We were still winded from our dash through the bush when Kiribai spotted a rhino cow and calf ambling down another game trail coming straight for us. Black rhino were still plentiful in those days, and we considered them mostly a nuisance because of their propensity for charging anything or anybody they came across. At the time, rhino poaching was just beginning to get serious, and many of them wore scars or suffered injuries from the effects of inefficient bullets and arrows. Because of this they exhibited a more than normal belligerent attitude. With a dependent calf at her side, the instant she became aware of us, this mama rhino quickly slipped into a nasty mood. We slowly but surely backed away to negate further incident and returned to the Land Rover, giving up any hope of finding the buffalo. Abakuna, Kiribai and Barissa were unfazed by all the drama and considered the morning's events highly amusing.
We returned to camp for lunch, and left right afterwards to continue hunting. Abakuna was anxious to keep moving in order to have enough time to drive out to a large waterhole he knew of to see if it might still hold water. It meant driving away from the river and into the drier bush country, but Abakuna knew that if there was water, there'd be bull elephants drinking there. There were also a few strategic hills located in the same area—hills we could climb for a commanding view of the surrounding bush.
We hadn't driven more than 30 minutes when Kiribai tapped frantically on the top of the Land Rover: My father knew what that meant, and he stopped immediately, switching off the engine at the same time.
Kiribai leaned down, flashing a broad smile, and said, "Bwana, iko ndovu kubwa sana!" in a rushed whisper. The translation was simple: "There's a very big elephant." But the inference was more like, "Bwana, come, we need to go quickly."
I looked to the left of the vehicle and caught a glimpse of a single elephant as he quickly and silently drifted from sight among the gray commiphora trees. He moved toward the Tsavo boundary and Abakuna didn't wait as he leapt off the back of the Rover and followed the bull into the leafless woodland to keep him in sight. We needed to hurry.
I took one of the Winchester M70 .458s from the gun rack, while Kiribai quickly pulled a second .458 from a soft gun case and handed it to my dad. The rifle I held was stoked with three solids, and I placed another one directly into the chamber. I flicked the safety on and looked at my father and Mike; their serious expressions mirrored my own. Kiribai had already moved quickly down the same path Abakuna took, and we hustled to catch up.
When we caught up to Abakuna, he'd stopped and was grinning from ear to ear, shaking his head in amazement at the size of the tusks he'd just seen. He shoved his arms forward to mimic the length of the elephant's tusks, and then turned and waved us on to continue following the elephant.
The sound ahead of a branch snapping told us the elephant was not very far from us. For the next few yards, we moved in a crouching run that suddenly brought us to the elephant's huge, dust-covered back. He stood facing away from us like a statue, his head cocked and listening. We froze in our tracks. Having initially moved away from the noise of the Land Rover, the elephant now listened for any further sounds that might mean danger.
I thought to myself, There's no turning back now, as I looked up at the high, curved back of the old bull. The end of his tail sported a growth of long hairs as thick as heavy fishing line. They brushed against his mud-caked hide as his tail swished back and forth. Large, rough growths covered the thick skin on his back like barnacles, the result of many years of exposure to the hot equatorial sun. When he fanned his huge ears, they made a clopping sound against his shoulders.
The wrinkled and deeply creased skin was caked with dried, rust-colored mud. If you were very close, close enough to hear him breath, you could see short, thick bristles of hair covering much of the great animal's body. We glimpsed his tusks from the rearward angle, and the sight was breathtaking: Nearly 6 feet of ivory protruded from his lip.
The bull began to move again, and a shifting breeze forced us to move around to his right side. He noticed the movement and lifted his head to look back over his shoulder. When he saw us, he whirled around to face us with his head high and ears spread. At a distance of less than 50 feet, we actually looked skyward to see the magnificent tusks. The big-bore rifle in my hands suddenly felt like a small-caliber plinker, not something one would shoot elephants with—he was just too big.
Because of the high angle at which he held his head, at such close distance the only possible shot was into the frontal chest area. There was no margin for error. My father brought his rifle to his shoulder, and I followed his lead as the big bull stepped toward us. The shot ripped through the silence as 500 grains of full-metal-jacket bullet smashed into the bull's chest. Everything seemed to shift into slow motion as the bull's forward movement was halted by the shot and he turned to his left as I fired into his shoulder. Four or five steps carried the bull for about 15 yards before he began to topple. When he went down, it happened fast. The ground shuddered as the bull half-rolled before settling solidly on his side. The dust swirled upwards from the impact of his fall, then slowly drifted away in the still afternoon. He lay before us with his tusks forming a great parenthesis for his head.
When an elephant is taken, rightful ownership of the tusks is claimed by possession of the tail, which is customarily cut off and handed to the hunter. The tail from our elephant was magnificent, sporting a growth of long, thick hair with even a few white hairs among the normally darker ones. Because of its scarcity, white elephant hair is coveted; these hairs would be included in the bracelet made by Kiribai for my father. Successful elephant hunters proudly wear bracelets made from the bulls they've collected, but few have white-hair bracelets.
When we got back to Mombasa, we took the tusks to the Game Department, where they were weighed and measured for the registration process. Both tusks measured slightly more than 7 1/2 feet in length, but with large 32-inch nerves they were a few pounds less than what they might have weighed. Still, they tipped the scales at 79 and 83 pounds, which is certainly a tremendous elephant in anyone's book. As Ruark once suggested, "there's certainly worse ways to be remembered, than by what a beautiful pair of tusks represents."