South Africa: 2014 Zululand Monarch By John Mattera

“All the really big elephants are gone.” How often do we hear that?

My day job is searching for shipwrecks of a bygone era, so I’m accustomed to skeptical forecasts of men who also tell me, “All the great shipwrecks have already been discovered.”

Truth be told, great hunters and explorers share a common attribute, without which you cannot be either: It is vision – the ability to see what life holds for you, past the doubts of all others. This may be my own definition of vision, but it’s better than most.

The time to hunt elephant is now. Like lost shipwrecks, men with vision still find them.

The trek would take us to KwaZulu-Natal, a province about the size of Maine comprising widely varying regions and terrains. The Natal Midlands are rolling hilly plateaus that rise toward the west where two mountainous regions, the Drakensberg and Northern Lebombo Mountains, climb high into the sky. A solid basalt wall rises to almost 10,000 feet and forms a natural barrier with Lesotho, and low ranges of ancient granite run southward from Swaziland. KwaZulu-Natal is also bordered by the Indian Ocean, where lowland subtropical vegetation hugs the coast. The area’s largest river, the Tugela, flows west to east across the center, bisecting the province. Perhaps the wildest region left in South Africa, Zululand is one of the great bastions of untamed spaces where giant elephant can still be found.

The golden age of elephant hunting may be the stuff of legend, but giant bulls were never common in this part of Africa during any era. Still, there may have been more worthy monarchs 100 ago than now, when the roads were less travelled or nonexistent, and hardship and deprivation were common. The “good old days” weren’t always as good as they sound!

There are very few bad days in a hunting camp. After all, it’s where we aspire to be with our innermost thoughts. Then there is elephant camp where, after coffee and a cold breakfast, you’re on the spoor of giants. This is about as good as it gets, for we are hunters.

Three of my favorite professional hunters – Charles Humphries, Randy Wesraadt and Drom Beukes – descended upon Zululand with American hunting client Dave Ratliff, who is in search of his date with destiny. This was not Dave’s first foray into elephant camp. In 2013 he’d spent 19 days looking for that elusive trophy; but Dave is not a hunter to settle. So unfilled tags gave rise to opportunities anew, and that’s where we were: early September, in KwaZulu-Natal, in search of big tuskers. It’s a story worth telling.

Every day on the trail of elephant, I envision my favorite “Far Side” cartoon from the Sunday papers: Two cavemen are in front of a dead woolly mammoth with a spear sticking from his side. One caveman says to the other, “Remember that spot!”

Elephant hunting is really no more complicated than that: Remember the spot to shoot them, so that they die quickly. But first you have to track them, find them, and sneak up on them, closing to within a stone’s throw of a giant who can destroy you with a casual swipe of its trunk.

If the tracker is good, the wind is right, and the cover is not too thick, you may get to “remember that spot,” testing your mettle against this great and worthy trophy to put that bullet where it needs to go.

Dave was carrying a CZ-USA 550 in .458 Lott with an appropriate charge of elephant medicine; it has already graced the pages of AHG as a tried and proven tool, ready for the hunt. The CZ-USA 550 is no stranger to the rifleman; in any of its variations, it has stood the test of time. Combined with a stout, dangerous-game caliber like the .458 Lott, it’s hard-pressed to beat. In fact, four CZ .458 Lott’s rounded out the five rifles in attendance. Randy was outnumbered if not outgunned, choosing his well-used .470 double rifle over the large capacity bolt-gun.

Much of the region we were hunting for the first few days was intermittent heavy brush, with areas of low scrub that had been burned down in the past. Through the sandy ash and dusty soft dirt, the footprints of giants had difficulty hiding from our two trackers.

As the first morning started, PH Charles Humphries led the column out on the spoor of three big bulls, with Dave right behind him. Humphries is a solid young PH, with chiseled good looks and affable boyish charm, vastly more accomplished than his years would attest. I’ve hunted with him in the past and have never been left wanting for knowledge or companionship. Seasoned PHs Wesraadt and Beukes took up the rear of the column.

By mid-afternoon we closed in on a big elephant just as we passed into the thick jesse. Dave and Charles slipped forward from one small tree to another, gaining ground as they went. As they closed in on a very respectable old bull, the PH steadied his binos and judged the trophy. It looked like a solid 50-pounder, but the bull was old, with a sunken head and weathered appearance, worn down by age and life. His skin, once bright grey, had taken on the fade of an old battleship, translucent hues reflecting in the late afternoon sun.

Charles set up the sticks, and Dave laid his CZ .458 Lott across them, snapped off the safety, and fought to catch his breath. A knowledgeable eye understood that the withered frame of the old elephant might exaggerate the size of the ivory, but still he was a grand trophy in anybody’s book. On the flip side of the same coin, this was early afternoon on Day One of a 14-day safari.

But Charles made the call – good judgment or youthful exuberance, only time would tell. “We’re going to let him pass – there is bigger out here!”

The look on Dave’s face said it all: he’d been two pounds down, with a pound of trigger to go on the trophy of a lifetime. The hooded iron post muted against dark earthen grey. It doesn’t get much closer!

The axiom of the realist hunter resounded through Dave’s mind: Don’t pass up on the first day what you would shoot on the last day.

But Charles Humphries is the kind of young man you instinctively trust, even with the dream of a lifetime.

Day One ended bone-tired and mile-worn. In the book of any hunter who’s pursued these behemoths with enthusiasm, elephant hunting goes down as hard work.

If the old adage holds true, that you have to walk a mile for every pound of ivory, we were well on our way after a sizable monster.

A good part of elephant hunting is luck. I also consider luck to be the residual effect of proper preparation. It’s much easier to be lucky when you are in the field doing what you are supposed to be doing.

As hunts go, most days in Africa’s game fields are great; and any day you stalk elephants is truly magnificent. The next six passed with tracking elephants every day, nothing like the first bull, but stalking-worthy elephants nonetheless. The PHs rotated, each taking turns as the stalks began to number into the double digits. Randy with his unflappable patient demeanor, Drom with his cheerful personality that transformed to a calm resolve in an instant as needed, tracking into the heavy vegetation only feet away from giants – and all the while Dave rose to the challenge, stalk after stalk.

There was one undisputable truth: In the short week-plus between the first bull and the last, Dave had garnered a whole bunch of elephant hunting knowledge, one mile at a time.

Just as Day 8 was coming to its midway point, the trackers came across huge tracks deep in the soft muddy sand, worn down at the heels and withered with age. The tracks of a massive bull! Our Zimbabwean tracker was on the trail at a brisk pace, closely followed by Charles, Dave, and the rest of the hunting assemblage.

One hour turned to two, and two to three. The temperature was cool, the hiking as comfortable as one could wish for as we pushed our way forward, when the tracker stopped and froze. Charles was the professional closest to the action, so he dropped down to his hands and knees for a short crawl and a better look.

His questioning gaze turned to one of animation when he realized what he was looking upon, after a glimpse through the coarse brush. We were stalking a giant! He signaled Dave forward, and they closed in on the majestic old bull.

Flashes of muted grey emerged from behind the painted green and brown of the vegetation, then the glint of ivory – big ivory appeared! Checking the wind, the game was on! In order to get a closer look at this old boy’s tusks without being detected, Dave dropped down to the dirt with Charles, and the two low-crawled through the vegetation. It was the test of a hunter – the test of patience and skill.

The bull was a monster, and the hunter and PH stalked closer to within full view. Youthful exuberance had just become seasoned professionalism!

They eased to their feet and Dave raised the CZ to his shoulder and settled into a solid position as Charles whispered into his ear. The old bull was facing straight on with his head up high. Charles wanted Dave to take a side chest shot, but they would have to wait for the bull to turn. After what seemed like an eternity the behemoth rolled to the side and exposed his heart.

“Shoot, shoot, shoot,” whispered Charles.

Dave was looking for that perfect shot, the shot of a lifetime, so it took the third iteration of the word shoot before he pressed the trigger. The thwap of a shot well connected echoed with authority. As the elephant took the bullet dead in the chest, he wheeled-turned and took off, gaining speed the whole time. Dave worked the bolt on the CZ and placed a second 500-grain projectile at the base of his tail, and the mighty elephant rocked violently. Momentum carried him forward though the heavy brush another 20 yards until he fell.

“Perfect shot!” yelled Charles as they ran through the mopane. We came up on him just the other side of the brush where he had crumpled. Down on all four knees with his head erect, his massive tusks resting on the ground – done, but not finished. Drom pulled Dave around, positioning him for a side brain shot, just behind the earhole to deliver the elephant home. Dave looked through the iron sights of the CZ 550 and pressed the trigger once again. The mighty old bull rocked back to the earth for the last time.

So many hunting days past fueled the passion that this day’s hunt had become – a lifetime in the field. For Dave, this monster bull completed his quest for Africa’s Big Five on maybe the highest note of his long hunting career.

Our professional hunters were all but speechless. There before them was proof positive of a job well done. This old boy would tip the scales on anything they had seen in years. While magnificent, the true trophy of this hunt wasn’t the size of the ivory, it was the legend of the day!

There are no more monster bulls in South Africa?

Leave the men without vision to their own opinions. My stalwart companions and I are elephant hunting!

John Mattera is a regular contributor to “African Hunting Gazette.”

20.3RSAElephantMattera 1950 words

Pull-Out quote “A good part of elephant hunting is luck. I also consider luck to be the residual effect of proper preparation. It’s much easier to be lucky when you are in the field doing what you are supposed to be doing.”