2021 was a unique year in the span of my 37 year lifetime. The whole world was rebounding from the effects of a global pandemic, COVID-19, which incidentally caused us to move this buffalo safari with Ken Moody Safaris from the year 2020 to 2021. Rob Grainger, Drake Heller and I originally set out to hunt cape buffalo with a bow in 2018, so by the time the calendar turned to August of 2021, we were more than ready. Because of this pandemic, travel was more complicated than normal and we had to have a negative test within 72 hours of boarding the flight to Johannesburg, South Africa. As luck would have it, Drake tested positive for the virus(three times actually) and had to postpone his trip. To say he was upset is an understatement. Drake’s bad luck was par for the course over the past year and a half, a stretch of time filled with disappointment, anxiety, restrictions and a desire for things to go back to normal.
Our flight from Houston to Johannesburg arrived in the evening and after a long day of travel, we walked through the COVID-induced, virtually empty halls of the airport and across the street to the Intercontinental Hotel, where we checked in and made reservations for dinner. We had cocktails and speculated about what our PH’s would be like, what strategies we would employ on the hunt, and how selective we would be on our first buffalo. Rob and I have been like brothers from a very young age and hunted together extensively at home in Texas, but this was the first destination hunting trip we had taken together. He has been to the Dark Continent five other times and seen a number of buffalo killed with a rifle, but never done it himself. We worked ourselves into a lather and in spite of the whiskey, I don’t think either of us slept more than a few hours that night.
Rob’s PH Tavi Fragoso picked us up the next morning in his bakkie(hunting truck) and we made our way to the Northwest Province, Stewart Dorrington’s “Melorani”. Along the way, Tavi told story after story and it became clear that this guy knew his stuff. Among the first things we discussed were the equipment we brought, shot placement and some misconceptions about where to shoot buffalo. I had special arrows built for this hunt, weighing in at 860 grains and tipped with a 310 grain single bevel broadhead. I had been shooting these arrows exclusively for the past 8 months and felt very confident in their deadliness and accuracy, in spite of the fact that they lobbed into the target even with an 86# draw weight. Tavi explained that if possible, he prefers buffalo arrows in excess of 1000 grains and his arrow of choice is 1200 grains. He went on to say that while intuitively one might think that a quartering away shot is preferable, slightly quartering TOWARD is the best possible angle and the one most often presented during an archery hunt, because the buffalo generally knows you are there. The reason this is preferable is in part due to the structure of a buffalo’s ribs. The more formidable ribs on the rear side of the shoulder are angled in a way that they can easily cause arrow deflections, whereas the smaller and more penetrable ribs toward the front of the body cavity are flat on a broadside or slightly quartering to shot. The ideal shot is directly up the leg on a broadside shot, between the mid-line and lower third. This avoids the large leg bones, scapula and the larger ribs of the armor like ribcage.
We arrived at camp mid-afternoon, unpacked and met Ken Moody and his lovely wife Virginia, as well as my PH Johnny Nel. Camp was situated on a large rock outcropping, or koppe as they say in South Africa. There was a main house and kitchen which half-mooned the campfire area, flanked by six beautiful chalet’s built in a uniquely South African style, with thatch roofs and mud/dung structures painted red and yellow in the traditional tribal manner. We shot our bows and ensured that the TSA didn’t make any adjustments to our equipment, then grabbed a cocktail and binoculars for an evening game drive. In less than two hours of driving we were lucky enough to see 6 buffalo bulls at various water holes, 5 of which were proper hard bossed bulls. It was great to lay eyes on some buffalo before our hunt and gain confidence knowing that there were plenty of old dagga boys on the property. Chef John prepared an amazing buffalo steak dinner that evening and we had a bourbon nightcap around the campfire before heading to our respective chalet’s to get some much needed sleep.
The first day of hunting had Johnny and I driving and walking around the Northeast portion of the 16,000 acre property. We would stop at the water sources and Timba, the tracker, would investigate the tracks and any other sign to determine if and when the buffalo had last been there. We were after two old bulls Johnny had seen prior to our arrival and much of our day was spent trying to establish a pattern on our target animals. On our way back to camp we ran into Ken, who mentioned seeing a very big nyala bull less than a mile from where we stood. I told Johnny that if it was in fact a monster, I would be interested in pursuing it. Nyala are my favorite plains game animal, I think they are the most beautiful antelope in Africa with their unique cape and elegantly painted face and legs.
As we drove closer to where Ken saw the bull, we slowed to a crawl and were able to locate the feeding bull not 40 yards from the road. We drove past him a few hundred yards, cut the engine and made a route back to the bull keeping the wind in our favor. The nice thing about archery only ranches is that the animals typically don’t pay much attention to vehicles, which gives you an opportunity to see game and scout more country than if you were forced to walk. As we approached the bull, he was feeding away from us and the wind was blowing hard enough to conceal our movement in his peripheral. As we closed the distance to under 30 yards, he caught movement and turned to face us, quartering towards us. I put the pin on the point of his shoulder intending for the arrow to exit behind his opposite shoulder, squeezed the release and sent the arrow on its way. The big bull exploded through the brush at a dead sprint and within seconds I heard a crash and subsequent silence. We went back to the truck to give him some time, retrieve Timba and get on the track. The bull hadn’t gone 40 yards, and I had taken my first big game animal since 2017, by far my longest dry spell.
Back at camp, Rob and Tavi detailed an encounter that morning with a big herd of buffalo very near where I killed the nyala, and there was a huge white-bodied bull in the herd. They couldn’t get in close enough and some cows got their wind which caused them to spook, so rather than continue to push they decided to let the herd settle down. That afternoon, Ken called over the radio and said he had eyes on the same herd that Rob and Tavi made a stalk on earlier that day, and that we should head that way. As we arrived, Ken described where he last saw them and which direction they were heading as he and Johnny discussed a plan. We slowly picked our way through the dense thorn brush and eventually caught up to the herd. As we sat motionless, looking through binoculars at the individual animals appearing and disappearing between gaps in the brush, it was nearly impossible for me to tell where the bull was or how many buffalo were in the herd. Eventually, we caught a glimpse of his nearly hairless white hide and it became clear that he was orders of magnitude bigger than the rest of the buffalo in this herd. Closing the distance on this particular bull from where we were was clearly impossible given the brush-choked hundred yards between us and the herd. We eased back out to a road that led us around the herd in a quartering wind, and eventually ran across a water hole. We continued to keep an eye on the herd and could easily hear them making their way through the brush. It became clear that they were headed to the water and we would have a chance at an ambush. Based on the topography around this water hole, it looked as though there was only one place where the buffalo would cross to get to the water, so we made a quick decision to set up underneath a big tree on the back side of the dam. As we sat there, Johnny suggested that we might need to climb into the tree if things got hairy, as they sometimes do when you’re hunting buffs.
The first few members of the herd came ambling through the brush as we watched them under the cover of our chosen tree and behind an earthen dam, revealing only our binocular adorned heads. It blew my mind as young bulls and cows stared daggers into us even though we were nearly motionless. Eventually some more buffalo pushed the wary youngsters along, allowing us to catch glimpses of the big white bull as the herd began moving closer to our ambush. The problem was that they were not going to cross where we anticipated, and there was no way to get downwind of them undetected from where we were. The gig was up and rather than wait for the buffalo to get downwind of us as light faded, we rose from our hiding position and the herd dispersed. As we made our way back to the bakke, we found a secondary, less prominent water hole that the buffalo were undoubtedly making their way towards. Inevitably, the animals never follow the script.
On the second day of hunting, we once again drove the northeast portion of the property in search of the pair of dagga boys Johnny and Ken had found. We discussed the likelihood of killing the white bull in the herd we chased the day before and Johnny ultimately convinced me that the odds of a successful stalk would be much better if we could locate a single bull or the two bulls he had seen previously.
We walked and drove from water hole to water hole seeing lots of game, including several especially impressive impala rams, but no buffalo. After lunch, we weaved through a series of small pans separated by treed dams, attempting to catch a buffalo sneaking a mid-day drink. As the sun began to set, we made our way towards the water hole where the two bulls had most often visited and sat down a couple hundred yards away, while still in eyeshot of the water. Earlier in the day we’d gone over several routes which we might employ depending on where the bulls were and which way the wind was blowing, utilizing cover that would place us within 30 yards of the water.
Sitting motionless, the doubt began to creep into my mind with each passing minute. The sun was on the horizon and we had less than 30 minutes of light left. Johnny reached in his pocket and answered a telephone call, which I thought was strange to say the least! He whispered in Afrikaans and hung up, stood from his perch and said let’s go, there are two buffalo 15 minutes away and we have to hurry. The ranch manager was necessarily involved as a scout because we needed many hands to comb through the 16,000 acres of brush. When he drove past the two bulls at a natural water hole, he immediately recognized that one bull was a hard bossed shooter. We met him a few hundred yards from the pan, and he gave us a more in depth scouting report from there. Apparently the bulls had since left the water and were feeding on the other side of the dam, giving us cover on the downwind side. It was a race against time as the sun continued to fade.
We made our way toward the bulls with a quartering wind and glassed them from the back side of the dam. If the bulls were at twelve o’clock, we first laid eyes on them from our position at two o’clock and needed to get to 10 o’clock, where there was considerable cover on top of the dam 20-30 yards from the bulls on the downwind side. We made our way along a trail on the top of the dam, crouched low as we kept an eye on the bulls. We could only see their backs as we hurried along the circular dam. At one point I was caught in an opening between two trees, and the shooter bull happened to pick his head up at that time and caught movement. After a several minutes standoff, he relaxed and began feeding again, allowing us to continue our approach.
At a certain point, Johnny made the decision to run across the dry portion of the tank bed to save some time. We tip-toed as fast as possible across the dry and crunchy soil, made even more treacherous by the crater-like buffalo tracks made when the soil had moisture. Thankfully the wind was blowing fairly hard which helped us go undetected as we made it to our ambush point on the back side of the dam from the bulls. Johnny and I caught our breath for a second and he eased up the dam to get a look on hands and knees. He turned back to me and whispered that the bull was very close, but he was feeding facing us. When the bull turned broadside, his intention was to move to the side for me to get in position. Johnny said there was a tree and a small lateral limb to contend with, but that I should be able to get a shot. Several minutes passed allowing me to slow my heart rate and focus on the task at hand. At last, Johnny moved aside and I crept forward. I eased from behind the dense green thorn bush and up the dam with a great backdrop of dark canopy and the cover of wind blown vegetation, but the buffalo sensed something wasn’t right and picked his head up to look in my direction.
At 29 yards, the bull looked as big as a house and felt uncomfortably close. Every inch I stole to get into shooting position resulted in the old dagga boy throwing his head and shoulders in my direction with a wild-eyed stare. The cold blackness of his iris contrasted against the bloodshot whites of his eyes brought to mind Ruark’s classic phrase, “A buffalo looks at you like you owe him money.” The standoffs were agonizing as I stood on uneven ground in increasingly awkward positions with fading light. I needed six more inches of vertical height to shoot over a nearby limb, and as the bull settled once again I moved toward him and up the dam undetected. This was my chance, the moment where all the practice and mental preparation would be tested. This is when the intensity of the moment and the adrenaline take over, when my body goes into auto-pilot. If I’ve done my job to prepare, muscle memory takes over and the shot execution is performed.
I drew my bow and settled the pin as the buffalo once again caught motion and looked in my direction, turning his shoulders ever so slightly to quarter towards me. Instead of doing what I had been told that first night in camp, 30 years of habit forced me to put the pin right in the crease of the shoulder on the lower third line and squeezed the shot off. The arrow streaked through the blood-red dusk of the South African sky and hit its mark. The bulls took off spinning away from us, and because it was fairly low light I wasn’t able to see how much penetration the arrow got. Johnny was behind the brush when I let the arrow go and didn’t see the shot, but I told him it was good. We listened for several minutes for a death bellow, and when it didn’t come, Johnny started to ease into letting me know that we wouldn’t be able to go after the bull tonight. I interrupted and said “Johnny, say no more. My priority is getting home safe to my family, and I don’t want to put anyone at danger by pursuing this buffalo at night.” He smiled in relief as we went to look at where the bull last stood for any sign.
That night was an emotional rollercoaster as I began to doubt whether or not my shot was lethal. I could tell Tavi didn’t like it based on where I told him the arrow went. Ken told me he was relatively sure we were in for a long track in the morning, and I think Johnny was upset that he didn’t see the shot. I was seemingly the only one who was positive about the prospects of having a dead bull in the morning, and Ken later told me that in his experience, hunters almost ALWAYS exaggerate the shot placement in the positive direction. “Right behind the shoulder” in his experience meant right in the middle of the guts. I tried to drown the worries in some bourbon that evening, but woke up at 4AM unable to quiet my mind. I took a shower, shaved and read until everyone else woke up. We had breakfast and coffee before heading out to pick up the track on this cold, cloudy day.
We arrived where everything transpired the evening before and our entire hunting party began to dissect the scene. Timba and Hans were our trackers and Johnny and Ken each carried rifles while I watched everything unfold before me. I walked everyone through where I shot from, where the buffalo stood and where I last saw him roughly 100 yards from where the shot happened. Unfortunately there was a herd in the area and they made tracking very difficult in spite of the excellent skills of Timba and Hans. We eventually found the tracks of the bull I shot and his running mate very near where I last saw them, and started our track finding little to no blood. As we moved through the thorn brush, Hans and Timba walked shoulder to shoulder pointing at each track or sign with a stick, providing confirmation to one another.
The bulls continually merged in and out of other herds tracks, which made our job very difficult and tedious. We actually bumped into a herd of buffalo twice while on the track, but our bull was not with them. Occasionally the trackers would split with the trail if they weren’t sure they were on the right track. When one found confirmation that they were on the big bull, they would whistle and we would all fall back in line with the Hans and Timba leading the way. I did my best to see what they were seeing, staying off the trail in case we needed to double back(which we often did), but it’s simply amazing that these guys knew one buffalo from another. The bull seemed to be working his way from one dry creek bed or depression to another, each with tall, dense grasses and large canopied trees. Interestingly he stayed walking with the wind at his back. They apparently are notorious for this habit, wanting to know the status of their pursuer while possibly doubling back on their track, waiting in ambush.
Each time we came to one of these spots, Johnny and Ken would move into their respective positions to protect the party should 2,000 pounds of black death come bursting through the brush. I kept on Ken or Johnny’s heels as often as possible in these situations. Having read 50 or more African hunting novels I knew the danger we faced, exaggerated or not. Time and distance began to drag on when we came across a spot where the buffalo stopped and bled for a period of time, about three miles from where we started. From that point, we had consistent blood to follow and we began walking at a faster pace.
Once again, we came upon a grass and brush-laden depression and the trackers stopped to look at a pile of blood. A leaf was passed back to me and Johnny said “this blood is very fresh, the bull was just here.” Before he could finish his sentence, Hans called for Leia, Johnny’s jack russell terrier and sent her on the blood. Seconds later we heard a growl and the brush exploded ten yards away. Ken shot twice very quickly, thorn trees grabbing at his double gun. Leia continued her pursuit and began barking, which sprung Johnny into action. He sprinted under and around a thorn tree as I followed quickly behind. We turned the corner and at 30 yards, Leia was dodging the bulls hooking horns, barking incessantly. She had done her job and made the buffalo turn around, which gave Johnny enough time to put a .416 through his spine, toppling the bull. Ken came around the back side of the buffalo and put two more through his spine and into his vitals, because as they say, “it’s the dead buffalo that kills you.”
The adrenaline of these few seconds were unlike anything I’ve felt in hunting, and only once before when my daughter was born and there was a medical emergency. The intensity of the moment caused time to slow down while the details poured into my mind, and only when the danger was past did the adrenaline leave my body. The feeling is like a warm wave moving intensely from your head down and through your feet. At that point, I felt like I might cry or faint or both, and I couldn’t catch my breath. It’s a feeling that implores you to do it again, and without question, I will.
Because we were miles from any road, the decision was made to cut the buffalo up in the field and bring him out piece by piece, no small task. The skinners and local tribesmen worked incredibly fast and efficiently, and as they gutted the animal Rob(who showed up a little later with his own buffalo) and I tried to put the pieces of the puzzle together as to why my arrow hadn’t done its job. My shot entered the bull exactly where I thought, directly behind his shoulder, in the crease on the line between the bottom and middle third. It broke through the rib and entered the back lobe of his right lung, then ran lengthwise through the lung toward his stomach, which is where we ultimately found the 9” of arrow that remained in the bull. Whether it worked its way into his stomach as he ran or if that’s where the arrow went on the shot, we will never know. Likewise, we will never know why the arrow took a left turn other than the fact that they are very tough animals and my shot was too far back, in the armor-like angled portion of the buffalo’s ribs. Had I shot him straight up the leg, I feel confident that the 860 grain arrow tipped with a razor sharp single bevel broadhead would have penetrated both lungs and we would have had a dead buffalo.
I don’t have any regrets about how the hunt unfolded. Although I obviously would have preferred to have a single arrow, clean kill, selfishly I had a more traditional “buffalo experience” because it didn’t happen that way. Watching the symphony that was our trackers, PH’s and little Leia work together to keep us safe was one of, if not my single-favorite hunting experience to date.
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