The strong afternoon breeze off the Indian Ocean blew through the brittle leaves of the mopane tree shading my tent, creating a rustling that covered the buzzing of the crickets but failed to compete with the call of the grey lourie. Wind pushed the clouds to the western horizon where the sun painted them orange as it set. I heard the sounds of camp take on a new energy as the searing heat finally relented. Swahili flowed free and easy in the air as the camp staff laughed and prepared for the return of the hunters.
It was almost the end of another day in Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve, but no one in camp knew the date, or even which day of the week it was. We were not even halfway through a 21-day safari, and the outside world’s responsibilities seemed a lifetime away, its daily grind unthinkable. Life in the bush didn’t require a calendar, let alone a watch. After the nightly meal I retired to my tent, reflecting on the day’s progress and imagining what tomorrow might bring.
“Shower ready.” The raspy voice of the camp’s waterman broke the next morning’s silence.
I smelled bacon and African coffee, more than enough incentive to drag myself out of bed. After a hot shower and a bite, it was on to packing for the day’s hunt. The head tracker collected my .375 H&H, .300 Win. Mag. and B. Searcy .470 Nitro Express. When you’re facing dangerous game, nothing can compare with the feeling of security you get with the B. Searcy. If one shot isn’t enough, that second trigger gives you a second chance both at a trophy and escape.
As we piled into the Toyota Land Cruiser, the quickly rising sun bathed us in its morning glow, and the African bush came alive all around us. Impalas hissed and snorted, hartebeests stood at attention and warthogs ran from us as fast as they could–tails pointing straight up.
The head tracker, Charles, pointed to a warthog. “Ngiri,” he said.
I repeated the Swahili name, and he smiled approvingly. He knew I thirsted to speak the language fluently, so he continued.
“Naona ngiri.” (I see warthog.) I repeated it and Charles laughed, possibly out of pride, more likely out of pain at my pronunciation. He knew I’d probably forget the word by lunchtime. Masai trackers by nature are happy and friendly–and why not? They have employment, nyama (meat) and a tip coming at the end of the safari. Hunting clients provide these very tangible items, but it’s their intangible qualities that provide most trackers with entertainment. Case in point – my struggles with Swahili.
Suddenly, our professional hunter, Laurent Garcia, snapped his fingers – twice, loudly. Everyone heard the signal, and I instinctively reached for the roll bar as the truck stopped. In front of the vehicle in the soft sand was the unmistakable dung of a Cape buffalo. As clearly as a story written on paper, the tracks and dung told the tale – a huge herd had crossed the road no more than an hour ago. The dung was soft, warm and a deep shade of green. The tracks stretched for 50 yards, and the herd’s direction was clear.
The well-oiled machine that was our crew kicked into gear. The cameraman hefted his 30-pound HD camera, the lead tracker grabbed my favorite shooting sticks, while another took the camera’s tripod. Laurent took off his jacket and readied his .458 Lott. I checked the custom .375 H&H that artist and gunsmith Todd Ramirez had built for this hunt, and put the sling over my shoulder.
Satisfied that we were ready, Laurent nodded to signal that we were moving out. I followed his lead into the bush. A good PH always wants to put his client in the best possible position for the shot. He wants success, but most important, he wants his hunter to be happy.
My job is similar in a lot of ways. For 28 years, I have “filmed the hunt.” When I founded Safari Video Productions in 1982, my goal was to capture the essence of hunting – to show the beauty of the wildlife and document the hunter-conservationist.
With a degree in telecommunications and film and more than 30 safaris in Africa, I’ve learned the difference between “filming the hunt” and “hunting for the film.” SCI Expedition Safari, which I host, is a prime example of the latter. Sometimes the monster trophy is in the crosshairs, but the hunter can’t touch the trigger because the camera isn’t ready. The light may be wrong, the focus too soft, a branch obscuring the view or there may be simply not enough pre-roll.
Whatever the reason, the animal is not taken. We hunt for the film.
I’m like the PH in that my job is to get my crew into position to make sure they have the best chance to get the best shot. The rifle is the camera and the trophy is the one-of-a-kind footage of a magnificent creature’s final moments. Quality footage makes for a happy audience, which in turn makes me happy at a job well done.
But even for TV, it’s still a hunt, and at that moment the possibilities went through my mind as we followed the buffalo tracks. Would I remain patient and not get caught up in the excitement, or would I shoot too quickly and end up without the one element of the TV episode that cannot be re-created?
Moving in single file, we arrived where the herd lay at rest in the midday heat. I raised my Nikon binocular and spotted the huge boss of the dominant bull. I looked quickly at Laurent. Sure enough, he had already picked out the same bull and was formulating his plan.
The camera started to hum, and I set the rifle on my favorite shooting sticks, their familiarity bringing a small measure of calm to the quick beating of my heart. The rifle’s forend grip sat in the “V,” and the pigskin recoil pad pressed against my right shoulder.
“Shoot him if you’re comfortable,” Laurent said. I was anything but. The bull was lying down at my 11 o’clock position, just slightly to my left. But the only shot was frontal and we were just over 100 yards away. The nature of the angle meant that the cameraman’s view was obscured, something I realized quickly.
“Let’s wait for him to get up,” I said.
“He might run off. Then you’ll have no shot,” was Laurent’s predictable response.
“That’s a chance I’ll have to take.”
As if on cue, the bull stood. I covered the vitals and followed, waiting for him to stop. He disappeared behind a tree, and three seconds later a different bull stepped out. Both Laurent and I had been fooled by this trick before. So we waited. Our big-bossed bull finally reappeared, two oxpeckers hopping across his near side. One looked inside his ear while the other waited his turn to peck at the insects that torment Cape buffaloes.
Laurent’s excitement was evident in his tone. “That’s him, that’s him!”
This time, I knew my cameraman was ready. My eye focused on the bull, then the crosshairs, then the shoulder, then a spot on the shoulder, and finally on the convergence. I breathed in, then exhaled deeply, feeling my muscles relax.
I felt no recoil and heard no sound when the gun fired. Everything was quiet.
Buffaloes are not the easiest animals to take. Their thick hides are where hasty bullets go to die, leaving the overeager hunter wondering about what might have been. But buffaloes do react to the first hit when they are hit well.
My patience paid off. The oxpeckers flew off, and the buffalo’s shoulders hunched as his head dropped and his tail shot up in panic. The beast spun in place to run back in the direction he’d come from. Without looking at my rifle, I reloaded as fast as the action could slide. The bolt slammed down with a metallic click, and I placed the scope between my right eye and the running bull. The second shot rang out accompanied by a thump. This time there was no visible reaction, and for an instant I questioned the shot. I reloaded and fired again.
We were on top of the buffalo. And with just a few more moments of dedication to the hunt, we would take a trophy back to camp, rather than fodder for a night of campfire stories about the one that got away. Working with the PH is the surest route to success, no matter the hunt.
My bull had tried to reach the safety of the herd, realizing his fate if he was unable to remain with the others. With 900 grains of Barnes Triple Shock passing through his lungs, the bull turned to find the origin of the attack. Unable to make it to tall grass or thick thorn scrub cover, he did what buffaloes sometimes do when caught in the open: He sought to destroy the source of danger.
I looked through the scope and saw the bull turn toward me. It was the crucial moment every buffalo hunter experiences, the split second between charge and run, the split second that gives dangerous game hunting its name. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s a run. But there’s always that one percent.
I shot again. He went down.
“Mzuri sana,” he said. Very good.
The tsetse fly bites don’t sting quite as much when the day ends in success. Another scene was in the can; the hunt in fact did happen. The camp had nyama, fresh meat.
The best time of day had arrived again, with a gentle wind pushing away the heat. We drove back to camp, and I looked out over Africa, hearing the crickets starting their song. I watched the wildlife retreat for the evening and the sky grow more orange by the minute. And I still didn’t quite know what day it was.– Mike Rogers