I met Geoff Smith, for the first time, when I returned from Wall Street to take up my position as the youngest and most junior partner at Bowman Gilfillan & Blacklock, a large and well established law firm in Johannesburg. After a long absence, a close friend persuaded me to start hunting again and I needed both a rifle and ammunition. Geoff was the part owner of Rand Arms & Safaris, a gun shop on the corner of Commissioner and Eloff Streets, not far from our offices and it was to him I turned for supplies and advice.
Although a little bit younger, Geoff reminded me a lot of my Dad. He was a real gentleman, thoroughly decent, charming, old school and, if anything, even then, "old fashioned" in his manners and mannerisms. He was a good looking man and, it was easy to see that, in his youth, he must have been a lady killer with his Errol Flynn moustache, twinkling blue eyes and mop of silver grey hair. He was also a raconteur of note and had an endless supply of sporting and hunting anecdotes. As I was to learn, he had played golf for Natal and was a naturally gifted sportsman.
It was Geoff that introduced me to the world of fine rifles – Holland & Holland, Westley Richards, William Evans, Rigby and the like. It was Geoff that offered me a pristine Holland & Holland Royal .375 take down, fully cased, in mint condition and at a very reasonable price. "You simply must buy this, Pete" I remember him saying. "You are a big .375 fan and this is the best of the best." And, when I couldn’t scrape the funds together to pay, his response was, "Pay me when you can afford it." I never ever forgot his kind offer which, in time, led to me buying a Holland & Holland .275 take down from him and then, to complete the collection, one of the eight Holland & Holland Royal .475 doubles that they made and which I found in Australia of all places.
So, almost by accident, Geoff became a client and I helped extricate him from one partnership in his business and replace it with another and then repeated the selfsame process a second and a third time. As Johannesburg city centre changed in character, so did Geoff’s business and, in time, he started to focus on top quality English rifles and shotguns and eventually moved out to the suburbs and established a partnership with James Dunlop which survived until his death.
Turning back to his shop in Eloff Street, however, the most striking feature about it was the two enormous elephant tusks propped against the wall on the left as you entered through the door. They were shod in 18 inch high, beaten copper, must have been all of eight to nine feet tall and were a source of endless fascination to young aspiring hunters like me. Of course, Geoff must have told the story of the hunt hundreds of times over the years and so, when it came to my turn, the account was fairly short and to the point. I can remember distinctly however him telling me that he had been hunting elephants for over three weeks and had walked after this particular elephant for days.
When I started to research a recent article called "My 100 Pounder" I referred to these tusks and decided to see if I could trace the story behind them. Campbell Smith, Geoff’s son and himself a highly experienced and well known professional hunter, was kind enough to dig out the diaries Geoff kept of his hunting trip and bring them down to me in Cape Town. The diaries, written up in longhand on a daily basis with a fountain pen – he missed only one day – were much more fascinating and exciting than I remember Geoff’s verbal account to have been and I decided to transcribe them with their spelling mistakes, punctuation and grammar – exactly as he wrote them – onto my laptop.
The first of the two, thin, soft, leather covered books making up the diary is entitled, "My Trip" on the outside cover and, on the fly leaf, "TRAVEL RECORD of Geoffrey Dashwood Smith in my 29 th year – On Safari to the Luangwa Valley Northern Rhodesia". The first entry was dated 27 th May 1956.
His hunt did not have the most auspicious beginning but his account was typically honest and to the point:
"Date 30th May
We took the battery to Laurie’s range. The 9.3 x 62 booted me to hell – it’s got a wicked kick; the 404 also had an awful wallop. The former seems a little light. These heavy weapons had me completely the gun shy – I sprayed bullets all over the target – absolutely shocking – quite useless; felt most despondent. Laurie was most concerned: reckons I shall have to improve before we I have a go at elephant – hes darned right too. Wanu his elephant tracker must have thought "What that Bwana shoot elephant." My shoulder bruised and sore."
He was also not as fit as he might have been and struggled to keep up with his good friend, Laurie Estcourt, who organized and conducted the hunt for him. On the fifth day, he wrote as follows, "We decided to throw in on the elephant – they were making off for Mt Katiso. Laurie decided on a short cut home – slap over the top, my heart sank. I staggered up – one slip here could have spelt curtains. On reaching the top I was sucking for wind and feeling sick with fatigue." But he got stronger and stronger as the hunt went on and later he could write, "Laurie set a cracking pace for Chisomo’s but I was fit and paced without pausing for a break for the next ten miles. We covered it in 1 hr 55 min dead. Not bad going Smith."
Yes, this was a real foot safari. No vehicles at all were used and, according to Geoff’s diary, over the 24 days of the hunt they covered 388 miles or 620 kilometres. The outfit was primitive by today’s standards to say the least and, after shooting two hippos for a local chief, Geoff records the following, "The hippo carcass was cut up that afternoon and the following morning Laurie had the fat rendered down for soap for his personal use. The sun by this time started to tear into my bare body; we rubbed hippo fat in; better than any sun tan oil I ever struck"
The camp was also a pretty Spartan affair and, on 8 June he writes, "Up at first light – breakfast biltong and tea … had a break at 1:30 for lunch – 1 apple and a cup of tea." They would often make do with even less when they established fly camps. For example, on 13 June, the diary records, "Once again we pack rations for 3 days & strike out after elephant. Kit comprises 2 prs veldschoens & socks 1 shorts 1
bush jacket my hat my cane & hunting knife. Rations; tea, Klim, sugar, rice, salt,
Milo, Ryvita, margarine, 1 blanket each 1 pot, 2 mugs, 1 spoon tobacco pipe & matches. When after elephant Escourt believes in travelling light & with a minimum amount of bearers – fancy rations such as jam are out."
As a "town slick" as he called himself, Geoff underwent a vertical learning curve. From buffalo beans on sensitive parts of his anatomy, to thorns in his heel, to poisonous snakes, to wading crocodile filled rivers, to running away from charging elephants.
"Date 14 th June
Place junction of Lukashashi & Chikufwe Rivers
We approached to within 30 yds to make closer observation when out of the nsambi at 15 paces to our left the head of a huge bull popped. He took us completely by surprise; we were caught absolutely flatfooted. We all got one hell of a fright. He was a magnificent bull carrying about 60 lbs of ivory looking straight at us. The boy who had first seen the elephant never waited for a second look; he turned on his heels and was off. The noise he made caused the bull to charge; its a terrifying spectacle to gaze up at an African elephant in full cry. He is just massive and his colossus is awe inspiring. He scattered us in all directions. Did I shift, no back troubles on these occasions. I made off for all I was worth … Laurie told me afterwards that the bull came for a while then turned; presenting the point of his shoulder for an angle shot; it would have had to be very quick; however thats the luck of elephant hunting. I was bitterly disappointed & very fed up with myself for bolting; however on the other hand it might have been unwise to stand ground. It was valuable experience and I learned a lesson."
He took the lesson to heart and the next time was far steadier and wrote:
"Hard on our right we could hear one moving around Mwanu moved down through the slip to have a look. He turned around with a grin I shall never forget, "peace of cake chaps, come and get it sort of grins. Laurie slipped over to check.
I was summoned over. This is it a Smith. I nipped down but at the bottom I got fouled up with a V shaped dry twig. It snapped; I felt myself go hot; Estcourt gave me the blackest look anybody ever gave me. I made my way carefully up. There he was I just saw ivory. I was in no way flustered, felt as cool as ice; is all I wanted to do was "donder" the blighter. He was side on; a brain shot was tempting but thats for experts, or maybe straight through the point of the shoulder There was a small tree in the way, darn it, the elephant facing up hill. Laurie beckoned me past him so as to place an angle shot i.e. 1/3 the way up the body, about 4" behind the knuckle in the foreleg, right in the middle of the V shaped fold of flesh. I was itching to squeeze the trigger. I can remember whispering to Laurie "Where shell I shoot him Laurie, Where shall I shoot him"? He was exactly 15 paces away. Close enough alright. Estcourt was quivering with anticipation as to how I would place my bullet. It must be hell for him to take a town slick up to a thundering big African elephant, 15 paces at that too. Jeepers it’s my wifes birthday and I haven’t sent a telegram. All these things flashed through my mind. Its queer. As I slipped passed Laurie I must have made a noise. The jumbo heard it; he took a step backwards and started swinging away. Wait Smith wait for it, don’t rush, wait for the angle through the other shoulder. I could see the V shaped piece of flesh staring at me; gun springing up the bead full on. I cant remember aiming or squeezing off; I just felt the recoil of 404 Mauser. He winced as he took the bullet; and thundered off downhill; there was no time for a second shot; it was over in a flash; a matter of 3 seconds. The younger bull standing nearby bolted. I don’t know where to but I looked around to find myself standing alone; the rest of the herd crashing & thundering off through the bush … Laurie congratulated me on my shot. I told you Smith that angle shot & he is a dead elephant. Yes Lauries lectures had paid dividends all right; he has been drumming it into me & lecturing me every night. Sometimes the stretcher is the elephant sometimes the torch, Rusty his dog and even me … The elephant had literally ploughed in; his hind legs spread frog fashion, his rear foot just showing behind his belly; his right fore curled back; the left tusk was right in up to the hilt; the right half way in. Laurie has estimated his weight of ivory at 45 lbs."
The big bull was still to come and, when it did, Geoff was more than ready:
"Flick flick flick with the old ash bag the wind was OK. We approached a little closer. They were feeding in thick Kasakasaka – one just below us – you could see the tops of the trees moving – another a few yards further on – another just above us to our right – Decided to take a look at the one above us. "Always make a careful check – you must be sure – don’t rush in exercise every patience." The grass was miles high the cover murderously thick and the blighter was slap in the middle of it. Oh Gawd! Laurie gave me the "do you want to go in look" – I signaled "in" – my safety was always Laurie’s first considereturn – he didn’t want me to get involved anything I didn’t fancy. At the half crouch we slipped in and sent Mwanu forward – best one go forward to make a recce – three might make a din. Mwanu was just ahead peering around a thick branch. He looked to back at us over his shoulder – he couldn’t contain himself – he was like a kid at a Christmas tree – all teeth & smiles – the devil in his eye "Tusks Bwana tusks – ishi kalamba. We slipped up to him – Cripes what ivory – my gazes was transfixed – I felt awestruck – Wow! Checked the wind – advanced a little closer – still couldn’t get a good look – tested the wind – moved still closer checked his ivory – 2 tusks alright – could only see the top half – the rest of them hidden in the bush. We hadn’t disturbed him – just feeding quietly but remaining in the same spot. couldn’t get in a vital shot – too much cover. "Sit tight Smith, wait for him to give you the shot he will move just now." Laurie to me "Smith now that’s a real elephant – now do you see what I mean when I say an elephant – not one of those ruddy warthogs you’ve been wanting to shoot" "What weight Laurie – what weight?" … hes not an ounce under eighty more like ninety. Don’t rush Smith just take it easy. Whatever you do don’t balls this." The light was fading. I checked my watch 5:15pm. The bull still in the same place – check the wind – blast the luck – blowing just passed his nose he could get our wind any second and that would be that – disappear like a ruddy ghost slap in front of you. Now I was on tenterhooks – We waited 2 minutes 5 minutes 30 mins – God knows how long – it was absolute agony – if only the blighter would move and give us a clearer look. Never fire at an elephant unless you are certain of your shot – it just isn’t fair to him let alone what he can do to you or whoever is with you if you don’t hit him right Presently he took a pace forward – I moved slightly to the right and knelt down – could just make out the knuckle covering the heart – wasn’t going to miss this chance – distance 15 – 17 paces felt like about 2 paces. Checked my weapon and made certain of my target – had to be quick about it. "I can see his knuckle alright Laurie." "Are you bloody sure Geoff." "Yes dead certain – only a small gap." His next words came as one. "Let ’em ‘ave it." Whoom! the kick the roar the split second blinding flash from the muzzle of the .404 – ears singing. The bull writhed and twisted as he took the bullet he half turned towards us his whole head and ears and giant tusks looking straight at me. Thought he was going to give us a go – my next around already in the magazine – felt coolheaded and calm enough. His head disappeared back into the bush and he took off – I couldn’t believe my eyes – in a couple of strides he was flat out – terrific acceleration. He cut across us into the clear. I flung the rifle up – laid off a bit and went for the angle shot. Whoom! – The flash the split second blindness. My bullet struck home and turned the elephant at a complete tangent. His tearing blind rush set up a crashing roaring din as he cut a clear path through absolute jungle – the other two took off simultaneously for the river – they looked 70 pounders. It all sounded like an avalanche & the whole forest seemed to be crashing around me. Elephant absolutely panic at the sound of gunfire. We stood and listened as the crashing died away -a lull – then crash – very like the sound of an elephant coming down in heavy bush. A grin from Mwanu "Hes down hes down" … Laurie seemed rather pensive: just sitting … and looking at the tusks. "Smith you old blighter you have shot one of my elephants certainly bigger than I have ever bagged and certainly a record for these parts Brother! You will never see one as big as this again let alone shoot one. However you did well Geoff and am proud of you."
The tusks were not weighed until many years later and by then had lost some of their weight (as tusks tend to do) and came in at 97 and 93 pounds. They are currently possessed (I don’t think you ever own something like this) by Pero Cavaleros, the son of one of Geoff’s erstwhile partners. Regardless of their weight now, I will always remember them as the first 100 pound tusks I ever saw.
As he grew older, Geoff developed diabetes. He also started to drink more than before and, as a diabetes sufferer myself, I can tell you that the two don’t mix. One morning I received an unexpected call. The heavily accented Afrikaans voice on the phone introduced himself and said, "Good morning. This is Sergeant X from the Z police station, are you Mr. Peter Flack?" "Yeees" I replied hesitantly, wondering what I could possibly have done. The voice continued, "I am at the residence of a Mr. Geoffrey Dashwood Smith. We were called here by the maid. There is a dead man in the bathroom. He has been shot." I suddenly felt my chest close up. "There was a note next to the body addressed to you" he added and proceeded to read the note in his dry, expressionless, policeman’s voice.
I still cannot think about that morning or the events that led up to it with any degree of equanimity. As my wife has said to me more than once when we reminisced about Geoff, "He had a big and positive impact on your life, Pete." I remember him with great fondness and miss him. If he had lived, Geoff would have been 84 this year, the 55th anniversary of his 100 pounder!