Hunting Elephant

'Big Bulls In Big Country' by Jason van Aarde

When hunting elephant in this God forsaken country, you need a client who trusts you, who trusts your judgement, who is willing to follow, putting his life in your hands and for what you may ask? For the glory of a few seconds? The shot that will make him a successful African hunter? You need a client who is true not only to himself, but also to his Professional Hunter and who knows his limits. For in this true wilderness there has never been and never will be room for overdriven egos, pretence or anything but honesty and the spirit of the hunt. The country in question lies in the corridor between Niassa and Qurimba National Park in Gabo Delgado province, northern Mozambique. Temperatures push the thermometer into the hundreds with high humidity and almost no shade, making hunting here harder than any of the other areas I have hunted across Africa.

Barry is that hunter, putting his faith in me and my team....mile after mile on the tracks of an elephant that passed more than twelve hours before. That's an old track to follow, but it was already half past nine in the morning, hot and getting hotter by the second. We were confident he would head out towards the Mesalo River to find shade not far from the river's edge and wait out the heat of the day .... so we decided it was still worth it. It is a well oiled team and routine kicked in as packs were filled with water and snacks; I get GPS readings, check ammo and rifles and make sure everybody drinks as much water as possible before leaving the vehicle for the rest of the gruelling hunt on foot.

Hunting elephant has its ups and downs and today is no different. We lost the track, five hundred yards from where we had first picked them up. The feeding bull entered a well-used patch of grass....tracks mingling with others....we spread out and looped the area, finding the tracks just to lose them again at the next patch. It was close to an hour before we found his tracks again, this time in a well-used elephant path leading to the river. Now seven miles away from where we started, tracking was becoming easier, and the pace picked up. We all knew that now we had a good chance of closing the gap.

Not wanting to burn out before we made any real progress, I tried to slow the pace down, but the excitement made it near impossible and it quickly picked up again. Estavao, my lead tracker suddenly stopped....two more bulls had joined our boy. It was now approaching noon and the heat was unbearable. Sweat drips and you can think of nothing other than the cocoon of heat that feels to be trapping you. It becomes all consuming and yet strange as it sounds, I am content....this is what I enjoy, this is hunting. You would not be far wrong by thinking that I take as much pleasure in following these huge creatures as I do catching up with them - the harder it gets, the greater the challenge. I've seen it happen so often, the romance of untamed Africa only seems to materialise once it is all over.

I realised we needed shade but there was nothing. We pushed on another ten minutes before the tracks led us to a big baobab in a small dried up river bed. As we entered the shade of the great old tree I felt the temperature drop and the atmosphere amongst of the group relaxed. It is great working with a team who are comfortable with each other, there is always time for relaxed conversation and a joke or two. Barry fits in well, even though I can see he is hot and tired.

I sit with my back against the big tree and am struck by the overwhelming smell of elephant, signs of where they rubbed themselves surround me. I wonder how many great tuskers spent their time here waiting for the heat to become bearable as we are now. I look at Estavao, sitting on a log opposite me, smoking a home made cigarette filled with tobacco he grew on the floodplains of the Mesalo. He looks at me, I nod, letting him know I am still happy with the way things are going. He takes one long drag of his cigarette and stands up, handing what is left of the cigarette to his assistant he walks over to me, kneeling so that our eyes are on the same level.

"We must be careful now, the bulls will be down the river bed not far, that way". He points north.

"They have been at the Mesalo and are resting now," he adds.

I have seen enough and know better than to challenge or question him. I look around - everybody looks rejuvenated and ready to go. I stand and out of habit, open the bolt of my rifle, making sure it is still loaded, my team know that this means, "Let's go".

At first we walked down the river bed but eventually flank it, keeping the wind in our favour. We are now on the Mesalo side and if the bulls had come back we'd be able to pick up their tracks. Then Estavao changes his tactics, slowly moving away from the stream towards the Mesalo. I was about to ask him why he was doing that when we move up onto a small rise. It is enough for me to see that the river has turned west two hundred yards ahead and is now heading almost straight to the Mesalo. We were now on the earlier tracks even though we were not precisely following them. Estavao was not paying much attention to the tracks either, instead he focuses all his attention on the thickets bordering the stream. We must have gone a hundred yards when right in front of us were four bull tracks crossing over the tracks we have been following and going off to our right, straight to the stream bed where Estavao had been looking all the time. To top it all, the tracks were fresh....very fresh.

The additional fourth track was one of a very old bull. I'd seen the tracks before but it's never been fresh enough to follow. It had kept me awake many a night, so you can imagine, I was in my element and so was Estavao - he was smiling from ear to ear. Barry, not knowing what it all was about, looked at me puzzled until I tell him we just saved ourselves some seven kilometres and that the additional track is of the old bull from the day before. I did not need to say more, he knew what track I was referring to. The day before we were following tracks and this track kept popping up, but was always too old to follow. The excitement must have shown because Barry mentioned it later that night.

Being late October, the wind is unpredictable and keeps us on our toes by swirling and changing direction. It has left us with little choice but to carry on hoping it would settle and come from the north-west, as it usually does. The bulls were spread out more than fifty yards from each other but I couldn't bring myself to leave the old bulls track, hopeful that he'd split off from the rest of the group.

We were no more than 80 yards from the thicket when Estavao stopped and looked intently into the thicket. I immediately got my binoculars up and did the same, but couldn't see anything. Looking closer, I saw there was something there. A tail? An ear? I couldn't be sure, but there was movement. How Estavao saw it with the naked eye, I don't know but there were elephants in front of us, silent and practically invisible, making it virtually impossible to make out anything more.

We tested the wind and it looked good, so I waved Barry closer and indicated we were going to move in quickly. I didn't want to give the wind chance to swirl again, as had happened on the first day of the hunt. We'd caught up with five bulls early that morning and the wind suddenly came from the opposite direction.

Not being able to get a good direction on where we were, the elephant bulls stampeded straight towards us, with a magnificent single tusker at the lead, carrying 90-100 lbs.

It all happened so quickly. I'd told Barry to take the bull in front, pointing out the big one tusker, but unfortunately he was concentrating on another big bull standing to the left, which I couldn't see. By the time he saw the bull I was focussed on, they were virtually on top of us. I shout and raised my arms in an attempt to stop or turn them. They were now less than twenty yards from us and approaching quickly. Fortunately the noise and motion turned the herd, but simultaneously a young bull moved between us, making a shot at the target impossible. There was nothing more to do, we followed them until late that afternoon and eventually decided to give up. They kept on moving, making sure the wind was always behind them and then they were gone.

We hadn't moved more than ten paces when I felt the wind change again. It was now blowing from behind us and straight towards them. We stopped, hoping it would turn again before our scent got to them. Suddenly they took off and in the commotion and dust, we managed to catch a small, quick glimpse of a beautiful trophy bull amongst them. Once all had settled and we knew our efforts had come to little, we ambled over to were the herd had rested, not only to have a good look at the tracks but also because it was the only much needed shade in the area. The mood was heavy and we were a bit down, to say the least, but I was confident the elephant would not go to far. It was now almost one in the afternoon and the heat had peaked to what seemed impossible for any human could handle.

After a short, but much deserved breather and a few sips of water to keep up our hydration, we started to follow the easy path the elephant had left in their hurry to get away from us. We found they had turned back to the stream bed and slowed down to a walking pace, conserving energy. This confirmed that they wanted shade and would not go far before stopping again. We must have been on the tracks less than ten minutes when I saw the bulk of an elephant bull facing away from us, fanning his ears. It was clear from his posture that he was an old bull. I couldn't see his tusks but knew we had to get closer....He looked like he could be our bull.

The wind seemed more stable. We were walking in the depression of a stream bed, surrounded by thick bushes, keeping our scent hidden. I decided it would be better to get onto the bank and approach them from the right where, hopefully, we will have more visibility and a constant wind. We found a game path, which helped our approach across the dead leaf litter.

It was an African Star Chestnut which gave us our last cover, forty yards from the bulls. The wind was still stable and good, so using the tree, I peeked around the left of it but could only make out two small bulls carrying thirty to forty pounds each and no sign of the old bulls we'd seen before. Gut instinct told me they were there.

To the left of the young bulls, I saw a dark patch, but it was unclear and I just could not make out anything that could indicate an elephant. The carpet of dead leaves made it to risky getting any closer and I did not want to give up our vantage point, so decided we would just have to wait it out, hoping they would eventually move to were we could see them clearly and with any luck, get in a good shot. Again, the wind started to blow from behind us straight towards them and again I expected them to run, but our scent must have blown over them, because they just stood there with no indication that they knew we were in the vicinity. I knew time was running out and I knew I'd have to find the big bull quickly.

I was busy trying to make out a bull from the dark patch in front of me when Barry tapped me on the shoulder pointing to the right of the tree. There, walking back to the young bulls was a magnificent tusker. I smiled and indicated the latest arrival was the bull we wanted, when suddenly, as luck would have it, before we could get ready, he walked smack into the herd of younger bulls and instantly lifted his trunk. I knew we were busted. A deep rumble rang out and they started to move but strangely, they were moving our way, on a path that would bring them thirty yards past us, with the big bull in the lead. Gradually the dark patch started moving too - an even bigger bull. As we watched, he moved between the younger bulls making a shot impossible. We only had a few seconds before they would be gone for good. The first big bull was ten yards in the lead and I told Barry that as soon as he gets a clear shot, he should take it.

We'd spent a lot of time discussing shot placement and follow up and ideally we were hoping for a brain shot. Barry also insisted I shoot the instant he shot. I did not even need to tell Barry where to aim as the only sensible shot was for the shoulder as the bull was moving and on a slight angle. He was now moving through some brush and I raised my rifle so I could be ready the instant the bull cleared the brush. Barry and his .375 H&H were also now lined up on the bull waiting for him to clear the bush. As he stepped out, Barry's shot went off and the bull stumbled. I followed with a shot from my .458 Lott and the impact was clear. The bull was now clearly trying to regain himself but we both shot him again and he was off....

We tried to gather our senses in the little shade the Chestnut tree gave us, but our excitement was too overwhelming. I expected to find blood soon but there was none. We tracked him for hundred yards before he turned sharp to the right and entered open country. I was just getting worried about not finding blood when there, almost a hundred yards in front of us I saw the big bulk of our bull, laying on his side. Giving Barry the thumbs up, I could see his relief as he, like myself, was getting worried that there was no blood yet.

The tusk, sticking up into the air, got bigger with every step I made and I could feel the relief washing over me. The biggest reward was watching Barry showing his respect to the bull while my team and I were standing a couple of yards back. That is when you know....Barry really deserved such a bull. It was now twenty past one but the heat did not seem to bother us anymore. We finally weighed and measured the tusks at 7.8/6.8 feet and 77/65 pounds.

Thinking back, I cannot wait to get into the next season because I know we left even bigger bulls behind!

Jason van Aarde

Elephant Hunting
Barry's well-deserved trophy bull
Photograph by Jason van Aarde

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