Shangaan Bull Zimbabwe
by Jeff Sevor
© Martin Harvey
“Nzhou,” whispered Peter, a Shangaan, his thin arm pointing to the slightest scuff on a rocky kopje. Five sets of eyes stared at this almost imperceptible mark and tried to visualize the great beast behind the miniscule evidence. Under difficult tracking conditions, Peter’s skill and intuition kept us on the trail of our quarry - the mighty elephant.
Shangaans are reputed to be the best trackers in the world, and Peter upheld this. We were in the Malipati Concession bordering the world-famous Gonarezhou National Park in the south-east corner of Zimbabwe on the border of Mozambique. Gonarezhou means 'place of the elephant' in Shona.
I touched down in Harare and met my good friend and PH, Phil DuBeau, for the long drive to Chipembi Camp on the beautiful Chipembi River. There I met PH Nixon Dzingai who has hunted the area around Gonarezhou his entire life, guiding clients on over 100 trophy bull elephants.
Our first mission – to take a bull hippo in the Takway River – found us rolling in Nixon’s Toyota pickup towards the river, trying to find a great bull within reasonable range. Finally Nixon commandeered a small boat with a hand-cranked outboard motor. With eight people, and me questioning my sanity, we floated down to where a huge, scarred bull was holed up in the middle of the river. Imagine the difficulty of finding the magic brain shot in an overloaded boat, rocking in the wind, surrounded by cranky hippos. On my knees, I finally was able to time the wobbles of the boat and deliver a 500-grain solid right between the eyes. A crystalline geyser of water shot skyward and his old, almost black head slammed back and under the water. We tried to keep the load balanced as we waited for the bull to surface, and then towed him to shore. With much help from a gathering crowd, we rolled the hippo out of the riverine vegetation into range of the Land Cruiser and a stout chain. After photos, the burgeoning crowd descended on the animal with knives, intent on acquiring meat.
Jeff Sevor and PH Nixon Dzingai with a huge, scarred hippo bull taken near Banga Dam on the Takway River. A growing crowd quickly congregated, ready to butcher the animal for meat.
After dark we made the four-hour drive to Navasha Concession on the western border of Gonarezhou National Park to begin our search for an ancient nzhou. The stone and thatch rondavels were a welcome sight in the headlights of Nixon’s pickup.
Two fruitless days reconnoitering for fresh spoor decided Nixon to cross to the Malipati Concession on the eastern side of the park. Perhaps the perennial water of the Mwenzi River would have the nzhou concentrated. After a long sweltering drive, Nixon eased off the road onto a bush track. Bouncing down the rough, rocky terrain adjacent to the river, we encountered our first elephants. About 20 cows with little ones were not pleased. Nixon slipped the clutch and we eased along the track, keeping the river on our right.
An hour later Peter whispered softly, and hopped off the truck to examine a large track. He followed the trail a short way and picked up a single leaf dropped by the elephant, and through Shangaan technique determined that the sign was about an hour old. Nixon gave the word, and we grabbed our guns and began hoofing down the trail. Fortunately, the afternoon heat was starting to abate when we caught up with the solitary bull about two hours later. He was moving slowly, feeding in moderately thick jesse.
Having never hunted elephant before, I was amazed that, although we were relatively close, it took almost an hour of manoeuvring and dancing with the big bull to get a look at his ivory. Finally he turned his head left, giving Nixon and Phil the view they needed. Nixon whispered, "This is a good bull, with about five feet of total ivory.” “I think we should take him,” added Phil. My hands suddenly felt slippery on my rifle’s composite stock. My .458 Lott had seemed like a formidable weapon earlier, but now I wasn't so sure.
The same slow waltz continued with the gun and shooting sticks as I tried to find a clear path to the bull’s shoulder. The sun sank, as it always seems to when you are on the trail of a great animal. I found the shot only to hear, “Wait, Wait.” Just that second the bull turned and walked away, disappearing in heavy cover. Nixon wasn’t happy with the shot. As it was his responsibility to make sure I didn't get smashed into grape jelly, it was a quiet, two-hour walk back to the truck, with only the rising full moon lighting our path.
The Shangaan tracker, Peter, preparing Sevor's shooting sticks for his .458 Lott loaded with a 500-grain solid for elephant.
I awoke with a jolt at 2.30 a.m. to the sound of thunder and a heavy downpour! It’s not supposed to rain this time of year! It was coming down in buckets, and I was afraid the rain would fill distant pans and the elephants would scatter. We loaded onto the truck at 4.00 a.m. and splashed our way back to Malipati Concession. Two hours later we were moving near to where we had encountered our bull the evening before. I was soon soaked from the dense foliage along the river.
Suddenly, Peter whistled and he and Nixon conferred for a moment over a fresh track - not 'our' elephant's, but another large bull. We took up the trail. By 10.00 a.m. I was sweating. This elephant was on the move. In some stretches he was walking on rain-soaked grass and leaving four-inch-deep impressions. Later, as we crossed ridges and kopjes, I found it utterly amazing that an animal weighing thousands of pounds could leave no discernable mark on the earth. At one point we were stymied by a wide expanse of exposed rock, till Peter found one small pebble overturned showing a slight difference in moisture. We were off again.
Another hour and our water bottles were empty. We were steadily closing on the elephant - a finger in a dollop of warm dung gave the clue. Moving through broken cover on level ground, we were suddenly jolted by the screaming of several cows with calves. The fickle midday winds had carried our scent toward a small waterhole where our bull had joined up with them. The panicked elephants obscured our bull's tracks, but Peter wasn't fazed.
Some minutes later he emerged from the surrounding trees and indicated to Nixon that our elephant had split off from the cows. Moving along its spoor, Nixon sent us in a long looping march, cutting the wind and placing us on the far side of a small, 50-yard clearing surrounded by dense ironwood trees and thick underlying brush. We eased along, barely breathing, each foot subconsciously diagnosing what was underneath before putting pressure.
Then Peter extended his left arm directly into the wind. Everyone froze. I strained to see, hear, and even smell. A slight cooling zephyr slid over my sweat-drenched shoulders, increasing my goose bumps. Suddenly, blurred movement and the snap of limbs gave way to a trunk snaking around a tender branch. A flash of ivory showed as the huge head swung into view. His massive grey body stepped slowly into the clearing, his great ears fanning languidly back and forth. He slowly turned his head right and left. The moist area surrounding his temporal gland was clearly visible. My rifle was already on the shooting sticks waiting. The elephant turned right, moving parallel along the edge of the clearing, his feet spreading with each step, almost arthritic. Over three feet of ivory peeked out of his lip - over five feet total. At only 40 yards he was bloody huge! My heart jackhammered, and whatever moisture was left in my parched throat disappeared in the deluge of adrenalin. Phil and Nixon studied the bull through their binos. Some unseen assent passed between them, and Phil indicated a moving trigger finger. I settled over the 1x4 Swarovski scope and found the bull had moved behind a small stand of four-inch thick trees. Suddenly, the shoulder appeared perfectly in my cross hairs through a two-foot gap in the trees. “I’ve got the shoulder.”
“Take him.” My rifle sounded like an explosion, and the bull buckled and wheeled right under the impact of the 500 grain solid. I racked the bolt quickly and placed another round at the base of his departing tail. The bull managed only 10 yards after the first shot before collapsing on his left side, just inside the dense edge. Nixon waved me forward, and dropping to one knee, I placed a finisher into the back of his skull. A long, final breath shuddered from his lungs, and then silence. I have ever heard such silence.
A moment passed and suddenly our small band broke into whoops and cheers. Nixon just beamed and proclaimed: “He is down and the mission is complete. Excellent!” After digging out the left tusk, and elevating the head, we spent a long time taking photos. Nixon guessed the ivory at a respectable 50 pounds for today. With the age-old ceremony of cutting off his tail, he became mine.
With more than three feet of ivory showing, and plenty more under the lip, a dehydrated but ecstatic Jeff Sevor took this respectable 50 lb per side tusker at 40 yards.
After several hours with my elephant, it was time to leave. Everyone trekked off towards the truck, but I hung back alone and knelt next to the head of my elephant. We’d both lived 40-plus years on this earth. I gave a silent prayer of thanks for this fine animal and my ability to hunt him, sharing the magnificence of Africa with Phil. My trophy’s life will be honoured for the rest of my own. When I opened my eyes, Phil had returned. I shouldered my gun and we walked off without saying a word.
The next day was spent recovering the bull. Not a single remnant of skin, flesh or bone remained after our crew and the locals were finished. Its trunk was delivered to the local village chief as is customary, and the skull was buried in a secure place to allow for easy tusk removal.
I plan to hunt elephant with Nixon again. In spite of Zimbabwe’s political problems, I believe the people and their positive attitude will rapidly return the country to prominence once the current situation abates. Everyone who revels in the pursuit of African big game owes it to himself to hunt a Shangaan Bull.
Jeff Sevor is a periodontist from Orlando, Florida, who works primarily to support his ‘Africa Addiction.’ “Except for the day I married Shellie and when my son Kelly James was born, the best days of my life have been in Africa.”