Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe is a must-see after the hunt!
The two remaining animals on my SCI African 29 bucket list went unchecked until now for a reason... they both are most often taken as separate, dedicated hunts for the best chance of success, combined with the fact that over the last few years the international anti-hunting effort has been relatively successful closing off entire countries to elephant hunting. On top of it all, two of the most popular destinations - Zimbabwe and Tanzania - were closed last year to all ivory importation into the USA, even completely legal tusks taken by American sportsmen at great expense now become the property of the respective governments (or whoever else can abscond with them) in the countries which they were harvested.
Remodeled Presidential railcars make good hunting camps.
Forget the hunters, this, as I were to discover first-hand, has needlessly created many hardships for the locals and has even contributed to the famine that plagues Zimbabwe due to the serious decline in agricultural production in that country. The reasons for this of course are not in the purview of a hunting report like this, except as it raises challenges and concerns relevant to the safety and success of the hunting experience in and of itself.
This particular decision to hunt both jumbo and the cat simultaneously, immediately following the Namibian Horseback Hunt, as it were to turn out, is a testament to the logistical prowess of Jacques Senekal of African Maximum Safaris as well as the talent, fortitude and determination of his senior professional hunter, Werhner 'Walla' Albertse as I was soon to discover. I'm also pretty sure that without this relationship we have developed the past few years we wouldn't have pulled it off. But with the two-year goal of completing the African 29 closing in on us fast (May 2013 we began) there was a burr in our saddles to go all-out on the home stretch.
Now, Jacques has an excellent Zim camp for use just outside of the Robbins Camp (Hwange National Park) along the Matetsi, that I have hunted before. I know of at least one elephant and several big cats that have been taken there, but although it has plenty of big cats and the buffalo are nearby, it's not the most reliable property for jumbo. (I hasten to add that Jacques has also secured a new and exciting free-ranging buffalo hunting area bordering Kruger Park in the RSA that I'm anxious to hunt as well.) However since we were attempting the "impossible", the decision was made to employ the services of a professional leopard and elephant specialist, Heath Jardine, lifelong resident Zimbabwe PH. Heath's outfit would secure the hunting area(s) as well as the permits, having literally been raised on a nearby farm, his knowledge of the area would prove to be a priceless asset.
Walla and I were greeted at the Victoria Falls airport after a short flight from Windhoek by South African PH and Heath's "assistant" Francois, a fine PH in his own right, who would be providing his support for the hunt as well. During the two-hour drive to the hunting camp Francois explained that the allies were indeed in the area in large numbers, in fact several trophy bulls were watering every evening immediately behind the camp in a large opening, we could sit there and watch them, the issue on our elephant was finding the non-trophy bull that I sought.
Trophy bulls came to water every night behind the dining room (right)
As far as the leopard, well there were "some tracks in the area" but no pre-baiting had been done (the PH's had just arrived the day before us) so I got the distinct impression the success on the cat was an open question. Then again, cats are never a guarantee, I know several guys in SCI have have made multiple cat hunts and still no cat.
Arriving at the camp (literally just yards from the park border a few miles from the main entrance) we were to discover some rather unique accommodations - old, fully restored rail cars under a magnificent thatched enclosure complete with dining area over looking the watering hole with an open-air lounge at one end and a small gift shop at the other. The dining was excellent, rooms (railcars) very comfy, the refreshment plentiful and the camp staff friendly and attentive. The 14-day adventure was on!
Refurbished antique railcars are very comfortable accommodations!
We awoke early the next morning to get the lay of the land and look for something we could shoot for bait. Walla was scratching his arms and legs incessantly at the breakfast table.
"What the hell happened to you?"
"I don't know, look at this!"
"That the hell happened to you? You have chicken pox?" I asked, making note of the literally hundreds of red bumps on his arms and legs. "Holy crap!"
"I don't think so, there's nothing on my chest."
"Bed bugs!" I declared, "go check under your mattress."
"Already did, nothing."
"Nothing on me, Heath? Francois?"
"Lets just go hunting," Walla says.
I was delighted when I saw Heath's Zim truck, an older but very well maintained Land Cruiser with (almost) all of the accommodations of Walla's "white truck of death" HiLux I had put many thousands of miles on in SA. The new Zim hunter would be well-advised to pay extra attention to this little detail when selecting an outfitter - in Zimbabwe the law requires one to employ the services of a resident PH and hunting can ONLY be done in a properly licensed Zimbabwe truck. Problem is, there's a huge tariff to bring them or parts for them into the country so many are very old and in very bad states of repair.
Zimbabwe Tips: I strongly suggest you not take your Zim ride for granted - ask for photos of the specific truck you will be hunting in and be sure it has lawful Zim plates! Also, be sure to ask who the resident PH is if you are booking with a non-Zimbabwe resident outfitter. Many fine SA PH's have contacts in Zimbabwe with whom to book hunts but please bear these two often hunter-overlooked requirements in mind or risk disappointment!
It didn't take long to discover, despite the great accommodation and transportation, the situation on-the-ground in Zim has deteriorated the past couple years. Although the country itself is finally moving into the digital-age when it comes to licensing and permitting (I'm told), the plains-game (a.k.a. bait) situation at least in this area is bleak. Although we traveled nearly 100 miles a day (all on dirt of course) checking for tracks, etc., by day three all we managed to hang was a single kudu cow.
When Heath Jardine pulls his coveralls over the safari shorts, it's time to get down to business!
The elephant situation wasn't looking much better either. Despite the dozen bulls behind camp, the non-trophy pachyderms were spending their daylight hours in Hwange Park and only moving into the hunting area during the night. This would just about preclude the way I had hoped to hunt them, tracking and moving in for the brainer I had been practicing with Heath's expert tutelage on the many skulls surrounding the main camp. It seems Mr. Jardine is one of the go-to guys for park cull operations, with something around 100 bulls on his resume using various doubles and bolt guns, his "field learning" demonstrations of the location of the brain in relation to the ear-slit and zygotic arch on the skulls as well as in photos was the kind of hands-on, real-life instruction every new elephant hunter should have!
The bright spot in this situation was a bachelor herd of five shootable, mature bulls that were spotted by locals (Heath's local friends) coming into the water on their farm right at sundown. Should push come to shove, we'd set up an ambush at the hole and pray they did just that, so we were freed-up a bit to focus on cat bait.
The fly in this ointment was that we hadn't seen fresh leopard track in days. One of the kudu quarters was hit by a lion, but that was just about all the feline action we had since day-one. The outlook was bleak. To say I was disappointed with the situation is an understatement, so for lunch on day four I read heath the riot act. The farms were not being kept up after the farmers were kicked-off, the wells were mostly all dry (pumps stolen) and without fresh grass and crops virtually all of the remaining plains species were poached out to the point we literally had to chase the poachers as well as another resident PH "scout" out of our hunting area. With nothing to eat the locals were catching and boiling small leopard-tortoises to survive, say nothing of anything of substance for a cat to prey upon. Obviously, prospects were dim.
There was one critter in great abundance, however - baboon. Hundreds of them - very highly educated baboon - no doubt due to simple fact that they were the only live meat in the region. So Heath stopped the truck (on day 4) when we came across a troupe in the road I managed to take the a big one before they ran off.
On the fifth day we took heart however, a female leopard finally came in for a taste of our kudu bait. Stripped it bare. Early-on we had scouted and hung one of the four baits in a 'leopard tree.' Heath knew about this kitty scratching-post in the middle of no-where, a tree someone many years ago had discovered in this particular location and had liked it enough to construct a bare-bones blind exactly 60 yards away - about 10 feet up in the crotch of a tree - so the obvious thing to do was to hang a bait.
Walla really, really liked this location and was taking bets that, if we even got a hit, this would be the place. He was right. Still, it was a female, but the potential was there the male wasn't too far away, possibly in the Park which was just a few hundred yards away. Now the pressure was on to keep tying on the feed-bag.
The second big male baboon came came the next day at 200. They were getting more and more educated and it became apparent they would allow us no closer, should we need another. Was the .280 and I up to it? Walla and I were pretty confident, but these other guys had never see it it done. But at least we had more baits in the trees! Question was, how would they work? Would a cat climb a tree for a monkey? We'd hang one and find out, that much was certain.
Now, with baboon in the truck, it was time to go all-in on this location. We were going to take one in the kitty-tree or we weren't going to take one. "Hey, whatever," I thought, "all this for a female we can't shoot?". Something to do anyway...
The bait bucket was getting just a bit ripe, however Heath said it was perfect for what he needed and prepared a drag which we drove to the edge of the park and back-and-forth along the border for a mile or so. Our drags were hindered by the daily downpour of rains washing them away, remnants of the earlier season that didn't seem to want to go away. No doubt this had some effect on our lack of success so far. Still, we had to try.
More rain. It came down in buckets on the way back to camp and we got soaked. Still, we swung wide around the baboon spot, worked our way in but it became obvious they would let us no closer that where we were at - 427 yards distant. Feeling a bit cocky (nothing-to-lose is more like it) and confident of my sighting on Johnny's 300-meter gong in Namibia, I cranked the Leupold CDS dial on the 4x12 VX-R to 430, popped down the bipod and popped the cap under 62 grains of H4831, letting the 160 Accubond loose at 2925 fps... "Head shot," I called. Thwack! Down came the baboon just as everyone started chanting "Sniper, sniper, sniper." Damn if I didn't hit him square on the chin.
"You smoked him proper," Heath says with his understated British accent, "but what about 500?"
"Looks like we'll find out tomorrow," I replied, "Walla, you willing to go pink-slips, this .280 Ackley against your pet Sako .338 on a 500 yard shot?" Now I had him thinking... even though we both knew I couldn't bring the .338 back to the States.
Checking the baits in the morning - day 6 - nothing. Drags washed out. Crap, can't we just catch a little break? Everything and anything Mother Nature was working against us. (Out comes the gut bucket for some more dragging)
"Lets just hunt elephant tomorrow... but first! Don't we have a bet going, Walla?"
"Hmmmm..." You could cut the air with a knife, "Naw, I'll pass."
So we drove to baboon-central once again, only this time they started scattering as soon as they saw us. Letting them settle down before they get too upset, "What's the range?" I whispered.
"550 or so on the laser..." Walla replies.
"We have to do exactly 500," Heath declares, "Everyone get out and lets quietly push the truck."
"502, that's good."
"Walla, you sure? I know you love this rifle, and you've seen me miss some pretty easy ship-shots..."
"Ummmm, no I don't think so."
Okay, here we go... CRACK!
(one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, one-thousand-three, one-thousand-four, one-thousand-SMACK)
"You got him," Walla says with his deep, Afrikaans inflection, "Holy Hell ... that's how you shoot a baboon!"
Good thing, too. I secretly had some doubts about 600... at least with a 12X scope!
So after this little diversion, with more bait in that wagon we make a quick detour to hang it and head back to camp to camp. Now, it wasn't making any sense at all to me why there were three professional hunters, two trackers and a government "parks minder" along with myself bouncing along in the truck every day so I decided to take issue with it.
Since Walla's bites weren't getting any better (though few if any more more were appearing), Walla really could use a visit to the local clinic to see what the hell was going on with this reaction he was having, all the red bumps on his arms and legs. I insisted he at least get it looked at, even though the cortisone cream was helping and he wasn't running a fever, better safe than sorry.
It was decided that on the way into the clinic the next morning Francois and Walla would swing by the scratching-post bait to check it while Heath and I dragged some brush around the trails to see if we could het a handle on the movements of that bachelor group of five bulls. By dragging the perimeter roads we'd be able to clearly see who was coming in and out, from and to where and when they were doing it.
That plan didn't last long, as Mr. Spots was in town. It didn't rain last night and the cat found the drag right up to the bait. That baboon was literally ravaged, tracks were everywhere. He had not only feasted on the prize we left him, but sauntered about the watering hole next to the tree blind and washed everything down the hatch, about 5 am this morning as near as they could tell.
Heath already had everything in the truck, remote-controlled lights, a remote motion detector, wire and rope, so we lit out to the kitty-post and started in. It was day 7 and appeared we were in for a long one...
Walla was right, this was the spot after all. Now, I don't know how many cats he's brought in for clients, but I'm pretty sure it numbers in the dozens. I've seen the photos. This wasn't the biggest cat by any stretch of the imagination, but it passed the cigarette test.
Upon seeing the tracks, he lays a Marlboro in the tracks and declares, "he's big enough, track is longer than a cigarette." He shows me. Let's do it.
What began to unfold was truly a thing of beauty, two of the best professionals in Africa, assisted by some extremely experienced trackers, surveying the macros as well as the micros of the situation and meticulously checking and confirming that everything is properly in it's place.
The wind is in our face from the blind, the lights and detectors are hung and hidden properly. The remains of the baboon is wired into place with the duiker, at just the right angle to the blind so he has to jump onto the horizontal limb just so and show us his nuts. Close enough so he can reach it yet hard enough to reach so he cannot abscond with it and drag it off before we get a shot.
BEFORE: There's been some cat hunters in this tree before.
Heath directs the trackers to get busy on the rickety old blind. They shore it up for a minimum of noise. They go far back into the forest to cut limbs so not to disturb the baiting area. The make sure we have a shooting lane, and pack a dense covering of fresh tree boughs, completely blending the wooden structure into the tree it resides in.
AFTER: Blind? What blind?
I stay out of their way in the truck. I know better that to disturb a professionals' concentration. Let them work if you want results, there will be plenty of time for 'splaining when the deed is done. Honestly, watching Walla, Heath and the trackers checking and double-checking everything was alone worth the price of passage.
The set-up. That's the kitty-tree baited-up in the background.
We had one shot, literally as well as figuratively, and we all knew it. If and when that cat jumped into the tree, the outcome would all be up to Bwana not to muck it up. As if that was not enough pressure, the entire surroundings was a mixture of thick six-foot tall reed grass and heavy forestation. Wound a leopard in this stuff and lives are on the line. You'd never even see it coming.
The scene was set, this entire leopard hunt, if the time came, would all boil down to one instantaneous, yet deliberate 60 yard shot.
We head back to camp for lunch, a power nap, and back into the blind by 3 pm after checking the AfricaHunting.com shot placement guide one last time for the hell of it.
I climb into the blind with my rifle, sit in the chair and check the sight picture and bipod height on a supporting wooden beam. Perfect. Lift the butt when the cat isn't looking and shoot. Walla sits behind me for the video, Heath to my right in the light show control seat. We're ready.
Guess who's coming to dinner?
Now, in Wayne Michael Grant's book Into The Thorns the author pokes fun at hunters that spend all this time, preparation and money falling asleep almost immediately upon settling in. Not me. No way I'm sleeping, not now anyway. On the way in Walla says he expects the cat about 5 pm, Heath scoffs. This is a morning cat, but you never know. Walla says he's seen many "morning cats" taken before 9pm. In fact, he says, the vast majority of his cats are shot before 8 pm.
Me, I'm rooting for an early bird. Sitting there in the blind reading my iPad at 4pm or so I have to cough. I pop in a lozenge. Damn, this sucks, I'm a terrible blind-sitter. No water, thanks, I'll don't want to pee. I knew this would be the hardest hunt of the Africa 29, sitting quiet for hours on end. I start repeating to myself, "If you want a cat, don't cough... if you want a cat, don't cough. Don't move, don't make a sound, don't cough."
It only works for a few minutes. So I focus harder, like a meditation. I focus on my iPad. iPad says its just 5 pm. I hear a noise. Leaves rustling in the wind? A flock of birds take off in the distance. Heath's motion sensor goes off and he nudges me. More birds.
I move my eyes up to look at the bait tree just as one of the most beautiful animals in the world leaps with a single bound onto the bait branch. A big flock of birds in the bait tree, thinking about having a meal themselves, suddenly takes off and the cat jumps down. He immediately looks back into the tree, he's hungry and realizes it was only the birds. He walks around the bottom of the tree a bit, marking his turf, within a moment he's back in the tree, standing at a perfect broadside.
The birds in our tree take flight. The cat looks over for moment, he's looking right at us standing with the sun gleaming off his golden coat, we're frozen at the sight. Are we busted? Nope. He's hungry. Mr. Spots lays down on the limb, scratching and pawing at the bait on the far side, barely within his reach. Damn, he could care less about that duiker, he wants more baboon.
BALLS! It's our male!
I look at Heath, Heath mouths the word SHOOT. The cat could care less about our tree, he's busy looking the other way, trying to get at the perfectly placed bait. I raise the butt to my shoulder, quietly two-finger the 700's safety and peer thru the 6X-set Leupold to wait for my chance.
Something clicks under Heath's chair in our rickety old blind (you can hear it in the video). He sits up on his front legs, his ass on the limb and turns his head to look right at me over his shoulder. I figure its now or never. The boys insisted I use the .280 on the cat, despite the fact that my trusty .375 Dragon Slayer is in camp, because they want to "see what it'll do." Shot placement is critical, he's angling away to the right and I can't get both shoulders.
I can't get both shoulders but I can put that little red dot on his right shoulder just below the junction with the spine at this angle and squeeze.
The cat fell, literally paws up, into the dirt with minimal skin damage. Shoulder, lungs and spine, out the base of the neck on the far side. The only movement was a slight twitch of his tail. Cat in the salt on Day Seven.
Jumbo Down, African 29 Complete!
So after Walla got his, what turned out to be mosquito bites, attended to the next day we went out after lunch to scope out our non-trophy jumbos' watering hole. His room must have been full of them that first night, but honestly I cannot recall getting one bite the whole time.
The trackers cooked us up some steaks while we watched the five Jumbos drink.
We took our steak-grilling gear along with the Nite Site to see what, if anything was coming in to drink. Wait a minute, something got turned around - the Nite Site was for leopard, not elephant!
We situated ourselves some distance from the watering hole, beneath the raised levy, and had an African cookout while we waited for the ellies. Sure enough, right after sunset here they came crashing through the timber. Five big, mature bulls but not a one of them going over the legal limit. We watched them through the binocs and then through the Nite Sight until they moved off into the blackness, evaluating each and making plans for the ambush to follow.
The next afternoon we set-up with the Dragon Slayer on the levy with Heath's .416 Rem 700 as a back-up. We were now on day 9, if we screwed this one up and spooked the bulls back into Hwange Park the prospects would be bleak. This was compounded with the fact that we'd be shooting right at dark, so there was no time for follow-up until the next morning, so the decision was made to take a heart shot on the biggest body bull, the leader of the pack, if we could get one. I felt, although I wanted more traditional elephant hunt, this was probably the right move for the time and circumstance.
The bulls were coming to water at sundown from the trees on the right.
Right on cue came the crashing of the trees, Mr. Big was of course the first one out, but we couldn't be absolutely sure until we had a look at the others. It was only about 50 yards or so from the timber to the water so there was no shot. We watched them during for a while but the swirling evening breeze must have drifted our scent and our bull put his trunk into the air and decided to pull out early.
Now or never time again, so I let a 300 Nosler Factory Solid fly as he left.
At the report all hell broke loose. Our bull stumbled, slid in the mud and nearly went down but regained his footing quickly as the other four trumpeted wildly and crashed through the timber with ours bringing up the rear. We all just stopped and listened for a telltale crash of a jumbo down in the woods and it didn't take long. He had made it only about 100 yards or so before it was all over.
We drove up and around as our trackers debated the exact spot they thought he had fallen. We then carefully picked our way through the timber, rifles ready to rock, expecting at any moment for his buddies attempt to exact revenge and come bursting out after us. One could definitely hear them milling around the timber, but thankfully they didn't come closer and we were able to place an insurance shot in, briefly admire our trophy and slip out of there until our Kodak moment in the morning. Better safe than sorry.
Heath left word at the farmhouse to be sure the elephant was undisturbed overnight, there'd be plenty of time to butcher and distribute the meat tomorrow.
When we arrived the next morning there were a couple dozen locals guarding their next meal. So we took care of the Kodak moment as quickly as possible, Heath jumped up onto the beast and drew some skinning lines with a grease pen and the work began.
Throughout the next couple hours, several dozen more arrived. All in all locals carved-up ellie as they made fires and cooked-up dinner on the spot. The 3500 pounds of fresh meat they hauled off would feed them and their families, about 400-600 people, for more than three months. Frankly, I was so awestruck with the scene, so delighted that this elephant would provide much-needed, protein-rich meals for hundreds of hungry people, I literally stood there for the entire four-hours and made some new friends while I witnessed the event.
Needless to say, as soon as the elephant was a done-deal Walla had phoned / texted Jacques in Swartruggens and gave him the good news, "Jumbo Down - Africa 29 Complete!" I discovered Jacques had hit the road and was on his way to the Zim to collect us and personally offer his congratulations.
We spent the next couple nights in the Azambezi Hotel in Vic Falls, booked some tiger fishing in the Zambezi, took some photos at Vic Falls and sampled the local cuisine liberally as we applauded the fire-dancers preforming for the tourists.
We made the drive back to SA, through Botswana (dodging many elephant and an overturned potato truck in the process) and arrived back at Woodstock Lodge, the Africa Max home base, little worse for wear but still glowing for our accomplishments the past (almost) two years. Walla, despite his allergic reaction to over 200 bug-bites, had guided me to something just a few months earlier I feared was a pipe-dream, The Safari Club International African 29 Grand Slam in under two years.
Last edited by a moderator: