Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), The Tende Jesse, Gokwe, September 1970

By Ron Thomson

The big black rhino bull came on at full speed. Game warden Paul Coetsee ran like the wind – but the jesse (thicket) was just too dense. It impeded his progress. Inevitably, the rhino caught up with Paul and rammed the tip of its front horn into the back of his right leg, four inches above the rear fold of his knee. The horn ran on for 18 inches, penetrating the muscle up his leg and into his buttock. The rhino flicked its head, catapulting Paul high into the air. The stricken game warden tumbled back to earth uncontrollably. He came down, belly first, right on top of the rhino’s head. The rhino punched upwards at him again, thrusting its front horn into the same thigh a second time, savagely ramming a huge hole through the front muscles and exiting at the back.

Paul was again tossed into the air. And again he tumbled about like a discarded rag doll. When he dropped the second time, it was onto the rhino’s back. There he gripped the animal’s rotund body with both hands and clung on for dear life, his senses swamped by the subtle, musty scent of its heavy sweat.
The rhino, feeling Paul’s body on its back, shunted and bucked about on the same spot for several seconds. It huffed and puffed, pfussssing loudly all the while, as it tried to dislodge its unwanted jockey. Paul hung on, desperate not to fall off.
This whole episode started and ended in a matter of seconds.
Paul hit the ground hard. He was stunned and confused. There was blood everywhere. It was all over the ground about him. It was on the stems of the jesse above him. And it was pumping from the torn muscles of his thigh in huge volumes.
He tried unsuccessfully to get to his feet and saw the blood pouring down his leg. It was then that he saw the lower edge of the gaping wound at the front of his thigh, partly concealed by the blood-soaked cloth of his short trousers. At that point he felt no pain – not immediately. His body was numb.

Everywhere he looked he saw his blood. He grabbed at his thigh with both hands and held them tightly in an attempt to close the biggest wound that he could see – the huge hole in the front of his leg. Little did he know that the wound at the back was twice as large.
Paul knew immediately that he had been gravely injured. He needed help and he needed it fast.
“KAPESA …!” he called out loudly.
It was the first name that came into his mind. Throughout his hunting life Paul had been accompanied by his faithful Shona tracker, so his shouting for Kapesa was automatic and understandable. He did not even think of calling for Dave Scammel, who was much better equipped, mentally and practically, to provide him with the first aid that he now so desperately needed.
Kapesa, Dave and the josak carrier heard Paul’s cry, and Kapesa responded with a hyena’s whoop. This was the common far-carrying response to a hunter’s summons.
They had all heard the commotion and understood that Paul had encountered the rhino. They gave no thought at all to the possibility that he had been injured. Dave, in fact, thought that Paul had got a dart in and that his calling for Kapesa indicated that he wanted the tracker to come and take up the darted rhino’s spoor. Kapesa thought the same.

So they had, at first, virtually ambled along the tracks that Paul had been following. Only when Paul called again and they heard the anguish in his voice, did they break into a run. They were shocked rigid when they came upon him and saw all the blood.
“I thought you had darted the rhino, and that you were safely up a tree,” Dave admitted honestly when he reached Paul, thus excusing his and Kapesa’s tardy response to Paul’s initial call for help.
Soon both Kapesa and Dave had their hands covered in Paul’s blood as they strove to stem the copious flow. A bandage from the drug pack that Kapesa carried, was applied high up on the injured limb. Dave inserted a stick under the bandage and twisted it tightly. It was the only tourniquet he had at his disposal. They both then busied themselves addressing the enormous gaping wounds.
Paul’s wife had made several flat, cotton-wool packed bags from canvas bank money bags. She had followed the simple design that my own wife, Babs, had conjured up for me after Rupert Fothergill had been gored in ‘65. They were wound-packers and blood-stoppers for use in just such an emergency.
Babs had anticipated that if anyone had a rhino horn poked into them, the wound would be wide and deep. It would then require a substantial wad of something that could be packed into it to stop the bleeding.
Dave made cones out of two of the four dirty cloth wound packs in Paul’s drug pack, pushing one deep into the front wound, and the other into the larger cavity at the back. Paul endured these painful intrusions stoically. Dave used the other two packs as padding on top. He bound the entire thigh with wide crepe bandages which, fortunately, had been included in the drug box.
The packs and the bandages stemmed the flow of blood. However, Dave could not be sure the blood was not just being absorbed by the cotton wool inside the bags. He now had to get Paul proper medical attention as a matter of urgency.
It was at about this time that Paul started to experience pain and it grew ever more intense as the minutes ticked by.
Having, at least temporarily, stopped the bleeding, Dave took out a tube of omnopon (morphine) from the drug pack. He unscrewed the needle cover and plunged the needle into Paul’s good leg and squeezed the tube until it was flat.
Dave could then turn his mind to other things. He tried to raise Graham Hall, back in the camp, on the mobile radio. All he got was a loud, crackling response. Their position amongst the hills, and in the jesse, had rendered their mobile set temporarily useless.
He looked at Paul with great concern. Paul was already white as a sheet from shock and loss of blood, so Dave knew that, if his friend was going to survive that day’s ordeal, he would have to get him expert medical attention quickly.

That day was not Paul’s day! The goring had been Strike Number One against him. After the goring, the failure of the radio was a terrible omen. That was Strike Number Two. What more could possibly go wrong? What more, indeed!
Dave gauged they were five miles from the camp, as the crow flies, so he left Paul with Kapesa and the water carrier, and set off on a long lope back to camp. He was a tall, rangy man with long legs and a lot of stamina, and he was very fit.
By then it was 2 o’clock in the afternoon.
Back in the camp Dave radioed the National Parks Head Office and provided them with as much detail about Paul’s accident as he could. He insisted that Paul needed casevac by helicopter urgently.
Arthur Wood, the Chief Tourist Officer at Head Office, who took the call, assured Dave that he would relay the message to Phil Evans (the Department’s Deputy Director) immediately. One or the other of them would then contact the commanding officer of the New Sarum Air Force base and request emergency assistance.
(Arthur, a good friend of mine, sent me a message at the university where I was writing exams immediately after he had relayed Dave Scammel’s information to Phil Evans. I was shocked and became very emotional. My immediate thoughts, again, were: “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” I had total empathy with Paul. Even though we had had our differences, I knew he was a good man and I hated to think what he was going through.
I immediately phoned Arthur, who gave me all the gory details. The news wasn’t good! And I fretted the whole afternoon.)

Dave and Graham galvanised the rhino recovery team into action. The Voneta (our Mercedes 4×4 rhino-recovery vehicle) was stripped of all unessential equipment and the entire labour force, with their picks, shovels and axes, set off for Paul’s location. Everybody, except Nevin Lees-May, was on that mission. It was Nevin’s task to man the radio and keep in touch with Arthur. He remained on radio standby all afternoon and well into the night.

Graham told me later that he was shocked by the amount of blood he saw at the accident site. There were pools of drying blood on the ground all around, he said, and it was splattered over the vegetation high above his head. Paul must have been bleeding like a stuck pig, even as he was being thrown about by the rhino.
Under Dave and Graham’s supervision, the labour gang quickly cut a track through the jesse to where Paul lay waiting. By then he was pale and quiet, surrounded by his own drying gore. The morphine had kicked in and had deadened a lot of the pain. He was not unconscious but he was in a critical state. He had lost an awful lot of blood.
Paul was transported slowly back to the camp, lying on his own bed valise that had been arranged on the open back deck of Dave’s Land Rover. On arrival at the camp he was left on the back of the vehicle, parked in the shade, and made more comfortable.
Nevin gave Dave and Graham news of the arrangements for Paul’s casevac. For some undisclosed reason, the Air Force was sending out a Trojan light aircraft that was specially equipped for such emergencies. It was not explained why they had not sent a helicopter. The Trojan, Nevin said, was about to take off from New Sarum Air Force base.
A helicopter would have been much quicker, and Paul desperately needed a fast extraction from the field. Somewhere along the line, the severity of Paul’s injuries had been lost in the communications. The decision to send a Trojan, instead of a helicopter, was Strike Number Three.
On the Air Force’s advice, Paul was taken to the small Tende landing strip not far from the operation’s base camp, there to await casevac. His destination was the New Sarum Air Force military hospital at Salisbury airport. There Paul would receive the best possible medical attention. That little hospital was well equipped to deal with Paul’s kind of emergency and trauma.
The aircraft arrived at Tende just at sunset.
There was an Air Force pilot and a qualified paramedic on board the Trojan and, when the aircraft landed, Paul was given his first proper medical attention that day. The paramedic gave him another dose of morphine and put him on a drip. He was then strapped onto the aircraft’s stretcher. There were a lot of volunteers to carry Paul to the machine, where the stretcher was secured onto its fixed racks.
The Trojan took off into a red western sky, turned and set course for Salisbury. Half-an-hour later, at 10 000 feet, it was flying over commercial farms in the Sinoia area. There was by then no sign of the sun. Instead, there was a bright moon in the sky and the night was wreathed in its ethereal smoky light.
Suddenly there was a loud bang and the engine went dead. A piston had worked loose and blown through the cylinder head!

The pilot immediately radioed a May Day call to the New Sarum Air Force tower and relayed his approximate whereabouts. The aircraft was going down. There was no doubt about that.
The paramedic tightened all Paul’s straps, and those holding the stretcher firm. Fortunately, by then, Paul was only semi-conscious. Finally, the medic made himself more secure on his seat next to the stretcher; and the pilot tightened his straps, too.
The aircraft lost height rapidly. Silence reigned inside the machine. All that could be heard was the whistle of the wind over the plane’s surface as it glided down to earth.
Strike Number Four!
That day was definitely NOT Paul’s day. Everything that could possibly go wrong had gone wrong, and was continuing to go wrong. Except for the moon!
Thank God for the moon!
Down below the pilot could make out grazing paddocks and fields in the moonlight. Most of the fields were ploughed, ready for planting when the new rains broke in November. Those which had not been ploughed were devoid of crops. Here and there he could see the lights of farmhouses. So whatever happened, when they hit the ground help would be on hand nearby.
The pilot selected an open field on which to land and he dropped the aircraft’s flaps. This gave him greater lift and slowed down his landing speed. He made a final radio call to New Sarum and then prepared to crash land.
Slowly he angled the aircraft down. It skimmed over the ground in the ghostly light of the moon. He made a perfect three-point landing but the recently ploughed field was rough, and the aircraft bounced in a frightening fashion. Then it settled and ran forward over the ground. It began to slow down, all the wheels digging into the loosened soil. Then the front wheel hit a contour ridge and broke off. The aircraft nose-dived and flipped over onto its back. Strike Number Five!
Miraculously, no-one was hurt. The pilot and the paramedic scrambled out and, together, they undid the stretcher straps and dragged it free. Paul was then still bound tightly onto the stretcher and they ran, half-carrying, half-dragging it over the roughly ploughed furrows. Their purpose was to get them all as far away from the aircraft as possible, in case it exploded.
This was very rough handling for a man who had been as severely injured as Paul had been, and who had already lost so much blood. His wounds opened up and started to bleed again.

The pilot left the paramedic to tend to Paul’s needs and he ran the half-mile or so to the nearest farm house, guided by the lights in its windows. He was welcomed inside by the farmer and his wife and used their telephone to contact the New Sarum Air Force base. The farmer drove him back to where the paramedic was waiting with Paul.
The paramedic, in the meantime, had managed to stop the bleeding. He had rushed back to the aircraft and recovered his medical bag, a new bag of saline and all the accoutrements he needed for setting Paul up with a new drip. In the lights of the farmer’s vehicle, he inserted the needle into an already flaccid vein in one of Paul’s arms, and got the drip going again. Excessive blood loss can cause veins to collapse, thus making it difficult to insert an intravenous needle.
Half an hour later an Air Force helicopter arrived, guided by the flashing lights of the farmer’s vehicle. It landed on the field next to Paul’s stretcher. On board was a surgeon from the New Sarum Air Force base hospital. He examined Paul carefully and immediately decided that he should be taken to Salisbury General Hospital. The emergency equipment and staff there were better equipped to handle someone in Paul’s, by then, dire condition.
At the risk of being branded a bull-shitter, I have to record that when the pilot of the helicopter tried to re-start his machine it failed to respond. Strike Number Six.
It took another ten minutes for the pilot to get his helicopter’s jet engine working again! Sounds like a Hollywood movie? Yes, indeed, it does. But it is true nonetheless.

In all that time, I was in constant communication with Arthur Wood, so I knew about the original decision to take Paul to the New Sarum Air Force base hospital. Then Arthur told me about the Trojan crash. And, finally, I learned that all was well and that Paul was in a helicopter en route to Salisbury General Hospital.
I was at the hospital when, sometime after eleven o’clock that night, the helicopter touched down in the parking lot. Paul was conscious on arrival but very woozy from the morphine and weak from loss of blood. He lay on the hospital gurney like a pathetic paper doll, white as a sheet and lacking any sign of comprehension. I accompanied the trolley from the helicopter into the hospital but was turned away when they wheeled Paul into an elevator.
He was put on intravenous whole-blood immediately and later that night, he underwent emergency surgery. I visited him the following afternoon. He was still being fed whole blood and his colour was much better. He was still very weak but was clearly on the mend.
Paul Coetsee was a tough customer. His ordeal would have killed most people but he survived. That, in itself, was a tribute to his indomitable spirit.
No sooner was he out of hospital than he subjected himself to a rigorous regime of rehabilitation. No matter how much I disapproved of his fatalistic attitude, and of what I considered to be his unrealistic need to be top-dog in everything that he did, I have to admit that Paul had a strong mind that dominated his physical infirmities. I admire him immensely for that. I also respected the fact, and give him due credit, that he was a top-notch elephant hunter in his own right. He was also a very lucky bastard to have endured, and survived, all those misadventures on the day that he was gored.
Marangora, Paul’s national park station at that time, is located on the high escarpment overlooking the lower Zambezi River valley. It is on the main road between Salisbury (now Harare) and Lusaka in Zambia. The road crosses the Zambezi River on the Otto Beit Bridge, twenty miles away at Chirundu.
At Marangora the tarmac road descends the escarpment on a very steep and winding route called Hell’s Gate. Hell’s Gate is two or three miles long and it drops 1 500 feet to the valley floor below. Paul made it his task to walk down and up the Hell’s Gate road, every day, until he was fit enough to hunt big-game animals again.
In 1971 Paul was back hunting black rhinos!
We moved 81 black rhinos into the Gonarezhou between 1969 and 1971. Depending on the sex ratios, black rhino populations are capable of doubling their numbers every seven or eight years. By 1980, therefore, when Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, there were probably 150 black rhinos in the Gonarezhou National Park. By 1990 there were none. They had all been poached into oblivion.
I am sure I don’t have to tell you how I feel about that!

Note from the editor’s desk:
Genuine free-range, fair-chase big-game hunting stories like this one are contained in the author’s seven-book big-game hunting memoir series. For more information on these books, visit the author’s website or contact him direct at ASM