Black Death In Masailand

Glassing for buffalo
Glassing for buffalo

We were sitting on a narrow rock outcropping on a steep hillside overlooking some of the thickest growth of acacia trees and bushes in all of Masailand, when my PH, Paul Horsley, said, “There’s really a big buffalo.” He pointed at a small black spot in the middle of some of the nastiest parts of the thicket that resembled a jungle, and said, “Let’s go.”

My enthusiasm waned just a little since the day before we had stalked a buffalo in the gnarly brush, getting drenched from head to toe and running face-to-face into a 13-foot python. Tim Vining, our current SCI Chapter President, and I have been directors of the Central Washington Chapter for many years. We have been to Africa multiple times, but never to Masailand.

We booked our trip with Hilary Daffi Safaris from Tanzania with whom we have enjoyed hunting on several occasions, taking elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo, hippo and a variety of plains game animals. The Masailand concession offered us the opportunity to hunt several species we did not have, including: the Grant and Thomson gazelles, fringe eared oryx, Coke hartebeest, white bearded gnu and the East African impala. The area also has a reputation for having some oversized Cape buffalo. I never will get tired of hunting “Dugga Boys.”

Zebra migration.

We chose to hunt in December because it is part of the rainy season. That triggers the annual migration eastward from the Tarangire National Park and lower elevations to the mountains and higher elevations where the tender sprouts of grass start growing quicker. The migration includes numerous game species, including buffalo.

Hunting during the rainy season means that most days you get wet. At times, it is also challenging to get to the different parts of the concession due to muddy roads. The big benefit, of course, is the animal population, including plains game, dramatically increases as the animals migrate.

Author and PH with white bearded gnu.
Author and PH with white bearded gnu.

For the plains game, I took my H-S Precision .300 Win. Mag., using Barnes 180-grain TTSX bullets and a 3-18x Leupold VX-6 scope. My choice of gun for buffalo was my CZ 550 chambered in .416 Rigby, using 400-grain Barnes TSX bullets and sporting a Trijicon 1.5-4x scope.

Stalking animals on the open Masai plains proved very interesting and certainly tested the ingenuity and skill of our PHs. With migration going on, there were scores of eyes watching us just about everywhere we went. Often we had to back off from a stalk and try another approach. Paul and I both put on Masai robes to somewhat resemble the Masai people who herded cattle and goats over most of the concession. The logic behind this was that the animals see the Masai people all the time and get used to them.

Paul and I slowly meandered toward the animal we were stalking while it was feeding, then angle slightly away when it was watching. The robes seemed to help. We were able to get within shooting distance of the animals we were after. The trackers seemed a bit amused to have a “white Masai” wandering around the plains and gave me some rather interesting looks.

The migration was well underway. Each day we watched hundreds of animals heading eastward while grazing on the tender young grass. There were zebra, white bearded gnu and even an occasional herd of giraffe. I have always wanted to witness an annual migration. It was definitely a sight to behold.

Villagers herding goats to feed.
Villagers herding goats to feed.

Paul and his brother Dennis grew up in the middle of the concession and knew several of the Masai families. It was particularly interesting to learn about the local culture and traditions that have been carried out over hundreds of years. It was also very interesting to witness how very young boys were able to herd large numbers of cattle and goats efficiently and with ease.

During the middle of the hunt, a young local Masai, one of Tim’s trackers, was bitten by a scorpion and ended up getting pretty darn sick. After two or three days of bed rest, he still wasn’t feeling well, so he decided to walk home. On his way, he saw three “Dugga boys” that were bedded down, so he called camp, and Hilary then called our PHs to tell them about the buffalo.

We were several miles to the north, so Tim and his PH, Andrew, went after them. Fortunately for all of us, they spotted several good buffalo bulls that had crossed over one of the mountains and were in the thick acacia trees and bushes. The problem was that the vegetation was so thick that it was nearly impossible to stalk the buffalo on the valley floor.

Tim and Andrew’s hours of glassing paid off, because each day they had at least one big buffalo walk through an opening that was below them, about 150 to 180 yards away. Tim is a very good shot. Three days in a row he was able to shoot a nice buffalo.

Author and his PH Paul Horsley with the author’s Thompson’s gazelle.

Since Tim had his quota of buffalo, Paul and the rest of our crew started glassing the same area. The temperature warmed up quite a bit and the “Dugga boys” were not moving much. They chose to stay in the shade of the thick bushes and acacia trees. We hoped that they would walk out in an opening for us like they had for Tim, but they never offered us a shot opportunity. The previous day we tried a stalk on a buffalo in the thicket, but the wind was swirling and all we got was thoroughly drenched from the wet bushes and ran into the python.

We continued to move further south along the mountain a half-mile or so to glass another part of the thicket when Paul noticed the big buffalo feeding and said, “Let’s go after him.” I think we all felt the chances of doing a stalk in the “jungle” were pretty slim, but we were running out of days and time. It had rained hard all morning so the rocks and steep hillside were muddy and pretty darn slick. By the time we made it off the mountain, we were all thoroughly drenched.

Masailand-Mt.-Meru-011416The wind was swirling quite a bit and I really thought that we were just wasting our time. My glasses kept fogging up and I kept taking them off until I really needed them, but my vision without glasses is not very stellar, so I kept bumping into branches or stepping on sticks. I tried putting my glasses all the way out to the end of my nose and all kinds of other positions, but it just didn’t help much. They just kept fogging over.

I don’t know how long we had been stalking the buffalo. I suppose two and a half to three hours, maybe more. There were two big buffalo traveling together. They were feeding and just meandering around everywhere. The trees and bushes were so thick, we could only see a few feet ahead and most of the trails were only a couple of feet wide. There were hoof prints all over the place. I was amazed that the trackers could stay on the right track.

We walked very slowly. Then, when the wind changed direction, we stopped and waited until it was in our favor again. Several times we stopped and one of the trackers pointed to his nose, then pointed in one direction or another. When we walked over some droppings, one of the trackers occasionally stuck his finger into the gooey pile to determine how warm it was, smile, nod yes and say, “Close.”

The going was very slow and everyone was absolutely on full alert. We all knew that we were tracking “Black Death” on his turf and the big bulls could turn on us in this thick jungle in a heartbeat. Paul would put up the shooting sticks and motion for me to be ready, and then the two buffalo would change direction. This happened twice. To be honest, I didn’t see the buffalo either time.

Very slowly we inched forward, trying not to make a sound. Paul eventually motioned for me to come with him and for the trackers to stay back. I was really concerned that my glasses would fog up at the critical moment, but I didn’t dare take them off, so I pushed them down to the bottom of my nose and cautiously took a few more steps.

Paul put the sticks up once more and motioned for me to get ready. I could only see a few feet into the brush, but to the right there was a small opening between two bushes where you I could see a few yards. Paul whispered, “Shoot the first one.” But I still couldn’t see the buffalo. I squinted and strained to see the black spots where my PH was pointing. My heart was racing a thousand beats a minute and my breathing was much faster than normal. I tried to breath out of the corner of my mouth, so that my glasses wouldn’t fog so badly. We stood absolutely still. We waited and waited for what seemed like an eternity before I finally saw slow movement behind the bush.

The hunting crew with the author’s big buffalo.

I lowered my cheek to the .416’s stock and when the buffalo’s shoulder was finally visible, pulled the trigger. All hell broke loose as both buffalo crashed through the thick bushes. Paul said, “Reload,” but I was already in the process of doing so. Paul then whispered to me, “Do you feel good about your shot?” I nodded a yes.

We quietly stood still and listened. Occasionally we could hear labored breathing not too far away. One tracker motioned with his hand that the buffalo was staggering. After several long minutes with guns ready and on full alert, we cautiously started forward, following the tracks through the maze of entangled bushes. There was a fair amount of lung blood on the ground, so we knew the shot was good.

We had only gone about 40 yards when Dennis grabbed me by the shoulder and pointed at the brush to our left. He said, “Get ready to shoot.” A big bull was staring directly at us. Paul stepped close to us and then said, “That’s the other bull. Let’s back out. This is too dangerous. We needed to let the other buffalo leave.”

Expecting a charge, we walked backward about 30 to 40 yards and listened. Paul and Dennis both felt that the buffalo I shot was down for the count, but we never heard the “death bellow” that we were hoping to hear. It was getting close to dark and we had to do something, so one of the trackers yelled a few times. We finally heard the other buffalo leave.

We cautiously entered the thicket again and about 30 yards from where I shot, we saw the buffalo. He was down! I put a shot in the backbone for insurance, then slowly walked toward him from the rear and poked his back with my rifle. We cautiously moved forward again and touched his eye. The big “Dugga boy” had expired.

sunset-in-Masailand-011416It took some serious manpower and tugging to get the buffalo out of the dense bushes, but we finally got him to a small clearing a few feet away. This bull was huge, with horns 44 inches wide and 15-inch bosses. This was the second largest taken during the season and was the biggest Cape buffalo I have ever taken.

Our hunt was very successful. Both Tim and I took all of the animals we were hoping for and the trophy quality was excellent.

Hilary has an exceptional hunting operation and his staff has been with him for many years. They know what they are doing and have all become very good friends of ours. For Tim and me, it was like going home to a family reunion. Needless to say, we are already looking forward to our next trek to the Dark Continent.–Gary Christensen

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