Buffalo in the Chete
Buffalo in the Chete
by Kevin Thomas
Chete Safari Area holds fond memories for me, and I’ve always ranked it as one of my favourite safari venues – probably because it is rugged, remote, and challenging. It is a safari concession that can produce for both client and PH alike but the price can be high, for the Chete is unforgiving on those not prepared to hunt hard physically, and not doing so could lead to disappointment.
Brian and Kathy Spradling from Denver, Colorado, opted to drive with me from Bulawayo to Chete – it is a long drive and the final 100 plus kilometres are on a rough dirt road. However at that time, it was their first trip to Africa and the tribal landscape of Batonka villages, unchanged for centuries, plus the scenic beauty of that part of Zimbabwe held them enthralled.
Eventually though the villages disappeared and the mopane woodland gave way to mopane scrub, dry, dusty and devoid of moisture in the dying months of a Zimbabwe winter. Across the countryside the haze was thick and dirty grey, brush fires still burned uncontrolled between scattered villages, while ubiquitous fork tailed drongos and yellow-billed kites hawked flame escaping insects, as gusts of wind lifted the red choking dust, and merged it with the dirty smoke, the mix tinged with the scent of burning wood and dry grass drifting across the vehicle hood and windshield as we passed by.
Ultimately after crashing and banging our way across the washboards and with the late afternoon light fading, we turned north into the Chete proper and as we did so, a last flurry of dusty pot-bellied 9 and 10 year old Batonka herd boys hustled their malnourished cattle across the road right in front of the vehicle. From then on and cloaked in the gloom of the rapidly fading evening light, we were free of humanity and finally in the wilderness that is Chete.
Distance in Africa can be deceiving at the best of times and worse at night, we hadn’t gone very far when in the distance we saw an array of dancing and flickering lights, not unlike twinkling stars hanging low on the far horizon. If there hadn’t been so many the distant lights could well have passed for safari camp lights or a National Parks department field HQ, but the Africa of today has changed. They were the lights from the kapenta rigs in and around the Chete Gorge.
Kapenta are freshwater Lake Tanganyika sardines (Limnothrissa miodon) and were introduced into Lake Kariba circa 1967/68. Living in depths of 20 – 35 metres they form large shoals which rise in the water column and disperse at night, before descending again at daylight. Kapenta form an important commercial fish species on Lake Kariba, where up to 25,000 tonnes per annum may be harvested by boats deploying lift nets with lights at night.
Due to the distance we were from the lake and because the darkness had slowed our journey, it was a good hour after we’d first seen the lights that we finally arrived at the warden’s office and HQ, after I’d inadvertently taken the wrong turning. A jovial game scout then gave us final directions into camp by saying in his quaint African Zimbabwean English accent, “Go right and go right again, but whatever, never ever, ever go left!” Heeding his warning about not going left, we were soon in camp being met by doyen Zimbabwean PH Roy Vincent, and his charming wife Rene.
Knowing that we were a bit tired and travel wary Roy took us straight to our accommodations, where I left Brian and Kathy at their chalet before I moved off to supervise the unloading of my rig and to sort out our luggage plus my hunting crew. Not long after, we were enjoying cocktails round the campfire, followed by an excellent dinner and then bed.
Africa’s nocturnal bush sounds in Chete Gorge Camp are punctuated by the throbbing of donkey engines aboard the kapenta rigs in the gorge, and out on the lake, however it is not an annoying or intrusive sound, just constant background noise. Overriding this though, we had a hyena singing his song of hunger and woe throughout the night, as he meandered in his slovenly hyena shuffle too and fro in the bush surrounding the skinning sheds.
As soon as the predawn light nudged the birdlife around camp into song we were up and about. Sitting by the fire enjoying coffee and toast we looked down into the dark of the gorge, its waters lay quiet and still, the kapenta rigs having moved off to unload their catch at the mother ship.
After a second mug of coffee and more hot toast covered in melting butter, we busied ourselves getting ready for the day that lay ahead. Brian is physically fit for his age and hunts a lot in the US a product of the Marine Corps and with Vietnam service, he and I would soon form a solid friendship, and this first safari to Africa certainly wouldn’t be his last, for by the end the African bug had bitten.
Because we were scheduled to be hunting buffalo and plains game, Brian had brought with him for the plains game species a.330 Dakota using 275gr Swift A-Frame bullets. On the range prior to coming to Africa he was shooting sub-minute of angle groups with the 275gr bullet at 2625fps. The rifle was on a Ruger Mk II action with a custom 25” medium weight fluted barrel, and it was dressed with a Weaver V-10 (2-10x). The .330 Dakota had originally been a .338 Winchester Magnum and Brian had got Riflemaker David Sullivan to re-barrel it to .330 Dakota.
His choice for buffalo was Ruger #1H single shot in .416 Rigby using 400gr Swift A-Frame bullets, and this excellent rifle was wearing a fixed x4 power scope. Arriving at the range we didn’t waste too much time there, Brian used one round for each calibre and the imprints on target couldn’t have been improved on, it was time to get hunting.
As previously mentioned Chete is a challenging place to hunt, and we’d only been allocated five days to shoot our buffalo. It sounds like ample time and normally is if you hunt hard, however, it doesn’t allow too much time for you to glass and then pass up countless bulls in search of a really big trophy. So unless luck is on your side, if you find anything with a 38” plus spread and a good boss you take it, even if on the first day.
Buffalo hunting can be time consuming and tedious because in areas where they are heavily hunted they are indeed wary animals, and take to watering and feeding during the very early pre-dawn hours or after the onset of darkness. In between they travel long distances led by a battle wise old cow, and during the heat of the day bed down in the densest jesse thickets they can find, often atop shale ridgelines where they lie in a scattered circle preferably downwind of any likely approach.
Chete is blessed with a number of long drainage lines between the rugged jesse shrouded shale ridgelines, and in addition two fairly large rivers, the Senkwe to the west and the Lwizilukulu to the east drain into Chete Safari Area, after rising way to the south high up in the Chizarira plateau. Meandering north through broken and inhospitable country they gradually widen their approach to Lake Kariba until they ultimately drain into the lake. Both form havens for extremely large crocodile and are important breeding sanctuaries for this species on the lake’s central basin.
Along the drainage systems that feed into these two rivers natural springs are a common feature, with some of the better known being Chifumbi, Kabusansa and Karirunge. Another, the Kasikiri flows directly into the lake. Although divided by management tracks and cut lines Chete is certainly no vehicle hunting venue, brush density allows little to be seen from a vehicle. The daily buffalo hunting routine as with most big concessions is to depart camp at first light (the legal limit) and slowly traverse these cut lines in search of viable buffalo spoor. While doing this the many springs are also visited and checked for spoor.
In Chete as is the case elsewhere, buffalo are normally found in breeding herds, or bachelor groupings comprising adult bulls of varying ages, and solitary old ‘dagga’ bulls. Bachelor groupings seldom number more than about seven individuals and are always fun to hunt, during the early 1980s and into the late 1990s, after a night’s feeding and watering, they were typically confident, unhurried, and fairly easy to track. Now days they’re still confident but a lot wiser and unless one is lucky, are seldom caught unawares during a hunt. Quite simply a combination of hunting pressure and since Zimbabwe’s downslide post 2000, tribal poaching and National Parks departmental overshoot are the reasons for this more alert attitude to life; survivability is after all what it is about.
Hunting buffalo breeding herds is also a popular option, but I’ve always found that in buffalo culture it is the cows who are the alert ones, far more so than the relatively laid back bulls. Getting close to a cow herd undetected calls for a high level of bushcraft and hunting skills, and the ideal technique if wind and cover allow is to get into the front of a moving herd, and then wait in cover, and let them feed onto you. By late September though, looking for a good trophy bull in a breeding herd can also become problematic because seemingly the prime mature trophy bulls often leave the herd. Thus, after a hot, long, and tiring stalk, one only finds underage non-trophy ‘green’ boss bulls – frustrating.
Finally, the other option for hunting buffalo is to find the fresh soup plate size tracks of a solitary, cantankerous, myopic, worm infested, and arthritic old dagga bull in his twilight years. Hunting solitary old bulls can be tremendous fun due to their attitude, and the incredible places they seem to lie up in. Over the years too I’ve often found them in thick jesse on top of almost inaccessible ridge lines, the post hunt recovery proving more difficult than the hunt itself. However, and despite the fun that solitary dagga bulls afford, one must be cautious if time is a limitation because due to their very age, a solitary dagga bull won’t always be carrying that dream set of horns. Often he may have worn his horns down to nothing other than the boss – leading some of my PH colleagues to refer to a buffalo like that as “The Judge” – the buffalo boss looking like the wig high court judges wear. Alternatively, he may only posses a single horn with the tip broomed right back, the other horn having broken off years prior and over time worn down to the boss.
All of these buffalo hunt scenarios I’d discussed with Brian and Kathy on the long drive into Chete, and they’d quickly fallen in with the game plan and from day one we hunted hard, getting up in the pre-dawn dark and often only getting back into camp in the late evening. Many hours were spent on spoor and the days were long and hot, often, sweat bees annoyingly shrouded us in a moving black veil, and we’d close with buffalo only to then find there was nothing worth shooting. On other occasions we didn’t even close with buffalo but not from lack of trying. The tracking would go on for hours, heat and dust a constant although unwelcome companion. There were also times when we’d get back to the vehicle dog tired before crashing and banging our way back to camp.
Sometimes while hunting we’d skirt a cowherd of elephant and use this as a welcome break, to rest and give Kathy a chance to film a bit of video footage. On the third afternoon as we quietly made our way down a drainage line, I heard the distinct sound of splashing, gentle but audible in the stillness, a kind of lapping, so moving forward and peeping over the edge of low cliff, I was intrigued to see a huge male leopard relaxed and drinking water at the pool’s edge. As soon as he detected our presence he loped off for about thirty paces, then stopped and glared back at us with typical leopard loathing before disappearing into the long grass.
Earlier that morning we’d got onto spoor of a fairly large buffalo herd, and my trackers like eager hounds on scent were keen to let slip, so we took it up. The hours passed, with the heat building up and the morning breeze beginning to lose its consistency, becoming instead, our aggravator, swirling in all directions and leading me to inwardly curse. Suddenly, the trackers as one dropped to their haunches, Lucky Ndlovu to my immediate front silently indicated with hand sign into the long grass slightly to our left front. As he did so the acrid wild bovine smell, that distinctive windblown signature of buffalo carried to our nostrils on a sudden wind eddy.
Brian was kneeling to my left, to our rear Kathy was hunkered down next to the National Parks game scout, and they were fairly well back. Rising up slightly I could just make out the forms of the buffalo through the gently swaying grass, reddish and dark brown, giving way to dark black and grey of older individuals, the curve of a horn, or a knee just visual. A number of them were lying down and I could also make out numerous sub-adults and calves in the group – would there be a trophy bull amongst them? I was still pondering the question when a vagrant wind eddy carried our dread human scent to them. With a sudden loud crashing of brush and breaking branches, they thundered off as one, rocking bodies, heaving flanks, curled up tails, and choking dust.
We followed in their wake and managed to close with the herd twice more but there were no shooters, so we took the long walk back to the rig, sweat bees and myriads of houseflies accompanied us, seemingly gloating over our lack of success. Back at camp, we’d had brunch and then a siesta but day four was rapidly looming and with Brian having come to Africa for a buffalo as his priority trophy, we knew we’d only had five days allocated to complete the task, before changing areas for the remaining plains game. That evening following an early dinner, we relaxed by the campfire swapping hunting yarns, before hitting the sack. Time was starting to turn against us.
The dawn of day four was once more heralded by the eerie song of a hungry hyena bidding his ally the night farewell, his song of woe spoke of his hunger, and seemingly his disillusionment, before he finally fell silent. We left camp in the pre dawn dark, the trackers grimly determined and not far south of camp, on a secondary track in the vicinity of the Kasikiri River we intercepted a large herd of buffalo. They were moving slowly westwards, unhurried, grazing, and spread out, a number of them lifted their heads with nostrils glistening as they looked our way with utter disdain bordering on contempt. It was a mixed herd, cows, calves, sub-adults, immature bulls, a scattering of breeding bulls and a few arthritic old dagga bulls tagging along – no doubt having joined them at the watering point for a brief bit of socialising, before once more wandering off for a solitary sulk.
When we’d initially intercepted the herd their numbers were about evenly split either side of the cutline, those closest to the rig lumbered off and amongst them were some good looking bulls, so having hesitated momentarily I drove on through the herd – there were a lot of buffalo, and it felt good, the adrenalin was on the rise. Our axis was roughly north south but after having driven about 300 metres we hit another cutline, so we swung west, the direction the buffalo were headed and then we drove about 1km before we stopped and I killed the engine – then we just sat quietly – listening.
Tracker Lucky who’d been sitting on the rig’s side rails gave a quick flick of the ash bag and thankfully the gentle breeze was in our favour. Suddenly we heard calves calling, followed by communicative bellows and lowing; things were starting to fall into place. Without further ado Brian ran a shell into the chamber on his Ruger before we headed straight into the brush at right angles to the cutline. My plan was to get directly in front of the spread out herd and then sit down behind some scrub mopane to wait for them.
Buffalo move quickly and with daylight not being their ally in a hunting concession, they cover a lot of ground when feeding, particularly so when they’re moving towards a rest area. With this in mind we hurriedly ducked and weaved through the scrub mopane and shale covered eroded areas, all the while the grunting and coughing of the lead elements of the buffalo herd drew closer – they were almost onto us – and we still hadn’t found a suitable place to hunker down and ambush them.
We left Kathy and the game scout with my second tracker Moyo on a rise near a donga, and while she sat down wide-eyed clutching her camcorder, Brian, Lucky and I sprinted across an open area of red clay and shale and quickly dove into a scraggy patch of scrub mopane, just as the leading members of the herd hove into view, including the leathery old lead cow. Long passed breeding she was almost devoid of hair and covered in dry mud. As she moved forward her moist uplifted nostrils constantly probed and deciphered the scent molecules carried on the wind, her tired old eyes deep sunken in mud encrusted sockets never stilled for one minute.
Brian, Lucky and I lay prone with my main concern being that the rapidly approaching herd, spread out across a wide front would pick up Kathy and the game scout. Buffalo were everywhere we looked and in next to no time the lead group were grazing all around us, although steadily moving forward, the sheer herd weight keeping up the forward momentum. Hungrily I sought a suitable trophy, but in next to no time there were buffalo behind us and past our flanks and yet no decent trophy bull was within sight. One can’t lie around in the middle of a buffalo herd undetected; the cows miss nothing, and particularly so those with dependent calves. Bulls on the other hand just seem to plod along contentedly, and only get their act together when danger actually threatens.
A solitary old cow grazing to and fro across our front eventually worked her way right up to us. Lucky hugged the ground face down, as I lay on my back with my feet towards the approaching cow, Brian was lying prone to my left. Without seeing us she came on until she was mere feet away, before some sixth sense caused her to stop and peer intently at our huddled forms. Suddenly she lifted her nostrils and craning her neck towards us attempted to decipher our scent, with the wind in our favour it didn’t work but her sage old eyes conveyed a different message.
What she’d initially thought was a stump, was certainly no stump and as this dawned on her she was galvanized into action, snorting loudly before barrelling sideways, sand flying in all directions from her worn old hooves. Her actions caused a ripple of uncertainty to spread through the lead elements of the herd and as we lay frozen in our meagre cover, they stood in a semi-circle staring our way and trying to figure out what the problem was. The wiser ones then began to wander off but not in panic, and still there was no trophy bull in sight.
Despite this development buffalo towards the back of the herd still kept moving towards us, totally nonplussed, and by this time too, there were buffalo between us and Kathy and the game scout. As I lay pondering the wisdom of my leaving Kathy on her own to our rear with an AK47 armed game scout, and an unarmed tracker, a patch of dense scrub to our front suddenly opened and there he was.
He stood staring our way head held high and offering a perfect frontal heart shot, the distinctive V where his neck became chest was clearly defined, and his choice of ground to stop in was clear of any obstacles, or other buffalo. Quickly hand signalling to Brian I began to crawl towards a small patch of waist high scrub between us and the buffalo, Brian too, went straight into leopard crawl mode with his rifle cradled across his forearms. With a group of buffalo to our rear already suspicious of us and the confusion coupled to alarm starting to spread, I had no time to grab the shooting sticks from Lucky, and even if I had, coming up to full height to use them would have compromised us immediately.
Stepping forward the bull glared our way then shook his head vigorously – he was suspicious of us and trying to get us to move, so that he could work out what we were. While he was doing the head shake challenge, we froze, but time was running out and I was concerned he’d suddenly spin through 180º and disappear into the foliage he’d so recently stepped out of. If we were forced into following the herd again, it would turn into a difficult hunt because they’d be adrenalin charged and alert.
Willing the bull to remain where he was I slowly rose up onto my knees before quietly tapping my left shoulder. Brian instinctively came up into position and slowly slid the .416 onto my shoulder, thereafter taking mere seconds to get settled. Sucking in a deep breath I held as still as possible, the buffalo meantime, lifted his head higher, before giving it another vigorous shake. Brian didn’t waste time and with the .416 Rigby shot still loud in our ears, the buffalo heaved forward, he was about 40 paces to our front, then he stumbled before spinning through 180º and with hunched shoulders lurched back into the thick stuff, disappearing from sight. As Brian and I stood up he hurriedly reloaded at the same time mouthing a clearly audible “Whew!”
As a beaming Lucky moved forward to join us the surrounding bush came alive with panicked buffalo fleeing, so I shouted to Kathy and the game scout plus my other tracker Moyo, to remain where they were until the herd had moved off. The noise was indescribable, sounding not unlike an out of control 20-ton rig crashing through the brush, the dust rose up and hung like a cloud above the scrub, horns crashed together, as cows bellowed and young calves chirped. Upon hearing the shot the herd had split, with those to our front wheeling and backtracking in the direction they’d approached from. Suddenly, all was quiet, the relative stillness periodically punctuated by a buffalo’s signature burp cum cough, as the dust too, slowly dissipated, leaving us with nothing more than a wild bovine smell clinging to our nostrils.
Brian felt good about his shot, always a good sign for a PH so I decided to consolidate, calling Kathy and the game scout forward with my remaining tracker, before Brian, Lucky and I ventured into the thicket along the spoor of our buffalo.
Initially we moved forward to where the buffalo had been standing when Brian had taken his shot, and on the tracks exiting the open ground we found blood – good blood, and lots of it. However, looking to our front visibility was zero; it was just a wall of green leafed saplings with an uninviting air about it. Under those kinds of circumstances one gets to like standing in open ground, even if it’s only a tiny patch. Open ground allows for quick manoeuvrability when hunting dangerous game, moving away from it into thick cover bent over at the waist and clearing the way with your rifle barrel, goes against human nature – particularly so if there’s a chance you might end up with an angry buffalo hanging on the end of the barrel.
Although by then about twenty minutes had passed since the shot, we’d heard no “death rattle”, this was not unusual and over the previous two seasons I’d only had one buffalo expire after bellowing his death lament. We waited another ten minutes and then gingerly made our way into the thicket. Lucky moved along the blood spoor ahead of me by about eight paces, this would allow him time to duck out of the way in the event of a charge. Keeping a tracker too close can end up with him spinning round and slamming into you, and with both of you in a heap on the ground, any inbound buffalo would have a field day.
Brian was a pace or two off to my left, if the buffalo was lying wounded; I wanted him to do the killing. It was after all his trophy and he’d come a long distance at great cost to collect it. PHs backing clients is a hotly debated issue and on safari I try to avoid using my rifle unless my staff or the client’s life is threatened, although having said that, it is the prerogative of the PH when to shoot and when not to shoot, a fine line to walk and the handling of which only really comes with experience.
With the thicket starting to thin out and after we’d gone into it for about 30 paces we had no cause for further concern. The buffalo was laying hull down facing his back trail, he’d once more turned through 180º and in his dying moments filled with fury, silently awaited his aggressors. Blood foamed from his nostrils and after tossing a stick his way we approached this most tenacious of all African trophies, with old habits forcing me to circle the still form and then approach down the length of the body until I could prod the dulled eye with my rifle barrel. Brian’s trophy was a fine 40” buffalo, and after hollering to Kathy and the rest of the crew it didn’t take long for them to join us, where under the azure sky of northern Zimbabwe, we celebrated with our cameras the taking of such a magnificent trophy.
He was an old dagga bull who had no doubt been enjoying the company of the herd, his back bore the scars of previous tussles with lion, and his ears were ripped and scarred. Just as noble in death as he had been in life, he took those stories away with him to that place in the sky where the buffalo spirits dwell. Brian’s 400gr Swift A-Frame had driven through the buffalo’s heart and lungs before lodging in the paunch where we recovered it.