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.
Henry setting up the bait tree for leopards.
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..Page 2
Henry and Lloyd on top of the "big guy".