by Kevin Thomas
We’d been hunting Unit 5 in Matetsi for a number of days, Bill, my client, wanted a buffalo plus some other sundry plains game, it wasn’t long before a good waterbuck and a zebra were in the salt. Early in the safari too, on one of our first mid-morning zebra stalks, when we returned to the hunting rig, my one tracker pointed to the protruding branch of a tree and commented that I’d been ‘lucky’ – wrapped around the branch, and warming itself in the morning sun, was a black mamba – the tracker explained how, as Bill and I’d walked past the tree on our stalk, the snake had struck towards my shoulder, but because of it being coiled around the branch, it hadn’t had the length to reach me. It was also no doubt still lethargic due to the cold air. With the snake having been a mamba, I’d indeed been lucky.
From the safari’s start we’d repeatedly checked waterholes at first light and driven the management tracks, but there was no fresh buffalo sign, not even the spoor of an old arthritic dagga bull. Unit 4 to our east had been going through a quiet period and a change of safari operators holding the hunting rights, had led to a slight break in client flow. It was quickly becoming apparent that the buffalo herds on Unit 5 had left for quieter pastures in Unit 4.
Matetsi buffalo move freely between units, their nomadic wanderings largely dictated by water and grazing. Some lion prides specialise in killing buffalo and this pressure too, will occasionally chivvy a herd into moving from one unit to another. Hunting pressure by safari operators has the same effect, and Unit 5 had been experiencing back to back safaris. Eventually after fruitless days of trying to locate seemingly non-existent buffalo the atmosphere started getting a bit tense. It was uncanny for a normally productive area, and in sheer frustration at the elusive buffalo; an Ndebele tracker was heard to mutter ubuthakathi (witchcraft).
Not content to continue as we were, I got together with the amiable Ngamo Safaris camp manager, Tulani, and we decided on an alternate plan. We’d go to Katombora on the Zambezi River, west of Victoria Falls and hunt a buffalo there. At the start of the safari I’d undressed my Land Cruiser 2F and without the cab, doors and windscreen, the two hour drive to Katombora was going to be cold. Bill had his wife on safari with him, so we decided I’d leave forty-five minutes before them, and they’d follow with Tulani in his closed vehicle.
Very early next morning I departed with my two trackers and the game scout, it was a bone-chilling two hour drive, offset, however, by our seeing five dagga bulls standing in the bush right alongside the track, which enters the concession and parallels the Zambezi River. They’d been watering and grazing along the river during the night and were heading back inland. As we drove on we continued to come across plenty of buffalo sign, and after what we’d been experiencing in Unit 5 things looked positive.
Shortly after our arrival at Katombora camp, Tulani pulled in with Bill and his wife, and in the freezing morning air, we enjoyed a few cups of steaming coffee before getting down to some serious buffalo hunting. I was totally relaxed, so much so that I thought it would be a walk in the park and over within the hour – it didn’t quite turn out that way.
Returning to where we’d intercepted the dagga bulls, we left the vehicle and took up the spoor. In teak forests and jesse bush the going is heavy due to the loose sand, referred to as gusu by the Ndebele. It can best be likened to trudging along in dune sand and as the day warms up, it becomes exceedingly tiring if you’re not used to walking in it. The heavy leaf cover carpeting the ground also aggravates the situation because it is so noisy to walk on. Trying to do a close in stalk is nigh impossible if your quarry is resting or stationary, and in the close confines of the thickets sounds become magnified and carry.
Another problem when hunting the gusu is the wind, by mid-morning it tends to swirl and eddy – the slightest shift will carry our dread human scent to the buffalo and in a flash they’re gone. On this occasion, because there were two trackers, a forestry game scout, a client and his wife, plus myself, I ensured that Bill’s wife stayed some way behind us, under the watchful eye of the armed game scout, but not out of sight.
Tracking was easy; the five bulls had left a visual trail, their body weight leaving clear hoof imprints sculpted into the leaf cover and sand. The spoor was spread out as they ambled along line abreast deeper into heavy cover – five relaxed members of an old boys club. Because of bush density limiting our visibility, we frequently stopped, and listened and at one stop a tracker climbed a tree to see if any buffalo were visual to our front. Ahead of us the buffalo too, would be periodically stopping, turning and looking back, or facing their flanks, heads raised, beady eyes probing the shadows, nostrils searching for threatening scent molecules. Around us the smell of buffalo hung heavy in the air, a cocktail of sweat, dung, and urine, but a flick of the ash bag emitting a fine cloud of grey, was a visual assurance the slight breeze held good. Quietly we moved forwards, our eyes searching the bush across our 180º front, there was no birdsong, the bush was quiet, and occasionally a dung beetle flew by, bzzzzzzzzzzzz – and then silence once more.
Suddenly trackers Moyo and Ndlovu dropped to their haunches, we immediately followed suit. Ahead of us, about 70m out lying in a scattered circle were the five buffalo, they’d bedded down sooner than expected. From where we were I could only get a visual on two of them, one didn’t even warrant lifting my binoculars too, the other was hunkered down in grass and scrub facing away from us, dry scrub hid most of his body and we could only see one horn. It looked good but I needed to see the other, and the bosses. It wasn’t going to be easy, the breeze was picking up and I didn’t want to disturb the resting group. Signalling to the trackers to remain where they were, Bill and I began to leopard crawl towards the buffalo until about 35m separated us from the one bull. Quietly coming up to my knees I tried to see through the dense bush to our left and front – nothing. We again began to crawl forward, dry leaves scrunching, our focus on the only two buffalo we could see. Suddenly one of them heaved up onto his feet, facing us, nose held high – perhaps a wind eddy – it was enough, in a flash they were all up and gone.
You have to hunt the jesse thickets to appreciate the racket kicked up by fleeing buffalo, it’s an awesome sound, a bit like I’d imagine a freight train would make careening through the bush. Coming to our feet, we dusted off and stood listening to the receding noise, and after 20 minutes again took up the spoor, an exercise in futility because we couldn’t close with them, so I decided to hunt elsewhere then attempt to pick the bulls up later in the day.
Hunting hard, we drove the management tracks, there was ample sign of buffalo but nothing viable to follow, it was all old, crusted dung, dry urine patches, and spoor criss-crossed by bird, dung beetle, ant, and insect tracks. Mid afternoon found us back where we’d started in the morning. By this time the tension, heat, and frustrations, had got to all of us; we were being short and snappy with each other. Grimly determined, I told my trackers we had no option but to again follow the same group, failure would mean a long niggardly drive back to camp, and time was galloping on.
After two hours of solid tracking we once more bumped the five bulls. They were still in thick stuff, affording us limited visibility. Two stood broadside on, three were lying down. Although we were close, the brush once more screened their horns, the two broadside on had their heart/lung areas exposed, but it would have been unprofessional of me as a PH to let my client shoot, without knowing the trophy quality. It was getting late afternoon and given the extreme heat, I knew the buffalo would eventually start grazing towards the river, so I whispered to Bill that it’d be best if we crawled to a better position, and then waited for the buffalo to make their move.
Leaving the trackers, we crawled to the right which was nearly our undoing because we crawled onto the edge of an elephant cowherd, resting to one side of the buffalo. They were totally obscured and it was only the movement of a leg that indicated their presence. Backing off we waited, and watched, both the elephant and buffalo.
Suddenly as if on cue the three resting buffalo stood up, all we could see were bellies and legs, after one had vigorously thrashed a bush with his horns, they ambled off, grazing towards the river, and were soon lost to sight. Quietly skirting the elephant, we again moved to intercept the buffalo, a lot easier said than done, the sun too, had passed its zenith and although still extremely hot, the deepening shadow in the gusu was starting to complicate issues. Another worry was elephant cowherds; the place was suddenly saturated with them moving towards the Zambezi River. We continued to duck and weave our way through them, staying in the buffalo’s wake, the ash bag being shaken constantly.
One plus was that as the buffalo moved steadily towards the river, so too did the vegetation begin to thin out slightly. Eventually the buffalo slowed, and then spread out grazing. Leaving the trackers, Bill and I crawled to within 70m of the bulls, where we sat and waited, and then as they continued to graze, we slowly belly crawled closer. At about 40m and still hugging the ground, we glassed them, Bill using his scope and me my binoculars. Four of the bulls then moved across our front from left to right – straight into a herd of feeding cow elephant, and were quickly lost to sight.
Annoyed and frustrated, I was contemplating throwing in the towel, when the fifth buffalo stepped out from behind a bush, and stood perfectly presented in front of us. Without my binoculars, I could still see he was a shooter so I hurriedly whispered to Bill, who was already kneeling behind a tree, “Whack him!”
Whilst Bill was picking up the sight picture in his scope, a young elephant bull suddenly appeared from the left, and stopping near the buffalo, stretched out his trunk and gave the buffalo’s hindquarters a good sniffing! Not believing what we were seeing, I was also worried the buffalo would end up behind the elephant and be lost to view, so told Bill to immediately shoot, which he did. As the shot rang out, I saw the dust come away from the dagga bull’s shoulder, and amidst the dust and noise of fleeing buffalo and cow elephant, the young elephant bull hauled in his hindquarters and decamped trumpeting blue murder.
In its dying rush, Bill’s buffalo had covered about 35 paces before crumbling, and as we walked towards him we heard his death rattle. It had been a hard hunt and we were exhausted, but elated.