What do PH’s do when they are not hunting with clients?
By Johann Veldsman of Shona Hunting Adventures
The answer is simple: We go out hunting together! This year, after a very short deliberation, the decision was made to do a PAC elephant hunt to Zimbabwe. Byron Hart (Ohorongo Safaris), and Karl Stumphe (Ndumo Safaris), were putting together a trip to
Zimbabwe and was looking for a couple of guys to join them. Knowing Byron for most of my life and based on Karl’s reputation for running a good operation, I immediately signed up. This would be my first trip to Zimbabwe and having been on several elephant hunts before, this would however be the first time I pull the trigger on one myself.
With two diesel Land Cruisers, packed for the road trip of a life time, we left Windhoek (Namibia) at 04H00 the morning of the 22nd of December 2009. Our first destination was to be Francistown (Botswana), a town close to the border between Botswana and Zimbabwe and 1300km from Windhoek.
Our party consisted of five, two PH’s (myself and Danie Botha), two dangerous game PH’s (Karl Stumphe and Byron Hart) and Danie’s brother-in-law, Leon, who was to fly up from South Africa and meet up with us in Harare.
We reached the Namibia / Botswana border post at about 8.00 the morning. High spirited and with all the correct paper work, entering Botswana was a breeze. As with Namibia, Botswana is well organised and travelling through this lovely country went without incident. Taking into account that Botswana has a very strict no-tolerance policy regarding bribery and corruption, we were met by friendly faces welcoming us to their country at every control point and border post. Something a lot of other African countries can learn from. Apart from all the cattle and donkeys on the road and having a blow out tyre on one of the cruisers, we travelled at a steady pace and reached Francistown at about 20h00, just in time to have a good meal and check into a Hotel.
The next morning we left at about 6h00 to be in time for the border post opening at 7h00. We had 650km to drive to reach Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. Upon reaching the border post our new found enthusiasm, after having a good night’s sleep was quickly
extinguished. We had to fall in the back of a queue of about 250 people, who all spent the night at the border post. For the first time on the trip, it felt like we were now on real Africa time and that it was going to take us about 2 days just to get into Zimbabwe, or maybe not. The way the Botswana customs officials handled the situation was impressive, in total it took us half an hour to go through passport control and drive across to the Zim side. It was the most effective border control I’ve ever travelled through. We had no illusions that the situation was going to be the same on the Zimbabwean side and we made sure we left the busses behind.
Having only one official stamping passports meant we probably would have stayed there for the remainder of the 2 days I anticipated. After purchasing our vehicle insurance at the first shack as we crossed the border, it was off to Harare.
We arrived in a very wet Harare at about 3h00. Rain was pouring down and a certain individual was very concerned about his brand new custom 500 Jeffery that was now on the back of an open Land Cruiser. The rest of the group’s comments and advice on how to clean a really wet gun did not go down too well.
After what felt like hours of driving around in circles looking for the entrance to the Sheradon Hotel we met up with Rory Muil in the reception area. Rory is an elderly gentleman and by his looks had been around the bush a couple of times. He was the real deal, an old, hard African PH, hunting elephants for a living. He was going to be our Zim PH and with his brother Blake our hosts. The decision was made earlier, not to stay in one of their permanent camps but rather put up a fly camp close to the area where most of the problem elephant activity was reported. Blake and his crew were to meet us at this fly camp about two and a half hours drive away from Harare.
Speaking to Rory for a couple of minutes over a cup of coffee, the excitement associated with hunting elephants finally hit me. We drove over 2200 km, we are now in a different country and we are going to hunt elephants!!!!
After finishing our coffee it was off to Rory’s house to pack his Land Cruiser with the last of the supplies needed for the trip. Here we also met up with Leon, Danie’s brother-in-law, the fifth member of our hunting party. Leon flew in from South Africa a couple of hours before and was eagerly awaiting our arrival.
One last stop at the local shop to buy dinner and we headed out on what was supposed to be a short two and a half hour drive. The African bush can be a completely different place when the sun goes down and what would normally have taken a couple of hours to drive ended up taking more than six! Needless to say, taking the short cut was not a good idea. With the two way radio communication between the trucks, we covered everything from the differences between male and female Baobab trees to who has what sex toys and what they use them for, making the drive at least feel a lot shorter than it actually was. After leaving Francistown at 6h00 the previous morning, we finally arrived at our destination at 2h00 the next morning. We quickly pitching our tents and it were off to bed for what was to be a very short night.
Our camp was situated in St. Pius Mudzi in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe, overlooking the bridge crossing the Mazoe River and 3km west of the Mozambique border. Only when first light broke, could we really appreciate the beautiful surroundings. Our camp was perched on an elevation overlooking the river valley below us. Huge Baobab trees towered like giants over the thick Jess. Mountains formed a big part of the landscape and even though it reminded me of the Huab River cutting through the granite mountains back home, it was different. The location was used during the British colonial times as a vantage point to secure the bridge and surrounding areas and bullets holes in the Baobab trees was reminiscent of these times. Small villages lay scattered throughout the landscape and the sound of locals chopping wood echoed through the valley. The smell of freshly brewed coffee, combined with smoke from the camp fire, welcomed us to Zimbabwe.
First light came sooner than expected. We shifted across two time zones and sunrise was just after 4h30 in the morning. The wakeup call was very clear. Elephants came through last night and passed close to camp, we are after all hunting elephants. We dragged ourselves out of our sleeping bags, which were still wet from the rain we had in Harare, and made our way to where the coffee pot was brewing. Our sluggishness was apparent and the trackers were sent out to scout while we tried to get ourselves into hunting mode. After having a quick breakfast it was time to check our rifles, luckily the rain did not do any damage to the 500 Jeffrey and my Winchester .416 Rem. Mag. travelling in the same rifle case was dry as a bone. All the rifles performed well and everyone seemed to be handling them just as well.
By 9h00 we were still waiting for the trackers to return and I could not help contemplating the fact that we could have had at least another three hours of sleep instead of the two we had. Back on Africa time, I guess. The decision was made to walk down to where the elephants crossed the river the previous night and try to find the trackers. Soon after reaching the river we met up with them on their way back. They found some fresh tracks and returned to inform us of their location.
For the rest of the day we followed Elephant tracks. At one stage we caught up with two bulls standing in some really thick Jess. Baboons gave our position away and the bulls took off running through the mountains. We followed them until just after midday. The fatigue of only having a couple of hours sleep, caught up with us and we passed out under the little shade provided by a Baobab tree. After a much needed couple of hours rest, we worked our way back to the Mazoe River. More time was spent relaxing, watching hippos and crocodiles floating around in the big rock pools the river forms during this time of year.
It was late the afternoon when we started making our way back to camp. Walking in the thick sand of the dry river bed was draining the little energy we had left, yet walking back was at a brisk pace. The sudden change in the body language of the trackers brought the hunting party to a halt. The sound of elephants feeding close by made us forget about the two hours sleep and eight hours mountain hike we’ve had. Everyone was back in hunting mode.
Again one of the trackers was send out to scout. He returned after being away for less than a minute. A group of elephants were making their way towards the river, exactly where we were standing, and they were close! Leon and Danie were to shoot first and were quickly moved into an intercept position. Grey figures slowly floated through the bush in front of us. Only once you’ve been this close to elephants in thick Jess can you appreciate how a six ton, three meter high animal just disappear. A young bull made its way into a clearing and at the report of the first shot chaos erupted in front of us. The elephants, unaware of our presence, burst into a state of panic, trumpeting and crashing through the bush. Karl’s backup shot followed split seconds after Leon’s shot, adding to the confusion of the herd. An elderly cow returned to where the young bull was laying, standing guard over him. At Blake’s command Danie got into position and took the cow with a side on shot into the vitals.
As the cow turned he was able to put a going away shot into her. Both elephants went down within 30 meters of each other. As we approached the two downed elephants, we could hear the rest of the herd crashing their way up the side of the mountain, their trumpeting echoing through the valley.
On closer inspection of the female we found that her left hind leg was severely injured by a landmine, possibly from crossing the border into Mozambique where land mines are still common.
Tough the injury was chronically infected it appeared to be at least a couple of years old. It must have been a real hindrance for her, especially in the mountainous terrain. The female was also dry and without a calf. With an injured hind leg, carrying the weight of a bull during mating must have been very difficult, even impossible.
As it was already dark, the photo session and recovery was to commence the next morning. After congratulating every one, we started to walk back the rest of the 4km to reach camp after dark.
Most of the next day was spend on the recovery of the two elephants and dividing up the meat amongst a crowd of at least 250 villagers, sitting eagerly waiting. Coming from a country that is far less densely populated, it was amazing to see how the word of fresh meat spread through the villages. This became more apparent the closer we got to where the elephants were lying. We had a stream of locals walking along side the vehicles and as we progressed, more and more people joined. They came out of all directions and continued to arrive the whole four hours it took us to recover the skin and tusks.
In the afternoon it was decided to drive to a nearby community where some hippos and crocodiles were harassing the local villagers. Since Byron and Leon wanted to hunt croc and hippo it was not a bad idea to do some scouting. After driving a couple of hours to reach the community headquarters and spending another couple of hours waiting for someone to help us, it was too late to do any hunting. We slowly worked our way back to camp, reaching it just in time for sundowners.
On day three our hunting party split up in two. Byron, Leon and Danie accompanied by Blake, headed back to the community headquarters to find out where the crocodiles were. Myself, Karl and Rory went in the opposite direction looking for elephants.
With the Land Cruiser fuelled up we set of on what ended up being a very exciting day. Shortly after leaving camp we were stopped by a local villager. He informed us that a group of elephants passed through his village somewhere in the early hours of the morning and damaged some of the houses. Since we were hunting PAC elephants, we decided to pick up the tracks and follow the herd. When starting out, the terrain around us consisted of flat land, a nice change to the previous two days mountain hiking. The vegetation was open and we were walking across various crop fields, this was however soon to change. Elephants in densely populated areas, seek out the thickest cover to hide away during the day, the group we were following was no exception. As is typical with elephant hunting we lost the tracks several times during the morning but our very competent trackers managed to get us back on track every time.
As we were tracking, a lot was going through my mind. Up until this stage I never confronted the emotional side of actually killing an elephant. Now I was getting closer to taking the life of probably the most majestic animal on this planet. I however chose to become a Professional Hunter, and if I was ever to guide clients on dangerous game hunts. I need to be able to stand my ground and have the confidents in myself. The other side I had to deal with was the nerves, the fresher the tracks became, the stronger the adrenaline surges became. I’m not going to argue away the fact that I was nervous. Once again I could appreciate what a first time client feels when, after a successful stalk, a big kudu bull is in front of him and he has to pull the trigger. A feeling sometimes lost after years of hunting and guiding. The final emotion going through my mind was fear. Coming from and area where elephants roam freely, I have seen the damage they can cause and have a lot of respect for them. The sound of branches breaking close by suddenly made all these emotion disappear. The hunter suddenly took over and there was no turning back.
We covered at least 6km from where the truck was parked and were now in some of the thickest Jess I’ve ever seen. Coming up to a ridge could hear the elephants feeding in the bushes in front of us. The wind was playing all sorts of tricks on us and we had to change the direction of our final approach several times. Moving in closer only the movements of the elephants in the thick jess were visible, no shape or form could be made out.
By now our scent had reached some of the elephants and their alarm sounds alerted the rest of the herd. They grouped together in a circle, forming a barrier between us and the young. At 30 yards we could finally make out individuals. Karl pushed us forward till we were about 20 yards away from them, still without a chance of a clear shot. By now the elephants were very restless, constantly scanning the bushes in front of them for potential danger. There was an unnatural silence as the tension mounted. Karl lifted up his binoculars to try and sort out the herd when suddenly the tension broke! One of the younger bulls in the herd made us out.
There was a loud trumpet, followed by branches breaking as he came straight at us. The last thing I recall hearing, was Karl’s voice calmly pronouncing “shoot” No invitation was however needed. My first shot struck the elephant when it was 15 yards away from us. The 400gr Barns banded solid made the elephant stumble. The bullet entered the forehead a little to the left, missing the brain. Karl’s backup shot followed almost in chorus with my first, hitting the elephant in the front leg bringing the bull to its knees. As it was struggling to get up, a second shot out of my .416 smashed into his hips.
Surprisingly he managed to get up and moved off to our right. Chambering another round, I quickly moved into position for a side on brain shot. Pulling the trigger resulted in the elephant hitting the ground in the most spectacular fashion. What played off in slow motion in front of us, actually took only eight seconds. The rest of the herd disappeared into the Jess like giant ghosts.
Walking closer to the downed elephant, to give him a final confirmation shot, I could not help feeling a little remorse towards it. I’ve had mixed feelings every time I stood next to a dead elephant and guess I will always experience it. A couple of days earlier, when standing next to Danie and Leon’s elephants, I asked Rory if after doing over 250 guided elephant hunts, he ever got use to killing them. His quick and short response came as a bit of a surprise to me: “God no, I hate killing them”. From that moment on, I had a lot more respect for him. After hunting elephants his whole life, he is still a hunter and not just killing them for a living. For the first time I realized what it was really about. If you ever lose this feeling towards the animals you are hunting, you are no longer a true hunter.
Once again the conflict between humans and elephants was apparent. The elephant, now lying hunched in front of us, had the lower part of his trunk missing, the result of a poacher’s wire snare. Poaching and the legal use of wire snares are only some of the many challenges Safari Outfitters, trying to make a living in a broken country, have to deal with.
The walk back to the truck was sort of a blur. Short flashes of the hunt kept on popping into my head. By the time we reached the truck, word of the dead elephant already reached the villagers and everyone was exited with the prospect of getting their hands on some of the fresh meat. Again the bush drums must have sent the message ahead of us.
The rest of the group were also successful. Byron shot a problem crocodile at one of the nearby villages. The evening around the campfire was filled with excitement as memories of the hunt were shared, memories that will stay with us for the rest of our lifetime.
With days to spare, we decided to return Namibia via Victoria Falls and spend a couple of days in the Caprivi doing some Tiger fishing. The trip back rounded off the whole experience for me. I’ve never been to Vic Falls before and had the opportunity to see one of the most spectacular sights in the world. In the end it turned out that we are better hunters than fishermen. Danie was the only one who caught two undersize Tiger fish. Having to row up and down the Kavango River in a busted ski boat probably did not help. Swimming in the river with the crocs and hippos, was an adventures experience never the less
To conclude, in total we drove over 5000km through Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe to hunt the greatest animal to roam Africa. I went on this trip for various reasons and got way more out of it than what I expected. Zimbabwe is a beautiful country and I will definitely return to hunt it again. The country has a long road to recovery but at least the situation is better than two years ago and it still remains to be one of the best big game destinations in Africa. Anyone who has done it will testify: Dangerous game hunting can become very addictive.