ONE TUSK SHORT.
Hearing a quiet tap on the roof of our hunting car, Phil Net applied the brake and brought us to a stop. In seconds we were looking at the elephant track that had triggered our tracker's signal to halt. All elephant tracks are big, but to my eyes--even in the meager light of dawn--this one was really big.
Phil and Gerard Miller knelt by the tracks, felt them, followed them away from the trail for a short distance, and got excited. It was contagious. Phil grinned and nodded. The two had decided that, yes, this was the track of a bull that was probably very big, and perhaps carried big ivory. And, equally important, it was reasonably fresh, and we noticed the bull that excited us was in the company of a significantly smaller bull.
Phil outlined the plan. "Gerard and I will lead. You follow, and try to stay close. Quiet is good. No problem with following the trail, at least not now, so the trackers will be right behind you. The bulls are feeding but moving fast, so we'll be trying to catch up. No need t'tell you to stay ready, but since some of the stuff they're heading for is really thick, stay ready."
I was in the second week of a hunt in the Kafue area of Zambia with Phil Nel's Hunters Limited operation, and the days since I arrived had been busy and productive and interesting. My primary focus for the entire hunt was a roan antelope, and most of the early days were devoted to that. It didn't come easy, but I finally put a tag on a good one.
A leopard was on my wish list, so hanging baits was one of the enjoyable early chores, and going back to check one of these resulted in one of the most dramatic scenes I've ever witnessed in the outdoors. Taking a shortcut to the bait site, Phil was plunging the hunting vehicle through dense thickets, when we spooked a very young bushbuck fleeing directly away from us.
Then, like a lightning strike, a huge marshal eagle made a stoop from a nearby treetop and nailed the bushbuck. Phil kept driving toward them, finally driving the eagle off. To our amazement the bushbuck popped up and raced away, apparently none the worse for the experience. It was a fascinating view of nature in the wild, with a bit of interference from us.
"Why in the world would anyone want to shoot an elephant? It's big as a small house. About like shootin' a beef cow, I'd guess." I still hear occasional comments similar to those expressions, but I'm tolerant of the speaker. The truth is that in my ignorant, naive days before making my first African hunt, I couldn't really envisage what an elephant hunt was all about.
The fact is that hunting a bull elephant is one of the great thrills and challenges I've ever experienced. Prior to the Zambia hunt, when Phil told me we might have a chance at elephant if hunting roan didn't use up too much time, I quickly said yes and packed a .458 just in case.
We ended up with just one excitement-packed day devoted to elephants after we cut the sign of the two bulls at daybreak.
Phil was a veteran professional hunter, with extensive experience on all the game species in Zambia. Gerard, who was born in Tanzania and had been a professional hunter both in his native country as well as several others in Africa, just happened to be visiting Phil at the time of my hunt. Both his mother and father were licensed professional hunters in Tanzania, and he was not only excited to be with us on my one-day elephant hunt but proved to be quite an asset.
We left the hunting car where the bulls crossed the road, moved out, and traveled lightly carrying only water bottles and rifles, We dared not speak as we moved, and made decisions in whispers only during stops. For most of the morning, the trail was obvious. We simply followed the huge footprints and couldn't help notice where the bulls ripped bark from the trunks and yanked small saplings from the ground.
Phil and Gerard set a fast pace, just slower than a trot, to shorten as much distance between us and the bulls as we could before midday, when we hoped the bulls would be stopped and resting in the shade. As hours passed, I became more and more grateful for the brief pauses that allowed the pros to check sign for freshness and confer ("Yes, we are gaining on them.")
For the first few hours, the terrain was fairly open woodlands, but eventually the winding trail laid by the bulls led gradually into a thicker type of vegetation. Then, almost suddenly, we were in very dense cover. Minutes later, abruptly, Phil stopped and slowly raised his hand in the obvious "Don't move!" signal. We stood motionless for more minutes, and finally sorted out the sounds we were hearing.
There is no mistaking the sound of an elephant flapping its ears to shoo off tsetse flies, and we heard that sound emanating from a 270-degree arc centered on our trail out front. We could also hear the occasional rumble that occurs only in the stomach of an elephant. It's a sound that doesn't travel as far as an ear flap, so right away we knew we were among elephants that were very, very near.
Phil came slowly back and whispered in my ear, "We go back out the way we came in. Step in our tracks if possible. Very slowly. Make no noise."
We kept quiet. The bulls had led us into a noonday gathering of cow elephants and their young, which was just about as explosive a situation as can be found in African hunting. Everybody breathed easier when we had placed a few hundred yards between us and the great beasts.
"No, I don't think we've lost the bull," Phil announced. "They won't stay with the cows. I'm betting their trail just took them that way and that they'll continue in the same direction. We'll circle this batch of cows and see if we can pick up the bull on the other side."
Although the plan sounded like a long shot to me at the time, I appreciated Phil's confidence. We did make a very wide detour, and Phil sent the trackers our ahead at a real trot to search for sign. Before we made the full circle, one tracker returned. The big-footed bull had indeed gone on through.
Bingo! We had gained a lot of time on the bulls, as became apparent shortly after we took their trail again. All the signs were fresher, indicating- according to Phil and Gerard--that the elephants had probably spent an hour or two or more resting in the vicinity of the cows before moving on. My rifle suddenly seemed much lighter as we stepped out on an even brisker pace.
"We're well into the afternoon," Phil explained, "and really need to push on. Try to catch them before dark."
And we did just that. No more than an hour later, Phil and Gerard stopped and eased their binoculars to eye level. The bulls were there, less than a hundred yards away, feeding in some fairly thick trees. Phil finally turned around, very slowly, gave me a thumbs up, and motioned me closer.
"Can't see too well, but the ivory looks good. Ease a round into the chamber and follow me," he instructed.
The slight breeze was perfect, and we moved into it in short increments, freezing when either elephant was looking in our direction. The only sounds I recall were the ripping of bark being peeled off, and the beating of my heart. As we closed the gap I got a better glimpse of a tusk, and it was big. Before an eternity passed, we were where we wanted to be, within 20 yards of the big bull, and Phil nudged me up alongside him without taking eyes off the elephant.
As I slowly eased the rifle into position, Phil whispered, "Not yet!" Then, the bull-feeding in the thick stuff, changed positions and swung around to face us directly. Shock time. The old-timer had only that one very fine tusk.
As he continued to feed, we stood and watched, then Phil whispered, "He's still a very good trophy. That's quite a tusk. Your call."
The bull had given me a marvelous hunt that I'll never forget, so my decision had already been made. I would shoot the bull only with a camera. We retraced our steps without disturbing single-tusked bull, then I retrieved a camera and moved back in to photograph him. Under Phil's guidance, I managed one shot of Mr. One-Tusk before he moved on off
"Think you two can find the truck?" Phil asked the trackers afterwards, making them grin at the mere suggestion that they might nor. It was midafternoon, and we'd been on the trail since dawn, but we were soon on a course that led directly to the Toyota Land Cruiser. By the time we arrived back in camp, we were driving by headlights, It had been a full day.
When elephants leave sign, they leave plenty of it. Between the mutilated tree trunks and the pachyderms' huge tracks, the trail couldn't have been more conspicuous.
When the elephants' trail was obvious, Grits followed his professional hunters while trackers brought up the rear. The trackers moved to the front whenever spoor dimmed.
The big elephant Grits pursued was in the company of a smaller bull that went immediately on alert when the group got within camera range.