Return to Chirisa
By Russ Gould
In February 2009, Scott Kendrix and I stepped out of Harare International Airport into the cool night air, exhausted from our travels and excited at the same time, for we were back in Africa, with buffalo and elephant on our minds. Our PH helped us with our gear and soon we were exchanging greetings with old friends Justice and Hardlife, the two trackers who would accompany us on this hunt, at a private home in the suburbs of Harare.
Scott works for US Customs and Border Patrol, and this was his first trip to Zimbabwe as well as his first dangerous game hunt. He had spent a year on a ranch operation in South Africa, where he gained a lot of valuable experience but no exposure to the Big Five. Our hunt was a short-notice affair, and priced modestly. We both jumped at the opportunity to take a management elephant bull as well as an exportable buffalo bull. I too had plenty of plains game experience under my belt and had hunted in Zimbabwe on three previous occasions, but like Scott, this would be my first shot at dangerous game. Having accompanied clients on both elephant and buffalo hunts, I had a better idea of what to expect on the hunt but was just as excited as my partner.
Very early the next morning, having slept very little if at all, we set off in the PH’s new Toyota Land Cruiser. These vehicles are de rigeur in Zimbabwe, but not designed for 3 passengers. So it was a stiff and sore contingent that spilled out of the cab some 8 hours later at the National Parks’ compound in Chirisa. This is a 13,500 km2 Safari Area in central Zimbabwe, situated at 2250 feet above sea level, and fortunately free of the annoying tsetse fly that are so prevalent wherever buffalo are found. Camp was a couple of newish tents pitched near a basic brick structure that was part of the Parks compound. There we were met by the operators, a South African by the name of Lourens Botha and his Zimbabwean partner “Tembi”, who showed us to our tented quarters after brief introductions. I immediately inquired about TR2s, receiving a vague answer from our host. This should have alerted me that all was not right with the hunt, but I was confident in the PH whom I had known for some time so I dismissed my misgivings.
In no time, we were unpacked and ready to start our hunts. Our PH wasn’t as anxious to get going as we were, so we killed some time in camp. After a light lunch we saddled up and moved out. Scott was planning to use my custom Steyr “Bad Boy” in 375 H&H, a rifle I had built with dangerous game in mind. The rifle featured an 8 round detachable magazine, an XS ghost ring site, and an NECG banded front sight ramp fitted with an oversized custom brass bead. I had regulated the rifle prior to departure with both solids and softs, but nevertheless insisted that Scott shoot the rifle prior to starting our hunt. A suitable tree was selected and we soon discovered that the rifle shot left in the hands of a leftie. It shot so far left that the rear sight ran out of adjustment. Our South African host demonstrated his ignorance regarding the adjustment of iron sights. My subconscious alert level rose a notch. Plan B was a Remington 700 that belonged to the safari operator, also in 375 H&H, but fitted with a scope. Scott was a 700 man so this suited him fine. Again, the rifle shot left but the scope was easily adjusted and soon we were hunting in earnest. The afternoon was unproductive but it gave us a good idea of the lay of the land and the conditions. The bush was still very thick and green, due to the good rains that had fallen in early 2009. There wasn’t much thorn scrub, but plenty of Jesse as well as areas of fairly open woodland. It looked promising.
We returned to camp for dinner and nap, planning a PAC hunt that evening. The local residents reported a lot of elephant activity in their fields, where their crop of melons, corn and nuts was ripening. One single-tusked elephant bull in particular was mentioned as being large and aggressive. We had been promised daylight hunts for “management bulls”, and Scott expressed a strong preference for a daylight hunt. As there was no exportable trophy for the elephant portion of this hunt, he wanted to be sure he would at least get some good photographs. The PH allayed his concern by stating that photos could be taken the next morning.
At around 10 pm, we were rousted from our exhausted slumber by the communal scout, who reported that the elephant were “in”. After a quick cup of tea, we saddled up along with most of the camp entourage, drove a short distance along the boundary road and set off in the pitch dark guided by a local farmer. We walked about a kilometer in silence to the field where the elephants were feeding. We were within earshot of them when our guide switched on the spotlight, unexpectedly and before we were in position to shoot. The elephant took off in haste, of course, ruining the hunt.
I was anxious to get back to camp at this point as I had realized, half way into this night hunt, that the envelope containing my hunt money was missing from my back trouser pocket. I was pretty sure it had fallen out in camp, sometime between the time we had dinner and the time we left camp, most probably while I was sleeping in the tent. I was not overly concerned as camp was dark and deserted. So as soon as we got back, I did a quick search of our tent, then the area around the campfire and the dining room, and finally the toilet. No envelope. I felt sick to my stomach as the amount was substantial. After informing our PH, I turned in but slept little that night. The next morning I informed Scott that I would exchange my rifle for a video camera, at least until the money was found. We also informed the Parks officials and the local police who were stationed not 200 yards from our camp. And finally, I offered a substantial reward for the return of the money. I hoped that these measures would produce the thief.
The situation then took a turn for the worse. The police, working on their theory that I had been pick-pocketed, rounded up the scouts and trackers that were on the vehicle with us that night and beat them to the point where most of them were not able to walk. Our PH spent most of the next day taking his trackers to the nearest medical facility for treatment of their wounds and bruises. Meanwhile I discovered that my gun case lock had been tampered with, indicating that the thief/thieves had visited our tent while we were out hunting. This exonerated the hunting party, leaving the cook, maid and one of the partners as suspects, along with the possibility that it was the work of a passer-by.
Despite this new development, hunting continued, after a fashion. We chased buffalo and elephant in the thick Jesse between thunderstorms, without success. Evenings were spent sleeping around the fires of local farmers, waiting for PAC elephant to show. During lunch breaks, I conferred with the cops, who were now asking pointed questions of me, requesting proof that I had that amount of cash on my person. It was also becoming obvious that neither my PH nor the operator believed my version of events. Scott felt that the saga of the missing money was now compromising his hunt.
To add to the tension, a group of South African hunters showed up and pitched their tent next to ours, displacing our hammocks that were strung between trees, allowing us the modest luxury of a cool place to nap after lunch. When we inquired about their presence, we were told that we were “supposed to be there last week”, which was news to us. We were also now being pressured to take a cow buffalo instead of a bull, after I asked some more pointed questions about the TR2 (hunting pemit). We were hunting right under the noses of Parks, with a Parks scout, yet the hunt was starting to look highly irregular. On the fourth evening, I expressed my concerns directly to the operator, particularly regarding the need to ensure that Scott’s hunt was properly conducted. He advised us to pack up and leave if we didn’t like the way things were going! Things would get worse before they got better.
Next morning (it was Scott’s birthday), we were among elephants in the Jesse when a volley of shots rang out, not too far from us. Later, we came across the South Africans driving along “our” road in their vehicle. They seemed pleased and informed us that they had shot a bull elephant that morning. We returned to camp to find four more hunters occupying the only chairs and drinking what little cold beer would fit in the battery-powered cooler box. Scott retired to the tent and made copious notes in his journal. I cleaned my rifle and put it away. Dinner was a glum affair.
The next day, matters improved. The second group of hunters moved out
before breakfast, and the South Africans were relocated to the adjoining Sengwa
concession. We found a fresh elephant track that, after an hour of walking, led
us to a young bull. Scott brought it down with a frontal chest shot from the
borrowed 375. His mood improved dramatically. The remainder of the day was
spent on recovery, as well as providing taxi service to some local district
council members and some HHK employees who needed a ride to the HHK compound
situated deeper into the hunting area. It was during this jaunt that I came to
the realization that we were hunting in an HHK concession, without the
knowledge of that firm. (Note HHK is not affiliated with Botha or the PH in
There was no progress finding the missing money. The trackers were
still incapacitated, so we used a tracker “borrowed” from Parks and the Parks
scout, a pleasant fellow by the name of Ngudawashe (God’s Wish) pitched in as well. We hunted buffalo and
were on to them daily, however with no shot opportunity. On the last day, Scott
shot at a buffalo cow and missed (on purpose, I think, as by now we had been
told we could only shoot a non-exportable cow). He passed the rifle to me,
stating that he was done hunting buffalo. I could have taken a good bull from a
distance of 25 yards on the way back to the vehicle, but since we were now
restricted to hunting cows, no shot was
taken. This short walk, plus the first night’s aborted PAC hunt, constituted
the sum total of my hunting time on this trip.
The last evening of the seven-day hunt found us napping in our hammocks, one end secured to the Cruiser, the other to a tree near some scraggly maize fields. A very slim sickle moon rose in the Eastern sky, but it was for all intents and purposes pitch dark. Around 10 pm, we were shaken awake by our PH who indicated that the elephant were in the fields. My camera was useless in the dark, so I operated the spotlight and carried no rifle. I positioned myself between the PH and Scott and three abreast, we took a short stroll toward the elephant noises in the nearby field. When we were within 30 yards or so, I could see a dark mass to our front and the PH gave the signal. I lit up a young bull that went down in a fusillade of shots taken on the run. Elephant no. 2 was down. Within minutes, locals came out of the darkness to witness our photographing of the young bull. They would butcher him as soon as it was light.
On the way back to camp, we were flagged down by one of our scouts. It seemed the big bad elephant of ill repute was nearby. Another short walk through the blackness ensued, guided by the sound of corn stalks being ripped up and devoured. When the shooters were in place and pointed in the general direction of the elephant sounds, I lit up the night. The broken-tusk bull whirled to face us, ears flapping. Rifles barked and he turned away from us, then fell to a second volley as he was getting under way. It was midnight and elephant no. 3 was down. Scott was fired up to say the least. I was happy for him but at the same time, I was disappointed that the hunt was over without any shot fired on my part, and resigned to my financial loss. After more photos, we returned to camp and retired, exhausted. At 3 A.M. we were up, stuffed into the Cruiser along with all of our camping “mpathla”, and on our way back to Harare.
After unloading the camping gear and agreeing to disagree on the bill for the hunt (the PH seemed to have a short memory regarding the quoted cost of the 2 PAC elephants, and in addition thought that I should pay a full daily rate even though I had hunted for all of two hours, not to mention the fact that we were supposed to be hunting 1x1), we had just enough time to buy a fast food chicken lunch and head to the airport. Our hunt was over at that point, but the story is only half told.
A few weeks later I received an email from the PH, informing me that our cook was the thief. Amazingly, he had the money on his person all the way back to Harare. Upon his return home, he had suddenly found the means to purchase a vehicle for himself and bestow a similar favor on a girlfriend. His wife took umbrage at this and turned him in to the police. Three policemen dutifully showed up, interrogated the suspect, and then retired from the scene with the help of some $100 notes. I don’t know what happened to the wife but I suspect she was beaten. The cook was free to continue spending my money.
This was still the situation in early October of the same year, when an unexpected last-minute cancellation by a client precipitated my return to Chirisa, in the company of 3 friends/clients. Each aspired to a buffalo bull, while I planned to take a management bull elephant for myself. Terry was from Alaska, retired and fit. I had not met him prior to the hunt. Dick and Stu were old friends from California. I had introduced them to Africa several years earlier, and they would remind me of that fact whenever things when things were going badly, or well. And so we again stepped into the cool night air at Harare International, some eight months after Scott’s and my arrival earlier that year.
On this occasion, we spent the first night in a very comfortable bed & breakfast run by Marny and Adrienne Cartwright, located in Highlands. Marny met us at the airport and provided transport. By 7 am the next morning, we were at Charles Prince airfield ready to board a Navajo for the short flight to Chirisa. The one hour flight in the twin was much more comfortable than 8 hours of front-seat Cruiser time, and by 9 am we were in camp unpacking. Our camp (Ngwe camp) comprised 4 en-suite thatched chalets and an open lapa that served as bar and dining room and overlooked the Sengwa river. It even had a swimming pool, however this was out of service due to a pump problem.
The remainder of the first day was spent sighting in rifles and filling out paperwork at the Parks HQ, the same collection of buildings where we had camped in February. I found Ngudawashe and he greeted me enthusiastically, inquiring also about Scott. The assistant warden also remembered me and we discussed the missing money. He knew the rest of the story. The bad news was that Parks had not approved my management elephant permit. We were told that we would have to wait for approval.
The bush had a totally different feel in late October. The word “scorched” came to mind. Even the trees appeared to be dead, apart from one or two showing the first signs of leafing out. The long grass of February had all but disappeared, and the cool dark Jesse forests were now a mass of bleached brush. We saw little game and the clients were quiet.
Our daily routine started at 4 am, when the generator fired up. This
would start the electric ceiling fan in our sleeping quarters, waking us before
the camp assistant knocked at 4:30. By 5 most of us would be at the breakfast
table and by 5:30 it was light enough to move out. Terry and Stu hunted with
Phil Smythe, while Dick and I rode with Kevin Beasley.
We drove the roads each morning looking for buff tracks. This included driving along the wide sandy river bed, where scattered pools of water remained against the banks in places. We also visited the few remaining springs in search of sign. Each day, we picked the most likely tracks and followed. By 7 am it was warm, and by 9 it was uncomfortable. Contrary to my past late season experience, these Chirisa buffalo would not bed close to water. We found them between 5 and 10 km from their evening drinking holes, and they were very nervous. About half the time, they detected us before we sighted them, and we would hear them thundering off. On a couple of occasions, we spotted small herds from the vehicle, and also from a prominent lookout point overlooking the wide floodplain. A couple of the herds were very large. We saw reasonable numbers of impala, warthog, baboons (plenty), kudu (almost all females and calves), duiker and zebra. Occasionally we spotted waterbuck, bushbuck and grysbok. We saw one group of sable and a couple of Eland.
After lunch, we took a much-needed nap during the hottest time of the
day. It was well above 100 F most days. By 3:30 it would start to cool off
(thankfully it was very dry) and we would set off again. Some afternoons, we
hunted birds. There were lots of Doves around the waterholes, as well as Sand
Grouse at dusk. Francolin were also plentiful, but hard to hunt as there was no
holding cover. They ran like Guineas. We ate kebabs of Dove and Sand Grouse
with our cocktails, before dinner. As hot as it was, we enjoyed a small fire
Terry broke the ice on the second day, taking a nice bull out of a herd, after a lengthy “butt scoot” across baking hot sand. His palms were actually blistered from the heat, but he was happy. A couple of days later, Stu appeared at camp, his shirt torn to shreds but with a big smile on his face. He had run down a herd and dumped the herd bull with his 458. I was not there to witness the shot, but by all accounts it would have made great video. The bull reared up like a horse on his hind legs after taking a frontal to the chest, then sat on his haunches and toppled over sideways, stone cold. The bullet had smashed the buffalo’s spine.
Dick and I were struggling. We would bump buffalo daily without any shot opportunity, other than the very first day when Dick was unfortunately too slow to take a shot on a good solitary bull. After bumping the buff, we would rest up for 15 minutes and then repeat the process. Dick’s hip was acting up so he endured these marches through “heat stroke alley” stoically. After the second or third bump, we would give up and head back to camp for lunch. When we found large herds, we had trouble locating shootable bulls. The normal tactic of running to get ahead of the moving herd was not feasible, as Dick was in no shape to run. One day about half way through the hunt, as we were returning to camp having abandoned a track after about 10 km of walking, Kevin brought the Cruiser to an abrupt stop and urged me to follow him. A small herd of buffalo were standing in the bush not too far off the road. I placed a Hornady 300 grain DGX soft under the chin of a large old cow from a distance of about 40 yards. Her death bellow followed within seconds, and we found her laying at the end of a short and profuse blood trail not far from where she had kicked her back legs at the shot and run off. She was taken for meat rations for the Parks staff.
At 11 am on the second to last day, we heard by radio that Parks had finally signed off on my management elephant permit. I had started to think I would draw another blank in this regard, and emailed my wife a “déjà vu” message. On our way back to camp for lunch, we sighted a herd of elephant including a youngish bull with a broken tusk, trailing the others by about 50 yards. We ran back along the road and found them in the bush. They started to move downwind of us, so we paralleled them until we found a shooting lane, where Kevin set up the sticks. It was a perfect setup, as the elephant were crossing in single file in front of us at a distance of about 40 yards. I sighted the bull in the brush before he got to the shooting lane, got on the sticks, and shot him behind the shoulder as he crossed the opening. The shot felt good. He let out a loud grumble, confirming my feeling. Things got confusing for a second, and I was unable to make a second shot as he ran directly from us, as a smaller bull fell in behind him. I then did something that in retrospect was rather stupid. I looked for my empty cartridge, assuming that we would give the elephant a few minutes before following up. I am a reloader and don’t like to litter the bush with empty shells. The rest of the party took off at a run, with me bringing up the rear. Kevin was out front. I saw him stop, raise his rifle, and then two shots rang out. As I came up, he pointed out the bull, facing away from us. I moved to the side to get a better angle, but the bull fell over before I could shoot. (This was the second time, I later learned, as he had fallen once and then got up before Kevin fired.) I finished him off with a shot to the vitals and another to the brain, but a subsequent autopsy proved that neither was necessary. My first Federal Sledgehammer had pierced his heart. My elephant hunt was over in less than 30 minutes!
Meanwhile Terry and Stu searched for Kudu and Eland each day. They came close but as of the last day, had not taken either. They did find an Eland bull in a snare, but it died while they were trying to extricate it. Dick was still without buffalo, so I let him hunt alone to minimize noise and movement. On the morning of the last day, we found the tracks of 3 bachelor bulls near the river. The hunting party set off on the tracks at around 7 am. I remained with the vehicle and engaged the driver, Timothy, in conversation. Timothy wanted to get rich, soon, but he had nothing to go on. His plan seemed to revolve around me giving him a substantial amount of money so he could open a shop, which he would name “Money is Just Like Paper”, a misquote of a statement I had made in casual conversation a few days earlier.
Around 10 am, we received radio instructions to reposition the vehicle a few kms further down the road. At the appointed place, Job, our assistant tracker, appeared to collect more water. Around 11, I was awakened from a nap I was taking on the high seat by the sound of two shots, then a third, not too far from where we were parked. I smiled, confident that Dick had closed the deal. However, after 30 minutes with no further radio call, doubt crept over me. At noon, we received a further radio call with instructions to bring more water. We returned to camp, reprovisioned, and found the hunters sitting alongside the road looking despondent. The buffalo was hit, only once, and not bleeding much. He was still with his two companions. Kevin thought it was a high gut shot, but Dick thought he had shot the animal (which was lying down) in the back. By now, they had been walking for 6 hours and Dick was in obvious pain. But he hobbled off into the bush after the Kevin, who declined my offer of help.
Phil, Stu and Terry showed up at this point. I switched vehicles and we went back to camp for lunch, leaving Timothy to contemplate his business schemes. We were working on dessert when we heard three more shots from the high ground (“Gomo”) behind camp. This was hopefully a successful ending to Dick’s hunt. Terry and Stu retired for a nap, and I dozed off seated in the bar, where Kevin found me not too much later. He confirmed what we had inferred, i.e. that they had found the wounded buffalo and that he had put it down for good with two shots, just as it lowered its head and started to come. The last shot was Dick’s coupe de grace.
The afternoon was spent recovering Dick’s buffalo. As we started to load him into the back of the Cruiser, the first heavy drops of the season’s rains fell, wetting our shirts and bringing welcome relief from the heat. The smell of leaves rose from the forest floor and the dry sandy soil soaked up the water instantly. In anticipation of a new cycle of growth, the trees had already started to sprout impossibly green fresh leaves. Our hunt was over, but the timeless natural cycle of life continued.
Russ Gould owns and operates Big Five Headquarters (bigfivehq.com), an internet venue for buyers and sellers of safari rifles. He collects, restores, imports, and sells heavy caliber magazine and double rifles, and markets hunts in Africa and Argentina.
1. Scott’s First Elephant
2. PAC Bull Taken on the Run Last Night of Hunt
3. Second PAC Bull Taken Same Night
4. Ngwe Camp in October
5. Dick Resting After Bumping Dagga Boy
6. Terry’s Buff – Day 2, Taken with 416 Ruger
7. Stu’s Buff – Day 4, 458 Win Mag.
8. My Management Elephant, Heart Shot with 375 “Bad Boy”
9. My Meat Rations Cow with “Bad Boy”
10. Loading Dick’s Last Day Dagga Boy
11. Leaving Chirisa