The Pickering Chronicles #11 – A Long Week in Zim

“And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard,. . . it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall”
— Bob Dylan

Before we leave camp on the afternoon of our first day, let me tell you about our team. You already know something about Chen Wei.

Becker is a family man in his mid-50s and has been a licensed PH for more than 25 years. He’s getting a bit “full” around the waist, but he moves like a man in his 30s. I have no doubts about his marksmanship or his ability to face danger. He has an easy smile, is soft spoken and a perfect gentleman.

Wilson, the Head Tracker, used to be a poacher. The government found out that stopping poaching wasn’t very difficult: Just offer the poachers a job they were good at (tracking!) that paid a good wage at much lower risk, and for amnesty they’d give up the trade. After we knew each other a while and I wasn’t considered dangerous, he opened up and told me many a tale about the methods and practices of illegal poaching in Zimbabwe. He is now just over 50 years old, bald as a billiard ball, shorter than me and I suspect — under his baggy shirts and pants — no fat with legs as sinewy and tough as an old buffalo.

The two other trackers were both tall and skinny men in their late 20s who behaved as you would expect of apprentices: eager to please the boss, ready to do anything he asked, but a little unsure of themselves. They didn’t like to talk — I suspect because they didn’t want to make any mistakes, especially with a foreigner.

David, the Parks and Wildlife Ranger, reminded me of WWII cartoons of big-toothed Japanese soldiers, but without the thick glasses. He is small and dark and has shining white teeth that could fit someone twice his size — and a mouth to match! It took only a short time before everyone on the team referred to him as “Doctor David” because he was obsessed with nutrition and would not stop talking about it. In fact, he would just NOT STOP TALKING. We got non-stop advice on what to eat and not to eat, whenever he could get within someone’s hearing.

All I can say about Jerry is that he is neither fat nor lean, neither tall nor short, neither young nor old. He whined the whole time and had a voice like a mixture of a squeaky corral gate and Red Green’s nephew Harold (look him up).

The Pickering Chronicles #11 - A Long Week in Zim 1
Sunrise in Sikumbi

Weather was no fun: freezing our bones in the morning, we were getting toasted by early afternoon. As we set off from camp after lunch we ran that danged gauntlet again, with the additional problem of trying to see the coming bushes over the tops of our discarded clothing. We picked up our third tracker and headed up to the flat land to look for signs. We found them.

Within 20 minutes of leaving camp, driving slowly along the eastern boundary of our concession, Wilson asked the driver to stop. Before he got down from the Cruiser he told me, “M’dala — samanyanga!” meaning, “Old man — elephant!”
The Pickering Chronicles #11 - A Long Week in Zim 3
[From the first day I got labelled with the sobriquet “M’dala” which means “Old Man”. Everyone including Chen Wei started addressing me as “M’dala”. It is meant as a title of respect, but I liked it about as much as I liked my nephew in Hong Kong telling me I have “reached a venerable age.”]

A big bull and a young one (apparently the same pair we had earlier found markings for) were back in the concession — and very recently. All three trackers poked still-warm piles of dung, pointed to fresh urine in the sandy road surface, and reckoned the direction of the tracks.

We dismounted quietly from the Land Cruiser and, whispering, the PH, Chen Wei and I all quietly uncased our rifles and loaded.

Chen Wei carried a left-handed bolt action .375 H&H with a muzzle break.
Becker the PH had a .416 Rigby that he was very proud of; he and his rifle had a good history together and he carried it like it was part of his body.
I had my loaner .458 Win Mag. I put three in the magazine and one in the chamber.
David the Ranger fitted a full 30-round magazine into his AK47.
Jerry held a Pocket Rocket slingshot and showed us half a handful of heavy steel ball bearings he brought.

We started into the bush.

The trackers headed off first. David followed them; Becker was in front of me and Chen Wei was behind. Wilson led. Whenever he got to a spot where the trail faded he and the two assistant trackers fanned out until they could recover the tracks and we would move forward. It was warm; then it got hot. At intervals throughout the afternoon people offered to carry my rifle for me. I declined every time. The rifle got heavy after a couple hours, but I was not about to give it up to someone else to carry.

We hunted until it got too dark to see tracks. It wasn’t dark, but it was too dark to see tracks. We worked our way out of the bush to a jeep track. Becker, Wilson and the trackers left the rest of us to go and find the Land Cruiser. I stood and rested the butt of my rifle on the toe of my boot, Chen Wei sat down in the middle of the track and rested his rifle in his lap, and David cradled his AK47 while planning to verbally ambush me.

While we waited in the growing darkness he began his attack. “What did you eat for lunch today, M’dala?” I don’t know how far away the Land Cruiser was, but it was too far to suit me. I picked burrs off my boots and leggings. Dr. David wouldn’t shut up. He bored in, unrelenting: “You know, if you eat too much of this, you need to counter it with that. Are you taking enough vitamin E? I can get it for you. . . “

He just wouldn’t stop talking, analyzing, recommending. It got dark and cold and ants were biting us and the midges began their attacks when finally the headlights of the Land Cruiser found us; Chen Wei and I gratefully got into the truck bed away from David’s nutritional diagnostics. We enjoyed the wind taking away the insects while David in the cab worked on correcting Becker’s trace mineral deficiencies. It was cold, though, and we were happy to retrieve clothing from the rack over the cab. Back at camp a hot dinner next to a roaring fire — free from Dr. David’s admonitions — was just what we needed. We topped the evening with a glass of red wine for Chen Wei and Becker, and a beer for me. And thence to bed.

That night it rained. The next morning new tracks were easy to identify. The same for the next five days, but there weren’t many tracks and the ones we found were of elephants all heading south, into the National Forest and National Park where we were forbidden to hunt. It rained three nights out of the next five. Very unusual for this time of the year, everyone said. Every morning the ground was wet with dew and the bush was wet from rain.

We hunted hard every day, going after whatever signs we could find, however faint.

At dinner each night Becker and Chen Wei made jokes about the Elephant Conference that must be taking place in Hwange National Park, but they were lame jokes. The fact was that elephants were moving through our concession, but not staying long enough for us to catch up with them.

Daily checking at the water hole, first thing in the morning and again each afternoon were more than disappointing. In desperation after the third day we parked near the water hole and sat for two hours after dark, silent, watching (Night hunting is legal in these concessions). Nothing.

For days we found no tracks of elephant around the water hole. Becker and the trackers all agreed that the explanation was that with the rain, there was enough moisture in and on tree leaves that the elephants didn’t need the standing water. They got their needed hydration just feeding.They stayed in deep forest while working their way south where they knew there was safety and convenience.

Jerry swore up and down that the lack of prey had nothing to do with the rain. He said it was due to the volcanic eruptions in Hawaii and Guatemala.

Daily we found fresh tracks and spoor of elephants coming from the north and crossing the roads and trails; we walked our legs off while fighting first cold and then heat, then insects, brambles, thorns and other obstacles, only to find that the animals persistently headed south, out of the bush in our concession and across the boundaries into the National Forest or Hwange National Park. As hard as we tried to intercept them within the concession, we were not successful. Things were not looking too good.


Find the entire series here:  The Pickering Chronicles

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