Reflections on 30 years of African Bowhunting
By E. Donnall Thomas Jr.
The birdlife alone was enough to fix my location as surely as any GPS. Cape turtle doves called from the branches of the acacias, only to scatter like mice when the shadow of a chanting goshawk passed overhead. A stately Kori bustard—the world’s heaviest flying bird—walked past the far side of the waterhole, as haughty as the maître d’ at a 5-star French restaurant. The belly of a Crimson-breasted Shrike
glowed like a neon sign in the brush barely a bow’s length away. Finally, as if to place an exclamation point on this striking avian display, a pair of ostrich- es appeared through the trees, walking like dinosaurs. They looked as if they owned the place, and despite the urge to laugh at the ridiculous expression on their faces, I wasn’t about to argue the point. It’s not often you get to see a bird that can kill you.
As the birdlife confirmed, this was southern Africa, and not just any place south of the Zambezi. After a long absence, Lori and I had gone back to visit one of our favourite places and some of our favourite people: Allan Cilliers and his family on their property along the edge of the rugged Kalahari Desert adjacent to Bushmanland, some of the wildest country left on earth. Time had been kind to the Cilliers.
Allan still looked rugged and fit, and his wife, Jacqui, was just as hospitable and gracious as I remembered her. The last time we’d visited, their son, Wayne, had been a teenager home from boarding school. Now he was the youngest professional hunter in Namibia, and the youngest ever to be certified to guide for dangerous game. The story of his remarkable upbringing with the Bushmen appeared in our Feb/Mar 2019 issue.
My Bushmen friends (see “Among the San” in the Dec/Jan 2001 issue of TBM) had not fared as well. In fact, the remarkable trackers I’d hunted with on previous visits were all dead. Life is hard in the Kalahari, which is why the Bushmen are the only people who have ever been able to survive there.
The new generation of trackers in Allan’s camp was still remarkably talented as circumstances would soon prove. However, it was hard for me to avoid the impression that I was watching the sunset on an indigenous hunting culture that had survived the harshest conditions imaginable for thousands of years.
Two friends, Nebraska bowhunters Doug Otte and Jon Hand, accompanied us on the long trip across the Atlantic. (The 16-hour air route from Atlanta to Johannesburg is one of the longest regularly scheduled non-stop flights in the world.) I’d actually hunted with Doug in Africa years earlier, although Jon and I had only met in passing at a banquet. It didn’t take long to conclude that Lori and I couldn’t have picked better companions for the trip.
I knew that Wayne had developed an interest in traditional archery since I’d last seen him, and I wanted to repay the family for all the hospitality they had extended to us over the years. So, prior to departure I’d spoken with my old friend Dick Robertson and commissioned a custom recurve for Wayne. The bow was beautiful as all of Dick’s are, but when we gathered at the practice range on our first morning in camp, we realized that it wasn’t just another pretty face. In fact, the bow shot so well I wasn’t sure Wayne was going to be able to get it away from Doug.
Finally, it was time to go hunting. I actually had a limited bowhunting agenda, mostly because I’d already spent a lot of time in Africa and had shot most of the animals I wanted to shoot. Our principal reasons for making this trip weren’t focused on bowhunting. Africa is a magical place, and after a long absence Lori and I just wanted to see it again. The Cilliers were old friends we wanted to visit, and I also wanted to spend time with the Bushmen while their unique culture
and hunting skills were still intact. Allan was interested in developing a wing-shooting option on his place, and because I’d done so much international bird hunting, he wanted to pick my brain about how best to go about it. (I’d previously hunted birds in the area and knew the potential was there.) Finally, we wanted to improve our African wildlife photo files, all of which had previously been done in the pre-digital era. We knew we could do better now.
There was one exception to my casual attitude toward the bowhunting. Somehow, in 30 years of African bowhunting, I had managed to avoid killing a wildebeest. Although they are notoriously tough, they are abundant and not particularly wary. Nonetheless, the wildebeest always seemed to be where I was not. Although I have enjoyed a gratifying record of killing what I shot at in Africa (which I attribute to being highly conservative in my shot selection rather than to being a great archer) that record does not include wildebeest.
I’ve only hit two African animals that I failed to recover. One was a duiker that I encountered late one evening
in South Africa while I was stalking by myself. The shot looked good at the time, but extensive tracking the follow- ing day proved that it wasn’t. The second was a wildebeest I shot in Zimbabwe. The shot felt good at first, but then I heard a loud crack! and saw that my arrow had achieved limited penetration. I’d only been a couple of inches forward of a double-lung hit, but I’d obviously shot the animal in the shoulder blade, as we proved the follow- ing morning by tracking the bull until we saw him grazing happily with his buddies. So, I had a score to settle with wildebeest, which had become my genuine African curse species.
All of these experiences involved blue wildebeest, which are more common and widely distributed than their relatives, the odd-looking black wildebeest.
Allan has a few black wildebeest on his property, and they were one of the few plains game species that Doug had never shot. So, when we set out on that first morning, I was looking for any wildebeest and not much else, while Doug was hoping to get lucky and find one of the blacks with their odd horn structure and incongruous white tails.
I made my first African hunt over 30 years ago, and a lot has changed since then. On that first trip, we hunted the vast Humani Ranch in Zimbabwe, stalking down miles of pristine river bottom habitat loaded with game. It was a fantastic experience and I returned several times although I didn’t shoot a thing on that first trip, which was largely a learning experience.
I found the Professional Hunters (PHs) remarkably competent and knowledgeable about wildlife, enough to put most North American guides and outfitters to shame. However, bowhunting was a new concept to them, about which, to cite the old, cynical dictum about Hollywood, “nobody knew anything.”
That was part of the fun. They taught us about Africa, and we taught them about bowhunting. By the time I returned to Zimbabwe, I’d learned enough to successfully stalk bushbuck and bushpig, two great game animals I’ve never encountered in such numbers anywhere else.
As other American bowhunters began to return with tales of exotic game and lots of shooting, interest in African bowhunting took off. This led to the development of many small, fenced operations, especially in South Africa, where shooting was largely limited to waterhole blinds. While I certainly acknowledge that I killed a number of animals from blinds, I eventually grew tired of it. While it’s not as easy as some make it out to be (mostly hunters who have never actually bowhunted Africa), the experience becomes repetitive eventually. On my previous six trips to Africa, I hadn’t shot an animal from a blind with anything but a camera.
The fact remains that stalking African plains game with a bow is extremely difficult. I’ve had plenty of people tell me that if you can stalk deer and elk you should be able to stalk anything. Again, most of these hunters have never been to Africa, where the predator density is so high that hoofed game is either super-naturally wary or it’s dead. I eventually added duiker and impala to the list of animals I killed by stalking, and despite their small size, I felt proud of every one of them.
A decade or so ago, interest in Africa began to wane as people returned home disappointed by what had increasingly started to resemble canned game farm hunts. I’d had enough experience by then to know it didn’t have to be that way. The problem was that hunters were looking for bargains and winding up in the wrong places. As usual, the quality of the experience reflects what you pay for it. Paradoxically, as marginal bowhunting operations increased, the number that offered a true African hunting experience began to fall. Zimbabwe, which I remembered as one of the loveliest places in the region, became a failed state, and all the hard work that went into making Humani what it once went up in smoke. South Africa was becoming a bit too tame for me, although I did enjoy some good hunting on the Eastern Cape and on Howard Knott’s property near Kruger Park. So, I decided to explore Namibia, where I was lucky enough to meet the Cilliers family.
In the previous paragraph, I lament- ed that bowhunters were winding up in the “wrong places,” which begs for a definition of a “right” one. Allan’s operation could serve as a model. It’s huge (some- where over 150,000 acres), remote, and bordered on two sides by nature reserves with Bushmanland on the third. Wildlife roams freely throughout these properties. There is no “put and take.” The trackers are real Bushmen, whose skills have to be seen to be believed. Allan was formerly Chief Ranger at Etosha, Namibia’s largest National Park. He has a solid background in wildlife biology and has done important work on leopards and served as a consultant on books about Bushman culture. I know no other place that can offer visiting hunters a better introduction to the ecology, wildlife, and people of southern Africa. It felt great to be back.
The following morning, Doug and I set out to work on our wildebeest projects while Jon went about enjoying his introduction to African game. I wasn’t doing so well. On one of our flights I’d sat next to a woman who coughed in my face constantly, and sure enough—I got her bug. My cough was uncontrollable and impossible to suppress. I knew I wasn’t going to get close to anything by stalking, so I sat in a blind with Lori, who was armed with a camera. Shortly after we settled in, I saw a pair of gemsbok approaching, with a herd of wildebeest behind them. I didn’t intend to shoot another gemsbok, but as I began to wrestle with the urge to cough, I knew the wildebeest were safe. I tried to cough into my hat in the bottom of the blind, but everything galloped off anyway, leaving a thick trail of dust hanging in the air behind them. That pattern continued all morning. Meanwhile, the rest of the crew got off to a great start, as Jon killed a very nice warthog and a blue wildebeest while Doug anchored one of the numerous zebras frequenting the area and another blue wildebeest. The shots were so effective that the trackers didn’t even have much chance to show what they could do.
The following morning, I was too sick to hunt. Lori went out by herself with her camera and shot all kinds of wildlife, including—of course—several nice wildebeest bulls. Meanwhile, Jon shot a gemsbok with what looked like a pretty good arrow. Lori had previously explained that she wanted to go on the next track to get some shots of the Bushmen in action.
Wayne and Jon rounded her up and they set off behind Andreas, the head tracker, on what they expected to be a routine recovery. It wasn’t. Jon later said that he could not believe the speed at which Andreas followed the track, apparently not even bothering to look at the ground. The footing was all soft sand, which made his pace exhausting. The game density there is so high that you couldn’t pitch a nickel over your shoulder without having it land in some kind of track, but Andreas had no trouble staying on the one they wanted. After 10 km., Lori had had enough and turned back toward the vehicle. At 17 km. they finally jumped the animal and concluded that the wound wasn’t fatal. It was a rough but necessary introduction to the realities of African bowhunting for Jon. The animals really are tougher than anything in North America, and they go forever even after what appears to be a solid hit.
The following day, I was still coughing too uncontrollably to bowhunt despite Jacqui’s best attempts to cure me with a variety of medications. I decided this would be a good time to get some work done on our wing-shooting project since I had a couple of writing assignments on the subject and needed to get some photographs. We decided to start with sand grouse, exciting, challenging birds with which I’d had experience nearby on earlier trips. These birds are usually shot when they come into waterholes. Four species of sand grouse inhabit southern Africa. I’d previously hunted double-banded sand grouse, which fly to water at last light. The shooting can be fast and furious, but it’s all over in 15 minutes.
This time, we decided to look for Burchell and Namaqua sand grouse, which fly during late morning. Man, did we find them! Huge flocks came pouring in, and their speed and erratic flight provided all the wing-shooting challenge I needed. They didn’t even care if I coughed. Two nights later, we feasted on sand grouse cooked over the grill and found them delicious.
The trip was nearly over before my cough cleared enough to allow the possibility of bowhunting. Jon and Doug continued to see blue wildebeest every day, but they avoided me just as they had for the previous three decades. I finally thought my jinx was going to end when a nice bull approached on our last day of hunting and stretched out broadside 20 yards away. Then an entire family of warthogs got between us, obscuring the wildebeest’s vitals.
I had plenty of time to study the situation as the warthogs refused to leave. I thought about trying to lob an arrow across the top of their backs, but warthogs are great string jumpers and I thought they would go straight up at the sound of my bowstring. The likely result would either be a shish-kabob of baby warthogs or, worse yet, an arrow deflected into the wildebeest’s paunch. I elected to pass.
Doug never killed his black wildebeest and I never killed my blue, although I passed up opportunities at gemsbok, kudu, eland, hartebeest, and zebra among others. I finally realized that I just didn’t want to shoot an animal from a blind. Now that we are bombarded with information telling us that we need to practice constantly, scout year-round, hunt from dawn until dark and focus our lives entirely on bowhunting, some might consider this an “unsuccessful” hunt. There was a time when I might have felt that way, but now that I’ve reached age 70 and change, I couldn’t disagree more. We had enjoyed the company of old friends and new, done a lot of photography, shot game birds including doves and francolin in addition to sand grouse, and enjoyed our contact with the vanishing Bushman culture. I didn’t really want to shoot an animal in a way I didn’t want to shoot it.
Best of all, we were back in Africa again.