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Graduating to buffalo

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When my son Michael was in high school he went on safari to South Africa with me. He wanted to return and I told him if he did well in college, a Cape buffalo hunt would be his graduation present. He complied, and then was accepted to law school. So, the summer after graduation found us in Zimbabwe, with Professional Hunter Graham Chatham.

We were eight days into a ten-day hunt and Michael had shot a sable, but no buffalo, so we returned to camp early that day to rest and regroup.

As we approached camp I spotted two black specks across the grassy plain, but they barely registered with me—probably just wildebeests—and I looked away, toward camp and a soft bed.

Michael slowly climbed down from the Land Cruiser’s raised observation seat.

"You doing OK?" I asked.

"Sure," he said, "But should we have come in so early? We haven’t seen a decent buffalo since the first day."

"It won’t hurt to take a little break and rest up," I said. "Let’s have some dinner and turn in early."

I hoped another day without success hadn’t discouraged my son. On our first day a cheeky but immature bull charged the Land Cruiser. A great start—followed by many days of pursuing herds only to find no shootable bulls, and then all buffalo seemingly disappeared overnight.

We’d seen lion tracks within a mile of camp. Graham said the tracks belonged to a big male. Michael wondered if we should have included lion on the license, but I told him we needed a buffalo before discussing the high cost of lions. Our lion track discovery brought us to the eighth day, another of searching without success.

I had just laid the Steyr 458 Winchester Magnum on the spare bed when Michael burst in, followed by tracker Albert. Kuntu , our other tracker, had remained with the Land Cruiser to help unload. Michael wore his brush-proof pants but was bareheaded and had traded his hunting shirt for a college T-shirt, his boots for a pair of soft elk-hide camp moccasins.

"Quick, give me the 458! Kuntu saw two buffalo by the waterhole, and Graham wants to go after them."

I handed over the 458 and mentally kicked myself—the two black specks I had seen when we drove into camp were the buffalo Michael was on the run to overtake.

"Are you coming?" he asked as he headed out the door.

I pulled on my clothes but by the time I made it out the door Michael was nowhere in sight. A couple of hunters and their PHs were already firmly ensconced around the fire ring, nursing their first sundowners. One, a doctor from New Jersey, looked up as I approached.

"I saw your son and Graham and the trackers tearing out of here. What’s going on?" he asked.

"Buffalo," I answered. "They’re going to try to get close enough before it gets too dark."

George Parkin and fellow PH Monty Wilkinson approached, libations in hand. "Not to worry," Monty said. "Graham’ll put him on that buff if it’s a good one."

"Right," agreed George. "They’ll sort it out in short order. Probably be back before dinner."

Moments later—Ca-ra-wong! —a gunshot rang out, closer than I’d expected.

"Sounds like your boy got his buffalo," the New Jersey doctor said. "Hope it’s a good one."

Out of the stillness that pervades African twilight, there was another Ca-ra-wong! and almost immediately, a third.

"Well, that ought to do it, I expect," George Parkin offered, and we heard the familiar eerie death rattle that marks a Cape buffalo’s final moment. Then all was quiet.

George was spurred to action. "I say, shall I run you up there in my ‘Cruiser? You’ll want photographs, won’t you?"

We traveled the well-worn trail out of camp and stopped just around the first bend when we saw headlights bouncing in the off-road growth. It was Kuntu, working Graham’s vehicle into the bush, while Albert chopped small trees ahead of the hunting car. We walked ahead and soon came upon Graham and Michael, standing over a very dead Cape buffalo.

"Quite a fine buffalo your son’s killed," Graham said. "He’ll go thirty-eight or thirty-nine, I should think. Has a good drop and I think Michael is happy".

I looked over at my son, who was kneeling beside the buffalo, examining its boss. "So, is that true—you’re happy with your buffalo?"


I turned back to Graham. "What happened?"

"We followed the road to the point the two buffalo crossed, then pursued them on foot. They doubled back, we got within about thirty yards, and the better of the two turned—he was about to charge. Michael dropped the buff with one shot. A nice piece of shooting, by the way."

I surveyed the scene. "You know, I outfitted you in the best safari gear I could afford, including made-to-order boots. You walked for days, and now you shoot a perfectly fine buffalo five hundred yards from camp in a T-shirt and a pair of bedroom slippers."

"Give me a break and just take some pictures, will you?" Michael replied. I decided I had teased him enough.

Two days later we left for that incredibly long trip back home. During the flight I pulled the stereo headphones off Michael and asked him how he felt about his accomplishments.

"You’ve graduated from college to law school, and from plains game to buffalo," I sagely observed. "Will that hold you for a while?"

"Maybe," he said. "But I still want some other plains game. And then, there were those lion tracks . . . ."

"You didn’t spend all your money on this trip, did you?"

I settled back in my seat and made a mental note: Push retirement back another five years.

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