It was in the neighborhood of 07:30 when we came upon a herd of Zebra standing just off the path to our right, the truck slowed and Zvito pointed at the gun rack. I waved him off and told him that it was bad luck where I'm from to shoot zebra on the fourth day. The true reason being that I actually had a terrible case of gastrointestinal distress, no doubt brought about by the ridiculous amount of the lava hot chili paste I had enjoyed with my dinner the night before. Not to mention, I wasn't sure if I felt like paying $1100 for a Zebra. I am not against the shooting of Zebra, I just had other animals that I really wanted to shoot and a limited budget with which to do so. It was closing in on 10:00 when we coasted to a stop a couple hundred yards from a pan that we wanted to check in on and see if the elephants might be using it. I grabbed the double and loaded a pair of solids. Roughly 100 yards into this little exercise we rounded a curve and up ahead through a very fortuitous gap in the foliage I caught a glimpse of something on the far side of the pan about 200 yards away. I got York's attention and pointed it out, at this point all I knew is that whatever It was, was in fact large. It only took a very quick second for York to inform me that was a Kudu and a very nice Kudu bull at that! We sent Sunnyboy back to the truck for the 416 without delay, luckily we had only parked a hundred yards or so away. He was back with it shortly, I chambered a round, and York and I were off after the Kudu. It was moving left to right at a pretty fast pace. We paralleled him, but it looked like we had lost him when York suddenly popped up the sticks and said, "There, take him behind the shoulder." The Kudu sure enough stepped right into a small gap. He was only about 70 yards away, but he was quartering away very sharply. I figured the angle the best I could and even briefly considered passing the shot due to the complicated positioning, fortis fortuna adiuvat, and I touched off the 416. I heard the solid "whap" of the bullet and saw the big kudu kick with his head down and back arched. Then he was gone. I replayed the shot in my mind, and I knew I cut the angle way too thin. This could be bad! I was too far forward on the shoulder for that steep of a quartering angle and I knew it! We followed the track and no blood, now those demons of self doubt are really chirping. I was considering more and more that this was about to be a real suck fest when York said, "Stay right here while I go check real quick." It was a torturous minute, which must have lasted for what seemed an eternity when I heard, "Hey big guy, come over here and check out your Kudu." I couldn't believe it. He had not gone 30 yards! The shot was a touch forward but maybe he wasn't angled as steeply as I thought. The 400 grain swift A frame had done its job! The bull was beautiful; he was perfect!
As we loaded him into the truck I smiled at Zvito and nodded, "very bad luck to shoot Zebra on the fourth day." Now between the not shooting stuff on the first day joke, and now killing this big Kudu after passing on the Zebra because they are bad luck on the fourth day, I think old Zvito was starting to really believe we were into some serious Juju wherever it was that I was from!
The big Kudu was loaded him into the truck and we proceeded to the skinning shed. The crew at the skinning shed had left to go and assist another crew in the area that was dealing with finding a wounded elephant on the last day of a hunt. Therefore, we proceeded on to the skinning shed at our camp where they would deal with the Kudu and then transfer it over to York's crew later. Being that we were back at the camp now and it was already 14:00, and we were about to eat lunch, I told York that I had brought a bottle of some of Kentucky's finest and being in a very celebratory mood about the Kudu, I felt that we should take the rest of the afternoon off and celebrate the Kudu and start fresh again in the morning. So, that is what we did. We sat and we sipped and we looked at the elephants at the waterhole by the camp. We discussed shot placement at various angles as the elephants moved about the waterhole. We ate a delicious lunch, and we sipped some more. Then we ate dinner and solved most of the world's major political problems. It was a fine afternoon. It was a very fine afternoon.
The fellows using the other end of the national park had completed their elephant hunt and today was our first chance to venture into the new land. This was the area where the Eland hung around and it was quite a lengthy drive from the area we had been hunting. We could of course hunt the area we had been hunting and all the areas in between, and it was a LOT of area! So we worked our way up to the new, once we came onto the area adjacent to the Zambezi all the scenery changed. The Jess thinned out and there were large tall palm trees. Michael pointed and asked me, "Do you know what this is called?" In his best Blackhawk Down accent. I obviously did not know what It was called so I just kind of stared at him blankly. He smiled his usual crocodile smile and said, "This is Paradise!" and left it at that. I had to admit, I couldn't really disagree, to our left was " The Mighty Zambezi" as Michael always called it, never just simply The Zambezi, always "The Mighty Zambezi" with that slight hand gesture that Italians use when they really mean something they are saying. It was open, but at the same time not open. It was a beautiful country with large pans, some of the pans here were probably in the neighborhood of three to four acres of water, big enough for some large pods of Hippo. Which coincidentally is exactly where we stopped to eat lunch after a long morning of driving and looking, we stopped for lunch at one such pan that had a very large pod of hippo which contained an exceedingly large bull. He and the rest of his hippo friends were some cheeky bastards, this hippo and I would have business later! Lunch was had and we met with another pair of hunters who were local Zimbabwean tobacco farmer out hunting with a PH friend of theirs. We told them of our quest to find a dry hippo. They had in fact seen such a beast up past the pan we ate lunch at and about 1.5 kilometer in from the road. He had been seen by them a couple times sleeping outside his waterhole. So, we collected all the Intel we could from them, exchanged all the traditional hunting party pleasantries and made a plan to visit with this particular hippo the next morning.
We made our way back toward our camp, hunting along the way. The main road in the new area was awful, riding in the back of the Land Cruiser must have been very close to the experience of spending a couple hours in one of those damned paint mixers at Home Depot. It was unpleasant!
We shot nothing on this day, it was just as enjoyable as all the other days. There has to be days with no shooting to give value to the days with shooting, at least that's how I look at it.
We started the day with a stroll through the new area, having spoken with the other group that had hunted that area and told us of a large hippo they had run into who was in the habit of sleeping outside his water hole.
Being unable to locate this particular hippo at the waterhole they directed us to, we moved from pan to pan checking for tracks but having very little luck. While working our way through a particularly thick thorn patch we came upon what I thought was a Duiker bedded down in the grass. I was third in the stack and when Zvito called a halt, I peered over York and saw the little fellow just in front of us in the grass. I turned to my wife to try and get her in position to get a look at the little guy, since we were so close to him I was hoping we might get a good pic. When I turned back around York was staring at me and the little guy was gone. I said, "I was trying to get the wife's attention so I could show it to her", to which he replied "I was trying to call you up here so you could shoot it" "No big deal" I said, "it was just a Duiker" York shook his head and smiled, " No, that was a Sharpe's Grysbok" "Damn it!" I said. Well you win some and you lose some! We worked our way out of the thorn patch and onto the road shortly thereafter and joined up with Sunnyboy at the truck.
It was now fast approaching lunch time and we decided to try another larger waterhole that was between us and the one where we were going for lunch. The one with THAT hippo. York and I stalked into the pan and sure enough the hippo we were looking for was there, however he pulled a sneaky maneuver, he was not where we expected, as we moved in on the pan he was out feeding beside it and a large fallen tree blocked our view of that area, as we passed it the wind betrayed our presence and the water horse returned swiftly to the water from whence he had came. Lunch seemed like a pretty good idea at this point so we retired to our new lunch spot and prepared to eat. We had lunch across the road from the large pan in hopes that we might catch this large bull with the large harem sneaking out of the water for a noontime snack. We had already tried intimidating him a bit, we had tried splashing in the water a bit, anything to get his guy to come up out of the water. At this point a mildly damp hippo would do, just stand up or come part of the way to the bank! My patience with the hippo was getting thin and this particular bull seemed to mock me.
Now I'm all for a good joke but, whoever thought it would be funny to send lasagna for lunch was taking it a little too far. It was not lasagna in the traditional sense, while it did have lasagna noodles and also ricotta cheese as well as the appropriate cheese on top the filling was a meaty gravy mixture with carrots and such. Now I knew what the penalty would be for eating this greasy, heavily spiced deliciousness but, I was hungry, and I did it anyway. Soon my fears were realized when York said that after lunch we would take a little walk down by the river. To clarify, apparently in Zimbabwe to classify as a river does not require that it actually has water in it, a dry sandy bed where water sometimes flows is still called a river, as opposed to what we would call a river bed at home. This caused me a lot of confusion until I figured this out, we had crossed a lot of river beds but other than the Zambezi itself I had not seen any rivers by which to go take a walk. So, off we went and, in very short order the indigestion was in full effect, I was greatly regretting my decision as the sun baked down on us in the dry river bed. Trudging in that infernal river bed sand I cursed and belched, and cursed and belched some more. It was a cruel joke indeed! There were elephants in the area but not the ones we were looking for. The wind swirled dangerously and the elephants that we had encountered had very small calves with them and they were in no mood for foolishness. Wisely York decided this was a dangerous venture with the combination of the thickness of the vegetation and the swirling wind. It was about to get a hell of a lot more dangerous in a hurry! We plotted a course for the truck and started making our way back, carefully circumventing the disagreeable herd of elephants we had encountered earlier. The stack was working its way slowly through the dense brush in our normal order when Zvito, who was in the lead, came flying back out of the brush like he had run directly into old Lucifer himself! I was now under the assumption that whatever malevolent entity that was currently occupying that particular bush would soon be on its way out of that bush to join us. Thus, I was hurriedly trying to get my double off my shoulder and into play so that I could get the pointy end of the death machine between me and whatever the hell was about to come out of that bush! By the time I was about half way into getting the rifle into play I realized Zvito had halted his retreat and there was some serious pointing at this bush and a whole lot of very fast and furious Shona being exchanged between York and Zvito. I now dialed my response to the situation down a notch seeing that if whatever was in there, had desired to be out here, it would have been here by now. "SNAKE" York whispered in a most displeased manner. York had a nasty run in with a spitting cobra in Mozambique and he is not a fan of old Charley No Legs. I was pretty curious at this point so I edged a step or two up to where they were standing and inquired what type of serpent it might be that occupied this particular piece of real estate? It turned out that it was as York put it "A brute of a banded cobra, also sometimes called a snouted cobra" I appreciated the fact that in this state of discombobulation my old buddy York was willing to take an extra second to go a little more in depth with the taxonomy of this particular reptile. He is thoughtful like that. We gave the Fanged One a wide berth and proceeded right on back to the truck with no further adieu.
That was about the extent of the excitement for the day. A few short attempts at some impala and a long leisurely ride back to camp with lots of great scenery.
We were doing a good job of building the value of some days that included shooting, not to worry though, things would get very Western, very soon!
This day started with tracking elephants in an area not too far from camp. We made contact with several herds but all were young bulls. We did a tremendous amount of driving and ended up in the new area looking for hippo in a few different pans. Being unsuccessful at this we decided to try one more pan that was a few miles away, on a road we had not yet traversed. We had already visited again with our friend in the large pan, with his large harem, and he was still as uncooperative as ever. I truly disliked this hippo, he was a smug bastard. On the way to this newest of pans we ran into a sand pit and got momentarily stuck and were positively swarmed with tsetse flies. Once we got out of the sand we had only gone a short distance when we ran across a very large puff adder in the road. He was a beauty of a specimen, although I don't think York felt that way about him. I offered to catch it and tame it for him so he could keep it as a pet, unfortunately, York seemed to have no interest in pet puff adders. So we proceeded on to the new pan where we thought the hippo might have relocated to but, there was no one home. We had lunch there. York set up a small grill grate over a Mopane fire and we grilled the buffalo heart and it was very tasty. There was pasta salad, cold Kudu liver from the night before and a few leftover slices of cape buffalo back strap, which while tough as boot leather, has a delicious flavor. With all this organ meat and fine filets, if I had a couple bottles of good Malbec I might have just stayed there for the rest of the day! These to me are the things that make it worth getting out of bed.
We left there after a short lunch and decided to drive through the Eland area which triggered a strange chain of events. We passed the air strip and spotted a herd of eland so we stopped to make a stalk, as usual a herd of Zebra screwed the situation up. Up until this point I had avoided shooting the Zebra as I just didn't have much interest in killing one, but now someone was gonna pay the price for this! We sent Sunnyboy to get the double. We tip toed very carefully up to a bush about 70 yards from the Zebra and eased to the left of the bush and set up the sticks. I mounted the rifle and took a good bead on the lower third of the Zebras shoulder and then I proceeded to make a monumental mistake. Maybe I was over confident, maybe I wasn't paying attention to my pre-shot routine, perhaps it was the Mopane fly in my eye? Whatever the reason, I picked my head up and looked to see what I had done before I finished squeezing the trigger. We all know the laws of physics, for every action..and so forth. My head came up and the barrel went down, I missed the entire damn Zebra! I called it the second the trigger broke, I knew what I had done and I knew where the bullet had landed. I was the most unhappy citizen at this point! We of course double checked to make sure I had not actually hit it and started back for the car. Suddenly York spotted a strange shape under a bush maybe 250-300 yards away. It was a hyena, in broad daylight! We made a move to the nearest large bush and hid behind it while York imitated a calf call. Sure enough the hyena bit on it and started our way! Surely old Fisi wasn't gonna fall for this? Yeah, yeah! I think he is! As he came we worked our way around the bush to keep out of sight then came back around and set the sticks up. It was straight out of the old Wile E Coyote playbook. He popped out in the open at about 50 yards and York gave a short calf bawl and he stopped. I'm quite sure when York gave that last bleat and old Fisi stopped and looked over his left shoulder at me standing in the open on those shooting sticks like a miniature sasquatch peering at him through the 4x scope the last thing old Fisi thought was "Well that was a rookie mistake, now was…." Spoiler alert, he never finished that thought! By the time he stopped and turned his head, the sear on the old Sako had already sent the pin towards a federal 215 and exactly 92 grains of Reloader 16, the Swift dropped him on the spot, he didn't even kick! We took the pictures and loaded up to head back towards camp, it was getting late now and I was extremely pleased with the hyena incident. We were a few miles down the road when we rounded a corner and there right, right there in front of us is a cow elephant with a calf and a tuskless, right there on the road! Everyone seemed to know this was the one, Zvito was on his way out of the truck, I was strapping on the ammo belt, Michael was smiling as he unzipped the case that held the big double. It was Showtime people! All the training, all the million times I had shot this elephant in my mind. It was about to all get very real in about the next 30 seconds.
I have always found coincidence to be a funny thing. In October of 1978 a kid was born on a rural tobacco farm in west KY. He had worked on a farm, played High School football, joined the military, got married, and served two tours in Iraq. Left the military and worked for a railroad for ten years then grew tired of that for various reasons, left there to go work at a papermill which eventually afforded him the opportunity to go on the safari he had always dreamed of all those years ago on the tobacco farm. There were a lot of decisions made in those 44 years that could have sent him on a totally different course. Lots of opportunities for things to happen that would have ended any chance of him standing right here in this very spot on this very day.
In the same respect about 15 years ago, somewhere in the bush of North West Zimbabwe a baby elephant was born, cursed by nature to have no tusks. It would wander the bush for 15 years avoiding drought, lions, meat poachers, and what all other things a wild animal in Africa endures, only for us to find ourselves here on this day at this exact moment in this exact same place. Perhaps if we had happened onto a hippo? What if I had not missed the Zebra? Something different with the Hyena, or perhaps we just turned down a different road on the way back to camp that day. Fate, coincidence, inshallah, whatever version you subscribe to, it is definitely a thing, and it definitely has your number!
I quickly dismounted and collected my double, withdrew the two chosen ones from my ammo slide and delivered them to the breach. There was exactly one small bushy tree between us and the elephants and we moved closer to it. York needed to make sure the calf didn't belong to the tuskless. Apparently he did this in a hurry because the sticks were up and the elephant stepped from behind the tree at 15 yards. She swung to face us with her ears spread, she was clearly unhappy with our presence. "Between the eyes" York said. This situation had happened so fast I was a bit shocked that it was actually going down right now. I said "Now?" "Yes, whenever you're ready, between the eyes." I centered the red dot and the 470 rocked as the right barrel sent 500 grains of cutting edge solid down range. There was a solid SMACK and the elephants ears folded back, a cloud of dust billowed from the elephants head as if called forward by some unseen force. She tipped back and to her right. She landed with a crash and a growl. "Reload", I broke the gun open and cleared the empty then reached for another solid off my belt. The other cow came in a half bluff charge and we backed up a few steps. Where the cow fell there was a bush preventing me from firing a quick second shot. I now had the right barrel reloaded and York shouted back the other cows and we advanced a few steps back to our original firing position then swung to our right about 3 steps to clear the bush. "Now Again" York shouted. I pulled up and delivered a fast pair, one to the center of the chest and one to the head, trying again to hit the brain and end this cleanly and respectfully. The other cows came forward again and drove us back toward the truck which I mounted to give me an elevated firing position in the event she decided to actually follow through, and also to get the hell away from the other two elephants. I was willing to stay on the ground and fight, but when York said get to the truck I was not gonna argue with him. SunnyBoy was cranking the vehicle as I mounted it and York was now at the tailgate in case we needed to make a full retreat in order to avoid unnecessarily having to shoot the others in self defense. It was unnecessary though, a little more shouting from York and a couple convincing steps in their direction with some arm waving and they moved off to a safe distance. We approached the tuskless and I knelt down in front of her and delivered both barrels to the heart just to pay the insurance and it was done.
This was an emotional moment. The cutting of the tail of your first elephant is not something you will forget. I think you know in that moment if you wish to be an elephant hunter or not. That is a hard thing to know until you have spent time with them and killed one of them. The answer for me is yes. I will hunt the elephant!