Buffalo, Jesse Bush & Sweat Bees
Buffalo, Jesse Bush & Sweat Bees
by Kevin Thomas
Driving through the Gokwe North region in Zimbabwe calls for an abnormal state of driver alertness – stray cattle, tired donkeys, goats, chickens, domesticated guinea fowl, and people, both young and old all lay claim to the narrow pot-holed strip of blacktop. Periodically, one passes old buses, invariably overloaded, belching diesel exhaust fumes and in a state of disrepair. I’ve grown used to the smell of the exhaust fumes, they’re as African as mopane trees and they bring back a kind of nostalgic longing for my boyhood again, much of it spent in Zimbabwe’s communal tribal areas. Zimbabwe is a country in chronic pain, ruled by a brutal regime kept in power by its regional cronies, but it is my country, and I have a deep abiding love for it.
Gokwe, referred to in Zimbabwe as a ‘growth point’ with its dense population was now far behind us, and I was pleased to be reaching the end of the 500km trip from Bulawayo to the safari camp which was essentially the last leg of a 2500km stretch that had started back at our current home in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province. It’s a long haul, but I look forward to crossing the border into Zimbabwe more and more because of its resonant remoteness and character of Africa in another time, something that South Africa, it seems, wants to escape from rather than embrace. Zimbabwe’s rural folk too, in my experience, are the friendliest on the continent.
I was travelling with contract tracker, Augustine Mpofu, who I knew of old, and when we stopped to buy some tomatoes and other vegetables from a roadside vendor, we were met with nothing but courtesy. Although about twenty eager women were soon trying to forcefully thrust their baskets of wares through the vehicle window, so I told Mpofu to get out of the vehicle and negotiate the purchases on the road verge. He promptly fobbed off the older women and began negotiating with a younger girl probably in her late teens, the underlying lust in the tracker’s eyes clear for all to see. It was more of a subtle flirting session than a haggling one, and when I chastised him and told him to hurry up, the young girl covered her face with her free hand, then looked away coyly and burst into a fit of giggles. Needless to say, Mpofu bought her basket of tomatoes.
At about 15:30hrs we finally reached the old bleached elephant skulls, which mark the safari camp turn-off, so we left the narrow pot-holed black top and drove onto the track leading to camp through an expansive jesse thicket. The heat was at about 40ºC and the smoke haze from bushfires hung heavy, severely limiting visibility from the escarpment down onto the tribal community below. September and October are hot months in Zimbabwe and not for those with a low heat tolerance. When we drove into camp, I found a jovial Mike Maganga, the camp manager, expecting me after Dudley Rogers, the owner of Tshabezi Safaris, had radioed ahead and notified the camp of our imminent arrival.
Gokwe North hunting area is a CAMPFIRE program (Communal Area Management Program for Indigenous Resources) and the Gokwe council have been in partnership with Tshabezi Safaris for about two decades now. I’d chosen to go into the area at least three days before my client, Bill Porteous, a commercial jet pilot arrived. He’d booked the hunt after being in contact with a magazine editor and hunting scribe colleague of mine, Tony Jackson. Tony put us in touch with each other and we’d planned it from there. The hunt was a 7-day buffalo deal with the option of a few plains game species too.
My only reason for wanting to get into the area ahead of Bill was because I’d thus far never hunted the Tshabezi Safaris concession. I’d hunted to the north of it, and on a more regular basis to the west in the Chirisa. As a PH it certainly doesn’t help any if you don’t know the area you’re going to hunt. By arriving in camp on 17 September, I was allowing myself three full days to scout the area before Bill arrived – ample time given the size of Gokwe North. My first evening in camp was spent relaxing, and having brought my own rations in from Bulawayo I got the camp cook to rustle me up a truly traditional Shona meal of sadza (Zimbabwe’s staple of stiff corn meal) and a brisket stew, together with some spinach and nyimo beans. The post sunset heat was stifling and dressed only in PT shorts; I washed the tasty meal down with a few bottles of ice cold Zambezi beer.
After an uncomfortable night spent tossing and turning whilst drenched in sweat, I awoke at 04:30hrs to a blistering dawn. There wasn’t an alleviating early breeze of any sort and the morning bird song was subdued, limited to red-eyed doves and grey-headed bush shrikes. Below the escarpment the tribal community was already awake, with roosters crowing and donkeys braying, and before the rising sun had burnt through the smoke haze, some of the hunting staff started to trickle in from their villages below. Wasting little time, I had a quick breakfast of tea and toast before leaving camp with resident tracker Getas, and Mpofu. After stopping at the council game scout station we were given clearance to go and recce the area in the Ume River valley.
Our drive in was through heavy gusu sand, and we initially passed a lot of tribal pedestrian traffic on their way to cut thatching grass. Much of the area was burnt. From the main Tshabezi camp to the Ume River is only a 20km drive but it is rugged country and calls for careful driving. As we got closer to the river we began to notice signs of elephant and a few indicators of buffalo presence albeit the already old tell-tale story of dry dung and wind-blown spoor. Suddenly as we came round a corner in the thick bush, we spotted four buffalo bulls off to the left, about 100m out, as they made their way from the floodplain up into the jesse thickets lying at a higher elevation. I hardly had a chance to bring my binoculars up to my eyes, before the four wily dagga bulls fled in a mad panic, their tails curled over their rumps. Even for a hunting area they were overtly spooked. Poaching pressure was no doubt the cause, but in our fleeting glimpse of them, I’d also seen that none went too big on spread, maybe 37” – but they all had good horn bosses.
We continued on our way until ultimately we were on the Ume River floodplain, a scenically beautiful place, with imposing trees, reed beds, and in some places, sandstone cliffs reaching right down to the edge of the sandy riverbed. We briefly glimpsed a Chobe bushbuck doe and fawn as they fled into the dense undergrowth. In the days ahead, I’d observe that the Chobe bushbuck is well represented in the area – wily survivors despite the threat posed by unscrupulous wire snare lines. We also saw a handful of waterbuck but no mature trophy bulls.
Parking the hunting rig in the shade of a huge acacia albida we left the young Batonka, Vusa Lunga, to mind the vehicle. I then gave my .375 H&H to tracker Mpofu, and running a shell into the .458 Lott chamber, checked the Mauser flag safety and then carried the Lott myself. In areas where uncontrolled poaching is endemic, hunters should always be alert to the possibility of the external threat that can come from a previously wounded buffalo or elephant, one that has a broken ¼” cable snare embedded in a limb, or around the neck, or a festering wound from a badly placed AK47 bullet. Eventually the extreme pain will drive the animal into killing mode, and any person venturing past a sulking, and brooding animal in that state, could have a high speed inbound problem on their hands.
Resident tracker Getas led the way and I’d previously explained to him that I wanted to walk along the Ume River, checking on frequented waterholes for fresh buffalo sign, and more particularly for sign of dagga bulls – groups or individuals. Initially we made our way to a waterhole out in the middle of the wide riverbed that proved to be in regular use by herds of buffalo and dagga bulls but the water was receding rapidly due to the time of the year and the heat. Water is readily available throughout the course of the Ume River during the dry season, and the river still flows in a meandering stream, for the main not wide or deep, but swiftly flowing nevertheless. Periodically there are pools, some knee-deep and full of small tilapia and catfish, a regular source of protein for the trackers and anti-poaching game scout teams – and of course life sustaining water for wildlife and people alike – in an otherwise unforgiving land.
Our walk took us a few hours, and satisfied with what I’d seen in that particular sector of the concession we were back at the vehicle and a smiling Vusa Lunga by noon. Because we were fairly close to it and due to my having previously been told about the Kausige ‘fly-camp’ by Dudley Rogers, who’d mentioned that it was in “… a state of disrepair”, I decided to spend our lunch break there, wait out the heat of the day and have a look at the place. I found Kausige camp to be in a stunning setting, a camp that evokes in one the feeling of a true African classical safari. The accommodations are exact Batonka style buildings – which mean they’re rude grass and mopane pole structures – with each ‘chalet’ as such, and the dining room, set above ground on stilts. The most apt description would be “extremely rustic”. Because of the setting, fronting the Ume River and in the shade of towering acacia albidas, I immediately decided that we’d hunt from this camp. It had an atmosphere of privacy and isolation that I liked.
Our afternoon recce took us across the Ume River and south towards the tribal communities. At one spring, its eye in a deep cutting in the sandstone, we found where a herd of buffalo had watered the previous evening, and then wandered into the jesse thickets covering the many ridgelines than run down towards the river. Eventually we found ourselves in an area where a brush fire had turned everything to cinder, many of the old mopane trees were still smouldering, of wildlife and birdlife there was no sign, so we turned back towards camp.
That evening as I chugged a cold Zambezi beer and sat staring at the flickering campfire, I pondered over what we’d seen during the day. Much of the concession had been burnt and due to the time of the year, most of the game was concentrated along the Ume River environs. Four days after Bill and I commenced hunting, two more clients and their PHs would enter the concession and I was concerned that the area and paucity of game wouldn’t be able to support three groups of hunters. There was only one solution, Bill and I had to find and kill his buffalo trophy in four days.
Bill’s arrival was scheduled for about 16:00hrs on 20 September and he was due to charter into camp from Bulawayo in Dudley’s Cessna 206, however at about 09:00hrs on that day, I was called to the radio where between horrific bouts of static, Dudley managed to inform me that due to a flight glitch Bill might only be able to make it into camp early on the morning of 21 September, but if Dudley could squeeze the flight in before last light on the 20th, he would. Because I’d decided the fly-camp was a better venue to hunt out of, we transported most of my gear and cooler boxes down to it and then went back to the main camp.
I spent the early afternoon shooting at paper with my .375 H&H, keen to check out the performance of the factory loaded .375 H&H PMP monolithic ammunition I’d bought. It was shooting perfectly. I’d hand loaded my .458 Lott using 475grn PMP Super monolithic bullets, in front of 83grns of S321 propellant. My choice of primers was CCI 250 Large Rifle Magnum and the brass was new unused Hornady. During my tests on the ammunition in South Africa I was totally satisfied with the performance, although aware too, because of possible pressure problems of the need not to let my ammunition be left lying around exposed for any prolonged period to Zimbabwe’s unrelenting September and October sun.
From 16:00hrs onwards we watched the sky and listened for the sound of an inbound 206 but by 17:00hrs I’d resigned myself to the fact that Bill would only be arriving on the 21st. That night I placed my camp mattress in the back of my Land Cruiser, reversed the rig into the slight breeze that had arisen, and dropped the tailgate. I had no intention of spending another sleepless night due to the suffocating heat inside the chalet I’d been allocated.
Early the next morning, my third in camp, I was awake from sun-up listening for the sound of a light aircraft. The trackers had loaded their meagre kit and bedrolls onto my rig, and we’d also placed a cooler-box well stocked with water and other goodies onto the vehicle, which I’d then parked next to the zeroing range bench on the edge of the airstrip. We’d also put up a target at 50m because when Bill arrived I didn’t want to waste time – we’d quickly check his rifle and then get hunting.
Eventually at about 07:45hrs we heard the 206 coming in from our south-west, it was flying fairly high and due to the heat haze, not easy to see until virtually over the camp. After banking and circling high above camp, Dudley then flew wide of the camp, circled back in, lost altitude quickly and approaching from the north touched down, and finally drew up in a cloud of propeller-driven red dust alongside my truck. I was surprised to see two passengers alight from the plane but introduced myself to both, one being Bill Porteous my client and the other Terry Pendleton a long time friend and regular client of Dudley’s. Coincidently, he too is an aviator and flies Boeing 757s for one of the big airlines in America.
Bill and I then hastily retrieved his gun case and luggage from the pod and cross- decked it to my truck. Leaving Dudley and Terry to get on with their chores, we uncased the rifle then Bill loaded a round and without further ado, sat down at the bench and placed the bullet straight into the centre of the target. After I’d remarked, “Let’s go hunting” we re-cased the gun, said our good-byes and departed. As things later turned out Terry stayed behind for his annual break whilst Dudley flew home, late evening would see him joining us in the fly-camp.
Bill was carrying a 1951 (pre 64) Winchester .375 H&H wearing a Leupold 1.75 – 6 x 32 on detachable Talley mounts. His ammunition of choice for the buffalo was factory loaded Remington 300grn Swift ‘A’ Frame – I couldn’t fault it. When Terry Pendleton later turned up at the fly-camp he showed us his rifle – a .585 GMA (Granite Mountain Arms). He was using 750grn Woodleigh bullets being propelled by 127grns of Reloader 15 topped up with 5grns of poly fibre. His primers were Federal 215 and he was getting 2050fps which is the same as the .577 Nitro Express. Terry’s gun weighs 13lbs and is built on a Magnum Mauser action, his offers for us to test fire it were diplomatically declined! I’m quite happy with my .375 H&H and my .458 Lott.
After unloading our remaining gear in camp, we hunted north along the Ume River floodplain and soon picked up spoor of a herd of buffalo that had come down from the high ground and disappeared into the impenetrable thickets of bush that dot the floodplain. We pussyfooted around on the fringes of the thickets and in the 8-foot grass and reeds that grow between these islands of tangled bush. Eventually we heard a buffalo grunt and then some brush breaking, but after further skulking around and not being able to see a damn thing due to the entwined mass of branches, undergrowth and greenery, I chose to call it off and wait until 16:00hrs by which time the buffalo should be feeding and would be easier to approach. I was concerned that if we blundered into and spooked them whilst they were resting, they’d flee back into the jesse thickets on the high ground.
By the time we got back to camp, it was 11:30hrs so we took things easy and had lunch at 13:00hrs then took a nap until 15:30hrs before going out again. Parking on the riverbank we left Vusa Lunga at the truck and walked across the riverbed to the waterhole we’d visited during my recce of the area. Much to our surprise, a buffalo herd had watered whilst we were napping, probably driven to it by the extreme heat.
We quickly took up the spoor and it led us across the river and onto a recent burn, already green with the new grass flush. The Ume River at this point forms a huge bend, almost like an oxbow so in order to keep the wind in our favour we crossed the burn and once more eventually arrived on the riverbank. Looking downstream we saw the buffalo herd strung out crossing the riverbed and heading into the jesse thickets above the fairly high bank. They were spread right across the riverbed from bank to bank, but were trudging along in single file, not bunched. I quickly glassed those in the riverbed for a bull but there were only cows visual. The herd was about 150m from us but it was going to be a tricky stalk because a bunch of baboons were messing around by the water near the bank the buffalo were going up. Baboons have extremely keen eyesight and don’t miss a thing.
Hurrying, we ducked through the thickets and reeds trying to get closer and hoping that a bull trailing the herd would move down into the riverbed. There was a huge sausage tree (Kigelia africana), named thus because of the heavy sausage shaped fruit, growing on the riverbank about 80m from where the buffalo were crossing and I wanted to get behind it with Bill. Just as we moved out of the thickets and into a slight depression between us and the tree, a bushbuck broke cover and with a loud bark ran straight towards the buffalo. Startled, they immediately galloped across the sand and disappeared into the jesse on the opposite bank, the baboons kicked up a hullabaloo and went with them. The buffalo had still not seen us.
We walked across to the sausage tree and stood glassing the opposite bank, but of buffalo there was no sign. By this time it was close to 17:45hrs and the day was on the wane when suddenly we heard buffalo in the reed beds to our east, they weren’t far and were possibly part of the group that had already crossed the river. Moving quickly, we went into the reeds and tried to close with them but were soon snookered by light and couldn’t see much except for the silhouettes of bushes and trees, due to the poor light it would have been almost impossible to shoot so we called it a day.
Our evening in camp was spent chatting and laughing over a few cold beers. We jokingly observed just how “rustic” the camp was, the only lights being tiny kerosene ones or candles! Terry joined us at the campfire and once dinner was ready we carefully negotiated our way up the mopane log Batonka steps into the dining room. Bill and I both enjoy a good wine with our meals, but the white that was produced when we requested it soon had both of us in fits of laughter. Zimbabwe has some good wines but if measured on a scale of 1 to 10, this one would score a minus. Although between us we finished it, before learning that it was the only bottle of white in camp! A night or two later we tried the only bottle of red in camp, but it was totally unpalatable. In July 2010 Bill will be hunting with me in South Africa so I’ve assured him we’ll make up for it and enjoy some superb wine whilst on the hunt.
The night was uneventful and from about 01:00hrs a leopard started vocalizing on the opposite bank, in the far distance too, a hyena whooped it up a few times then went quiet. Bushbuck barked throughout the night and the false dawn was heralded by the deep booming voice of a ground hornbill and the rising and falling liquid notes of the Senegal coucal. There’d been no respite from the clinging heat during the night.
Following a quick English breakfast of fried eggs, toast, and bacon we headed back to the reed beds where we’d left the buffalo the previous evening. By the time the sun was a visible red orb on the eastern horizon we were already in the reed beds and soon picked up the feeding buffalo. There were only about 15 of them and once we’d got to about 50m I opened the shooting sticks and set them up, then with Bill standing behind me we waited and glassed. The trackers had remained further back under a bush but could still see us. Slowly the buffalo group grazed past our position and moving in single file headed towards a dense thicket at the edge of the reeds, they were headed to bed down. Only one bull was mature and he went about 36” with 11” bosses, I felt we could do a lot better than that so we let them be. Bill had hunted buffalo twice before and since this hunt was his 60th birthday present to himself, he was hoping for a 40 incher, and because he’s such a fun guy to hunt with I really wanted to try and help him realise that want.
En-route back to camp, we saw some warthog and an elephant bull, then after driving through camp, we continued south then crossed the Ume River by vehicle before paralleling it for a few kilometres, until we eventually came to a dead end on the river bank. Leaving the vehicle in Vusa’s charge, we walked out into the centre of the dry riverbed and then headed upstream for about a kilometre.
The heat was something else and trudging along in the heavy loose sand didn’t help any. In the shimmering distance to our front there was a bend in the river and on the left, a low hill covered in green riverine vegetation. A fairly narrow stream of water meandered too and fro across the riverbed, but it was only when we neared the hill feature that we saw the hauntingly beautiful Shapa springs, an oasis surrounded by dry September bush. Water trickled out of a rock shelf in a number of places, the gurgling noise reminiscent of the proverbial ‘babbling brook’. The spring water fed a pond of about 30m in length and about 20m at its widest point. No deeper than about 1.5m it teemed with small catfish and tilapia, some of the latter not much smaller than my hand. Whilst we rested there absorbing the isolated beauty of the place, I longed for a fly rod, it would have been fun.
Rested, we continued hunting upstream from Shapa springs and found a buffalo herd’s day old spoor, we also saw a few Chobe bushbuck and scared a superb trophy. A bushbuck was high on Bill’s want list; he’d been trying for one for a number of years. Not far from where we’d surprised the bushbuck trophy we found fresh spoor of a 15 to 20 strong buffalo herd. We tracked them onto the river’s east bank where they’d headed up into the dense shrouded ridges so characteristic of the Gokwe North environs. It’s not easy to move quietly on these ridgelines covered with a carpet of pebbles that constantly click and scrunch under your feet when you’re walking. Four people can try and walk quietly but there’s still noise, and if a buffalo herd is resting, they’ll hear you.
We got to about 50m from them before an alert cow saw us and took the herd away in a noisy stampede. Our attempts at following them proved futile so at 12:30hrs and due to the extreme heat we slowly made our way back to the vehicle, then camp. At 16:00hrs we went north but found nothing. Terry was acting ‘camp manager’ so had returned to the main camp for the night. Bill and I drank a few cold beers, ate our dinner by the light of a kerosene lamp and then hit the sack fairly early; it’d been a long day.
On the third morning, we woke early and departed camp in the pre-dawn light. It was to be a repeat of the previous day, first we hunted north but found nothing, so once more crossed the river and after leaving the vehicle walked south past Shapa springs and into the area where we’d picked up tracks the previous day. It was still early, but we cut spoor of the herd where they’d exited some old cultivation and had walked downstream in the riverbed before turning inland and going back to where we’d spooked them on our last follow-up. Luckily, we had a strong wind blowing into our faces, which would help with our tracking exercise so without wasting time and bracing ourselves against the heat we again set out after the elusive buffalo herd.
About 2kms into the ridges, we heard the buffalo; they were ahead of us in a thicket. We went into super stalk mode and carefully crept forward, the pebble scrunching noise down a decibel or two, but nevertheless still there although muffled by the hunter friendly wind. One tracker dropped back, Getas stayed forward, and then whilst bent over at the waist three of us moved towards the buffalo, but we still couldn’t see them. We were moving up a ridge and were just about to crest it when Getas suddenly dropped to the ground. His frantic silent hand signals and wide open eyes told me the buffalo were close, very close. Silently grabbing the shooting sticks from him with my left hand, whilst holding the Lott in my right hand, I slowly straightened up to take a peek, with Bill close behind me, relaxed but ready.
As I peered over the ridge crest which was about my height, I was confronted by an old buffalo cows hindquarters, she was lying facing away from us and contentedly chewing the cud. She was so close that from our position, had I stretched out and taken a pace or two forwards, I may well have been able to prod her with the shooting sticks. Not being able to use my binoculars I froze and moved my eyes only from left to right, trying to see into the deep shadow the buffalo were resting in – they were at the highest level of the ridge, spread out under the jesse bushes.
Crouching down I leant towards Bill’s ear and whispered that the herd was to our immediate front, not 25 paces away, but that I couldn’t yet see a bull. Tracker Getas was still lying flat on his stomach to our left front, but he was watching me with bated breath. Bill nodded in acknowledgement of what I’d told him, so I slowly stood up once more and peered over the crest at the buffalo which were lying at eye level to our position. Slowly looking 180º to my right, I noticed a cow no further than 20m from us, if that. She was on her feet and looking straight at me with a quizzical look on her face as if she was about to say, “What the #@$% are you looking at?” – she never gave me a chance to answer, but suddenly swung to her right and took off in a hail of pebbles, bringing the resting herd to their feet in an instant before they too, took off after her, all that we were left with was a wild bovine smell, a cloud of dust, and the sound of stones flying and branches breaking as the buffalo departed the scene.
They didn’t run far as they weren’t really sure what they’d run away from, the wind was in our favour and one cow only had seen a human head suddenly appear as if out of the ground. We followed them for about another 2km but they were streetwise and wary, so it didn’t take them too much time before they had swung round and placed themselves downwind of us. By this time, we were closer to camp than we were to the vehicle and once more after another attempt at a stalk, we left them be, they had young calves with them and I’d only seen a single bull which I’d been unable to properly assess. On our walk back to the vehicle, we heard elephant trumpeting at a spring in a valley below us, and we finally got back to the truck on our chinstraps. It had been a long, hot hunt. When we got back to camp Bill and I both drank about 2lt of water with a few re- hydrate sachets dissolved in it.
At 16:00hrs we went north and then walked in a half circle away from and then back to the Ume River, we’d decided to have a break from buffalo hunting and look for a Chobe bushbuck. We found one but he was young and not yet a trophy. Later, whilst sitting resting in the shade on the riverbank we watched a cowherd of elephant wallowing and feeding, there were 5 of them, and then another herd of 6 appeared. Ultimately the light began to fade so we slowly made our way back to the rig, when we were about 60m from it we bumped into another elephant cowherd. Mpofu shouted at them and they split either side of the track, so we walked between the herd. Vusa was sitting on the rig watching a tuskless cow standing about 30m from the vehicle, head cocked and listening, but when we arrived she quietly moved off. On my next Zimbabwe safari I’d be looking for one like her.
Day four was no different to the previous three days, except we hunted the area more or less opposite camp on the east bank of the Ume, and in the early dawn light found fresh buffalo spoor and dung. Leaving the vehicle we tracked them into extremely high grass, much of it not yet burnt. We hadn’t followed them very far before we heard ox-peckers which caused the trackers to get excited and move quickly – too quickly – because we quite literally blundered into the grazing herd. They didn’t stampede but instead headed for the thick stuff, with a badly limping cow bringing up the rear, so we tried to cut them off, and during this exercise I caught a glimpse of a bull with a nice boss but he didn’t seem to have much spread – a trait I was finding common to the area.
Whilst we were trying to get ahead of them, they swung round in a circle and backtracked, forcing us to move onto a flank and ultimately up onto a low ridge on the edge of the floodplain where after glassing the dense thickets below us, we once more picked the herd up. They were standing motionless in a tight bunch, about 200m out, most of them gazing towards their back trail. Given the density of the bush they’d chosen to hide in, and the dryness of the September leaf cover under foot, it would have been impossible to close with them, and still try to identify then kill the only bull we’d seen in the group. For this reason we sat and watched them, until they eventually started to lie down, but we could only see females, so I decided to leave them be and return in the late afternoon when they’d once more start to move off and feed – but more importantly they would have settled again, and their adrenalin levels would have dropped after our morning intrusion into their lives.
Without wasting time, we quietly came off the ridge and walked back to the vehicle, then returned to camp and relaxed, we’d go back out and stalk the buffalo when they were feeding. It was only mid-morning but we had the buffalo in a good place for recovery after the kill, and it was already our fourth day with two more clients arriving in the area on the fifth day, which was less than 24-hours away. I’d discussed the horn spread issue with Bill and he accepted that we were in an area where 38” plus are no longer the norm. More importantly package hunts have a catch – if you don’t shoot the trophy there is no trophy fee refund – it is the name of the game with package hunting, there is no split between daily rates and trophy fees, reason enough for me not to like the package hunt concept.
At 16:00hrs we drove out of camp, crossed the river, and then left the vehicle in the same place we’d parked in the morning. Very quietly we walked north along the hunting track and then when near to where we’d left the buffalo, and with the wind in our favour, we stealthily moved into the deep shadow amongst the thickets, and in single file continued at a snail’s pace. A fleeing warthog caused us a bit of consternation, but all remained quiet although we knew we were within 100m of the buffalo herd. Throughout the entire four days of hunting, we’d been constantly pestered by swarms of sweat bees, and even in the deep shade there was no let up. With Kamikaze like persistence they’d fly into our eyes and ears, causing ongoing angst. Insect repellent just seemed to summon others to the party.
Suddenly tracker Mpofu who was in front hissed quietly through his teeth, “tsssssssss” whilst at the same time sinking to the ground, Bill and I followed suit. Getas and the council game scout had already dropped out about 50m behind us but I’d kept Mpofu with us because of his acute eyesight. To our left in deep cover and shadow, we could just make out the odd shape of a resting buffalo, they weren’t further than 40m from us but they remained dark forms and indistinct blurs. One cow was staring at us and she wasn’t lying down. There was nothing we could do aside from remaining motionless, or they’d be gone.
After about twenty minutes of crouched immobility, knees cramped, and persistent hordes of sweat bees crawling into our eyes and ears or clustering around our watches trying to get at the miniscule pools of perspiration beneath, we were nearing breaking point. However, there is little that you can do when a buffalo cow is staring daggers at you from about 40m away, and with a periodic shaking of her head, trying to get you to move, the sage old cow’s way of identifying the threat before once more leading the nervous herd away at a gallop through the jesse bush. I didn’t want that to happen, because we’d been experiencing it with the other small herds throughout the previous three days. Day four was coming to closure and we needed a kill badly, so we stayed put.
Eventually and after periodically peeping over the low bush behind which we were lying, we observed a few buffalo moving out of the cover towards the long grass. Immediately we crawled back in the direction from which we’d come, and once away from the immediate buffalo environs, we stood up and quickly made our way through the thickets in a wide arc, trying to get ahead of where we anticipated the buffalo would exit the bush. Time was galloping on as it was already 17:30 and the light was not the best, so we didn’t waste time but legged it through the brush until once more Mpofu suddenly froze, then sunk to the ground.
Ahead of us and about 60m out, just exiting the deep shadow was the buffalo herd. It was an ideal situation, they were slowly crossing our front from left to right, so grabbing the shooting sticks from the tracker, Bill and I moved a few paces forward and I opened the sticks. Without hesitating he went straight onto them, but our movement had attracted the attention of the lead cow – she froze then stood glaring at us. It was 17:45 and ignoring the watchful cow I stood directly behind Bill looking over his right shoulder and with my binoculars against my eyes, counted off the buffalo as they crossed our front. Suddenly, I whispered “There he is” as the bull appeared sixth in line and once free of the thick stuff, stopped and began to vigorously thrash his horns against a bush, his head periodically blocking the perfect shoulder shot. Bill waited and time stood still, fading light was my biggest worry, when suddenly the .375 H&H spoke and in acknowledgement of the .300grn Swift ‘A’ Frame, the buffalo dropped in his tracks, his loud death bellow accompanying him as he crashed to the ground. By the time we reached him he was dead.
Bill’s shot had gone slightly forward of where he’d aimed, not helped any by the buffalo thrashing its horns around, but it had hit the spinal cord immediately forward of the shoulder – the only shot other than a brain shot, that is not directly related to wound size. Normally, the larger the wound channel, the quicker the animal dies, because that is exactly what expanding bullets are designed to do. However, with the brain shot and the spinal cord shot just forward of the shoulder, death is instantaneous, but this latter shot is not one I normally recommend because if it misses the spinal chord, problems can arise. Bill himself, remarked that it was forward of where he thought he was aiming – poor light too, when you’re shooting at a black blob doesn’t help any.
By the time we eventually got back to camp with the buffalo, it was 20:45hrs but we were elated; our mission was more or less complete although there was still a Chobe bushbuck to get, but it was an add-on to the 7-day buffalo package. Bill’s buffalo went just over 36” on spread, which was below what both he and I had been looking for, but it did go 16” on the bosses which more than compensated for the lack of spread – more importantly it was a superb classical hunt, with all of the ingredients that make Bill’s 36” buffalo a noble trophy indeed. We’d had to work extremely hard for him.
On the fifth day, we took things easy and in the morning after a leisurely breakfast walked back upstream from the Shapa spring to try and find the trophy Chobe bushbuck we’d spooked earlier on in the safari. We sat in a reed bed opposite where he’d been feeding on the velvety maroon coloured flowers of a sausage tree, growing on the bank amidst other extremely thick riverine bush. After about two hours the one tracker gave a shrill whistle and pointed back downstream. The wily bushbuck trophy – indeed a trophy of note – was moving at high speed across the riverbed towards the east bank. He was about 350m from us, in the direction of Shapa spring. We went towards the east bank and I got the trackers to do a slow drive through the bush, in the hopes the bushbuck would flush and again try and cross the sandy riverbed. It didn’t work so by 11:30hrs we were back in camp.
Not long after we got back to camp, PHs Clinton Rogers and Monty Jenkinson arrived in camp with their clients out of Bend, Oregon. It was the hottest day we’d thus far experienced on the hunt and the newly arrived clients were feeling it. We all sat around and chatted, and for lunch Bill and I ate his buffalo tail in a stew exquisitely prepared by camp cook Chuma. At 13:20hrs with the heat like a furnace, I suggested to Bill that we go and look for a bushbuck, like kudu they’re often out in the hottest midday heat. We lucked out, about 1km from camp on the opposite side of the river; a quality bushbuck ram was courting a ewe. Shooting off the sticks and using his .375 H&H, Bill dropped it with a single shot at 235m – it went a solid 15” with 6” bases. He’d been trying for a bushbuck for about six years so it was a great end to a fun but hard hunt.
With two days to spare, we moved to the main camp after shooting the bushbuck, and early on the morning of the sixth day headed back to Bulawayo, Bill chose to drive back with me rather than charter. After a night in Bulawayo, he caught his connection to Johannesburg and onwards, and I started the long journey home.