Ivan Carter‚Äôs always smiling face and our videographer, Andy McDonald, whom we had met several years before in Argentina. We loaded our gear into Ivan‚Äôs truck and went across the street for a quick meal, then stayed the first night at the Thamalakane River Lodge. As we arrived at the Kukama Camp the next morning, a sense of excitement welled up in me that would be very hard to put to words. I just knew that we were in for something special and to do it with my favorite hunting buddy, Denise, was going to make it all the more special!
When searching so many square miles for a proper, old, elephant bull to hunt, you spend many hours driving old roads, searching for that special giant, wide-cracked footprint. There are so many miles to cover, it is done at a pretty darned fast speed, and the thought that went through my head as we passed hundreds and hundreds of foot-prints was, ‚ÄúHow in the heck can they see any crack detail in the tracks at this speed?‚Äù Ivan assured me I would know, as when a proper track is seen, the back of the truck erupts with noise from the trackers. Occasionally we would see a bull out in the bush just meandering through and Ivan would decide if he wanted to do a practice approach so that we could get ourselves prepared for an encounter with the largest land animal on earth. This is one thing Ivan does that separates him apart from most other PHs: on these practice approaches, you go in close! I‚Äôm talking 10 yards close–OR CLOSER. The Ivan Carter way is not for the squeamish! Ivan‚Äôs goal through this practice is to help with education of shot placement, as well as making sure that we were getting more comfortable around these huge beasts. This happy-go-lucky guy would visibly change, ‚Äúwe are not taking any chances,‚Äù he would often tell us, and we were both surprised how carefully he would assess each ‚Äúpractice‚Äù bull. After the first approach, as soon as my heart had slowed back to normal, I looked forward to this experience every time Ivan decided a particular bull was worth a closer look, not for the possibility of a shot, but just to experience the walk up encounter. Wow, what an experience and something that‚Äôs totally and utterly addicting, just learning to read the body language and start to understand what each posture means to us was amazing.
Night-times were very cool, so sleeping was easy most nights. I say most nights because many of the nights a couple of male lions were voicing their opinions of each other back and forth within just yards of our tent, and what a grand experience that is to witness with your own ears. It is so amazing you cannot help but listen in awe–there is no way you can sleep.
It was always fun the next morning, walking the path to the dining chalet and seeing how close the tracks were to our tent from the night before. We also had a female leopard with cubs that visited underneath our tent a few nights, but she was very quiet, and left only footprints.
Each day we had the pleasure of approaching two or three elephants. Due to an extremely dry year, we were seeing between ten and thirty bulls a day, which to Denise and me was fine. Ivan said if this area hadn‚Äôt been in a drought, we‚Äôd be seeing upwards of eighty bulls a day. Each day around the lunch hour, we would typically stop within a few hundred yards of a water hole and set up a tarp for shade and just watch the show.
Cow elephants would come in and play in the water themselves, throwing water and mud allover themselves. Getting to see the tiny little newborns was a special treat also. Bulls did come in, but none that were deemed worthy of following away from the water hole. Shooting an elephant at water is a cardinal sin and never done.
For eight days we repeated this process of spotting and approaching, and never once did we tire of it. It was fun and exciting every single time, and by the eighth day, we could hardly believe that much time had passed already. We were having so much fun each day that neither of us felt any anxiety about whether we would get an elephant. We were both confident that when the time was right, it would happen.
On the tenth day, we were hustling down one of the roads through the concession, studying tracks, when all of a sudden, out of the shade of a huge acacia tree, loomed a huge, OLD bull–one with a giant ‚Äúpotato head‚Äù as Ivan called it–and one that most certainly fit our criteria.
This experienced, old bull had heard the vehicle, however, and hastily left the scene. We quickly came to a stop and Ivan immediately could tell this old monarch was worth a serious look, as he knew age was more important to us than size. He asked that we quietly get out of the truck and at the same time asked, ‚ÄúDo you mind the tusks being worn down a bit?‚Äù He was given an enthusiastic answer of, ‚Äúnot at all,‚Äù so off we went in search of his footprints in the direction that he had vanished into the bush.
This cagey old bull had been standing in a shady mud hole, so the cracks in his feet were filled with mud, and he was not making any tracks at all. As I followed along behind Ivan and the trackers, I wondered at first how they were following this animal, as there were no tracks. I finally realized they were following the tiny little specks of mud flying off his feet as he walked along. Amazing what can be learned from these trackers.
We were moving briskly through the bush, but silently, being ever-so-careful, looking ahead, hopefully to spot the bull before he spotted us. We had been moving through the bush for about an hour when Andy, the videographer, snapped his fingers and got Ivan‚Äôs attention. Pointing ahead and to the right, he gestured that he saw an ear flap under a tree in the shade. Ivan studied the area and realized it was our old bull about 125 yards away. He had settled down and was cooling himself again, but he was facing his back trail, watching for us.
Ivan calmly stopped us all and said, ‚ÄúThis is him, we must be very careful and quiet, as he is looking for us.‚Äù He then indicated how he wanted to approach this bull, and asked all of us to settle down a bit and get ready to move in on him. I must say, this is a point where any true hunter gets that super adrenaline rush. You start to hear your heart pounding in your ears, your mouth gets dry, I hope this never leaves me. Your mind goes over and over the shot placement lessons you have had the past few days, quickly raising your double rifle up and squeezing off your shot. Then reality sets in and you take that first step toward your goal with your PH.
As we all moved slowly forward, another fifty yards, Ivan indicated for some of the hunting party to stop and stay back as only he, the hunter and videographer can continue forward, due to noise potential. He explained that with this old bull being so wary of us, that this was the best approach.
As Ivan‚Äôs now smaller group moved in on the bull, I realized that I was witnessing something very special, and I felt I was almost in a dream state. Closer and closer, when all of a sudden this giant grey beast sensed there was something approaching. The wind favored the hunters, and in order to see, he decided to approach what movement his eye had caught and at that moment, he emerged from under the shade tree to have a look at what dared to follow.
Looking down on us like a huge battleship, he seemed much larger than one can possibly realize. The bull took a few steps closer. Ivan whispered, ‚ÄúBe still.‚Äù Then, right when it looked like things were going to get out of hand, with breath ragged, mind racing, it seemed that this enormous animal was just a second away from touching you, Ivan instructed to slowly raise the rifle and shoot him right between the eyes. This unbelievable story unfolded at an incredible FIVE paces! At the same instant of the trigger pull, this huge bull raised his head slightly, taking the bullet path slightly off target, and below the brain. He spun so fast that it was hard to imagine, and off he went. Instantly the finger is on the back trigger, firing a second shot, and he crashed down.
Ivan followed up and moved in carefully, pointing out where final shot placement should be after reloading. Once this magnificent beast was down for good, I finally started to realize, in my world of hunting, what a HUGE event this was in my life. Being a hunter from a very young boy until now at 58, I always thought the very pinnacle of hunting would be shooting the largest land animal with a double rifle, up close the way it should be. But, folks, I‚Äôm here to tell you, an even greater feeling than everything I had dreamed or imagined, greater than all the stories I had read and campfire tales I had heard–is watching your wife do it–as I had just done. Thank you, Ivan!‚ÄîBrian H. Welker