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Bell's Base Camp

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We left Kidepo early on the morning of the 24th April and headed for one of the most famous areas of Uganda. I had dreamed of seeing and hunting the Karamoja area of Uganda for many years, but this was going to be the highlight of a wonderful hunt. I was going to be able to see and hunt the Greek river area. This is where Bell had his base camp. I had read about it and seen pictures of it for years and now I was actually going to be there!

For those of you who are not familiar with Uganda the concession we are hunting covers 27,000 square kilometers of the eastern side of the country, bordering the Sudan in the north, Kenya in the east and the Greek river in the south. It is an area of extraordinary beauty - high mountains, thorn tree grasslands and dense forested areas along the rivers. The trip from Kidepo would take all day and it was time well spent. We where going to see the more unspoilt areas that very few people have gotten to see in the last thirty odd years and we where going to get to some photographs of wonderful scenery as well.

I think Steve, who has been a PH for many years, was as awestruck as I was, travelling through such stunning scenery. We both had our cameras out and where taking pictures and looking around like our heads were on swivels. We both were looking forward to being able to look for Bell’s old base camp site.

Steve and I where like kids, laughing and talking non-stop and Philip was like an older brother smiling and having a great amount of patience with the ‘children’. Philip had been here before so it was not new to him.

We stopped at the bridge on the Greek river late in the afternoon. As usual I had my camera out and was shooting away while Steve and Philip were talking about the area and its history. The bridge is only a few miles from the Uganda wildlife authority base where we where planning to set up camp. To my amazement when we got to camp it was on a small hill and as I looked to the north there was a lone hill that looked like a knob.

I was amazed because I had read Bell’s book and he mentioned ‘a knob’. He talked about climbing a hill and looking out over the area for elephants with his telescope. I was standing there wondering if this could be the spot where he stood. I think Steve was getting a kick out of seeing me smile like an idiot step-child. In fact I am sure he may have mentioned me looking like a smiling idiot. In retaliation, I may have mentioned that he needed to shave the hair off the top of his feet.

The tents where unloaded from the Landrover and as it was getting late, Hassan and the guys started to get things ready for the night. Steve and Philip supervised and I did what I do best, I watched….and drank a cool beer to show my support for their effort. At about this time Eddiou, the Head Game Ranger for the entire district, came to greet us. Like most Africans I have met in Uganda, he was a very pleasant fellow.

With the tents up and a nice fire going, Steve and I sat down to relax from the trip and enjoy the beautiful scenery. As we where talking about things we wanted to do in the next few days, I heard singing and drums. It was dark by this time and I was half listening to Steve and half listening to the singing. It was coming from the north-east of us and when I asked Steve if Eddiou had arranged it, I became aware that Steve could not hear it at all due to his partial deafness.

It was like something out of an old movie. I had never heard this style of singing in Kenya or Rwanda when I was in those places. Philip was off talking care of the camp details with Eddiou and Hassan. I described the singing and drumming to Steve and he really looked quite heartbroken when I told him that it sounded beautiful. We had a quick snack and headed for bed as we had plans for the morning. The next day Eddiou explained that the village was singing to bring us luck on our hunt because they knew this would mean they would get the meat.

Up at first light, we headed out after sighting-in the rifles. Steve knew I wanted to get a baboon or two so we asked Eddiou, who without a moments hesitation, said head to the river where there are plenty of baboons. The trophy fee for baboons is 20 bucks as in Uganda they are considered vermin. As we got close to the Greek River Bridge we could see something crossing the road. It was a large troop of baboons.

Since they had not been hunted for years they where not very skittish. We drove to what Steve considered close enough and got off the truck. There where still baboons crossing the road in front of us so we moved off the road and headed in to the thorn trees. We where attempting to get in front of some of the baboons that had already crossed the road. Eddiou was smiling and told me to shoot all of them, since they have been causing a lot of trouble in the area.

After paralleling the road for a few hundred yards we started to cut across to the river. By this time I could hear them barking and could see a baboon scout in the top of a tree at the river bank. We slowed our stalk down and tried to keep trees between us and the baboons. At about seventy-five yards from the river there was movement on our right as about a dozen baboons started to run toward the river.

We had spooked them not knowing that they had moved our way. We froze and waited and as we waited a large dog baboon stopped next to a thorn tree and looked back over his shoulder at us. This proved to be a fatal mistake! My little Marlin 30.06 spoke to him about his mistake and convinced him it was his last.

This was the first really large baboon I have ever been close to and I was impressed at just how big his teeth where. YEEP! I did the Ugly Dance. Juma, our skinner/tracker made short work of skinning the baboon and since we where right on the river we decided to look for Bell’s old camp site.

I know, you’re all saying, how in the world could we ever expect to find the camp-site after all these years. Well, we had a secret weapon and that weapon was Steve and his long list of friends, some of whom had hunted this area over 50 years ago. Also Philip had asked some of the elders about the old camp-site. Yes, I know old memories fade but remember Ugandans have an oral history in song.

So between Philip having heard the song of Bell from the elders and Steve being on the cell phone to a friend of his who had been here 50 years ago, we looked for the land marks. I believe if we where not on the exact spot, we where within spitting distance of it. We had a description of the soil, the water hole, the distance from the bridge and everything matched.

After some scouting in the area we decided to head to camp for a rest and, as they say in Africa, to make a plan. You who have lived there, or live there now, will know what this means. The plan was for oribi, and it was to turn out to be a little more complicated than expected. The rains had been heavy this year and the grass was as high as the door handle of the Landcruiser.

The Landrover was down with a cold as is the case with them, most of the time. So with out the aid of a hunting seat on top, we headed for the area of savanna where the thorn trees were thin, as oribi do not like thorn trees. Like I said the grass was door handle high, so all we could see was the very top of the oribi heads and there where a lot of oribi heads to see. Problem number one was, when the grass is this high; you’re right on top of them when you see them.

Problem number two is, by the time you see them, they are doing nine hundred miles an hour in the other direction. We saw well over a hundred pairs of oribi by noon, or should I say, we saw over a hundred pair of heads headed the other direction. We even put one of the trackers on the roof to spot for us. A good idea with bad results, for as soon as he spotted them and we stopped, they would show off their amazing ability to run at Mach 24 through the grass without breaking a sweat or breathing hard.

Tactic change number three was to find a small hill and glass for oribi. The result was good…and bad, as we could see them before they saw us, we just could not get to them before they departed the country for parts unknown.

With more than half the day over, we were going to try one more area, hoping the grass might not be as high. The game scout said the grass is shorter on the other side of the hill where camp was! As with most Africans, information is sometimes slow in coming... we could have used this tidbit a few hours ago.

Now we were worried: it was 4:00pm and 20 miles to camp! Did I mention there are only about three regular dirt roads in this area of Uganda? So if we want to hunt an area we just pull off into the long grass. It is like they did in the early days of automobiles.

It’s like hunting in a different time… the good old days! (Yes, I am still smiling just thinking about it as I write this). Where was I? Oh yes, we headed back towards camp and after all our looking, stalking, and glassing; we find the dumbest oribi in Africa!!!

Don Hooker is 56 year old and grew up in a small Northern California sawmill town hunting and fishing. After working as a Nurse for ten years without a vacation, he took a trip to Kenya - and that was the beginning of his love affair with Africa. He has spent from three to eight months a year since that first trip traveling to East Africa.

Yep, he was standing by the road at the pit where we sighted in our rifles… just standing there and watching us. He had good sense alright... at fifty yards broadside, just standing there looking. Well, an animal that dumb needs to be taken out of the gene pool! I stepped out of the truck and after a short stalk, I shot him. After the Ugly Dance, Juma skinned him and off to camp we went.

Steve, who is also an excellent camp cook, did a great job of cooking a hind-quarter for us that night. Since we where well-rested and were back in camp early we had a few cool beers and swapped lies…oops, I mean we shared our hunting adventures of the past and yes, we laughed most of the evening into the night.

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