Non-Trophy Elephant and Hippo Hunt in Namibia
The Journey Begins
It is July 18, 2008, a nice sunshiny and typically hot summer day when I leave Shreveport at 8:30 am for Namibia. The first stop is Atlanta and then on to Johannesburg. I am flying Delta airlines and while the service is good the trip is just as long as it was the last time I made it.
July 19 is when I arrive in Johannesburg. When I go to the baggage carousel I am disappointed to find that my luggage has not shown up. An inquiry reveals that Delta in Shreveport has checked my bags through to Windhoek. The airport in Johannesburg has a terrible reputation for losing bags and I did not want to leave my things there overnight. I found a porter that was willing to go into the basement and retrieve my bags. When he returns successfully with my bags in tow give him a $10 bill as a tip and considered it money well spent.
I am picked up by a representative of The Africa Sky, a bed and breakfast located near the airport. The room was very nice with a good firm bed, a shower and tub. Nothing elaborate but quite satisfactory. The garden, typical of South Africa, was immaculate.
I got to sleep easily but woke at about 2:30 am. I was able to get back to sleep fairly easily but woke again twice before 5:30 when I finally got up and took a shower. I had plenty of time to get dressed and repack before my "wake-up call. It will take a few days to get my system regulated to the time change.
I brewed myself a cup of coffee and went out into the garden to watch the sunrise. It is good to see another sunrise in Africa. I was surprised to see that I had cell phone reception and when I did a quick calculation I realized that it was near midnight back home. I sent Todd a text message telling him that I was IN RSA and all was well. In just a few minutes he called me and said that he had just come in and got my message. The world is getting smaller every day.
The Africa Sky served a great little breakfast. There was more fresh coffee and a fruit salad that was served in a wine glass. It was sliced and positioned to look like a flower. Pineapple and cantaloupe formed the center and tart green apple slices formed the flower petals. It was almost too beautiful to eat but too delicious not to.
At 11:00 am I left Johannesburg for the flight to Windhoek. The flight was uneventful and after arriving I was escorted to the Safari Court Hotel. It was very upscale and located just down the street from the regional airport where I would be leaving from the next morning. I contacted Paula from Vaughn Fulton Safaris and she advised me to be ready at 6:30 am the next morning for transport to the airport and my flight to Katima Mullilo. I used the evening to get a nice steak dinner and enjoy a few African lagers before getting a bit of sleep. I was still not on Africa time and was up well before dawn.
Paula called to leave word that my flight was a bit delayed so as soon as the restaurant opened I went in for breakfast. When I had eaten my fill of bacon, eggs and biscuits it was time for me to meet Paula. A short drive had us at the airport. It was a single runway and a one room terminal that was smaller than my home. At 7:00 am, the time when we were supposed to be departing, an airport representative walked into the terminal to announce that the flight had been pushed back to 8:00 am. When 8:00 am came and went we were not even boarding yet. The airport representative came back in and announced that the delay was due to the fact that they could not find a pilot with the necessary licenses to pilot our plane. Apparently that is the only qualification needed to get the job. I can just see them out in the parking lot shouting,” Anybody here licensed to fly a twin engine turbo prop.”
You can't make this stuff up. Only in Africa!
Airport at Katima Mullilo
At about 9:00 am , when we were supposed to be arriving at our destination, we finally got a pilot. The attendants says we can begin loading so we walk out to the plane. The plane is tiny. The cabin is too small to allow you to stand up so everyone is walking bent over or duck walking down the aisle to find a seat. No seat numbers, just pick one. There is also no flight attendant. The pilot looks back over his shoulder and says,” Read the safety brochure that you will find in the pocket on the back of the seat in front of you. We are about to take off." With that said, we do.
The flight was comfortable but noisy. The roar of the engines was quite loud. There was an in-flight magazine in the seat pocket along with the safety brochure and as that was the "only act in town", I began to read through it. Low and behold, I stumbled across an article talking about the Annual Traditional Festival that I would hopefully be supplying the meat for. The article described the dancing and craft making that would take place as well as the beer drinking and feasting on wild game meats. The article was a special surprise that helped make the coming adventure all the more real for me. I was in Africa to kill an elephant. People were counting on me to do so. A festival depended on it. Wow! Talk about pressure.
Upon landing in Katima Mullilo I was greeted by my PH, Fred Bezuidenhout. There were two other hunters in camp, Shawn Hall and his Dad. They were there to take an elephant and hopefully a couple buffalo for the festival also. It was not hard to find my crew as the airport was an old abandoned military airstrip and there was no one there except the people on my plane and the people there to pick them up. Very quickly introductions were made and we got my bags loaded onto the truck and we headed out. Since we were late arriving and it was noon Fred suggested we get lunch in Katima before making the one hour drive to camp. We ate at a quaint little cafe while hired guards (street urchins) watched our truck to prevent our things from walking off in our absence.
It was around 2:00 pm when we got to camp. The camp was situated on the banks of the Chobe river. Namibia on our side and Botswana on the other side. Our side is the Salambala Hunting Concession, the other side is a large game reserve. The banks on our side are still lush and green while the banks on the other side are dry and brown and heavily grazed. On the opposite bank can be seen zebra, waterbuck, warthog and occasionally kudu and baboons. At night one can hear hippo calling from the river and leopard ,lion and hyena from the bushveld. It is explained to me that as it gets drier and more barren on the other side of the river the game spends more and more time on this side. Now, in mid July, the game comes over mostly at night and heads back across before daylight. Little game except the elephant spend substantial daylight hours on the Namibian side of the Chobe. ￼
Abundant game on the grassy banks of the Chobe River
We get our gear moved into our tents and start to get things unpacked and sorted out. It is too late to make a serious attempt at hunting this afternoon but we want to go for a little drive and shoot our rifles to make certain they are still on target before hunting begins in earnest tomorrow. Everyone knows this shooting exercise is dual purpose in nature. You can't be certain that your gun is still spot on unless you shoot it. Airline baggage handlers are not famous for their gentle way of handling their bags. The other purpose of the shooting session is to allow the PH to see if you can shoot. I shot my 416 first and I shot well. Well that is if you mean I shot a good group. All my shots were well left of center shooting from about 75 to 100 yards out. Fred suggested that I not try to adjust my iron sights but to remember to hold just a bit right of the aiming point. I made a mental note to do so with the caveat that if we were able to close the distance to honest dangerous game distances before shooting I would do fine holding spot on.
Elephant Hunt Begins
The next morning we were up at 5:30 am. Breakfast was bacon and French toast with lots of hot coffee and juice. When we had finished it was still quite dark so we just relaxed a bit and waited for sunrise. When we could see without headlights we left camp and drove north about seven miles and began scouting likely areas by driving the roads and looking for fresh sign. In one area we saw quite a bit of tracks and droppings but none were fresh enough to pursue. We made a hike through some likely cover and again saw lots of sign but nothing fresh.
We made our way back to the truck and decided to drive to another area about 10:00 am and to our surprise found a road grader crew reworking the section of gravel road we intended to scout. We continued up the road about ten kilometers and finally put the work crews behind us. We again began seriously looking for sign. Before long we found sign that looked to have been from last night. After studying the tracks and droppings we decided it was a bit too old to run down quickly and we needed to go back to camp as we were supposed to be meeting a game scout there at mid-day. The game scout was assigned to observe our hunt and he was supposed to be with us at daybreak but he had been late arriving.
On our way back to camp we came across a couple of locals on bicycles. They told us they had spotted a group of about ten elephant near the road about 4 kilometers back in the direction we were headed. They gave directions to our trackers and we left. Since it was on the way in, we determined to have a look in the area they described. At the predetermined spot we found where the herd had crossed the road. From this point we sent the trackers in to see if the elephant were still in the area. In just a few minutes they were back signaling us to come . We found the elephant about 500 yards from the road. We could hear them before we could see them. As they fed they broke down limbs and pushed over trees to get at the leaves and bark. Their low frequency belly rumbles could be heard, and almost it seems, felt.
We circled a bit to get the wind in our faces. The first bull I saw was actually two bulls. One had ivory of about 30 inches outside the lip and very thin. He was moving across our front from right to left. The other bull was right in front of us testing his strength on a smallish tree. Almost right between us was a large double trunk tree which we used to conceal our approach. As this hunt was for a non-trophy bull we did not have to be too picky about what we were shooting and this bull was in the perfect spot for us to approach. We side stepped a bit to put the tree between us and the elephant and began to close the distance.
The wind was swirling a bit and I could hear more elephants both behind us and to our right. I was hoping that the wind would hold for just s few minutes more. Suddenly I felt the wind pick up and blow steady in our face. The rustling of the leaves in the trees made enough noise to help conceal our final approach. As we moved up to the tree Fred whispered , "Take your safety off."
From the tree we were twenty yards short of our quarry. I know , because later on I stepped it off. As I reached the tree I raised the CZ 416 Rigby and steadied it against the inside trunk of the right tree at eye level. I spread my legs to shoulder width and steadied myself for the impending shot. Again I heard Fred whisper, "Wait till he turns his head."
As if on cue the young bull's head swung to his right and I brought my sights to a spot above and behind his left eye. As soon as I settled I began the trigger squeeze. With the break of the trigger the reaction was instantaneous. His head went up as his back end sank. Then his front end collapsed and down came his head. This left the bull spread eagle and still upright with his head facing just left of me. I cycled the bolt and immediately gave the bull one more round to the forehead just above eye level. The elephant did not react to the shot at all.
Behind us the trackers began to move forward. Fred was congratulating me and the trackers were closing in. Fred and I moved cautiously closer to the bull and as we got to about ten yards he made a low rumbling noise. The game scout shouted, "He is still alive, place another one please."
The Author and his Festival Bull Elephant
Fred said to give him one more about four inches above and to the left of my last shot, and I did. Again the bull never even flinched. I don't think he ever knew that we were there or even heard the gun go off the first time.
Fred and the trackers went to the truck to send word that the elephant was down and to call for help with the butchering of the carcass. The killing of such a magnificent animal as an elephant brings some very heartfelt emotion. I deeply appreciated the opportunity to spend a bit of time alone with the bull to examine him, to get to know him, and to reflect on what taking this animal meant to me.
The whole next day was spent butchering the elephant and transporting the meat to the local village where the weekend Traditional Festival would take place.
Kasika Wildlife Conservancy
The day of July 24 we drove from our camp to Katima Mulilo and boarded a boat for a five hour trip down the Zambezi River to it's confluence with the Chobe River. To the south lies Namibia and on the north side of the river lies Zambia. When in the Chobe River the southern shore is Botswana and the northern shore is Namibia. The land between the two rivers forms the Kasika Wetlands Conservancy. The land is generally low lying flood plain. Much of the year water covers most of the area. When the waters recede the resulting plains are spotted with ponds and canals. Reed and cane are the predominant vegetation, and because there is plenty of water and fertile soil the grasses grow tall and thick. Elephants can easily disappear in the long grass, as can whole herds of buffalo.
We had come to the conservancy to try and find buffalo for Shawn and his Dad and to see if we could locate a hippo for me. The hunting was very difficult at Kasika. No vehicle was available to drive around the area so a boat was used to make long trips and once we got into the area we wanted to hunt we hunted on foot. Long walks through water and high marsh grass were the norm. Deep water channels had to be crossed with the small dug-out canoes (Mokorro) that the locals used for transportation.
Houseboat Camp on the Chobe at Kasika
After four days of camping on the Chobe and sloshing around in the marsh we took the big boat and headed back toward Salambala. We took the route directly back by way of the Chobe which shortened the trip by several hours. We saw a tremendous amount of game along the way including elephant, buffalo, hippo, crocs, impala, warthog, and lechwe. The birdlife was incredible. Overall the trip back along the Chobe was more enjoyable that the trip down the Zambezi but I am glad we got to see them both.
Hippo Action Heats Up
The morning of July 29 had us back hunting in the Salambala Conservancy. We drove to the conservancy headquarters to pick up our game scout. Typical of Africa the chap was nowhere to be found. Eventually one of the scouts showed up and we were able to get on with our hunt.
We drove to a nearby village and picked up one of the Caprivian locals to guide us and assist with poling the Mokorros. This chap turned out to be a lot of help. Having grown up in the area he knew it like the back of his hand. He could handle his mokorros well, even with a trembling white guy sitting on his tail in the front. He took us to a spot where a hippo had been harassing the fishermen. Nobody home today at that spot. He indicated that he knew another spot where the hippo like to spend the mid-day lying in the sun on the river bank. We were able to drive within a quarter of a mile of the river and from this distance we could see a family group of hippo sunning in the exact spot our guide had predicted.
We had to stop the truck this far from the river because a deep channel prevented us from going any further. It took him three trips in his Mokorro to get all of our group across the channel. When this was accomplished we had a couple hundred yards of saw grass marsh to wade across. The water was between knee deep and crotch deep and filled with tough saw grass that cut at my feet and legs. Previous trips in the stuff had made me grow weary of wading around in wet boots all day so I had taken my boots off and tied them together so I could carry them hands free over my shoulder.
When we are about one hundred twenty yards from the hippos we crawl out of the water under a bushy tree on the banks of a little natural levee. We begin to look them over , searching for a nice bull and all of a sudden something spooks them and they go crashing into the water. I had seen this scene play out several times at Kasika and thought for sure my chance at a hippo was gone.
As we sat under our bush and pondered our options we noticed that several of the hippo were making there way back up on shore just a stones throw down the channel. Two by two, females with calves haul out until there are eight feeding just one hundred and fifty yards from us. Fred says that we should crawl down the levy and get a bit closer to the hippo so we can get a better look. When we get to about eighty yards Fred looks them over and says that none of them are bulls. While we are waiting for one of the bulls to come out something spooks the hippo and once again they crash back into the river. I thought we were done for sure this time.
For the next twenty minutes we laid in the marsh grass under the noonday sun which cooked us slowly as the hippos frolicked in the channel. They blew their misty breath and harrumphed their throaty coughs. And then , when they were good and ready, a big fat cow came crawling up out of the river in the same spot where we had spotted them initially. Now only sixty yards away she got herself laid down and comfortable. Soon more cows and calves began to make their way out of the river to join her. I was fully exposed from my spot on the levee so I crawled over the top beside Fred in some tall marsh grass.
Fred looked all of the hippo over good with his binoculars as they came ashore and pronounced that they were all cows and calves. Then another came ashore and I thought I saw evidence of male anatomy on the belly of this new arrival. Sure enough, Fred confirms that it is a young bull and says that if he gets broadside we will take the shot. Right away the bull lays down facing me and a cow moved between us and lay down. No way to get a shot at him now. More hippo are coming out of the water and joining the group already sunning.
Other hippo were climbing out of the water and taking their places among the ones already sunning on the bank. Fred thought that he identified another bull and said that if he came clear I should brain him. Unfortunately there was a cow directly behind the bull and due to the danger of a pass through striking the second hippo I had to delay the shot. Soon, this bull too lay down and again we were stuck.
About this same time a lone cow came waddling up the bank and as soon as she did she turned completely around till she was looking back toward the water. Fred said,” That cow is nervous, be perfectly still."
Sure enough, she charged headlong straight into the water and the rest of the pod began to get up and follow her back into the river. Some charged madly, others lingered a bit, unsure of what all the commotion was about. The bull we were watching rose, turned and started toward the water. He paused one step from the water's edge and this hesitation gave me just enough time to get the crosshairs on his temple and make the shot.
￼All Hell broke loose then. The rest of the hippos all hit the water charging at full tilt. Three tons each made for a combined thrust that created one tremendous wake. My bull was flopping around on the bank like a beached tuna and I was frantically working the bolt of my rifle so as to get off a finishing shot. Keeping that hippo from reaching the water would make it's recovery much easier.
Fred yelled for me to put another one in his chest and since he was lying on his side with his head towards me I had to slip the bullet in just below the chin and into the body cavity from the base of it's short fat neck. I reloaded again and as he was still moving I fired one more round from the 375 H&H magnum into the forehead of the hippo. This time , you could see the air go out of him and as he went flaccid I knew that he was done for good.
￼Hippo Where He Fell On the Banks of the Chobe
Local villagers arrived to help with butchering the hippo and transporting the meat to dry ground where it could be loaded in our vehicle. All that helped in the processing were rewarded with njama (meat) , and the rest was transported to the conservancy headquarters for the big festival.
Delivering Hippo Meat to Conservancy Office