Trouble at Customs

Trouble at Customs


"So Warden, do you want me to come down there and sort him out for you?"


At these words, I shook off the lethargy that had slipped over me.  I was semi-drowsing in the warm sunlight in the left front seat of the Land Cruiser as we rode up the steeply-climbing road from Lake Kariba to Makuti.  Had I really heard those words or was this some half-remembered fragment of a Capstick story intruding from my subconscious?


I looked over at Myles, the professional hunter for my first safari in Zimbabwe.  No, it was not a Capstick dream I decided as he finished the call and said good bye to the Warden.  After all, in Capstick's stories these discussions all took place over short-wave radio, and Myles was using a Nokia cell phone.


My safari proper had ended successfully a couple of days earlier, and we had taken the camp staff on a field trip to Lake Kariba to see the dam and the lake.  During the day, Myles and the Warden had been playing phone tag on Zim's somewhat less-than-reliable cell phone network.  With our ascent out of the Zambezi Valley, Myles and the Warden were able to get a clear connection.


Myles summarized the call for me.  It seems that at Chirundu, a border town between Zimbabwe and Zambia, a youngish bull elephant had appointed himself ex officio customs inspector and was breaking into the new Customs House each night to check out the goods awaiting shipment for any tasty treats.  He was starting to make a real pest of himself, showing up each night between 9:30 and 10:30 or so and breaking the gates open if they were not left open for him.  ZIMRA, the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority, had asked Zimbabwe Parks and Wild Life to assist, and the Warden at Marangora, the local Parks office, had sought the assistance of a professional hunter to deal with the problem bull.


Myles explained to the Warden that it would take several hours for us to get to camp and pick up our rifles, then make the trek to Chirundu.  He suggested that instead of approaching the bull in town at Customs House, we should show up at first light and try to track the bull from where it left town the night before, hopefully having the chance to stop it outside the town and away from curious onlookers.  This would be safer than potentially having a wounded bull crashing though Customs House and Greater Chirundu.


The Warden agreed and we drove on back to camp.  After a brief shooting practice session, we had dinner and then turned in.  Despite the anticipation I felt I managed to force myself to sleep by 10:30 or 11:00.


Checking the Sights/Shooting Practice:

 Checking the Sights

 Shooting Practice

Bull's-Eye for Bongi:


Bull's Eye for Bongi


Morning came early (three forty-five!) and we were on the road shortly after a quick breakfast.  Myles was driving.  I was riding shotgun but not present in any formal capacity.  I told Myles I would help in any way I could but otherwise would just follow directions.  Bongi and Norest, Myles' trackers, our game scout, and Guy Ferreira, the apprentice PH from camp, rode in the back of the Cruiser.  We rolled into Chirundu with first light and went by the Parks' office to pick up some rangers and the local officer in charge of the problem bull.  The main road through Chirundu was lined with semi-trucks and trailers whose drivers were waiting for their load to be cleared through customs or to receive their paperwork to proceed on to Zambia.  Quite a bit of heavy equipment coming up from South Africa to be used in the Zambian copper mines sat on trailers awaiting border clearance.


Bongi and Norest:

Bongi and Norest


Our Game Scout:

Our Game Scout


We started at Customs House where Bongi and Norest set out with the Parks rangers to pick up the bull's trail.  Customs House was a new building and from the parking area showed few signs of elephant incursion.  We saw the guard house and the gates where the bull had been making his entry.  He was walking within a few feet of the guards in the small guard house.


We headed across the street where Myles began looking at the tracks.  On that side the town receded fairly quickly into brush, and from the tracks more than one elephant and even hippo had been walking around not far from the police station and other buildings.


Finally the chatter on the radio let us know that Bongi and Norest had made out part of the trail from the night before.  The bull had left Customs House without finding a snack and strolled down the roadside to the Total Petroleum station.  In an open field near the station he had been run off by people throwing rocks.


Later, with the assistance of Parks staff, Bongi and Norest picked up his trail leaving town on the side opposite Customs House.  We began to follow the trail, and I remarked on how much easier this flat-land tracking was than the hill-climb tracking of my hunt in Makuti.  Not long after we picked up the trail, we heard the sound of trumpeting as an elephant greeted others of his kind.  Not an auspicious sign.  Later we found other tracks mixed in with those of the target bull, who had distinctive lines on the side of one foot.


Ele Bull Track:

Ele Bull Track


The trail quickly grew warmer, and we reached a wooded area where we could hear the sounds of elephant feeding.  Myles went in with two Parks officials while we waited quietly.  They returned to tell us that the bull had joined a larger group that included other young bulls.  With no effective way to tell him apart from the others, we had to make a new plan.


Myles agreed that we would return, meet the Parks' staff about 8:30 that evening, and wait for the bull at Customs House.  In the meantime, it made more sense to find a place to spend the day close to Chirundu than spend hours on the road back and forth to Makuti.  Zim Parks indicated that we could stay at Rifa Education Camp, a facility where the children of Zimbabwe can learn about wild animals and the outdoors.  There were no children there at the time and none were due that day.


After a short drive, we arrived in the camp, which sits on the Zambezi adjacent to the Rifa Safari Area.  In the camp. we met Tony and David, two men there to assist with teaching the children.  Tony was an acquaintance of Myles and David was a young businessman from Harare.  We told them why we were there, and David asked to go along that night as he had not been on an elephant hunt.  Myles agreed, so long as David would stay back and exercise caution.


We parked the Land Cruiser in the shade near the river and ate lunch.  Bongi and Norest took a marathon nap in the shade by the river.  Myles and Guy rested, fished, and even tried a quick swim in the Zambezi.  On my part, I read a book and took pictures of the hippos and crocodiles in the river.  I also took the opportunity to drop a couple of fresh batteries into my Surefire.  David came by and invited us to a braai that night.  We gladly accepted the invitation.


Parked in the Shade by the Zambezi:


Parked in the Shade by the Zambezi


End of the Day on the Zambezi in Rifa:

End of the Day on the Zambezi at Rifa


That evening we sat and discussed hunting, guns, life, and related topics while David grilled the largest pile of meat I have ever seen served to so small a group.  Together with the sadza there was easily enough to feed three times the number of people.  After the large meal we loaded up and headed back into town, David following behind in his truck.


Back in Chirundu, we picked up the Parks personnel and headed to Customs House.  There we waited (and waited) for the elephant.  We took our position before nine and over an hour later there had been no activity.  With little sleep and a heavy meal, I paced around the parking lot to stay awake and somewhat alert.  I could clearly hear the truck drivers at the Off Road Nite Club, with nothing to do but drink beer while they waited for up to a week to get cargo clearance from Customs.  I watched the better-lit areas across the road, scanning for signs of an elephant.  In front of Customs House, where a couple of trucks were parked, the drivers began cooking their dinner.  David strolled over to bum a light for his cigarette.


When we got to 10:30, and then 10:45, with no elephant, I began to think he would not show up.  Later, Myles and I both agreed that we had secretly hoped he would not show, leaving the killing up to someone else as we had to head back to Harare the next day.  As Myles properly put it, he enjoys hunting elephant, not killing elephant.


Just before eleven, someone ran up to tell us that the elephant was just down the street.  We loaded up and drove a short distance, zig-zagging a bit off the main road.  Then suddenly there he was, standing under some trees in the darkness, looking like nothing so much as a confused teenager, out after curfew and unsure of what he should be doing.  The one Chirundu Parks person with us indicated we needed to return to Customs House to collect his superior who could then confirm it was the correct elephant.  We left the bull there in the darkness, cut through the local soccer field, and returned to collect the other Parks officer.


We returned through the soccer field and the bull was still there.  As Myles, Bongi, and the Parks staff got out to compare the tracks to the ones we had seen earlier, the bull stood around close to the Land Cruiser.  Somehow it struck me as funny to see them examining his tracks by flashlight while he stood right there, making fresh ones.  On a more serious note, it also struck me just how large a bull elephant, even a young but large-bodied one like this, is.  I had been hunting elephant for over a week, but we had mostly been close to cows.  Intellectually I had known bulls were bigger but now it was brought home in a more visceral way just how much larger and more physically impressive they are.


Zim Parks agreed that this was the same bull we had tracked that morning, just as he headed off toward the road.  We followed in hopes that he would leave town and give us a chance to take him discretely.  Instead, he headed to the road and began to examine the various parked trucks for something to eat.  We followed as best we could.  It was an unreal scene, well after eleven at night.  People were running around the road, trying to avoid the bull and yet keep an eye on him.  Truck drivers flashed lights, honked horns, and set off sirens to get him to leave them alone. Finally he headed down the shoulder toward Customs House.


We drove in ahead of the bull and blocked the drive.  He approach quite close and Myles revved the engine and honked to discourage him.  The elephant pretended to feed (although he was standing on the concrete apron of the Customs House drive) while he decided what to do.  Myles rolled forward and back a bit, keeping open our option to retreat, although we would be retreating in the direction of his advance if he came in.


He moved up and back a bit, explored the trucks where shortly before the drivers had been cooking dinner, and then finally headed off across the road and into the brush.  This was what we had been hoping for and we followed and parked the Cruiser on that side of the road.  I picked up my rifle as Myles explained to the Parks' personnel that he would shoot and I would back him up with their permission.  They agreed.


We left some of our group at the truck.  Myles, Bongi, one game ranger, David, Guy, and I went into the brush after the elephant.  It was somewhat open at first, but then we came to the edge of a thicker block of bush.  We paused there and I reflected.  This was the plan after all.  Push him away from Customs House and out of town.  Get him in the bush, away from the people and trucks.  Reduce the chance of an unpleasant scene and damage to people or property if something went wrong.  And there we were, six guys with a few flashlights and some heavy rifles, going into the jesse after a bull elephant in the dark.  It had seemed different somehow in the light of morning when we conceived the plan.


After we sat there for a while and assessed the situation Bongi led us into the bush.  Myles and Bongi knew from the morning's tracking that after the denser block it would open up again.  As we slipped along the trail, I found myself wondering if we would locate the bull before the vegetation opened back up.


Despite any misgivings I had, we made it through the jesse without catching up to the elephant.  We passed through the more-open area and made it to the edge of the next block of jesse.  There we paused.  We decided to wait on the bull, see if he would head back to town and Customs House.  We could hear him in the bush but by starlight alone I could not see him.  We were lined up along a dirt road, facing the jesse, waiting for him.  It felt like a scene from a western movie, one side lined up in the street waiting for the gunfight to start, maybe something with a soundtrack by Fred Eaglesmith.  Think  Seven Shells, except I only had two down and one in the chamber.  In the distance I could clearly hear the trucks and the music from the Off Road Night Club.  It was probably much less than a mile to the road.  I thought to myself "I am going to wake up in my bed in Dallas and find this has all been a dream."  That is how surreal the whole evening had become.


I had been told that hunting tuskless elephant cows in a herd was the most dangerous and adrenaline-inducing type of hunting.  Maybe that is usually the case, but standing for fifteen minutes or more by the light of the stars waiting for a big-bodied bull elephant that you can clearly hear but cannot see, when you are between the bull and where he wants to go, with no chance for a peaceful resolution, tops tuskless hunting in the adrenaline department for me.  I am sure a few charges from angry cows might change that, but there it is.


Finally we heard him change direction and move diagonally toward the road.  We re-oriented ourselves and looked where he would come out of the bush.  Bongi stood on the left with the light.  Myles was next to him and I was on the right.  Guy, David, and the Parks ranger were behind us with strict orders not to shoot from behind.  I was glad it was Bongi who had the job of lighting up the bull.  I knew we could rely on him.   No one wants to be faced with an unhappy or wounded bull elephant and have a failure of nerve by the person in charge of the light.


The bull moved into "sight" (I could not see him, but evidently Bongi and Myles could).  Bongi turned on the flashlight and illuminated his head.  Myles had a clear brain shot, but there was no place for me to take a body shot if a back-up was needed.  There was too much brush.  At a signal from Myles, Bongi doused the light and we waited.  I thought the big bull would retreat from us, taking the hint.  But he was determined to get back to Customs House and came forward once more.


When Bongi hit the light, Myles and I both raised our rifles.  As Myles shot I slipped off the safety.  The bull crashed down at Myles' shot, from all indications a textbook frontal brain shot.  Nonetheless I fired in the general direction of the bull in case he was only stunned.  As I reloaded Myles put in an insurance shot and the game ranger did likewise.


The bull did not move again.  He had collapsed in the edge of the jesse, concealed from view in most directions.  We stood and let the adrenaline wash out of our bloodstreams.  The  senior Parks officer came up.  He, the ranger, Bongi and Myles had a convocation around the dead elephant and examined his feet.  One was pronounced to match the track of the raider.  We were instructed to stop at Marangora on our way back to camp to inform the Warden of the success of the mission.  We left Parks in charge of the elephant and headed home.  On the way back to the truck, Myles commented on the night's surreal feeling, echoing my earlier thoughts.


Even the most exciting day should have its denouement.  We drove to the Warden's residence where our game scout woke the Warden.  Understandably that took a little while at 1:30 in the morning.  The Warden was very pleased and thanked Myles for his efforts.  Guy and the Warden discussed a ration hunt Guy had been asked to undertake for Parks, and then we headed back to camp.  My head hit the pillow about 2:30 as I reflected that it had been almost a 23-hour day of elephant pursuit.  It was an intense and different-than-expected end to my hunt.


[Click pictures for larger versions.]

Copyright Charles Helm 2007-2009