My personal quest for the Lord Derby began when I was thirteen years old and my father came back from his hunt to tell me he had lost his eland as it crossed into a national park. He had been the guest of the Lamido of Rey-Bouba, a king living in the northern part of Cameroun. It was a real heartbreaker for him, as well as for his son, who hero-worshiped his father and could not imagine his not killing anything instantly with his famous .375 H&H magnum. Fast forward 41 years and this very same son was now battling extreme heat and dehydration while pursuing the distant progeny of the eland that had managed to elude his father. The merciless sun beat down on my tracker and me as we painstakingly unraveled the string of tracks left in the plain in front of us.
I actually liked this part of the quest. It gave me moments of pleasure to help trace the elusive tracks through the scrub as the bull meandered ahead of us pausing to take in a few delicate morsels before he found a shady overlook to rest for the day.
It was now myself who was the guest of the Lamido’s son. The new king had recently ascended to the throne as the ruler after the demise of his father. He now ruled over an area larger than several European countries. In his kingdom, he is an absolute monarch over some 50,000 inhabitants of this sparsely inhabited semi-desert of northern Cameroon.
As his guest I had exclusive privileges to hunt in his royal estate, but alas, the estate had been poorly managed for the last four decades and the wandering eland had all continued their wandering off into safer quarters.
Where they had taken refuge was a series of rocky ridges as far from humans as they could get, but not so far that a good bit of suffering could not close the gap. It just required that you have a good set of shoes, a lot of water, and a good tracker.
I was hunting a range of rocky plateaus in northern Cameroon. My preferred style of hunting was to take a string of local porters and march into the roadless backcountry while looking for fresh tracks. The local trackers knew where the few remaining water holes were and we went from watering point to watering point trying to pick up fresh tracks.
After several days of finding only old tracks and buffalo, we jumped a nice bull roan and were in hot pursuit. We were so close in fact we had already jumped him once. He was in full flight, so we were just slowly picking our way along an easy-to-follow, deeply rutted set of tracks. Suddenly my tracker stopped and pointed. “Eland,” he said in a whisper.
Now I had been hunting with this exceptional tracker for several years and he had always shown great decision-making skills. He no longer pointed things out to me unless he thought they would be of significant interest. Most of the time we just communed with hand signals and kept silent. Well, these tracks were of interest, as they consisted of a solitary bull eland meandering along as he browsed the new shoots.
This same tracker had been into the area a month before to burn the old thatch grass and this had promoted the growth of the new shoots and buds on the trees, which the eland was now enjoying. Many people claim their trackers are “the best,” but I think each set of trackers gets to know a certain local area and a set of animals intimately. Only after they have spent countless hours in their particular habitat are they prepared to make it to the next “level” of tracking. At this point they no longer seem to actually track the animal, but sort of “become” the animal, intuitively knowing where it is going, and take shortcuts to allow the hunter to catch up to fast-moving animals.
They know when to slow down to a crawl if the animal is looking to rest. They can “feel” when the animal is hurt or looking for a place to lie down and then seem to know exactly where he will do that. Rene was just this kind of tracker. I had, on a number of previous trips, followed a specific animal for 2 days in a row before we caught up to it. On more than one occasion that meant cutting leaves for a bed while sleeping between two fires to ward off the surprisingly cold chill of the night.
A head net to ward off mosquitoes and the sweat and salt-encrusted clothes sufficed for blankets as we waited for dawn to pick up the track again. On other occasions, Rene simply suggested we give up after we jumped an eland a couple of times saying that this animal was never going to be caught by tracking and would make it to the nearby boundary before we caught it.
That very thing had happened the year before. We had picked up the tracks of a solitary eland bull fairly early in the morning. It was feeding and moving slowly so we knew we were catching up with him. Then the meandering tracks indicated it was looking for a place to lie down and we slowed to a quiet crawl. It chose a place below the crest of a fairly steep hill and settled down. When we got to the bed it was still fresh, but the animal had already moved off. A hurried whispering conversation took place, as our time was running short. Then the number two tracker, Patrick, told me I needed to backup to where he was because he could actually see the bull. Unfortunately for me, the bull had relocated his bed only about 50 yards.
Our whispering alerted him to our presence and he was just standing there in all his magnificence. Fortunately for him, he had chosen his second bed wisely, and with two steps he was up and over the ridge and gone.
As pre-arranged, I tossed my rifle to the tracker and threw all my personal gear down so I could run. The number two tracker was to collect my backpack, bringing water and my gear, allowing me to run more freely. Being the oldest and least fit of the group I hoped this would help, but after a mile, it was clear it was fruitless. The big bull was not going to stop and he was headed directly into the neighboring concession. He was also headed directly away from home, so we called it off and headed back.
The Lord Derby continued to stay in control of our grudge match. On other occasions my tracker Rene has been tenacious, refusing to quit even when I explicitly told him we had to. In every case where he insisted we follow, we got our animal, occasionally not that day, but usually the next. We had successfully hunted almost all of the local species, except the Lord Derby. Now as he insisted that we should consider following the Eland tracks I was in complete agreement.
We had left the porters a day’s walk away and so it was just the two of us. We could move quietly and the eland was moving into the wind, feeding on the fresh shoots coming from the burned shrubs. It seemed a perfect setup.
As we followed along it was clear we were getting closer.
We found wet mud that had stuck to the eland’s hooves from where he had watered. The urine was still moist on the sandy soil, but he was still moving and even at a walk I knew an eland could simply slide into the distance like so much smoke.
Suddenly the eland changed course, and at the same time, the wind shifted with the coming of the noonday heat. Rather than risk disturbing him, Rene called for a water break. I was hesitant, but bowed to his superior knowledge, knowing he had as much craving for a successful conclusion to the hunt as I did. By now our water was the temperature of tepid tea, but better than it would be in a few hours when it would actually be hot.
We sipped and rested in some sparse shade while we shared a bit of a snack. When the wind died down we took back the trail, like a long string, and started to wind it back up into a ball.
Rene knew if we were just patient we would catch up, and rushing things at this point in the game would be a mistake. When it did happen it was quite sudden. Rene could suddenly see him from his position in front, but I could only see movement and bush. I was afraid to move up the couple of feet separating us, but afraid if I did not move I would have a repeat of the previous year where all I saw was a disappearing dream. I anxiously waited and Rene signaled that the eland was moving to our right and I needed to be ready. I was more than ready, I was 41 years ready, and when the magnificent bull walked out into a small clearing I put the .375 where his massive neck met his body and pulled the trigger. He did not run any further; he did not take even one more step, much less make it into the National Park, many miles away.
I was elated. This was truly the most magnificent animal I had ever had the honor of following and matching wits with in my hunting career. He was not the best of his species, in fact, I would only put him as a solid representative, but he was My Lord Derby and I was on foot, two days’ walk from the nearest road. It represented a massive amount of homework and dedication to finally collect a Lord Derby Eland. I had spent years, tracking and following the species, but had always been disappointed. Now that demon was laid to rest at my feet and I could only hope my departed father was able to rejoice with me.
We walked to camp in about five hours and sent the porters back for all of the meat, while we worked on the cape, which we took with us. The porters made excellent time and all the meat was brought to camp and prepared as jerky in the dry climate.
To cap off a great hunt my Danish companion was also able to collect a magnificent eland in the same general area. He also collected buffalo, western hartebeest, harnessed bushbuck, and duiker and passed up on a nice roan while tracking Eland.
To say that we were both pleased with ourselves would be a vast understatement.
While snapping a few commemorative photos I felt more of a hunter than any time before or after. The only possible exception was perhaps when I shot my bongo, as I had no tracker or companion with me at all on that trip. There is something about doing it yourself, with no PH to scout it out for you and tell you what to do and which one to shoot.
To have organized the porters, found a place to hunt and kept at the language and all that it took to make it happen was extremely fulfilling. I felt back in touch with my ancestors, not only my father, but my grandfather who came to Cameroun in the early 1900’s, on beyond to all our common ancestors who hunted as a means to live, not as a supplemental aspect to their lives. Society has lost track of our true heritage among all the high rises, and asphalt.
For now, I could just enjoy the great environment I was immersed in, heat and all. I know I had provided meat for a substantial portion of the village, just like my ancestors.
I knew I would be back to suffer again. .