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  • Writer's pictureKev Thomas Writes

Gonarezhou:Benji Springs - 1968

When I think back fifty-four years, to mid-1968, I was a 17-year-old cadet game ranger in the esteemed Rhodesian Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management. I’d joined after completing my schooling in Umtali, where I hadn’t exactly excelled academically. All I wanted to do was work in the bush as a game ranger. They say your environmental upbringing can influence your career choice. I guess it was a truism in my case.

Above: My patrol camp in the Gonarezhou in 1968 most of my time when not at Chipinda Pools HQ was spent patrolling from this base. The scoped rifle was a Department issue 7x57mm Mauser and the rifle with iron sights was my issue Westley Richards .425 Magnum.

Much of my boyhood was spent in the remote and pristine Sabi Valley, before any commercial agriculture took over. Our home was on the majestic south-flowing river’s east bank. Elephant from across the river, weren’t infrequent visitors, with the plundering of crops high on their agenda. Most of my school holidays from about age 13, were spent camping on patrol in the company of the local game ranger, whose house was in the shadow of Birchenough Bridge, further upstream. Without doubt, it was those special times which influenced my early career choice. On one occasion I was with the late Ranger Tom Orford, when he shot a hippo that had killed an African woman. Heady and exciting stuff for a 13-year-old.

My first posting under the department’s two-year inhouse cadet game ranger training scheme was to the remote 5,053km² Gonarezhou. At the time, it was yet to be declared a National Park. The HQ where the warden in charge lived was on the western boundary formed by the Nuanetsi River, at Mabalauta. I was based at Chipinda Pools, on the Lundi River, which flowed diagonally south eastwards through the park until it reached the confluence with the Sabi River, along the eastern boundary and just north of the Mozambique border.

My senior ranger was the late John Osborne an ex BSAP policeman who had transferred across to National Parks. He’d later go on to become a PH, and one of the founding members of the Zimbabwe Professional Hunters & Guides Association. It was in Osborne’s company I’d experience my first close elephant encounter. I might add here, only as a witness rather than as a participant. The incident involved John shooting an enraged bull elephant that seemingly wouldn’t die. While John continually moved backwards, with me wide-eyed alongside him, his aimed frontal brain shots were having no effect on the angry inbound elephant.

About 15-minutes before the incident, he had instructed me to leave my rifle in the vehicle, because ‘You won’t need it, we’re just going to have a look at that large gathering of elephant over there’. As a mere cadet, one didn’t remonstrate with senior rangers. Fortunately, he took his rifle, a government issue .458 Win Mag, although I don’t recall the exact make. We were in the vicinity of Benji Springs, in amongst islands of scrub mopane, and the bull had been standing sulking under a tree, off to one side of the main elephant grouping.

Above: Elephant bulls are generally rather placid and sage old gentlemen. That's how they reach old age, however, they are also capable of extreme aggression and are difficult to put down in a frontal charge if your shot placement is incorrect, or if you are using faulty cartridges. Or the wrong bullet type.

As we quietly walked past between the stationary bull, and the rest of the herd, a wind eddy swirled. It was about midday, and hot. When the wind changed, the bull immediately detected us and lifting his head high, slowly moved towards us. His silent approach caused us to back off, and the elephant then seemed to relax and move back to where it’d been standing alongside the tree. One of the two game scouts with us whispered something about the elephant wanting to attack us. He was ignored. After standing watching the elephant for about 5-minutes, Osborne once more decided to try and move past it.

By then I was wishing I was carrying my own department issue rifle. A Westley Richards .425. To my mind it seemed silly I’d been instructed to leave it in the vehicle. The thought hadn’t been in my mind for long, because within seconds of us once more setting off, the wind again swirled and this time the bull elephant immediately launched a determined attack. It commenced from about 75m away and he came at us in a silent but determined manner. Shouting at the elephant had no effect. We tried. Collectively. Game rangers and game scouts. Shouting in English and Shangaan.

At about 45m Osborne started shooting, and it eventually took five .458 solid 510gr rounds to stop the charge. The first four, although impacting against the elephant’s forehead merely rocked him back on his haunches. He’d then recover, shake his mighty head, bellow with rage and again attempt to close with us. Although the bull’s initial charge had been silent, when the bullets started impacting, he became vocal. In anger. Not pain.

Our African game scouts had amazing survivability instincts. Being unarmed they needed it. Being local Shangaans they knew more about elephant than we did. As I stood alongside Osborne, nervously thinking how killing an elephant was no easy feat, our two erstwhile game scouts, Sgt Hlupo and Tivani, started moving away. Although they were both terrified of John Osborne, they were also scared of the determined bull elephant.

They did not decamp at speed, they just started walking purposefully in the direction of the vehicle. All the while looking back over their shoulders at the unfolding scenario. I thought of going with them but because I was also scared of Osborne, stayed where I was. Standing rooted to the spot off to his left. By then, he too was moving back while feeding a few more rounds from the loops in his bullet belt into the magazine. We were lucky he didn’t trip on a deadfall and topple backwards. The elephant was still coming towards us, although more slowly. Osborne's fourth bullet finally stopped it, at about 15 paces, and the fifth brought it crashing to the ground. Dead.

Once things had settled down and our nervous laughter had dissipated, we stood round gazing at the dead elephant. John Osborne couldn’t work out why it hadn’t dropped to his first well-placed shot. Or the next three. Like many government game rangers of that era, his rifle was merely a management tool. Powder clumping, shelf life, MV, SD, and anything else relating to bullet performance were not given much thought. And because it was so long ago, I cannot recall the make of the department issue .458 Winchester Magnum John used as his carry gun. The way he was feeding rounds into it after he’d exhausted the 3-round magazine capacity, it could well have been a straight feed rather than controlled feed.

At the time of this incident, the .458 Winchester Mag had only been commercially available for 12 years. Introduced to compete against the .450 Nitro Express and the .470 Nitro Express, it was a lot cheaper to produce. With the rifles and the ammunition being economically viable, it was soon snapped up by budget conscious colonial, and newly independent African governments. It was also deemed the ideal game ranger and control officers working caliber for heavy-boned dangerous game.

However, by the late 1960s and early 1970s problems with the cartridges began to surface. Winchester had been using compressed loads of ball powder as their propellant of choice in the short .458 Winchester Magnum cartridge case. Because of powder clumping leading to erratic ignition problems, the cartridges field performance on heavy-boned dangerous game was soon being questioned. A stigma which unfortunately remained for many years.

Boxes of ammunition were also often left unattended on vehicle dashboards, or on camp tables. Invariably in direct sunlight, and extreme heat. We were all guilty of it, because that’s how it was. Very few senior game rangers I served under during the early 1970s knew anything about pressures or powder shelf-life etc. Only much later, when reloading became more popular did things change. Albeit slowly. Granted, some of our peers were knowledgeable and interested in ballistics, bullet penetration etc. Men like Mike le Grange and the late Ollie Coltman.

However, when I think back to our collective ignorance, I am surprised there were no game ranger deaths due to faulty ammunition. Everything was just taken for granted. I clearly remember turning the bullets in a batch of .458 Win Mag cartridges I had. They had become loose at the crimp, and yet I was quite happy to go out into the field and use them to shoot a ration buffalo, or on control work. Madness.

Some years later, and when thinking back to the bull elephant shot by Osborne, it had become apparent to me our .458 Win Mag issue ammunition had lacked penetration due to ignition failure in the short .458 Win Mag case. Clumped powder no doubt being the problem. The cartridges were old, and had been in the Chipinda Pools field station safe for some time. If not in the safe, they were invariably lying around in the sun on a vehicle dashboard. Strangely, while standing around afterwards, we hadn’t even bothered to check the bullet penetration on the skull. I wish we had.

For me, as a young neophyte there were important lessons from the Benji Springs bull elephant saga. I list some of the more important ones here.

  • Always check your ammunition before you venture out, and particularly so if hunting dangerous game. If a bullet is loose at the crimp do not use it.

  • Be aware of powder shelf-life. It isn’t a myth.

  • If you’re a hand-loader, and use a heavy caliber for dangerous game hunting, at season’s end it’s a good idea to pull all of your bullets.

  • Correct shot placement cannot be emphasized enough.

  • Never take elephant for granted, because contrary to what so many believe, elephant bulls do charge. And very determinedly.

In 1968 I was a total wet-behind-the-ears neophyte, a 17-year-old kid supposedly ‘learning’. As a result, I had no input as to why the elephant hadn’t been killed immediately. At one stage I thought it was just due to poor shot-placement. As a schoolboy I’d had the importance of correct shot-placement drummed into me by my father. He’d grown up in an extremely frugal home, and himself a farm kid, correct shot-placement was driven by economics more than anything else. Put simply, he was not allowed to waste bullets and when he departed the house to go out in quest of a bushbuck or kudu his father issued him with two bullets only.

At the time of the Benji Spring bull elephant incident, I already had one book which had become my campfire companion. It was a 1958 edition of John ‘Pondoro’ Taylor’s Big Game and Big Game Rifles. I found it new in a Salisbury (Harare)bookshop while I was still at school. It cost me 23/- and I still have it here on our boat in the UK. When I was a young game ranger the book went on every patrol with me. And thereafter throughout my career as a PH I always tried to stay abreast of new developments with sporting rifle ballistics, bullets, propellants, and reloading. And I learned early, to never taken any dangerous game species for granted.

Thirteen years after our Benji Springs incident, and ignoring the important lessons I'd learned, I had a similar experience in the East Caprivi with a client's wounded bull elephant. After tracking it for some hours, it charged myself and my San tracker, Lappies, from about 50m. By then the elephant was sick and although determined, it wasn't charging us at speed. I was carrying a .458 Winchester and was using very old cartridges I'd kept from my previous PH job in Rhodesia just prior to independence. None of the three bullets I used on the elephant had any effect. As I started to walk backwards with the elephant looming over me, my tracker Lappies shot and killed it using my .375 H&H which he was carrying. It was another lesson learned, which could have been costly, about propellant shelf life.

Above: Cartridges left for weeks on end in a cartridge belt in the interior heat of a vehicle parked in the hot African sun, and elsewhere, can become a liability when needed most. It's easy for a PH to become complacent because they are normally only called upon to shoot if a wounded animal situation arises.

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