Storm clouds built up over the distant treeline, thunder and lightning getting closer until the first fat raindrops fell. It was early afternoon. Few sounds are more soothing than soft rain on canvas and thatch…and few luxuries in life are better than a lazy nap underneath that gentle drumming. Sometime later I realized the rain had stopped and I vaguely heard hunting partner Steve Hornady and PH Christian Weth head out. I realized I should rally and get out to a machan. I wasn’t hunting sitatunga, but I could spot for them…and with full moon coming on quickly, the more eyes on the swamp the better. But there was no great rush. I drifted a few minutes longer—and then I heard Steve’s shot.
Throughout the world, most animals like to move just after a rain, so instead of banking on the view from one machan, Steve and his team left camp by boat intending to glass from several stands in sequence until it got dark. They hit pay dirt from the first stand. Steve got an 80-yard shot, and about 20 minutes later, I joined them over a great sitatunga bull. Technically these are East African sitatunga, shared with western Tanzania. But regardless of which race we’re talking about, I am convinced Uganda currently offers the finest sitatunga hunting on the African continent…and that’s just one of several “bests” that modern Uganda can claim.
GOOD OLD DAYS
A very young Winston Churchill first saw Uganda before 1900, describing her as “the pearl of Africa” in My African Journey (1908). Uganda is verdant and green: One look and you realize almost anything can grow there…and almost anything does, animals as well as timber, fruit, grain and vegetables.
Although Uganda holds a wide variety of antelopes large and small, historically most of the hunting focused on large dangerous game. In late 1909, the Roosevelt safari established what is still referred to as “Rhino Camp” in northwestern Uganda, west of the Nile. Northern white rhino were still plentiful in that area when the Roosevelts were there, but not for long. Fortunately, the other big game fared better.
Although we think of Uganda as part of East Africa, in many ways it’s a bridge to Central Africa. Still famous for her mountain gorillas in the southwest, Uganda held two legendary hotspots for big elephants. The Karamoja region in the far northeast bordering Kenya and South Sudan was a favorite haunt of W.D.M. “Karamoja” Bell at the beginning of the 20th Century. But the well-watered Nile valley was also very good for large-tusked elephants. Just to the northwest lay the Lado Enclave, a huge elephant-rich area that became sort of a no-man’s land when Belgium’s King Leopold died in 1909. Would-be ivory hunters—with or without experience—flocked into the Enclave as if to a gold rush, Walter Bell included.
As an organized safari destination, Uganda was late to the party and relatively short-lived. Kenya and Tanganyika (later Tanzania) were open and very good. There was limited justification to trek so far inland—and if there was, then southern Sudan was open, offering bongo and Derby eland as well as big ivory. But, slowly, Uganda did emerge as an alternative and especially game-rich safari destination. Robert Ruark made one of his last safaris there in the early 1960s, accompanied by one of Walter Bell’s .275 Rigby rifles. In 1968, my old bosses, “Pete” Petersen and Tom Siatos, made their first African safari to Uganda. They took fantastic 16mm film: Lion, leopard, buffalo, a variety of plains game…and very nice elephant right along the banks of the Nile.
In the mid-1970s, I took a look at Uganda for my own first safari. Five buffalo on license made it interesting, but things were grinding to a halt under Idi Amin’s regime. Hunting never exactly closed; it just faded away as safaris became first unwelcome and then unsafe. Some very limited hunting resumed as early as 1991, but there was almost no safari hunting in Uganda for 30 years. Even in peaceful times, that is a long period, but it was a time that saw Amin’s excesses and overthrow, civil war, several regional conflicts and a large increase in Uganda’s human population.
A NEW BEGINNING
Against those challenges, Uganda has some 60 protected areas—a lot for what is really a small country—and both the Ugandan army and the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) are well-trained and effective. While it’s true that Uganda’s wildlife diminished dramatically, the Parks and other reserves provided a safe haven, a sound nucleus. As both outfitters and the UWA strove to reopen sport hunting, it quickly became apparent that, while overall numbers were way down, there were hotspots and enclaves where hunting was extremely viable.
It was not and probably never again will be as it was in the 1970s. Elephant and lion have not been reopened and may never be. Uganda was given a small CITES quota for leopard, but has not yet utilized that quota. But African hunting is not as it was in the 1970s, and perhaps African hunters are also not quite the same. Back then it wasn’t just Uganda where the primary focus was on the Big Five; that was true across the continent. There was much less appreciation for the antelope species, even the less common and more beautiful among them. For sure, that applied in Uganda. Sitatunga hunting was poorly developed and little known, and while buffaloes are always important, the fact that Uganda’s buffaloes were the slightly smaller Nile buffalo was a negative, not a plus.
Continent-wide, today’s safaris are shorter and far more specialized. We accept much smaller bags and have more appreciation for local rarities. Uganda isn’t heavily endowed with exclusive opportunities, but she certainly has a few. Perhaps foremost, and most unique, is their national animal, the Uganda kob, a really pretty antelope, largest of the kobs with horns almost as big as their close cousins, the lechwes. Most famous, I suppose, is the Sesse Island sitatunga. This is a tough one, visually indistinguishable from mainland sitatunga, but difficult and costly to hunt, with very limited selection.
Then there are also political exclusives, animals found elsewhere but currently only hunted in Uganda. The top two are probably Nile buffalo and Nile bushbuck, both also plentiful in South Sudan—but South Sudan hasn’t been hunted since 1983!
The current game list in Uganda isn’t extensive, so I guess you could say that all her animals are special one way or the other. Though not separated out in our record book, the Uganda defassa waterbuck grows exceptional horns, and both Uganda’s bushpigs (“white-faced East African bushpig”) and East African bush duikers are slightly different. But when I think about “specialties” I’m thinking of animals that might be hunted elsewhere, but are best-hunted in a certain place. This may be a combination of circumstances, but hopefully is a mixture of both success and quality!
In Uganda, the hartebeest are called Jackson’s, essentially the same as the Lelwell hartebeest of C.A.R., but for sure Uganda is the best place with this hartebeest found on both sides of the country. In the northeast, one finds Guenther’s dik dik, small-bodied and large-nosed. The same dik dik can be hunted in southwestern Ethiopia; Uganda isn’t necessarily “better,” but getting there is a simpler and less costly undertaking.
Now that Ethiopia’s buffalo have been reclassified to East African savanna buffalo, Uganda is the only game in town for Nile buffalo. By any name, however, Uganda has awesome buffalo hunting with very good populations in several areas. I’ve hunted buffalo on the edge of Murchison Falls National Park on the west side, and south of Kidepo Valley National Park in the northeast Karamoja region. Both are excellent, as good as buffalo hunting gets just about anywhere in Africa—and these are just two of several good buffalo areas.
One of the challenges Uganda outfitters face is that, today, we view it as a specialized destination, so most hunters in Uganda have hunted other countries previously and are looking for specialties. There is “common” game. Warthogs are plentiful, and I’ve never seen so many oribi. Eastern bohor reedbucks are also plentiful and widely distributed, and there are a few Chanler’s mountain reedbucks in the northeast. The Mburo area is famous for huge East African impala, and whether “different” or not, defassa waterbuck get very big.
Although it changes dramatically from north to south and east to west Uganda is a small country with a pretty good road network. So, although it takes some traveling, it’s practical to hunt a couple of areas on a 10-day safari and perhaps three areas in two weeks—without charter aircraft costs. This is important because, although the hunting in Uganda is spectacular, species diversity is such that most areas are really good for maybe three to five species—and then it’s time to move.
We all have our passions. Mine is buffalo. I’ll hunt African areas that don’t have buffalo, but I’m not going to go to a country that has good buffalo—like Uganda—without hunting them. So both my Ugandan safaris have included buffalo. As I said, if one cares about such things, this is the only place to get a Nile buffalo, but also a very fine place just to hunt buffalo with or without prefixes.
In 2011, Bill Jones and I hunted buffalo at Aswa-Lolim north of Murchison Falls. We struggled, but were successful. In 2017, after Steve Hornady got his sitatunga in the Kafu area, we went up Kidepo Valley bordering South Sudan to get our buffalo. We did not struggle. It was very dry, and there was an amazing selection of old dagga bulls outside of the Park. We took very good buffalo almost too quickly—and then finished the hunt at Aswa-Lolim so Steve could look for a big Uganda kob.
In 2011, Aswa-Lolim was a new hunting area and needed work. By 2017 the work had been done. There were many more kob and buffalo outside of the Park! Taking good buffalo there would not have been a struggle, but we had our buffalo, finished the safari with a superb Uganda kob and then fished for big perch in the Victoria Nile.
That’s all very good. Buffalo are always hard to beat. The Uganda kob is the country’s greatest indigenous rarity, an exceptionally beautiful antelope that’s a “must-hunt” when you’re there. If you’re an angler, a 100-pound Nile perch is pretty special. But, after two Uganda safaris (which is not a lot), here’s what I think is the best of Uganda’s very best.
SITATUNGA AND BUSHBUCK ON THE KAFU RIVER
Sitatungas on mainland Uganda are what we call East African. I got one—not a good one—on Tanzania’s Ugalla River in 1993, and a very good one near the Kigosi-Moyowosi boundary, also western Tanzania, in 2010. Like all the spiral horns, sitatungas are both a special animal and a special interest for me. At some point enough is enough; between Botswana, Zambia and Tanzania I’ve taken six sitatungas, so when I first hunted Uganda in 2011 I didn’t think I needed another. But I was curious about the sitatunga hunting. Per Brian Herne in Uganda Safari it used to be pretty good, so I encouraged hunting partner Bill Jones to hunt East Africa sitatunga, and I did not.
While Bill was in a machan with PH Tony Moore, outfitter Christian Weth and I spent our time looking for bushbuck, reedbuck and duiker, and checking for sitatunga tracks along the edges of the rivers. At that point, only a couple of machans had been built, but the papyrus beds along the Kafu and its tributaries were endless and the splayed-toe tracks of sitatunga were all along the banks, including near villages. That was the only place I had ever seen where sitatunga obviously walked around like goats. I think it took five morning/evening outings before Bill and Tony came back with a magnificent sitatunga. I wasn’t surprised; I was already convinced I was seeing the best sitatunga grounds (err, waters) in Africa. Even so, I was glad I wasn’t hunting sitatunga—not just because I didn’t want one, but because, at that time, I think it would have taken a lot more time for two hunters to take bulls of similar quality.
Fast forward six years! By then my personal problem of “enough sitatungas” had abated, but partner Steve Hornady needed one. Thinking it would still be unwise for two hunters to hunt sitatunga out of the same camp, I didn’t put the swamp fairy on my game list. That was not exactly a mistake. The sitatunga is a difficult prize, almost as difficult as bongo, Derby eland and mountain nyala, and occupying more specialized habitat than the other great spiral-horned prizes. On the other hand, I had no idea how much and how well Chris Weth had developed that area in the past six years. The semi-permanent and comfortable camp was on the Mayanja River, tributary to the Kafu, and for miles up and down the river there were more than 50 tall machans overlooking likely papyrus patches. I wasn’t just impressed; I was astounded.
I hunted with Steve the first few outings. A waxing moon was having effect—always plan a sitatunga hunt in dark of the moon—but we saw bulls we couldn’t shoot, and then we split and went to different machans. Ostensibly, I was “spotting,” and I saw a great bull. In reality, there was one on quota and I could have shot. I chose not to, but in my experience Chris Weth’s Mayanja River camp offers the very best, and most developed, sitatunga hunting on the African continent. More world records will come from there, and I’m probably going to have to go back one more time and actually hunt a sitatunga for myself. Sigh.
I can’t explain the difference, but the bushbuck is an animal that I’ve never placed personal restrictions on. Perhaps it’s because I regard them as sort of Africa’s whitetail, common and plentiful, but cover-loving and challenging to hunt. There are, of course, multiple subspecies and regional groupings — like whitetails — but, also like whitetails, they are all bushbucks, frustratingly difficult.
Forgetting race, subspecies or grouping, Uganda offers better sitatunga hunting—and more reliable quality—than anything I’ve seen in Botswana, Zambia, Tanzania or Namibia’s Caprivi—and certainly better than Central and West Africa, where I’ve failed miserably multiple times on forest sitatunga. The bushbucks in central Uganda are Nile, a small but brightly-colored race. Again forgetting race, subspecies or grouping, Uganda offers the most amazing bushbuck hunting I have ever seen!
Yes, they wander around like goats—even more than the sitatungas at water’s edge. It’s very clear the local people don’t poach because bushbucks can be seen wandering around at just about any time of day. That doesn’t mean a stalk will be successful or that you’ll see a monster—but it’s simply amazing. Prior to the 2011 hunt, I’d been told that and didn’t believe it. In 2011, I saw it and, in 2017, I could see that the bushbuck population had obviously increased. Hornady got a monster not far from camp, and I took a fine old ram, much better than the one I got six years earlier.
If I were planning your Uganda safari, I’d put East Africa sitatunga and Nile bushbuck at the top of the list. I’d include Uganda kob “just because” and for sure, I’d put Nile buffalo on the list. That would be a fairly complete safari in modern Uganda, but you’d probably pick up several other species along the way. More importantly, you’d have an awesome hunt!--Craig Boddington