An exploratory hunt in a new concession in Botswana is filled with adventure, uncertainty and big-tusked elephants.
Talk about pressure, and confusion. We were standing in the middle of four big bull elephants and very little cover when PH Abraham Steinburg whispered, “Take him when you’re ready.”
“Where?” I asked.
“Heart-lung shot,” said Steinburg.
Well, the big old bull elephant I was looking at was facing directly away, not offering any shot, let alone a heart-lung shot. Adding pressure to my confusion was the question of whether the bull on our left was going to smell us first, or whether the bull on our right, now at less than 20 yards and closing, would end up right on top of us.
It had started with a Christmas present. My wife, Mariah, got me a Ruger .458 Lott for Christmas and I had to find something worthy to take with it. I was considering a tuskless cow hunt, but when I explained my predicament to professional hunter John Wamback of Proguiding Namibia, he suggested a hunt for a problem bull elephant in Botswana. I understood that hunts for crop-raiding, or “problem” elephants are priced lower than trophy elephant hunts because the ivory on such a bull would probably be modest, but as a hunter with big aspirations and a small budget, I was thrilled with the chance to hunt any elephant, especially a Botswana bull.
John met me at the Windhoek airport when I arrived in Namibia and as soon as all my gear was loaded, he shook his head, smiled, and said, “You are one lucky S.O.B.” Shaking his head and hitting the steering wheel, he repeated it: “One lucky S.O.B.!” He explained that since I had booked the hunt he had acquired a new concession in a trophy bull area, and he’d transferred my tag there. There was now a real possibility of shooting a big elephant on my hunt, and I was ecstatic! John explained that since it was July and water would be in short supply, we probably wouldn’t see a large number of elephants but the few we would find should be bulls, and possibly big bulls.
Further, since he had just leased this area and hadn’t even been there himself, this would be an exploratory safari and we might have to camp out wherever we found water or elephant sign and sleep under the stars. I had read Elgin Gates’s books about the safaris he took to explore and open up new hunting areas, and I knew the days of hunts like that are all but gone. This was shaping up to be a true adventure.
We picked up some supplies as well as one of John’s guides, Helmut Jechen, and started the drive to Botswana. We arrived at the border late at night, cooked supper over a campfire, and then rolled out our bedrolls under the cold African night sky. The next day we shook the ice off our sleeping bags, cleared the border post with no problems, and headed to Maun to meet with PH Abraham Steinburg, John’s partner on his new Botswana concession. We procured a few more supplies and headed off to the concession. After a few hours’ drive we arrived at a neat, primitive little I camp with thatch-roofed open-air chalets on stilts. Abraham left to go get the government scouts and we made our preparations for the next day’s hunt.
The next morning we were in the Land Cruiser before daybreak. It was very chilly as we made the five-hour drive to a water hole the scouts said should still have water. When we got there, we circled the water hole to look for elephant spoor. It was very encouraging as there were several sets of tracks. One set stood out from all the rest. They were huge: I was able to place both of my feet in the track, heel-to-toe, plus a hand in front, to fill the huge hind footprint! John, who has taken between three and four hundred elephants, said this was one of the biggest tracks he’d ever seen.
Since it had taken so long to get to the water hole and the tracks were from the previous day, we decided to return to camp and try to get there earlier in the morning the next day. On the drive back, we came across numerous guinea fowl, and since we needed camp meat, John handed me a shotgun and a handful of shells. As I walked toward a flock to flush them, the trackers seemed confused, pointing for me to shoot. When the guineas took flight, I dropped two. The trackers were all smiles, but they couldn’t understand why I would not shoot the birds on the ground. Soon we came upon another flock and with two quick shots I dropped four more birds. Helmut said, “I hope you realize you are somewhat of a legend to these trackers now!” I just laughed, knowing it was luck, but I hoped my lucky shooting would hold when it came time to shoot an elephant.
The locals told us there was a shortcut from the camp to the water hole that should cut off at least 70 kilometers, so the next morning we headed out before daylight and found it, excited to cut hours off the drive. Exactly five hours later we were back at the water hole. So much for the shortcut! There was no fresh sign at the water hole, so we sat at the pan the rest of the afternoon. Nothing made an appearance except a herd of kudu cows and calves. It seemed the elephants were only watering every second or third day. We returned to camp.
The next morning we decided to take a look at some closer pans that the scouts thought might still hold some water. We saw lots of game but no fresh elephant sign, so we decided to pack up camp and move to the area where we had found all the sign. This would eliminate the 5-hour drive each way. We returned to camp, loaded our essentials, and headed toward the water hole.
We hadn’t gone far when there, crossing the road, was a huge set of fresh elephant tracks. As it was already midafternoon we decided to run on the tracks and see if we could catch up with the big, lone bull before we ran out of daylight. Off we all went at a jog, leaving one of the staff with the vehicles and equipment on the road. After many miles and clearly freshening spoor we were forced to give up the chase as the sun sank below the horizon. Such is hunting. We returned to the spot the vehicles were parked well after dark so we decided just to camp right where we were in the road. Fires were quickly built for cooking supper and bedrolls rolled out on the edge of the road. We ate and fell asleep under the Southern Cross.
The next morning, due to one of the trucks having an overheating problem and flat tire, we decided to return to Maun for repairs and supplies. It would mean a day of hunting lost, but it would make the remainder of the trip much easier. By late afternoon we were back on the road to the water hole, repaired and with a full supply of food. We arrived late, hastily made camp un- der the stars, and fell asleep anticipating what we would find in the morn.
As the sun came up in the eastern sky we were already at the water hole checking for sign. We found the tracks of the big bull, and even though they were from late afternoon or evening the previous day, we decided to follow them. After eight hours and nearly 20 kilometers of walking, we could tell the spoor was freshening. The problem was the bull we were following kept mixing with a herd of cows and calves. The wind was also swirling and before long it appeared from the tracks the elephant had caught our scent and had run off, so we called it a day. Disappointing, but at least we were into elephants.
The next day brought no fresh sign at the water hole. Since it appeared the elephants were only watering every second or third day, we decided to sit at the water hole to see what came in and recoup from the previous day’s marathon march. Nothing came to drink, so we left with high hopes for tomorrow.
We awoke to another cool, clear African morning and headed for the water hole. We hadn’t gone far when one of the trackers, Manjo, shouted excitedly for us to stop. There, crossing our track from last evening, was the track of the giant bull from the first day, heading to the water. Spirits were high as we headed on toward the pan. We hadn’t gone another half-mile when we again crossed the elephant track, this time leaving the water. Now we all bailed off the truck, shed jackets, loaded rifles, and took off in quick pursuit. Two local herdsmen on horseback joined us, following on each side of our group. We could tell there was more than one bull and they were feeding. The sign was very fresh and we soon came upon some dung. John reached down and touched it. His eyes went wide and he whispered, “It’s hot, it’s hot!”
We went only a short distance farther and one of the horsemen gave a low whistle and pointed ahead. There, a few hundred yards off, looming over the brush, was a giant gray mass. We circled downwind and moved in on the bulls. First we could see two, then three, then four big bulls. The two smaller bulls were feeding on the ends of the group with the two big bulls in the middle. We were paralleling the herd when the two big bulls turned and began feeding away from the other two. This meant we had to pass the small bull in the rear of the group, then cut between him and the one in front to get to the two big bulls. Tension was high as we carefully skirted the small bull, which was quartering toward us.
We were now close to the two big bulls. One was broadside and carried heavy but broken tusks. The other was larger in body size but as he was facing straight away from us, his tusks were hidden. Suddenly he turned his huge head slightly, giving us a glimpse of a long, heavy tusk that took John’s and my breath away.
This led to the confusion mentioned earlier. Events were developing quickly, and when Abraham said, “Take him with a heart-lung shot,” he meant the broken-tusked bull. The broken- tusked bull offered a better shot and would have been a fine trophy, but John and I both wanted the long-tusked bull, which was still facing directly away from us. The small bull on our right was now only twenty yards away and closing in on us. It would be only moments before either the bull feeding on our left smelled us, or the bull on our right saw and trampled us – or perhaps both would come for us at once!
After what seemed an eternity – the bull to my right was now just 15 yards away – the long-tusked bull turned his head slightly and John whispered, “Behind the ear, now!” Before the hunt, I had studied every book and video on shot placement I could find and I’d practiced front and side brain shots, heart/lung shots, and follow-up shots, but I had never practiced the rear brain shot. I could see the zygomatic arch and the ear crease, though, so I swung on that plane and brought the sights to bear on the back of the bull’s massive head. As the trigger of my .458 Lott broke, the giant bull folded and disappeared behind e the brush. A perfect brain shot!
I was ecstatic, but was quickly jolted back to reality as John yelled, “Reload! Reload!” We still had bulls on three sides, and close! The two bulls to our front and right chose to retreat but the small bull on the left made a bluff charge and then circled us, trumpeting his rage at our presence, before finally following his two companions in their retreat.
We ran up to the fallen giant. I placed an insurance shot in the chest and John had me put another in the top of the head, but it was unnecessary. He was dead from the first shot. We made our way around to the tusks. The ivory sticking up was nearly three feet long and had a 19½-inch circumference at the lip – and that was the shorter one! chart, We excitedly dug out the bottom one and found a beautiful tusk nearly 4 feet long and 19½ inches around at the lip.
Though I’d hoped for a nice bull, I’d never dreamed of one like this. He was a true old giant carrying a tusk of more than 70 pounds on one side and 60 on the other. I sank down against the old boy and thanked him. I was feeling a mixture of elation and sadness, but mostly respect for such a magnificent old beast.
The bull was later aged at sixty years old and he measured 12 feet, 6 inches at his shoulder. A true Botswana giant – a true Grand Old Man.
The story originally appeared in the May-June 2010 issue of Sports Afield magazine and is reproduced with permission