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Hunting Botswana with a pocket battleship

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I guess this story starts when Holland & Holland kindly reminded me that I was approaching 65; I had clocked up 45 years of service and they wished to thank me in some way. I was asked if I had any thoughts on the matter. Frankly, I did not but I thanked my MD and promised to let him know.

However, I soon realised what I would treasure most would be a special memory rather than a keepsake, but of course maintaining a direct link with H&H.

Since my first air rifle, I have favoured hunting with a rifle, most memorably in Tanzania, which had left me longing to hunt in Africa again. I had done so in the hope of taking a Cape buffalo and was lucky enough to do so. This left me pondering that if I was to return to Africa for something extra-special then what would I be looking for? To my mind, hunting in Africa is synonymous with big game, offering excitement and notionally some risk to the hunter.

However, having a fine 43" buff rather narrowed the field until I came to the obvious: an elephant hunt would surely do the job. Once this seed had been sown I needed to check with H&H: no problem.

The choice and type of rifle was easy. I have been involved in the making Holland’s double rifles since the late 1960’s and used a 500/465 ‘Royal’ in Tanzania. This time I moved up a notch to use a demo model of a new ‘Round Action’ double in .500/3" Nitro Express. A veritable pocket battleship of a rifle, and what better example of first-hand product testing! Next where to hunt and with whom? For many years H&H have been attending the annual Safari Club International conventions in either Reno or Las Vegas. Although these venues sound incongruous, be assured that these shows have to seen to be believed with hunting professionals and their many clients travelling from all over the world to book hunts with the gunmakers hoping to supply some of the hardware.

Some years ago Hollands opened a sporting agency and quickly established a most successful relationship with Peter Holbrow, who was organising and guiding predominantly elephant hunts in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. This was a very fruitful association with Peter joining us on our booth at SCI. The idea of hunting for elephant with Peter sounded marvellous. However such hunting is very special and restricted. Just as Hollands offer the very finest in guns, so elephant hunting in Botswana also represents about the best there is. Naturally, and just like Hollands guns, exclusivity and quality come at hefty cost. To be honest my wishes were more than a little unrealistic.

However situations change. Firstly, the sharp downturn in international business and travel, and then the unexpected closure of all hunting in the Delta, had left Peter with a changed situation. Perhaps there was a way we might hunt together. Never one to vacillate, Peter struck out and took a lease on two huge areas in the northeast of Botswana bordering the Chobe National Park. Peter was back in business and with his generosity, me smashing my piggy bank, plus H&H’s kind contribution, the trip was on. We would have eight days hunting elephant, meaning we could undertake a thorough search before making any decisions and squeezing any triggers.

As is now the case, everywhere travelling with firearms and ammunition involves volumes of paperwork and a determination not to balk at the many obstacles. Although airline staff usually wishes to be helpful, they too are tied and frustrated by the layers of bureaucracy. To make matters worse, the airport authorities have now ganged together, levying the shooter with special firearm handling charges at every stage of the journey. I had four such stages. My trip with British Airways would be from London/Heath Row to Johannesburg and then onto Kasane; returning ex Kasane via Jo’burg to L/HR. This rolled up neatly to £100 for so-called special security handling. What can you do? Botswana even charges import tax on the commercial value of the ammunition you take in with you. My request for a refund 10-days later for the unused balance of the twenty rounds I arrived with was a big mistake, as it only served to cause the Kasane ‘rebate system’–surely a joke–to crash without hope of a fix, until I was forced to run empty-handed for my flight! Looking back, I am glad I took advice and engaged an agent to clear the rifle at Jo’burg, as there are anxious moments before finding your guns in the special firearms custom post, tucked away in a corner of the terminal building and which cannot be reached until clearing immigration and regular customs. These are an anxious moments!

Peter met me at Kasane with all the necessary documents and licences needed to clear the various local hurdles. However, all the botheration was soon forgotten as we motored off to his camp. The first order of business, a tour around the spacious and purposeful camp and introductions to Peter’s marvellous and welcoming staff, to be followed by a truly excellent dinner and an early night in readiness for the days to come. Throughout my stay all the staff helped to increase the enjoyment of my stay with Peter’s colourful Rastafarian chef excelling himself.

My daily routine would be wake-ups at 06:00, breakfast of choice at 06:30–I soon copied Peter’s choice of porridge–and out of camp by 07:00 prompt with the morning sky still pink. (First light revealed that a lioness had walked past my tent during the night… moral being; keep it zipped up.) In fact, most nights the hyenas made quite a racket wailing and whooping, no doubt drawn to the camp by the ripe smells emanating from the skinning sheds. One night some kudu disturbed the night, as they sought protection from hyenas, only to be chased out at dawn by wild dogs. Africa is very harsh. Each day seemed to pass quickly, but with ample time to discuss everything relating to elephants, how they survive, and of course, how best to hunt them. Peter provided some very useful articles for me to digest illustrating the physiology of an elephant and what must be done to ensure a 100% successful outcome. I dutifully re-read them every day, and Peter added much of his 30-years of experience to help me achieve the desired outcome. It is worth emphasising that things can go awry suddenly when stalking up very close to these huge beasts, therefore having a prepared drill of ‘what to do next’ may prove to be the telling factor between success and failure. More on this later.

Often extending beyond the horizons, we searched and explored the vast area for four or five days until we began to find a pattern of elephant movement. Whilst we were doing so, I was amazed by the profusion of species that we encountered. I had assumed that the uninspiring bush offered limited habitat… wrong! In addition to his elephant quota Peter can offer much, much more. It is important to mention that Chobe had experienced exceptional late rains that meant many pans were still ‘wet’, and crucially that the trees and shrub were also still in leaf, ensuring that the elephants remained well spread out and not easy to locate. Much of the vast hunting area had once been forests of teak that had been cleared of all but a few large trees many years ago. The forests are regenerating in a random manner, with literally millions of shrubs and saplings extending for miles in all directions. The elephants graze on this young growth with sufficient frequency to cause its re-growth to resemble coppice of about 15 feet in height with the lower leaves and branches reaching down to knee level. This meant that you could neither see over, nor peer under them.

    Peter Holbrow
    Holbrow Hunting Safaris Pty
    P.O.Box 20538
    Maun, Botswana
    Tel:+267 686 2270

The food consumption of elephants is huge requiring them to feed some18-hours a day, however I was not aware that they must also drink with near equal frequency, commonly travelling long distances to find water and then retracing their steps in an almost daily pattern. From time to time we dragged some branches behind the hunting wagon to clear old spoor marks so that when returning we knew that any new marks were fresh. Occasionally one of our trackers would shin up a tree to spy the land, but mostly it was down to hours of searching for spoor in the sand, making an educated guess on their freshness (very clever), determining the direction of the wind, and then to start walking.

Commonly, the spoor faded as elephants often keep moving whilst grazing, but managing a faster pace than you can keep up with. Likewise the copious quantities of dung, sometimes huge in diameter, fuels expectations, only to become less interesting as the flies colonise it as it cools and dries. But, it’s not always disappointment for as the sun gets hotter the elephants eventually begin to slow and seek deeper shade.

I guess over the first six days we made several close-in stalks to 20 yards and less. This is when the fun really starts. Needless to say, the very first time you start to get close to hopefully unaware elephants, your own senses become enhanced–a reaction that must be primeval. The closer you approach the elephants the more exiting it becomes, much heightened by the sounds of breaking branches, their deep stomach rumbles, and the whoosh of exhalation as they fling sand across their backs. However, getting close does not always mean a clearer view, as the biggest surprise is that the nearer you are in heavy cover, the more their features merge into a huge and amorphous mass with often only the flapping of the ears indicating which end is the head. The brilliant sunlight streams through the leaves and branches to produce amazingly effective camouflage, and pools of near black shade under the larger trees. (See the photos). The dense vegetation continued to be a considerable hindrance but conversely it was also very helpful when needing to conceal our advance. However, the non-contact stalks we made taught me lots…

Male elephants are usually found in small groups often a little separated and out of sight of each other but remaining alert, meaning that in time you will be discovered. On one such occasion, we experienced a spectacular threat by a big bull, his trunk fully raised, shaking his head, and flapping his ears, and taking a token few steps towards us. At Peter’s command we held our ground–although admittedly with rifles at the ready. The bull stopped, appearing to take stock of the situation he might be getting into, and then spun round and stampeded off with his mates. (Peter had rejected the tusks). It’s so difficult to convey just how big the older bulls are when you’re close and on foot.

When stalking, our party always numbered six. Firstly, Peter’s tracker and his number two, then Peter and myself–the only ones with rifles–followed at the rear by a Wildlife Service Game Scout, and lastly a representative of the local Community Trust. The observers are charged with ensuring that everybody keeps to the rules. A day or so after the mock charge, we encountered yet another typical all-bull group at close quarters, which resulted in a more scary threat when we were spotted by an immature–but big enough–bull which advanced towards us quite rapidly, forcing us to back-off sharply with rifles ready and sending our wildlife scout running off. Whilst all this was going on, I noted the grin on Peter’s face indicating that after 30-years in the bush he still enjoys every moment of close contact with these magnificent creatures. However, the majority of the fully grown bulls that we spied or stalked proved to have only one tusk, or one tusk good but with the other broken, or simply ‘not worth taking’. Although we were not after the ultimate trophy, nice tusks were on the wish-list. No problem; we had ‘plenty of time’. However, being selective meant still clean barrels after six of the eight hunting days, suggesting that perhaps it might be prudent to be less selective on day seven.

Elephants have a very acute sense of smell on which they rely heavily. If one of a group gets even a slight whiff of you, most likely it will raise its trunk to confirm that something is amiss and then flee, causing the rest of the group to follow in considerable haste. Their sense of hearing, when they pause and stop crunching up branches, seems normal but their eyesight is evidently less so. Therefore our tracker, who is either smoking or using a fine-dust puffer, checks our ‘wind’ every few yards and moves forward cautiously. The gentle breeze seems to swirl unpredictably as the temperature climbs and the elephants seek deeper shade. (See the shadows falling on me whilst sitting on and holding his tail.) When creeping up close, your responsibility is to follow your PH and tread with great care so as not to snap the tinder dry twigs and leaf-litter. This is not easy. From time to time an elephant may stop feeding, as if to take a careful look around itself. Suddenly all goes very quiet often revealing the presence of others in the vicinity. At this point the only thing to do is stand motionless, but if the elephants eventually resume feeding, all is well. It’s very exciting.

Mindful of only two days left, we were off and out of camp for day seven at 06:30 with the sky still barely light, and with my breath steaming in the surprisingly cold air. As if predestined, the first spoor we spotted crossing a clear sandy area looked very new, definitely all males with at least one being a good size. Our tracker went forward into the undergrowth re-emerging quickly with good news. He had found fresh dung and several green leaves on the ground with one leaf fragment still wet with saliva: elephants commonly spill a few leaves as they browse. Off with the warm fleece, on with the cartridge belt, don’t forget bino’s (an essential aid for peering through the shadows), camera, hat, get ready (i.e. take a pee), rifle out of its sleeve, load up and go. This time a relatively short stalk got us in on three bulls. As usual, one was immature, one average, the third very large. The big bull eventually showing us his two chunky and decently matched tusks. The decision was soon made: this was to be it. As on previous occasions the cover was very dense ‘coppice’ that forced us to close to about 15 yards for a careful look, but he was not presenting a side brain shot as he was slightly in front of us and slowly feeding and circling to his right. We followed, keeping station with his left hip as best we could, until we were eventually forced to stop when our wind must have shifted and alerted the young bull which raised its trunk for a better sniff. We stood stock still for what seemed minutes until the young bull relaxed…

However at this moment our big bull suddenly swivelled nearly180°, firstly to face us, and then began to move towards us, but with a clear view of his forehead obscured by brush and vegetation. This was not what we had planned. He was now a towering dark mass. I caught a glimpse of an eye, took aim and fired through the brush at less than 15-yards. On the booming report of the 500, the bull reared but did not collapse, instead spinning away to start a headlong run in pursuit of the other two bulls. Just as instructed by Peter ‘in case of’’, I rapidly touched off the second barrel aiming behind his ribs, angling the large bullet forward, seeking to penetrate the heart, lungs and arteries.

The three bulls disappeared rapidly in a cloud of dust with the sound of their escape fading rapidly. Peter, who had been a few paces to my right when we were all forced to freeze, had put in a couple of .470s with his lovely Westley double immediately after I fired my second barrel–the first a solid hit, the second not known. Our trackers picked up blood spots within a few metres that rapidly increased to a copious quantity–only to appear to stop suddenly. OK, relax a little, it had only changed direction. A few yards on and our tracker crouched and pointed through the undergrowth to a very large indistinct shape on the sand. He was down and motionless. We approached carefully, but it soon became evident that he was stone dead. Not quite a classic kill, but all was well in the end. As they say ‘he’s in the salt’. If ever there was doubt about the efficacy of a big double rifle, this was surely the perfect answer and a vivid example of what they can do in a pressured situation. The crashing run that we had heard fading into the distance had obviously been the other two bulls. My first shot had been misdirected to the left–I thought he was slightly angled to my right: he was not–and I was also too high. At such close range I should have aimed below the line of the eyes as the brain is way back and quite low in the massive head. The bullet had smashed straight through the top of his skull–no wonder it reared up as if to collapse backwards. As to my second shot I have seen many beasts sprint off in a death rush with their hearts completely destroyed and then suddenly collapse stone dead. My bull had done similar. The slaps on my back, the handshakes, and the congratulations all went a little unappreciated as I was somewhat dazed with what had happened in the last few minutes.

Lucky for us, the bull had fallen in a relatively clear area, reducing the work to clear a large working area, for the carcass would be butchered for its meat where it lay as tons of elephant cannot be moved easily. It was interesting to note the care the guys took when chopping down saplings so as not to leave dangerous spear-tips just waiting to be trodden on. As luck would have it, we were still within a few miles of our camp and only an hour or two from the village that was next up on the meat distribution roster. Three hours later, we had Peter’s camp skinners plus a tractor and trailer full of helping hands. During the wait, we started taking photographs whilst already under the watchful eyes of the first ambulance-chasing vultures. Meanwhile Peter and the two ‘monitors’ began filling in forms, entering the date, the time and GPS co-ordinates, the shooter, the rifle, the shots fired, the hunting licence reference, and much more. All these details would establish my title to the trophies so that they could be legitimised and shipped home at a later date. It is essential that the bona fide of the ivory is established for the grant and issue of a CITES permit, and also to satisfy the various veterinary services in Botswana, South Africa, and the UK that the trophies have been dipped and examined in accordance with various health protocols.

Having selected the pieces I wished to keep, it was Peter’s skinners who were the first to start and to secure the trophies. Naturally I chose the tusks, both with damaged tips but thick–typical of the area–and probably quite heavy, then the tail and one lower foreleg would suffice, removing the latter requiring many blows with a heavy axe. The bull was huge and in no need of trick photography to enhance his bulk. His well-worn molar teeth, the battered tail, and wear to the soles of his feet indicated he was getting on in years. The huge muscular trunk, requiring at least two men to lift it, was quickly removed and the skinning commenced. There is nothing romantic about this process with the most effective tools being box-cutters, which penetrated the hide and fatty tissue to enable the first giant skin flaps to be grasped and teased away from the flesh below. Working in three-man teams on different areas of the carcass, favoured joints, or simply 15-20kg lumps of meat, were detached and loaded in the trailer. The work was kept up until one side of the carcass was picked clean, requiring the tractor and chains to roll it over for the process to be repeated on the other side. Meanwhile the vultures, now in their dozens, gathered and wheeled high above. The head was skinned and detached and taken to our camp to be buried in an earth pit leaving only the tusks protruding. Decomposition only takes a few days in the heat, allowing the tusks to come free from the skull avoiding possible damage by attempting to chop them free.

To satisfy my curiosity I requested the heart be removed. It was truly colossal, all solid muscle, and roughly the size of a man’s torso. The arteries are significantly larger than a hose on a petrol pump and the whole thing is heavy enough to make it quite difficult to lift. Other than the feet and lower legs, which are all bone and ligaments, there only remained the ribcage and abdomen which being full of chewed up wood was left for nature’s clean-up squad to take over. Some of the choicer cuts went back to our camp, with the large trailer full of what is very lean meat being taken away and distributed to the local villagers. Most of the meat is sliced into long strips, heavily seasoned and made into biltong for future use. Still the vultures kept coming: they would wait...

Russel joined H&H in 1963 as a mature trainee where his maths and physics skills accelerated his progress to managing manufacture and progressing to Director of Gunmaking. He has always been a proud man to state his trade

Later that evening and in the days that followed, I went over the crucial last minutes before taking the first shot. Peter had, of course, been absolutely correct in planning for a side-on shot where the distinct features of the eye, the ear-hole and the cheekbone serve as constant reference points that do not change regardless of how the elephant happens to be carrying its head. Obviously, the point of aim for a frontal shot needs to be dead centre, but the angle upwards varies considerably with the attitude of the head, particularly when so close. I was sure that the elephant had sensed our presence after it turned towards us and began advancing. Peter said afterwards that it probably had not picked us up but would have done so, at most in another step or two. I guess that had I waited just a second or two longer, or perhaps moved a pace to my right to obtain a clearer shot through the twigs and leaves, I may have had a better picture of the entire forehead. I will never know, but next time ...

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