“We are about to do what only one man in history has done before us,” said Michel Mantheakis, my PH, as he stepped into a mass of green reeds and sank up to his knees. “Walk on water.”
Sloshing behind him, I took a tentative step onto what looked like solid ground— soggy perhaps, but terra ferma— but was in fact a lake. I sank with a squishing sound, but the leaves and grass that I’d trod on pressed under the water until they tangled with the vegetation under the surface and the whole thing formed a sort of waterbed under my feet. Who knows how deep it was under the grassy, wet carpet? Ten feet? Twenty? Maybe five? But I was standing on a large body of water covered with layer upon layer of vegetation that grow taller than the depth of the water and, matted together with the underwater flora, formed a soft sort of footing.
I stepped gingerly forward, splashing as I went, wobbling like I was walking in a giant bowl of Jell-O. Michel and I were wading in a swamp that’s part of the Kigosi Game Reserve, which in turn is part of a vast flood plain basin of the Malagalsi River. It’s a wetland consisting of miombo woodland and classic East African flood plain that forms around five main waterways of the area: the Gombe, Ugalla, Moyowosi, Malagalasi and Kigosi Rivers.
You can count on two things whenever you’re near large bodies of water in Africa: hippo and croc. We both carried our stopping rifles as we sloshed our way out to a sitatunga blind, which was why we were heading into the swamp in the first place. In fact, the local trackers had flat refused to venture out to where we had eventually built the blind because a large croc had recently been seen near where we were “walking.” Michel had his Dakota rifle chambered in .450 Dakota and equipped with ghost ring aperture sights.
I carried the Old Girl, my William Evans .500 Nitro Express made in 1919, precisely 90 years ago this very year— and yes I carried her rather gingerly in the swamp. I might drown, but that rifle would stay above water!
We had made our way out to an ant hill near which the local trackers had seen a big bull sitatunga. This unique aquatic antelope only lives in watery habitat with specially adapted, forked hooves (not webbed as some writers have incorrectly stated) that splay outward to spread the animal’s weight as it too walks on water.
With the help of some “local intelligence” from the resident trackers and fishermen, we had pinned down two likely areas for blinds. Michel said it typically takes three or four days of hunting, sitting in the blind from just before dawn until about 8 a.m. and then again in the late afternoon from 5 p.m. until last shooting light, around 7 p.m.
We sat for the typical “three or four” days and then we sat some more. We sloshed our way out to the blind at 4 a.m. and we stayed until 9 a.m., way past “sitatunga time.” We sat for week, then 10 days. We even slept in the blind on three nights so that we could be there at first light without having disturbed the area by wading in with flashlights.
I finally gave up on the twelfth day. “We’ll go two more days,” I said to Michel, “But if we can’t spend more than two weeks on sitatunga. We still have to get out to those remote islands where there’s 50-inch buffalo under every tree and black-maned lion beneath every bush.”
We both had high hopes for the hunting on the impossible-to-reach islands deep in the Kigosi flood plain that we planned to access with Michel’s swamp buggy. Michel agreed and we made plans to pull up stakes and head out on the morning of the fifteenth day.
By now we’d built two new blinds in a totally different area about five miles form where we’d been concentrating. Maybe the papyrus is greener over there. On the thirteenth day, we sat in one of the two new blinds and our trackers, Mandindi and Daudi, sat in the other. Guess who saw a big bull?
The next morning we were up at 4 a.m. and in the tracker’s blind by 5. Thankfully, this particular blind was in a tree on dry land, so we didn’t have to soak ourselves to get to it. Michel and I laid down to watch the black night sky fade to a deep navy and then lighten into the blueness of dawn. It was around 5:30 a.m.
I looked at my watch at 5:45 a.m. and thought to myself that I had another 15 minutes before I should sit up as it wouldn’t really be fully light until then. Meanwhile, Michel rousted himself and took a peek through his Leicas. I felt a nudge on my shoulder. It was Michel’s foot. He was pointing energetically in a signal that could only mean one thing. I sat up and there he was, a huge bull feeding at the edge of the swamp grass at what we later ranged at 223 yards. I positioned my .300 H&H Magnum on the “guard rail” of the blind (a sapling tied to the tree’s trunk and after consciously focusing on breath control and calming myself down, I made the shot.
Michel and I hugged like long lost brothers, each feeling the penned up relief and exhilaration of finally taking such a hard-won trophy after two full weeks of hunting. The fact that he was a really old bull with his horns burnished to a glossy sheen from his territorial rubbing was all that much better.