There are myriad things that I love about Africa, but the one thing that I have a near obsession for, is cape buffalo hunting. Yes, that old, ornery fella who would just as soon snap your neck as eat a bite has caused me many a nervous moment. I have hunted hundreds of these beasts in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and South Africa, and my thrill in pursuing them has never diminished. It’s in my blood. They are, in my opinion, the top dangerous game species to hunt.
Geoff was a repeat client of mine who had hunted with me in South Africa and now felt the desire to pursue buffalo. After a discussion of what we could provide, Geoff decided that the Omay in Zimbabwe was the place for him. Big and wild, the appeal of ‘real’ Africa was a temptation that he could not resist. I explained to him that the Omay buffalo were hunted relentlessly and only needed a hint of human proximity before racing away for miles. It would not be an easy hunt as the wildness of the quarry combined with the hazards of the terrain, made for difficulties. Difficulties that someone in Geoff’s state of physical readiness might prove impossible as he was not a fit man.
Geoff and I discussed his fitness and I urged him to choose another venue, but he was adamant. I relented with the understanding that he get in shape and prepare for the rigors awaiting him. He was to walk, lose weight, and practice a lot with his rifle. He agreed to the terms, and it was with great anxiety that I met him upon arrival into the area. I was hoping for a slimmer version of the person I had known, so my heart sank when he appeared from the charter flight larger than when he had booked. “We’ve got to get this guy his buffalo in the first day or so or he’ll be too buggered to continue,” Franz, my PH whispered to me as Geoff was being greeted. I nodded in concurrence and off to camp we drove, a nervous pit beginning to develop in my gut.
After conferring with Franz, we decided that given Geoff’s physical state, our best bet was to stay aboard the cruiser as much as we could to minimize the stress on Geoff and allow him to only use his limited energy as needed. This was certainly not our normal mode of operation, but it was the best course of action given the circumstances. For a few hours in the morning, we drove the various dirt roads of the Omay hoping to spot buffalo close enough to allow for a short stalk. We needed a break and around 10am, we got one. Rounding a shallow curve, I looked off to my left and spotted a small group of buffalo heading for the low rise of a small hill. I peered through my binos and saw that they were meandering towards the mountains. “Cows and calves,” I murmured to Franz who also was in his glass confirming my spot. I suggested to Franz that we dismount and pursue the buff a bit so that Geoff might get a feel for how we hunt them. He agreed and as we closed the doors on the cruiser and looked up at Geoff, who was riding in the back with the trackers, we were greeted with a huge smile. “Did you see them?” he asked excitedly. “See what?” I grinned. Geoff chuckled as he knew we couldn’t have missed them. “It’s just a few cows but we’re going to stretch our legs a bit and show you how we stalk into buffalo when a proper bull presents himself.”
Finding spoor, we took up the track. I walked behind Geoff to gauge his stamina and to see how quietly he could move. The trackers moved along at a nice pace, sneaking through the bush as we closed on the little herd. Geoff seemed to be moving OK, so we carried on. After a half mile or so, we approached the rise and slowed our movement as we crept closer to the peak. At the top, we peered over and not only saw the cows and calves previously spotted, but the herd of around 200 that they were trailing. Jackpot! The buffalo were all close together in a concealed valley, looking to bed. With a few nice bulls spotted, a first day opportunity might present itself. “Let’s get to that mountain in the distance,” Franz whispered as he pointed north to the hilltops. “With this wind, they’ll likely move down this valley when they get up again to feed.” I concurred and nodded to Geoff as we all backtracked to the cruiser. Once aboard, we quickly drove to the base of the mountains and climbed to the best vantage point. From there we could view the valley floor and see the little dark specs of buffalo below. We then rested while our trackers kept close eye on the herd. It would be hours before they got to their feet again and when they did, we would move to intercept.
A tug on my shirt stirred my sleeping body and in moments, I was up rubbing the fatigue from my eyes. Looking around I could see Franz was also waking and Geoff was attempting to lace his boots. It was time to get into action. “They are moving down the valley towards that draw,” I said to Franz as I took the binos from my face. “Yes, and that’s perfect for us,” he replied. “That draw gets narrow and they’ll have to close up to funnel through it. We can set up along the edge and maybe get a bull as he moves through.” We headed back down the mountain, jumped in the cruiser, and moved towards an ambush position along that draw. We’d need a lot of luck but at least we would be into them. Geoff was all smiles. We made it into the draw but were startled to find that the buffalo had made it there much quicker than we thought they could. We could hear them walking and feeding, the noise of a buffalo herd on the move unmistakable. We moved deeper into the funnel and once buffalo were spotted, found a nice shooting lane, and got Geoff into position. Franz and I glassed the buffalo as they moved through the gap, but the speed of their movement was rapid, and no clear shot could be provided at this pace. We had to move.
Franz gathered the shooting sticks as I led Geoff back out to a trail that ran parallel to the draw. We then moved north along the trail to try and get in front of the herd, its pace unrelenting. Faster we marched until no sounds of buffalo could be distinguished from the normal sounds of the bush. At that stage, we hooked right and made our way out into the middle of the draw to find a secure shooting position and wait for the buffalo. We were in front of them now and I could sense that Geoff was troubled. “What happens if they charge?” he asked, an anxious look upon his face. “What will we do?” “Don’t worry Geoff,” I said. “We’re positioned behind this mound of earth for a reason. It offers great cover to shoot from and if things get sticky, we’ll climb up it and be safe. You just concentrate on making the shot.” Geoff visually inspected his surroundings and felt better about the spot we’d placed him in. “Ok,” he said, “just tell me which one to shoot.”
“They’re coming, looks like two good bulls in front,” Franz whispered. I could hear Geoff’s breathing increase with each step of the buffalo. When the bulls got into range, the one on the left turned broadside and fed away from the other. “Take a nice sight picture and shoot him,” Franz said, directing Geoff’s attention to the bull on the left. I quickly glanced at Geoff to check his posture and disposition. All looked good, his face in the scope, the rifle steady in the sticks.
Boom went the shot! “Reload,” I said instinctively. As Franz and I glassed to the front, the bulls were motionless, neither of them moving, both fully alert and staring in our direction. “Hit him again,” said Franz. Boom came the second shot! The bulls bolted from the open draw and plunged deep into the bush, disappearing in seconds. Minutes passed and all was quiet with nothing to indicate that the shots had been true. “How do you feel about your shots?” I asked Geoff, the emotional strain on him obvious. “I think they’re good. I shot him twice right in the middle.” I looked at Franz who returned a stare of doubt. “What do you mean, in the middle? In the middle of the shoulder?” I inquired. “No, in the middle of the buffalo,” was the response. In the middle meant but one thing, gut shot. “Geoff, couldn’t you see the shoulder? He was perfectly broadside,” I asked. “Yes, I could see it, but I was afraid I’d miss so I shot for the middle to make sure I hit him.” I could see a nervous expression upon his face. The moment had been too big for him and as a result, he had simply fired for the biggest part of the animal he could see. It is a big moment with fears of what could happen dominating an otherwise clear head. The result here with Geoff was likely an angry buffalo, one which Franz and I would have to sort out.
With our trackers in the lead, we took the track in the waning hour of last light. We both knew if we didn’t find the buffalo quickly, we would have a long day come tomorrow. After a few hundred yards and with light fading, we spotted a small drop of blood that had fallen from the beast upon a wilting leaf. I picked up the leaf and showed it to Geoff and explained that we would need to return at first light and begin what looked to be a long, tiring track. I could see a look of sadness come across his face as we turned and began to backtrack to the cruiser, darkness now enveloping the bush. It would be a quiet trip back to camp.
At 6am we were back at the spoor, daylight just breaking through the trees above us. Our trackers moved with speed, the spoor indicating a track reduced to the normal gait of walking buffalo. Hours and miles passed with little sign.
By 10am, Geoff began to suffer from his lack of fitness. He was hurting and our constant stops to allow him to recover were costing us valuable time. I pulled one of the trackers to carry Geoff’s rifle and stay with him if he lagged too far behind. We couldn’t leave him along the track, but we also couldn’t stop. A wounded buffalo must be found and dispatched. That is just the way of things.
At 11am the two bulls separated, the wounded buffalo taking a more southerly direction. We stayed on the track as Geoff’s face continued to grimace. “We are on your buffalo, Geoff,” I said in my best reassuring voice. “I know this is hard and you’re hurting. We are all hurting but this is the business of buffalo hunting. We must drive on.” Geoff took a drink from his quickly emptying water bottle and just shook his head. He was spent but at least determined to try and push on.
As the midday sun peaked, fresh blood appeared on the ground. We were close. While Franz and I were evaluating the spoor, Geoff spied a bit of blood off to the side of the track. “Here’s some blood!” he yelled. At the sound of Geoff’s thundering voice, the wounded buffalo, which had circled back on the track, emerged from a thicket, and moved with purpose towards us. Two shots from my double and two from Franz struck the buffalo and staggered the beast. We quickly reloaded as the buffalo fell to the ground, a bit of life still left in him. I moved to Geoff and directed him to the thrashing buffalo so that the finishing shots could be his.
An inspection of the downed buffalo showed that Geoff had indeed hit the beast with both initial shots, the two holes in the abdomen of the bull just inches apart, right in the middle. For Franz and me, it was all just another day afield pursuing buffalo.
Many of us would not want to deal with unprepared clients. Good African PHs are the most “professional hunters” I’ve ever been around. Patient, persistent, professional.
Great writing Ken. The tale shows how quickly the adrenaline and excitement can turn into disappointment and regret. Months, or years of anticipation and excitement are hard to contain at the moment of truth when a large slab of Buffalo is actually standing in front of you in range. Hopefully you put these stories into a binding someday so we can enjoy your writing in a book.
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