Life is short. Life is unpredictable. It was with this attitude that my Dad booked he and I on one of those bucket list type hunts. We were going to Zimbabwe, and I was going to hunt some of the most dangerous game on the planet. On this safari, I would primarily be hunting Elephant, with the possibilities of also hunting Buffalo, Hippo, Hyena and Crocodile. Being that my Dad had hunted Elephant the year prior, he would be spending his time coaxing leopard and chasing buffalo throughout this trip. Four flights after leaving our home town of Phoenix, we finally arrived on a dirt landing strip in the Zambezi Valley of Zimbabwe. Waiting for us in their Land Cruisers were our guides for the trip. They quickly shuttled us off to where we would call home for the next two weeks. As we pulled into camp, I was instantly struck by the natural beauty of this place. Right out the front door of my room was the Ume River, which then fed into the enormous Lake Kariba. This place looked like something straight out of National Goegraphic, and definitely not my typical hunting camps view.
Before we could get too settled, our Guides Boet and Lindon were shuttling us off to see if our rifles were still sighted in after the long flights. Though I have hunted for over twenty years, I have very little experience rifle hunting. Over the years I have hunted nearly exclusively with my recurve bow in hand. So, coming over and hunting some of the worlds largest game with some of the worlds largest caliber rifles was going to be quite a new experience for me. On this hunt I brought my Dad’s open sighted .470 double rifle for elephant, and a scoped .375 H&H for everything else. Fortunately, the .375 was sighted in just fine. Unfortunately, my shooting was not so fine. Ordinarily I don’t care much about what others think about me. But as my Professional Hunter observed my sub-par shooting, I prayed that he didn’t think that I was completely worthless. Heaven knows I was feeling as such.
Days 1 and 2 found us up by 3:50, and on the road by 5:15. Both days we cut nice Elephant tracks first thing, and both days, the concern was that the tracks were heading from our hunting area directly towards the neighboring park boundaries. The area that we are hunting is the Omay communal area (over one million acres) and is surrounded by several different national parks. Sure enough, after following the tracks for a couple of miles, they crossed over into the park. I began to realize that this scenario of bulls going in and out of the parks would haunt us for most of our hunt. The rest of these two days were spent going around and talking with different villages and seeing who has been seeing what. I quickly learned that they all say that they have huge bulls coming in and eating their crops. Boet pointed out the lack of bull tracks in their fields, which proved the majority of them wrong. Really, I think that they embelish about this for three reasons. First, they are extremely intimidated by elephant and don’t like having them around. Heck, if I lived in a hut, I’d be pretty intimidated by them as well. In fact, just a month prior at one of these villages, an elephant cow had killed a middle aged man. Second, they want us to hunt their crop raiders so that they can have all the meat. They live near Lake Kariba with plenty of fish available, but red meat is definitely highly prized here. Third the elephant do come in and eat what little crops they have. Very frustrating for them.
We started fresh this morning at one of the villages that is claiming that there is a big bull coming in and eating their crops at night. Sure thing, there was a very nice 19 inch bull track leaving one of their crops. We started on his track and were moving it pretty fast (about 1 mile an hour). His dung was looking fresh and I began having high anticipation that this may be my bull. After about 3 hours into the morning and one mountain climbed, one of the trackers spotted elephant ahead of us. Boet checked the wind, assessed the situation and began his approach into this herd. We had been following a lone bull and this was a herd of elephant, so we had to get in close and see if he had mixed in with these cows and calves. After looking at all the elephant, it was clear that he was not with them and had most likely already passed by. At this point we had to sort out his track from the herds tracks, which was no easy task, as the terrain on this particular mountain was very hard and rocky. While the tracking team was busy with this, Boet and I set up with our binoculars to glass the valley below. From our perch, we could see for several miles, so we thought that we may be able to see our bull out ahead of us and save some tracking time. After about ten minutes of looking, I spotted a herd of buffalo about a half mile out. After a quick discussion with Boet we decided that the buffalo were just too tempting and that we ought to give them a shot. An hour later we were off the mountain and getting in close to this herd of about 15 buffalo. By now it was close to 11:00 and we knew that they should be bedded down. There was a nice little ravine with running water just in front of us, and we anticipated that they would be bedded right there. Closer and closer we stalked all the while the dung was getting more and more fresh. Up to this point we had a nice steady wind in our face, but then all of the sudden an easy breeze hit our necks. Not 10 seconds later the herd is busting out of our side of the ravine and running at about 70 yards. Three of the buffalo (including one bruiser of a bull) stopped and turned back to look at what just spooked them. Before I could even get up on the shooting sticks for a shot, our game scout Thomas informs us that they were in the park. Unbelievable! I questioned Boet if we are going to get hamstrung by a park like this every day? He was noticeably very upset about this one. His issue was that before we climbed off of the mountain after these buffalo, he asked the scout how far the park boundary was. “Very far” was his reply. What a letdown this was! Hunting is hard enough as it is, but then to have another obstacle like this in your way really was beginning to frustrate me. On our long walk out, I had some time to think out this park situation, and came to a different perspective. Hunting around national parks is definitely a catch-22. If you are hunting around them you will definitely have frustrating situations like what I had already been experiencing. But, on the flip side a large number of these animals are there primarily because of the parks. It’s their safe haven. I just needed to stop letting it bug me, and give into it.
Today is Mothers day… not just mother’s day, but my wonderful wife’s first mother’s day. Ya, I’m definitely not getting the husband of the year award this go-round.
On the way back to the area we were yesterday, we cut a nice 18-inch bull track. This track was walking away from the park and looked to be promising. After a couple of hours of tracking our team decided that the sign was not fresh enough and that we would most likely not be able to catch up to this bull. While we were tracking him though, he walked right by an old elephant skull and bone pile. He hung there for a few minutes then kept on walking. Boet says that this is very common. Elephants are extremely unique animals. Makes me wonder what’s going on in their heads. Boet told me a story about how one time he was using elephant meat as leopard bait, and an elephant came and tore it down. Just a different kind of animal. We quickly made our way back to where we were the day before and picked up the tracks of a nice 19” bull. For the next 7 hours we stayed with this track. At about a half hour before sunset we walked into a herd. We spent the next twenty minutes or so trying to sneak in and out of the herd to see what was there. All the while trying not to bump them or give them our wind. We looked at what we thought were most of them, but never saw our bull. Darkness caught us and we made our long walk back towards the truck.
Wow what a slow day this was. We never found a track worth following. We did a ton of driving trying to cut a track, but no such luck. Some hunting days are just like that. Boet and I spent a lot of time talking about Zimbabwe and what it’s been like living here all of his 58 years. He has been around farming all of his life. Whether it was sugar cane, or cattle, he and his family farmed in some form or fashion. That is until in 2002 when his farm was taken from him by the government to be given to the war veterans. Mind you, Boet is also a war veteran, just from the other side. These people have been through so much here. Boet says that he knew it was getting out of hand when he was at the grocery store and he spent 36,000 Zim dollars on an onion. Later it got as bad as one million Zim dollars for a loaf of bread. The currency did finally crash to where they did away with it and are now using US dollars and RSA rand as their currency.
I had an awesome day today. We tracked a 20-inch bull for 10 hours today. This was some ball busting tracking. Slow at times, fast moving at others. Through rivers, up mountains…. You name it we did it. In those 10 hours he never once stopped to feed. This bull had it in his mind to go somewhere. All the while we thought he would stop and feed or stop for a nap. What a day though. It felt good to get out and work hard after such a light day yesterday.
We are trying something a bit different today. There is a small block of land (maybe 8 square miles) that we have not spent much time in. So we’ve decided to spend the day, just cutting across this section and seeing if it’s holding any game. We were only a half a mile into our walk when we cut some very fresh buffalo tracks. We followed these for less that a half hour before we were right on the fringe of a very large herd. As they were feeding, we stayed off to the side glassing and trying to find a nice bull in amongst them. A couple of time the wind swirled and part of the herd would run off, but it always seemed that we had another couple of buffalo to evaluate. After about a half hour of us playing this game with them they had enough and got out of there. Listening to a herd of buffalo thundering through the jess is awesome. We had not yet seen even a quarter of this herd, so we decided to stay on their tracks and see if we could find a big bull in amongst them. As we were on their trail, we came to the edge of a ravine, and there on the other side less than 100 yards away was a beautiful bull elephant. This time though our park boundary was more than a mile away. After a quick evaluation of his size, Boet suggested that we try to take this bull as he felt it would be difficult to do better than him. Music to my ears! We planned a stalk and were on our way. After dropping down into the ravine from our side, we lost sight of him. Two long minutes later we were carefully working our way up his side of the embankment. As we crested the edge I could not believe the sight that was in front of me. There not 20 yards in front of me was my bull elephant standing head on to me. My Dad’s .470 double rifle came up to my shoulder just as it had hundreds of times in practice prior to this hunt. As I put the bead right where I knew his brain would be, I touched off the left barrel. As if in slow motion, his back end sagged, followed by his head being thrown in the air, then he collapsed. What a moment.
This was hands down the single greatest hunting experience of my life. As I approached the bull I was absolutely dumbfounded. It was a feeling that I had never felt before. Hunting elephants is just different. Awesome really. Uniquely awesome.
High fives and hugs were exchanged, and our entire group was on cloud 9. As is custom, I cut the tail off of my bull. Within a half hour the first native showed up, and after about 2 hours there were more than 80 people sitting and waiting for their portion of meat. I was surprised to see how organized this process began. About 10 men were selected to be a part of the butchering team, and the large chore began. First the head was cut off so my tusks could be taken out. Then large amounts of hide that I wanted to take home were cut off folded up. Boet mentioned to the locals that not an ounce of meat would be distributed until they helped carry out my tusks and hide back to the truck.
Once this was completed, the meat was cut up and set to the side. The meat was then evenly distributed between everybody present. After this was complete, Boet gave the green light and I watched everybody charge the remaining carcass and start hacking away at what was left (mainly intestines). This was unbelievable to witness. There were knives, axes, blood and guts flying every which way. What a sight. Buckets, packs and poles were loaded up, and the locals started their 4-mile hike back to their village (mostly in the dark). I shot my bull right at about 10:00 and we didn’t get back to the truck until dusk. What a day. What a perfect day.
Check out Wild Zimbabwe Part 2
Author - Austin Parks is a fourth generation Arizonian who has spent most of his life hunting not only Arizona, but many locations around the world with his stickbow. When not stalking his prey or sitting in a tree, Austin spends his time with his understanding wife and two beautiful kids.