I don’t believe any other animal has as many monikers as the Cape Buffalo. However, one thing that is consistent is his belligerent attitude, that stroppy, pugnacious “I really don’t give a stuff about you, the horse you rode in on, or the calibre of thunderstick you carry” which makes him, in my opinion, a most worthy adversary to hunt, if not the most. This I do know, I have hunted him on 4 occasions and there will be a 5th.
My latest hunt for the Old Gentleman took place in Mozambique last month. I’d convinced a lifelong mate from Texas, Danny Ellis, hunting dugga boys in the long grass was without comparison. Danny, who just happens to be the best shot I have ever encountered, has hunted Alaska, NZ and Australia with me and I’d always wanted to get him over to the Dark Continent.
Flying out of NZee my first hurdle was getting through Aussie Customs in Perth. While technically a transit passenger heading straight through to Johannesburg, Customs decided to have my rifle unloaded from the connecting flight. For over 4 hours I was made to feel like a criminal, clenching my buttocks every time I saw an officer put on rubber gloves.
“Can you explain, why you are here in Orstralia, with a firearm and no Restricted Goods Import documentation sir?”
“Well, I’m not supposed to be here cobber. I’m supposed to be upstairs in the lounge having a quiet one. You pulled my firearm off the plane instead of it just going straight through to South Africa.”
“That’s because we have some NEW regulations!” he says excitedly. So, you can guess how the entire 4 hours went. Anyway, just keep smiling and acting dumb, never take a backwards step, look them in the eye… wear the bastards down basically. Finally I got them to allow me to retrospectively fill in the RGI paperwork and they released me to the outside world, where I had another 4 hours to wait until the check-in desk for my flight opened. Keep smiling and be thankful for long layovers.
In Jo’Burg I met up with Danny and Johann Human, our PH (guide). A 5hr road journey took us through to the Punda Maria gate of Kruger Park, where after more form filling and attaching a wire crimped trigger lock to my rifle we were permitted to enter the park. Next morning saw us at lining up the Mozambique border post, where officials checked our paperwork, counted our ammo and allowed us to continue. “Bring us back some buffalo meat!” they yelled as we sped off to the east.
The formed tarmac roads of South Africa disappeared immediately, while the narrow and frowzy dirt roads of Mozambique became our main highway, winding their way through small villages of mud rondavels, barking dogs and hordes of children who ran to the track to wave us through. This was real Africa. This is why I had come back.
As dark wrapped its blanket over us we pulled into what would be our main camp for the next 12 days. Only a few hundred meters from the Save River, camp consisted of a few small abandoned border post buildings parked between Zimbabwe and Mozambique. The few rooms showed signs of violent past turmoil, with the walls pockmarked by .50cal bullet holes and large cavities where exploding grenades had left their mark. If only those walls could talk. But then again, perhaps if they could, they would scream.
The first task was to visit one of the local villages where our rifles could be blessed by the witchdoctor and the young “seer” who could foretell visions of the future… and whether our hunt would be a success or not. Happily, we were told, our hunt would bring us joy - and much meat!
That joy seemed a long way off after 6 days of tracking buffalo in the incessant heat and dust, getting busted by the wind, followed by plenty of frustration the day we finally managed to sneak within 50 meters of 3 nice dugga boys, only to have them casually snub their noses in the air and walk across the border into neighbouring Zimbabwe. And no, you can’t follow them. If the GPS says that line in the sand is a border, well then mate, that’s’ the border.
Our frustration was quickly forgotten as we started to come across very fresh buffalo dung. Hmmm. Very fresh indeed. When tracking buff it’s amazing how you become a poo expert, gently scraping your boot across the still wet pile, studying the thickness of the semi dry skin on top and making a guess at just how close you are to your quarry. In this instance we knew we must be very close when suddenly the buff jumped up just 20 meters from us. Danny got to the shooting sticks, but the buff spun and crashed off through a small mopane thicket. Without pushing him we set off on his trail, senses alert, trigger fingers on the ready as we followed him through dense bush.
He broke again to our left and thundered across an open patch of grass, the only shot a Texas heart shot and that’s never the best. Dejected we halted to discuss our next move. Busting a buff twice usually means he’s now got you sorted and he’ll head for Dodge. Chances were we’d never see him again. Bugger it, we agreed, let’s just give him a few minutes, then see if we can’t close the gap.
There! Amazingly he’d stopped a third time and as he went from still to full flight (Cape Buffalo have such short legs, but when they want to move… boy! They go from laying down to full speed even before they manage to be up on 4 legs) Danny fired, hitting him hard with a quartering shot. We ran to keep up, the thought of our close proximity to the border a conscious reality. Quickly we caught up with him and with a couple of well-placed follow-up shots Danny had his Dugga Boy, a real old warrior who’d been kicked out of the herd long before, battle scars fore and aft he was just the sort of buffalo hunters dream of taking.
I asked Danny that night about his highlight for the hunt. He never hesitated, “Sharing my buffalo meat among the villagers on the way back to camp. It’s what hunters do.”
With now less than 4 days to find my bull we spent the first 2 days tracking a buff I ended up dubbing “The Professor”. We’d track him from where he’d watered early in the day, getting closer until just before he settled down to rest he’d make a sudden 180° turn to lay beside his back track. As we walked past, still following his spoor, he’d suddenly erupt and crash off. After doing exactly the same thing another 2 or 3 times during the course of the day we realized this guy had our makings. The second day we found his tracks he used the very same modus operandi, until by the end of the day he showed he was getting bored of our feeble attempts to bring him into the open, or we’d simply just pissed him off so much that he’d now began to back track us, circling and watching from his hiding place, waiting for the best time to launch his ambush. We held a quick pow wow with the trackers and Lawrence, the head tracker stated quite plainly, “We can keep tracking this buffalo, but I think he is going to kill one of us soon.”
I spoke, “This sure is one hell of a smart bull boys and I’d love to think we could outsmart him, fact is, I don’t believe we will unless he gets unlucky, besides, I reckon Lawrence is right. Let’s pull the pin.”
The last day of the hunt proved memorable for more than one reason. Firstly, bumping into an armed poacher out in the bush saw a Mexican standoff which thankfully ended with no shots fired from either party. Over the previous 10 days we’d counted at least 20 elephant carcasses. Yeah, China has banned ivory imports, but that has done nothing to halt the trade which has escalated if anything. Secondly, as we veered off from this encounter, we immediately struck the tracks of a good bull and were off in hot pursuit.
Throughout the day we doggedly followed, with good sign and easy tracking, then thick grass and almost impossible tracking… It also turned out to be snake day for whatever reason, a puff adder which got angry with being disturbed, ensued by a spitting cobra whom we side stepped and the biggest black mamba I’ve ever laid eyes on. Snakes alive. The day cooled and we were into the witch’s hour, prime hunting. Then the light began to fade. The last hour of the last day. Strangely that didn’t perturb me. I’ve been here before and managed to take an animal at the very last, likewise I’ve gone home empty handed too. It’s about the hunt you see. If anything it’s the fact that I’m still in the field that spurs me on and while shooting an animal is what you set out to do, the reality is it’s the love of hunting which first set you on this path.
However! That poo thing reared it’s head one more time. Lovely steaming stuff. Oh we are so close! The sticks are thrown up and as if in a trance I’m on them. He’s facing me now, almost at the quarter. The illumination dot on my Leica scope centres. Aim for the far shoulder, the one you can’t see… Then the big Rigby lifts in the sticks and I use the recoil to crank another round in the breech. The buff is running and Danny is by my side. There’s no second shot and the guy who is the best shot I’ve ever met looks me in the eye and quietly says, “You hit him hard.”