Created with Sketch. Created with Sketch.
Under the Surface

Under the Surface

Posted by James Brion on Mar 11th 2020

As we approached the floating hippo a rush of adrenaline caused me to forget my fear of creatures that lurk under the surface! When I jumped out of the pontoon boat, I was keeping my promise to P.H. Ross Johnston that I would retrieve my own hippo. As my bare feet hit the muddy bottom, I remembered having promised my wife that of all of the things that she might have to worry over me about, getting into the water in croc country was not one of them. Yet there I stood next to 4,000 pounds of dead hippo in the most croc infested waters on the planet. Sorry Dear—add it to the list.

Suddenly from the back of the boat, Sean yelled “Croc!” followed by four shots in rapid succession from his .44 magnum. If I were able to walk on water, it would have happened at that moment. Instead I looked at Ross, who was looking at me like “who’s it gonna be?” Our next move was to face the boat only to see Sean; red faced and bent over laughing at the expression of fear that was evident in our faces.

If I’ve learned anything in 20 years in the outdoor industry it’s that the most unusual and extraordinary, the most unique and difficult experiences are the ones that garner the gray cells in the mind of a hunter. Those experiences and the camaraderie that accompanies them are what I have come to cherish most about our sport. My hunt for the river horse was one such experience.

In October of 2009 I was blessed to be able to take part in a most unusual safari. A 180 degree turn in nearly every aspect from other safaris which I have had the pleasure of being a part of. Up to then, I had enjoyed traditional African safaris consisting of traveling overland in safari vehicle through parched bushveldt and savannahs in search of the ever diminishing water sources and corresponding concentrations of game. When you find these terrestrial hunting paradises, the action happens right before your eyes. Predator and prey deal directly in front of God and man as the safari hunter tests his skills in the African bush. These are the experiences of the traditional safari hunter: the kind of adventure that has drawn us to the African bush for well over a century. Now, trade the safari truck for a twenty-foot pontoon boat, the parched bushveldt for water, floodplain and shoreline as far as the eye can see. Then add in species such as hippo, croc, tiger fish and the Vundu (giant catfish) and your concept of safari is turned on its ear. A whole new hunter’s paradise can be found “under the surface”.

The story begins quite normally when in the summer of 2009 Martin Pieters of Martin Pieters Safaris emailed me a request to post a couple of buffalo cancellation hunts on the Magnum Hunt Club’s cancellation list. I was familiar with Martin’s area and had sent him some clients a couple of years earlier while working as a hunting consultant. As our string of emails back and forth increasingly peaked my interest in his dangerous game hunting area on the Omay I finally decided that a phone call was necessary. We all know what that means………I was on my way back to Africa! In this case it would be Team Magnum’s Rob Dunham and Myself along with cameraman Jim Kinsey. We would be staying at Martin’s Ume river camp just a few miles from the river’s confluence with Lake Kariba in hopes of producing two TV shows: One for Nosler’s MagnumTV, the other for DZoneTV. My primary objective for the show was to take a hippo on land plus one plains game species.

My least favorite part of hunting worldwide is the travel. Two days of flying, layovers, a bumpy charter flight resulting in a two-thirds full sick sack and finally we were meeting the staff, and checking out what would be our home away from home for the next 7 days.

Ume camp is situated on a peninsula overlooking the Ume River. From our thatched roof chalet we enjoyed a non-stop show of elephant and hippo in the oasis that literally surrounded our camp. The glassy evening water was occasionally broken by the swirl of a giant Vundu catfish. Crocs continuously cruised by and sank eerily below the surface like the grim reaper intent on his next victim.

At supper we devised our initial strategy with PH’s Sean Nichols and Ross. Martin had taken ill on the prior safari and was home battling his 5th bought with malaria. I explained to Sean and Ross that I wanted to take a hippo on land for the show. Ross explained that the best time to accomplish this would be in the afternoon. “The hippos feed all night at this time of year. They sunburn easily so they will only spend brief periods of time on land during the day. If we see a hippo on land we must waste no time in getting there. The whole mid day feed may only last 20 minutes and some hippos may not come out at all, but rather prefer the shallows to feed on oxygen weed.” After the conversation I realized that we had a tall order in front of us, nonetheless, the team was up for the challenge.

That night at camp Sean shared a sobering story. “Just last week, I was called to the local village to drive a fisherman to the hospital to have his leg amputated. A hippo had purposely capsized his boat, chased him onto the land and up a tree. Before he could climb out of reach of the hippo, it grabbed the fisherman’s leg, bit down and severed it.” Sean’s story reminded us that we were not hunting a languid creature, but rather a four to six thousand pound beast with a reputation for taking more human life in Africa than any other species. We went to bed that night knowing full well we were on safari for dangerous game and that we would all have to be on our A-game to take this creature on land. A creature which spends most of its life under the surface.

We started our hippo hunting the next day around noon. Those first moments on the water were surreal. Within an hour we had spotted dozens of elephant, plenty of hippo and far too many crocs for my comfort. At one point I asked Ross if he thought we would be able to get to the land if the boat sunk. His expression said no, but his voice said “maybe some of us”.

Since water was abundant, we found the plains game to be quite spread out, a phenomenon we had not experienced in previous, traditional safaris where water was at a premium. Nonetheless, we saw good numbers of waterbuck, impala, and warthog feeding on the tender green shoots growing in the floodplain. Other species such as klipspringer, duiker, kudu and zebra were spotted on occasion.

Not long into our boat ride, we spotted a creature that I was very interested in. The bushbuck, in my opinion, is as close of an animal as Africa has to our Whitetail. The elusive bushbuck has been on my wish list for a while. And as far as a gorgeous trophy, it ranks right up there with the best, like a miniature Nyala. As it turns out the bushbuck is one of the more readily available species of plains game along the Ume. The river is a perfect habitat for the bushbuck. Thick jess bush just a few yards off of the water give this antelope just what it needs to feel secure. Add in an endless supply of water and tender green shoots of grass on miles of floodplain, and just like a whitetail on the river bottoms of Nebraska, this secretive antelope has everything in a very small area, giving it the flexibility to never be seen. The relative abundance of bushbuck once again reminded me that we were not on a normal land based safari. Most generally a bushbuck is an “opportunistic trophy” as opposed to a trophy you hunt for. If you see one, you shoot it. Since they are always found in thick bush, many times they are shot without the opportunity to adequately field judge them. Consequently, getting a good trophy is tough and getting it filmed well on camera is almost impossible. I immediately told Sean and Ross that I would be very interested in trying a stalk on one. Later that day, after a couple of exciting but unproductive land stalks for hippo, we had our first opportunity at a mature bushbuck ram.

We had spotted numerous bushbuck along the floodplain as the sweltering afternoon gave way to evening. Our first rams, two decent specimens, worked their way out onto a peninsula, postured for a bit around a stand of jess bush, then worked out their dominance issues and separated. Both animals looked good to me but Ross explained that to get a really good old Ram you look not only for mass and length, but for the horns to start tipping out at the point. As a whitetail outfitter for 20 years, I am always amazed at how these guys can so readily field judge the various antelope of Africa, even at great distance, and especially the smaller species. So we continued on looking for a better specimen.

Just before sundown, we spotted a female on the sunny side of a jess. We almost passed her by when Sean said, “Look to the left of the jess”. Standing on the lee side was a dark colored body that all but disappeared in the shadows. Its coloration alone indicated an older animal. Ross judged the animal as a trophy and captained the boat into a small bay just out of sight of the bushbuck pair. We quickly exited the boat and made a stalk along a peninsula that would put us in range of the ram. On final approach, Sean positioned his backpack as a rest and called out a range of 206 yards. I held 6 inches high with my Thompson Center endeavor in .375 and squeezed, sending my favorite plains game bullet, a Nosler solid, across the bay. The bronze solid sailed through the ram and buried itself in the beach. Living up to its reputation as a deceivingly tough and potentially dangerous antelope, the ram bolted and disappeared into the thick jess which forced us into a track and recovery in his domain. For a moment I thought I may have lost my first ever animal in Africa, but after an extraordinary 150 yard tracking job by our trackers James and Clement, we found the ram holed up in the criss-crossed roots of a fever berry tree at the bottom of a dry creek bed. Retrieving him from the fever berry took two trackers and myself about 15 minutes and was a bit like solving a Chinese puzzle. Nonetheless, after extracting the ram, a short drag to the boat and a photo session, I had my Chobe Bushbuck and we were on the water again for another gorgeous sunset ride back to Ume camp.

Days two and three of our hippo hunt were spent learning just how difficult a land hippo was going to be. We had several encounters and several great stalks but putting together a spot, a stalk, sexing the animal, field judging the bull and then getting in position for a shot on land was a challenge to say the least. Our two biggest adversaries were the heat, which kept the hippos in the water through much of the day and the ever present waterfowl and shore birds that constantly stood watch near the grazing hippos. As soon as one of the nearby birds called out, flew off, or otherwise appeared startled, every hippo within 300 yards would charge into the drink. And of course, you never, ever saw a hippo out on land without some kind of bird standing watch nearby. On one occasion we happened along a bull hippo that was sleeping along the edge of the beach. Now I had a dilemma; was he half in or half out. I had just about decided that he was half out when Rob said “Steady Man. He’s in the water”. So I un-cocked the hammer and decided that we would wait and see if the bull would emerge for an afternoon snack. We sat at 50 yards for 2 hours while the bull slept. Finally he flicked an ear and then yawned as he moved closer to the shore. I just knew that my hours of patience had paid off. He was inching himself out of the water when for no reason he slipped back in the water, rolled completely over twice and then headed out to see. As he swam off, my cameraman whispered, “That was your chance, man. You should have shot him!”. But, I had fashioned in my heart that we were going to make great TV and to do so I felt it required a hippo fully on land, so I had no regrets. I hoped that the next day patience would be rewarded.

The following afternoon, and in the very next bay upriver from the encounter the day before, several hippo and a bunch of elephants were spotted feeding in the floodplain. It was the very same bay where I had taken my bushbuck so we knew the terrain and how to get there quickly. One animal seemed larger then the rest and was off several hundred yards from the herd. We assumed him to be a bull and using the lessons we had learned from previous days (they feed about 20 minutes before heading back to the water and for pete’s sake don’t let the shore birds see you) we wasted no time getting there. At a distance of 150 yards, we peeked out of the jess to find that it was a large old cow. Immediately we continued on to the main herd to see if there was a bull in the bunch. About half way to the main group another animal came into view right below us. We had not seen this animal before and it was immediately determined to be an old bull. The stalk was on. Ross leaned over and whispered, “we have to do this quickly”, to which I immediately replied, “Lets do it”. We had only 100 yards of jess to cover before we were at the edge of the flood plain. The problem was that we had two bull elephants to navigate in that distance. We crossed 11 yards downwind of the backside of the second bull before they finally sensed our presence and started moving off. At the sight or sound of the elephants leaving, two Egyptian geese sounded off. You guessed it: they were 50 yards from the bull hippo. At that point we forgot about the elephants, hurried to the edge of the jess and set up for the shot. I had hoped for a brain shot, but we were getting no closer. The bull threw his head up to see what had startled the geese. I put the crosshairs of my Nikon Monarch African just behind the front shoulder and lined up with the off side shoulder. I touched off the Thompson Center Endeavor. As the bull ran toward the water, Sean attempted a hip shot to save us the grief of a water retrieval, but it resulted only in a flesh shot to the leg. I had hit the old bull hard and he crashed into the water and immediately began floundering.

This is the part you remember most about a hippo hunt. We’ve all been there: You shoot an animal and know you have a good hit, but when you don’t find blood right away you start replaying the shot in your mind and pretty soon you are second guessing yourself. Well, when a hippo hits the water, you get the privilege of sitting on that mental torture for anywhere between two and five hours until the animal’s negative buoyancy is offset by the gas buildup in its stomach causing it to float to the surface. We sat for two hours, staring at the surface of the water before deciding to go out into the bay to see if by chance the bull had traveled under the surface to the main water. After a ride around the big bay and finding nothing, we cruised back to the inlet where I had shot the hippo. I had my EDG binos on my face as we rounded the corner of the inlet. I was praying that he’d be there and there he was! Right where he had floundered in the water and not 50 yards from where he was shot. The Nosler solid had taken off the top of his heart and the bull had expired within seconds. Every piece of equipment had done its job that day and every team member had done theirs. We had taken a big, mature hippo on land! Now all that was left was to keep my promise to Ross that I would retrieve my own hippo.