After the great fun of a long transatlantic flight I was more than pleased to be met by Tanya Harris and driven to her guesthouse in Pretoria. Her husband Peter is a ph (professional hunter), and her daughter, Savannah, will steal your heart. I was in transit to Zimbabwe to hunt elephant for the first time with Shangani Safaris. I could only stay the night, but the food was homemade, the hospitality kind, and the comfortable bed very welcomed.
Before breakfast I took a walk, and although I was still in town, the call of go-away birds reminded me that I had arrived in the Dark Continent. Another flight to Harare and I met the first of the three ‘Coke-a-Cola Boys’. Wow, those Rhodesians can drink Coke! It was Lloyd Yeatman’s brother-in-law, Russell, who picked me up at the airport and carried me to their house in town, where I had the good fortune to meet Ronnie Yeatman and much of the family. I couldn’t help but notice (Mrs. Ronnie) Carolyn\’s paintings, because my mother also paints in oils. We watched a bit of cricket, and I\’m sure that I’ve forgotten what little bit I may have picked up on. Lloyd, my professional hunter, arrived a while later and after reviewing my license with me, he put me up at the local Hyatt for the night. The next day we would head for ‘Shangani’ country, the namesake of his safari company. Lloyd also does business under the name of ‘Chipimbi’ Safaris.
That nice fresh biltong and a ‘lemon’ soda kept me fueled as we made our way into the Lowveld. The Lowveld, or “Sweetveld” as some call it, is a lush habitat with a bounty of feed for elephants. I was there in March (1998), which coincides with the end of the rainy season. The grass was sweet and high, the marula fruits were ripe and the mopane were thick and green. The villagers\’ crops, which consisted mainly of corn and sorghum, along with melons, ground nuts, and cucumbers, were in harvest, and the old bulls knew just where to find a delightful smorgasbord. Although I had been to Africa on three previous safaris, I had yet to see my first wild elephant in the bush. That quickly came to an end as we approached the Malapati Safari Area while traveling through the Gona Re Zhou National Park. Even at 90 km/h, the bull made me sit up and holler “Big bull!” as we drove past a pan. Lloyd reversed the Land Cruiser in order to let me have a better look at a solid 60 pounder! I’ll not forget my first elephant sighting.
Upon our arrival to a beautiful camp located on the Mweneze River, and waiting for our trackers to procure a blessing from the local shaman, as is the tradition before the first hunt of the year, we checked our rifles and made them ready for the hunt. Later that evening after a fine meal we were enjoying the campfire when I heard an elephant roar from across the river. This was another first for me, and, as it proved, one of many more to come. That night in my thatched roof hut, I was properly welcomed back to Africa by the calls of hyenas, baboons, birds and monkeys. It was good. Ah, it was very good.
The plan for our first morning was to head into Lloyd’s Niavasha area where large amounts of activity had been reported. Our arrival was delayed by some 10 minutes or so by a small bull carrying 25-30 lbs. of ivory which appeared to be in must. We were traveling through the park and this elephant didn’t want to give our vehicle passage rights through what he must have felt was his road. He bluff charged once, hesitated, and then encouraged us to put a little distance between ourselves. These were happy and healthy, but unusually aggressive elephants. We were along the Mozambique border, where there are still live land mines left over from the war. Each year a few unfortunate beasts step on these and suffer terrific wounds, which go septic and must be very painful. After years of persecution by commercial ivory hunters, poachers, farmers and the military, who could blame them for being a little ornery? Additionally, as I was soon to find out, many of the cows had young calves with them. They would prove to be far more aggressive than the bulls.
We spent the morning slowly driving the roads bordering the hunting area. We spotted many tracks, and a lot of fresh sign. We casually investigated reports from the villagers of crop raiding bulls with ivory so long that it dragged the ground … with a healthy handful of salt. A young bull with 20 lb. ivory was spotted from the vehicle quietly feeding on marula. A few miles further a group of 15 to 20 cows and calves hurried away from the sound of the Land Cruiser. Later, a stately giraffe silently glided into the treetops. On the way back to the Malapati camp, we spotted an old 42″ buffalo in the park. We stopped at the Mweneze River to have a closer look at a 10\’ croc and watched a pair of graceful nyala bulls having a drink.
After lunch, we visited the local rodeo. That same young bull we had met up with in the morning put on quite a show. He trumpeted … he kicked dirt at us … he stared defiantly at us … then ran over to the nearest mopane and furiously ripped the branches off of it. He sent those branches flying through the air, spun on his heels and came for the vehicle. Lloyd reversed … again, while the trackers nervously pounded on the roof of the truck shouting “Faster! He’s coming boss!” After repeating this act for us a time or two, he even reared up on his hind feet – with trunk held high and shook his head at us. I just had to name him the ‘rodeo bull’. Laughs and smiles, but somewhere in the back of my mind I was wondering how we would fare against these aggressive rascals while on foot in heavy bush.
That afternoon I became very impressed with Lloyd’s hunting area. We spotted another 11 bulls in the 25 – 35 lb. class. Plains game was spotted infrequently due to the high grass and thick bush. A few kudu cows and impalas were nice to see because cat hunting was an important secondary interest for me and I had heard many rumors that my ph, Lloyd, was quite the ‘Leopard Man\’. On the dark drive back to camp, we found the scavenger patrol getting under way as hyenas and jackals cruised the roads sniffing for dinner. I was too overwhelmed to be thinking of my belly. We had seen a lot of elephants and a lot of sign. It filled me with expectations of great hunting during the three weeks to come.
The second day of our hunt was my true initiation to elephant hunting. It was unusually overcast and misty. Just like the doctor ordered, our head tracker spotted a huge, solo bull\’s track at first light. Faunie is the finest tracker of game that I’ve ever had the pleasure of hunting with anywhere in North America or Africa. In the days that followed, I overheard the other trackers refer to him as \’Papa\’. This seemed quite appropriate to me, and I followed suit. Everyone smiled when I asked for \’Papa\’. On many critical occasions during the following weeks, Lloyd would whisper to me, \”Henry, you just follow Faunie.” Papa effectively used his sixth sense, and when surrounded by cows with calves and groups of bulls — or when being chased around by elephants, I was very appreciative of his special gift.
Lloyd had briefed me on what to do in the likely event that an elephant came for us. It was unlike much of what many of the great ivory hunters of yesteryears have written: “Never run! You must stand your ground and shoot straight!” Lloyd advised that if I didn’t want to fill my tag with the first young bull in a cranky mood, we should follow Tony Sanchez’s advice and \”Have no fear, but take no chances!” More specifically, you simply keep one eye on the elephant, run fast and quietly when told, mind the thorn bush, follow Faunie, don’t drop your rifle, stay on your feet, listen to my instructions and keep a look out for clearings. If we are spotted, we won\’t be able to out run the elephant. In this case we will need to turn and fight. Its good to pick your own battle field though; a nice little clearing is good, preferably one with a big tree in it so that you\’ll have something to hide behind. The clearing will give you a better chance to get on your target as the elephant comes through. “Right! … That sounds easy enough,” I thought.
Well, theory is one thing and the actual outcome can be quite another. I was filled with excitement as we followed the bulls’ tracks. Six tons of elephant can leave an amazingly small amount of sign. The enormous weight of the elephants had flattened trails in the grass in most all directions, but by following the one with small uprooted tufts and bent over grasses which were still green, we were able to follow. I soon noticed that I made more noise than my well-experienced ph, so I adopted his clever style of carrying his rifle slung over the shoulder and held firmly by the pistol grip in the small of your back. By simply reaching with thumb, we checked our safeties every few moments after passing through thickets of mopane. Thirty minutes went by and the sign began to look a little bit warmer. Then they revealed that our bull was running. He must have been frightened by the sound of our vehicle when we first arrived. Ever so quietly, we followed for another hour. Lloyd pointed out that the bull had quit running and had started to feed again. Torn branches were still wet, and his fresh dung was both hot and fragrant. “He won’t be far now,” whispered Lloyd.
Another thirty minutes of meandering tracks and we found where he had stopped and milled around. We spread out searching for the direction in which he carried on. I actually sorted it out. “Ah, this is the stuff!” I thought. Good fun I tell you. The trackers and Lloyd led the way for another mile or so when we saw a treetop moving in front of us just 35 yards away. We had arrived. Just in front of me, in bush so thick I couldn’t see a single patch of gray, was Africa’s finest game animal–the bull elephant. We crouched and eased forward and to our right. We had John, our number two tracker, check the wind again with his talcum pouch. At 25 yards, we could just barely see glimpses of the top of the bull’s head and back. He was really working that poor tree over as part of his breakfast. Not a speck of ivory could be seen before I felt the wind against the back of my sweating neck. We eased to our right again, but the bull knew something was up. He had either heard us or had gotten a bit of our wind. All was quiet for a moment and then he moved away. We followed as quietly as we could. It was very thick bush. As we closed in on him I noticed the wind was wrong. Then I saw streaks of army green uniforms flying past me as the trackers fled. I could hear trees and bush being toppled over as the bull came for us. I glanced at Lloyd while pointing myself into a safer direction, no talking was needed, and we were all quite suddenly headed down the same bush-infested avenue at top speed! I remember looking back once before I passed the first tracker. I was declared their fastest client ever when the chase was over. Lloyd and I had both stopped in the same clearing. He had found a tree. I had forgotten that part in the ‘thrill of being chased’! We knelt, peering into the thick cover, listening intently. I got the shakes. I looked over at Lloyd to see if he noticed my current condition. He was working at getting a cigarette lit. I focused inward and slowly got hold of myself. We regrouped after a few minutes. The trackers had pushed on a few extra yards! It\’s a rule written in blood that you must have a good laugh after being charged by an elephant, and we all had a proper one. Especially since no client had ever been fast enough to outrun Joel (our Council Representative) before. After a welcomed drink of water and a nice walk back to the Land Cruiser, I couldn\’t wait to do it again. I was hooked.
When things got a little slow, I began to listen for it; the unexpected thumping on the roof of the Land Cruiser by the trackers. It could mean instant excitement or be incredibly mundane. Sometimes it signaled the spotting of an elephant track off the side of the road. At other times it meant the sighting of a buffalo or kudu bull. Oftentimes a villager had been seen whom our trackers wanted to question about any crop raiding bull elephants in the neighborhood; and most times someone simply needed to visit a ‘Port-a-Tree’. I was still on my natural high from our morning\’s close encounter as we traveled down the road toward camp. This road, known to me as the \’vet road\’, ran parallel with the buffalo fence. The fence was constructed with several strands of thick steel cable and very heavy, steel, I-shaped posts. Many of these were bent over in the shape of an upside down J or L, and sometimes an awkward V, by elephants when they flexed their muscular trunks. What power it took to bend those steel posts so neatly! While traveling this road, we often came upon the ‘veterinarian crew’, the men assigned to repairing this fence which was put up to keep buffalo out of the village crops. They were always happy to share their latest story of the heavily ivory laden bull, which they had watched as it carefully stepped over their fence. Then the sudden thumping came. This time it was followed by the exhortation “Simba!” “Simba mkuru!” When you least expect it, expect it! Here it was, nearly mid-day, and there were lions just off the edge of the frequently traveled road. They quickly melted into the surrounding bush, giving Lloyd and me only the briefest of glimpses. “Why were they hanging around?” we asked ourselves. The villager’s cattle on the other side of the fence might have had something to do with it.
Not wanting to shoot bait in our elephant area, we planned to make a rather long drive to Malapati, where we would also have a quick lunch. It was now hot, and the grass very high; and where, I ask, is the bait, when you are in a hurry. Well, the baiting didn’t go as planned, and with time being of the essence, a village punda was sorted out as a last minute bait. But that\’s another story! We only had time for a quick drag and to wire the bait to the base of a tree before nightfall. Elephants and lions in the same day–oh, how I love Africa!
Our confidence was high as we slowly approached the bait early the next morning. I almost couldn’t believe my eyes when we noticed that it had not been touched. Closer inspection showed fresh lion tracks we had pushed them off just as they had began to lick the hair off with their sand papery tongues. They were very close by. I had the pleasure of spending most of the day with the real Coke-a-Cola Kid, a.k.a. Mr. Kent, a.k.a. Bwana Ingwe, and soon to be Houdini, among other names that Lloyd\’s younger brother, a fine ph himself, had come to be known by. Kent and I ‘stood guard\’ for the trackers while they prepared a tree blind. Lloyd made the drive back to camp and picked up some additional gear in the event we needed to spend the entire night in the blind. It was a fine clear day and Kent showed me a sample of his fondness for Coke. I promise you that lad can put them away. He can easily flatten an entire case in two days. He must have one of those impermeable polypropylene stomach liners! All cokes – I mean jokes aside, he was good company. Lloyd and I began our vigil around 3:00 p.m., but not before we took a little drive and spotted two more elephant. One bull had a broken tusk, and was in the 30-lb. class; and the other was a cow, spotted quite near our blind. I was glad Lloyd instructed the crew to put up a tree blind, but I still wondered how high an elephant could reach with that long, powerful trunk.
It was a pleasant sit. Warm yes, but the blind gave us a nice bit of shade and a fair breeze was cooling to our sweat dampened skin. The hours went by and we speculated as to what time we might have our first visitor. We had just begun to hear a herd of cattle being driven behind us, when we noticed a strange bellowing coming from behind us about 100 yards away. It was a cow, and it was evidently very distressed. We figured it must have winded the lions, but the way it carried on kept us wondering. A chopping sound soon followed and Lloyd radioed Papa to go and investigate. He soon brought the \’Cruiser right to our blind, climbed up the ladder and explained the problem. The simbas had killed a mombe. The chopping we heard was the sound of the owners salvaging what meat they could from the kill. Cattle killers … no wonder those lion were hanging around the road at mid-day; they had a kill nearby. Lloyd had them collect the remaining innards and drag them to our bait tree. With all of this nice meat around, we were sure to have an appearance as soon as things quieted down a bit. It was well before sunset when a huge, absolutely lovely, lioness arrived. She was very cautious, but in time she and her half-growns had a nice feed. I\’ll not forget her lying along side of the bait after having a nice drink of blood, gently panting in the afternoon heat with crimson covered canines and chin. Beautiful? Surely! A carnivorous killer? Oh, very much so!
They did as lions do eating and sleeping well into the night. I heard an animal bark quite near to where the lions were lounging; I wondered what a dog was doing way out here in the bush, but Lloyd later explained that it had been a bush buck. It became stormy and our big male did not come. On our way back to camp for a late dinner and a few hours sleep, we found a small herd of waterbuck bedded down in the deep sand of the Mweneze riverbed. They didn’t bother standing up as the Land Cruiser eased by with its engine racing in low gear. It was the same the next morning. It\’s curious how some animals behave in foul weather. We doubled checked our lions at first light, but upon slowly sneaking into our blind on foot, we found \’Mom\’, the family provider, still at the bait. Over the next few hours the kids took turns stuffing their bellies a little bit more. It was great watching them, but we had ivory to hunt so we looked up our bush telegraph. The word from the ‘vet crew’ was as might be expected. “You should have been here yesterday afternoon! He was eating the marulas we gathered right out of our holding bin!” Their arms extended as they mimed the long curved tusks.
It was still breezy and overcast as we slowly patrolled the ‘middle road’. Then came that thump on the roof again. This time it indicated a bull elephant as big as a house. The wind rustled bush covered the sound of our \’Cruiser as we drove past him at maybe 75 yards. Lloyd eased us out of sight before parking. My heart thumped with excitement. Without talking, we all began walking in the same direction because the wind was obvious. We were in position atop a termite hill within 10 minutes or so. This was a huge bodied bull with very good ivory, easily 50 lbs. or more, but it was only day five, we had not tracked him up, and Lloyd quietly said he was not the one. Before leaving him, Lloyd routed us directly in front of the old man within 40 yards yuh! his head was as big as a barn door! No charge due to a twist in the wind, just the awesome thrill of seeing this massive creature up close and personal, in his own living room. “Yeah, this elephant hunting just keeps getting better,” I thought.
Before the sun gave out, we spotted a trio and a single bull, I passed on a borderline, poor shot at an ol’ dugga boy, saw a young kudu bull, another lovely steinbok and the always graceful impalas loping through the bush. Our waterbuck were still in the riverbed as we bounced across to Malapati. Lions, elephants, buffalo all in one day I hadn’t fired a shot and I wasn’t complaining!
I don’t want this story to be a day-by-day diary type account, but on day six the plot thickened. Our plan was to carefully work for the ‘vet’ bull we had heard so much about from the fence crew. The first fresh tracks we encountered were of three bulls traveling together. We left them behind. The older, over sized tracks of a bull that had sampled the garden melons of the crew’s compound were followed. They started off in nearly the opposite direction that the others bulls had been traveling, but after an hour and several miles, they had looped back around and joined the others. Another careful hour of tracking and we followed onto a deep, well-worn elephant path that lined out toward the park. The sign was not any fresher and I sensed that we were in for a good walk. Enchanting might describe the feeling I had as we worked our way into the heart of their stomping grounds. A lot of elephant were working this area. Some of their dung contained the remains of special treats such as village farmed maize and marulas; other piles had been thoroughly processed by their little partners, the dung beetles. Mopane branches, mouthfuls of well-chewed and discarded grass, and partially munched wild onions littered the path the lingering barn-like smell and the ever present trees that had been stripped of their bark, pushed over and shoved around, indicated where the living bulldozers had passed their most recent dining hours. Our progress was briefly slowed as the trackers worked out the big bull’s track amongst the many surrounding the water pans. Another 2 hours of careful following brought forth fresh sign which pumped up my anticipation. We were now a few miles off the main elephant path, but still heading toward and were getting very near the park border.
The top of his back showed in the distance as he shook a tree. Another termite hill viewpoint shared the secret we had been following for nearly 15 miles he was a lovely 30 lb. bull. We quickly agreed that he needed some more time to grow up. We pulled out my little black magic box and decided to walk out to Niavasha Camp verses going all of the way back to the ‘middle road’ where we had asked our 2nd driver to bring up the ‘Cruiser. The pocket-sized Magellan GPS paid for itself in that one day.
The Cokes took a real beating when we finally arrived in camp. Lloyd might not be able to keep up with his brother, Kent, but he sorts out his fair share of ‘the Real Thing’, too. We were tired with that nice hot, dusty ‘we’ve been following elephant’ tired, but our adventures for the day were not over. After refueling our walking legs, we headed back to Malapati, picked up my .300 and a nice fat impala – a leopard favorite – an hour or less before sundown. We confirmed it was down, and proceeded to follow the rest of the herd in hopes of a quick, second bait. I had just noticed an odd-looking termite hill right before Lloyd pointed out the bull elephant\’s hind end. Boy, did I feel like a rookie. Fortunately, Lloyd was carrying his .458 Lott and I had been raised on open sights. I couldn’t believe we had spotted this bull for crying out loud, I had just shot an impala not a hundred or so yards away. We very quietly moved up parallel with the bull. It was thick we moved within the magic 40 yard mark, then 30 20 and 15. At 10 yards, the bull stopped broadside.
We had been frozen for the last few seconds as the walking house trailer came up on us. All was quiet for a moment, before he turned and faced us he hesitated for just a second as he tried to sort out what we were Lloyd and I decided in a blinking whisper that a hasty retreat was in order just as he came to investigate us. Luck was with our chosen route of escape as the bull bored down on our position. With just a step or two, we were able to get out of sight, turn down wind, and poor on the steam until we covered enough distance to feel safe and sound again. Another boring day in the bush, huh? Tomorrow we would get to do it again and hang our first leopard bait.
Day seven, and a bad wind left us at a standstill after a few hours of following a seemingly nice pair of bulls. Elephants could be heard in three different directions in front of us, and in two different directions behind us. We were surrounded. We carefully pushed on against the wind until some angry women started to voice their objections. Papa softly spoke to Lloyd, who then choked back a laugh. Papa then smiled and walked over to me saying, “Mr. Henry, if you want to shoot a nice cow elephant walk that way!”. Lloyd sent a tracker up a tree, but his reconnaissance was to no avail. It was time to leave or face the charge of the women folk.
On the way back to the \’Cruiser we spotted a 25 lb. bull moving silently alongside us. The nicely high impala went up in a likely tree next to a muddy pan. A proper drag was made with the mtumbo, and you might say our spotting a leopard on the way back to Malapati just after dark, was a coincidence.
On day eight, a very large chunk of our bait was found to be missing, and a very nice set of paw prints had been deposited in the sandy soil below our bait tree. A little lucky, eh? The blind was built while we went back to camp for lunch and a few important items for the blind. The previous year a wounded leopard had actually jumped and landed in the blind … yes – in the blind … where a newly received gift (a .44 Mag S&W) quickly became very much appreciated. Well, needless to say, Lloyd doesn\’t believe in sitting for large felines without it. After reviewing our hand signals, we relaxed and settled into our leafy hide at about 4:30 p.m. I was reading Tony Sanchez and almost burst out laughing when he described his friend’s face turning a ‘funny shade of purple\’ when asked to ‘Run faster man!’ as they were being chased by elephants. I could well relate after the morning we had just spent, breathlessly saying “No, don’t stop! They’re still coming!” Yuh! We had been chased by cow elephants! They acted more like a pack of wolves, than any nice, peaceful herd of jumbos you might have ever seen on the television, or in some national park or zoo.
We slowly wiped mopane flies from our eyes and ears, watched ants crawl up and down our legs, all of the usual. I finished the book Lloyd had loaned me well before dark. I found that sitting with such a glutton of an ingwe around, to be very nice indeed. A beautiful red glow was cast against our impala bait as the sun was setting. The bush got very quiet. Then we heard the distinct crunching of canines against bone and we knew that our leopard had arrived. Lloyd carefully peered through the small, dark green, T-shirt covered viewport. He then approvingly gave me a thumbs up. I quietly scooted forward, hoping the tom wouldn’t hear any of my movements and that my folding chair would not squeak. I found him standing on the limb, looking in our general direction he was magnificent, but ‘now is no time for sight-seeing’ I told myself as I deliberately settled the cross hairs just behind his elbow. “Clean through to his off side shoulder,” I thought, as I squeezed the trigger of my old, .300 caliber friend. At the shot, the leopard let out a series of growling grunts. He leapt off the tree and crashed onto a termite hill … distinct rustling came from the brush as he ran in a short semi-circle … 1st to the right … then toward us … and then to our left. There was a moment of silence … and then a single, elongated, growling exhale. “Well done Henry!” Lloyd shouted, as he slapped me on the back and grabbed my hand shaking it vigorously. The trackers were very pleased to find over seven feet of safely dead, leopard lying right out in the open, just under our bait tree. Big smiles were all around.” Mr. One-shot” they sang out as they too shook my hand and patted me on the back. Even the boss appreciates a little pat on the back every now and then. And as I had failed to procure one of these magnificent trophies on three previous safaris, that lovely ol’ spotted gentleman was much more than appreciated. A special place, deep in my heart, became nicely warm.
Niavasha was quiet the following morning. We put out bait for a man-eating croc and had a quick look around the Malapati side late that afternoon. A solid 60 pounder, with the help of four of his smaller friends, eluded us until failing light made us give up the pursuit. Let me tell you that after much tossing and turning, my dreams ran rampant that night!
Over the course of the next four days, we repeatedly looked for the 60 pounder and his clan. We baited lions and crocs, followed and passed bulls up to 50 lbs., laughed until our sides ached after being chased a bit, and enjoyed some of the most beautiful, game-rich country I’ve ever seen. Despite the wonderful time I was having, I must make a small confession I was feeling – yes, those primitive emotions were flaring up, just a little bit worried that maybe I had passed up one too many, nice bull elephants. LAte that evening,Lloyd mentioned that things normally improve with a bit of chaos. Up until now, we had been doing most everything properly. As we said our goodnights on the thirteenth night, Lloyd also said “Henry – … we have to go and shoot an elephant tomorrow.” I replied, “That sounds a like a good plan.” You might say it was a coincidence.
The thump on the roof at first light had an altogether unusual meaning earlier that morning. It was followed by loud voices and a call for help; there had been an accident. Some villagers had been driving all night on their way home, and not a hundred yards from our turn off, the driver had fallen asleep at the wheel and flipped the car over, smashing the roof right down to the steering wheel. I was afraid to look, but two men and a young girl were standing along side of the wreckage, appearing quite well considering the wild ride they had just walked away from. The child was favoring her arm a bit, and the men requested a ride to their village to make arrangements for having the car towed. Lloyd had one of our crew guard their car against pilfering, I jumped in the back of the \’Cruiser, our passengers climbed in the front, and we drove them to their village about an hours drive away. We dropped them at the clinic and they thanked us for giving them a ride. Lloyd told them that he would keep a man with their vehicle until they came to retrieve it later that day. A short stop by the bakery for our crew, and another failed attempt by Lloyd to get a phone call through to Chiredzi, and we headed back to Niavasha.
The spoor was fresh and very smooth. It measured a full 24 inches in length. Papa, who only spoke on occasion, quietly mentioned that he would very much like to see this old man. So we left the ‘Cruiser behind and followed toward the park border. Within a half-hours time it had circled back to the road, and was now heading back into the heart of cow country. We took a short break and sent a couple of trackers down the road to bring up the \’Cruiser and collect the hand held that had been left behind. An auto accident delay and equipment forgotten “just the right amount of chaos to change our luck,” said Lloyd. By nearly mid-day we were a bit puzzled that the spoor had not appeared to be getting any fresher. Dung beetles had vigorously worked over the dung piles and the wads of jumbo ‘chewin’ tobacco’ that had been spit out along the trail were only slightly moist. I think we all felt that the old bull should be near. He had walked quite a few miles, but he had meandered around in semi-circles at a seemingly relaxed pace, stopping here and there as he browsed along. We pushed on into some taller trees and found a lot of dung where he had paused, we lost the track and once again split up to search for the direction he had continued. It had become a reflex to look up in Papa\’s direction whenever I took my eyes off the ground, ’cause nine time out of ten, he would sort it out but when I looked up, I noticed he was walking back toward me. Then from behind me I heard Paul, our very laid back National Park Scout, whisper “He’s there boss”.
The old, lone bull was maybe 30 yards away and having a high noon siesta just like any sane fellow living under a scorching sun would do. The wind was very good for this time of day. Three different times, we quietly approached to within ten steps while trying to get a look at his ivory. The bull sounded like he was breathing through a huge snorkel which, for all intensive purposes, I guess he was. We could see that one of his tusks was very good, but the other was hidden from view. His head was absolutely huge and covered with dark, dried out mud. The anticipation made my blood boil. Finally, Lloyd instructed our Council Rep., Joel, to break a limb in order to turn the bull, so we could check his other side. The cracking sound had the desired effect and the hidden tusk turned out to be even bigger than the first! The bull stood still listening intently at a quartering angle to me his chest and shoulder well hidden by the bush. I held my breath hoping he would turn his head either way. If he turned a bit left I would have his ear, if right, I could take a frontal brain shot. It was left, but barely enough to get the proper angle I hesitated and Lloyd whispered \”Take him just in front of the ear.\”
I barely heard the cap-like pop of the .375’s muzzle blast, but I vividly remember seeing his hind end crumple earthward. ‘Yes!’ my mind screamed and just as this registered I noticed that his front end was also going down but I quickly followed up just to be sure. When his barn door sized head settled from a slight side to side swaying, it was resting on its heavy tusks and he was still upright!
We cautiously approached his massive bulk with great respect derived from the many mad dashes we had made during the last two weeks. Joel smilingly climbed atop him long before I took my thumb off the safety. After twenty some odd years of reading and daydreaming through the stories of others, it was difficult for me to absorb the true reality of it all. Just as I\’ve experienced many times in the past, I found myself looking at my long sought after prize in a very surreal sort of way. But just like in a lucid dream, I let myself rule; and I hesitantly reached out and felt his dark gray hide. It was harder to the touch than expected, had a pebble like texture, and was deeply crinkled with the occasional stiff black hair. His lovely brown eyes were mesmerizing, their lashes thickly caked with dried-up mud. I carefully removed a glob the size of a silver dollar from one eye to have a better look. Upon close inspection they appeared quite large for such a near- sighted creature. The trunk was softer, heavier and more flexible than I had previously imagined; and his long, thick, earth-coated ivory tusks were so thick at the lip line, that I couldn\’t fit my hands around them. He was clearly a southpaw as his working tusk was grooved on the underside and slightly shorter with a chisel like point. Lloyd proved later to be spot-on in his weight estimates 65lbs. x 60lbs. of beautiful white gold. The soles of his feet looked like old worn out tennis shoes. The tread was worn completely smooth around the edges in places and they had many long irregularly shaped splits in them. We measured the front foot at 21″ and the hind foot was 24″. The large smooth ears were coursed with deep veins and in surprisingly good condition for such an old bull, but his tail was nearly hairless. He was a fine old bull indeed.
Somehow, he didn’t seem the same to me now that he was down. There is something about being ten steps away from a gigantic bull elephant while he’s still alive and standing so tall on his feet, filled with strength, power and potential danger. But as he quietly rested, that bigger than life aura had left him. Papa and the rest of the crew were very pleased and this made me happy. I was happy but with some slightly sad contingencies attached. I\’m not the teary-eyed type, but I felt great admiration and appreciation toward Lloyd and his team, a brotherly love you might call it. I quietly thanked the old bull for giving his life to me in the form of such a grand adventure, the memories of which I will cherish and enjoy the rest of my days.
It was still early in the afternoon, when we quietly approached Malapati camp and eased out of the ‘Cruiser. Pam Talley was enjoying a little reading time in the shade of the huge trees around camp, while her husband was out on a P.A.C. (Problem Animal Control) hunt. She looked up from her novel at us with an inquisitive look, and Lloyd announced, “He went down!” I was beside myself with all kinds of different emotions, and if there is only one phrase that I ever remember Lloyd Yeatman saying, it will be that one “He went down!” Pam, of course, asked what we had done, so we explained. After a late lunch, Bob Talley joined us for an afternoon photo shoot. I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening quietly glowing. Sleep came welcomed and easy. The following day was spent collecting and distributing a huge load of meat to the local people. The entire trunk, as has always been custom, was given to the local chief. During the process a fire was made and it wasn’t long before some choice pieces of meat were being cooked over the small smoking blaze. A fine slice of temple was selected for me and dipped in salt I found its flavor to be very nice so I asked for a bit more. The butchering was quite an operation. Unlike the days of the past where dozens of natives hacked away with their axes, machetes and knives in a competitive frenzy, this operation was completed by Lloyd’s staff with a methodical, efficient harmony. A town council member even met the meat-laden trailer in town, to make sure it was distributed fairly. A small quantity is eaten fresh, but much of the meat is dried because refrigeration is limited to only a few of the stores.
The elephants are doing well under the CAMPFIRE project that Safari Club International helped organize and initiate. Elephant populations are up from 600,000 just 10 years ago, to over 1.4 million today. In northern Zimbabwe (the highveldt), where the habitat is more arid, they actually need to cull the herd down because of overgrazing. The project was designed to benefit the local people for conserving their local wildlife through a system of sustainable use. As previously mentioned, the villagers getthe meat of any elephant taken by trophy hunters, but they also get a substantial 5-digit fee for each of the hunting licenses allotted. The harvest quota is limited to a little less than one percent of the overall population, thus sport hunting does not have the slightest negative impact on the population at all. In fact, it often spurs growth because old dominant males with poor impregnation rates are taken. This makes the breeding cows available to the more potent, younger bulls. The funds are distributed to the following categories: crop damage reimbursement, schools, and health care clinics, drinking wells and livestock perdition reimbursement. They also have a general savings-type fund for emergencies and/or other projects the community deems worthy. A town council manages the distribution and saving of the funds and the much-needed meat. It was nice to see firsthand the benefits that CAMPFIRE provides. Hundreds and hundreds of native children were seen coming home from school all wearing nice uniforms. Women and children (and a few men) were dipping fresh, clean drinking water from the wells. And until you can see the crop damage these people suffer from up close and personal, see the tears in the women\’s eyes, feel for the loss their year long labor lost in a single night, you can’t fully appreciate the funds set aside for reimbursing these farmers. If it were not for these funds, the locals would consider the elephants a tremendous pest instead of an important renewable resource. The project is largely successful because of its impact on poaching. Additional fees are paid by the hunters which go straight to the National Parks for anti-poaching teams, their equipment, and supplies. Furthermore, the entire community directly benefits from healthy wildlife populations, so the locals do not tolerate poachers. In essence, thousands of people become ‘game wardens’, thus creating a highly effective anti-poaching force.
With only a few days remaining to hunt and the grass being so high, we decided to hunt buffalo for only a few days. We didn’t want to run off to another concession too soon because we had also seen lion tracks along the river and there was that bait which needed checking. The first day out we were fooled by a herd of cows that had moved back into the park just before sunrise. Later during the day, we realized that the bulls had remained in the safari area until later in the morning. We found that both a lion and a leopard had hit our kudu bait two nights before. That\’s the way it always goes if you can\’t check your baits every day. Early the next morning, after a short walk from camp, we followed the spoor of two buffalo until Papa found them bedded down maybe seven or eight steps ahead of us- yes the bush was quite thick. It was so thick in fact, that we couldn’t tell which way was what. Lloyd whispered that he thought the bull was facing left I knelt down and peered through my 2.5x scope only to see a tail switch at a fly! I looked to the right and saw a short thin horn and that’s all I could see. The next thing I knew it was earth-pounding hooves beating it for the park. They successfully made their escape. The big cats had not visited our kudu so I shot another to freshen it. The first was beginning to lose its appeal to even the hungriest of felines – whew ! Another fine day or two found the buffalo and lion victorious. They have to win sometimes, too, you know.
So we pushed on to new territory, namely Banga camp in Nuanetsi, where we planned to slay the great river horse and any toothy, oversized lizard that might be caught snoozing on the shoreline. The first afternoon’s hunt was a lot of fun. I have difficulty finding the words that describe the snorting, water-spouting noises the hippo bull and his lady friend made as they popped up from the depths of the river after minutes of holding their breath. It was hard to see the difference between the big female and the bull. The younger ones came up with just a sniffle, mom with quite a spout but there was not much mistaking the ol\’ man\’s tone of indignation as he aggressively thrust his head high out of the water. Each time the old bull would show himself, Papa would nod his head and say mkuru. Lloyd would ask him if he was sure that it was the big bull and Papa would politely say yes, but I could sense his slight impatience. So the next time he surfaced I shot him. The hippo hunt had gone quickly, it was maybe all of thirty minutes. A spot-on brain shot (?) – (just below the ear hole) fired off the shoulder of my trusting ph, as we knelt on the riverbank, pulled the beast quietly down into the river with hardly a ripple. It was late in the afternoon the old boy might make his next appearance in three or four hours, and we needed a boat, some rope, and a lot more man power if we were going to haul the three tons of fresh red meat out of this pool in one piece so we called it a day.
It had been a lovely day yes, but I can\’t remember a more wonderful night. As we pulled into camp I saw them for the first time my ivory tusks just having been pulled earlier that day, and brought to camp by Mr. Kent.
Happy? yes! I was overwhelmed with happiness. Yuh !! They were beautiful! My heart was filled with joy at the sight of those long, thick, gorgeous ivory tusks. No odd sadness remained, just pure and simple happiness. I felt like a kid on Christmas day. Anyway, it was a good thing that Lloyd asked Kent take them back to Chipimbi for safe keeping, because I was having thoughts of sleeping with them.
We found the hippo properly afloat early in the morning and the mission began. A total mission you might say! It had taken a mere 30 minutes or so to hunt him; admittedly we were lucky. But it took half a day to drag him through the few rocks under the water’s surface, build a boat ramp of sorts, double the steel cable through a pulley and snatch block, wire the ‘Cruiser to a tree and Warn-winch the hippo onto shore! All other efforts had fallen short.
Big teeth can be found in a bull hippo’s gaping scoop of a mouth. I can tell you this without a doubt. As for the other toothy inhabitants of the river, the high water kept all of the bigguns’ well hidden. At noontime I saw a lovely 57″ Kudu, on the wrong side of the river, while having lunch in camp. Later, we also looked for bushbuck, but it was just too thick. I did get my first-ever glimpse of a bushpig, though, and we had a nice look at a honey badger as he ran across the road. I just love Africa you never know what you are going to see next!
The last day of my safari was a fine one. We moved to Lloyd’s Chipimbi camp where late in the morning, a lovely 16.5\” Limpopo bushbuck showed us his metal. This tough little man took a raking shot in the center of his chest, from just 40 yards fired from my .375 H&H Mag.. I was using 300 grain Trophy Bonded Bear Claw soft points. He didn\’t flinch, he certainly didn’t fall, and he didn’t bleed. He just soaked up the massive lead mushroom and ran off as if it I had missed the mark. I excitedly ran into the bush expecting to see him piled up within 20 or 30 yards, but I unbelievably found nothing. Lloyd questioned my shot picture and I assured him that it had looked good. Papa and John scoured the ground for any trace of blood, bone or hair but failed to come up with anything. I searched in a big circle. Lloyd took to the thickets further off to the left, with rifle in hand. Lost for any logical next step, I instinctively started to follow Papa … and within a few minutes ol’ Papa Faunie sorted it out and found him stretched out about 75 yards off to the right, with a small piece of gut protruding and clogging the exit hole. How the perfectly centered shot didn’t boil him over is hard to comprehend. This is a load suitable for Kodiak Brown Bear, Moose, Cape Buffalo and 2000 pound Eland! Cheeky and gritty describe the handsome little African bushbuck. Shot placement is everything, and this little buck had proven it once again.
We took our lunch and spent mid-day helping the children with their pan fishing. It was wonderful. I baited hooks with wriggling worms and cast little fishing reels. We watched the monkeys overhead and I enjoyed the smiles of well behaved little boys and girls as they reeled in their prizes. After a short snooze we enjoyed our very last hunt. We looked for eland and found zebra, wildebeest, giraffe and warthog. We found lush green grasses, the fresh Lowveld air and another beautiful sunset. When we arrived back in camp for a fresh fish dinner, we were met by a lovely spotted genet stalking about in front of my quarters. Like I said before, when in Africa, you never know what you are going to find behind the next bush.
Special thanks to Lloyd Yeatman for providing me with the finest hunting experience of my entire life. HM III