A story of where it all began, the day a seed was planted and a dream of a safari was born. You may meet them at the start of their story, at times halfway through, and then on a fortunate occasion near the end. It is not that one story is greater than the other, but more so, it is where they are that makes it interesting.
I count myself fortunate to have met and guided Arthur and Shirley Pipp during the winter of ‘08. Art as we came to know him was a man with a story nearing its pinnacle. Together they had spent the greater part of fifty years traveling and hunting the world. A fair measure of this man and certainly one that would impress many, was his double grand slam on the sheep of the world – no small feat to say the very least.
My hunt with Art was to be his last African safari, an Elephant, a fitting end to thirty years of hunting the Dark Continent. Apart from plains game, he’d hunted all of the Big 5 except an Elephant. It was not due to the lack of opportunities over the years that saw him pass up numerous Elephants, but his wish of not hunting an animal many years his senior. A Green hunt was what he was after and where my story begins in the last chapter of Art’s lifetime of memories.
At the time darting safaris were still a big part of the South African conservation module, ensuring sustainability through utilization, something we can only hope for in the future. Art had booked one of two Elephant tags we received each year, and we duly headed out that first morning on the quest for an Elephant bull.
We picked up on a couple of tracks early that first morning, but decided to pass on them, they were of a fair size, but too old to pursue. The remainder of the day delivered nothing more than the odd track, not that it would ever spoil our day, especially when one considers the stories we were treated to from past adventures.
It was not until day two that the real action began. A good bull was spotted early that morning; he was headed towards a quiet valley with very little accessibility due to the nature of a meandering stream that crisscrossed its contours. It was not the kind of opportunity I was after with a 76-year-old hunter, but it was an opportunity. I decided to take it.
Together with Art, our trusty wildlife Vet, Thys, and my tracker, Boy, we set off on the track of where last the bull was spotted. The going was slow, we knew it would be. Like most valleys, the wind swirls with unpredictable twists and sounds adding to an already tense situation. Keep in mind, when one chooses to do a darted hunt; one has to consider the rules of engagement. Unlike a hunt, after the gun goes bang, the bull drops with a well placed brain shot, in the case of darting; it’s about getting within 30 yards of a seven ton beast. Once you’ve achieved this daunting feat, ensure you can weave an unpredictable flying dart through the dense undergrowth, and then hope he decides to head in the opposite direction once hit, while you consider the finest game of chess for the next seven minutes until the drug kicks in and immobilizes the bull. It’s a game of cat and mouse that ages one well before your time.
Once in the valley we located our bull, he was feeding at leisure no more than eighty yards away. Suddenly there was another, a mere fifty yards ahead of us, coming down the same track we were on. Realizing a standoff was about to ensue, I shuttled Art, Thys and Boy off the track and into the nearest available cover. I too followed, hoping the approaching bull hadn’t spotted us.
Once we realized the bull hadn’t spotted us, we quietly readied ourselves for the approaching Elephant, which if it held its line, would be passing at a mere five yards. Thys indicated that the dart gun’s pressure was set at thirty yards, a slight problem, considering our target would be passing at five. Realizing that the release of gas would most certainly give away our position, we opted to take a chance, worst case scenario; the bull would know he was solidly hit with a two-inch needle. Hopefully it wouldn’t irritate him too much. What else could we do, the game of chess had begun, and we were checked mate.
Seconds passed into minutes and soon our wait had reached the half hour mark. To a degree we’d started to relax, with thoughts wandering away with every possibility of why the bull hadn’t reached us. With the crack of a branch no more than twenty yards away, we were snapped right back into the situation we were faced with.
Peering through the branches we suddenly saw the familiar shape of Elephant legs headed straight towards us. I signaled for all to hold steady, a breath too loud would give away our position. While the bull continued to lunge forward, I steadied my finger on the safety of my trusty Rigby. If things turned sour there’d only be chance for one shot, I felt confident knowing I had my 416 to make that shot.
As the bull stepped into the gap a mere five paces away, I tapped Art on the leg, indicating it was time to let the dart fly. I tapped a second time, but still there was no reaction. I leant over, looked at Art – looked at the dart gun, then realized the safety was on. Art’s squeeze on the trigger had turned to a pull, still with no result. By the time the safety catch was released the bull was past the shooting lane and well on his way down the path. Thank goodness for the steady breeze into our faces.
Having survived the first encounter we soon realized the second bull had also stopped feeding and was making his way down the path towards us. Once again I steadied my finger on the safety of the 416; sweat was dripping from my cap and running down my back. Would we survive the second bull not detecting us?
Patiently we waited. As quiet as a mouse he made his appearance, just as the first bull, heading straight towards us. He slowed as he approached the tree, I was sure this was it – he had us. Then he raised his trunk and grabbed a branch high above our heads. He started feeding on the tree we were hiding under. For a few tense moments we watched him strip the branch and digest the juicy bark before making his way into the shooting lane.
All we could see was a grey blob, without any tap or second invitation – Art let him have it!
The dart hardly had time to gain momentum before thudding into the bulls chest. He wheeled around as we counted our lucky stars the gun was set at thirty yards. The bull must have thought the mother of all wasps had just stung him, as his reaction was one of not wanting a swarm to descend on him. He showed a clean pair of heels and crashed off into the distance. We just sat there – not entirely sure how we survived to tell the tale.
It’s not every day that one survives a hunt like this to walk away and tell the story – but what makes it even more extraordinary for me, was the fact that I could be a part of this couple’s final chapter. It was most certainly no ordinary ending to their story!
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