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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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