Elephants in the Garden
Rob Fynn handed me a very old and beat up looking single shot shotgun and a box of number 9 bird shot, along with the responsibility of making sure that the elephants did not tear down the vegetation around our lovely safari camp at Fothergill Island on Lake Kariba. Because our little thatched “chalet” home bordered right up next to the camp garden, the idea was that I would be able to hear the elephants as they sneaked in to rob and pillage the vegetables there on their nightly raids. I was very happy for the opportunity of a bit of adventure. I guess everyone else knew better and wanted to sleep through the night. The elephant also took great joy in tearing down the lovely big sycamore fig trees that spread shade over the camp and gave it a lush, almost tropical feel in stark contrast to the rest of the island that was only covered with mopane trees that had been decimated by the large population of elephant that congregated on the island. In fact, there were very few trees higher than an elephants eye on the whole island from this constant over-browsing. I guess this made our fig trees look very good indeed to the old bulls that had no fear of coming into camp.
The plan was two-fold. To save the vegetation and also to habituate…(is that the right word?), the elephants to understand that a shout and a bright light would be quickly followed by a loud noise and pain in the butt. Hopefully, then even anyone who only had a torch could, in theory, chase the elephants out of the camp.
To that end, I would sneak around the camp at night listening for the noise of breaking branches or that rumbling that elephants do, which in those days was thought to be stomach rumbling but now is know to be communication between the elephants. Most of the long distance communication is so low frequency that the human ear does not pick it up. But being so close up on elephant that you are able to hear this lovely rumble is a pleasure that is hard to describe to those who have not had the privilege of experiencing it. With my target acquired in this manner, I would move in close, 10 to 20 meters, yell and then turn my very bright rechargeable Maglite on. At this point the elephant, bathed in light, would usually turn around and start away from me and I would raise my shotgun up and give him a blast in the butt with the birdshot. This would get him moving at top speed and we would not see him for a while…That was the plan. And usually it worked to perfection.
At first I was concerned that I might be doing some irreparable harm to the mighty beasts which I love. But to my surprise the elephants would often be back again for more in two hours. In fact, one old boy carrying great 70 pound tusks, could virtually be used to set your watch by. Two hours was his standard. It seemed to become a game between us. I would shoot him, he would run off and wait till I had gone to sleep and then he would move back in. I would shoot him again and the process would continue. Once 3 times in one night.
He was a regular part of the scenery at Fothergill and had earned himself the name of “Veggie Thief” for his tenacious and voracious eating around the camp. He was always the biggest challenge to keeping the camp nice. But because we could positively identify him among the other elephants, I made a point of checking him out the next morning and often after that. I could see the mark where I had knocked the dust off his thick skinned backside. With 10 X 40 binos and up quite close, it was obvious it had not even broken the skin and he was not suffering any ill effects. It was kind of like just giving him a good smack on the bum, as you might a naughty child. He didn’t even mind me coming close to him on foot.
One of the first nights I was out on patrol, I got right up close on a couple of elephants, shot one in the bum and he ran off at speed. But the other one was curious about what was going on and actually wheeled around to look right at me. I nervously broke the shotgun open which is it’s cue to pop the spent cartridge out on the ground so I can load another one for the next shot. But the shell remained tightly inside the barrel and I was left to face the elephant quite defenseless. I yelled at him, and he must have thought this was the precursor to more noise, so he hit the road running. I cut a stick that I could use as a ramrod to force the spent cartridges out but, when using that weapon, taking a quick second shot at some elephant angry at being so rudely interrupted from stealing watermelons or sunflowers or pulling down beautiful fig trees was always awkward.
There was another time that springs to mind when I was out one night and heard the loud crack of a branch breaking off and hitting the ground close to some of the chalets where the tourists stayed. Moving stealthily, I came upon an elephant that I did not recognize, calmly picking leaves and fruit from the large freshly broken limb of a fig tree beside one of the lodges. I crept up close and got everything ready. Flipped on my MagLite and yelled. The elephant was already facing away so I lifted the shotgun as the safety came off and I put a round on his left cheek. To my surprise he turned, screaming, and came for me! The shell was stuck of course, and I took off running around the chalet with a bull elephant hot on my tail. We circled the chalet and he was catching up rapidly when I came to the open entryway and ducked inside, spinning around to see what would happen next. The elephant shot right by, then stopped, obviously confused and looking around curiously for where I’d gone. Just then I heard something move behind me. Adrenaline coursing through my veins, I wheeled around and flipped on my torch. The light revealed a wide eyed tourist couple sitting bolt upright in bed, their sheet pulled up under their chins in fright and surprise. I can only imagine what was going through their minds, with shooting, an angry screaming elephant and now an armed man standing in their bedroom, but by the shock on their faces it was apparent they had not planned on this. I apologized for the noise and assured them I would leave as soon as the elephant did. A moment later, I bid them good night and melted into the darkness, leaving them to enjoy the rest of a peaceful night in the bush.
Andy Searle Part 2- “The Best Walk I Ever Had”It was always a pleasure to get across to Tashinga to visit Andy and Lolly and we did it as often as we could. We had the privilege to learn all the most special places that the average visitor to the park never gets to see. Places that are for the personal enjoyment of the warden and a select few. On this trip our families all piled into Andy’s Landy and took a drive in the afternoon to one of Andy’s favorite spots, a huge Baobab tree by a pan about 5 km’s from Tashinga. Each of these old trees seems very much to be an individual personality with characteristics classic to itself. We watched warthogs wallow and impalas getting the last of the muddy water of the season in the pan at the base of the tree as the magic hour light started to come out and things cooled just a bit. On the spur of the moment I asked Andy if he would mind if Josh and I walked back to Tashinga. I think he must have answered on the spur of the moment as well because he said yes.
We took off toward the camp at a fast walk, enjoying the wonderful scenery, but as we came over a rise and to my surprise, saw the position of the sun I realized we were not going to get back before dark. So we picked up the pace and started jogging. Josh was about 16 and had no trouble keeping up.
We were on animal paths that wander all through the area and as we came up to the top of another hill I saw a series of inlets of water between us and the camp which would mean we would have to go quite a bit out of our way to get around.
We continued to run. As we came quickly over another rise we spooked a rhino who had been peacefully resting in our path. He ran down a little ravine and up the other side to face off with us not 20 meters away. We looked at each other for a little while before it turned on its’ heels and departed. We continued running when I saw an elephant to my right in a bit of scrub mopane so I stopped. When I did we could see there were more than the one. Josh pointed at some more a bit further in front of us. And as we turned to the left to leave, we saw there were even more. We were surrounded on 3 sides by over 30 elephants. We crept slowly back the way we had come until we could go further to our left and around the traffic. The sky was turning into that wonderful time of silhouettes when we were stopped in our tracks by another huge elephant only 30 meters away. He had 4 big “askaris” bulls behind him a ways, but this old boy we had seen before.
It was the Chura Bull. He was famous for his tusks, which were massive, and a bad attitude when surprised and we had just surprised him. He turned toward us and his ears came out to the side making him look even bigger, if that was possible. He picked his head up a bit to give his tusks some ground clearance and started to come for us. It was a perfect moment in time. Things happened almost too fast but also in slow motion. My son was at my side. The light was just lovely. The most magnificent of all the elephants was bearing down on us. So we just stood there, knowing that there was no escape and nothing we could do. We didn’t move a muscle, accepting the outcome because we had little choice. He came to within 10 meters before he stopped right there in front of us. It was one of the best moments of my life. He looked down his tusks at us and we must surely have been smiling up at him at very close range. I like to talk softly to elephants when I am close like this in the hopes that they will come to know me more personally and understand that I mean them no harm. As I did this, he started to flap his ears gently and then turned and casually continued to eat. His tusks were so long that at one point he lowered his head just a bit and rested the tips of the ivory on the ground to give his huge neck a rest. We watched as long as we could but with the camp still a ways to go we had to leave. We got in just after dark, tired but incredibly happy. We had been lucky. Running in the bush like that when you are unarmed is begging lions to have a serious look at you. It is their instinct to chase things that look like they are panicking. I don’t think they would have been as forgiving as Chura had been to us. But we learned a good lesson in the most wonderful way. I am thankful to Andy for the opportunity he gave us that day.
My Friend Andy SearleWe really owe so much to our friends who have allowed us to experience amazing things and among the best of our friends was Andy Searle. I remember the first time we met. The little Parks Super Cub landed at Bulawayo airport in front of my hangar in Southern Zimbabwe and I walked up as the long lanky pilot twisted himself out of the front seat and turned to me with a smile. “I am Jon…”I said, and he replied, “Oh, I have heard of you. Can you look at something on my plane?” I am always happy to help Parks guys and as I took the cowl off he told me of the operation they were on. They were trans-locating rhinos out of the Zambezi Valley in an attempt to save them from the heavy poaching going on at the time. They were having trouble with some of the ones they had released in the Motopos National Park to the south of Bulawayo. In fact they had released them a bit too soon and 3 of them had made a break for it. One went through the fence but they recovered it quickly. Another had also broken out onto the main road where it “interacted” with a bus and caused quite a scene. I think a lady was killed by that one.
The last one was just gone. Now we have some really bone trackers in Zim and to totally lose the spoor is not a normal thing to happen, but it had. They tracked the rhino up to the top of a hill, through a ravine and lost the spoor in the rocks. They went down the other side on the only path available to them, surrounded by walls of granite, and there was NO sign of rhino anywhere out the other side. They went back and forth for quite a while until they decided to take a rest at the last spoor they had seen. One of the trackers said, “It is right here somewhere. I can smell it.” At that they all searched more closely. It is hard to think of a rhino hiding under a rock but…. They found it, fallen down in-between two giant boulders and sandwiched there unable to move. In its frustration it had thrashed around until it knocked its horn right off and the rocks were covered in blood. With about 30 men, ropes and lots of work the rhino was finally hauled up from the two meter deep hole and a boma was made right there for his recovery. We were invited up to visit and we accepted gladly. A vet was on the sight and prescribed a course of antibiotics to help with the wounds. Medicine was put on the face where the horn had come off. Rhino horn is not actually attached to the scull like a bone but is free floating more like a finger nail and made of a similar material. The warden there at the time, Warren Cathrow, was a bit squeamish about injections but I am not at all, so I volunteered to administer the antibiotics over the next week. I was shown how to put the large needle in the palm of my hand with the point sticking out between my middle fingers and then slap it hard through the thick skin on the rhinos bum. This only worked to get it partly through the surface of the tough skin and then you kind of twisted it in the rest of the way. I can’t imagine that this was nice for the patient but he wasn’t complaining much. I later learned that the veins on the back of the ear are tender and nice for injections and the inside of the back leg is soft as a babies bum. Well, in comparison.
Cher and I visited the rhino every day but it continued to lose condition. We finally found out that it had actually broken its’ leg in the fall and the protruding bone in turn punctured it’s lung. After it fell it never had a chance and it was sad to see this big beautiful beast die.
But we had made many new friends and from that first day Andy and I were best of mates. He was the game management team pilot and I always stopped in whenever I was flying by where they were working and went on all sorts of ops with them. It was like that old John Wayne movie “Hatari!” They were based in Hwange National Park for years and Andy later became the man in charge of the whole game management operation at Mchibi. I was able to go on many rhino captures and de-hornings, which was great fun. There were babies found that were left standing beside their poached mothers and there was a boma of them at one of the camps. One had its ears eaten off by hyenas, earning him the name “Big Ears”. The babies tamed down very quickly and it was wonderful to have three or four little warthog sized rhinos at your feet begging for milk.
I remember staying in the rhino capture camp close to the Nyakasikana gate by the river in the Zambezi valley and going in the spotter plane and on the ground on many rhino captures. It was wonderful being in the camp with the guys, who were some of the most amazing bushmen in Africa. Clem Coetzee led the team and was one of the most experienced wildlife management people in the world. He ran Zimbabwe’s elephant culling program for years and because of his vast experience in that area was able to develop a method for capturing whole family groups of elephant for trans-location, which had never been done before. I tried to soak in all the bush knowledge I could from these men with so much experience. One time I was helping load a big male rhino onto a pallet after it had been darted. With all the other men there, I was pushing for all I was worth. I was on the side of the rhino with the horn facing me when Clem said very casually to me, “ Would not stand there if I were you”, and he pointed to a large fresh scar of pink skin on his leg that was just healing up where only weeks earlier a rhino, while drugged, still managed to lift up and move his head enough to put his horn right through Clem’s leg and almost out the other side before lying back down in peaceful sleep. I took his advice gratefully and didn’t stand in that area again.
They set up their camps wonderfully as they lived in different spots for months at a time. They really knew how to live in the bush and even had a portable bath tub and hot water. I stayed in the tent with Andy, sleeping on the ground with the door to the tent opened. While walking past the other tents I saw FN’s, hunting rifles and hand guns by the beds. When I asked Andy where our weapon was he said it was in the metal trunk between our beds. (With all sorts of stuff stacked on top.) I asked if we didn’t need it out for protection in this area with lots of lions and other wild predators. He said “God will protect us”. I said I believed that was possible but a little fire power never hurt either. Dolf Sessine, Andy and I prayed together in the evenings before going to sleep and it was great to be in this wild area with such striking beauty all around us.
The last night I was there I heard a big commotion and saw a blur go by the door of the tent only feet away from mine. It was a female lion. Come to find out, Clem Coetzee and his wife Emm were trying to sleep but their little Jack Russell kept barking a warning. Finally Emm forced Clem to reluctantly get up to check what the problem was. He threw open the tent flap and there, about 10 inches away, was a lion in his face! He yelled. They scared each other a bit and the lion dashed off into the darkness, right by our tent with the rifle safely stored in the box. These incidents are not unheard of and everyone went about their business as usual the next day. I had to go back to Fothergill to fly in the morning and another couple from Hwange Colliery came to visit. They were given the tent next to Andy’s where I had been sleeping and were treated with the wonderful hospitality that Zimbabweans are noted for. During the night, the man was wakened by something rubbing against him through the tent. I have had this happen on occasion with anything from hyenas to honey badgers outside and he did the normal thing, which is to knock the thing away from the tent with a swift punch or kick. He used the hit method with his one good arm, his other one having been amputated after an accident. But then to his great surprise, a big claw swept across the canvas and a lion head poked its’ way through the opening. It then grabbed the man and bit into his other arm. The wife, who was well awake now, got up and started bravely beating on the back of the lioness, so it switched to attacking the wife. Then the husband started beating on the lioness and it went back to him. The brave wife turned on the lion again, and again the lion went for her! This time it dragged her from the tent by the shoulder, intending a meal of her for the trouble it had gone through. By this time the whole camp was up. These are men of the bush who don’t mind a fight. They were ready to shoot, but didn’t have a clear target with the woman being drug along side. But as Land Rovers appeared with their lights shining on the situation Doug Evans finally took a couple of shots into the ground and shocked the lioness into dropping her prey and he was then able to take a fairly clean shot and hit it in the backside. The lioness ran off with men in pursuit to finish what they had started and the woman was rescued. I got a call from Andy in the morning telling me the story. I asked if they needed me to come to fly them to Kariba Hospital but they had already been driven out while it was still dark. The time in contact with the lioness took seconds rather than minutes and the doctor was amazed at how much damage a lion can do in that little time. But they lived to tell the story and I for one was very proud of the way this couple stood up for each other.
Not long after, Andy became warden for the Matusadona National Park on Lake Kariba where we had lived. I was flying heavily in Mozambique through the war there and both Cher and I were bone tired. Our program manager, Ray Fowlds, could see that we needed to get away for a while but being “double rugged” I blew him off and said I would be fine. He told me even God took a day off after all his creating and Jesus only really did his thing for 3 years and it is still carrying on today. I flew for a couple more weeks and then even I could see we needed a break badly. At Andy and Lolly’s wedding, Andy said, ‘Hey, we are going on honeymoon and you can have my house at Tashinga for a month!” We gladly accepted and spent the most restful time on Lake Kariba enjoying our old stomping grounds and healing up again. It was a time we will always remember and treasure.
Gratitude: What Makes Hunting Right
I love hunting. I have hunted out of pure enjoyment and to increase my wildlife skills. Sometimes I even hunt with a camera. But there is a responsibility that comes with pulling the trigger or releasing the arrow on an animal, and an animal that is hit or down on the ground. Hunting is not just shooting, although that is one of the many facets of it. What is the difference between the Bushmen or Pygmies hunting to sustain life and the hunting of those who shot all the buffalo or would empty the sea of all the whales? And where do I fit between the two?
I have watched Bushmen talk to the animal we have shot after it is down and thank it for giving its life to sustain the life of their family. My heart is filled with joy, both in the hunt and in these people, so close to their food, acknowledging that we have not done this thing for no good reason. They recognized that sacrifices have to be made for our survival and they were grateful for that sacrifice.
I often find myself kneeling beside the animal whose life I have just taken and being in awe of its beauty and talents and frankly, with some predators, I have said to them, “When it comes my time to go, I hope I can feed one of your grandchildren”. Life really cycles like that when you are very close to nature. You see where you fit on the food chain and you must take responsibility for that position. Meat isn’t manufactured at some factory, set on Styrofoam and wrapped in cellophane all sanitary. It is wild and I am grateful to have the opportunity to be that close to it.
The Skill to Hunt Well
I never hunted before I came to Zimbabwe. Yes, I had taken a rifle into the forest with the intent of shooting something. I remember asking the man at the hardware store where I bought my license if he had a picture of the deer I was hunting. I had grown up in Manila in the Philippines and didn’t know the difference between a mule deer, a white tail or an elk. I probably didn’t know the difference between the male and a female on sight for that matter. I am always a bit embarrassed to tell that story because I think it is a bit like a leopard in a zoo that doesn’t know how to be the way he was created.
Hunting in Zimbabwe is a way of life. There is variety and volume in the animal kingdom and to come home without the dinner you went to get would be unthinkable. Kind of like not being able to find your way around the supermarket to put together a meal when you live in a city. But what really sold me on hunting was watching the skill of the trackers and hunters. This was not just jumping out of your pickup and “Ingine shootin”, (leaning over the hood of the car), something standing beside the road. These men knew what they were doing and it was amazing to watch. In fact they probably would have the equivalent of a doctorate in their particular skills. Yet if we are not careful we might think less of them because they do not read or know how to turn on a computer. I have already talked of how the trackers can tell species and sex of each animal by their spoor alone but they also see how long ago they have passed, if they are pregnant or injured, or if they were shot in the heart or lungs or poorly shot. These men would say to me, “there are giraffe up ahead”. Or “there are buffalo to our left” merely by the smell. They would say, “The lions are up on that ridge 2 miles away”. And when I say, “How in the world do you know that?” they say, “See the vulture circling there”? They are ON 100%. ALL their senses and lots of their emotions are being used in ways we have forgotten and I love being a part of that. I am hardly ever so alive as when I am hunting because every sense is spring-loaded and ready to go. I love sharing in these skills myself now, after years in the bush – joining the team and not being clueless while we work. When people ask me how in the world I saw that animal in all that cover, it was because I saw his ear shake a fly off revealing just a second’s flash of color change, it makes me happy that I am gaining some of the skills I have seem in the real men who taught me the things I need to stay alive in wild Africa.
There are things you can’t know about animals until you have spent lots of time with them. Kind of like people in that way, I guess. They have a general way about them. But they are also products of their environment and will surprise you. They have a language that can be learned in part, and it is wonderful when you break into this realm of knowledge. I have been around elephants at Mana Pools in Zimbabwe who are telling people things that I can understand as easily as if they were speaking English, but the people who don’t understand how elephants communicate ignore the polite warnings. Then the elephant will go to the next level and say…”I REALLY don’t want you doing that”. But the people keep on, and finally the elephant will say something really emphatic that anyone with a brain should understand, and maybe even run them off. I remember being pushy like that when I didn’t understand and, looking back, I had fair warning of every rev I was given. I love knowing animals’ moods by their body language and other signs that one might not expect, the way they are holding their tail or ears. Different animals have their own warning bark or call. They are often symbiotic and understand some of the other animals’ languages, at least when they are being warned about something. I love looking at a wildlife scene, telling the visitors what is going to happen next and watching it unfold before them just as I said. I like the skill that it takes to get through a whole maze of animals that will warn the animal you are hunting if you let yourself be seen acting in an unusual way. All animals have a closing distance that they will not let you inside of without fight or flight. The distance is different for each animal and the reaction is different depending on what you are doing and the way you walk. You can get very close if you know the animal. Most animals will let you get closer as they watch you, but if they smell you they will be off like a shot. So knowing the wind and how to use it is another nice part of the whole mix. I like hearing a bird call in thick bush that tells me there is a rhino or buffalo not much further ahead and knowing that the rhino also knows something is up. We have both been warned. It is not tame. There is danger.
There are things to know about animals that you can only learn after the trigger is pulled. If wounded, an elephant will usually run while a leopard will hide and wait for you. If a buffalo goes down and then gets back up…you know you have got your hands full. They do not like it and they are going to get even with you. They may run away if you are not too close but they will circle around and wait beside the trail for you to come after them following their spoor and, as you pass they come out and knock you down. They have an uncanny ability to know who in the group pulled the trigger as well, and wait for him specifically. Then they are tenacious and vindictive once their adrenaline is up and they can take an amazing amount of well placed shots before they will go down. I have been knocked down by buffalo before and to be better than him on the day is a very good thing but it’s not a given. That is part of the pull of hunting. Each animal responds so differently and each one must be known if you are to react well in a dangerous situation.
Knowing Your Environment
One of the best parts of getting a Professional Hunter/Guides license in Zimbabwe was that we were required to know all the trees and birds and geology and natural history of the area as well as weather patterns, rivers, people groups, language, first aid and how all of these things relate. Not just shooting. That is why I really got into this. It was a test of what I knew about the bush. Like the American Indians who would not be recognized as men until they had learned the skills of hunting and proved themselves as provider and protector for a family, this is ingrained somewhere deep within most men, whether they realize it or not. It calls to you. The prize is not only the Kudu with his magnificent horns and the meat that will feed your family and village for a week. It is also what you have learned along the way to actually getting that Kudu that is the prize. Now I know that I could spend many lifetimes learning about the bush and, as much as I might know, there would always be more to learn. I feel that hunting is a door to learning these things for many young men that would otherwise have no interest in their environment.
Knowing Nature and Knowing the Maker
Worshiping the creation rather than the Creator is a common thing nowadays. Many of my friends who love nature even capitalize the word when they speak it or write it, as I do God. They say “being in Nature is my church” and yet they do not acknowledge God in the creation. It is a puzzle to many who are honest with themselves. I have a friend who has spent most of his life outdoors. He is a guide and ex-Selous Scout who knows the bush like the back of his hand. He can tell you more about wildlife and the way the natural world works than you might care to know but he has even put his thoughts on the matter on his business card: “Confused by Nature”.
It is no surprise that they feel like this. School tells you one thing and then Psalm 19:1-4 says something totally different, “The heavens declare the glory of God. The skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech and night after night they display knowledge. There is no tongue or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth”. I really like that! It was written by David. He was a man who spent lots of time outside, who killed lion and bear with his hands. No saint but a “friend of God”.
So which do you believe; what you have been told about what you see or what you see with your own eyes and resonates with your soul?
I would love to say all that I think on the subject. There are so many thoughts and experiences that lead me to know, as fact, God exists and he is good. But the connecting thoughts that make it all come together in a logical order so others can not doubt are not in my simple mind. I think God may even like it like that. It is interesting that God never feels the need to prove himself to us as a people. It always seems to involve a step of faith to make the connections. Somehow that is important to God. But he loves to show himself to you individually in ways that leave you in no doubt he is there and cares about you.
I must say that it is so fun when God shows himself to me in nature and opens my eyes to some bit of his creation that I have never seen before. Some of those things I have never even heard anyone talk about before. They seem to be just for me. Like walking around the lab of some genius who is explaining his awesome inventions to me and I am trying to wrap my mind around concepts like time travel or black holes. I get to discuss these issues with the maker of it all and it is astounding that it could be so. Why would he bother? But he does. I want to be there when he is talking.
I am not going to say that this is all because of hunting, but it does seem to have a heavy slant toward times when I get away from business or busyness and back to the outdoors where I can mix it up with nature.A Different Kind of Dinner Guest
We had guests over the other night and got on the subject of strange animals we have known, which is a pretty easy subject for our family to get on. Between the man eating lions around us as we prepared our supper over the campfire at Tashinga one night and accompanying stories of a person being dinner not 50 meters from that spot only weeks later, we finally got to the nicer story of the night we spent in that same campground with our son, Caleb, and Bill Taylor, a long time wonderful friend, and my sister Lu. Having lived up the lake shore for over a year at Fothergill Island and spending a month in the warden’s house when he was off on his honeymoon, we know the area well. I had helped Andy Searle, the warden, make the campground’s simple sleeping huts; cement slabs with little asbestos roofed A-frames, where we would be sleeping this night. Cher loves to cook over a fire and makes some wonderful dishes that I will have to talk her into putting on “The Bushpilot’s Wife.” As Bill and I were fixing the fire and Cher and Lu were cutting and preparing for one of these meals, out of the darkness rushed a large grey dangerous looking shape. It was a rhino and it was heading right for us. I wondered for a split second if this was going to turn out very badly. Then I said, “Chewore?” and she let out a squeak more like a guinea pig than a big hulking pointy beast. She slowed to a stroll and came right up to us. What a thing. She put her head up on the cement table where Cher was working to see what we were doing. Then she moved among us as if she was genuinely glad that we had come to her territory. You always wonder if this wild animal will continue her friendly ways or get angry because we are not dispensing food to her satisfaction. But she seemed all friendly now. We continued on with the evening as if nothing were out of the ordinary, even leaning on the rhino as if she was part of the furniture. It was all quite surreal and wonderful.
Tashinga was made one of the “Intensive Protection Zones”, or IPZs, during the rhino wars and all the rhinos in Zimbabwe were captured and trans-located to these areas in order to be guarded more intensely farther from the easily accessed borders of the country. Sometimes a young rhino is found without its’ mother, who has been shot by poachers. Chewore was one of these who had been found alone in the Chewore Safari Area and brought to Tashinga to be looked after. She’d be put in a boma at night and watched over but during the days was let out and left to be a “wild” rhino, to do what wild rhino’s do, under the watchful eyes of an armed National Parks game scout. There were 3 or 4 young rhinos at any given time for many years and I often spent the day walking with the young rhinos and their scout as they fed from the trees and bushes that were their natural food or rested in the shade in a big pile. Sometimes I splashed in the lake or took mud baths with these amazing creatures. Sometimes I even rode them.
As they got bigger they were taken out away from Tashinga Station and released into the bush to carry on normal rhino lives and become part of rhino society. Chewore had been taken out and dropped off miles away but quickly found her way back. Her “friendliness” had become a problem to many of the visitors to the campground. But we loved having her here.
As we got our beds ready in the little huts it began to sprinkle. Cher and I were in one hut and Bill, Caleb and Lu were in the one next to us. We lay down and listened to the rain fall in anticipation of a nice sleep when Chewore stuck her face, and horn, through a hole in the corner of the roof and gave us the rhino squeal as if to say, “It is wet out here and I want in!” We tried to encourage her to move on but she thought it would be better with us. She hooked the corner of the roof with her horn and jerked up, pulling off a larger chunk of the roof in the process. Now she was able to stick her whole head in. I wondered why she didn’t just come around to the front which was totally open. I petted her and asked her to leave but she really wanted in. Finally Cher thought she would rather not be crushed in the night by a rhino laying down on her so we abandoned ship and went over to the other hut for the rest of the night. In the end, Chewore was happy to sleep alone. It was a wonderful night we will never forget.
Cher and I were staying down at Mana Pools on the Zambezi River for another aerial survey of the national park. Norman and Nyasha Monks had kindly let us stay with them and we were enjoying a nice cup of tea out on the veranda overlooking the river after the morning flight when a call came in that there was a young elephant stuck in one of the drying pools. We left our tea and loaded up in the old Landrover with a length of rope and some hose pipe and stopped by the station to pick up a few game scouts.
Norman is the warden at Mana and it is always great to be with a warden in his park. As we drove up to the muddy pool we could see the motionless form of the elephant stuck solidly next to the mocha coloured water. There was a hippo very close in the narrow gap between the elephant and the other side of the pool. This could get interesting. I handed my .416 rifle to one of the game scouts and told him to watch the hippo closely as we approached the young elephant. The poor little guy had been baking in the sun for hours and he was totally spent, but managed a little scream as I touched his back.
Norman had done this before and brought the rope and hose over. The idea was to run a length of rope through the hose pipe so it would not cut into the elephant when we towed him out with the Landy. I got into the water and tried with no success to get the rope around the elephant’s waist. As the hippo paced back and forth protectively only a few meters away, we tried to dig under and lift up, but all for nothing. He was well and truly stuck. He did manage a few complaints at our efforts but finally resigned himself to our work and just wrapped his trunk around my thigh and let us get on with it. In the end, we had to settle with the hose pipe being around the elephant’s neck. We pushed from behind, with Cher standing on the brakes inside the Landrover and Nyasha controlling the strained winch. After a few very tense minutes we finally got him unstuck. He just lay there as if he were dead and we were afraid it had all been too much for him.
Norman had brought a 20 liter jerry tin of water and he poured it over the elephant to cool him down. I put my hand into his mouth and Norman poured water down my arm to get some down his throat. He still lay there. We were getting more worried. We decided to tip him up onto his chest to encourage him to get up on his feet. With some effort were able to get him to his knees. I think this was when he realized he could live. He got up and started a slow, wobbly walk away from the pool, and with my hand resting on his back, I escorted him to the tree line. At this point he turned around and put his head on my chest and, giving me a little shove and squeak to say, “I have it from here.” was away on his own.
We flew the area for another week and never saw vulture or predator evidence of a little elephant on the ground so we were happy that he seemed to have rejoined his family.
If it is going to endanger the lives of the group to stay, it is not uncommon for elephants to leave a stranded youngster after all efforts to help do not succeed, the community being more important than one individual.
Hunting is great. It may not be politically correct, but I have learned valuable lessons from it. In fact, maybe I should title this section “Respecting,” because I don’t think I ever really respected Africans as much as they deserved until I watched them hunt. Now you might conjure up a picture of some redneck racist brainless guy who likes to dress up in camo and go through the forest blasting every living thing he sees, but that is not a true hunter. It was a shock to me to discover that some of my African friends surely had the equivalent knowledge of an earned doctorate in subjects that we in the west consider nothing more than casual sport. In truth, it is raw survival.
I love the differences in cultures and how people have developed in many strange directions because of their environment. It is fascinating to learn what it takes to survive in different places. As a pilot I fly over many of these places, and it is satisfying to think I might do well down there no matter how unusual it is. I often have to wait for hours at bush airstrips. Instead of sitting and reading a book I like to follow the hunter/gatherers around every chance I get. Much of the time they are just boys of 8-15 who are out on their daily collection of food for the evening meal when they see the plane land, and everyone knows this is better than television. So they are temporarily diverted until I ask them where they got all the little bird eggs or the strange fruit they are carrying. Then we head off through the bush to show the “Muzungu” how to find food. In this way, I get to learn what is edible and sometimes, even more importantly, what is not. I never met an African who was a vegetarian. They are survivors. They eat anything that will keep them alive. There isn’t the luxury of being that picky.
I have watched Africans make a gummy substance from the euphorbia tree sap or latex, which they wrap around sticky branches that they then set close to water. The bird land on the branch after bathing and gets all stuck and there you have it! Supper! I have seen boys catch 5-10 birds at a go like this. I have learned from them how to make little dead fall traps out of sticks and stones that are simplicity itself, and with a bit of grain or peanut butter one can catch enough mice to make a very nice meal. Run a stick up their backside and hold over a fire like marshmallows and in no time you have a crunchy kebab that will keep you going for hours. This is real life here.
Then one day I went out with some men who really hunted with intent. It was what they did and they were good at it. We were invited to a farm in West Nicholson, Zimbabwe owned by Dudley and Tess Rogers. They are now some of our dearest friends. Dudley owns one of the premier Safari companies in the country but at the time he was just a great hunter, starting up Tshabezi Safaris. We went out with his tracker, Choice and skinner, Tavashavira. I had a .308 rifle in my hands and I was meant to come home with supper. As we walked through the bush they would look at the ground in what seemed to me a very casual way. They discussed things among themselves that I wanted to be a part of. “What did they say”, I would ask Dudley. “He says, this female impala has something wrong with her back left leg,” as he tapped his left hip. We walk on and something else was said between them. “What did he say” I asked again. “He says that the one with the hurt back leg is also pregnant.” How can he know that from a mark in the ground? We walked on as tracks of all kinds crossed our path in every direction, but we stayed with the spoor we had been following from the start. I was amazed at the skill being displayed. I wanted to know what was showing them that this thing was a pregnant female impala with a hurt back left leg just by a mark in the dirt. I asked them to show me but they just pointed at the ground as if it was as obvious as words on a piece of paper would be to me. I had to know how to do this. This was quite wonderful. After following a bit more, Choice went on ahead, off the obvious track that I could see of the group of impala, and we headed off at a 45 degree angle to the left. I said, “Hey, isn’t that the spoor over here?” Tava said, “They go to water now. It is over here”. We walked on for another 15 minutes and came to a dam drying in the hot sun with wide mud banks around the edges. We had just sat down under an acacia tree when a group of impala came out into the open. There was one in back, a female, obviously fat with child and limping. How did he know all of this from just the spoor on the ground? I was very impressed. I really had to learn how to do this. It was a valuable skill in this culture, like learning how to read in ours. This skill had got them their jobs. I determined there on the spot that I would learn how to track.CHOICE
Choice was one of the best trackers I have ever known. He was Dudley Rogers chief tracker. He was proud and didn’t appreciate having to babysit the new hunters and I was definitely the new guy. We were sitting around a campfire one evening after a long hot day in the field where I had been particularly amazed at his talent for following spoor. I asked him how he came to learn the skill of tracking and would he please teach me. It wasn’t quite disdain but I do think he was trying to communicate in his look that such knowledge did not come as easily as I thought. It takes time. His English was not great and my isiNdebele was even worse, but in a mix of both and a bit of Fanagalo, his answer was clear to understand and I loved it.
He said that, as a boy, his job had been to herd cattle and at the age of six he was out every day with his father, guarding the “mombes”. It was fun to be with his dad but it was hard work for him in his youth. By day he learned to watch how the animals acted. Their distinct personalities and how they act as a group in different situations. He also learned the individual spoor or footprint of each and every animal in the herd. His knowledge was so intimate that he could tell that this spoor is the front left foot of the brown cow with the white spots down its back. Intimate details were learned the longer he was out with the herd.
Each night, as part of his “training”, his father put a leopard tortoise outside the doorway of their hut and in the morning Choice was not allowed to eat breakfast until he went out and tracked the tortoise down and brought it back to show his father. Then he leaned down and poked the fire a bit and said, “and you know, a young boy gets very hungry.”
And we might arrogantly think these people are uneducated.