Day after day we found these bulls—in the morning, at midday, in the afternoon, at dusk. But never would they cross the arbitrary, seemingly imaginary line that would allow them to be hunted. On the first morning we met up with Victor, a game guide for the Kasika Conservancy. As we introduced ourselves, we informed him that my hunting partner, Federal’s Tim Brandt, was after Cape buffalo, to which Victor replied, “Okay.”
When I told him I was in pursuit of elephant, Victor said, “They are here now, come.”
We walked excitedly up the hill into the village, and sure enough, elephants were feeding between the huts and a dried-grass soccer field. We examined them, looking for the right bull. There were nine in a bachelor herd, led by a large, mature bull, at least 35 years old, with tusks broken to mere stumps by time, age and the harsh daily realities of the Caprivi Strip’s landscape.
My permit was for an “own use,” which meant I was to take a large bull past his breeding prime with small or broken “teeth,” as tusks are referred to, and large in body to provide much-needed meat for the Kasika people.
“Can we shoot?” asked Anton Esterhuizen, our professional hunter (PH), to which Victor replied, “Yes.”
At that point Tim handed me the rifle (more on that emphasis later), and then Victor animatedly and emphatically gesticulated, “No. Not here.”
Having hunted remote places on previous trips to Africa, the Caprivi Strip was a new experience. It is across the Chobe River from Kasane, Botswana, one of Africa’s most popular eco-tourist and photo safari destinations. Each morning we would pass the stately Chobe Game Lodge where Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor honeymooned decades ago. Gazing across the Chobe National Park on the Botswana side, where the landscape was overgrazed, barren and brown and nearly destroyed by too many animals in too small an area, the need for hunting was clear. Too many elephants in too small a space. The Namibian side, by contrast, was lush and green.
But there are rules as to where one may hunt; not within a mile of a game lodge; not within a kilometer of a village; not within a mile of a houseboat; not on the other side of that canal as it is a different conservancy. It doesn’t seem like a big deal until you find your game within 200 yards of the hunting line. The wrong side, of course.
PH Jamy Traut scrambled to overcome nature’s obstacles. The river waters were higher than usual. Instead of a short bakke (truck) ride and then using a 17-foot boat to hunt the channels, we had to ride in the boat for the entire 26 kilometers from the fly camp to the Kasika Conservancy’s hunting area. Then we’d set off on foot in search of elephant, hippo or crocodile covering 20 to 25 kilometers round-trip to reach areas where the water was too low for a boat but too high for a truck.
Before my arrival those in camp heard a splash as a red lechwe attempted to cross the river at dusk. Next came a larger splash, then nothing—crocodile. A big one.
Did I mention we spent several hours a day in a small boat? Larger animals such as hippo and elephant fear naught Mr. Croc and have the unnerving habit of biting large holes in or tipping over small aluminum boats. Though African rivers are beautiful during the day, night is a different story. The lechwe, rotting under a tree waiting to get funky enough to satisfy a croc’s taste for the tangy, provided a poignant example of what happens to lesser mammals that tarry in the water.
We hunted until dark, when the glowing red orb of the sun turned into a seemingly distant memory. We would pull our flashlights, Blackhawks and SureFires, and navigate the river. Our boat, of course, had no lights. Adding to the adversity were the nets that local fishermen string across the river. The Caprivians live off fish, mealie (porridge) and milk, with supplemental game meat when provided. Their nets are only supposed to reach the center of the river, the dividing line between the two nations. At the call “net,” the driver would swerve, lift the outboard’s propeller or cut the motor. When the prop caught a net, we’d come to a dead stop—to the sound of a crock splashing into the water or a nearby hippo calling menacingly—and use pocketknives to free the prop while watching for the approach of telltale, close-set yellow eyes.
One night the light beams lit the silhouettes of elephants in the water directly ahead of us. “I think we can just make it,” said PH Anton Esterhuizen. Then a trunk, like the periscope of a hunter-killer sub, was discernable dead ahead.
“We will wait there,” he said, as elephants have the right of way. As we waited, a big croc bumped our boat. Another night a hippo came right at us, and the judicious application of the throttle led us away at full speed.
Thanks to Delta Air Lines, I arrived after a 17-hour flight in Johannesburg with only my rifle and the clothes on my back. I landed in Botswana the next day, still without my main bag (which was borrowed from my boss, John Zent). Great, I’d lost my boss’ bag. More important than the bag were the contents—clothes, boots and, in particular, ammunition. A piece of advice when travelling overseas to hunt: Do it with a guy your size. In my case it was Tim Brandt. I can get by without multiple pairs of underwear, but it’s tough to hunt without ammunition.
I’d planned to use the Kimber Caprivi chambered in .458 Lott, sending a 500-grain Federal Trophy Bonded Sledgehammer Solid downrange at a muzzle velocity of 2300 fps, delivering 5,873 ft.-lbs. of energy. The .458 Lott was useless to me without ammunition. And a big part of the reason I was there was to test it and the Federal Premium Cape-Shok Safari Sledgehammer loads. A slight change in plan. Everyone in our party was using a Kimber Caprivi and Federal Premium Cape-Shok ammunition. Kimber’s Dwight Van Brunt and Petersen’s Hunting’s Mike Schoby were after hippo, and Dwight was after a big croc as well, so both had .375 H&H Mags. Tim was going for Cape buffalo, for which he selected a .416 Rem. Mag. Due to my lack of ammunition, Tim and I would hand off his Caprivi to each other. When buffalo beckoned, Tim carried it with softs; near elephants I would stoke in 400-grain Trophy Bonded Sledgehammers.
After two days Tim dropped a marvelous Cape buffalo, but not before brushes with cobras and killer bees. I zeroed his rifle at 50 yards with the 400-grain Sledgehammers, which spew forth with 5,115 ft.-lbs. of energy, and took my bull with a Caprivi—just not the one I toted from Virginia.
“These elephant are a problem,” said John, one of the Kasiki Conservancy game guides. “The children have not been able to go to school for two days. The elephant won’t leave. Something must be done.” At that point Anton and John headed to the conservancy office to set things in motion.
First approval had to be given by the chairman of the Kasika Conservancy, then the chairman of the Kasika People and finally by the Namibian Directorate of Parks and Wildlife Management. Fortunately, Anton had been a ranger and supervisor with the game department for more than 20 years. He called a former colleague, Crispin, at home on a Saturday.
“I’ve got bad news,” he said, delivering Crispin’s message in the deadpan tone of a man who has had a lion lick the hair off his head in preparation for being devoured as he slept. Needless to say, “unflappable” is an adjective created for Anton. My utter disappointment was palpable. “We are going to kill an elephant today,” he said as his face widened into a broad grin.
We were in business, provided we informed the owner of a nearby lodge and the captain of the Zambezi Queen afloat on the Chobe. We said there would be one shot, maybe two. (It would turn out we were off on our count.) One of the cooks asked to join us. We now had a spectator, one that would end up friending me half a world away on Facebook.
In the village we passed humble huts with ramshackle kraals. Elephants were feeding in a line across the trees. Word of our hunt had spread, and people spilled out of their huts. “You must stay back,” Anton called firmly to them time and again.
Ideally, one closes within 10 yards of an elephant, gets a steady rest and communicates with the professional hunter over the precise inch of a specific wrinkle to put the bullet. “We will not get closer,” hissed Anton. “Shoot from here, now. Right between the eyes.” More urgently, “You must shoot. Now!”
At the shot, my bull turned and took a few steps and the others turned and started moving. The critical first shot, taken at 1X from 40 yards, was 6 inches low. Anton fired a shot into its hip, slowing it before it locked its legs and went to its haunches. We ran up to the herd. After years of studying elephant anatomy, I searched for the imaginary line that runs from ear hole to ear hole and fired repeatedly. Finally, it dropped. In retrospect, my mistake on the initial shot was the best thing that could have happened. When my bull turned, the rest of the herd moved out of the village. Had it dropped from a proper brain shot, eight scared and angry bulls would have been in our midst. As Anton said after the fact, “It could have been a problem.”
It was the Fourth of July and Christmas rolled into one. It was all smiles, backslaps and handshakes. The contents of the local shebeen (it was apparently happy hour) arrived with more smiles, this time of the enhanced variety. As I took in the gravity of the moment, one intoxicated Caprivian rolled me in a hug that was all stale breath, unwashed body and inebriated joy. One simply does not get that way by missing a single shower. I must say, I have the same guy, just a different size and shape, at my favorite watering hole during Redskins games, and neither Virginians nor Caprivians should be judged upon the hygiene of one individual.
It was the children that set the tone of excitement and wonder. They clambered over the bull as if it were a jungle gym. Many will live in the village their entire lives and never get another chance to use an elephant’s backside as a trampoline. Carpe diem. Next the children turned their attention to the other oddities, including the foreigners who had dropped the bull. “Mister, mister, take my picture,” they would cry. Then they would scurry to the backside of the camera to ensure the image was of sufficient quality before requesting another.
The next day, tusk removal went quickly with chain saws wielded by the game department. The Kasika people began the process of distributing the more than 5,000 pounds of protein. Meat was flayed from the bones until nothing remained.
Over the next three days we remained in the Caprivi before moving on to Panorama Camp to hunt plains game, and the elephants never returned. On my final morning, a boy, perhaps 10 and a less than enthusiastic student, asked politely, “Mister, mister, would you bring the elephant back?” It seems he had a mathematics test and was hoping for another Caprivi snow day.
In a text message later that day:
Mark Keefe: “Jumbo down! I just shot an elephant in my own underwear.”
Mrs. Keefe: “I can’t see the underwear in the picture. Turn him over and I’ll let you know if they are really yours.”