By Jofie Lamprecht
There are some stories that must be written. If they are not, they will only be remembered by those who were there in the heat and dust, with thirst on their thick tongues, and their minds wandering far away when they should be concentrating on the task at hand. Stories lost because they were not written.
For some stories, not all the cast be named – dignity and pride is involved. Not all hunts are error-free and glorious. Not all hunters have glory every day, even though every day is glorious in Africa.
I write this story for my friend Gideon. Our path has been long. Thirty-two years I have known him. He was young then, and I was younger. We had an African-American gentleman on safari with my father and me – we being European-Africans, eleventh and twelfth-generation European-Africans. Our client was from Detroit, Michigan, a Muslim, and a delightful fellow. Fit, strong, a heck of a sense of humor, and dressed in all-khaki safari gear. We hunted out of Volker Grellmann’s Eagle Rock hunting camp on the farm, De Hoop, north of Omitara in eastern Namibia. I was a seasoned hunter at a mighty six-years-old, also khaki-clad, binoculars around my neck, and I was ready to go.
This is where I met Gideon – 20 something at the time, born and raised in Namibia and from the Oshiwambo tribe, and with a smile that could lure you out of depression.
We now go back to the future. Gideon is in my full-time employ, after more than 30 years of service with Mr. Grellmann. He is both my left and right hand. With a single look, things thoughtfully get done.
Collecting our client Duke and his wife Lanny, we drove up to my favorite place, Waterberg National Park. Permits and bag limits being smaller and way pricier than the old days, we were after a single Cape buffalo on a week-long safari. We arrived in camp. I had already sighted in my rifle I was loaning to Duke. Now, it was time for lunch and then up to the plateau.
Our team included the indispensable Gideon, Dylan my young apprentice, and my wonderful camp crew of Wayne and Mercia. Thomas the game ranger and I go way back to my first years’ hunting in the park – always friendly, always a big smile, always positive – all the things a state official should be, but usually are not. We spent the first afternoon driving around and showing our guests the lay of the land, and discussing the next dawn’s legal first-light hunt.
Duke was in his 70s, with multiple joint replacements, and we both agreed that the beach-like sand of Waterberg was going to tax him to the extreme, and decided we hunt via what I call “remote control.” Duke would guard the truck and we would track buffalo, check if there were any notable heads among them, and if so, retrieve him and lead him to the buffalo.
All very simple in theory. Applied theory is usually more difficult.
We started on our first full day in the spring heat of a dry and dusty Waterberg. I decided to go to the least desirable, most difficult area to hunt in the park. We cast around the water and immediately the soup-plate drag mark tracks across the road were evident. Wordlessly we collected our gear and headed off on the track, Gideon leading, me second, Dylan with my spare .470 double over the shoulder, and then Thomas to make sure we followed the rules.
After a mile or so, Gideon turned to me and said there were at least two bulls feeding together because their tracks overlap each other. The pace is brisk. The once 8-foot high “rose-thorn” bush had apparently been burnt the year before by lightning. Visibility, though limited to a maximum of 50 yards, was much better, but still a grey expanse of slightly undulating dunes. A herd of eland cows crossed our track, and we stopped to let them pass so as not to create alarm.
The sun, higher and brighter, burnt our backs, double barrels now thawing in hand. Gideon stopped to contemplate the track. “What’s going on?” I asked, and waited. “They are close, we need to be extra vigilant,” he said. We slowed our pace, heads scanning the grey bush like a Wimbledon game. We crested a low dune and the tracks looped lazily left. We paused. Scanned. With a touch on the shoulder, we continued.
I grabbed Gideon by the shoulder and pushed him down. Twenty yards in front of us there was a big black shadow in the grey rose-thorn. Illusion? The four of us froze, and as we stopped moving, so the shadow moved. The buffalo was now noisily plucking up the grass while bulldozing through the grey bush. To our left was a second one feeding. Too close. The bull on the left was a giant. Not very wide, but with huge bosses, a good drop, and his tips came all the way up. A sure shooter. Crouched, we now started backtracking to get out before they sensed us. We’d had the wind in our faces all morning, but as we turned, so did the wind. There was a crash behind us, then the thundering gallop of two buffalo fleeing our scent. It was over. Those bulls would now go and crawl into the most horrid thorns – this track was dead. Time to start over.
Skipping a day, I decided to try and find the big-footed bull again, and along the rhino path, in the same place as before, were the soup-bowl-sized drag tracks. The truck was parked in the shade to repeat the same format – Duke was going to guard the truck and the team was going to see if we could catch these bulls unawares and get Duke in for a shot.
We easily followed the rhino path for a couple of miles. This bull was on a mission. The dragging tracks swung off the path and our pace slowed as the buffalo started feeding. We were catching up. The tracks took us further than we thought they would be, a few miles. It was late morning when Gideon turned and said, “We are very close.” The seemingly never-ending sea of grey bush with scant shade had lulled us, and my concentration was coming and going. It was a hot August day, and I thought to myself even if we found the buffalo, how could we get our client in there?
The tracks zigzagged and a black ghost appeared in front of us. We all four sank to our knees in unison. We waited a full minute before I slowly stood to see if they were still there. Two bulls, including the brute I saw two days ago, were 30 yards away. One was busily feeding, the other already bedded down, but in the sun. In the soft white sand, we crawled back out on our tracks. There was no shift in the wind, and no crashing of bushes this time. At a safe distance, we had an indaba (conference) about what our plan of action was. There was a road about a mile and a half to the south that we could get Duke to, and then bring him in on foot. The problem was that the buffalo would move. As the midday sun burned their black bodies, they would seek shade. Scanning the sea of monotonous grey, I could see no shade to speak of. This meant that the buffalo would push themselves under grey thorn brush, and be very hard to see if they were not moving.
We marched in the direction of the road, excitement building – this might be our day. After a few hundred yards we hit a rhino trail, freshly used, that was conveniently going in our direction. Getting to the road I looked at Dylan: “Straight down this road about three miles, and take the first road left. A mile – and you will be at the truck.” He turned and marched to bring Duke a lot closer to where we started.
I stretched out and took a nap in the shade of a shepherd tree, only to be woken 20 minutes later by ticks crawling all over me. Gideon and Thomas chuckled – they’d chosen the tick-free scant shade, while Bwana-Big-Gun lay in the ample shade – my mistake.
The truck rumbled up in record time. Duke was told the plan and we went back down the rhino trail, a few hundred yards from where we had been, hoping the buffalo would rest in the only shade for at least a mile around. However, a herd of gemsbok had claimed the shade as theirs and unhappily scampered into the sun as we approached. We put out a camping chair for Duke to catch his breath, have a drink of water, and bandage the arm he had ripped on a rose-thorn bush. His blood thinners did not help in stopping the flow.
Once we had rested his mechanical joints, we crept close to where we left the buffalos. The bedded-down bull was gone, melted into the grey. This project just got a lot harder. We stood silent for a few minutes, till I heard a crunch of branches off to our right. I scanned the chest-high bush and saw our prey, head down, feeding slowly away. Project on again.
We slowly circled the bushes and advanced – every step carefully placed, the sun beating down on us, bleaching the energy out with every step. A movement caught my eye. With my Leica binoculars, I picked out the big boss I had seen two mornings before. This was our bull. At 30 yards, bedded down – I got Duke up on the sticks. “Do you see that shadow?” Duke nodded. “That is your bull. Wait for him to stand.”
Making my best buffalo bellow had no result. My antelope snort, however, had the desired effect. The buffalo stood and took several steps in our direction. Duke was ready with the .375 H&H by Rigby. The safety was off, and as the “t” of “shoot” left my lips, the ringing silence under the noonday sun was broken. The buffalo charged forward and started veering to our left, passing us at about 40 feet. I had no chance at a backup shot with Duke to my left. I kept everyone quiet. “Where did you hold?” I asked Duke. “Right between his eyes,” was the answer. I discussed this shortly with Gideon. With half the day behind us, our day just got a hell of a lot longer.
We advanced to find his track. Saw melon-sized marks gouged where he went from zero to full speed on his short stumpy legs; the turn and the exit. Gideon was taking slow, deliberate steps, his eyes locked onto the trail. We needed blood. We didn’t even know if or where he was hit…
Gideon bent down and plucked a piece of grass. Blood – a smear rather than a drop. The tense situation got more so.
The spoor was relatively straightforward to follow – the sheer size of it – and fresh. His gallop gave way to walking after 100 yards. Good sign? Gideon kept stopping and backtracking. Taking longer. I let him work. You cannot hurry this process. Finally, after two hours of this back and forth, I pulled him aside and asked gently, “What is going on?”
“I am not sure that this was our buffalo,” Gideon explained, “I have not seen blood for a long time.”
“This must be him – that track is unmistakable!”
“And if you shoot the wrong buffalo – what then?”, he said. Good point, I thought.
Gideon backtracked to the last blood. Then, he worked his way forward, grass-by-grass being examined. Each speck on the ground looked over, nothing left to chance. The concentration needed for this is incredible – kids of today struggle to watch a 90-second video, never mind hours of complete concentration with the sun beating down on your neck, having walked many miles before, and who knows how many more. We sat and waited. Too many feet would hide any sign for Gideon to find. He bent down and examined a leaf – smiled, showing his incredibly white teeth. Success! A speck of blood no bigger than the head of a needle – we were on the right track.
We continued. I took over every time we got to a thick patch of bush, my Heym .500 NE ready for any nasty surprises. Hours slipped by.
A sudden crash of bushes and everyone freezes – I point my rifle, not at a sight, but at a sound. Finger close to the trigger. No sight of him. This stuff is a thick grey mass of millions of hiding places for Black Death. They disappear so easily, like a shadow.
Again, we were stopped by Gideon a mile later. He backtracked. No blood where we spooked the buffalo. “I will not shoot unless I am sure,” I reassure him. We both contemplated the huge tracks at our feet. “Let’s go.” The drill was repeated with the sun well past its zenith and starting to sink to the horizon.
Thick bush. I lead. CRASH. Whaddup-whaddup-whaddup, as the giant hooves flee again. We go forward. Two places where he has bedded down. Blood is evident in both. Gideon stares at me. “This buffalo is hurt. He is not going to go far. You need to be ready.”
We pushed on, the bush staying the same monotonous grey. A few hundred yards up ahead we saw a small stand of trees. Shade. He must be headed there. We stayed on the track, and as we approached the trees I took the lead again. I cleared the shade – nothing. “He stood here and rested,” Gideon said, pointing at the small blood pool. From the shade, the track turned 90 degrees. It was now four o’clock. Gideon turned and gazed in the direction of the tracks. “He will not be far.”
Duke is beat. This has been an unplanned LONG walk for him. To his credit, he kept up and battled on without complaining, his shirtsleeves soaked in blood from the rose-thorn, a bottle of cool water in his hand the whole way, replaced as needed. We put down the chair for him. “Ten minutes, and then we push again,” I tell the group. “This guy has a bullet goodness knows where, and we will catch up to him. If we see him, he is fair game. Three guns – shoot at will. Weigh him down. We need to stop him. Let’s be careful.”
The 10 minutes passed all too quickly, and we stepped out into the glare of the now not so hot sun, legs stiffened from just 10 minutes of standing, and a serious case of baboon butt developing.
Not 10 minutes later, I heard a serious commotion from behind. Looking back I saw our ranger, Thomas, pointing forward, mouthing a word that I struggled to make out. We all stopped. He pointed with a hooked finger: “Black rhino.” Great, I thought, what else can go wrong today? We would have to loop around the rhino and then pick up the track on the far side. More problems for Gideon.
I slowly slid to the side to see what Thomas was talking about. A shadow. I raised my Leica’s: A hump. Too dark. A head raised… I had stared at those bosses a few times in the last days. This is our guy. I looked down at my Heym double rifle and raised the 100-yard leaf-sight, stepped out from behind the bush, and as the butt touched my shoulder, the shot went off.
The buffalo explodes forward in warhead-like fashion – the second barrel fires – no clue where the second bullet went. He slows and sticks his head into a thick patch of bush. Opening the double, empty shells clang and fly over my shoulder. I look back at the rest of the team. “Shoot!” is my simple instruction. Dylan steps forward, a tall, lanky reed at 17, raises the .470 NE he is carrying and wallops the buffalo from behind. The buffalo’s butt sags as I close my double and take aim. From my left, Dylan’s left barrel is set loose, and there is a thud of the bullet. He, two for two; me, one and don’t know. I look back at him – a smile of surprise and the joy of the hunter’s horn crosses his face. He had just shot his first buffalo. A glorious collaboration.
Duke had front row seats to the action – if we had not reacted as we did, we might still be tracking that buffalo, or worse – someone could have gotten hurt.
I beckoned over Duke and Thomas, the gunbearer for that day, and handed him the loaded .375 H&H. I grabbed Duke by the shirt and we went to the bush where our long-pursued target disappeared into. Coming close, I could see the buffalo, lying down. I pointed, and Duke sent a blast his way. “Reload, shoot.” Duke repeated the smooth action and shot again, both shots flying true.
We approached as the outsized-footed brute rolled on his side and gave a final death bellow. We waited a few minutes before I went in for the final safety check.
Hugs and high fives all around, Gideon’s smile the biggest. A potentially dangerous and disastrous day averted by not only skill but by experience. One of the best all-round tracking jobs I have ever seen. We had our prize.
Next question – where in the hell were we? We had not cut a road all day. I took out my GPS – three miles to the nearest road. We handed Duke the two last bottles of water, and we set off to fetch the truck. Duke got to enjoy his trophy while we still had work to do.
Hitting the road, I looked at Dylan, still with a silly grin on his face, dirty, bleeding a little, tired and happy. I pointed down. “Whose tracks are these, Dylan?” He bent.
“They look like mine from earlier today?”
“Well then, you know where the truck is, right?” His tired and ringing brain thought for a second, then he put his head down and started plodding towards the truck.
There was no “making a road” through this grey sea of bush. It would have taken us a full day. The shortest route was straight through. The team carried machetes – ‘pangas’ as they are locally known. They chopped here and there where it was bad, however, the truck did the brunt of the work. I can still hear the scratching and screeching from thorns on metal to this day…
With the sun touching the horizon, I rushed the photo shoot a little, later wishing I had taken 10 more minutes. It had been a long, taxing day for all of us. We loaded the brute and drove back on the Cruiser-bulldozed road we had made. I passed sandwiches out to the crew. To all, but Gideon…
In his mid-50s, after 19 long miles in the sun with soft sand underfoot, he started jogging in front of the truck, clearing branches as he went, for almost three miles back to the road.
This man of unmatched patience, concentration, as well as endurance. What an honor it is to work by his side. May the sun warm our backs for many more days, may the tracks lead us to our quarry, and the hunting Gods keep us safe.
Walking behind you, Gideon, has been one of the rare and distinct privileges of my life. A toast to you.