SA JAGTER/HUNTER | January 2015 | By RON THOMSON
Hunting elephants in the rain
"They were close all right. I could feel it in my bones – cold as they were..."
Despite the fact that the Gwaai River hills were very wild and rugged, the lo- cal Mnanzwa people there practiced subsistence agriculture wherever they could find a patch of arable soil that was big enough to support a family village. That is why we were often called upon to hunt crop-raiding elephants in these hills.
One day I was following a group of five elephant bulls that had been consistently raiding crops in the villages east of what we called Cross-Roads – where the Binga-to-Main Camp (Hwange) dirt road crossed the main Bulawayo-to-Victoria Falls tarred highway. The tracks of these Pachyderms led us through the wooded hills towards the Gwaai River gorge and the country got more and more rugged as we travelled along. Overhead the clouds had been gathering menacingly all morning. By midday they were grumbling angrily and threatening rain.
Thunder and lightning soon began to rack the dark, pregnant skies. The reverberations rolled up and down the river gorge and in and out of the ravines that fed into it. I knew we were going to get drenched, but the tracks were by then so very fresh and I did not want to go home empty-handed. So we persevered. Because the spoor was not difficult to follow I pushed the trackers to greater efforts. I was determined to find our quarry before the storm broke.
Topping a ridge we came across several piles of fresh dung. I kicked one turd open and pressed the backs of my knuckles into the yellow-green excrement. It was hot. The jumbos were just ahead of us. I looked around expectantly, but saw nothing. Then the rain came. It first came in large and heavy droplets that splattered individually through the tree tops. “Handeyi,” I urged my tracker Ben frantically, “let’s go.
I knew we would probably lose the tracks in the rain, but the elephants were too close to give up. I reasoned that even if we could just ascertain the direction they had travelled in, we would find them. I sensed that they, too, understood it was going to rain and I knew they would want to find a convenient place to stand and weather the storm. When elephants drop their dung collectively like that at midday – on a hot dry day – it normally meant they were about to go into their midday siesta spot.
Ben pushed on resolutely, leading us down the hillock and into the valley beyond. Then the heavens really opened up. Water literally poured from the clouds in torrents. We were instantly soaked to the skin and soon thereafter I could feel the cold eating into my bones. Ben stopped and looked at me disconsolately. He shrugged. The spoor was gone. I could not expect even Ben to find the tracks now. “Tiya, go,” I pushed him on regardless. “Yena duzi, they are close...” I had to shout to make myself heard.
They were close all right. I could feel it in my bones – cold as they were. I made a gesture that suggested we should climb the opposite hillside. That, after all, was the direction in which the elephants had been travelling. Had it been a fine day, the next hilltop might well have been the site the elephants would have chosen for their siesta.
Halfway up the hillside, in the pouring rain, Ben bent down and picked up a fresh green twig that had obviously been chewed by an elephant. He grinned as he handed it to me. This was definitely the route the bulls had taken. I looked at the ground hoping to see a track. No such luck. The ground was just a sheet of running water.
The rain did not let up for a second and the skies were ablaze with wild flashes of bril liant lightning. Crashing booms of thunder came at us from all sides. We pushed on, ignoring the conflagration, but I must admit to being a bit afraid of a possible lightning strike. Up ahead I now knew we would find our elusive quarry.
As we topped the ridge, Mbuyotsi, the Bushman who carried my second rifle, a 9.3 Mauser, poked me in the buttocks with its muzzle. I looked round at him and he made a gesture with his eyes, protruding his lips, and pushing his streaming wet face forward to our right front. I looked in that direction and there were the bulls. Ben was still trudging on ahead. He had not seen them. I ran forward and grabbed him by the shoulder, pointing. I then suggested that Mbuyotsi should come with me while Ben and our water carrier, a local villager whom I press-ganged that morning to carry our josak with water, find a place on the hillside to hide.
There was no way of testing the wind. I surmised that our scent would be battered to the ground in the heavy rain and that it would not carry far anyway. My approach, therefore, was conditioned entirely by the visual cover that the local trees and shrubs could afford us in our stalk. As long as the elephants did not spot us, we would be fine.
The elephants were standing absolutely still under the umbrellas of a small group of big Mfuti trees. They were several yards apart, their heads hanging desultorily from drooping shoulders. Their ears were unmoving against their shoulders and it looked as if their eyes were closed. The rain poured off their bodies in continuous sheets; and a veil of steam rose up from each and every one. I had the feeling they were all sound asleep.
I had no trouble walking up to within 10 yards of the nearest bull and dropping him with a .458 bullet just forward of the left ear hole. He fell towards me, hit the ground with an indiscernible thump, and rolled over, his top back leg kicking. I already had a second round in the chamber by the time he hit the ground and was ready to take on the next best target.
None of the other elephants even blinked an eyelid. They had obviously accepted the loud detonation of my shot as just another thunderclap. All about us the thunder and the lightning continued unabated and the rain continued to pour down in buckets. The next bull dropped to his knees and remained propped up on his brisket. He too was dead before he hit the ground. Still, the remaining three elephants did not move.
My rifle felt slippery in my hands as I gently opened the bolt and slowly took the spent case out with my fingers. I looked at Mbuyotsi and grinned. He grinned back and, without any kind of haste, he gave me the two shining brash cartridges he was holding in his hand. Softly, gently, I reloaded the magazine, pushing the top cartridge into the breech and closed the bolt. I had four rounds in the rifle again and there were only three elephant left to kill. I just knew then that I had them all.
When the third bull collapsed he fell obliquely against the animal standing next to him. As he rolled over, his top hind leg kicking its last tattoo in the air, he alerted and alarmed the animal he had bumped. The fourth bull, therefore, opened his eyes and threw up his head in alarm. He growled loudly, awakening the fifth bull. Unerringly, my next bullet found the fourth bull’s brain and he too fell to the ground, kicking.
The fifth and last bull was now wide awake, but had no idea what was going on. He still had not distinguished between the thunderous detonations in the clouds so close above his head, and the comparatively puny “bangs” that came from my rifle. And he did not see Mbuyotsi or me standing so close to him in the pouring rain. Totally surprised, and confused by the peculiar antics of his fallen comrades, the fifth bull backed off, peering down his nose at the jostling heap. He had not taken two steps backwards, however, before a frontal brain shot pulled him down onto his nose.
It was all over. It was the easiest elephant hunt I had ever conducted. Still the lightning flashed. Still the thunder rolled round and round the hills. And still the rain came bucketing down. We would leave the recovery of the carcasses for the next day. It was a miserable, wet, cold, and most uncomfortable walk back to the Land Rover. And the 40 mile drive back to Main Camp was purgatory, because our clothes were sopping wet and air blew in at us through the gaps in the loose canvas canopy from every direction. By the time we got home all three of us were shivering like gibbering idiots.