The Zimbabwe bush was surprisingly thick and green for October, owing to the record-breaking precipitation over two consecutive seasons. Our slow drive along the rutted two-track trails through the Bubeye Valley Conservancy was a constant wonder of wildlife riches. The BVC lays claim to a true rarity in Africa today: an intact ecosystem boasting a full complement of native predators and prey. It is a world-class conservation success story by any definition, made all the more remarkable because it was developed entirely by private enterprise.
My trance was suddenly broken by a quick snapping of fingers followed by an abrupt halt to the Land Cruiser and a rapid, whispered exchange in Shona, the common native language of Zimbabwe.
I needed no interpretation to understand that our tracker, Becki, had spotted something exceptional. Our PH, Shaun Buffee, quickly confirmed my suspicion as he stepped from the vehicle and quietly asked me, “You say Lisa is keen on eland?” I nodded.
“Good, can you please run the video camera and come with us. Becki says there is a very good eland bull just down from the dam.”
He waved briefly toward a low-lying mopane-woodland flat a few hundred yards south of our position, which was atop one of the many earthen dams scattered around the BVC. Though Shaun’s words and tone were calm, his movements belied an urgency that I knew meant this was no ordinary bull, and we had no time to waste.
Exiting quietly behind the Land Cruiser, we dropped into a shallow wash, checked the wind, and then began quickly closing the distance as quietly as possible, keeping a watchful eye to avoid bumping other animals toward our intended quarry.
Unfortunately, wildlife abundance on the BVC is both a blessing and a curse. In this case, some unseen impala alerted the band of eland to our presence and the herd crashed off before Lisa could get on the sticks. We did, however, get a good enough look to know Becki was right—the herd contained an exceptional old bull sporting massive horns and a thick, rusty forehead mop.
In retrospect, bumping the herd was a blessing, for now we had the privilege of watching Becki, a master tracker, in his element. For those who have not experienced it, words cannot adequately describe the abilities of native African trackers. Having read numerous accounts of their legendary skills, I was yet skeptical while watching this man sort out nuances of bent grass, turned leaves and slight disturbances in the hardpan soil. In many cases, I could never discern exactly what he was studying, let alone its significance, and yet his eyes constantly scanned the ground and vegetation in front of him and he’d stay on a track with amazing speed, sometimes moving 10 or 15 yards between clues, one hand always moving about, eventually pointing the way like a compass.
Given the abundance of so many other game animals we encountered along the way, I was becoming more convinced this was just a show and we’d soon hear some excuse explaining why this was not the bull for us, or that the track was lost due to the abundance of other game trampling the track and we would turn back to the Cruiser. Much to my astonishment, and after about two hours on the track, Shaun had a brief conference with Becki and then turned to inform us that the bull was just ahead through some brush, though the herd was still quite alert and watching their back-trail. We would have to back off, circle through a low wash and come at them with a quartering breeze.
This we did, and 45 minutes later, I was filming Lisa as she carefully eased her .260 Remington onto the shooting sticks. The herd was indeed alert, and we’d crawled to within about 70 yards of them, so I dared not try to film the animals. Instead, from my ground-level angle, I filmed Shaun looking over Lisa’s shoulder as she attempted to thread a 140-grain Trophy Bonded Bear Claw through the mopane scrub and into a very large Livingstone’s eland. The moment brought back wonderful memories of watching her take an enormous Cape eland in South Africa a few years prior.
Though Lisa is still quite excitable during the hunt itself when she is the shooter, true to form, she is all business when it counts. At the moment of truth, she seems to run on autopilot with nerves of steel. No shaking, no wobbling, no second-guessing–just aim, fire, cycle the action and be ready for the follow up.
After the shot is another story. My little lady gets the post-shot adrenaline shakes unlike anything I’ve ever seen. After the blast faded and the herd was swallowed by the thick brush, Lisa simply said, “Here, hold this,” as she shoved her rifle at me and began to tremble.
“Are you confident in the shot?” Shaun asked.
“Yeah, I think so,” Lisa replied, still visibly shaking. “I held right on the shoulder, though there was a little brush I could see. I felt like I threaded it through the opening.”
“Good. It looked like a good hit from my angle,” Shaun replied. “We’ll just ease up there and let Becki sort out the track.”
Shaun and Becki moved forward to inspect for blood and sort the many hoof-prints crossed in the hasty exit, all of us expecting to find a big bull piled up a short distance into the scrub. Lisa settled the shakes and re-took possession of her rifle. She verbally replayed the shot and her sight-picture to me as we followed. The more she talked, the more I could see her confidence waning, and the longer we heard nothing from Becki, the more concerned I became.
Finally, Shaun strode back with the news. “He’s hit hard, and dragging his front leg, but I fear the shot may be a bit too forward and hit the bone. We need to get another round in him.”
Lisa was crushed. She loves to hunt, but she cannot abide suffering, and cringes at the thought of her being the cause. That aversion has served her well—she generally makes clean, one-shot kills, and when one isn’t enough, she’s quick to add more medicine when necessary. Just last fall I watched her rapidly pump three rounds into a stubborn bull elk at 200 yards that refused to go down. You could cover the holes with a CD.
But in this instance, the brush was just too thick, and there were too many animals in the herd for an immediate follow-up shot. Now the self-doubt set in, and the longer we tracked, the gloomier Lisa became. The questions flowed endlessly: “Did I hit that brush? Did I pull the shot? Was I focused and aiming where I thought? Are we going to find him? Maybe I shouldn’t have taken that shot! Oh, Lord don’t let him suffer…please, may we find him soon….” Hunting big game overshadows all other sporting pursuits in the sheer amplitude of its highs and lows. Hunters must remain mentally alert, and keep physical senses constantly tuned to ever hope for success, but never more so than when circumstances take a turn for the worse and an animal hangs in the balance.
In the mid-day heat we followed Becki as he relentlessly tracked the herd, bumping them twice without an opportunity for a shot. Finally, we stopped to rest when the track crossed one of the BVC’s access roads. After much discussion, we decided it best to wait awhile to let the animals settle down, and hopefully allow the big bull to bed and stiffen a bit. The waiting was harder for Lisa than trudging, waterless, in the mid-day heat.
Fortunately, the strategy proved effective. After regaining the trail, moving slowly and quietly along the track, Becki spotted some cows grazing in a shaded glade ahead. I stayed back with Becki as Shaun and Lisa advanced slowly, looking intently for the giant, steel-gray bull.
From behind the camera, I could not see the bull, but I knew from their body language he was there. Lisa eased onto the sticks and some cows caught the movement. Suddenly eland scattered noisily through the dry woods, and the massive old bull heaved from his shaded bed. Lisa’s shot rang true, followed almost immediately by the roar of a much larger rifle.
“Oh no!” I thought. I knew my little lady is a very independent character, and she insists on finishing everything she starts. I also knew that her confidence had been shaken by this episode, and feared the worst if her follow-up had failed and Shaun had instead finished the bull. That would not bode well for the remainder of the trip, nor for future hunts.
I ran forward to get a better view and saw Shaun and Lisa conversing quietly, still not settled, but not on edge either. We all proceeded carefully through the woodland, past the bed where the impossibly large bull had lain nearly invisible moments before, then another 50 yards through some rolling, wooded hummocks. Our small crew collectively felt a sudden relief when a few cows stood nervously watching us, but unwilling to run off. We knew the bull was down.
Again the adrenaline shakes started as Lisa approached the magnificent creature, and again I found myself filming with one hand and holding my wife’s rifle in the other. With trembling hands she felt the massive shoulder and searched for the bullet holes she knew should be there, still questioning what had happened on the first shot, and not knowing whether she’d made good on her obligation, or whether the PH had done it for her. For a moment I waited intently with bated breath, but then I saw the answer. I held my tongue, waiting for her to sort out the story written on that thick blue hide and discover the truth.
She paused and puzzled over the evidence, then spun around and exclaimed, “There’s only two holes…and they’re the same size!”
I just smiled and nodded. She turned to look at Shaun, a questioning look on her face.
“I told you I missed!” Shaun replied, referring to their earlier exchange. “He was already running when I shot, and I’m quite certain I shot over him. You did it all, Lisa!”
Shaun’s broad smile matched my own, and Becki began to giggle at Lisa’s mixed expression of disbelief, relief and amazement. His chuckles were contagious and soon everyone was laughing and replaying the day’s events.
Once again my little lady met adversity head-on and triumphed, surprising herself in the process. It has been a pleasure to witness her growth as a hunter, and her perseverance in this chapter was rewarded with a tremendous Livingstone’s eland. Fresh off her victory, she’s already plotting the trifecta: Patterson’s eland, anyone?—Steve and Lisa Dahmer