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  • Writer's pictureKev Thomas Writes

Lukosi Elephant Encounter

Above: The safari camp and the hunting concession were in what is marked on the topographical maps as State Land V. A landmass sandwiched between the Deka Safari Area and the communal tribal area further east.

By September the vast tract of land lying along the eastern upper reaches of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park can be energy sapping. A truly hot and parched landmass to hunt. Apart from the tracts of dry mopane woodland stretching into the hazy distance, there’re also rock and shale strewn ridge lines. And hills covered in thick grabby thorny scrub. Interspersed by thickets of tall yellow grass. Sometimes called thatching grass in layman’s terms. Along the uneven ridgeline slopes, and inside the thorn thickets, visibility is measured in feet rather than yards.

As the season progresses through September, and on towards the furnace hot month of October, the heat and humidity feel almost palpable. Ultimately, this relentless build up will unleash in violent electric thunder storms. The day darkening markedly before the welcome, short duration heavy downpour. This drenching invariably leaves a pleasant scent in the air, a scent uniquely African. One of damp dust and rain sodden grass. Previously parched. During late August and into September rain seldom comes to the western part of Zimbabwe. Although the heat build-up certainly does. And relentlessly so. If a person is negligent this unforgiving heat will dehydrate them and punish them badly. Heatstroke is to Africa what hypothermia is to the cold climes. And if treated with disdain it will kill you, as nearly happened to me while still a soldier.

I once found myself hunting during an extremely hot, late Zimbabwe August. My client’s name was Olaf. He was a Norwegian WW2 veteran who spoke no English. His son, our official safari interpreter said his father’s generation had no need to speak English, although he never told me why. The Norwegian father and son felt the heat. For them, exiting the Victoria Falls Airport into outside Africa must have been like walking into a furnace.

Above: At the time, Touch Africa Safaris held the concession rights.

From the airport we drove about 100km south, and then, just before we arrived at the Inyantue River Bridge we swung off the black-top, and hitting loose gravel drove west. The safari camp and the hunting concession were in what is marked on the topographical maps as State Land V. A landmass sandwiched between the Deka Safari Area and the communal tribal area further east. At the time, Touch Africa Safaris held the hunting rights. My pre-safari scouting of the area had been worrisome. Evidence of heavy poaching by neighbouring tribesmen was everywhere. Buffalo sign was old, and there was no evidence of recent movement into the area. Elephant and lion came and went, as nomadic visitors from the neighbouring Deka Safari Area.

Above: During his 14-day first ever African safari, Olaf was wanting to live the hunt experience rather than try for record book ivory.

Olaf’s safari included a bull elephant and he was wanting to live the hunt experience more than try to find any record book ivory. However, and as with all elephant hunting this meant departing camp at first light, and then looking for viable spoor. Thereafter unless we were exceedingly lucky, would follow hours of physical tracking. Bull elephant in the concession we were hunting were ont normally resident, they were all nomadic and wandered across a vast area.

Above: The spoor invariably led us to the Deka Safari Area boundary and then left us feeling frustrated.

Each morning saw us departing camp early, and by 09h30 we were usually following bull elephant tracks. And each morning the spoor led us to the Deka Safari Area boundary, then left us feeling frustrated. The clinging humidity and heat were unmerciful. As were the hordes of persistent sweat bees. So much so, while tracking elephant if we stopped for a five-minute break, we would resort to burning dry elephant dung. The long-standing old timer theory had it the pungent smoke would drive the sweat bees away. Annoyingly, it only seemed to attract more.

Above: Olaf burning dry elephant dung in the hopes it'd keep mopani (sweat) bees away. Tracker Lucky Ndlovu (deceased) looks on. Despite the old-timer tribal theory, the smoke seemed to attract the bees.

Eventually, and on the morning of the penultimate day we were sitting on the edge of a dry millet field. Stretching out behind us were tribal kraals, lowing oxen and bleating goats. isiNdebele chatter, and the squeakedy-squeak of a borehole’s pumping arm carried across to us as the local womenfolk drew water for their domestic needs. The dust covered scraggily thorn bushes surrounding the pump were festooned with pastel hued washing drying in the sun. Poverty ridden rural Africa in its purist form.

Lucky Ndlovu, my erstwhile Ndebele tracker had always thought himself a bit of a playboy, and was quick to become involved in some flirtatious banter with the bevy of noisy young women gathered at the borehole. His ribald remarks soon sending the young Ndebele girls into peels of coy laughter. Despite his lustful thoughts Lucky’s eagle eyes suddenly narrowed. Pointing with his demo (traditional axe) towards a far bread-loaf shaped hill, grey and out of focus in the shimmering heat haze, he excitedly remarked in the vernacular, ‘Khangela indlovu’ (Look elephant). It took the use of binoculars for me to pick up the line of seven bull elephant slowly climbing the hill along a narrow game trail. From where we were, they looked like blobs of grey slow-moving putty. They were just west of the road leading from the colliery town of Hwange to Sinamatella Camp inside the National Park.

Above: Under cover of darkness or during the early hours, they'd obviously crossed the route we'd been following.

During the early hours they had obviously crossed the route we were following. Spread across the old millet fields their tracks were everywhere, masticated millet stalks and chewed mopane branches helping to indicate their route towards the high ground. Quickly returning to the hunting rig we made our way towards the hill feature; it was close to midday and the elephant were clearly headed to the top of the feature for a bit of siesta.

After crossing the Sinamatella gravel road we found the wind was no longer in our favour. This meant leaving the vehicle in the care of one of the crew, and continuing on foot round the hill feature until we eventually reached the north-western side. After looking at how dense the tangled jesse thickets were on the lower slopes, and the limited visibility they afforded, I removed my .375 H&H cartridge belt and handed both it and my .375 H&H rifle to Lucky. He in turn handed me my .458 Winchester magnum cartridge belt and my .458 Winchester. As things turned out, it was a wise move, the heavier calibre’s much needed stopping power saving the day. Although my rifle had undergone a conversion to .458 Lott, on this occasion I was using standard .458 Winchester ammunition.

Our planned strategy was simple; we would summit the flat-topped feature then quietly move into the wind, continuing through the thickets until we had located the resting elephant. We climbed slowly, the heat was stifling and there was no respite from persistent sweat bees. In a day-pack on the one tracker’s back were some full water bottles. Each time we stopped we slaked our thirst, bringing welcome relief to parched mouths and throats. All around us it was deathly quiet as if clinically sanitised, with not a sign of life. No birds, no insects, no nothing. Just heat, jesse thickets, and smoky haze.

After summiting the feature, we moved Indian file through the thicket, visibility was mere paces and tangled hanging branches constantly hooked our clothing despite us following a well-used elephant trail. Eventually, and somewhat surprisingly the thicket began to thin out and open up. And it was then that we heard the first tell-tale indication of resting elephant. A leathery whack of enormous ears fanning, brief gurgling flatulence, and then a branch snapping. Glancing at Olaf I noticed he was keyed up. Where he was gripping his rifle, his knuckles were white. We kept moving silently forward until we actually saw one of the elephant bulls. At that point I indicated to the council game scout, and another arbitrary official hanger-on to remain where they were.

Careful searching showed another two-elephant standing quietly amongst the clumps of jesse. They weren’t gathered in a group and were spread out line abreast. Those we initially saw were seemingly all middle-aged and young bulls carrying very small tusks. With Olaf and Lucky accompanying me and the wind still in our favour, we moved quietly across the front of the line of elephant. However, it did not take long to account for all of them.

Given that it was more of an elephant hunt experience, than a quest for trophy ivory, plus with safari time against us I decided to let Olaf shoot the bull second from the extreme right. To this elephant’s left was a fidgety young bull probably not yet 20 years old, who was playfully breaking saplings but also moving diagonally albeit slowly towards our immediate right flank. My guess was if he continued, he would end up passing us from about six paces. This would place him downwind of us and he’d immediately detect our scent.

Quickly grasping Olaf by his right bicep, I moved him up to a position directly in front of the bull I had in mind. Olaf shot well, despite his tendency to excitement which happens too many of us, so I felt he would handle a frontal brain shot without a problem. When we were between about 15 and 20 paces to the elephant’s front, I indicated to Olaf to shoot as I simultaneously brought my rifle hard into my shoulder. Out the corner of my eye I observed Lucky Ndlovu turning rather quickly and start moving slowly away from what was about to unfold. And unfold it certainly did, with alarming if not frightening speed.

In the final few seconds prior to the shot the elephant suddenly seemed to sense all was not well and raising his head in typical ‘elephant standing tall’ mode tried to make out what it was to his immediate front that had roused his suspicions. Glancing to my right I noted the younger bull, still totally unawares of us, was almost on top of our position and that Lucky was starting to panic. In doing so he had allowed his discipline to slip. The tracker’s accelerated movements to the right - and behind Olaf and I - had attracted our bull elephant’s attention. Waiting for Olaf to shoot and watching the young elephant bull arriving at the very place where we were standing had unnerved the tracker. It was as this slight jesse bush drama was being played out that Olaf fired at the bull. Unfortunately, his bullet went way low of where it should have gone.

Never in my entire game ranging or professional hunting career had I envisaged an elephant was capable of such acceleration. From stationary curiosity to full speed he would have made a cheetah look like a geriatric tortoise. It wasn’t a charge at all. Rather, a panicked blind rush straight at us following the impact of the badly placed bullet (under such circumstances it’s normal for an elephant to take off in the direction it’s facing). A rush that would have seen him flatten Olaf, and me – permanently – had the only shot I was literally just able to snap off not found its mark. The impact of the 500grn solid into the elephant bull’s brain crumbled him. However, such was his forward momentum when he went down, his front legs and feet ended up under his stomach and firmly wedged between his hind legs – with his hindquarters somewhat elevated.

Above: The bull had dropped about four normal paces to our front.

Although the elephant was dead as he hit the ground I was impressed that in those split seconds, Olaf had managed to run another shell into the chamber and get off a quick second shot with his .375 H&H although it passed straight through the elephant’s outspread right ear. In the immediate aftermath, and as the dust settled and quiet returned to this tiny patch of African bush, it was a relief to observe the bull had dropped at about four normal paces to our front. A close one.

When Lucky sheepishly returned after having ducked and dived through the jesse thickets in his attempts to evade the other fleeing elephant, I pointed at my trusty .375 H&H he was clutching and reminded him had we not swapped rifles when entering the jesse thickets, Olaf and I may have gone out of there as stretcher cases. Although more probably in body bags. Despite my being a dedicated dyed in the wool disciple of the .375 H&H magnum, I also firmly believe in always carrying a rifle capable of delivering a minimum of 400grns of solid in the thick stuff.

There is little doubt the proven .375 H&H would have done the job, but such was the majestic beast’s momentum he might have run us over before going down and dying. He had to literally be stopped dead in his tracks, and if correctly placed, only a minimum of 400grns of solid will do that. Although I reverted to only using .458 Lott ammunition thereafter, during the close encounter the .458 Winchester had stepped up to the plate admirably, and I have every faith in it.

Above: It was later, when we were cutting up the elephant that a tribal elder arrived and informed us of Princess Diana's death.

Later during the day while we were cutting the elephant up an old Ndebele tribal elder arrived on the hilltop. He was smartly dressed in long pants and a well-pressed shirt. After paying us the customary greetings, he stated in a matter of fact way and in perfect missionary school English, ‘Last night Princess Diana of England was killed in a car crash, I am so terribly sad’. It was 01 September 1997 and the first we had heard of it. He then told us he had come to convey the message, and could he please have some elephant meat! We obliged.

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