The Pickering Chronicles #9 – The Hunt Begins
“The older I get the surer I am that I am not running the show.”
— Leonard Cohen
The sound of running water in the toilet tank woke me up and told me it was 5:30 a.m. That was when the camp caretaker started the generator that powered the water pump that was providing the camp with water. I got up and turned on the hot water side of the tap in the sink. The hot water tank heated by a wood fire was a long way from my hut. It would take several minutes for the hot water to reach my shower room. In the meantime, the hut was cold. I got back under my blanket and stayed until I had hot water, took a quick shower and dressed warmly for breakfast.
My hut was one of five stone-walled, thatch roofed huts that sat in a semicircle about 50 meters from the larger dining hut. The thatched roofs were thick grass reed humps balancing like toques over the space underneath.
I could see my breath as I walked up the brick pathway across the rough grass through the false dawn to the dining hut, where I found Becker, our PH, sitting by the fireplace trying to warm his hands. He stood up when I ducked and came in under the thatched roof. We shook hands.
“Coffee?” Becker asked.
“No, thanks. I don’t drink coffee, but I’ll have some tea if there is some.” I found a container on the table with teabags in it and selected one as he proffered a cup.
“You drink tea? I though all Americans drank coffee.” He lifted the kettle off the wood fire and poured scalding hot water over the teabag in my cup. While I stirred my tea he pulled another canvas chair over next to the fire. We sat together in uncomfortable silence, as we still didn’t know each other well enough to relax.The fire crackled and the canvas of the chairs squeaked against their wood frames when we moved. The heat of the fire was welcome. We were saved more social discomfort when Chen Wei entered the hut.
“Good morning, good morning; good morning all.” full of cheer. He got some coffee and we settled into a semi-circle around the fire, waiting for breakfast.
Chen Wei asked me, “Well, are you ready to hunt?”
“I’m ready. It’s taken a long enough time to get here.”
He laughed. “Now, you will see what I was telling you. Becker, are you ready to go?”
Becker smiled. “I’m ready. And I’m happy to see that Thomas knows how to use a rifle.” To me, “I was surprised yesterday at how fast you can shoot. I didn’t expect that.”
“Yes, he’s been practicing a lot.” This from Chen Wei. “I think he won’t have any problems.” He talked to Becker like I wasn’t there.
“Don’t forget,” I interrupted, “that tree wasn’t moving. I’m not so sure I can do as well with a moving animal.”
“You don’t need to worry,” Becker said. “You won’t have any problem. We’ll be there to back you up. Let’s go find your elephant.”
“Speaking of which,” I asked, “if we get the chance, where will you guys be? Behind me? Beside me? Where?”
“I’ll be just at your side,” Becker told me, “and Chen Wei will be on your other side. No problem. You probably won’t need our backup shots anyway,” he assured me. As he spoke the caretaker’s wife brought food to the table behind us.
Breakfast ended when the Land Cruiser was driven up and parked next to the dining hut. I went back to my hut to add another layer of clothing plus gloves; it was cold. I brought my loaner CZ550 .458 Win Mag rifle in its soft case to the truck and placed it with the others in a gun rack. We climbed over the truck sides and settled ourselves on the bench behind the cab: Chen Wei and Wilson the Head Tracker on either side and me in the middle. Becker drove and David, the Parks and Wildlife Ranger — armed with his near-antique AK47 — took the passenger seat. One of the other trackers stood behind us in the bed of the truck and Jerry stood on the trailer hitch and hung onto the tailgate.
The sun was just clearing the horizon when Becker fired up the Land Cruiser and we left camp. We headed eastward winding through a gauntlet of bush and tree branches. The guys sitting on either side of me had to content with getting slapped from the sides by protruding branches, plus the slaps to the the head and face we got from overhanging branches. We ran this gauntlet, about a mile, every day four times — out and back in the morning, out and back in the afternoon. It only took a couple days to learn when exactly to duck. I, the client, was privileged to sit in the middle and only had to worry about getting slapped in the face and losing my hat to the branches. Wilson and Chen Wei took hits from the sides as well as overhead.
Every morning at the end of that run we slowed long enough to pick up a third tracker, then angled southward, down a bumpy hill, across a small bridge over a swampy spot and back up the other boulder-filled side of the gully to ride up a long slope that topped out onto a sandy plateau covered in thick brush and trees. Near the bottom of the gully that first morning Wilson the tracker pointed to something small and deer-colored in the bush to our left that soundlessly leapt and disappeared. “Daika,” I thought he said.
Our concession was over 80 square miles shaped like a lop-sided “V” that included a large reedy wetland as well as a meandering muddy river and dense green forest on one side, but mostly dryer flatland. It was criss-crossed and rimmed with paths that ranged from jeep trails to elephant trails to dusty roads that roughly divided the concession into square mile chunks.
We began this day by travelling to the single water hole that was pretty much central to the concession. The muddy dead-water depression had at one edge a circular concrete cistern about three feet deep and ten feet across. It contained stagnant water mixed with dead leaves and twigs.
We parked under a tree and as soon as the Land Cruiser stopped the vehicle emptied. The PH Becker, David the Ranger, and the three trackers fanned out around the water hole. Chen Wei and I sat and watched for a bit. Then we both dismounted. I walked towards where Wilson was standing in the rising sun. His ears were perked up, his eyes were on the ground, his nose was working and he appeared totally absorbed, pointing this way and that as he interpreted for himself what he was taking in. The two young trappers were on the other side of the waterhole by now, and Becker was standing next to the cistern looking at the ground.
“What do you see?” I whispered to Wilson.
“Cape buffalo. Many. Look at droppings.” He spoke softly even though we drove up in the Cruiser and had already made a lot of noise.
“How many?” I asked.
“Too many foots to tell. Look. From last night. Some big bulls.” He pointed at the sandy palette of footprints and scattered fresh piles of buffalo manure. What he was pointing to in the sand was just a puzzle to me, but my heart skipped a beat. “Can we hunt these?”
“Ask the PH. I think he has a license. Ask him.” Then, he added, “But these won’t be back. They came last night, but they are gone now.”
“Why won’t they be back?”
“The water is old and stale. They came here, they don’t want it. They won’t be back.”
Just then Becker called Wilson to the cistern. He pointed at the ground next to it. Wilson looked, then looked to the south and without saying anything started walking away, looking down. We watched him move some fifty yards south, then silently signal the other two trackers. We watched while the three pointed here and there, fanned out and disappeared into the trees at the edge of the clearing that surrounded the waterhole. The Ranger came and stood by us, cradling his AK47 like it was a baby.
They came back in less than 30 minutes and the PH and trackers conversed in Shona language. The team moved their activities to a small lean-to that held a generator and a water
pump and started work to get the water system working. While they worked the PH explained that the trackers had picked up the tracks of two elephants, a large old male and a young bull, headed south. They were at the waterhole before the buffalo, so by now may have been out of our reach. In the meantime the generator started up and the pump began to work. We went back to the cistern where the two young trackers and the Ranger scooped out leaves and twigs from the cistern while Jerry and the PH got some duct tape and muscle to re-shape and twist the plastic pipes feeding the cistern into workable shape. The pipes had been deformed and torn up by young bull elephants according to Becker. We watched as the cistern began to fill with fresh, clean, sweet water. According to Becker, elephants could smell this water from up to 20 miles away. I was hopeful that they would.
We waited until the cistern was full. Then we all climbed back into the vehicle and headed east and southeast, to get to the perimeter road to look for tracks. Once at the perimeter we began to drive slowly clockwise around the uneven concession boundary.
We had gone south and then angled westward when Wilson, leaning out his side of the truck told Becker. “Stop, stop!” He jumped down off the side, walked forward and looked at something in the roadway. We had already driven over many piles of elephant dung but I was told they were old. Wilson and his two assistant trackers poked at a couple of piles and pronounced them fresh. They walked up and back along the dusty road, showed us the tracks they had found, and gave us their verdict: two animals, an older bull and a young bull — probably the same ones that visited the waterhole — had recently crossed the perimeter road heading south. That is, they had left our concession and were already into the National Forest headed for the Hwange National Park. We all took a look at the prints as evidence.
I tried to make a joke and said that if we could quickly catch them on the National Forest side of the road, we could just shoot the old bull and drag it back onto our side of the road. David the Ranger gave me a look that could stop a train. Clearly I had done something akin to making a joke about hijacking in an airport. He glared; I shrunk, and shut my mouth.
During the rest of the morning we scared up several more “daika” and quite a few guinea hens, but saw no fresh markers of elephants. After a break for lunch and a nap, though, we had more positive signs in the afternoon.
Find the entire series here: The Pickering Chronicles
If Uncle Jim were a few years younger, he’d be old enough to be Thomas’s son! Nevertheless, Thomas enjoys hunting, freehand shooting, and reloading. He’s looked for challenges all his life and continues to seek them out. He agrees that everything goes better with Loads of Bacon!