One on one with Africa's Black Death
of yesteryear • Adventure Sport • Africa: The Good News • Book Reviews •
In a famous gun shop in Madrid there is a notice that reads: "Please, do not tell us your horrible hunting stories". This is precisely what I am going to do.
At the annual dinner of Safari Club International, chapter of Castile, celebrated last year, I had the good fortune to receive a gift from my wife in the shape of an envelope that contained a trip to hunt buffalo in Zimbabwe. Since these kind of adventures should not be attempted alone - almost at the same time as I was bidding on my wife’s behalf for this hunt - my good friend, Luis Robles, decided to join me. And this with the kind consent of his wife!
To prepare for the hunting adventure in Africa, we wanted to be ready for every eventuality. First of all, because the destination of Zimbabwe was not the most advisable, and as alarms always went off with regards to certain issues and we tend to believe all that we hear on the news. During five months that preceded our trip, I tried to research everything on the political, economic, cultural situation - and especially hunting issues – as much as I could. All our initial reservations were overcome by the facts from our research.
With the necessary due diligence and foresight we reserve our flights via South Africa to the airport of Bulawayo. The combination of flights, that at first would have been with Iberia followed by South African Airlines, had to be modified at short notice and brought forward. This meant a change of route, so Iberia flew us up to Johannesburg and from there with Air Zimbabwe to Bulawayo.
Until the day of our trip, I was reading about the buffalo in a well-known book that had been published on the subject at that time as well as any other article or chapters of other books or publications that fell in my hands.
During my research I saw innumerable photos of buffaloes grazing and hunters calmly posing with magnificent specimens in front of them. I decided that I would give it all I had to have my own buffalo and photograph, proudly posing as they did. I was looking forward to see not only a single buffalo, but to many sightings.
The special day came and we went to the T4 of Barajas to check in the rifles and set out towards our destination. I was pleasantly surprised with the facility and the unbeatable help with dealing with the legal documentation with our weapons by both the Civil Guard and in the counters of Iberia. Their willingness to help might also have something to do with the fact that we were carrying weapons!
Once we got to South Africa we met with Simon, extraordinary warm and kind person who helped many Spanish hunters. He certainly merits all my respect, thanks and gratitude. With his aid we registered the weapons for safety and security, and since neither the companies nor the flights were connected, we were not sure our kit would be arriving at the final destination.
Taking the Air Zimbabwe plane to Bulawayo gave us a different sensation; it meant that this was the real beginning of our adventure. We were transported to the plane in a bus which we shared with several tourists, some locals and a few Canadian nuns. On arriving at the plane’s parking position and on descending from the bus, we noticed that two of the plane’s four wheels were ok, but the other two were in a deplorable state. The wires were showing on the outside. If this happened in Europe, I would have refused to fly. In Africa, however, it was just another tale of survival to (hopefully) share in the future. We looked at each other - and secure in the knowledge that we have seen our weapons and baggage being loaded onto the plane – we shrugged our shoulders and boarded the plane.
After a safe landing in the more or less paved runway of the international airport of Bulawayo we were made to feel welcome from the first moment. Once inside the "airport" and as night was approached, we met our professional hunter, which I might add; from that moment and to now we came to consider him as a magnificent friend
With the help of Pedro Queipo del Llano we retrieved our weapons and baggage without problems.
Our stay in Bulawayo was short and sweet: only the few minutes which the route took between the exit of the airport and the highway that led us to the hunter’s territory. We arrived at dusk to a very well equipped camp with several bungalows and good drinking water and surrounded by fields and open land. The main house with the kitchen, lounge and dining room were used as a communal area while the other buildings were for the hunters’ accommodation, trackers and other staff.
On that same night we met those who were going to be our PH, specified by Zimbabwean law to be local hunters. Since we were going to hunt in 1x1 and Luis preferred that Pedro would accompany him because of his lack of English, I did not have other alternative but to join the locals.
The hunts started from dawn until mid morning and from after lunch until dusk. Already on the first day after only two hours of following buffalo tracks my PH managed to get me to within sixty meters of a herd of approximately twenty that were grazing in an area of tall shrubs. The wind changed direction and the buffaloes smelt us, disappearing immediately with a tremendous noise. This was the first time that I saw these amazing animals in their normal habitat and it really impressed me, in spite of not having had the opportunity for a shot. The reality was that, when all is said and done, we had only just begun.
The days that followed went from real safari to tracking. Hunting in Zimbabwe is mindblowing, wild, natural and very real. We never came across any wire fence and the animals were moving with absolute freedom and grace. As the area was sandy we saw many tracks of elephants, lions, leopards, kudu, and hyena. Nevertheless, the thing that alarmed us the most was the body of a black mamba that was laying in the dry river-bed, coiled up and headless.
During the following three days we followed many tracks and on several occasions we got as close as to be able to take a shot at the herd of buffalo. We were very controlled and patient and a few times they got away because they could hear us or even smell us.
This situation which all hunters know well was causing tension and this could be felt in the evenings at mealtime - especially when your hunting partner has managed to take a magnificent buffalo. The days pass and you begin to worry because you still have nothing. Luis had fulfilled the task at hand and knocked down a magnificent buffalo with his .375 H&H with the help of Honest Ndlovu, the local PH that was accompanying the group. They retrieved the animal without any problem and we were able to take a few good photos at the camp.
The topic of conversation of our meals, dinners and campfire talks were hunting, hunting, and more hunting. Perhaps as a premonition, Luis asked what to do in case of a buffalo charge. I had read in the book to which I referred earlier that there was no thing specific you can do – a buffalo is an animal that when angry is just going to kill you.
If you run, it will catch up with you before you know it; if you remain calm and stand still, then your chances of survival is reduced by 100% - and to climb up a tree is useless and not easy considering these are mostly shrubs and not more than ten centimeters in diameter.
The situation becomes very dangerous and you certainly do not want to do is provoke a buffalo. When Luis shot his buffalo he commented on how dangerous and powerful the animal was, especially considering it had already received the first shot. At that moment it turns and runs it is necessary to steel yourself, keep a cool head, be fully aware of the situation and begin tracking.
The conclusion that we came to - and if there was no possibility of knocking down to the animal - the best to do would be what the matadors do: throw yourself flat on the ground and try to hold on to something to make it impossible for your body to be lifted in any way. This will prevent the buffalo from goring you with the horns. The placement of the horns and the shape of the muzzle prevents him from hurting us more in this position – unfortunately the buffalo would still be able to stamp on the unfortunate hunter in this position.
On the following day Luis and Pedro initiated the search of another buffalo and I, accompanied by my assigned tracker, the PH and the driver of the vehicle went to look for my buffalo. After an hour and having cut the tracks of three "dagga boys" we managed to spot them on an opposite hill to where we were. The animals were grazing and we managed to get within a hundred and twenty meters from them which gave us enough space to prevent being seen or smelt by them.
The PH asked me if I was sure I would be able to make the shot on the larger animal with my .416 Rigby and I answered him affirmatively and without hesitation. The rifle was to set up on the tripod and I aimed and took my shot. The PH doubled the shot with his .458 but missed but the buffalo nevertheless took a well placed shot from me. As he was hit he jumped and started running straight ahead.
Before following up – and remembering the conversation during dinner the previous evening - I advised the PH to wait. I said he could take a smoking break and that we will begin the search in an hour. Nevertheless my PH and the tracker, after a brief conversation, concluded that the shot was well placed and that the best thing would be to begin tracking the beast. This was the real thing. When we arrived to the spot were the animal took the shot we saw the first traces of blood. It was glistening red, arterial blood and the animal was bleeding freely. We agreed that the shot was well placed and the tracks indicated that it was accompanied by another male.
We started tracking the animal and observed that at approximately two hundred meters from where he was hit the animal had lain down, leaving a puddle of blood behind. From the tracks the tracker concluded that the buffalo had a broken right leg. This was obvious to the tracker as he could see that it was trying to support his right leg over his left, dragging his left on the ground and leaving a distinctive mark. The tracks of the accompanying buffalo were normal and he was obviously not hurt.
We followed the animal for almost three hours in this way, making it get up and keep going every two or three hundred meters. At one stage we were crossing a forest of mopane which to me looked like an oak forest. It wasn’t the easiest of places to get across and at some stages we even had go almost on our knees to get through it. At one point, when we were going down a hill and the buffaloes were on the slope before us, we were convinced that they must have seen us. As came up to a good position we noticed that the uninjured beast had left its companion to face its destiny alone by taking another course.
Every time we got close to the buffalo and heard it in the distance moving up and down the hill. Where it had gone past the trees the bark was peeled as rubbed his boss against them. The experienced PH informed me that it was clear that the animal was very aggressive at this point. In hindsight, perhaps the best thing to have done would have been to stop and wait, to remove the scope of the rifle and call Pedro by radio to ask him for his backup. We did nothing of the sort but resumed the search. When you have been tracking a wounded buffalo for two or three hours it is almost impossible to hold back the mixture of excitement, tension and anticipation. You certainly never expect to be met suddenly by the animal, especially when the tracker and the professional is in front of you, holding a rifle in his hands.
Every step we took we saw blood, which indicated that the bleeding continued. This meant that it was not a completely bad shot on my behalf. In this environment of thick mopane and sand,this knowledge did not help to give me a sense of tranquillity. It had exactly the opposite effect.
We could not see further than twelve or thirteen meters and this added to the knowledge that a knocked down animal would be hard to spot under these circumstances. You would just come up on to it without any warning. The buffalo was aware of our approach and tried to get away with quick burst of energy, devastating everything that he encountered in his way.
The tracker, a boy approximately twenty years old and without any doubt a professional in his field, was not doing nothing but looking at the ground and the blood track. He was walking ahead of us, closely followed by the PH with a .458 loaded with solid bullet. Last but not least came yours truly carrying a CZ .416 Rigby loaded with a soft point bullet for the first round and solid the rest.
Then the worst possible thing happened.
At that exact moment the tracker looked up and spotted the rear part of the buffalo ten meters away. Suddenly and without warning he spun around and started running like hell in the opposite direction to the bull. As he ran past me, his face was blank with fear and his mouth twitched spasmodically as he tried in vain to mouth the words "buffalo, buffalo!"
The PH, whom I was trusting and expecting to react without hesitation and act as cool as ice, took a mighty leap up in the air and ended up about three meters to my right.
Suddenly I was alone facing the black death.
As it turned to the right the injured animal was getting ready to charge. At that moment -and undoubtedly inspired and helped by Divine Providence and backed up by my Guardian Angel that was accompanying me - I managed to take a direct shot to the heart, one which I was convinced would kill it.
How wrong can one be! In spite of that the buffalo turned and began to charge with a gallop. I had no time to reload. I was hoping that PH would shoot it and I did indeed hear a shot from the PH. Unfortunately he shot only at the clear blue sky.
At that moment - and right before the imminent attack - I did not hesitate to do what we had been talking about the previous night around dinner: I got rid of my rifle and threw myself on the ground, sticking to it as though I wanted it to swallow me.
If I had run, the buffalo would have reached me and I would be dead now.
When the buffalo is charging there is no time to be afraid.
As I was lying on the ground the buffalo got to me and I could see and feel him banging on my side, arm and leg, moving its head for side to side wanting to crush me.
The four or five seconds that the attack lasted felt like many minutes. I kept hoping that the PH would shoot the animal to knock him down - but I was wrong again.
All he did was to scream out something in Shona. I imagine that he did it thinking that the buffalo had already killed me. To his horror, only he managed to attract the beasts attention.
I will forever have this image engraved in my mind: the buffalo raising his head and turning to were the noise was coming from, leaving lying on the ground and setting off again in the direction of the professional.
The buffalo knocked him down and lay down on top of him. We are talking about a buffalo, people. It which weighs much more than a couple of kilograms.
I took advantage of the moment and, surprised that he (and I) was still alive, picked up my rifle and loaded the next bullet. I walked towards the animal which was still lying on top of the PH.
The PH kept on screaming at the top of his voice that the buffalo was crushing and killing him. Even though he was not much help during the charge, I thought it prudent to prevent the PH’s death and took a final shot at the buffalo’s spine.
Once it was lying motionless, I cautiously moved closer with the rifle loaded and aiming at it. I put the cannon in the eye socket to verify that he was well and truly dead.
The PH was still insisting that the buffalo had crushed and killed him. I took the animal by the tail and raised the right leg in the purest bullfighter style to try and roll him of my screaming PH.
As if by magic the tracker reappeared out of nothing and helped me. Between us we managed to get the PH out from under the dead animal.
In view of the disappointing performance of the local PH I did not have any other choice but to take control of the situation and sent the tracker to get the vehicle that was approximately five kilometres from the point we where standing. I ordered him to call the others on the radio and explain what had happened to us and send someone to come and collect us.
Luis and of Pedro were very worried and this showed when they finally got to us. I called my wife from the satellite phone to tell her about our experience and to announce that I had just become a citizen of Zimbabwe. I can not repeat the names she called me but I can assure you I did not need a phone to hear her shouting at me.
I have to thank God nothing had happened to me or any of us. To come up to where we were the vehicle had two punctures and we had to make tracks for the car using a spade and axe, as though the day had not been hard enough so far.
The dead buffalo was very old, with a massive and completely closed boss. It is a magnificent specimen and I am particularly proud to have had brought it down.
Later that day and as we got to rest, it was going through my mind that this might be my first and last buffalo I will get to hunt in my lifetime. From now on I would only spend my time shooting partridges. No hunting can compare or come close to this event.
On the following day after returning from Victoria Falls to and to take my flattened PH to the Hospital, I picked up the rifle again with the firm intention of continuing hunting buffalo at every possible occasion.
My body was badly bruised and I got very used to the black and blue shades that turned into almost every other colour. It hurt like blazes but fortunately I came back alive.
When we returned to the camp the skinner handed me the three bullets that the buffalo had inside all of my .416 Rigby, two softpoints and a solid one. Curiously none of them mushroomed and the first one opened only very little.
If this amazing experience has come taught me anything it is that the second shot that the buffalo took to the chest when it turned towards me saved my life - but what really helped was the fact that I threw myself to the ground following the good advice of my friend Pedro. If I had ran or remained still, the buffalo would have killed me at there in the mopane forest that day.
The fact that it had taken a first shot to the lower leg which broke the bone also contributed immensely to the fact that it could not trample on me or walk over me when I was on the ground.
Another thing is that when the buffalo charged towards the professional it knew it was already dying and it threw itself on him to asphyxiate and crush him.
The buffalo is a very dangerous animal. Because of its power and size it does not tend to fall down after the first shot.
We must take all the shots we can,. Never think that it is an easy prey.
After this experience I do not doubt that it is the most dangerous animal in Africa and has marked me forever.
This trip, I think, would not be advisable for hunters who must have comfort nor for record-book hunters. This was simply a commendable a safari for true hunters.
I cannot finish this story without congratulating Pedro Queipo de Llano on his magnificent work and pure professionalism. I also extend my gratitude to the PH, as well to Honest Ndlovu and Nobula for their work. Also my dear friend Luis Robles for his company and friendship during and beyond these trips, and last and in no way least, thank you to our magnificent and supportive wives, Susana and Marisol for allowing us to take part in this magnificent adventure in a beautiful part of the world.
All content copyright The African Expedition Magazine.
No portion of this site or publication may be transmitted, stored or used without written permission.
All rights reserved.