was half underwater, and when Jamy whispered "whenever you're ready" I cut him off with a boom. The bull disappeared, but Dries and Reinhardt Brunner, who were filming, said there was no splash from the 400-grain Swift A-Frame, which means the bullet could only have gone one place.
I was a wreck, though, unsure, and my mind raced. The big gun was sighted an inch high and so should have cracked him right in the thin sliver of skull that I could see. But had I "tried too hard"? Rushed the shot?
When a tall African poled his mokoro out an hour later and yelled with a thumbs-up that he spotted the beast on the lake bottom, the adrenaline dump started, and my heart soared.
Over 100 people from Singala assembled on shore, honing axes and sharpening knives. I asked Jamy if the villagers had wanted my lone bull hippo removed from the lake where people fish and swim, a dangerous animal so close to the village. He smiled. "Yes, but not nearly so badly as they wanted the meat."
It took three hours for the hippo's stomach to bloat and float him. We watched in horror as a small, crazy boy, unwilling to wait, dove from a canoe into the lake (where the hippo had lain bleeding for hour in the midst of a man-eating croc) and tied a rope to the hippo before it floated up, a pointless bit of machismo because, at three tons, nobody was moving it anywhere until it surfaced (they're all muscle and bone, not fat, a common misconception).
My hippo had died instantly, but he would have his revenge. Anton cut us a piece of backstrap. We ate it that night, and while quite tasty, it gave us all the trots for a few days.
As scary as crossing hippo waters in a canoe had been, what really spooked me were the crocs. They're the unseen, ever-present threat anytime you are near water, which is all the time on the Caprivi after the rainy season winds down in March. On our boat ride past Zambia, I was told of the tourists that stopped midday for a break and the instant their 12-year-old daughter hopped out of the boat she was taken.
As a new father, that chills my blood. And I had many opportunities to think about it, after Jamy warned me before I stalked down to glass for crocs on a small side channel. "Don't stand in one spot very long. That's how they key in on you."
I never got a crack at one, though we saw a 15-plus footer on the Zambezi outside our concession. The safari had unfolded as a wild success, and we would soon be leaving to chase plains game on the Kalahari — but not before my biggest pucker moment of the safari.
It happened as a spectator on a buffalo hunt. Rick and I were watching the action for hours from a termite mound, as Anton took Adam Heggenstaller crawling straight into a herd, finally cracking a bull. We ran to join them, but I lagged behind, fiddling with a camera, and before I caught up to our party the entire herd swirled around and came rushing back, to my dismay.
I was suddenly alone, staring at dozens of Cape buffalo at 80 or so yards, the lead animals stomping the ground, their heads high, bobbing their gleaming horns up and down and staring at me, stepping forward, stomping, stepping closer still.... I might get a couple of them, I thought, fidgeting with my .416, but I am in trouble here. When they finally wheeled and ran off into the shallow water, it made a white noise roar like a jet taking off.
One other moment did rival that one. I will never forget chasing Dwight and his heavy gun into the darkness, trying to kill a hippo in camp before it got a staff member. With the lights off, at the edge of the swamp, we listened and heard the beast coming for us, the heavy splashing footsteps of a giant animal closing in. We hit the light and it was a strange giant from a dream, a bull elephant, not a hippo, that loomed toward us, then walked on by.
Later, two of our guys nearly stepped on a puff adder. I asked Dries, who is a good bush doctor, just what you do when someone is bitten by a snake in the middle of nowhere?
"You move them immediately to the shade," he said.
Ah, to keep them cool? I asked.
"No," he said. "Because a corpse starts to smell so bad in the sun."
He was joking'¦I think. But that is Africa. You're rarely truly unsafe, but you are never really safe, either. Still, for the adventurous hunter, it is the very best place. With the long days in the bush, by the end of the first week I had a strange earache, a footache, and was constantly hungry, sunburned, and dehydrated. I was bug-bitten, with cracked lips, and covered in thorn pricks, and had a case of Montezuma's Revenge'¦but I had absolutely never felt better in my life.
Years ago, I'd asked a rather pretentious photographer about his trip to Africa.
"Well," he'd said, "there was my life before Africa. And now there is my life after Africa."
At the time, I'd mentally rolled my eyes. Not now. I am happy to say that the dangerous, mysterious Africa of my childhood dreams is alive and quite well. I shall never forget lions roaring in the night, the grunting of hippos in the darkness much too close, or what it felt like knowing that just stepping outside the tent could put you face-to-face with a Caprivi swamp monster.
Sitting in a tree stand, waiting for a whitetail, well, it's just not the same anymore. When does this Africa hangover wear off? I asked Dwight.
"Never. You never come all the way home," he said. "And you count the days until you can go back."
I know I will return one day. 'Til then, when asked if Africa is really all it's cracked up to be, I just might respond, "Well, there was my life before Africa...."