Badly supple safarisThis is my first attempt at writing about one of my guiding experiences so please excuse me if it is not the best but I hope you all enjoy it in these quieter times!
This story begins a few years back. It was one of the finest Buffalo hunts I’ve been privileged enough to be a part of as well as a safari that resulted in me gaining a lifelong friend. I had a free range Buffalo hunt booked with us by an Australian client by the name of David. David had hunted New Zealand, Australia, the United States, Europe and Africa a number of times and he made a real impression as a passionate conservationist and hunter. After a number of conversations the hunt was booked for July in the Northern part of South Africa on a free range, unfenced concession that we were fortunate enough to hunt on. This was to be a buffalo hunt done “the right way”; chasing wild and free buffalo, on foot in a beautiful unspoiled section of the country.
What made this hunt even more exciting was the fact that I was going to be conducting this hunt with one of my good family friends, Ian Brown. He is more famously known for his role in the promotional Africa video created by Blaser to promote the new R8 straight pull rifle. Ian is as knowledgeable as they come when it comes to Buffalo and he has taught me many of the tricks and habits of these fantastic beasts whether it be in Mozambique or South Africa. The knowledge that he has passed on has served me well in the years since and throughout my
guiding career. In addition to this, my best friend Rudi Campbell was coming along to assist in the hunt. Rudi did his professional hunters course with me a good many moons ago. However, due to his commitments as a jeweller, he doesn’t get as much time to guide in the field as he would like to and makes the odd come back to assist me when he can. His people skills and passion for the outdoors are second to none and with that, the scene was set with a fantastic team to take Dave out on the adventure of a lifetime.
I collected Dave with his newly engaged fiancè, Samantha, from a local KFC as he had been travelling the Kruger Park with his good friend and PH Henry Griffiths. David had used the first part of his holiday to propose to his future wife and the mood and excitement in the group was infectious. We arrived a little while later in camp. After settling in and talking a bit of nonsense on the elevated deck we quickly realized this was going to be a great adventure as we were all getting along famously. We quickly headed off to have sundowners near a pod of hippos just a bit further down the river. On the way we saw elephants and a multitude of plains game. We stood with beers in hand admiring the incredible scenery and getting along like old friends). Finally after a good many soothing ales around the fire that night, our friendship was sealed and the excitement of the upcoming hunt was brimming over. We headed off early on the first morning to try and hunt some bushbuck as we were only able to start the Buff hunt the following day. Unfortunately lady luck wasn’t on our side and we didn’t manage to find our elusive bushbuck. That afternoon we headed off to the range to double check the rifles and dust off the cobwebs. Dave has a beautiful .470 double that he is very familiar with, having sold a car in his youth to be able to afford it (the clever purchases we hunters make). The sights were perfect and we were ready to pursue a Dugga boy!
We set out the next morning in pursuit of a suitable Dugga boy. After checking numerous waterholes we finally found a group of 5 Dugga boys with their tracks heading off in the direction of a prominent hillside and towards the top corner of the concession. We took these tracks and after not too long of a walk we found the bulls bedded down in fairly open ground about 250 yards in front of us. Starting a painfully slow stalk in, we managed to close the distance to within 20 yards to the nearest bull. We were on our hands and knees and moving only an inch at a time hoping to get a better view and maybe a shot at a bull. We managed to look over some of the bulls whilst crouched down under the pelting sun. It is amazing that such large animals can be so close and yet, nearly invisible in thick vegetation. One bull in particular stood out to us; he had a beautiful spread with a fantastic separation between his bosses leaving an almost white gap between them. We dubbed this bull the “white gap bull” and determined: this is the bull that we wanted from the group. After sitting tight for what felt like an age whilst waiting for the bulls to make a move, an old dugga of roughly 32 inches stood up and looked straight in our direction. The wind had betrayed us. We never managed to see the white gap bull in the chaos of them taking off, but one thing was certain - the hunt was on!
We left the bulls for a couple hours and headed off for lunch, proceeding to follow them later in the day but never really catching up with them again. That was until we saw them again at last light by which point Samantha had decided to join us to walk on the tracks, shadowed closely by Rudi. Needless to say she was about to get her fair share of Buffalo excitement in the ensuing moments! We managed to locate the bulls again late in the afternoon as they slowly ambled at a slow traveling pace. Ian, David and I broke away from Rudi and Samantha once we were within about 100m of the bulls as we were going to try and get a clear shot as we moved off on a final stalk. We were slightly elevated on a subtle hill and shadowing the bulls as they walked parallel to us. White Gap was in the middle of the group but as the bulls were constantly moving and just out of range of the double, we tried to maintain sight of the bulls and wait for our opportunity. Suddenly the lead bull amended his course and began walking uphill straight towards us. This was our chance. We stood concealed by a few small Mopanie trees and waited for the bulls. They were moving straight toward us. This was perfect. David was standing at the ready with his double and a final confirmation as to where White Gap was, was confirmed. As they came closer and closer, White Gap remained concealed by the other bulls as well as vegetation as the bulls continued to close the distance. They were starting to get uncomfortably close when the lead bull emerged from behind some thorn trees. The bulls had been walking in single file but had now spread out a few metres apart as they approached us. The lead bull continued to walk uncomfortably close to us as David slowly raised his double and switched the safety forward. The second bull emerged behind the lead bull. Both bulls were completely exposed and closing in fast. The lead bull was only a mere 15 meters from us and closing in. David maintained his focus on White Gap who was set to emerge next. I caught a glance of Ian’s body language at this point and it was clear to see that this situation was not ideal for any of us. The lead bull was now very close indeed. In only a few more steps White Gap would emerge for a possible shot. We were just too close to these bulls. A moment later the bulls sixth sense kicked in and they sensed something was wrong. The wind was in our favour, however, the lead bull was so close to us he may have been able to smell us regardless. All of the bulls froze and the lead bull looked straight at us as only a buffalo can. Then came that tense moment of intimidation when a Dugga Boy considers his next move. White Gap was visible to us a mere 25 meters away but he was obscured by trees and no shot was available. To his credit, David had two old cape buffalo bulls in front of him completely exposed and he never raised his double with the intention to shoot. It was White Gap or nothing.
As we stood there waiting for something to happen the lead bull spooked and ran back down the hill taking the rest of the group with him. We watched as the bulls ran in an arc back down the hill and circled back to where we had just come from. The problem now was that Samantha and Rudi were standing back there, waiting for the outcome of the stalk. The bulls continued in their arc and it was obvious they were going to pass very close to them indeed! At this point all we could do was watch. The bulls were out of sight but the vegetation crashing in front of them and the rising dust cloud revealed exactly where they were headed: right over the top of Rudi and Samantha. Rudi clasped his .458 Mauser and told Samantha, “hold on to me and don’t move”. Samantha grabbed onto his back and buried her face, hoping that it might somehow help if she wasn't looking at these great black tanks charging towards them. The bulls burst through the growth a mere couple of meters to Rudi’s left. We watched the bulls run right between us and them, completely obscuring Rudi and Samantha with their size, as they continued up the hill and out of sight. We all looked at each other in disbelief.
“That was close,” I said to Ian. I looked over to see how David was faring at this point and he looked back to me. His words were delivered with immediate precision: “Hey Dempsey, I’ve been engaged for 5 days and your mate is already making moves on my missus”. We all broke into laughter as we approached Rudi and Samantha. Nervous giggles emerged from them as well. Samantha now had a story of her close brush with Africa’s Black Death. There were hugs and claps on the backs all round and after a very humorous recap of what had just happened, the decision was made to call it a day for a well deserved beer.
After that afternoon, Samantha decided that maybe this Buffalo thing wasn’t quite for her, and chose to just relax and unwind in the beautiful lodge back at camp. We continued to hunt early the next morning and continue with the same game of ‘cat and mouse’ that had been ensuing the previous days. The bulls seemed to always sense our presence or make last minute moves thwarting our best laid plans. Man, these bulls were clever! They were definitely showing off their brass from years of being chased by lions, poachers and hunters alike. By mid-morning we managed to get an elevated vantage point on the bulls and put a plan in place to try and anticipate in which direction they would head. The plan worked beautifully and we had the bulls coming straight towards us. That was until they caught our scent and their line instantly changed. Fickle wind had caught us out again! However, the positive was that we did manage to get a good look at the bulls from a long distance away and there, clear as day was old White Gap cruising amongst them. That afternoon heading back to camp, we found a fresh lion kill. A Kudu bull had been taken by a pride of lions and was being fed on, as we returned to camp. We hurried back to camp to get Samantha so she could watch a scene you don’t see every day. The pride of lions that had been eating on their fresh kill were now engaged in a tug of war with a massive crocodile that was set on trying to pull the carcass down an embankment and into the river! This was a unique natural experience and a moment that we would never forget. Whether success was had on this hunt, small things like this had already made it a successful Safari. By the fourth afternoon of the hunt, after following the same Dugga Boy group, we had begun to realize that they were at that point, likely the only bulls on the concession due to lion pressure in the area. Lion tracks were plentiful and we had seen two separate prides in 4 days. We continued to press these bulls knowing full well they could leave the concession at any point. The pressure was on. The hunting continued without much break, but finally, late one afternoon, we finally caught the bulls crossing an opening in front of us, roughly 90 meters away. It was a bit of a stretch for the old ‘two pipe’, but definitely possible. Ian quickly got Dave set up on the sticks as we watched them filter through. Three bulls stepped across the opening, suddenly followed by White Gap. Instincts took over and Dave made his shot as the bull paused broadside in the middle of the opening. The bull reacted positively to the shot and took off with the group. We rushed up into the looming darkness and quickly found some blood. Following the spoor for about 100 meters with light fading fast, we were really starting to struggle to see the tracks clearly. This was not exactly what you want when following a wounded buffalo in dense vegetation! We deemed it unsafe to follow the buffalo any further as it was getting darker by the second, and we made the call to return to camp and come back in the morning to see what the day would bring.
Once back in camp the usual discussions started with the shot being analyzed as well as everyone contributing what we had all seen and our thoughts about the shot placement. Everything was discussed including the fact that we did not hear a death bellow that evening. With that in mind, a respectful amount of beers were consumed that night, knowing full well that there was the possibility that the buffalo was still on his feet, meaning a busy day ahead for us. It was a tough night’s sleep knowing that all the bull would have to do to end the hunt in heartbreak, would be to cross the shallow river and leave the concession. If that were to happen, it would be game over.
We awoke that morning to a quick coffee and headed out as the sun was coming up, allowing us to better see the tracks. Following the tracks slowly and carefully in thick bush, we proceeded to notice that there wasn’t the right amount of blood and it was quite dark in colour. The wrong kind of blood indicating this may be a long tracking job. We lost the blood spoor eventually and began following the group just on tracks, hoping he would stick with the herd as he had done up to that point. We eventually found where the bulls had drunk water the night before. They had now had their thirst quenched and rested for a good while during the evening which indicated to us that we now had a serious tracking job ahead of us.
Following the bulls we eventually came to a very rocky, grassy section of the hunting area. And it was at this point that things went completely awry. Struggling to find tracks and even with Ian and lead tracker Shadrack’s incredible tracking skills it took close to an hour of hard work searching for any partial sign. They eventually managed to find a set of buffalo tracks leading up the hill, heading away from the rocky ground but what was really playing on our nerves was that it became evident at this point that the bulls had split up and were headed in two different directions. With no blood to follow we continued on with the only tracks we had, not 100% certain if our bull was even in the group we were following and also not knowing where and when the other group had split off. Needless to say, we continued in almost impossible terrain and at the same time counting our lucky stars we even had tracks to follow at all!
Hoping that these would be the tracks that would lead us to our bull, we continued to follow them until we eventually caught up to the group of bulls bedded down in some very thick brush. Seeing where they were laying down, we quickly assessed the situation. They weren’t moving any time soon, as they were busy ruminating; they were sitting tight. So, after a good long while and many discussions we eventually decided to throw a stone so as to try to get them to stand up and hopefully get White Gap to present a shot, if he was there amongst them. Although an unorthodox method, we had discussed it at length and agreed that should they run off, they would likely not go too far. Ian was duly elected to be the pitcher and with a huge effort, tossed a large stone towards the buffalo who immediately woke up and ran directly away from us through the bush. We never had a chance to look them over. We followed quickly and stayed on the tracks. A short while later we found our plan had worked as they were not far on the other side of the valley, standing leisurely underneath an umbrella thorn roughly 200m away.
At this point you could not ask for a better situation as we could clearly see White Gap standing there with the two other bulls. A perfect opportunity at roughly 200 meters. Murphy, however, is a cruel man and by his law, the bull was there standing beautifully broadside, however we only had open sights rifles. This would make the broadside shot nearly impossible and very risky. We quickly sent Rudi back with Shadrack to try his best to get a scoped .375 from the lodge, while we waited for their return and watched the bull patiently. The bull had obviously and unfortunately read the script and not 5 minutes before Rudi and Shadrack returned (severely out of breath but with the scoped .375 in hand) the bulls slowly lumbered off.
We continued on with our tracking, realizing ever more painfully that these bulls were slowly but surely working their way towards the river boundary of the concession. At this point, a million thoughts were going through our heads as it felt like the success of the hunt was hanging on hopes and prayers. Ian however, had this undying faith and belief that we would catch these bulls and that they would make a mistake, even though the process of us continually bumping them seemed to become standard procedure. It all just seemed completely impossible as the day’s end swiftly approached. They always seemed to stand behind trees or brush or they would move off before we could see them, never presenting us with a shot. All the while they were moving closer and closer to the boundary. It just did not seem like a shot that was certain, and on the correct bull, was a possibility. Eventually, after pushing incredibly hard for the entire day without rest, we bumped the buffalo one last time, with the sun essentially just dipping under the horizon. It was 24hours almost to the minute from when the first shot had hit White Gap the day before, and being so close to the boundary, we knew without a word being spoken that this was our last chance.
Rushing up we saw the buffalo running down the hill. We caught up to them and saw where they were standing under some Acacia trees about 100m below us, looking around for the source of danger. By this point, there were only two bulls together, one of which was (unbelievably) White Gap. The bulls stood there motionless underneath the trees. The Acacia tree was in front of the bull we wanted, with his shoulders obscured by the trunk. As if orchestrated by the hunting gods, the other Dugga boy walked forward and gave White Gap a firm nudge on the rump with his horns, forcing him to take the two steps forward we so desperately needed. Dave was on Ian’s shoulder ready to go. As the bull was pushed forward all that was needed was to confirm that it was indeed still White Gap. I confirmed quickly with Dave and said: “It’s him Dave, take him when you’re ready”. A second later the shot went off. At the shot the bull hit the deck, rocked heavily by the .375. I sprinted up to the bull in case he got up again, thus giving me a much closer follow up shot. David and Ian were just behind in hot pursuit. Once we got up to the bull, he was still doing the classic buffalo roll on his back. Dave quickly took up his double and gave him two quick shots into the chest by which point the sun had already gone down and the day was closed by the impressive sound of the death bellow. There were many shouts of joy and happiness. We all realized that we had done it: we’d accomplished what seemed like an impossible goal. The only way to describe this hunt was to compare it to being in a Rugby World Cup final where you are behind for the entire game and finally in the dying seconds you manage to score a winning try!
And the irony of it all? Dave’s first shot was sitting roughly an inch from his second shot high on the shoulder blade! Amazing to think how such a small gap can make all the difference even with large calibre rifles. Buffalo hunting can sometimes come down to a centimetre, and although it worked out in this case, these beasts have surely earned their reputation.
It was most certainly my most adrenaline-packed guiding experience up to that point, and possibly even still to this day. We had our Dugga Boy at last. He was a stunning old bull, with beautiful old worn down bosses. At just over 38 inches the beautiful white separation between his bosses gave him a fantastic look. For interest’s sake, a separation between the bosses is interestingly enough purely based on genetics, contrary to many popular beliefs that a closed boss buff is an old buff. He was an old bull with worn down teeth and lots of scars; evidence of his years of fighting. He was the perfect bull for someone like Dave to hunt. An old warrior for someone who would truly appreciate a trophy like that, and have him proudly hang on his wall, honored for all time.
But it was not just the Buffalo bull we had to celebrate with a couple of bottles of champagne that night. It was all in all just an incredible team effort from everyone involved. Rudi firstly, always helping motivate us and keeping us laughing and going on with unwavering faith during the tough times. Ian and Shadrack, always willing to teach and share their wealth of knowledge and without a doubt showing off their colours in what can only be described as a masterclass of buff hunting. And finally Dave, for just being a fantastic ambassador to our sport and showing what a true hunter should strive to be. I would also like to say a big thank you to him for putting his trust in me early on in the days of Bayly Sippel Safaris. It was an absolutely world class experience all round and the start of a friendship that will last for the rest of our lives.
A big thanks to Ian and Wayne. We are privileged that Ian and Wayne allow us to hunt on their beautiful property every so often, as it is a truly spectacular place with all the big five present. We were privileged enough to see black rhino, elephant and lion prides on more than one occasion while we were hunting there. It holds a special place for me personally as it is the place where my father shot his first buffalo with Ian and myself. It’s truly a special experience every time Ian and I get to hunt buffalo together and it’s an experience we both cherish. For Rudi and I, Dave has now become not only a client, but one of our best friends and we speak daily. Dave makes a point of coming out every year to see us and we look forward to seeing him when he comes over to challenge himself with some new and exciting critter over here in South Africa. Whether it be bush pig or Vaal Rhebok, It’s always fantastic having him over. So the big question is; will we do a buffalo hunt together again? Without a shadow of a doubt, the answer is a definitive - YES! Hopefully, on the next one, Dave and Rudi will be assisting me on my own buff! But one thing is certain, when it happens, there will be another story to tell.
To see the hunts David has been on and the hunts he offers please feel free to visit his website sharemyhunt.com
Lions were everywhere!
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All you can say is WOW!
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Sam enjoying the view
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First afternoon well spent with Hippo's
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Best to not get thirsty!
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We all love a big track!
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One of the few times dung makes the heart beat faster!
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Lunch in the bush!
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Using a vantage point to our advanatge
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Sam enjoying a brisk morning!
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White Gap as he laid
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It was a late retrieval
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A more perfect moment for this bottle to be opened could not be found!
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Thank you very much for those words. They mean a lot! I also hope that one day we can share a campfire together! I'm sure we would have much to discuss!There is no way to read this and not believe fully that you love what you do. Can feel the passion. People that love what they do are good at it. Would look forward to hunt with you oneday.........great story...thanks for posting......FWB