A Monarch Falls in Wakamba Land – by JJ Smith

It was just after daybreak and we were driving down the hunting track along the bank of the Athi River, with the Nandi tracker, Chepsiror, sitting on the left-hand mudguard of the Landie, his eyes riveted to the sandy track. Yesterday afternoon, when we returned to camp, we dragged two thorn bushes behind the vehicle to obliterate the old spoor.

The wake-up call of a francolin sounded above the monotonous hum of the vehicle just as the tracker held up his hand. I stopped immediately and walked towards the dark blotches in the road – fresh elephant dung! “Hi wanawake na watoto” (cows and calves), the tracker said laconically.

Left to right: Kobie von Landsberg, the author JJ Smith (Kees), Blits Nel and the tracker Chepsiror with the huge tusks weighing 157½ lbs and 161½ lbs respectively.

Left to right: Kobie von Landsberg, the author JJ Smith (Kees), Blits Nel and the tracker Chepsiror with the huge tusks weighing 157½ lbs and 161½ lbs respectively.

The riverbank was too high for the breeding herd to go down to the water and they were moving further down to a better place. However, a single bull had slid down the bank and while I looked at the huge track with the now worn-down mud-cake pattern, I felt the adrenalin pumping through my veins as I recognised that heel imprint! Two years ago, Baramit and I followed this set of tracks for 20 miles till it crossed the border of the Tsavo National Park.

This is rhino country and the Land Rover was hastily parked with its nose against a baobab tree. We started walking away from the river and downwind of the herd, looking for breakaway bull tracks. A kilometre further we spotted a huge heap of dung but the soil was gravelly and the indentation of the toenail was invisible, but it was the same smooth track; a little forked stubble that stood up after it had left its imprint on the spoor, showed the direction in which the animal was going.

We now had to move inland for a few kilometres and cut across upwind to get ahead of the herd. Chepsiror was leading, carrying my .416 and behind me walked an old friend, Blits Nel, with a .375 magnum, followed by Kipkurgat with the water bottles. The sun was up by now and the night’s cold had made way for the midday heat. As we plodded along, my thoughts started wandering back to that day two years ago on the Yatta Plateau north of the Athi.

The Yatta Plateau is waterless except for a plant with a huge water-bearing potato-type tuber that elephant and rhino dig chunks out of to satisfy their thirst. Nearer to the Athi River, scattered Wakamba families erected their huts and livestock kraals where one can find a bit of seepage water if you dig down in the sandy beds of small laghas or wadis.

We arrived at the old Wakamba’s hut before sunrise. The previous afternoon, while returning from a fruitless hike of 25 kilometres after three big bulls, the biggest of which turned out to be only a seventy-pounder, we called in here and after the preliminary greetings I turned down the offer of a sip of baobab beer. However, old Arap Maron volunteered and declared the stuff “Hapana mbaya!” (not too bad!).

“Yes, there is a big tusker and his askari that has been coming to this area for more than a month. His tusks are a long as an arm holding a spear and thicker than my thigh!” the old man told us. I looked at my Nandi tracker Baramit, but he kept a straight face and asked the old man to show us that day’s tracks. Five hundred yards further the old Wakamba stopped and pointed his spear at the imprint of one of the biggest sets of tracks I had ever seen in the lowveld. We immediately promised the old man that we would be there at sunrise the following morning.

The next morning, with the old man in the lead, we picked up the fresh spoor of the two elephants, marvelling at the smoothness of the big bull’s spoor. He must have spent time in the abrasive lava beds of the area north of the Tana River and visions of the legendary, elusive and invincible elephant bull called the “Crown Prince” flashed through my mind as we started following the tracks. The animals had grazed peacefully along the crest of the hill but now suddenly there was a milling around and I spotted our tracks of yesterday evening – a cool breeze blew over my enthusiasm!

Now there was an urgency about the way the elephants moved; in single file, the tracks took shortcuts where the pathway meandered and I turned to the disbelieving old M’zee and told him his elephant was gone. We hastily followed the tracks for a mile or more when someone whispered, “Ndofu!”. We could see a single bull coming towards us, sweeping over the scrub bush with his trunk – we realised he was backtracking. We started walking parallel to the path and watched as he picked up our smell and, after blowing a single blast through his trunk, sped off. Now there were three sets of spoor; two identical and then the big one.

An hour later we came to a tree where the askari had milled around his mentor and then there was only the smooth set of tracks heading for the Tsavo Park border. Baramit set a murderous pace as the old M’zee pointed out the Park boundaries in the distance. Just after noon, the leader stopped and pointed with his spear and whispered, “Ki faro!” There were two rhino under the tree, a cow with a big calf. The oxpecker calls must have alarmed her slightly, for she led her calf away downwind at a leisurely trot and we breathed a sigh of relief as we picked up the elephant tracks under the tree. The next moment old M’zee came running past from the rear where he had squatted down to relieve his bladder and made straight for the tree!

He already had his left foot in the fork of the tree before he pointed backwards – there was mama rhino, steaming silently up the sound-muffling, sandy footpath! A wise man once said, “Rhino don’t look for trouble, they are trouble!” I shouted for Arap Maron to climb the tree and motioned for Baramit to move in behind me as I aimed the .375 at the charging animal.

She stopped right under the tree and did something I had never seen before – she reared up on her hind legs and stabbed her horn into the foliage where the two terrified men were clinging for dear life. As it is with rhino, however, their nerves get the better of them and she steamed off with the calf close behind.

We were on the Park boundary now and I followed the bull’s tracks to where it swung around a big herd of elephants and carried straight on. “Na kusha kwenda!” murmured somebody philosophically and we knew that it was the end of the trail. I handed out water in the cup sparingly and turned around to go back, but first I had to clear up something. “M’zee, a while ago at the tree with the rhino, why did you wait till you were safe before you warned us?” He looked around at a loss for words and then simply said, “I am told you three are young, yes, young and fast!”

Halfway back to the vehicle, M’zee’s weary legs could carry him no further and he decided to stay the night with a friend. With a five-pound note in his hand, he flopped down and asked us to tell his wife that he would be home sometime tomorrow. We divided the water among us and set a fast pace; without a guide, backtracking in the dark would be difficult. At the kraal the old man’s wife offered us some more of the baobab beer. Old Arap Maron declared it “Muzuri kabisa!” (wonderful).

It was the far-off trumpeting of a cow that jerked me out of my reverie. The herd had stopped on the lip of the plateau where a cool wind blew up from the Athi River valley and were scattered under the trees. I climbed up a tree and started glassing the area ahead through the old Zeiss binoculars. Only groups of cows and calves came into view but then way back near the edge of the bush, the flash of a white pair of 50lb tusks drew my attention. The elephant (I named him White Tusks) should have been standing half asleep like his two friends, but instead he was pulling down branches. I noticed the telltale wet lines of fluid oozing from his temple glands. The other two bulls were in the shade and though the brush reached up to their knees, I thought I could see the upper part of a tusk. But it was way too thick and then I saw the trunk and realised that I was looking at the biggest ivory I had ever seen!

The scratching of brush and thorns against my legs went unnoticed as I led the rest of the group up the gulley, with just the tips of the tall trees in sight. But then White Tusks broke another branch and we cautiously moved into the wind towards them. I have often experienced that the animals you are not interested in are always those in plain sight, while your target is hidden behind them.

They were standing right at the edge of the forest and I left the team behind. Stooping forward, I picked my way carefully through the scrub to within 24 yards from the nearest bull. Ten to twelve yards is the ideal distance for a temple brain shot, but White Tusks was far too wide awake for my liking and I decided to take the old bull from where I was.

1.The tusks have a place of honour in the author’s home.

The tusks have a place of honour in the author’s home.

He was standing broadside on behind the other bull. I could see the black upper section of both tusks, but only the eye was visible and the brain is further back just in front of the earlobe. A minute dragged by and then the nearest bull moved back a bit and the .416 recoiled against my shoulder. The bull’s hindquarters sagged and the huge tusks became momentarily visible just as the front legs gave way and he rolled over on his left side.

The nearest bull turned away and sped off but White Tusks uttered a roaring scream typical of an enraged elephant. He began flattening tees and scrub as he vented his rage. And it took a lot of yelling and a shot in the air to persuade him to run off.

I stood right behind the fallen monarch, ready with my rifle pointed at the atlas vertebra next to the skull. However, I could see the little pool of blood forming in the cup of the upper ear and knew it was all over. I stretched my arms along the length of the tusk, with the fingertips at the tip of the top tusk and estimated the distance from the other hand to the lip. I encircled the tusk at the lip with my hands and when I saw the six-inch gap between my thumbs I estimated it at 140 lbs. However, the nerve cavity was shallow and one tusk weighed out at 157½ lbs and the other at 161½ lbs.

Walking back to camp I humbly realised that I was one of a chosen few to have received the honour to claim a magnificent trophy such as this.

 

(*Also read JJ Smith’s letter about the “mystery tusks” on page 82 of the April issue.)

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