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4 Paces from Death

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This was my first Cape buffalo hunt. I have successfully hunted Africa three times before so I thought I knew what to expect, boy was I wrong. Before things were over, I would want to quit, swear, cry, and then beg to do it all over again. As I said this was my fourth hunt in Africa and I knew, just enough to think I sort of knew what I was doing. Hunting buff was different and difficult. It was made even more difficult by the poachers and lions.

The poachers were after the buffalo and they had started fires to concentrate them in one area. A group of young lions that were hunting them as well and were having much better luck than we were. They were taking a buffalo every three or four days or so. All of this pressure had consolidated the bachelor groups into the main herds thereby complicating my life immensely, but I am getting ahead of myself.

I was hunting the Chirisa area of Zimbabwe and getting there was actually easier than I thought. I had just finished a family vacation and hunt with my good friend Johann Veldsman, the owner of Shona Hunting Adventures. All I had to do was take a commercial flight from Windhoek to Victoria Falls. Then a quick charter flight deposited me on a grass landing strip a few miles from camp. After a short wait the guys from HHK Safaris picked us up and it was off to camp. The camp was nice without being plush, keeping the spirit of the wildness of Africa, was high on a cliff overlooking the Sengwa River.

The view was breath taking as our arrival at camp coincided with sunset. The reddish glow from the sun reflecting off the sandy riverbed was wonderful. When the thin shadows cast by the trees on the opposite bank worked their way like large dark snakes out into the dry river bed, I had to just stop and watch. The sky went from red to purple and finally to blackness that is the African night. My PH Phillip Smythe arrived a few minutes later, having driven cross-country from another concession. We had our first sundowner, got to know each other and made plans for tomorrow. As we swapped stories and hunting experiences I could tell we were going to get along famously.

"O dark-thirty" came quicker than it should have and after a quick breakfast, we made way to the range to check my scope. While Leonard, our tracker set up a target Phil went over shot placement and a few other items with me. I was shooting my CZ Safari Classic chambered in .416 Rigby. I had loaded my own cartridges so I knew the rifle shot 1 ¾" high at 100 yards, dead on at 200 yards, and about 10" low at three hundred. Phil informed me that I would probably shoot at 50 yards and he wanted to see where the point of impact was at 50 yards.

The rifle shot perfectly. At 50 yards, the bullet was still rising and, the three shot punched a perfect cloverleaf in the top of the bull’s eye. I was using Barnes’s TSX and Solids and they both shot to the same place. With both of us convinced all was in order it was time to pick up our Park Ranger guide and escort. Then we could start our hunt.

On the way to pick up Ranger David the smoke from the fires set by poachers became more apparent that it had been last night and, by the time we got to the Ranger Station we could easily smell it. Because the rangers were busy with fires and poachers it took us longer than usual to complete out required government permits.

It was approaching mid morning when we left the station and, with most of the morning gone, Phil wanted to take a cross-country route to a water hole to see if we could pick up some tracks. We never made it to the waterhole.

Twenty minutes into our walk to the water hole and the wind changed. Phil and David picked up on it first and said we have to go. When I asked why, Phil explained that with the wind changing the fire would change directions as well and it was now headed towards us. We made the walk back in fifteen minutes and decided to head to Phil’s favorite observation spot a good distance away for an early lunch and to try and spot some buffalo. The observation spot was some miles up river from camp and on top of a narrow finger of cliff that jutted out into the dry bed of the Sengwa River. The view was outstanding and the lunch was good. The only thing missing were the buffalo.

After lunch we decided to put some distance between us and the fire. We drove down to and across the dry riverbed. From there finding the herd was not difficult. We got lucky and spotted some tracks where the buffalo crossed the road. After picking up the tracks it was off on foot to try and get close enough to spot a good bull and then get to take a shot. As I said finding them was not hard but, getting close enough for a good shot proved to be darn near impossible. Since it was early afternoon the herd was in the heavy cover they had chosen for their midday nap. Their cover of choice was mopane trees because the crunching leaves would warn them of anything approaching.

Tiptoeing quietly through dry mopane leaves is not easy - in fact it is impossible. The closest thing I can think of to describe it is to take a box of cornflakes dump them out on the kitchen floor and try walking through them without making any noise. It just can’t be done. However, the buffalo were there and we had to try.

I soon learned the mopane leaves were not the only problem I would overcome to sneak up on the buffalo. I would have to stalk them on tiptoe while crouching down to about two thirds of my height. For those of us that have developed a slightly wider midsection than we had in our younger years this was a problem. I had gotten in better shape for this hunt by exercising, walking and lifting weights. For some strange reason however I had neglected to do it all while on my tip toes in a squatting position. At first I tried staying in Phil’s tracks but, he was five inches taller than me and just slightly more than half my age so that did not work. Next I tried walking heel first and gently rolling my foot down but. I still made the crunching sound. I finally achieved a small amount of success by slowly sliding the leaves out of the way with my foot before I put my weight on it. It was difficult and my legs and back would hurt for the rest of the trip but, hey, I was hunting buffalo. Needless to say we had no luck that afternoon.

For the next four days, we chased the buffalo through the thick stuff, occasionally catching glimpses but only getting on the shooting sticks once. I missed that opportunity because a leafy branch blocked my view from where the sticks were set up. Phil told me to shoot but I could not get a clear shot, and by the time I decided to pick up the sticks and move them it was too late. The movement drew the buffalo’s attention to us and he ducked his head then disappeared back into the bush.

On another occasion the buffalo were bedded down in the mopane at the base of a small hill or kopje. The wind was blowing in toward the buff and we had to hike around the kopje to get down wind. We would get around the kopje and start our stalk only to be foiled by the mopane leaves. The buffalo went around the kopje into the wind to get away from what ever made the crunching noise. We took off back around the kopje to try to head off the buffalo only to discover that they had moved right back to where we spooked them from. We walked back and forth around the kopje five times that day to no avail. I can only guess that since they did not wind us and the next closest cover required them to go a good distance, they kept going back to where they started from. We even tried sneaking up and over the top but, could not get a shot down through the thick cover. Those four days were frustrating to the "nth" degree.

It was during those four days that we discovered that lions were also hunting the area. Phil had actually seen them and I had seen their tracks. Although it did not seem to bother Phil, the fact that lions were close by and following the same buffalo herd was never far from my thoughts. I could only hope that they were well fed and content to lay in the shade while we searched for buffalo.

Day six started earlier than normal Phil wanted to go to the high observation spot and do some glassing at sunrise and it paid off. We spotted a small group of buffalo across the riverbed feeding about 100 yards in on the other side. Phil decided to leave our tracker, Leonard, up top to spot for us as we made our way across the riverbed. He also decided we would go over the edge and straight down to the riverbed instead of taking. There by reaching the buffalo before they moved into the really thick stuff. So over we went. We traveled approximately 100 yards vertically and 15 yards horizontally. I was ready for a short break to catch my breath at the bottom, but no, we ran the 300 yards across the river bed through the sand in a crouched position. I thought I would die. Thankfully we slowed down to a crawl when we stared our stalk. We spent the next forty-five minutes sneaking through the bush but even with Leonard we were unable to find our bull. Just as we were ready to give up Leonard franticly radioed us. He was whispering into the radio that the herd of buffalo had crossed behind us and was now on the other side of the river.

It was time to suck it up and run down the riverbank, past where the herd had crossed, and get behind the buffalo. We then ran back across the river in a crouched position trying not to spook the herd. We made it but, this time there was no slow stalking and catching of breath. The herd was feeding in some short grass in the riverbed and we were able to get behind some very thick bush on the riverbank. We had to move swiftly and silently to get past the buffalo without detection. It took us about a half mile but we finally got in front of the herd. Phil found an opening in the bush that would give us an unobstructed view of the herd as they passed by. He told me to sit down and scoot back into the bush as far as I could go.

Phil sat down in front of me so I could use his shoulder as a rest if I needed to. I could finally catch my breath as we waited for the buffalo. The heard started past us and they were grazing at a distance of twenty to fifty yards. I was amazed at how big they looked at this range. Little did I know they were about to get a lot bigger. I sat still as a statue, mentally picking out the spot on each buffalo that I would have to place the bullet in order for a clean kill. The herd kept coming by us; lots of cows and calves but no bulls were visible. I knew that the older bulls would be toward back, but the longer they took to come into view the more my heart raced and more adrenalin entered my system. I had to get myself under control so I concentrated on slowing down my breathing. I was just getting my pulse and adrenalin to start to drop when it happened.

A cow and her calf decided to come out of the river bed and into the bush. The problem was they wanted to use the narrow opening that we had picked to wait in. The wind was blowing strongly in our faces so the cow could not smell us. We were using the brush behind us to break up our outline but she could tell something was definitely not right. She would snort and sniff and when she could not smell anything, she would take another step toward us. She got to within ten or eleven feet, about four of my paces when she finally stopped. Now she would blow, snort, stomp her front, foot then lower her head and shake her massive horns.

Now my pulse and adrenalin were off the chart once more. I knew better than to move and draw attention to us. The fact that Phil was between the mother buffalo and me and, with his rifle was pointed in the right direction was of little comfort at the time. I thought about using the cheeks I was sitting on to try and walk backwards in to the bush but, they would not move. I then briefly wondered if I shut my eyes so I could not see her that somehow she would not be able to see me. I quickly decided that doing that might me the equivalent of committing suicide by buffalo and kept focused on her. So now it was time for plan "C". Before I could come up with a plan "C" she gave one last shake of her massive head and was gone from the opening with her calf close behind her. Thankfully she had decided that the unknown shapes in the bush were not worth further investigation.

When she left, it was like a switch had been turned off: my pulse dropped to only twice normal and I was able to start looking for the bull again. In less than two minutes he eased into the opening. Phil had been telling me what to look for and how to field judge a buffalo so I started down the list in my mind. The horns were definitely wider than his ears but not by much. The boss, however, was incredible. It looked completely solid. It was battered and extremely knurled.

Best of all he was only thirty five or so yards away. Just as I decided this was my bull I got the prearranged signal from Phil that told me it was ok to shoot and I saw his fingers slowly go into his ears. His shoulder did not give me the angle that I needed so I moved my rifle to my knee, found my spot, took a breath, let it half out, and squeezed the trigger.

With the shot, all hell broke loose. With the impact of the bullet the bull hunched up and jumped into the air. As he hit the ground I had another round chambered and sent a solid toward his neck. The impact made him stumble and gave me time to chamber one more round. I sent another solid his way. The only shot I had at the time was quartering away so I aimed for his spine. I do not know if the impact knocked him over the small ledge in the riverbed or if he just stumbled and fell over it, but he was down and that was all that mattered.

Somewhere in the back of my mind I remembered reading in a Peter Capstick book that it "was the dead ones that killed you" and "to never empty your rifle". Since I had only one round left I quickly reloaded before moving to the river bed. I could not see any buffalo close by but I was not sure they were all gone. Phil stopped me at the edge of our hiding spot so he could look around. He pronounced the coast was clear and we approached the buffalo. We got closer and the dugga boy was still breathing but not getting up. One last shot from my .416 Rigby between the shoulder blades finished him. It had taken more than 21,000 foot pounds of energy to put him down and stop the mighty heart from beating.

What an incredible animal. Phil told me that my first shot killed him but he just did not know it yet. He was also happy that I was able to hit him twice more. We both have the same opinion about shooting buffalo: that you keep shooting until he goes down or is out of sight. . My buffalo had gone no more than twenty yards before going down and I was ecstatic with the fact that we did not have to trail him. My practice over the last few months with the heavy rifle now seemed a small price to pay. The sore shoulder and tired arms were suddenly a distant memory. The words of wisdom about practice that I had read in books and magazines seemed less boring and repetitive. I had properly prepared and was glad of it.

The smiles and handshakes were going around and my senses were returning to normal when Phil said he wanted to show me something. As Leonard and David started to set up things for pictures he took me back toward our hiding spot. I made a comment that we had picked out a good spot for an ambush and Phil added that something else thought it was a good spot also. Before I could ask why, he pointed to the remains of a buffalo that was about twenty yards to the left of our spot. "That is a lion kill," he told me.

We had not been able to see it from where we sat but we were close, very close, to approximately a four-day-old lion kill. At the time, I really did not understand the danger of being around a lion kill. It was later that afternoon when I witnessed first hand how violently lions could defend their kill. It seems that the lions had made a fresh kill before dawn that morning, less than a thousand yards from where I took my buffalo. When we drove by later that afternoon the lions came busting out of the shade to defend it from a group of vultures.

We were lucky that the kill we saw that morning was old and no longer worth defending. It just goes to show that when you hunt in Africa you have to be prepared for anything at any time.

Around the fire that night, as we relived the events of the day, I felt the joy and elation that comes with a successful hunt. As Phil told me some stories about some of his adventures with other clients I realized that I was addicted to Africa. The wildness of the Dark Continent was now ingrained into my being more than ever. As the conversation faded, my mind was already working on my next trip and wondering how to avoid the lions and other wild things that I hoped would always be there. It is those wild and unexpected things that make Africa the mystical and magical place that I love to hunt.

David Brown

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• When things go right •
• When things go right Part 2 •
• The hunt is over - but the memories remain •
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•  •

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