River monsters: this adventure bowhunter traveled to the deep pools of the Zambezi to test his mettle against a bull hippo.
Wildlife thrives in the Zambezi ecosystem, which reaches far beyond the banks of the actual river. Herds of plains game migrate along the savannah, and elephants, hippos, and buffalo walk the river's edge. Each crosses the river, or calls it home, at different times in their life cycle, continually aware that crocodiles patiently patrol the water with their dead eyes and long snouts barely periscoping through the surface. Prides of lions hunt the fringes of the riverine forests that are often punctuated by the grumbling, saw-toothed call of leopards that stills movement throughout the jungle canopy.
In 1872, big game adventurer Courtney Selous arrived at Cape Town by ship, and traveled throughout southern Africa hunting elephants and dangerous animals for museum collections. Selous guided Theodore Roosevelt down the Zambezi on his African safari expedition, and soon the area became famous for the richness of big game animal species.
A major tributary to the mighty Zambezi is the famed Luangwa River. Nestled on the banks of the muddy river is a small safari camp, my home for 10 days. This remote area is a two-day drive by Land Cruiser, or a two-hour Cessna flight from Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. My 20-hour flight from Florida to Johannesburg and four-hour flight to Lusaka went off without a hitch, until I realized my bow cases were nowhere to be found. It took three agonizing days before my bows caught up. By that point I had chewed my fingernails to nubs and was, to put it mildly, frazzled.
My quest was the pursuit of a bull hippopotamus. Two years before I had used an arrow tipped with a drug-filled syringe to dart a white rhino with guide Pieter Bothma. The rhino herd lived at Both-ma's "Cheetah Safaris," a 11,000-hectare (25,000 acres) South African concession. It was here that I learned of the Zambia camp and listened to the stories of the bow safaris on the Luangwa.
Pieter spoke of having guided bow-hunting icon Pete Shepley in his Zambia camp, where the founder of PSE Archery had taken a great hippo. Pieter's Zambia concession is as wild as it gets, and when I woke up the first morning the first sound I heard was elephants trumpeting. Groggily I realized that the tuskers were not just near camp, but in camp.
Darting the rhino was amazing, but my hippo quest was actually planned as a training ground for a future elephant hunt. Hippopotamus get their name from the ancient Greek word for "river horse," but they're more like a river monster. Related to the whale in prehistory, hippos are only out-classed on land by the elephant and white rhino. And they kill more people each year than all the other dangerous African animals combined.
I had taken a Cape buffalo in the 1990s and knew the rigors of heavy arrows and serious draw-weight poundage. Pulling 80-plus pounds doesn't sound like much when you're used to hunting with 70, but the added weight is much more difficult than you'd imagine.
My rig was a specially-built Mathews Black Max bow with custom, heavy limbs. The bow was set at 85 pounds and paired with special arrow Shafts that were comprised of a carbon arrow sleeved inside of a carbon arrow for extra weight and durability. Five-inch plastic vanes finished the nock end of my hippo arrows, while the business end was tipped with two-blade, 180-grain German Kinetics broadheads. A finished arrow weighed a total of 850 grains.
At first I could only draw the rig about a dozen times before tiring, but after a week of practice-pulling, I'd worked up to over 30 shots per session. The Black Max is a short bow with even a shorter brace height, and the radical cam of this bow generated serious arrow speed. But the sheer weight of my projectile resulted in a rainbow trajectory at 50 yards, which was my max shooting distance.
My safari was in September, when the mighty Luangwa River was at its lowest stage. The river was still flowing in the dry season, but it was a far cry from the wetter times of the year. The hippos were congregated near deep pools in the river and seemingly on edge. Instead of sporting the mean, "afraid of nothing" attitude. I had expected, the huge beasts were spooky, running at the slightest sound or whiff of scent and diving into the deepest pools. Mine was the last hunt of the season, and the previous four months of hunting pressure combined with the low water had the hippos nervous enough to hang close to the deep water that offered security.
Once the giant herbivores hit the water, there was no chance with a bow. With their entire body submerged, all that's visible are the nostrils, eyes, ears and top of the head. A pod of hippo heads staring at you standing on the bank is a helpless feeling, sort of like a ship's captain staring at a bobbing iceberg knowing what lies beneath, but helpless to change anything. However harmless a nearly fully-submerged hippo can seem, we still had bulls bent on making mock charges. These hair-raising acts of bravado would bring the bulls running toward the bank while roaring with mouths wide open and tusks at the ready. As quickly as they started, they would stop at a distance of 20 meters while glaring with malice and popping their huge jaws.
It's quite amazing how quick a three-ton hippo can move, and when witnessing it for the first time your mind recoils in question to what's real and what's not. It becomes evident that if a bull decides to engage in a full-on charge, it's a good time to get real religious because you're not going to get away. One chomp or even just getting stepped on would be the equivalent to being T-boned by a city bus. To top it all off, these huge beasts can submerge for upwards of five minutes and run along the bottom of the river like they are on land. An entire pod can disappear and reappear all day long at opposite ends of a 100-meter-wide river pool.
The Luangwa River Valley is trodden with game trails and a path follows the river, sometimes right beside it and sometimes winding a mile distant. The trail was our access to camp and the hunting area. Every day in the valley our Land Cruiser was chased by elephants, with one particular "cheeky" cow that would come running at just the sound of the truck bouncing down the rough trail. Buffalo herds often obliterated our cruiser tracks. Snake trails crisscrossed in the sand, looking as if someone had dragged a log across the road. Pieter would nonchalantly say "python or cobra" as we drove past, and the hair would stand up on my neck.
The elephant, rhino, Cape buffalo, lion, and leopard are known as the Big Five. These were always considered the most dangerous and prized African big game species to hunt. In the early 1980s the hippo was added to the list to make the quest the Big Six. Some hunters and safari camps add the crocodile--calling it the Big Seven. Of course, taking any of Africa's dangerous animals with archery tackle is a feat in itself, because each species has its own nuances that add to the challenge.
I had brought some treestands and we placed a set along the river where bushbucks were drinking. We literally set the stands, climbed in, and within five minutes began to see chobe bucks. From the stand, I could see crocs sunning in the shallows and lying on the sandy riverbank. Crocodiles are amazingly fierce, and the sheer numbers on the Luangwa made any walk near the water's edge unnerving. I arrowed a good bushbuck that afternoon and then went back into hippo mode.
Five days of sneaking along the river on tiptoes, watching the wind and glassing from a distance, resulted in sightings, but nothing else. No matter our plan or strategy, the hippos had the upper hand. My safari was half over and I hadn't drawn on a bull. I hadn't even gotten close.
By day six we were on a mission. As the Cruiser rolled to a stop, Pieter mentioned a 500-yard walk to the river. The place looked familiar. We had seen these spooky hippos days before, but we were honestly running out of options. So we were back for a second try. I pulled my leafy camo over my safari shorts for good luck.
Slipping quietly through the thick riverbottom brush, we walked in on a hippo trail wide enough to drive a quad on. As we approached the water, I could see on our left the deep pool with hippo cows and calves moving in the water. On our right at 120 yards, to my total amazement, lie two huge bulls basking in the sun. Somehow, this time the hippos were clueless we were close.
Pieter glassed the bulls. Because the tusks determine trophy size, hippo bulls are tough to judge. Schooled PHs know that large bumps protruding from the upper lip are actually the lower tusks protruding into the lip, and the bigger the bumps the better the trophy. Both bulls were mature and 30-plus years old. Our plan was to stay tucked in the bush and wait for a chance. That didn't happen, because suddenly one of the cows in the pool let out a bellowing cry. The alarm was deafening and there were hippos running and diving for deep water.
The bulls on the right jumped to their feet, the farthest opting to run straight away from us. The closer bull turned toward us and began bouncing in our direction. Both ma and I quickly moved up the edge of the steep embankment. The bull saw us and immediately changed his spooky demeanor. The giant bull began a trot, his head cocked like a proud herd bull elk showing ownership and dominance. The hippo bounced through knee-deep water, watching us. He circled to the far side of the river. The river at this spot was narrow--my rangefinder registering it 50 yards wide. I cranked 85 pounds of Black Max and anchored.
At 44 yards the beast had slowed his gait, offering me a full on broadside angle at the vitals. His head was still cocked in our direction, as the shot opportunity became a now-or-never reality. The bow uncoiled and sent my heavy shaft and sharp blade on a true course, burying to the fletching and ensuring double-lung penetration. The old bull thrust forward, hooking to our left and diving into the deep pool with harem and young. The water turned red with blood and soon we could see the hippo pod pushing out of the opposite end of the pool.
The beast was dead and his blood had the crocs moving. In one of the most unique experiences of my life, we were soon using dugout canoes and a hemp rope to fish the 5,000-pound hippo from the croc-infested water. Never in my life had I thought so hard about the logistics of keeping a canoe upright at all costs. It took a crew of seven to roll the river monster into the shallows.
It was a fantastic hunt and easy to understand why hippos are responsible for more human deaths than any other animal on the Dark Continent. They are absolutely huge, and when they leave the river at night to feed, they don't take kindly to anything getting in their way. Hippopotamus are animals that demand respect, and hunting them requires preparation, common sense, and mental toughness.
The challenge of hunting Africa's Big Six is magnified by the knowledge that these types of hunts are, for most, only once in a lifetime. The sights and sounds of such an experience fill the senses and overcome one with emotional and spiritual feelings that burn memories, into your soul.
But then, there's no need to over-romanticize a hippo hunt, because it is and always will be an incredible bowhunting adventure.
STORY & PHOTOS BY Tom Miranda
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|Date:||Aug 1, 2013|
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