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.