Niki Atcheson

January 19, 2015 | Tags:


I grew up in Africa, in the kingdom of Ruanda-Urundi ruled by King Mwambutsa III. Previously it was a Belgian colony but is now two countries, Burundi and Rwanda… with Hutus and Tutsi’s being the predominate tribes. Perhaps you have seen the movie “Hotel Rwanda” or the Diane Fossey Biography “Gorillas In The Mist.”

In 1959 my parents, Dr. Len and Marti Ensign, Physician-Surgeon lab technician, took a Holland America ship for ten days on stormy seas to Amsterdam. I was 10 months old. With them were barrels and barrels of supplies for the bush hospital they were to run. There was no Wal-Mart so they also had to plan years of clothes and shoes for a growing baby. They also packed all the household goods they needed including a mattress and a ping pong table. The barrels were stored in Amsterdam for a year, shipped to Dar Es Salaam where they were trucked to the south end of Lake Tanganyika. They then went by boat to the capital city of Bujumbura.

My parents studied intensive French in Brussels and then papa’s “stage,” or internship as we call it, in tropical medicine in Antwerp. He had to pass his exams in French! From Europe we flew Sabena Airlines to Bujumbura where the barrels finally caught up to our family and were trucked to Kibuye Hospital Station. In the barrels was a gift from papa’s brother, Les Ensign. Uncle Les had been a WWII fighter pilot and wanted papa to have a gun in Africa. He bought a .30 caliber Enfield rifle for $15.00 and had it re-barreled into a .458 Winchester Mag. The bullets were 500 grain Winchesters in a yellow and red box. The boys had grown up in a hunting and fishing family by tradition and necessity. This is interesting to me as my favorite gun, “Baby”, is a custom Lon Paul .458 Lott. Lon was a client of mine when I first started guiding. He was a good friend of Jack Lott and has built guns for the likes of Harry Selbey and many other famous PH’s. Lucky me! Lon used Jack’s famous reamer tool to build my gun.
During those early years in Africa papa would occasionally hunt for meat, like waterbuck or buffalo. It was either that or eating free ranging “athIetic” chicken that required a pressure cooker.

Potential grooms in the villages bought their brides from the bride’s father. They offered the father cows, goats etc. for the daughters hand in marriage. The price established on how many animals the groom was to pay was conditioned on how good looking she was, how good she was at hoeing along with how wide her hips were for birthing and of course her family’s social status. This still goes on today!!!

In the old days, and yes, I’m old enough to call it that, we would gear up for safari and send a runner to find papa’s favorite native tracker. Then we would set up tents along the Ruvuvu or Ruzizi river valley bottoms.
Hunting didn’t happen often as papa was the only Dr. at a very busy hospital. A lot of my time growing up was actually in the hospital. I would go on rounds with him and he had a stool for me to sit on or stand on in our “surgery” so I could reach the instruments to hand to him. I say “surgery” as it was a pretty basic MASH unit to put it into American perspective. The hospital was a left over from the Belgian Colonial era and worked like this…Open wards, family accompanying the sick or injured sleeping on the floor with them and cooking their meals in small “kitchens” behind the hospital. The operating room came complete with one person to swat flies during surgery, her name was Anatazia. My papa called her “Anesthesia” as she worked slowly.

We also had a hand crank diesel generator for emergency night surgery or kerosene lanterns. Papa got tired of all the curious people staring in the surgery windows and had them painted up part way so even a kid standing on a cow couldn’t watch him! By the time I was five I had helped deliver lots of babies, set broken limbs, amputated limbs, sterilized OR trays, and just about anything else you can think of. Mama started a badly needed baby clinic and took care of many orphans in our home. She bribed in “nervous of white people villagers” by giving them clothing, food, baby vitamins and anti-malarials to get the kids inoculated. By 5 ½ I spoke enough English to go off to boarding school as is the custom.

Even though I was too young to hunt in those early days it was always exciting to go on safari and get fresh meat. It was shared, of course, with everyone. There was no such thing as freezers. The only refrigeration we had was a tiny kerosene contraption for vials of vital hospital meds. I liked helping skin and cutting up meat for jerky. I also loved working with Ndoriobiga, our gardener. He came in for severe burns after his hut caught fire and collapsed on him. He was trying to save his goats and chickens, which of course slept with the family, to protect them from leopards. Papa saved his life and he wouldn’t leave. So he was put to work as the gardener. Ndoriobiga made me my first little bow and arrow set to scare ravens out of our garden. I wasn’t very successful.
Years and years later we moved back to the U.S. and adopted my brother, Scott.

We also continued to go back and forth to Africa for medical work on a regular basis. I remember my first snowflakes, first elevator, escalator, T.V. and toilets that flushed every time. I loved hunting and fishing. I loved being outdoors, on the ocean and the lifestyle of gardening and feeding myself good healthy food out of my own hands! Even in urban Seattle we rented a “pea patch” and grew our veggies. During this time the terrible Hutu/Tutsi conflict arose and between the 2 countries they estimate well over a million people died, including medical personnel papa had trained. It was a very sad time for Burundi, Rwanda and for all of us who lost many beloved friends. By then mama had become the first woman minister in the Free Methodist church. She was called on by the the head psychiatrist for the RAF working in conjunction with the U.N. to go help in Rwanda. It was 8 weeks after the worst of the genocide. The NGO workers were having nervous breakdowns from all the atrocities they were seeing. They needed somebody who spoke all the languages and who could also counsel people.
Kibuye hospital, especially the pharmacy, was rifled over and over by bands of armed soldiers. The station came to a standstill except for one very determined U.S. Dr., Frank Ogden, who despite being held at gunpoint repeatedly, wouldn’t give up on Kibuye.

After I finished university I married into a shellfish farming family. I had done a lot of marine biology with sea-grass as a focus and met Bill tutoring a dive research class in Hawaii. I had also done research diving in The Virgin Islands with world famous PHD Ron Phillips. Bill and I had two daughters, Diani and Malindi, whom I named after my favorite beaches in Kenya. Although I had taken them to Africa from their infancy I hadn’t hunted it with them yet. I wanted to hunt there and take my girls with me which I have since done on many occasions. I worked very hard in the growing family business and finally had enough money to go back to Africa on safari.
I made a plan to see my lifelong dream and signed up for an NRA pistol and gun safety class with Barry Joseph at the local gun club. Barry and his wife LeAnne have been good friends ever since. During the course of the class I explained to everyone what I wanted to do and where. Everyone at the club started letting me shoot this gun and that. I started hunting with Barry, his friends and their wives and loved it! The lifestyle of feeding yourself really rang true to how I was raised. By then I had my girls gardening with me and shooting a single shot air gun at targets set up on our property. Malindi decided to include the green house cherub wind vane, not a pre-approved target, and I’m certain you know what happened to the glass roof.

I finally chose an off the shelf .375 HH Remington and started working it for my first hunt. There was only one problem. I was a woman going alone to Africa and had never actually killed a thing despite my efforts. So the questions were who to go with and how to do all the paperwork etc.

I started reading everything I could get my hands on. I wrote to PHASA to get suggestions of outfitters in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana. I started contacting their list by mail using the name “Nik Taylor” so they wouldn’t know I was a girl. I didn’t figure a bunch of macho PH’s would want an inexperienced woman to teach and I was correct. During the course of all this I called Jonas Brothers and Klineburger taxidermy to get their opinion. Both told me to call Jack Atcheson and Sons International Hunting Consultants and have them guide me through the process. They told me they were the oldest and most reputable in the business worldwide. So again I wrote a letter using my “boy” name. A very surprised Keith Atcheson called “Nik” at home one day. He suggested I come to something called “Safari Club” to meet the people on my list and a few he had chosen. So I did! All I wanted was to go home and relive the same sort of experience I had had in my youth in a country that looked like my childhood memories. I wanted to hunt waterbuck, buffalo and leopard. I wanted an intermediary for my own protection. Someone to handle money transfers, someone to come to bat for me who had clout with the outfitter if things went haywire, someone up to date on walking me through the gun permits and airline issues that change constantly. After meeting my preferred list of VERY astonished outfitters with Keith, he took me to Russ Broom Safaris where I met PH Russ Broom, his partner PH Gavin Rorke, and their PH’s Rory Muil and Doug Carlifle. They assured me they could handle the situation…little did they know! I wrote a very large deposit check and put myself into all their hands.

It was 1995. I was so excited! I was off to Zimbabwe. I slept with my gun. I vacuumed with my gun. I did the dishes with my gun. I gardened with my gun. I shot and shot my gun. I had not the remotest idea where this African path would eventually lead me.

On that first safari it took my poor PH, Gavin Rorke, days to figure out why I couldn’t see anything in the long grass. Gav’s more than a foot taller than me. Finally he squatted down to my level and the problem became immediately apparent. “Niki”, he said in his Zimbabwe accent, “Do I need to make you a stool?” The hunt was great. I took an old dagga boy, a huge male leopard, and some various plains game for food and bait. I learned a lot and got yelled at a bit. Our head tracker, Teke, got so disgusted with me he wouldn’t hunt for three days. I just sucked it up and tried harder.

Then I went home, promptly called Keith, and signed up for buffalo, elephant and leopard the next year. I could very clearly see that this was for me and it wasn’t going to be ONE hunt.

Now the story gets crazier. I had a great second hunt with Russ Broom Safaris the next year. I wasn’t as “green” and took a beautiful dagga boy, a huge old elephant and another big leopard. My .375 HH, however, was a problem. The stalk was too long for 5’2” me, the barrel unbalanced for me, my scope reticles failed, I had bullet failure and on and on. The guys took it all in stride and gave me good advice. I got into a custom .416 Remington, learned to reload from Barry and Gavin. I started using Barnes Bullets, WHICH GAVIN INSISTED ON, and which I have used ever since with no problems! I learned a bunch of other things too. I learned about conservation and what an important role we hunters play in the well- being and sustainability of animals and the people who live with them. I saw the principle working first hand.

Bill and I were going to Hawaii on business. I had no interest in sitting by the pool so I called Keith. “Got any hunting in Hawaii?” I said. Keith set me up with Eugene Yap of South Point Safaris. Off I went to the volcano Mauna Loa on The Big Island of Hawaii for Mouflon Sheep. It was one of the most remote areas in the U.S. It was there I learned to cape, peel ears and lips, salt, use a G.P.S. and a lot of other things. Gene and his wife, Claire, asked me to come get a guide license, and hunt for them. I was stunned! I started the next fall. By then I was in my mid- thirties. I worked and learned from Gene for the next four years while continuing to hunt Africa annually. Gene was honored by Safari Club as Professional Hunter of the year in 2000. Both his sons, Matthew and David have been SCI Young Hunters of the year in 2002 and 2005. All three have written intros for Barnes Reloading manuals and are huge fans.

While I was guiding for Gene and Claire, Gene blindfolded me in their back yard and had me shoot one large caliber rifle after another. Proving to me once and for all that a five foot two inch gal with the right gun I could shoot anything she wanted.

Many years passed and Keith and I had both gotten divorced. We joined forces 12 years ago which turned us into a tribe of hunting fools. Between us we had 5 kids, four of them teenage girls, and they all wanted to hunt. That’s a pretty tough order on our budget but we managed to take this one and that over the years and of course they all get to hunt here in Montana where we live. Marrying Keith meant switching from guiding in Hawaii to a whole new venue. Keith’s company is Hunters Montana and we do most of our guiding in the eastern part of the state for deer, elk, antelope and occasionally big horn sheep. I’ve learned to do all our family’s butchering and use all the extra parts for doggie treats which I freeze up for the year.

One interesting fact in all this is that Keith’s papa, Jack Atcheson Sr., was hunting and exploring uncharted rivers in the Congo, right across Lake Tanganyika from me when I was a little girl. “He was with his with is buddy, Dr. Larry Hammer and some cannibalistic pygmy’s who ate their head tracker.” You can read more of his amazing stories in his two books available at

I actually love to guide as much or more than hunting myself. It is so rewarding to see an eager hunter get his or her animal. My first elk client, Mike Detorre, gave me a knife/saw combo as a gift. It was that saw that was used to cut a stretcher to carry me out of a riverine jungle in Zim to a vehicle to be airlifted after my buffalo incident. I’ll explain what happened.

About 5 years ago Keith and I were hunting in Zimbabwe with HHK safaris. I had 3 dagga boys on the wish-list. The first buffalo for me when I returned was # 13 for me. An African friend of mine called me before I left and told me she had had one of her “raven dreams” and I would die. “Don’t go” she said. When you grow up in Africa these things mean something but I didn’t let it bother me and I went anyway.

I wounded my 13th dagga boy on the 13th of June and 24hrs later I was in Johannesburg’s Milpark hospital ICU in bed #13. Thanks to Keith I’m alive. As the buffalo went to hook and toss me a second time in the air, Keith kicked it in the ass. It spun around to get him and he shot it point blank in the head with his last bullet in the barrel. Then, the buffalo had the audacity to fall on top of me. My face was in the dirt and I couldn’t breathe. That’s the first thing I remember after getting hit. The guys rushed in and got 1500 lbs of weight off me. My injuries were extensive. I had a huge gore wound in the back of my right leg, fractured ribs, collar bone and arm, bleeding in my brain and cuts and so forth. The guys went to work cutting me a stretcher with my saw and ripping off their clothes to tie splints onto me. They finally carried me across a river to a waiting truck to be taken for airlift. It took 19 hrs from that point to get me to JoBerg. So a month later after a lot of pain, 5 surgeries and skin grafts we were able to fly home for my very long recovery. My friend, Meg Kirkpatrick, who had warned me not to go, came to S.A to help Keith. My papa delivered her and all her siblings at Kibuye.
The surgeons who worked on me were amazing and saved my leg from amputation as well as patching the rest of me up with enough equipment to match the bionic woman. I refer to myself as “bikini challenged.”

I’ve shot a lot of dagga boys since then but always wonder how I’m going to react. So far so good. I can tell you that I’m much more afraid than I used to be. Hunting dangerous game is always scary and it should be. It’s serious business and everyone in the party from your trackers to your PH to you or a buddy’s lives are on the line no matter how good you think you are or anyone else in the group is.

Fast forward to 2012 – Keith and I just got back from Zambia and Zimbabwe. I was using 500 grain Barnes VOR-TX in my “Baby” the 458 Lott. Keith was using 300 grain Barnes Triple-Shocks in his .416 Remington. Usually I load my own bullets but since I was interviewing Randy Brooks at Barnes, (You can read Randy’s amazing story at, and I needed to be deadly accurate on croc, I took his advice and used Barnes VOR-TX ammo. Performance perfect, purpose built bullets can save your life. That’s why we use them and yes, I had a great hunt and shot some good animals. Keith did as well. It always makes a hunt more fun when you have someone to share those great moments with. He is happy for me and I’m happy for him.

I never sit on an animal or pay any disrespect for the animal when taking pictures. I give thanks for giving up his/her life for me and for giving someone the opportunity of numerous good and nutritious meals.
Hunting, fishing and gardening have been a family tradition for generations and I hope for many to come. I have been so fortunate in my life. I grew up in an amazing place at an amazing time. My parents were truly giving people who gave up wealth to help others. Since I started hunting I’ve been able to hunt and learn from the best.
Kibuye Hospital is now back on track thanks to Dr. Ogden. The horrible road from Buja is asphalted right to the door. The world changes so quickly. Kibuye is now a teaching hospital for the students of Hope Africa University in Buja and the interns are doing their “stages” right there where I grew up. Gotta wonder… Do the interns have cell phones?

I remember puff adders, village drums, the smell of steamy red earth in rainy season and bouts of malaria. I remember sparks from the hunting campfire throwing themselves toward the starry Africa sky like fireflies in a crazed dance. You get hooked on Africa and you just can’t let it go. My childhood memories took me back to an old path. That path led me along a trail of hidden spoor I couldn’t see. Happy Days!