You may be aware that I have something of a passion for Africa and try and get to the ‘Dark Continent’ once a year if the opportunity arises (which means if I can cut a good enough deal and not to feel too guilty about the expenditure). I have had some real adventures in Southern and Eastern regions over the years - climbing Kilimanjaro with a team of Gulf State special forces soldiers, hunting buff in the Limpopo (and experiencing a triple charge in the process), harvesting game meat for Namibian butchers, and, more recently culling elephant for a Tribal Trust in Botswana with the sanction of that country’s government.
Make no mistake, I was in two minds about this. I didn’t want to trophy hunt for elephant – it is not in accord with my philosophy. Nor, would I want to hunt the big cats. My position is that if you can eat it, if it is a pest, or if it threatens human life then it may become legitimate quarry (everyone must consider their own moral position carefully when it comes to any sort of hunting, you must be able to justify it to yourself and others). These elephants, however, were causing mayhem destroying crops and frightening the locals. An elephant can be a far more frightening creature than many realise especially if they are stressed because of over-population or other issues.
The word had come through that a South African hunter I know was going to take part in an elephant control operation near the Zimbabwe and RSA borders, but inside Botswana. Botswana is one of my favourite destinations in Africa. The people are gentle and friendly and game is abundant thanks to careful management policies. The South African was the organiser, but the operation would take place under the control of a black Botswanan professional hunter and under the supervision of that country’s well organised wildlife department. Even, though I was not quite sure what I might be letting myself in for, I signed up for the duration, planning to make a film about it as well.
I kitted myself out very carefully in the UK and I would especially like to thank Swarovski UK, Edgar Brothers, Barbour, and my very old chum, Paul Roberts of J.Roberts & Co. The letter firm are specialist makers of rifles intended for dangerous game (and no-one has more experience of it than Paul). Swarovski and Paul between them saved my life for reasons which will become clear later. I also managed to persuade my girl friend to accompany me on this trip to help with the filming – she’s got lots of guts. It transpired, she would need all of them all to survive in the bush.
Gun-wise, Paul built me a .458 Lott on a BRNO/CZ action in a laminated stock. The .458 Lott is a serious cartridge and should generate 6,000 ft. pounds of energy with a 500 grain bullet. My rifle’s action was smoothed up and the magazine floor-plate was modified to increase cartridge capacity by one round. There was a barrel band sling swivel, a pop-up aperture sight and a very carefully designed, near parallel comb with asymmetric cheek piece, to reduce felt recoil – no small consideration in a .458 Lott.
The gun’s a gem and thanks to the generosity of the West London Shooting School - who have offered me much assistance over the years - I was able to zero it on range really thoroughly before leaving (and it was astoundingly accurate managing the magic minute of angle without issue) and generally get use to its handling characteristics. One must get to know a rifle before taking it to Africa, especially if one is facing dangerous game in potentially life threatening situations. Under stress, you will revert to your training.
As far as other equipment was concerned I chose Swarovski EL 8x32 bins – fabulous optics, and a new 1-6 Swarovski red dot E6 scope – another extraordinary piece of kit. Indeed, I have to say that both binoculars and telescopic sight are a quantum leap above anything that I have used in the past. On the knife front, I was kitted out with a large boot bowie that I bought long ago in Toledo, and a modern Spyderco (from Edgar Brothers - another great old firm) and Gerber folders, and a Gerber multi-tool. My other half carried a rubber handled hunter from the extensive Remington Sportsman Series (like Spyderco, distributed by Edgar Brothers).
I also borrowed two Surefire torches from Edgars, one designed for barrel mounting with 1” rings, the other an ultra bright, but dimmable, U2 digital ultra – quite simply the best torch I have ever owned (and now bought by me). Edgar Brothers also lent me a pair of excellent Blackhawk warrior desert boots which are very light and completely waterproof. The rest of my kit came from the cupboard or my local army surplus shop (where I stocked up on lightweight sleeping bags, Norwegian winter warfare shirts (in which I hunt in all conditions from tropical to frozen) and water bottles.
There was much preparation to be done. I did not want to arrive in Africa without a degree of fitness, so a daily march or jog became routine for a month before departure. We were entering Botswana – which has one of the world’s highest HIV rates (nearly 50% at our destination at Selibe Pickwe) at the beginning of the rainy season. There was a very serious, potentially life threatening, malarial risk so this had to be considered carefully. I made sure I was up to date with all my vaccinations.
I know a little about malaria – not least because I have witnessed people suffering terribly with it. You have essentially three drug options, Malarone, Mefloquine (Larium), and Doxcycline. The former is effective but pricey, the second is effective too but can lead to strange cognitive symptoms, the third is a broad spectrum anti-biotic. It has the disadvantage of increased sun sensitivity, but it not only protects you against malaria but other infections (including wound and chest infections). It was the option I went for because we were going to the back of beyond – right into the heart of Darkness as it transpired.
Before leaving I gathered in as much information as I could about controlling elephant, I learnt about the side on brain shot, the heart-lung shot, disabling shots, and the difficulty of the frontal brain shot because of the need for precise bullet placement and the honeycomb mass of bone that is an elephant’s head. I practised these shots and set my mind and body towards the challenges that I knew would face me.
There is always a little panic when one packs for a big trip – the anxiety that something vital has been left out – but we managed it, got to Heathrow on time (electing to stay the night before) and after negotiating the bureaucratic hurdles of gun export (I took a Fausti 12 bore side by side as well as the .458) passed through security and made our way to the champagne bar air-side. It was to be the last luxury for some weeks. It was not long, though, before the BA flight was called and we were taking to the air. Africa here we come!
Landing in Jo’burg is always a little surreal. One clears immigration and customs and makes ones way to the police office where all guns are sent on arrival. You then hope your paperwork is in order and that your PH or outfitter meet you to smooth things over. The chances are you will meet a number of hunters in the waiting area all setting off for adventures of their own. Some will be first timers, others more seasoned campaigners. I suppose I qualify for the latter category now having undertaken something like 15 safaris in Africa.
I don’t have a lot of time for Johannesburg itself. It’s a very modern city in some respects, but it also has a potential for real trouble. People get killed and hijacked everyday there even though the shopping malls and petrol stations look great. My idea of fun is not living in a gated community behind a 14,000 volt fence. I know all too many people who have been touched by tragedy in that city. Happily we were soon on our way North to toward the Limpopo and Botswana. The plan was to spend one night on the South African side and then move to a camp at Mmadinare (mother of the Buffaloes).
We had learnt that we were not going into a tented camp in the bush as originally planned but a semi-permanent safari camp made up of both cabins and tents. This frankly, was a bit of a disappointment – I prefer to stay in the bush (not least because it is the best place to gather intelligence on the quarry and get the feel for the ground). I knew that there would be another ‘hunter’ as well as myself and two pros (one Botswanan black PH and a white South African). It was a situation with some potential for tension because the other hunter seemed much more interested in ivory than I was. I will say no more than a tension grew in the days that followed. Meanwhile, my advice would always be to hunt only with people you know. Being stuck in a camp in Africa which is less than happy is no fun whatsoever.
It also soon became apparent that the organisation of the safari was far from perfect. The first day we went into the bush near the Botswana- Zim border, it was that preparations were completely inadequate. There was no satellite phone as had been requested (we were relying on mobiles and an intermittent single). The main safari vehicle was in very poor condition (and would break down on dozens of occasions during the safari). There was one basic GPS between us and eternity nd no-one seemed especially familiar with the ground.
On our first day, moreover, we walked 35 kilometres in 45C degree heat! Without acclimatization that was real foreign legion march-or-die stuff, and, frankly, dumb. My girl friend had trained for 10 kilometres a day (as she had been instructed by the outfitter). There came a point, as the pace became really intense, when she just could not continue - and she's tough. We left her in the bush with a .458, a 2 minute briefing on how to use it, a litre of water, a camp follower and a promise that we might come back and get her! She took it fantastically well and was really brave. I was angry, however - the situation should never have arisen. Storm clouds were gathering.
We were, allegedly, on the trail of a beast and I was not allowed to remain with her. "What do you mean" you may say "not allowed". Wait till you are in the midst of a bad deal in Africa. You're not in control - your life - literally - is in someone else's hands. The South African PH insisted. That was that. I took the view it was the safest option for both of us. There was little choice but to obey reluctantly because her life and mine depended on him. I became greatly concerned, though, that we were trusting to luck more than judgement. We were in the middle of not much. My concerns grew all the more when the other hunter collapsed some hours later and we ran out of water after the marathon trek through the bush. We even had to beg water off the locals in the end. Not good at all. At one point, we had been lost as well.
As we continued to follow tracks on the days that followed I became increasingly uneasy. It was clear that this was not the sort of professional operation that I had anticipated at all. The primary vehicle had fumes pouring into the cab and my better half got what looked like carbon monoxide poisoning as a result. She became extremely ill, and ended up confined to camp with headaches and uncontrollable vomiting. Later recuperating in South Africa, she fell and broke her foot and set it herself. I maintain the greatest respect for her determination and courage in the face of such adversity.
We had some pretty scary encounters ourselves. Basically, elephant tracking is about a lot of fast walking. The trackers looks for signs. You walk in on them – foot prints, droppings, broken branches. We saw that the elephants appeared to be crossing at night from Zimbabwe. There were broken border fences. Some of the signs were very subtle...but not for the professional trackers. The tiniest broken twig had the greatest meaning for them. We would walk in for hours on occasion...first footprints, then broken twigs, then branches, bigger branches stripped of bark and fresh droppings. The pace would accelerate as the signs became more obvious and the poo fresher.
One would move into areas where whole trees had been smashed over and great holes dug in the ground. "What the hell did this" was one's first thought, "it must be unbelievably powerful". The atmosphere would become very serious as one sensed beasts close by. Suddenly, something would be said quietly, a tracker would point and there would be an elephant some 50 or 60 yards away foraging. On one occasion I had a very close encounter (10 feet) with a black mamba (which is, in fact, green). I must be the only person to run after one – because I wanted a picture!
On one occasion we got in a tight spot with a false charge by a massive one tusk bull that ended some 5 yards in front of us. It should have been shot in my opinion as it met the necessary criteria. It was not, and two younger bulls moved in on the side creating a very tense situation dealt with well by the local PH. When the first elephant was shot we had moved in on another tense stalk coming within 25 yards of two bulls eating leaves and partially obscured by the tree that bore them.
The other hunter, armed with a double .470, moved in for a side on brain shot kneeling at about 20 paces and this was instantly followed up by a fusillade of four more big bore bullets from the two professionals. It was an awesome sight and a rather a sad one. The beast crashed over. When we returned to it the following day – it had not been possible to deal with the carcase at the time – the largest scorpion I have ever seen was under its ear. It looked like a flat, satanic, lobster. Perhaps, it was a portent of things to come.
If it sounds as if I was less than enthusiastic about this safari, then you would be right. Elephants must be culled, but it should be done well – a noble animal deserves a noble end. The atmosphere in camp and on safari, meanwhile, went from bad to worse. The vehicle kept breaking down adding to the general stress . The arduous daily trekking continued. On the last day of the operation we were driving through native villages and everyone looked as if they were going to a funeral. I asked one of the trackers what was the matter: “they are afraid of the elephants.” This was no exaggeration, they were literally terrified of them. I would soon understand why.
Our hunting was becoming more difficult because we were moving into the herd. My mood was grim. I began an inner dialogue with myself...”just get the job done.” I did not want to be where I was, but I was not going to give up. I can’t put it into words precisely, but it was as if there was a dark cloud over us, as if death were stalking us. We found tracks and were off on another run. This one was not drawn out.
Some young beasts were spotted fairly quickly, then a much bigger elephant. It winded us, and smashed a tree down just to make a point about 60 yards away. What happened next will always live with me. A charge began. The sound was extraordinary. The speed truly frightening – elephants are much quicker than you think. The beast kept coming, the black professional hunter fired a warning shot at about 25 yards. There was no effect. At twenty yards or thereabouts my mind was going into slow motion. I remember thinking: "so this is what it is like, you will have to do something".
I did not know that one of the PH’s rifles had broken and that the other’s was down, but I sensed something was wrong and went into a different mode - survival mode. I hope you never have to visit this place. Here was the issue...a clear brain shot was not available, but the elephant was bearing down on me fast. A moment I had wondered about all my life had now arrived. I was being charged by an angry elephant. Instinct cut in. Mortal danger was approaching at 30 feet per second. I put the red dot of the Swarovski on the centre of head mass and fired. The scope was set at 2 power. The .458 stopped the charge. Thank god. I shall say no more. I did not want to shoot the beast.
Trust me, though, this is a place that metaphorically and literally you do not want to visit. When we crossed the border back into South Africa a couple of days later and stayed at a local lodge, we discovered that one of the neighbouring PHs had recently been killed in a similar incident. The elephant in that case had ripped his arms and legs off before stomping what was left of him to death. I am going back to Africa soon - and I shall be hunting plains game in a comfortable lodge. The place is in my blood though.