On an Elephant Hunt with a .500 Jeffery in Botswana
by Ray Paolucci
Campfire flames: After a warm welcome, fit for Teddy Roosevelt, returning hunter Ray Paolucci was glad to be back to Botswana, and back around the safari campfire.
Time was short and the new .500 Jeffery, built by Todd Ramirez of Custom Gun Shop, was not ready; he’d warned me that ‘unusual’ calibres could take extra time for finding or making parts. The shell cases ordered months ago were still not in. The 600-grain Woodleigh solids were promised for next week, but they’d already been promised weeks ago. When Sue, my wife of 40 years questioned, “And – why did you need to order a NEW gun?” I had that answer cold: I was going elephant hunting. I needed a real ELEPHANT RIFLE!
My research had told me that the .500 Jeffery (12.7 x 70mm, .510 calibre) was originally developed by the German firm of Schuler in the 1920s, and then was co-opted by Jeffery. This was the calibre of choice of PH Tony Sanchez Arińo – to many, the greatest living ivory hunter. He rated the .500 Jeffery as the finest elephant stopper he’d ever used. John Taylor wrote glowing reports about the cartridge and its hefty case capacity. But even more importantly, Johan Calitz, the highly experienced, elephant-hunting PH who’d helped me collect a magnificent lion the previous year, uses a .500 Jeffery. That’s what I wanted. (The .500 Jeffery was the most powerful bolt-action cartridge in the world until the .460 Weatherby came along. Now, with modern loads and premium bullets, according to John Taylor, the .500 still beats the .460.)
I was relieved when my new .500 arrived in time to do some practice shooting. Todd had done an exemplary job. The gun printed in less than a minute of angle. The new Woodleigh bullets, both solid and soft, went through the chronograph showing little difference in velocity. The gun, though heavier than expected, pointed well when shot off hand. Custom-fitted to my dimensions, I was able to hit the target at 60 paces with three quick shots. The song goes: ‘Don’t Worry – Be Happy.’ How silly I’d been. All those sleepless nights for naught!
It’s a long way from Dallas, Texas, to Maun. After a pleasant evening in town, my PH Louis Pansegrouw and I drove to camp with apprentice PH, Cobus Calitz, Johan’s son, at the wheel, who reminds me of a current day Harry Selby. He was lean, long of limb, and heart-throb handsome with a shock of blond hair that was always just a little askew. He knew guns, ballistics, flora and fauna, and had a love of nature.
Ray hunted his elephant from one of Johan Calitz's camps situated deep in Botswana's Okavango Delta where every hunting day ended with an unforgettable sunset.
The entire staff was assembled to welcome us at camp with song and dance; those I’d met the previous year greeted me like an old friend. Teddy Roosevelt on safari could not have felt more honoured.
After a quick lunch, we sighted in the rifles and decided to do a little scouting. Both the .470 Nitro and the new .500 passed muster, and we were very happy to see quite a number of elephants near camp.
The next morning, truck loaded, we mounted the Cruiser and left camp at a leisurely pace. Previous safaris had reported many elephant contacts, including with some decent bulls. Cobus explained that our current trail had been covered with water the previous year. One phenomenon that makes this area so interesting is the annual flooding that makes water levels change from season to season. The Okavango Delta of Botswana is the largest floodplain in Africa, and huge flows of Angolan rainforest water provide life-giving vigour to the normally dry earth.
Not 20 minutes from camp, we saw a nice bull elephant feeding in heavy cover, at maybe 120 paces. He seemed to be sporting very reasonable tusks (At any distance, assessing tusks is difficult, and judging ivory is more an art than a science. At over 100 yards, accurate estimates are doubtful.) The wind was wrong and we would not get much closer from this direction. Careful examination revealed at least four other elephants in close proximity. Numerous elephants in heavy cover can make for a very difficult and possibly dangerous stalk, even if all we wanted to do was get nearer for a better look. After discussing the options and the fact that we’d just begun our hunt, I decided to pass. I had 21 days.
Over the next few days we hunted from early to late, took trails, and tracked animals for miles, only to be disappointed. Large tracks - small tusks. PH Louis Pansegrouw, a delightful fellow with a quick wit and careful eye for detail has many years of experience in the bush and added real depth to our team. Louis loves anything that flies and exotic cars and with that and much of our background in common, we had plenty to talk about as we searched for big tracks. Louis carries a .500 Jeffery, and with Cobus using Johan’s .500, we had three .500s, on the truck – an unusual coincidence since this is not a common calibre.
Mokoro at sunset: Although the hunters used motorboats to travel through the Okavango Delta, the traditional makoro is still the most pleasant - and quiet - method of transportation.
That night Tony Makris, his lovely lady Warner, and their Winnercom film crew arrived in camp to film episodes of Under Wild Skies, the celebrated ESPN hunting programme. Wayne LaPierre and Chris Cox, both of the National Rifle Association, and their wives completed the group. Other arrivals were Mae Abraham and her son, Scott. Mae was there to honour her late husband Gerald, who loved Africa and requested that when he died, his ashes be spread in Botswana, the location of his last hunt. Uncle Abe, as Gerald was fondly known by the Calitz clan, took all of his big five with Johan Calitz Safaris with his trusted .375.
Day 5 started out early, and by 11.00 a.m. we had glassed many elephants but had not seen anything significant worth pursuing. Louis’s upset stomach required that we divert our path toward camp when, all of a sudden, there he was. About 15 minutes from headquarters, in the same cover as previously, the same large bull from the first day now stood at 40 paces. No guessing this time - he was big, very big, with excellent ivory. Upset stomach forgotten, Louis exclaimed, “He’s a keeper!”
As before, the wind was wrong and we would have to drive around the cover and set up a stalk from the opposite side. This was about a 15-minute trip. The call went out to Johan and Tony to join us. Realizing that elephants have great hearing and an unbelievable sense of smell, I knew that stealth and wind direction were really important. For such a large animal, elephants can be very wary, and if spooked, this big boy would head for the game park a mile or so away. Once running, he would be almost impossible to re-engage.
We slowed, stopped, and as I quietly slid from the Cruiser, Tony and Johan joined us. As luck would have it, the bull was feeding in our direction and was visible in the cover maybe 80 yards away and on an intercept path. A quick hike down the narrow road would allow me to get set up properly for a perfect ambush. Hustling to get ready, I asked Cobus, Louis and Tony to feel free to back me up if my first shot was not totally effective. We all knew that many elephants have been wounded and lost because of lack of follow-up shots, and we didn’t want to make that mistake. The elephant brain is the size of a football and if missed by only an inch, the elephant can run away and live. A successful heart/lung shot will eventually kill any elephant, but there are times when he can run for miles and be lost. Needless to say, wounded elephants are extremely dangerous, and Cobus instructed me to keep shooting until told to stop.
Elephant feeding in swamps: For the first few days of the safari, the hunters worked from early to late, following tracks, and looking over a number of the Delta's many photogenic elephants until they found a 'taker'.
The shooting sticks were set and, with the rifle in place, I had time to mentally review Kevin Robinson’s book, Perfect Shot. At about 30 paces, the elephant stopped feeding and turned a little sideways. I released the safety, and waited for a turn in either direction, when he snorted and aggressively moved forward in a mock charge! Stopping maybe at 15 yards, he swished his head from side to side, pushed his huge ears forward and snorted again. Remembering to compensate my aim for the shot’s upward angle, I moved my finger to the trigger for a frontal brain shot. Not this time. He raised his massive head, lifting his trunk to test for scent. His huge trunk was in the way and he was obviously very nervous. I waited. He made the first move. Not liking what his senses were telling him, he made a break for it. With unbelievable agility and speed, the big bull pirouetted and galloped back into the cover. My guess was that he would not stop in this patch of cover but would run for the sanctuary of the game park. I had a chance.
If I was able to get around the end of the cover, perhaps 70 yards away, I could take him as he crossed over the trail and entered the river. Could I get in position in time to shoot? I ran and, with the whole group in tow, reached the corner. My guess was correct. The old tusker was going to pass directly in front of us at about 60 paces. I slowed down and tried to take deep breaths to calm my nerves and racing heart. In 5-6 seconds he would be in the clear. I walked quickly forward and with no time for shooting sticks, I had to concentrate on where I would aim. As luck would have it, my first shot was true. The 600-grain solid went through the heart and both lungs. As predicted, the big bull kept running; it was my fourth shot that broke his left hip, stopping him cold in the middle of the river. Unable to run or even walk on three legs, my final shot collapsed him in the water. Tony had fired back-up shots from his mighty .600 Nitro Express double, helping to finally bring down the escaping elephant.
Johan was delighted. He assessed that the huge elephant (maybe 6-˝+ tons) was very old (65 years plus) and on his last set of molars. And he had some of the nicest ivory taken in Botswana in years. The tusks were about equal, the largest having a circumference of 21.5 inches at the lip, measuring 6 feet long. The official weights were: right tusk, 42 kgs (92.5lbs); left tusk 39.5 kgs (87lbs), which makes it the #2 elephant for Botswana in 2007. Three big trucks were required to pull the elephant from the river to dry ground.
PH Louis Pansegrouw, hunter Ray Paolucci, and PH Johan Calitz with Ray's elephant. The official weights were: right tusk, 42 kgs (92.5lbs); left tusk 39.5 kgs (87lbs), which makes it the #2 elephant for Botswana in 2007.
The sun, a magnificent ball of orange, reluctantly slid towards the horizon as we all congregated at the river to pay homage to the elephant and to ‘Abe,’ the hunter who loved Africa, especially Botswana. Scott was sprinkling his father’s ashes on the river when a fish eagle with his gleaming white crown suddenly appeared, circled, and landed in a large tree at river’s edge. Johan eloquently addressed the spirit of ‘Man the Hunter,’ noble animals in quest, and the passing of ‘two old bulls,’ for elephants have a special intelligence and family loyalties that, in many ways, resemble humanity. There was not a dry eye to be found.
The view from the deck over the Okavango Delta from Calitz's Qorokwe Camp.
A bronze plaque is being engraved in dedication to those two old bulls to be attached prominently to the great tree where the fish eagle perched. It is my hope that when a hunter a 100 years from now inquires about it, his PH can relate the story of another hunter who, long ago, sought the mighty tusker.
May spirits of the hunt rest together in peace.
Colorado-born Ray Paolucci, whose accounting education led to a career in banking and real estate, began hunting at age nine. His ever-expanding adventures have lead him on quests for game on four continents, “which have given me some wonderful trophies and very special memories.” He and Sue now live in Texas.