In December of 2009, I was stationed at the Mbari River, where I would carry out a handful of lengthy tasks, the first one being to finish building a permanent camp along the river. Once this boring work was completed after two weeks, I moved on to the exciting job of investigating new saltlicks in the area (natural mud holes in the bush, where animals come to lick exposed minerals). This was the kind of work I relished- to be able to set off into an area well before any tourists, to explore a paradise previously unseen.
The first week of exploring turned up some amazing destinations. Mongolor- a famed ex-elephant poacher from Fode, led me to a couple great saltlicks. Following in his footsteps and learning his bush lore was an incredible experience.
Mongolor’s face was a novel one, far distinguished from any others by a ghastly scar stretching diagonal from his forehead, between his eyes, and ending on the opposite cheek. A few years before, a young African hunter had wounded a leopard while hunting at night with a shotgun and flashlight. Mongolor, who had a reputation to maintain as the grand chassere (Big Hunter), followed the blood trail into the thick forest where the cat had escaped the night before, bent on finishing off the wounded creature. He had made it less than a 100 yards inside the thick hell, before the furious cat charged from its concealed position immediately in front of him. He had time to take a snap shot at the animal’s stomach before it had its claws wrapped around his head. The wiry man kicked his legs up against the leopard’s chest and pushed hard, successfully removing the animal’s death grip. Unfortunately, the now sunken claws tore away from his skull, scalping Mongolor before ripping down his face. It is remarkable he did not lose an eye from the encounter.
The legend of Mongolor did not end here. He showed me the scar of a puncture wound in his shin, where a not-so-dead bongo had gored him after he had fatally shot it. Another time, he had wounded a buffalo bull with his homemade shotgun when the enraged animal charged him. While in hot pursuit, Mongolor ducked behind a large fallen log and froze. The buffalo, rounding the corner of the log looked around confused. For a long moment, it seemed the animal did not see Mongolor laying there. But in an instant, the bull turned with a snort, and its hard-horned skull suddenly bore down on the man’s head, knocking him unconscious. Mongolor was carried away on a stretcher by his companions- one of whom told me the story- while the buffalo died in a thicket not far away. The stories of this man go on forever…
One of the saltlicks he showed me was situated deep inside a nearly impenetrable forest, which we had to cut a footpath with our machetes to reach. The swampy meadow provided a lush oasis for the secretive rainforest species, like giant forest hog, yellow backed duiker, bushbuck, and in particular- the bongo antelope; an otherworldly animal with a fire red coat decorated with white stripes down its flanks and black spiral horns adorning its head.
After building a tree-house-like platform overlooking the saltlick, I decided to spend a few nights there alone, armed with my large DSLR camera and 300mm lens, in the hopes of photographing the famously secretive and elusive bongo antelope in natural light.
At dusk one evening, I walked the one mile foot path in the forest leading to the high platform. It was very dark by the time I reached the ladder to the high stand, and as I climbed its steps, I distinctly felt an immediate presence around me. The hackles on my neck stood up, starting an urgency in me to run. I climbed the ladder frantically, and when I got to the top, felt some unseen creature watching me from below. It was an eerie experience, and I slept little that night.
In the morning when I climbed down, I found the tracks of a leopard in the sandy soil below the ladder. As I walked out of the forest by way of the footpath I had come from, I discovered the large cat had followed me nearly half a mile
( Travel , Africa , Wildlife )