Buffalo in the Caprivi

Red Leg

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May 19, 2009
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As I stepped out of the tent into the chilly dawn, I soon realized that this would not be a typical Namibian hunt. We had an approximately 45 minute power boat ride through a maze of channels to get to the area we intended to look for a buffalo. My young PH, Dries Alberts, looked at my cased rifle and asked in his clipped Afrikaans accent, "would you mind leaving the case and riding with a round chambered?" I no doubt looked surprised because he followed with, "the hippo can be a problem, and our motto is to never die with a full magazine in the boat." My doubts about how much of this was for dramatic effect were put to bed the next evening when a bull casually shouldered our boat as we motored through his pool.

I traveled to the Caprivi three weeks ago on the recommendation of Jack Atcheson, Jr, who had arranged for me to hunt buffalo in the Caprivi with Jamy Traut of Eden Safaris. My primary goal was an old dugga boy, and the remaining time would be spent on Eden pursuing its abundant plains game. He said that I would find the Caprivi different than my other experiences in Namibia, and about that he was certainly correct.

This was riverine country formed by the Chobe, Kwando, and Okavango River systems. Full dawn would reveal a land of bogs, islands, and clear channels with islands of grass, acacia, and mopane. Surprisingly, it reminded me of the marshes and cheniers of Southwest Louisiana where I grew up. However, the buffalo, crocs, and hippo did add an element of local color not found in a typical Cameron Parish duck marsh. With its primitive native villages and vast wilderness, it also reminded me of the Africa of Ruark and Hemingway.

Our plan was to look for a herd which was returning to cover after feeding on the islands during the night. Failing that, we would look for one of the old dugga boys who called the vast marshes home.

Dries, our tracker Derek, a conservancy game scout and I left the boat on the shore of one of the islands, and began a long sweep looking for a herd or sign of its passage. After covering a couple of miles, we were glassing a likely area, when we heard a sound behind us. Upon turning, a screen of brush some forty feet away parted and huge elephant bull materialized. Looking back, I am still amazed because the brush would not have seemed capable of hiding a small whitetail much less a multi-ton pachyderm. He spread his huge ears, turned on his own axis, and gave us a spectacular view of four feet of perfectly matched ivory. The incredible tusks seemed to hang over our heads. He then casually walked away. Dries announced the tusks were 60+ a side - I can only testify that they and he appeared enormous.

We immediately called Jamy who was guiding another client with an elephant on license. They took a couple of hours to reach us, and in spite of a solid effort, we were unable to reestablish contact with the big bull. By noon Dries, our tracker Derek, and our game scout again had the island to ourselves.

We decided to put some distance between ourselves and the elephant exercise, and began a long hike that took us several hours to the north where we could overlook an enormous marsh. With the sun approximately a finger above the horizon, we began to glass a half a dozen tiny lslets which were scattered across the saw grass marsh. In the same instant all four of us spotted the huge boss of a buffalo bull as it emerged from an island some 400 yards away. Plainly visible to the naked eye, he looked enomous through the binos.

A direct approach was out of the question, and in the failing light, waiting for him to come in our direction seemed to hold little hope. Instead we dropped low and crept back into the trees. We then circled to the west until we could put another of the small islands between us and his bedding location. We then stepped out through the marsh. The saw grass was chest high and the cold water came up to our thighs. The bottom was further covered in six inches of muck. Elephant tracks created unexpected holes which soaked us to our waists.

We made the island opposite him undetected and crawled through the brush to the side opposite his bed. Dries and Derek got me into position on the side of a termite mound where I could ease into a solid sitting position. The range was about a hundred meters, and the bull and I were both slightly higher than the intervening grass. All of us had been badly cut up crawling through the thorn and our firing position was amply decorated with rose thorn and acacia. Dries's left leg was bleeding and my right arm looked like it needed a tourniquet. Jamy later asked Dries how long we had to wait for the bull to stand and he replied dryly, "about a liter's worth."

I was tucked into my sling in classic military shooting form and could hardly have been steadier from a bench. The only question was whether he would stand while we had light to shoot and whether his vitals would be in my narrow shooting lane when he did. I whispered to Dries that I intended to trigger a round the second he gave me a target.

After twenty minutes or so, and with the sun slipping below the horizon, the old boy finally stood. He was quartering toward me with his rear quarters significantly below his fore. He turned his head slowly to the left opening the junction of his neck and right shoulder, and I immediately launched a 300 gr Barnes TSX from my .375. The bullet cracked into him, dropping him back into his bed. He moved his head twice, and then never moved again. He had died almost instantly. Derek literally lept into the air (no doubt thrilled he didn't have to trail a bull through the marsh in the gathering gloom!) and Dries pounded me on the back in equal relief. We quickly splashed a hundred yard dash to the animal to touch his massive boss and to take a few quick photos. As Jack O'Conner once observed, the big ones look big, and this old fellow looked very good indeed. A tape the next afternoon would show him slightly wider than 42 inches.

However, we still had about a six mile trek back to where we had left the boat and a very dark trip home through the canals. We had one flashlight among the the four of us, and the last two miles or so were done in pitch blackness. Something of an adventure in itself, we finally stumbled into camp around 10 pm to a roaring fire and the sound of drums. The staff put together quite a celebration, and it was hard to decide whether the hot meal or the cold scotch was better.

Early the next morning, we led the skinners back to the old bull, and we took plenty of pictures. Dries and Derek performed an autopsy worthy of CSI, and we discovered that the TSX had taken him through the heart, and because of the steep angle, had traveled up between the lungs, lodging in the spine. That explained his immediate collapse.

I would take several other wonderful trophies in Eden, including a huge Cape Eland of 38 inches. But as I flew back last week to my "real" life in Northern Virginia, it was the Caprivi and the huge old bull which occupied my thoughts. I was so thrilled to discover that a bit of true Africa is still out there; I'll return just as soon as I possible can.
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