Hunting Among Giants

A Namibian plains game hunt gets wild when elephants are added to the mix.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Why do elephants knock over trees? Because they can. || At least that's the impression I'm left with as I look over the high arid savanna in north-central Namibia, where a seemingly unending swath of trees has been uprooted and torn apart by the 15 or so elephants that call this area home. It's hard to believe that so few animals can dish out so much destruction; it looks like a tornado has passed through.

These elephants may have a motive for their mayhem, however. The effort they put into destroying Mt. Etjo's largest trees might in fact be a prefight conditioning program of sorts.

Recently, three rhinos were found dead here after battling with Mt. Etjo's elephants. Their remains and the tracks in the dirt left by the combatants tell the tale. The great pachyderms periodically square off and batter each other, but the elephants have the advantage. Using their 11,000 pounds of crushing weight, they drive their tusks through the rhinos' nearly impenetrable hides, lean into their adversaries and slowly grind the life out of them.

It's not that the rhinos are helpless in these battles. A hideous gash that unzipped the front of one elephant's leg from the footpad to the knee reveals the murderous power behind the rhino's thrusting horn. But the fact remains that the score in these encounters so far is elephants three, rhinos zero. When we ask why the elephants seem intent on fighting with the rhinos, Naftali Amoolongo, our professional hunting guide, shakes his head and simply says, "They crazy."

The big brutes have left Naftali in a somewhat sour mood this morning as we drive along the sandy roads surrounding Mt. Etjo looking for game. Every so often a tree with a shattered trunk lies across our path and we have to jump off the hunting buggy to muscle it out of the way. With the rocks and boulders the elephants toss into the roads-another aspect of their training, perhaps-we simply need to figure out a way to drive around. "Damn elephants," Naftali says after we clear our way through another roadblock. Actually, he often says quite a bit more when offering his opinions on the world's largest land animal, but his colorful vocabulary isn't fit to print here.

Eddie Kaerua, our tracker, has his own reservations about the elephants-the rhinos, too, for that matter. Not much of a talker, Eddie is visibly jumpy as we exit our truck to track down a group of gemsboks we saw earlier.

[pagebreak] One impressive bull had caught our attention. We last saw the small herd disappearing into the thick tangle of thorn bushes that now surrounds us.

Eddie isn't thrilled to be hunting this particular piece of ground on the 60,000-acre game reserve where my father and I have booked a weeklong hunt. In addition to our gemsboks, several elephants and some black rhinos have been spotted here lately. Their tracks and droppings and the remains of the vegetation they've destroyed are everywhere.

"I don't like this area-too many black rhino and too many elephant. It's no good," Eddie says as the four of us prepare to follow the gemsboks and hopefully secure the nice bull for my father. Naftali suggests I bring along my .416 Rigby, just in case.

Role Reversal
Fathers and sons hunting together is a longtime sporting tradition. But while children usually learn to hunt from a parent, with my dad and me the roles are reversed. I learned to hunt on my own years ago and over time introduced my father to upland bird hunting and waterfowling, both of which he really enjoys. But with the exception of an abortive attempt to hunt elk some time back-a comedy of errors that deserves its own story-we have never chased big game together. In fact, the gemsbok we are stalking is only the second big-game animal my father has seriously hunted. The first was a springbok, a dainty member of the antelope family no larger than a smallish whiteil doe, that he shot just the day before.

As I watch him pick his way through the acacia, buffalo and black thorn trees, attempting to mimic the fluid and silent motions of our tracker and PH, I'm nervous as hell. It isn't the elephants I'm worried about. More than anything, I want my dad to enjoy hunting and Africa as much as I do. Then he glances over his shoulder, and his grin tells me he's having the time of his life.

After snaking through the bush for about half an hour, we close the gap on the gemsboks. Though we are rarely able to see more than 25 yards in any direction, Naftali maneuvers us into position to view the rapier-horned animals through a break in the vegetation. They file past us one by one about 70 yards away, their black horns glinting in the sunlight and bushy tails swishing against their gray and tawny flanks. Finally the last animal in line, the herd bull, steps into view. Naftali makes a loud cowlike moan, freezing the bull in mid-stride. He swings his head our way, offering us a view of the black diamond pattern on his face that gives the species its name. My father, set up on shooting sticks, drops him with a single shot from his .30/06. Watching this picture- perfect hunting scenario unfold, a wave of satisfaction sweeps through me. I feel as proud as, well, a father.

[pagebreak] We rush up to the animal. My dad's bullet, a 180-grain Winchester Fail Safe, took him through both lungs. The bull stumbled less than 20 yards after the shot before falling over. As we approach, Naftali tells us to stay out of range of his formidable horns and to keep our rifles trained on the animal.

"He's not dead," Naftali says. "Look! Do you see its hair? It is flat. When the bull dies, the hair will stand up."

I stare closely at the animal, fascinated. The bull is on its side, completely still, but a moment later I see the hair along its flank flare slightly. Naftali relaxes and thumps my dad on the back, congratulating him on his trophy.

Naftali's Secrets
As Naftali guts the bull before loading it in the back of our truck, I ask him where he learned the trick about the hair. "The Bushmen taught me-it is one of their secrets," he says. "It happens with all animals at the moment they die."

He then tells me how Bushmen will take the pulp from an animal's stomach and smear it over their bodies to mask their scent when hunting. And then he really surprises me by teaching me how to take a drink of water out of a slain animal. Gemsboks, like other ungulates, have four-chambered stomachs. The first and largest chamber contains the most recognizable mash of plants. If you take a handful of the mash and squeeze it, the liquid that pours out is water. Granted, it has a slight manure odor to it, but Naftali insists it won't make you sick and, in a desperate situation, could save your life. I try squeezing out some of the water myself but pass on the taste test.

Naftali explains that in the village where he grew up his father would let Bushmen, who are among the last primitive nomadic hunters on earth, camp on his small plot of land during periods of drought or when game was scarce. Because his father shared his water with them, they became frequent guests and Naftali would spend much of his time playing with their boys, who were about his age. By the time he was 10, Naftali started hunting with them, using the simple homemade bows they carried to bring down all kinds of game. Under their guidance he learned to stalk, track, make his own hunting tools and live off the land.

Tracking Kudu
A couple of days after my father took his gemsbok, we spot a group of mature kudu bulls feeding among some trees. We drive past them, park the truck and start stalking. Eddie, our tracker, has come down with the flu, so it's just Naftali, my dad and me. The three of us spend nearly an hour creeping across an open patch of sandy ground to get within range. We slowly crawl from one scrawny bush to the next, freezing in place for minutes at a time when it seems we have attracted the attention of the bulls. As exposed as we are, the bulls are nearly impossible to see within the thicket where they feed. Every so often I spot one or two of their magnificent spiral horns waving back and forth in the bushes as the animals browse, but that's about it. In any event, we don't get a shot; whether the wind betrays us or one of our boots scrapes too loudly on the dirt, the bulls finally bolt.

[pagebreak] Naftali walks up to the animals' tracks, looks them over and decides that the kudu weren't panicked and that we should follow. The speed with which an African tracker can cover ground is astonishing. For one, the marks left by the hooves in the hard dirt are relatively indistinct to begin with. For another, the number of tracks that Naftali has to pick through-gemsbok, springbok, wildebeest, giraffe, zebra, impala and a dozen others, not to mention those left by other kudu-seem to make following our bulls an impossible task. Yet we swiftly trot after the animals as if they had dipped their hooves in paint.

We travel at least a couple of miles before Naftali calls it off. The bulls, sensing our pressure, have finally broken into a determined canter and there's no way for us to catch up. On the way back from the busted stalk we move down a dry, sandy riverbed and come across the unmistakable footprints of a group of elephants. Not long after, we see three of them moving through the bush headed in our direction. We're still a long way from the truck, but with the wind in our favor they amble by as harmless as 11-foot-tall dairy cows.

Learning The Ropes
As our week in Namibia draws to a close, my father and I have taken nearly all the game we've come for. We've each shot a really nice springbok and kudu and my father got his gemsbok. Best of all, he's clearly hooked on Africa. Without question, our safari has been a success. Finding a good gemsbok for me would be a bonus. Driving around Mt. Etjo, we see hundreds of animals, including one of the elusive black rhinos that Oelofse has reintroduced to the land. We look over dozens of gemsboks on the way. Even though the females of the species have the longest horns, I really want to take one of the thick-horned males, along the lines of my father's 38-incher.

During the last day I get my chance. As we drive, we glimpse a small bachelor group of gemsboks. One seems to be a good bull. The animals dart into some nearby bush and Naftali and I start after them on foot, moving fast. The sun is getting low in the sky and we want to make the most of our remaining light. The bulls zig and zag in front of us, staying mostly out of sight in the thick cover. By crouching down I can occasionally see then patch of sandy ground to get within range. We slowly crawl from one scrawny bush to the next, freezing in place for minutes at a time when it seems we have attracted the attention of the bulls. As exposed as we are, the bulls are nearly impossible to see within the thicket where they feed. Every so often I spot one or two of their magnificent spiral horns waving back and forth in the bushes as the animals browse, but that's about it. In any event, we don't get a shot; whether the wind betrays us or one of our boots scrapes too loudly on the dirt, the bulls finally bolt.

[pagebreak] Naftali walks up to the animals' tracks, looks them over and decides that the kudu weren't panicked and that we should follow. The speed with which an African tracker can cover ground is astonishing. For one, the marks left by the hooves in the hard dirt are relatively indistinct to begin with. For another, the number of tracks that Naftali has to pick through-gemsbok, springbok, wildebeest, giraffe, zebra, impala and a dozen others, not to mention those left by other kudu-seem to make following our bulls an impossible task. Yet we swiftly trot after the animals as if they had dipped their hooves in paint.

We travel at least a couple of miles before Naftali calls it off. The bulls, sensing our pressure, have finally broken into a determined canter and there's no way for us to catch up. On the way back from the busted stalk we move down a dry, sandy riverbed and come across the unmistakable footprints of a group of elephants. Not long after, we see three of them moving through the bush headed in our direction. We're still a long way from the truck, but with the wind in our favor they amble by as harmless as 11-foot-tall dairy cows.

Learning The Ropes
As our week in Namibia draws to a close, my father and I have taken nearly all the game we've come for. We've each shot a really nice springbok and kudu and my father got his gemsbok. Best of all, he's clearly hooked on Africa. Without question, our safari has been a success. Finding a good gemsbok for me would be a bonus. Driving around Mt. Etjo, we see hundreds of animals, including one of the elusive black rhinos that Oelofse has reintroduced to the land. We look over dozens of gemsboks on the way. Even though the females of the species have the longest horns, I really want to take one of the thick-horned males, along the lines of my father's 38-incher.

During the last day I get my chance. As we drive, we glimpse a small bachelor group of gemsboks. One seems to be a good bull. The animals dart into some nearby bush and Naftali and I start after them on foot, moving fast. The sun is getting low in the sky and we want to make the most of our remaining light. The bulls zig and zag in front of us, staying mostly out of sight in the thick cover. By crouching down I can occasionally see th