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Deja vu in Zimbabwe

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I admit to having had at least one or two déjà vu moments in my life. You know, that creepy feeling when you think you have been in a certain situation before. Believing in déjà vu, and not being a little freaked out when it happens, is entirely another thing. I experienced déjà vu in May of 2005 while on a safari in Zimbabwe, and it is important here to give you a little background on the situation.

First, let me say that I dearly love hunting. It isn’t so much the kill, or making the shot, or really any one thing, so much as it is the entire experience. I love the feeling of being in the field, the thrill of the chase, the moment of truth right before the trigger breaks… when a slight amount of pressure is applied by the index finger, and regardless of the day’s quarry, every of moment testing myself in the field. Eight or nine years ago, I began taking an interest in Africa. I had read a few books on African safaris prior to that time, but it really started growing on me after my brother had made a trip to South Africa on a plains game safari. I started spending a good quantity of time reading up on African hunting, and on animals I thought I would never get the chance to see outside of a zoo. The animal I pictured hunting in my mind most often was the African elephant (Loxodonta Africana).

I started going to the Dallas Safari Club convention, and through my brother who has had the pleasure of partaking in five African adventures, I met an African PH (professional hunter), Don Heath. Don came to Oklahoma to spend a week with my brother and his family in February of 2004. After an evening of sitting around the fireplace, I was so "hooked" on the idea of hunting Africa I started catching myself daydreaming about it. I had begun making plans for a plains game hunt in South Africa for the summer of 2005. Low and behold in late November 2004, an email came in out of the blue from Don flashing on my computer screen at work and asking if I would have any interest in a PAC (problem animal control) hunt in early 2005 for an elephant in Zimbabwe. Literally, tears started welling up and I was sure I was going to lose it right there in my little law clerk’s office. I did not even own a rifle chambered large enough to legally hunt an elephant. But then that was just one little detail that was going to have to be remedied; I sure wasn’t going to let that stop me.

Over the next couple of months, an incalculable number of emails bounced between my brother (who had decided he should go and partake it this experience with me), Don Heath, and I. All the emails he was getting from me had to be driving Don crazy. I asked more stupid questions than any fifty people should be allowed to ask of any one man. However, he was patient and took it all in stride, answering all my inane questions, and dealing with my overly enthusiastic approach to the situation. Finally the plans were firmed, a PH was selected, the area was confirmed, and I was chomping at the bit around the end of January in 2005. My brother and I would be making tracks for Zimbabwe in mid–to–late May. There was a real elephant in my future. I could feel it.

It was an agonizing four and a half months waiting. When we got within about a month of our departure date, I could not sleep through the night and I was seeing elephants everywhere. Anywhere I went, regardless of the situation, I would "drift off" and find myself surrounded. The elephants seemed to be everywhere. The giants were haunting my dreams at night, and seemingly stalking me during the day. By then, I had convinced myself I was an expert on elephants, which of course I’m not and never will be.

I managed to acquire an old, used Winchester Model 70 in .375 H&H for the hunt. I must have shouldered that rifle 5,000 times in the months preceding our adventure. I wanted to spend every possible spare minute at the local gun range shooting and practicing for the upcoming safari. Somewhere along the line, I got it in my head that I had to brain shoot an elephant, a body shot just would not suffice. I read all the books of authority I could find on shot placement, and was confident I knew exactly what I was doing. For the record, even the experts sometimes miss the mark, but then, that is a discussion for another day.

So, the months painfully passed and I was ready, at least I thought I was. Little did I know what would be awaiting me in the bush once I got my feet on African soil. I started my African exercise program (as I now jokingly refer to it) the first day in camp. We were informed that there were elephants close by, so we set out in search of them and began an uphill walk searching for this herd of about thirty some elephants that had been raiding crops just prior to our arrival. When we finally caught up to them, one of the group winded us and they were gone. It was as if the entire herd disappeared like a bolt of lightning. It was a little intimidating, being within 50 – 60 yards of at least 30 African elephants.

The way they disappeared into the bush also caused a little alarm inside of me to start ringing. For the first five seconds of their departure, it sounded like the world was shaking apart, then a silent calm fell upon everything. I knew they were still running, but there was no sound. I almost started hyperventilating. After my PH was sure I was not having a heart attack, we headed back to camp. I still have not figured this one out, but we wound up walking uphill to get back to camp! My first day on safari was a memorable experience, to say the least. It was topped off in the grand tradition of the African safari; we had a delicious dinner that night and some great conversation, aided considerably by a generous helping of libations and spirits.

Over the next couple of days we walked, then we walked some more, and would you believe after that we walked a little more… it all seemed to be uphill! Had we gone much further up on the third day, I am certain I would have had the opportunity to engage St. Peter in a discussion about the blisters that were beginning to form on both of my feet. I developed such horrendous blisters on my poor feet that I was sure they were going to fall off. I stopped our death march, as I had begun to affectionately refer to them, on the fourth full day of the hunt so I could wrap my feet in duct tape. I was not going to limp back to camp and call it a day, but something had to be done. The skin was beginning to peal off the bottom of my feet. Any of you who have ever had the pleasure of walking up and down rocky terrain with blistered feet, know exactly what I am saying.

After a good bit of tape had been applied to my feet, which caused them to look like I was wearing shiny, gray socks, we started back on the death march. Literally within minutes after we had resumed our casual little stroll in the middle of nowhere, we walked around a bend and encountered a herd of elephants that had been causing mayhem and general dissatisfaction among a local village that very morning. My brother got the opportunity to shoot a nice bull out of this group. We had skipped breakfast that morning, and the previous morning, but we had an opportunity to sample a taste of his elephant and some canned ham later that afternoon.

The number of villagers that collected around the massive, fallen giant was astounding. Within less than three hours, there were well over two hundred and fifty locals gathered. Watching as they began to work on cutting up the bull was a spectacle in and of itself. My brother had quite the satisfied air about him, as did the locals. They would be receiving enough meat from his kill to feed their families for over a month.

The next morning we were back at it again. We started walking, empty belly again after a great stew the previous evening, and celebration centered around the previous days events. You know, it is not everyday one gets to let loose a little lead at a land-roving battleship. We managed to walk almost the entire morning uphill (again) only to see no sign of elephants. We took an afternoon break atop a little hill (looked and felt like a mountain to me, but what do I know, the PH said it was a hill so...) that provided an absolutely breathtaking view of most of the area we had traipsed over in the first days of the safari. I swear my PH was trying to kill me. He had me walking all day on just a cup of coffee and a couple of rusks (small hard chunks of bread). Dinner time, however, always lifted my spirits and enabled me to push ahead the next day.

We took a day off and I was driven over to see the Zambezi valley. What a sight! I thought I was looking at the spot where the earth meets heaven. It seemed as though the clouds stretched out of the sky and touched the valley floor. The little break revived me and I found a renewed sense of purpose. I was ready to face my destiny and believed I could conquer anything Africa could throw at me.

Pulling up stakes, we moved to a different location, and made a new camp. Very much to our surprise the local police came for a visit and to ask us to go and shoot an elephant off a nearby village’s water supply. A group of four elephant had apparently been terrorizing this particular village for almost a month. We had to decline their generous offer, as we had no permission to be hunting in the concession where the elephants happened to be wreaking havoc. Feeling rather dejected, the police left with heads down. I know how they were feeling, they wanted the elephant’s shot and I desperately wanted to oblige them. The next day, the Chief Game Scout for the area came and produced the necessary paperwork enabling us to amble over and fulfill my dream.

This is the part of the story that really gets me. Literally, it has taken me years to come to terms with what I am about to impart to you. When the Game Scout came into our camp we were all sitting around enjoying the early afternoon, not to eager to do much of anything except open a bottle and mix a drink; I clearly remember hearing my PH say to me, "Saddle Up", and I began to stir. I put on my boots and began collecting my gear. My brother had stated he was not going and was content to remain in camp reading and generally enjoying the vacation.

I went around to our latrine and, as I was relieving myself, a powerful feeling déjà vu hit me (not exactly the best time to be nodding in and out of coherency I know, but…). I could see the events of the next few minutes unraveling before me with great clarity. In my mind, I saw our trip over to where the elephants were, all the little details were clear and concise, and I saw myself shooting the elephant. I became rather calm; especially considering my camp looked like it was undergoing a Chinese fire drill when I returned from the latrine.

Not at all surprising, when I returned back into the main section of our camp, I saw my brother putting on his boots and it was exactly as I had seen it in my mind, not a minute before. Sometimes, you just know. I stood, hands on my hips watching him finish putting on his boots and watching the staff scurry around loading our gear. I was at peace with the world, and with the events I knew were about to start unfolding, and I was ready to face the future head on.

We had a short drive (about 5 miles) over to the village where the elephants had been asserting their dominance. I remember being very calm while the PH and my brother chattered back and forth, and at me during the drive over. I cannot for the life of me remember what they were saying; I do not even think I heard them as anything more than background noise.

When we arrived at the village, one of the locals became our guide and he began leading us down to the elephants. We began walking downhill (yes, downhill finally!) from the village. After about a mile, we came to a dry riverbed, covered and secluded by overgrown trees, with head-high scrub brush that was on one side, with bushes and small trees obscuring our view of the other side. I could hear an elephant munching on a tree not far away, and when I looked up, I could see the top of a tree on the other side of the riverbed swaying back and forth. Our group contained the villager in the front, followed by the PH, then me, our game scout, and finally my brother. There was an opening in the brush as we walked along the riverbank, and when the PH and I stepped into the clearing from behind the brushes that had been camouflaging our presence, the bull picked up his head and looked at us.

Time stopped and auditory exclusion kicked in. I had seen this elephant before. He had been in my "vision." The PH was dutifully instructing me on where to place my first shot (in the shoulder/leg), when the elephant, from about 20 yards away, took a step toward us. He was not charging, but he was coming! I have seen the look he had in his eyes before, it was a "What are you doing here, well I guess I will just flatten you now" look. I completely abandoned what the PH was telling me. Truth be told, I couldn’t really hear him anyway. So, I did exactly what I had trained myself to do. I quickly shouldered my rifle and placed a 300-grain solid right between his eyes.

I have seen buildings being exploded on TV, but nothing compares to the sight of an elephants back legs dropping out from underneath him, while the rest piles to the ground. There was song and dance, congratulations all around. The game scout was pounding me on the back, almost causing me to loose my balance and go tumbling down into the sandy riverbed below. Then, up came the elephant’s head like he had just woken from a bad dream!

Listening to my PH (I had regained one or two of my faculties anyway), I quickly put three shots into the animal’s heart. Those shots just did not seem to be having the desired effect, which did not really boost my spirits much, and he certainly did not seem to be slowing down on his way back to his feet. But he turned his head just enough, after I had executed a flawless four cartridge reload (I practiced quick reloads every time I picked up the rifle for three months prior to getting on the plane bound for Harare), to give me the perfect angle for a side brain shot. He was not going to get up from that one. The game scout and the local villager that had been with us disappeared when the elephant started picking his head up… and who could blame them! There was a large part of me that wished to beat a hasty retreat as well. However, as swiftly as the villagers and the camp staff had gone, they reappeared and festive (bordering on brutal) congratulations were once again the order of the day. Then came the infamous words from my PH, "Shoot him again!" I did exactly as I was told.

I jumped from the bank down into the sandy bottom below and began making tracks for the elephant. I wanted to make for certain he would not be getting back up. I think my feet may have touched the ground two or three times while I traveled over to where the giant had fallen. I was going to do the obvious rookie move and walk right up and touch the beast, right until the PH grabbed me by the back of the shirt and hauled me in. I had, at some point broke into a hysterical bout of laughter. I put a few more strategically placed rounds into the elephant, per my PH’s instructions. When the shooting was all said and done, I had loosed off a grand total of 16 shots into the elephant.

I was the only person in the world when I was standing next to that giant beast. The smoke was clearing and I was beginning to regain a slight touch of control over myself, when I noticed there were nine male members of the village watching me walk around, and touch the elephant from the spot where the shooting had begun. Once I had made eye contact with them, they hurriedly crossed the riverbed and made their way to me for a round of congratulations. I do not know who was prouder, them or me. I know they had bigger smiles than I did, but what I felt inside was utterly euphoric. There was such a great sense of peace settling through my body; I thought I was going to pass out. The massive quantities of adrenaline, which had been pumping through my body, began to rapidly decrease and I felt like I had just fought a thirty round boxing match with King Kong.

Brian Newman is an American photojournalist from Oklahoma. An experienced safari hunter, he is currently working as a camp manager in the remote bushveld of Zimbabwe. Because he is an American working inside a safari camp, his perspective will be unique, providing our readers with new information on safari hunting.

Of course, there was the cutting of the elephant’s tail, and the obligatory photo session that seemed to last at least two hours, still to push through. I took it all in stride, waiting all the time for someone to wake me up and ruin my perfect dream.

That did not happen.

It wasn’t just a fantastic dream… it was real. This hunt was one of those times in life when one begins to feel truly alive. I know I will carry with me and cherish the memories of this safari for the rest of my days.

• The Springbuck •
• The Kudu •
• Hunting the Zebra •
• The Blue Brindled Gnu •
• Deja vu in Zimbabwe •
• Living dinosaurs •

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