A Buffalo, A Bullet & A Bushman Tracker

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  1. Ron Thomson

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    A Buffalo, A Bullet & A Bushman Tracker

    Rhodesia: 1961

    Ron Thomson was a government game ranger in Rhodesia & Zimbabwe for 24 years (1959-1983). This is the first in a series of his most extraordinary big game hunting stories.

    In 1961, I was a young game ranger stationed at Main Camp, Hwange National Park, in what was then Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. That year, after decades of buying beef from a nearby farm butchery, we started to shoot two buffalo bulls a week, in the park, for labour rations. It was one of my many tasks to shoot these animals.

    After the rains broke that year I set out one morning to collect the week’s meat ration from the teak forest areas near the little town of Dett on the park boundary. Four Busman trackers came with me to help load the carcasses onto the back of the government Land Rover.

    The leaf cover was thick, and we walked right into the middle of the seven bulls we had been tracking all morning. They were resting, bedded down, basking in the morning sun. They were just as surprised as we were by the unexpected encounter.

    I had hoped to find a buffalo bull standing broadside on to me that morning - a quite normal occurrence – and had a 510-grain soft-nose bullet up the spout of my brand new .458 Magnum rifle. The calibre was new to the Main Camp staff, and my colleagues wanted to know what the formidable-looking soft-nose would do to a buffalo. My job was to test it out.

    Scenting us, but not knowing where we were located, the buffalo got up and ran every which way. One of them stampeded straight at us and, at a range of just ten paces, I put the soft-nose bullet into the bridge of its nose. I had no other option. It went down as if pole-axed.

    Pandemonium followed. In the turmoil, the buffalo I had hit got up and took off with the others. We followed them for hours, picking up blood droplets all along the way – pools of it where they stopped to rest. They ran with the wind, so we flushed them many times without ever seeing them – or them us. They didn’t wait for an invitation to keep going.

    The first time they stopped, they had travelled only one mile before turning to face their back trail, looking and listening for sign of pursuit. After that they ran for five miles before stopping again. I then knew these buffalo had been hunted before.

    Determined to get the wounded buffalo, we pushed on, Sumbe, the head Bushman tracker of the group, never losing the tracks for a moment. Silence was of the essence and, since two people made less noise than five, I instructed the other three trackers to follow on our tracks, and to keep well to the rear.

    We flushed those buffaloes many, many times that morning. Gradually, the intervals between our contacts got shorter and shorter. The big bulls were getting tired.

    Then for the first time in hours, I got a glimpse of their black bodies. My heart beat faster. But one wary old bull saw us and, with a loud “whoosh,” he turned and galloped off. The others followed.

    They ran for a mile before we caught up with them again. Again they got our wind and galloped off unseen. This performance was repeated half-a-mile farther on. I could feel their tiredness. This egged me on. I wanted that wounded animal dead.

    The big bulls were also getting agitated. THAT feeling was in the air, too. Sensing my quarry’s mood was an instinct I was to hone to a “T” in the years ahead. It later saved my life on many an occasion. But although my experience was still very raw then, a prodding sixth sense told me a charge was imminent.

    Ahead of us in the thick teak scrub, we heard the oxpeckers chattering. The soft churring sounds made by the little brown birds as they fossicked over the buffaloes’ bodies looking for ticks, was a dead give away. The birds became the focus of our attention.

    The tracks at our feet were fresh, but we knew the oxpeckers were on the buffalo. We walked directly towards them, looking carefully at each black mass in the bush ahead that might prove to be a buffalo.

    The herd was now walking tiredly ahead of us, pushing resolutely through the thick bush, trying to put distance between themselves and their pursuers. They got our wind and ran off. Following the tracks, half-a-mile further on we again heard the oxpeckers, and stopped and listened.

    A hundred yards ahead of us, we could hear the buffalo – the stiff brush scraping against tough hide, the odd snapping of a dead stick underfoot, the rustle of leaves, a soft “clut” sound when two horns connected.

    They had turned and were now walking obliquely across the wind, back towards Dett. “At last,” I thought, “Now we’ll have a chance of getting in close enough to find our target.”

    A spot of fresh blood adhered to a dried leaf at our feet. Sumbe gestured to it with eyebrows raised, eyes lowered, and with a nod of his head. Our wounded friend was still with the group.

    We abandoned the tracks and walked fast towards the sounds made by the moving buffaloes, and the incessant twittering of the oxpeckers.

    Sumbe was two paces in front of me, walking fast but silently. He canvassed the bushes ahead with experienced eyes. Behind him I, too, searched ahead for any sign of the buffaloes, my ears attuned to every sound. Holding my rifle in both hands at the ready, a 500-grain solid bullet was now up the spout. The safety catch was on half-cock – a quick release function of the Mauser action. I was prepared, I thought, for anything.

    Suddenly everything changed. What happened next seem to happen in slow motion but in reality it occurred with lightening-speed.

    The tracker stopped abruptly. He glanced halfway around to his right. For a brief moment he looked hard and fast at a point slightly behind my right shoulder. His eyes grew to the size of saucers. Then he turned and took off, running like a hare.

    I had only half turned, swinging my rifle to the right, when a loud, guttural grunt flooded my senses. It was a sound that I came to dread. It is the sound of coming death.

    Out of the corner of my eye - just five yards away – I saw a huge buffalo bull erupting from the bushes. Its dark bloodshot eyes were focused directly upon me. It had been standing there, well hidden, unmoving, silent, awaiting our approach. There was no doubt: It had heard us; it had seen us. It had had enough of being pushed from pillar to post all morning. So it had waited for us in ambush. It was angry, and I knew its intent was to kill me.

    In one lurching rush the buffalo was in a full-blown charge. I had just time enough to swing my rifle, at waist height, in the direction of the rushing animal. My thumb released the safety. When I pulled the trigger mere feet separated the muzzle from the buffalo’s nose.

    The rifle kicked back and upwards, and I flung myself backwards, falling as the huge boss of the beast lowered to hit me.

    The heavy bullet hit the animal square in the chest. It had no effect. The buffalo came on as if nothing had happened. It hooked with its left horn, the tip racing towards my right armpit. My rifle, at this stage, was still gripped in both my hands, but it was over my head, and I was falling fast.

    The hooking horn missed – the tip passing my face mere inches away. The buffalo’s head rose high following the fierce thrust of the sweeping horn. I had been lucky, but I was not about to get away unscathed. In its forward rush, the buffalo’s galloping front feet smacked into my lower legs. The impact was huge and heavy, numbing and paralysing the calf muscles instantly. It knocked my legs forward precipitously. Falling backwards fast, the impact spun my body in the air just before my back hit the ground. This brought my head and shoulders directly under the buffalo’s belly. It also removed me from the direct line of the buffalo’s sight.

    The buffalo continued its forward momentum. Its galloping back legs kicked me forward, one hoof impacting with my ribs, the other with the back of my head. The strikes rolled me over completely until I was back onto my back. Bright sparkling lights exploded in my vision.

    When the buffalo’s head came down it saw Sumbe running away, mere yards ahead. Changing the focus of its attack to the more visible target the angry old bull left me, bruised and sore, in the sand behind. Had Sumbe not been there at that precise moment, I am quite sure the buffalo would have turned and gored me to death. But Sumbe was there and that saved my life.

    The Bushman grasped at a sapling, with the intention of swinging his body fast and sharply to one side. It was an old trick the trackers used to get out from under a charging animal’s attack. This time it did not work. The buffalo’s boss hit the tracker squarely in the middle of his back. At the same time, the cleft of a cloven hoof splayed across the Achilles tendon of his heel, pegging his foot to the ground. When the force of the impact pushed the tracker’s body forwards, the buffalo’s hoof peeled the flesh off either side of his heel.

    Sumbe went flying through the air, his arms and legs akimbo, ahead of the buffalo’s deadly charge.

    I sat up awkwardly in the sand and rammed another round into the breech. Snap-shooting from this sitting position on the ground, I banged a bullet into the buffalo’s rib cage, raking forwards. The big bull staggered, its determined forward rush faltering. It was hit sufficiently hard to leave alone Sumbe’s sprawling and squirming body lying on the ground in front of it. Lurching to my feet, I fired the last two rounds in the magazine directly into the running buffalo’s anus. Those last two bullets, I knew, would course forwards through a whole host of vital organs.

    Then the buffalo was gone – gone into the dense bush to our front.

    The danger was over. In front of me Sumbe lifted his body from the undergrowth into which he had rolled. I felt relieved. He, too, had survived the ordeal. Released from the tension, my body began shaking uncontrollably.

    I reloaded the rifle’s magazine with quivering hands, the cartridges drawn from the ammunition belt about my waist. Putting one up the spout, I set the rifle to safe.

    My first concern was to tend to my injuries. My ribs were seriously bruised, but not broken. They were sore as all hell. There was an oedema swelling behind my left ear where the buffalo’s hoof had smacked me hard. I fingered it tentatively. Bright lights were still exploding in my vision, and a serious headache was settling in.

    In the distance I heard the long, low bellow of a buffalo in extremis. I knew then that our attacker was down. My raking rib-cage bullet had found its mark. The buffalo was gasping its last few breaths.

    Then the screaming started. I looked up to see Sumbe running off into the bushes. He was wailing like a banshee. I was still groggy on my feet, but I tried to run after him to find out why he has screaming. The effort was beyond me. The tracker came running back towards me, his eyes huge, a strange wild caterwauling issuing from his mouth.

    Mbuyotsi, one of the trackers from the rear party, came rushing up. Sumbe, on seeing him, raced away again, screaming.

    “Go catch him,” I instructed Mbuyotsi.

    Mbuyotsi ran after his Bushman colleague. He brought him down in a rugby-like tackle. Then he dragged the tracker back to me, pulling him by one arm. Sumbe was whimpering like a puppy.

    Just as they reached me Sumbe broke free. He threw himself onto the ground, rolling over and over and over in the sand and in the leaves and amongst the sticks of the forest floor. The screaming started up all over again. It was then that I saw the massiveness of the wound in his right forearm.

    I blanched and forgot all about my own injuries. They were inconsequential by comparison.

    Mbuyotsi grabbed Sumbe again, this time holding him down tight in a sitting position on the ground. Ben and Rojas, the other two trackers, were now standing next to me. They were looking on in awe.

    The injured tracker’s dark skin was grey. When I touched him, his body was icy cold, yet he was sweating profusely. Water was running from the pores in his face in rivulets.

    He turned his eyes to me then, and he said: “Nkosana (Little Chief)…. You have killed me. You have killed me…. Now just let me die.” And with that, the Bushman fell over backwards and rolled his eyes.

    I knelt down next to Sumbe and lifted his hugely damaged arm by the hand. It was clear that the wound had been caused by one of my .458 Magnum bullets.

    The best way to describe the wound is to ask you to imagine the tracker sitting at a table with his right forearm lying on the tabletop, the palm of the hand facing upwards. The bullet had come from behind the tracker, narrowly missing his body. It had entered his forearm just to the left of the elbow joint and had progressed through the flesh, just above the two bones of the forearm, exiting on the right hand side of the wrist. Only the bullet had not just entered and exited. I can only surmise that, after leaving the buffalo’s body, the bullet had been tumbling through the air – cart-wheeling nose-over-tail – because it had ripped a huge hole in the flesh of the tracker’s arm. The entire muscle of his inner forearm had been ripped open in a massive jagged wound.

    When I lifted Sumbe’s arm by the hand, the only thing joining his elbow to his hand were the two bones of the forearm. There was also a thick blue and pulsing string of an artery running between the elbow and the wrist. All the flesh that had once surrounded the bones and the blood vessel had been blown away. The flesh hung in a heavy open slab of meat between the wrist and the elbow, the skin facing away from the body, the raw muscle facing towards it. I could have put my fist between the bones of the arm and the muscles hanging beneath them. Despite the massive extent of the wound, there was very little bleeding.

    Ben and Rojas held Sumbe’s arm firmly in their hands in order to allow me to remove what I could of the sand and the leaves and the twigs of the forest floor that were adhering to the open flesh. I instructed Rojas to remove his shirt, which I tore into bandage strips. I then began the task of trying to re-assemble the torn muscles in some semblance of order around the naked bones. When this was done, we lifted the now supine tracker to his feet.

    Mbuyotsi ran the eight miles back to Main Camp to get help. The rest of us took turns in supporting Sumbe as we frog-marched him the two miles to Livingi Pan on the track between Main Camp and Dett. Surprisingly, during this operation, it was the torn flesh on his Achilles tendon that caused him the most pain.

    In Dett the Rhodesia Railway’s nursing sister gave Sumbe his first real medical attention, but other than to more professionally clean his wound and give him morphine to kill the pain, there was very little she could do. I then drove him to Hwange Colliery Hospital – 80 miles farther on – where he underwent major surgery.

    Sumbe not only survived the events of that day he emerged a stronger person. He was given an 85 per cent lump sum disability pension, and only lost about 15 per cent of the function of his arm. The money was gone inside six months – spent on wine, women and song.

    In later years Sumbe worked for me extensively, hunting many more buffaloes and many elephants with me, and tracking many of the black rhinos that I captured. Not once did he allow the fact that I had been responsible for his wounding to interfere with our relationship. Indeed, whilst he was still in hospital, a policeman had come to get a statement from him - as was normal procedure following every shooting accident. Sumbe refused to give a statement saying he did not want to get me into trouble. Later, the policeman told me that all Sumbe was prepared to say was: “It was a friendly bullet that went astray. Had Mahohboh (my African honour name) not shot the buffalo at that time, it would have killed me.”

    The buffalo we killed that morning was not the one I had wounded. That one we never found.

    The hunt had been an expensive lesson. It was one of many that taught me many things.

    It taught me not to anticipate anything when hunting dangerous big game. My first shot of the day had been with a soft-nosed bullet. It was up the spout because I had anticipated finding a buffalo standing broadside on to me. Instead, I had been presented with a head shot and a precipitate charge, for which a soft-nosed bullet is not the best option. After this episode, I refused to use any kind of bullet on dangerous thick-skinned animals other than a solid.

    The hunt also helped me to understand that, when following a wounded buffalo in a group, it is normally not the one that has been wounded that charges you. It is more often an unwounded animal that attacks. The buffalo that lies in wait for you is one that is not sore from a wound. It is one that is not frightened. It is one that is simply fed up with being pushed around all day from pillar to post.

    That hunt, and others like it that followed, led me to understand that it is the unwounded buffalo that builds up a huge rage - as a consequence of being pressure-hunted all day long - that is the most dangerous African big game animal of them all.

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