Jack O'Connor once said, "The big ones look big," and this was a big one that looked very, very big. Michel gingerly set the shooting sticks and I frowned slightly to myself, feeling a faint hint of annoyance. We were no more than 25 yards from a bull elephant standing perfectly broadside, not moving—I didn't need a rest!
It would be a special occasion for The Old Girl as this elephant would be her 90th birthday present. I'd had her lovingly restored to as-new condition two years before. "She looks just as she did the day she first left William Evans' shop on St. James' Street," pronounced Nick Tooth, the master gunmaker from London who gave The Old Girl her face lift and tummy tuck.
Michel gently tapped his forehead with his trigger finger, our pre-arranged signal that he wanted me to take a brain shot. Ah-ha, so that explains the sticks. I had been thinking that we wouldn't risk such an incredible bull to a brain shot, and go for a heart-lung instead, but I agreed that a 25 yard headshot—especially on a bull like this—wouldn't hurt to be braced from the sticks.
With a double, you rest your hand, not the fore-end, in the crook of the sticks. Just as I put the gun's weight down in the fork of the sticks, one leg of the tripod kicked out from underneath and the sticks suddenly swooned sideways. Pivoting like a point guard, the bull spun and galloped off. He had caught the movement of the sticks and had spooked.
I was speechless. I could've stuck a right and left into his heart-lung area, no problem. I had anticipated shooting off-hand all along and was taken by surprise when Michel set the sticks. I was so crestfallen that I couldn't even say anything.
Michel was silent as well. He simply picked up the sticks and gestured for Mandindi to take the spoor. Benito trotted up to help with the tracking and the four of us set off, each with our own dark thoughts. We all knew two things for sure. One, that we'd just missed a chance at a tremendous bull and, two, once spooked, a group of bulls like this won't be slowing down until they're back across the river into the Park.
We pressed on with the tracks which were easy to see. Amazingly, we caught the bulls again in not much more than 20 minutes, but we weren't able to get a clear view of the big one with the ivory pillars for tusks. As we slowly tried to maneuver in the thick bush, the wind shifted slightly and one of the bulls caught a whiff of our scent. Off they went, now for a second time.
The chance of catching spooked elephant bulls is remote, but we'd managed to close with these boys a second time. However, the chance of catching them a third time is so remote as to be not even worth bothering. However, without any other options that late in the morning and spurred by the size of the big bull, we followed on.
Suddenly Benito froze in mid-stride and cocked his head to listen. Mandidi grinned and pointed. There, off to our left about 50 yards, the sound of a branch snapping—elephant. Preposterously, they had calmed down and stopped a third time to feed.
The two trackers faded into the acacia thorns as Michel gestured them to stay back as he and I made the final approach. Michel was in the lead, I followed. We stepped carefully to avoid any dry leaves or sticks. I paused to free myself from a thorn, not wanting to pull free and possibly rustle the bush, and when I looked up, Michel was three long paces in front of me, frozen.
As soon as I drew next to his shoulder, I could see the bull. He was facing us at 15 yards, staring right us. Unhesitatingly, I raised my rifle and lined up the front sight bead with the bull's zygotic arches, the prominent jaw bones that give you the correct up-down aiming point on a frontal brain shot. If your sights are aligned with the jutting jaw bones, the path to the brain through an elephant's massive honeycombed skull is assured.
It was a snap shot. It had to be. The bull clearly saw us, he was already spooked and we were separated by only 15 yards of light bush. I saw him curl his trunk, flare his ears and dip his head just as I fired.
Even as the big gun reared in recoil, sending a 570 grain steel core Woodleigh solid into the elephant's head, I knew I'd shot low. I pulled the gun down to try and match the head-bob motion, but I'd pulled to low. The elephant flinched noticeably, but he was totally unfazed. So much for John Taylor's theory of "knock-out power" on a narrowly missed brain shot with a heavy rifle. He spun to his right, pivoting 180 degrees to beat a retreat, and in so doing he gave us his left shoulder and flank.