It was the fifth day of our safari and we were trotting at a steady pace through the sparse bushvelt, trying to cut off a herd of Elephants we had seen from the top of a distant hill. Hurrying from behind a screen of low brush we looked up to see the bull quartered towards us, and only fifty or so yards distant. Carl, our PH, quickly headed us back out of sight and we ran another hundred or so yards before stopping in breathless excitement.
“This bull”, said Carl, “is a shooter!”
I quickly cocked my crossbow in anticipation of the long awaited final stalk. Our expressions were all smiles, but in a heartbeat it changed when Carl looked behind me and said “Run!”
The tone of his command left no doubt as to whether he was serious and we all scrambled through the brush following him, but after a short distance he cut to one side, stopped, and spun around. I continued on a few yards, then my curiosity got the better of me.
I turned just in time to see the big bull, ears flat and trunk down, charging Carl with a fast, shuffling gate that was eating up yards at an alarming rate. As the big Elephant crossed the twenty-yard line Carl brought his .500 A Square bolt action to his shoulder. When the big slug hit, the bull stumbled and turned broadside, but before he took another step Carl’s second shot drove a six hundred-grain projectile clear through his skull and he fell like a rag doll in a cloud of dust.
I was in shock. “What was that about?” I said to Carl “The first bull we’ve seen worth shooting and he attacks us without provocation!” When we walked up to the fallen Elephant Carl showed me that by the bull’s strong smell and physical condition the answer was obvious, he was in “musth”. In this condition a bull Elephant is supercharged with hormones and at the peak of sexual excitement. This makes them extremely aggressive and unpredictable, and it was only because the bull had attacked someone who was armed that a disaster was avoided, since we could just as easily have been unarmed native fishermen or farmers.
I wasn’t born with a burning desire to hunt the world’s largest terrestrial animal with a crossbow. For decades I’ve listened to so-called experts spouting their opinions regarding crossbows and their lack of penetration in a hunting situation. Regardless of the physics involved and the raw logic that these indisputable facts proclaim, opponents of the crossbow claim that the short arrows fired by crossbows will not penetrate. In the past they have actually used this as an argument to justify excluding the crossbow from certain seasons and hunting opportunities. After listening to the nay-sayers long enough I found myself with both the opportunity and means to hunt the African Elephant with crossbow, and after years of exposure to their “crossbows can’t penetrate” propaganda I decided it was time to make my point.
To hunt a creature as huge and thick-skinned as Elephant with a crossbow is a daunting task, and you must maximize the energy and penetration that the crossbow can give you. To do this the best solution is to use a very heavy arrow coupled with a broadhead that creates a minimum of drag to slow the arrow’s penetration. My choice of arrow was a double-walled Goldtip carbon shaft with extra internal weights and a brass front insert, and for a broadhead I used a Magnus unvented two-blade cut on contact style head with a steel broadhead adapter. This twenty-inch package weighs around 900 grains, two and a half times as much as my normal arrow, and out of my Excalibur Exomax crossbow it travels 250 feet per second. This added up to a walloping hitting power of 125 foot pounds, not much by rifle terms, but awesome for any archery equipment. The heavy projectiles flew with deadly accuracy from my bow, causing it to recoil like a firearm, and sucked so much energy from the limbs that the report on firing was very low.
Next big problem was where to hunt? Without doubt the largest population of huntable elephants in the world are in Zimbabwe. Unlike the Northern part of the Elephants range where ivory poaching has reduced their numbers to a critical level, large tracts of Zimbabwe are actually overpopulated. Without some sort of population control the Elephants will literally eat themselves out of house and home as they destroy the forests they inhabit. In these areas there is also a huge problem with Elephants destroying the native peoples food crops and many locals are actually killed while trying to drive off the Elephants that are raiding their fields. One of the best Elephant areas in Zimbabwe is a tribal area called the Omay. This region is located on the south bank of Lake Kariba and borders the Matusadona National Park. This is where we decided to base our hunt.
Carl Mason, a native of Zimbabwe and owner of African Trails Safaris was our PH on this safari. Carl is an expert woodsman who can track with the best of them. He is remarkably cool under the stress of hunting these unpredictable giants and is nowhere in his element like he is in the thick jesse surrounded by tons of danger.
His Elephant hunting track record stands out among other PHs, especially where bowhunting is involved. We were to be his seventeenth bowhunt for elephant, all of them successful. Not a small accomplishment when you consider that these huge beasts are unquestionably the most dangerous animal in Africa to hunt with archery.
My wife Kath and I, as well as our friend and videographer Danny, left Canada in early April to begin our adventure. The trip to Carl’s safari area in the Omay was long and arduous ending with a grueling nine-hour drive to the safari camp in the Omay. After a day’s rest and acclimatization we were off on our hunt, each day driving for hours in search of fresh tracks, walking miles to check waterholes, and climbing tall hills covered with loose rocks to glass for Elephant. We drove through many of the Omay’s tribal areas where small encampments of natives surrounded by fields of maize, sorghum, or cotton abounded. As we drove past the communities the people would often run out and yell “Nyama, Nyama!” which Carl explained meant “meat, meat!” Since in this area all meat harvested became property of the local people they were hoping to encourage us to bring them a share of any Elephant we killed.
The ninety degree heat was tough to tolerate, but eventually our physical condition and tolerance to the high temperatures developed to help us deal with what was without a doubt the most physically and emotionally demanding hunt I have ever been involved in. Every day we awoke and ate breakfast in the predawn darkness, and traveled for miles to glass for elephant as the sun rose. If we located any distant gray forms moving through the trees we would march for miles to get close enough to identify whether they were big enough to consider harvesting. Each unsuccessful evening we would arrive back in camp exhausted, and we would vow to get up earlier and work harder tomorrow to make our Elephant dreams come true.
Did we see Elephant? Darned right we did, but always they were small bulls or cows and calves. I had my hopes set on a bull of 40 pounds or more weight per tusk, and I was willing to work for it, but I’m on the wrong side of fifty and I generally ride a desk. As the safari wore on the pace was telling on me.
After nine days of effort, in the end it was allmost easy. We were lazing away the afternoon on the shores of Sibilobilo Lagoon on Lake Kariba, waiting for the blistering heat of the day to diminish so that we could once again climb and begin glassing for a huntable bull Elephant. Moffat, our head tracker, spotted him first. A good bull had come out across the bay and was grazing along the shore almost a mile away.
Carl and the trackers discussed the situation in Indabele, a local native tongue, and I could only look on and surmise that the bull was unapproachable since the bay was far too long to circumvent before dark. There was just no way I could conceive to cross the intervening stretch of croc and hippo infested water. I was then stunned to see one of the trackers suddenly trot off into the jesse.
Carl explained that there was a fishing village a few kilometers distant and that with luck we could round up a local fisherman to ferry our group across the bay. This could work, but only if the bull would stay and feed long enough for us to get across!
We readied ourselves while we waited. When one of the native’s tiny steel boats rounded the distant point with paddles flashing in the sun we started quickly for the closest point to the far shore which was out of sight from the feeding bull. We met them in the water, and two by two they ferried our party through the hippos to the shallows of the far side, then we waded to shore through knee deep water, the bottom made uneven by the deep Elephant tracks that pockmarked it.
When we were finally all on the other side I radioed Kath, who could still see the Elephant from our original location. “The bull”, she said, “is still there”, we were go for final approach!
As our team swung several hundred yards downwind from the unseen bull’s location we detected the unmistakable stench of a very rank bull Elephant. There could be no doubt that like the bull that charged us a few days earlier, this bull was in also in musth, but we put this disturbing thought behind us. Now was the time to concentrate on only one thing, successfully placing an arrow squarely into its vitals.
We quietly closed to within 20 yards of the unsuspecting bull, who was broadside to me feeding on the lush grasses at the water’s edge.
When the big Elephant turned to slightly quarter away I said a silent prayer and launched the heavy arrow out of my Exomax crossbow from above him on a large rock. My biggest fear was how well the arrow would penetrate if it centered one of the bull’s three-inch wide ribs, but luck was with us and the shaft hit with a dull thud and slid out of sight between them.
The Bull quickly climbed the rock only a few yards downwind as Carl backed towards us with rifle trained. We scrambled over the rocks in preparation for a charge from five tons of testosterone-crazed Elephant, but luckily the bull continued past us and ran into the brush. Within a few minutes we heard his labored breathing behind the screen of trees, then the bull went down for good, bellowing loudly and crushing several trees in his death throes. The culmination of our epic hunt had gone better than any one of us could have dared to hope for and the big Omay bull was ours!
Bill & Kathy sit atop the fallen giant.
What had started out for me as a quest to prove the crossbow’s effectiveness has finished as a truly life altering experience, and I was in absolute awe as I approached the bull. Carl estimated the fallen monarch’s age at around forty years, and the bull’s ivory, although not long, was quite heavy and would easily surpass my 40-pound criteria. Nothing can prepare you for the flood of emotions that wash over you when you first lay your hands on such an enormous and awe inspiring trophy. I was quite literally blown away!
The “Good old days” of hunting in Africa are right now. If you’ve ever thought about an African hunt the time to do it is today, you’ll never feel the special excitement that Africa can bring to your hunting experience anywhere else. If you are up for a REALLY exciting African adventure, especially for the Big Five, Zimbabwe should be on your short list and you can’t go wrong with Carl Mason and African Trails Safaris.
People have asked, “What can you hunt now to top the Elephant Experience” and I honestly have no answer. Taking an Elephant hasn’t in any way diminished my desire to explore and hunt with my crossbow, but it has certainly enriched my experience and given Kath and I precious memories that will last the rest of our lives.
The Omay is one of many areas in Africa where a fantastic new approach to conservation has greatly benefited the local people, the wildlife, and visiting hunters as well. That new approach is called Communal Areas Management Program For Indigenous Resources, or CAMPFIRE. The CAMPFIRE program puts the responsibility for controlling illegal wildlife harvest squarely onto the shoulders of the rural communities by making that wildlife a vital part of their economic well being. The program, simply stated, makes the wildlife more valuable alive than dead by making the trophy fees that are paid when an animal is harvested by a visiting hunter the property of the local council. This money goes directly into the community to provide them with much-needed medical and education opportunities. Also, the meat that is taken under CAMPFIRE is distributed to the local villages, and thousands of jobs for the local people are created through safari operators. Campfire has been instrumental in fostering a balance between Africa’s exploding human population and it’s wildlife, and it’s through programs like this that Africa’s last wild places will be preserved for future generations.