THE LAST OF THE BEST
Kyle Ball MD
It couldn’t have been a more perfect setup: 10.35 a.m. Mid-July. Zimbabwe’s famed Zambezi Valley. Hurungwe Hunting Block.
Already that morning we had spotted, approached and passed on three other elephant bulls, but now we had before us – at only 16 yards – the bull that I had traveled over 12,000 miles to hunt, and that I had waited a lifetime to find.
The wind was steady in our faces as we made our final approach. The elephant was standing with his entire left side exposed as he fed quartering away from us in a thicket of jesse bush, so characteristic of the Zambezi Valley.
Safari outfitter and professional hunter Gordon Mace of GEM Safaris was just off my left shoulder, holding his Brno .505 Gibbs in the ready port arms position. Without taking his eyes from the bull, he slowly smiled, and with his index finger pointed to his eyes and then to his heart.
This maneuver could only make me smile. These hand signals had been reviewed countless times before as we had made similar approaches on other dangerous game that had led up to this finale. No words were exchanged, no chance of a voice spooking our quarry. Gordon was “old school” in all conduct relating to a safari, but never more so than in this regard. Its meaning was simple and direct:
“Eyes on target – bullet through the heart.”
That sounds simple enough. The heart/lung region of a Zambezi Valley elephant bull is huge, at least 4 x 4 feet square. Place a 400-grain Trophy Bonded Sledgehammer solid from my .416 Remington Magnum into that square, and death was assured, albeit after a several hundred yard “death sprint”.
But I envisioned a side brain shot, the classic kill shot, instantaneous. The bull’s massive head and trunk will fly upwards as its huge hind legs collapse under it. Gordon and I had discussed this many times over our nightly mopane fire, situated in our camp along the banks of the Zambezi River.
“The side brain shot is awesome and must be dead-centered to be effective,” he said, “but it allows no margin for error, because the elephant’s brain is very small relative to its body size and is encased in a labyrinth of spongy bone. A poor shot will only momentarily stun it. It will take off at great speed and will certainly ‘ramp the horizon’- unrecoverable, taking along with it your hopes and dreams and your very expensive trophy fee!
“Because it possesses such a huge margin for error, that’s why the side brain shot is reserved for professionals, and the heart/lung shot is left for amateur safari hunters.” I asked how he knew so much about the subject.
“In my younger Rhodesian days, I was part of a PAC (Problem Animal Control) unit. We had to deal with all types of game, but primarily dangerous game that was encroaching on villages or crops throughout the country. Over those years, I accounted for many elephants as well as Cape buffalo and hippos. It was dangerous and trying. You had to quickly master brain shots from any conceivable angle, and you learned quickly the exact location of the brain, for to miss it meant a long follow-up or a lost animal.”
As I looked at the trophy bull in front of me, I glanced at Gordon, and with my index finger pointed to my eyes and then to my temple. Side brain shot – that’s what I want!
Gordon grinned but firmly pointed to his eyes and then to his heart: EYES FORWARD ON TARGET – HEART/LUNG SHOT! As our eyes met in that instant, I could read his mind – this was not a suggestion. This was a command!
Engage the target—don’t muck this up!
As my .416 Remington Magnum came to my shoulder, peripherally I could see Gordon’s .505 Gibbs also being brought to bear. As the heavy duplex reticle of my Leupold 1.5 x 5 Dangerous game scope found its mark, what little trigger slack remained was taken up by my trigger finger.
“BOOM!” My Sledgehammer solid exploded from the end of the barrel and instantly hit the target, one-third up and slightly behind the elephant’s left front leg. It reacted instantly to the shot, stumbling slightly at first but quickly recovering and accelerating away from us, along the path it had been facing. Quickly chambering another round, I aimed for a high spine shot as the bull was quickly gaining both speed and distance.
The second shot impacted just to the left of the massive spine, but the only visible reaction from the bull was to alter its course suddenly, turning sharply to its left, exposing that side of its massive head and body, now 90 yards away. As I chambered my third round, I heard the deafening roar of Gordon’s .505 Gibbs immediately to my left and was amazed to see the bull’s head and trunk fly straight up as its back end collapsed.
For a few seconds I stood there motionless. Gordon rocked me back into reality with a hard slap on the shoulder.
“Kyle, follow me quickly. Reload your weapon NOW!”
I reloaded as we ran, following Gordon around the dense jesse bushes. We were circling downwind and coming up behind the fallen monarch, to give the finishing shot.
“Here, Kyle, here!” Gordon pointed. “In the back of the skull. Do it now!” As my third bullet found its mark, the bull of my lifetime lay silent.
At that moment, the world seemed to stand still. It was that surreal. For me, what had only seconds before been controlled chaos was now deathly silence. I was now finally able to lay my hands on this elephant bull – OUR elephant bull. As I stood silently, Gordon and the trackers moved off slightly to one side to give me some space as the realization of exactly what I had done – what we had done together as a team – began to sink into me.
This bull elephant – so majestic – so old – that had seen countless sunrises and sunsets with possibly thousands of other elephants in its lifetime, and had passed his genes on to many progeny – lay still in death at my feet.
After several minutes, Gordon came alongside me and hugged me tightly. “Kyle, it is such a privilege for me to be able to share this priceless moment with you. He is a superb trophy. He should only belong to a superb hunter such as yourself. Hunted ethically in a free-range environment, taken quickly and cleanly with the utmost respect.”
As I wiped a tear from the corner of my eye, I could only nod in silent agreement.
TO GO IN A BLOCK:
This, and other adventures, were shared with and guided by one of the “Last of the Best” professional hunters on the Dark Continent – my friend and mentor Gordon Mace. I am blessed to have seen Africa through his eyes and to have felt Africa through his heart and soul.
So many American hunters, pushed by the times in which we live, have the mantra, “Maximum animals in minimum time,” animals that meet SCI minimums for inclusion in the Record Book and other such drivel – a sharp contrast to Gordon’s mentality. A safari is truly a journey to him, not just what animals are taken. It is everything – the sights, sounds and total experience.
Reared in the “old school” Rhodesian (now Zimbabwe) manner, to him a safari consists of an outstanding camp with a well-trained and competent staff in true, fair-chase big-game safari country. The Zambezi Valley is an example of such a destination and has been Gordon’s favorite since he was a 19-year-old, freshly minted officer in the Rhodesian army. Initially posted to Chirundu on the Zambian border deep in the Zambezi Valley, this hunting paradise quickly captured the soul of this aspiring young hunter, and immediately on arrival Gordon bought his first rifle, a Cogswell and Harrison .318.
His initial forays into the surrounding bush were all on foot, and as he explored – sometimes for weeks on end – his range expanded dramatically as he survived by his wits, his increasing proficiency with his firearms, and more than his fair share of luck.
From these initial experiences in the untamed land, a personal code of conduct began to take root and, with time, became a set of standards that formed the core of a way of life that was to carry him and his family through the next 50 years.
There was always an air of confidence among the trackers under Gordon’s direction, a confidence that allowed you, the safari client, when the stalk had been closed with the animal and the trackers blended silently behind you and Gordon, to step up boldly and “engage the target.”
That confidence couldn’t make you arrogant or foolhardy because you knew that if things went awry in dangerous-game encounters, collaboration would be instantaneous and deadly. That assurance is absolutely priceless.
To hunt with a man of Gordon Mace’s character, you became a student. If you were stupid enough to arrive in Africa with preconceived ideas of “how” or “why” Africa was the way it was, you would miss one of the richest of treasures – the opportunity to see, hear, feel Africa through the eyes, heart and soul of one of its finest historians, entomologists, herpetologists and professional hunters.
Lessons of the bush, many times written in blood, are so easily transferred into everyday lessons of life. Having been fortunate to have hunted on five continents over the past 30 years with countless professional hunters, to have kept returning time after time to share safaris with Gordon, meant that his impact, at least for me, transcends time.