My best friend and I clamped our legs hard against the sides of our pinto ponies as they burst from a trot into a gallop. The herd of buffalo took flight, and the echo of their pounding hoofs on the lush, green prairie along the Greasy Grass River sounded like rolling thunder. I quickly closed the gap with a magnificent, old bull and pulled the arrow in my bow back to full draw. I released the arrow and it flew straight. The buffalo‘s knees buckled, and he rolled head over heels. My friend killed his buffalo as well, and we raised our bows into the air and shouted out our victory.
As a young boy growing up in Sheridan, Wyoming, that’s what I dreamed about when I thought of buffalo hunting. The famous Little Big Horn River, or “Greasy Grass River,” as the Lakota Sioux called it, was only an hour’s drive north from where we lived. I had seen the semidesert plains along this small river turn velvety-green for a brief time each spring. The grass and trees were so lush that the plains Indians thought the river valley was “greasy.” The buffalo congregated there, and it was a favorite hunting area for the local Native Americans. Although the buffalo in this area are long gone, in my imagination, that was what I always used to think about when someone mentioned buffalo hunting—but not anymore!
The early rains of the wet season had turned the landscape in northern Tanzania into an emerald sea of green. I didn’t have a pinto pony, but we had a Toyota Land Cruiser. I don’t think the Masai thought of the area as “greasy,” but it certainly was. The Cruiser had been left behind, firmly stuck in the mud. There were three buffalo that we were stalking, and they were quite real—big, black Cape buffalo, that no one in their right mind would approach on a horse with a bow and arrow.
The walking was tough. The ground was muddy, and the buffalo had a few hours’ head start on us. However, I was thrilled to be back on a buffalo hunt. It is a quest. You follow the spoor, knowing that the buffalo can smell and hear like a whitetail deer. They are elusive and can hide their huge bodies in the shade of a bush. And when you finally catch up with them, they may dispatch you, rather than the other way around, if you give them reason—and on some occasions, even if you don’t.
This was a dream come true hunt, I was enjoying with a good friend and fellow hunting companion, Jim Langley. We were hunting out of the Lolkasale Camp in the Masailand region of northern Tanzania, near the Tarangire National Park. We were hunting in early December, the beginning of the wet season. The verdant greenery brought on by the first rains had turned the arid landscape into an Eden like garden. This was an area and time of year first made famous by Hemingway in his classic novel, The Green Hills of Africa. This was an area well known for its abundance of big, aggressive Cape buffalo. Many record book size buffalo have been taken from the Lolkasale area, but not all hunts have had a happy ending. Provoked and unprovoked, the buffalo there demand a great deal of respect.
Suddenly, Clement our tracker, motioned for us to get down. Dean Kendall, my professional hunter, motioned me forward. I clutched my Ruger .458 Lott tightly to my side as I crawled up behind a bright red termite mound. Dean crawled a few more yards forward and rose up onto his knees behind a couple of small trees. After glassing for a few seconds, he quickly motioned for me to follow him. I crawled over, and he pointed to three buffalo, slowly walking through the trees ahead of us. Dean whispered, “The old bull in the center has probably been pushed out of the herd. He has two younger askari bulls with him. He has very wide, hard bosses. We can always look for a bigger one, but he is a nice trophy, and we should take him.” I nodded my agreement and tried to position myself up alongside the tree. The only shooting window was too high to kneel down and too low to stand up. I finally found a position where I could keep the stock firmly against my shoulder and the scope away from my eye.
The bull was in the open, about 115 yards away. As I found him in my scope, he began to move, slowly grazing from left to right. I got the cross hairs on his shoulder and followed him, patiently waiting for him to stop. On my first safari, I had wounded a buffalo. After absorbing four initial shots, it took an additional three shots from my professional hunter and I to stop his charge. He was only five yards away when my final shot brought him down. Five more yards and I would have been severely wounded or dead. That first experience weighed heavily on my mind as I waited for the buffalo to pause. I didn’t want a repeat of that first encounter.
The buffalo kept moving, and I realized that in a few more yards, he would be out of the clearing and into the trees. I had to take the shot now, or let him go. I kept the cross hairs moving with him, confident that I could make a good clean shot. I slowly started to squeeze the trigger. He paused, but I was too slow to respond. The gun continued forward ever so slightly as it roared into life.
As the gun bucked from the recoil, I had a flash of deja vu panic. I instantly realized the shot was not perfect. However, before this thought really had time to form, the buffalo was thunder struck dead by some mighty force. He dropped with the shot, without a twitch. He appeared to be stone dead!
While I stood up, still stunned by what had happened, Dean said, “You must have spined him.”
“I think I hit him in the base of the neck,” I replied.
“OK,” Dean said cautiously. “We have to be very careful. You may have just stunned him. Reload and be ready.”
The two younger bulls didn’t want to leave their old buddy, and we had to wait a few minutes for them to finally clear out. We slowly walked to within fifteen yards of the buffalo, and Dean had me administer an insurance shot between the shoulders. The buffalo never twitched, and upon examination, the bullet had indeed severed his spine at the base of his neck. What irony, I thought. My first shot on a buffalo a few years before was a little off, and he became a “terminator,” whom it seemed would never die. This shot was a little off, and the buffalo died instantly. OK, “I’m even,” I told myself, “but the next buffalo has got to be perfectly shot.” A couple of days later I made good on my promise. And towards the end of the hunt, I kept that promise once again. Both buffalo were taken with one, well-placed, heart-lung shot. Jim, along with his professional hunter, Brian Van Blerk, had some exciting campfire tales to tell as well. One day, Jim and Brian spotted a large bull and began a stalk.
The bull seemed to be in a satellite position around a small herd. It was a very open area, and Brian took them on a long walk, always trying to keep some scrub brush between themselves and the buffalo. It was a bit of a cat and mouse game. The hunters were able to keep the wind in their face, but were not always concealed very well. They finally worked their way to within 180 yards of the bull. One of Brian’s trackers, Albert, was carrying Jim’s .416 Rigby, while Jim carried his double. Brian took the .416 from Albert and gave it to Jim. They slowly walked forward a few more paces, and Brian set up the shooting sticks. The bull was facing them as they looked up to the top of a long ridge. The bull was nervous and about ready to turn and run. A couple more steps and he would be over the ridge and out of sight.
Jim settled the rifle onto the sticks and found the bull in the scope. Jim didn’t have his binoculars with him and hadn’t seen the buffalo up close. Brian had only whispered when he set up the sticks, “It’s a good one. Go ahead and shoot.” However, when Jim looked at that buffalo through his scope, his mouth nearly fell open. This wasn’t just a good one, this was the monster buffalo of his dreams. All he could see were horns. They were thick and heavy and looked a mile wide. He actually had to force himself to stop looking at the horns. Jim settled in on the chest, but he was slightly out of wind. He was also gripped with his first real case of African buck fever. He squeezed the trigger, but pulled it a little to the right. At the sound of the gun, the big bull gave a shudder, but quickly whirled and went back over the hill.
By the time Brian and Jim got to the top of the hill, there was no buffalo in sight. Brian started scanning the broad valley before them and eventually spotted the bull. He was about a quarter of a mile away and still moving. He eventually slowed down and then headed into a large grove of scrub trees and acacia thorn bush. It didn’t appear to Brian that he ever came out. After a few minutes, they started after him.
Again, Brian tried to keep as much cover as possible between them and the buffalo. They worked their way forward to the spot where the bull had entered the thick brush. Albert was tracking in the lead and carrying Jim’s Rigby. Jim had his double. Everyone was on high alert. Brian took the lead when the brush started to thin out. Then Brian stopped and turned. They could see a long way forward, and there was no buffalo in sight. This could only mean one thing, and it was not good. The buffalo had reentered the bush when he heard the hunters coming. The hunters might now be the hunted!
While they were trying to determine what to do, the buffalo suddenly broke out of the bush, but, thankfully, was still in a flight frame of mind. He was about 80 yards out and quartering away when Jim got his double up and on him. Jim knew it was a long shot, but the bull was already wounded, and they had to stop him.
A little later, they caught up with the old bull again. He was waiting for them in a thinner bunch of thorn bush. Jim made a broadside shot at about one hundred yards, and this time the old bull went down for good. He was by far the biggest bull we took on the hunt, with massive bosses and a spread well over forty-six inches.
We both got three trophy bulls by the time the hunt was finished. More importantly, it was the buffalo hunt in the Greasy Grass that I had always imagined—not off a pinto pony, but every bit as exciting.—Ted McNeff