My brother hadn’t really seemed very interested in hunting for a long time, I would say about 17 years. We were kids the last time we did a lot of hunting together, mainly for whitetail deer in the hills of Van Buren, Missouri. At the time we were both passionate about hunting. We learned how to hunt together and killed our first big game animals together.
Things had changed quite a bit since then. My brother and I had been on very different paths that would eventually meet up in the Zambezi Valley. After University I followed my dream of becoming a professional hunter and took off to start my career in Africa. My brother Wells had always known he would be a doctor; he went to University then to medical school. He then completed two separate residencies; one in internal medicine and then one in Cardiology. He eventually ended up as a cardiologist for the Mayo Clinic. Life had been seriously busy for him and understandably he just didn’t have the time to be interested in many extracurricular activities. My life on the other hand is seen by many to be one big extracurricular activity! Our father, who was also a doctor, would tell his patients that he had three sons – a doctor, a lawyer, and an indian chief – there was some truth to that.
When we first started talking about a Dangerous Game Safari I didn’t think he was serious enough to actually follow through. The closer I came to leaving for my 9th season in Africa the closer Wells got to his elephant hunt. I knew he was hooked when I picked up his newly purchased .416 from a gun shop in South Carolina. That type of rifle is only good for one thing and that’s big animals in Africa! He was really getting excited about this safari and I was thrilled that we were going to be able to hunt together again. The dates were set and the plane tickets were bought – he was on the way.
The safari got off to a crippling start. Upon his arrival in Zimbabwe, my brother found me incapacitated in a hotel room with malaria. I was extremely sick and it looked like his official return to hunting was going to be indefinitely postponed. He was adamant that we fly back to South Africa or even America to get treatment. As you can imagine the hospitals around Harare, Zimbabwe didn’t meet his approval. There wasn’t time for a transatlantic flight and a good friend got us in touch with a good local physician named Dr. Gunning. He was of the opinion that I be admitted to a hospital immediately where more aggressive treatment could be provided. I was out numbered and too sick to object so off we went, although I didn’t care much for the idea. I was put on a quinine drip and all sorts of test were done. My brother spent the first part of his safari in the hospital with me. He refused to obey the visiting hours and kept a close watch over what was happening.
Dr. Gunning and a few of the nurses were great – staying in the hospital was not. I was released after couple days and then on the fifth day I was cleared by the doc to go back to the hunting camp. This was a step in the right direction; except my truck had broke down on the way back to fetch us and had to be towed to a mechanic with a burned out clutch. We just couldn’t catch a break! Of course the right parts were not available because South Africa had assembled this vehicle and the rest of Africa basically stocks spares for Japanese assembled Toyotas. Apparently there are a few parts that differ – seems ridiculous to me the South African manufacturers would want to alter parts on the most reliable vehicles in the world – but that’s Africa for you. Luckily, a machinist was able to manufacture some parts and the mechanic was able to resurface the clutch plate in order to get my truck moving again. Another obstacle overcome.
Eventually we were on the road to our hunting camp. I was not 100% but didn’t say much about it for fear that the docs would send me back to hospital. I knew we didn’t have any more days to waste as Wells had come for an elephant, buffalo, and crocodile – along with various plains game. We needed all the time and luck we could get. He had booked for 14 days; we were down to just about half of our hunting days and hadn’t even made it to the camp.
The first hunting day was pretty rough. We had previously decided that we would take it easy and only drive around the area to check things out. A fresh set of buffalo tracks changed that reasonable plan and we did exactly what we had decided not to do; we got off the truck, loaded backpacks with water and tracked the herd. It was a great hunt; we bumped into some elephant bulls fighting in the bush, got close to the buffalo several times, and almost got a shot off. The herd just outpaced us. I eventually called it off as I was over-heating and getting dizzy. The buffalo had us busted anyway and I really needed to get out of the sun. The first day didn’t yield any animals but we were happy to be out of the hospital and finally hunting.
The next morning we were up early to check the hyena bait my apprentice PH set up the day before at our best hyena spot. We closed in on the bait as daylight was breaking and were greeted by the fattest hyena I have ever seen. Apparently he was the only one that found the meat and decided to eat it all himself. After his large meal he was too lazy to run even though I think he sensed something was wrong. We set up on him once and he started to walk away. I quickly moved my brother to another shooting lane and our bloated target made the mistake of stopping one last time to stare at us. The .416 Barnes Bullet did its job and the hyena dropped to the shot. An exciting hunt and a great trophy. It was still early so we got some photos and quickly loaded the animal. We kept on towards the flood plain with the hopes of catching an animal or two out in the early morning sun. We spotted two elephant bulls slowly feeding away from us – it seemed like our luck was finally changing!
We lost sight of the elephant in the bush and took the track of the bigger animal. We quickly caught up to him and made our way closer to the bull. I guessed him at around 40 pounds. He had one long tusk and the other tusk had several inches broken off long ago that was worn to a chisel type of point. On the previous safari I had seen and shot bigger elephant so I knew the potential for a bigger bull was there, but this is hunting not shopping! This was a mature bull and a good trophy for the area. We had to make a decision. Lots of thing can happen on a hunt that change the course of events; vehicles break, hunters miss, people get sick, conditions get tough, and animals don’t always cooperate. We had experienced several of these events first hand and it was time to get this safari back on track. We stalked within 25 paces of the elephant and waited for him to move back from the tree he was feeding on. Wells was on the sticks and I was ready beside him with my .470 to back him up if needed. He was going for a side brain shot. All possible shots and angles had been previously discussed and this was the perfect opportunity for a side brain shot. The bull took a step back and paused – the shot rang out and the animal collapsed. My brother’s first elephant and trophy number 2 in the bag!
By the third day of hunting I began to feel much better – maybe it was the medicine or maybe it was the fact that my ‘clients’ main animals was down – either way it was time to track buffalo. We departed camp at daylight and traveled light, just the game scout and the two of us. No extra people were available to go with us anyway as they were spread out doing other tasks. This was actually a blessing as this scout could track well; he moved slowly and was always looking ahead. Many trackers get so focused on the track that they go too fast with their focus on the ground. We were on the tracks of 4 dagga boys and with these older bulls, moving fast will get you spotted. Along the track we found an unluckily buffalo bull, probably a friend of theirs that had been consumed by lions a week earlier. Just the skeleton and massive horns remained. About 2 hours into the track the scout spotted one of the bulls laying down about 70 meters away. I inspected the boss and one horn I could see through the thick brush and confirmed that he was a shooter. We got into position and I told Wells to fire when the bull stood up. Within seconds the buffalo was on his feet and the shot immediately went off. Dust flew up – nobody said a word. No blood, no reaction from the animal, and no idea what happened to that bullet. We continued on the track and within 15 minutes I spotted that same bull and his traveling companions. They were on the other side of a gully relaxed and feeding at ease. This shot was much further than the first one and about as far as you want to shoot at a buffalo. Just the same Wells got his rifle on the shooting sticks and we waited for an opening. The bull turned broadside and I told him to shoot when ready, “aim half way up the front leg and squeeze the trigger”. The bullet hit the buffalo through the heart and the animal literally went hoofs up. First time I had seen that with a buffalo. I think the shock of the bullet and the fact he was relaxed and feeding caused him to drop. He fell and immediately rolled a couple feet down a steep slope becoming wedged upside down between a rock and a tree where he stayed. From our perspective it looked as if he just flipped over!
After retrieving the buffalo we went back to the elephant carcass to get the rest of the meat to set out for crocodile baits. A large pride of lions had claimed the elephant carcass and we couldn’t get rid of them. They didn’t want to leave and I was having trouble convincing myself to get out of the truck and put myself between the king of the jungle and his dinner. We were forced to back out of the area without our crocodile baits.
I had located a few nice 13 to 14 foot crocs about 2 weeks earlier in an off shoot of the main river. There was enough water to hold them there and they seemed content staying in this area. The wind forced us to hunt from the other side of the water than I had previously scouted. There were a lot more reeds on this side and it was difficult to navigate. We scared off a decent croc that we didn’t see on the way in. About the time we were going to give up I spotted the black back of an old croc facing away from us in a small depression close to the bank. We made our approach and got into position, only the angle was wrong and it didn’t offer enough of a vital target. We had to back out and walk around another arm of water in order to get a better angle on this lizard. After fifteen minutes of crawling through mud and thick reeds we found ourselves in a better position. We decided to shoot together at this animal to insure that we anchored the animal on the bank, as wounded crocodile are difficult to track! We both aimed for the neck and the shots went off as one. I can’t say that either of us hit exactly where we were aiming but the results were the quite effective!
Over the next two days we collected a beautiful zebra, a not so beautiful baboon, an impala male, and were charged at close quarters by an angry lioness. My brother stood down the charge with me and the lion eventually backed off after a lot of bitching. I could tell that he was excited, even pleased about the lion charge. When I asked him what he thought about the lion he said “that was scary, but I’m glad it happened – I learned something about myself today.” I smiled and agreed.
This left us with one day to hunt. That afternoon found us in the boat on the way back to camp as the sun was going down. Still no sign of a decent waterbuck, but no one was complaining. We had beat the odds and pulled together a successful hunt. As unlucky as we had been in the beginning we had been just as lucky once we started hunted – everything considered, the hunt couldn’t have worked out better. A kilometer from camp and the end of the hunt I spotted a good waterbuck bull with a female on the bank. I turned the boat away and made a big circle as to not alert them. Once we were out of their sight I headed straight towards an island that was between us and the waterbuck. I beached the boat on the opposite side of the island and we hit the ground running to get to the other side before we ran out of daylight. When we got there I only saw a small bull – no female and no big bull? I moved around peering through the reeds searched for the animal I knew had to be there. The female spotted me and jumped out of sight. The big male didn’t manage to make us out before the shot was on the way. The animal jumped and disappeared. By the time we got to the shore it was dark. We recovered the waterbuck with flashlights and loaded him on the boat for the short trip to camp.
Early the next morning my brother started the long journey back to America. I stayed behind to finish the season. The longer he was in the bush the less he acted like responsible doctor; he was beginning to agree with many of my ideas that he would have found absurd a few weeks earlier! I had my older and more rational brother braining elephant at close range, mixing it up with buffalo, and facing down lions. This was great; I could see that he finally understood why I return to Africa every year to struggle through season after season of what most would consider ‘high risk / low reward’ type of activity. The reward is in the experience. A sense of adventure and an occasional brush with danger puts life into perspective. Africa is one of the few places on earth where a person can be put to the test, and prove things to himself that most people will never realize.