an elephant in dense vegetation

The End of a Monarch. By Sandy McDonald

Thirst and flies tormented him but this was nothing compared to the burning pain inflicted by the hastily pulled off bullet from the 416 Rigby of the exhausted, footsore and impetuous hunter. 

The miles were taking their toll on both the monarch of Tete in the Zambezi Valley and the hunting party relentlessly following his huge tracks, the heat and the bare September foliage compounding their thirst and fatigue. 

Forced by the dry conditions the old bull had begun making his way down to the waters of what was the Zambezi River now a lake of sweet, cool water as all the pans and springs were dry and parched, something that had never happened before in his half a century of wondering through this land, albeit a distant memory, being a part of a herd led down to the river by a matriarch cow and returning to the hinterland at the first rains he knew that this was the only water left to quench his massive thirst.

In this land of plenty, his early years were regularly punctuated by the sound of gunfire, mortars and rockets and despite the onslaught on man and beast he survived to grow and dominate this territory, growing not only in stature but proportionately his great white poles of ivory grew to reach the ground, thick and heavy, so much so that in these last years he regularly had to stop and rest during the day.

Many things had changed in his lifetime, a sense of despair and panic became a part of his every day life. The smell of death regularly permeating his senses, causing stressed and aggressive behavior amongst the elephant herds. Two decades of relentless attacks on all wildlife forced the aging monarch deep into the furthest reaches of the most inhospitable part of the valley, drinking at night and fleeing at the first sign of humankind. More than once, while his guard was dropped his massive body was raked with ineffective small arms fire, causing septic wounds and pain that he lived with to this day and now there was a new and intense pain deep in his stomach.

His thirst all consuming, surpassed only by the intense pain, energy sapped by the scorching heat whilst his rage and hatred for humankind compounded he sensed that the end was near and resigning himself to the inevitable.

The noise of the empty water bottles knocking together in a backpack and the smacking of the insistent tsetsi flies warned him of the approaching hunters. For the monarch placing one foot in front of another was a marathon of physical and mental effort with every hour that passed. 

The tracks were easy for the hunters to follow as the monarch had hurriedly left the riverine bush and barged through miles of jesse, heading to the open grasslands toward the distant mountains. For the head tracker, an old man, tracking was more by intuition than by sight, it seemed that there was a connection between these two old icons of the bush.

The mental wrestling within the Professional Hunter belied his calm exterior and stream of encouraging comments to the hunter who knew that he should never have taken the shot. The bull was not positioned correctly, shooting sticks were still folded and no instruction to take the shot had been given as time was on the hunters side, the old bull had not heard or smelt them and closing the distance and positioning for the shot the next step.

Although they had gone over this routine in camp many times it had been lost on the hunter as the overwhelming magnitude of the occasion, the size of the bull and its massive tusks was simply too much for him and fearing that after 18 days tracking and walking six to eight hours a day only to return empty handed would once again happen prompted him to make a foolish and untimely shot hitting the bull in the stomach igniting both his fear and rage.

Taken unaware by the shot, there had been no time for the professional hunter to take a backup shot and the client lost in the occasion and lacking experience to shoot again saw the bull disappear from sight. A flash of anger and disappointment rushed through the young professional hunter knowing the consequences of a poorly placed bullet being at very least a long trek in the sweltering heat and perhaps facing a last resort charge.

The safari had been difficult from the start with the hunter being ill prepared for the September heat and long distances on foot that were required when hunting the great bulls of Tete. Sore feet, blisters, thirst and sunburn were the order of the day yet he never complained as exhausted and in pain he was some evenings, attributed to his tough inner core very obviously a part of his success as a businessman in a world where he was the monarch.

The group stopped at the base of a giant baobab tree to suck on the kernels inside the hard shell of the fruit, the taste of tarter giving them a brief respite of their thirst cutting through the glue like spittle caking their palates and corners of their mouths while the old man sat in the shade waiting patiently for them to finish, knowing what the equally old bull was experiencing, sympathizing with him from the start of the follow up having not said a word the entire time.

Nothing needed to be said, his rheumy eyes remaining focused on the on the tracks after slowly getting up and resuming his work.

The hunter’s socks were completely covered in grass seeds, everyone of them intent on burrowing into his flesh, pricking him over and over with him torn between trying to ignore them and taking them of and walking on blistered feet without socks. As the dilemma bounced around in his head, every step he took reminded him of a Russian song from his youth, not being able to block it out of his mind, the chorus repeating itself over and over. Occasionally his mind flashed back to the shot. He knew it was bad even before he pulled the trigger, yet he had not control over his actions as an addict to a needle. He had never done a business deal that had had this effect on him, this primitive and uncontrollable urge to kill something of this stature and magnificence. 

The complete silence on entering the dark thicket is what struck the hunter immediately, his professional hunter instantly attuned to the changes around him after working at his craft for all of his adult life found the bush and animals easy to read. It was people and their actions under stressful and exciting situations that puzzled him more, having rubbed shoulders with the poorest Mozambicans to the wealthiest of society.

The no smoking sign in the Land Cruiser meant nothing to Ivan as nobody would tell him not to smoke, least of all someone he was paying to do a job of work… his labored breathing went quiet, the old man had stopped, his bent figure alert searching the dark thicket.

The old bull’s painful and unsteady strides had taken him to this place of safety that after so many years was being invaded by the smell of humans for the first time…

Moving the water boys and hunter back the old man beckoned to the professional hunter and advanced slowly pointing ahead, his eyes pleading for the end to be swift. The sights and trigger squeeze where second nature to the young man who, in that instant became an old professional hunter.

Mozambique, 2003.

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