An indisputable truth of hunting Africa is that every safari is unique. Ask any veteran with a goodly number of trips under their belt and they will chime a quick affirmation. If things get long-winded, they’ll probably add that the first morning of a safari is the only part that comes close to being predictable. Opening morning, especially that of someone’s freshman effort, was scripted long ago and now bound by circumstance as much as it is by tradition.
Chances are that everything will happen according to the plan. You’ll probably take one or two plains game species and a hundred pictures that chronicle your initial experience in this hunter’s Eden. So are first days in Africa. At least, most of them.
Rick Stoeckel’s first morning was different, more of a baptism by fire. A senior director for Federal Ammunition, Rick was partnered with me and I couldn’t have been happier about it. He was, of course, looking for a variety of plains game but also had an elephant on license and dreamed accordingly. We weren’t but two hours into the hunt when one of the trackers pointed ahead to where an elephant herd had crossed the two-track. Everyone tumbled out and all were surprised to discover the print of a big bull among them. We were still settling back on the truck when one of the guys up top spotted an elephant’s back looming above the thorns in the distance.
“It isn’t supposed to be this easy,” PH Anton Esterhausen whispered through his ever-present smile, “but let’s give it a go. Load solids and keep tight to me. We will take it slow.”
Anton led us almost completely around the herd, the heavy cover yielding an occasional glimpse of one elephant part or another, until we gained the wind and closed in to about 60 yards. From there came the first good look, Anton quickly pronouncing the bull a proper trophy. Cupping his hands over Rick’s ear, he explained the strategy for an approach and then motioned us forward toward a shooting lane.
We gained the cover of a camel thorn tree and Anton ranged the distance at 42 yards. Thoughtfully, the bull was fully broadside and standing well clear of the others. Anton talked Rick through the placement of a side brain shot, made sure everything was understood, then stepped away from the coming muzzle blast and positioned himself to follow if needed. It wasn’t. Rick’s Kimber Model 8400 Caprivi in .416 Remington Magnum drove tacks, and his experimental load pushed a Woodleigh 400-grain Hydro Solid completely through the bull’s skull and deep into a tree trunk on the far side.
The bull folded down onto itself as the herd erupted, running from the sound of the shot and disappearing into a boiling cloud of dust. Figuring Rick would move right, I followed Anton left around the tree and came along side him just as a screaming cow cleared the fog and pounded full out in our direction. I joined Anton in yelling at the elephant, rifles waving overhead to make ourselves look larger. Seeing this, she bore down, ears pinned and trunk curled tight against her chest.
A smaller camel thorn stood between us and the cow, and I hoped that for all the demonstrating that she would either stop there or break off as she went around. Instead, she actually ran over the tree, lowered her head and now, at 15 yards, she had become the embodiment of rage.
Anton shouldered his rifle when she smashed the tree. I quickly followed his lead and sighted on a crease just above her eyes. Knowing it was Anton’s responsibility to make the first move, I waited until his rifle boomed and immediately pressed the trigger. A pair of white-rimmed holes, one just above the other, appeared where dust had puffed from her forehead. At nearly the same instant Anton ducked behind me. I wasn’t sure why he had done that, but since the cow hadn’t collapsed I whipped the bolt and hit her again in the back of the head as she slewed around. Rick echoed with a shot from the side as the cow collapsed.
Anton reappeared almost immediately, but none of us moved until the faint morning breeze cleared the dust and we were certain both the bull and the cow were done.
The cow’s activities must have reminded our game scout of pressing business elsewhere, but he rejoined us before long. Anton then carefully stepped off the distance and announced that the first shots had come when the cow was just 18 feet away. In response to my prodding, Anton told why he fell back after the first shot. “My rifle jammed! I was confident the cow was going down and thought it best to clear your field of fire in case another elephant charged. I knew I had to look down at my rifle and wanted to get out of the way so you guys could handle it.”
It didn’t take long to raise the other hunters in our party. Soon everyone was together and sharing the moment, caught up in Rick’s excitement over taking a wonderful bull and at the same time sad about the aftermath. People from the local villages began arriving within two hours, as word of meat to be had spreads quickly in Africa. By the end of the day there was nothing left but some of the larger bones. Everything was picked clean, and for the rest of the safari people we met along the roads expressed their gratitude. For Rick as well as the rest of us, that was some first day.
Our safari quickly settled into a rhythm of hunting plains game while taking advantage of other opportunities. One hunter relocated to a neighboring concession and shot his first Cape buffalo. Another took a fantastic hippo bull that was bothering the people of a village.
Concentrating as I was on elephant and leopard, PH Jamy Traut took me under his wing. Each of our mornings became an extended search for the kind of big, round-heeled track that suggest heavy ivory while checking a string of baits that nearly spanned the Caprivi Strip north-to-south. The big bulls were there, no doubt about it, but all returned to the safety of Bwabwata Park or crossed the border into Zambia before daylight gave us a chance.
The baits were a different story, nearly all of them showing activity. Several days into the hunt, we discovered one that had been demolished by a big tom. Jamy elected to give him one more feed to be sure it wasn’t an accident, and the following morning we returned to find most of the meat had again been taken.
“This is the one we want,” he said without hesitation. “He ate almost the entire zebra leg, crushed the bones and even broke one of the binding wires. We’ll come back during the heat of the day, top off the bait and build a blind. If he feeds tonight we will sit for him tomorrow.”
Jamy is fussy about his leopard blinds and I was more than game to pitch in and learn some of his tricks. We were back at the tree after lunch with a roll of reeds meant to be a camp divider and tied them off to some bushes in a V-formation. After raking the ground to remove leaves or twigs that might crackle under a shifted foot, we piled on two truckloads of branches and grass brought in from a distance and minimizing disturbance to the immediate area. Jamy directed a great deal of attention be paid to the top and backside, as he wanted to be certain the setting sun didn’t betray even slight movement. Three hours later we added chairs, adjusted my rifle on the tripod and then finished up by cutting a shooting port and several tiny observation holes.
Finally, the trackers wired another zebra leg tight against the underside of the limb just below the old bait. “I want him to work for his dinner,” Jamy offered without prompting. “If he keeps to the tree most of the night, it reduces the chance that he’ll stumble on to something and make a kill that will keep him from coming back. We’ll be here early tomorrow afternoon and wait him out, and I want to be settled long before he even thinks of feeding. We will walk in the last mile or so, and I’ll have the guys clear a path on the way out to keep things quiet in case he is sleeping nearby.”
With that, we were off to suffer a long and restless night.
Jamy insisted that we go through the motions of looking for elephant tracks the next morning but seemed relieved when nothing turned up. Impatience got the best of us, so we were in the blind by 2:30 that afternoon. I was settling my rifle when Jamy checked the bait with his binoculars, his immediate summation being both startling and wonderfully creative for someone not given to swear. Truth be told, I jumped up and started for the entrance, assuming he’d discovered a mamba coiled around the legs of his chair or possibly mine.
“We’re done here,” Jamy grumbled with unbridled disappointment. “The entire bait is finished, eaten down to nothing more than a bone. He knows it and won’t return tonight or probably ever again.”
We sat in silence for several minutes, then I began offering novice suggestions. “We can try to find something quickly, get it wired up and hope he checks. Maybe we should call the skinners and have them bring whatever they can find. Are the locals overly fond of their goats?” Gaining no response, I settled into the terrible silence until remembering a female and her kitten had also left tracks at the tree.
“Maybe the tom came first, with the female and kitten following,” I volunteered with no expectation of a response. “Maybe the tom doesn’t know the bait is cleaned up and will come back. That’s about the only hope we have to hold, but I’m OK if we pull out now and look for something else.”
“It’s too late to go anywhere,” Jamy responded, “so we might as well stay here. After all, you have been right before, but only on occasion.” He didn’t even attempt to sound hopeful.
We waited quietly, suffering the heat and the flies and eventually pulling on jackets as much to protect exposed skin as in preparation for the evening chill.
I can’t remember what I was thinking about when Jamy grabbed my knee. “Tail! He’s at the tree!” I jumped at the shock, Jamy’s hand tightening hard to emphasize the need for quiet. Rocking my head slightly into the scope, I saw the big tom standing at the base of the tree just as he looked up and then launched himself effortlessly into the first fork.
“Don’t move until he settles down,” came a cautioning whisper. “Just watch him and be ready. Shoot when I tell you.” I pushed the safety forward and lined up on his shoulder, even though the angle was wrong.
The leopard stood stiffly over the bait, his tremendous head turning almost a complete circle until it came square with the blind. Through the scope he seemed to look right at me, no, through me, for a very long time, then with a flip of his tail he lay down to feed. Mainlining adrenaline and excited beyond description, I was trembling hard enough to make the reticle dance.
Curled along the backside of the limb, the leopard gnawed on the dangling bone just long enough for me to get right, and when he rose into a sitting position I was ready. Jamy told me to shoot but I was already most of the way through the trigger pull and the rifle’s crack rudely interrupted him. Back came the kettledrum thump of a solid hit and the leopard toppled stiffly out the backside of the tree.
“Got him! He’s done! Did you hear it when he hit the ground? What a shot! He was turning to jump down when you hit him. Another second and he would have been gone,” Jamy celebrated through a fog. I could only slump back into my chair. Words were impossible, but nothing that might have been said just then would have amounted to anything anyway.
We approached the tree with the requisite caution and found the leopard right where he landed, stretched out in the sand and dappled by the glow of the setting sun. I found my voice and managed a most sincere “thank you.” I’m still not sure if it was directed to Jamy or the cat.
Anton was waiting in the truck and heard the shot followed by the bullet strike. He soon pulled up and helped us lift the leopard onto a downed limb for pictures. “He’ll go 185 pounds with an empty belly if he’s an ounce. He’s at least eight or even ten, judging by the teeth. Look at him! He’s so thick he doesn’t even have a neck,” Anton chittered with excitement.
The sun was with us for another 20 minutes and we made the most of it, for taking a leopard in full daylight isn’t something that comes ‘round very often. Jamy indicated this was only the eighth time it had happened for one of his hunters. “He came to the tree early because this part of the concession is so remote. No one is ever back here, so this leopard never had a reason not to be active in daylight.” For my part, I only knew this all had been the result of extraordinary luck.
The rest of the safari melted away. Soon we were leaving Windhoek for a quick stop in Johannesburg and then home. I’m always sad to leave Africa and figured Rick would feel the same, but when I glanced at him saw that he was smiling. I asked why and got wonderful response.
“I get to go home and tell my family about it, about everything that happened. It’ll be almost like doing it again, maybe even better.”
After a long pause, Rick added, “That was some first morning, wasn’t it?”
“It sure was,” I answered. “Then again, every safari is unique.”– Dwight Van Brunt