We hunted hard for five days before we got a shot. That isn’t unusual with buffalo. It can take longer and occasionally you don’t win, except that we were into buffalo every day, sometimes all day. Finding and following fresh tracks wasn’t difficult. Often we had bulls moving and feeding ahead of us — perfect — and several times we tracked them to their beds. We had many glimpses, but were unable to close for a shot.
That’s almost true. One evening at sundown, when buffalo are at their calmest, we had a spectacular bull staring at us at less than 50 yards. On the fourth evening just after sunset, Diekie Muller led us in a brilliant stalk and we had an old, massive-bossed bull facing us at about 60 yards. The first time we were in the vehicle — a poor way to shoot a buffalo. The second time might have worked, but I was using a handgun, a big S&W .460. A young bull’s rump was just in front of the big bull. Maybe with a rifle I could have threaded a bullet past him, but I doubt I would have tried. It was too risky and, instead of the youngster moving off, the whole group exploded.
I’ve hunted buffalo in a dozen African countries and I thought I knew a lot about it. This was, err, educational! We were having fun walking and tracking, so it wasn’t really frustrating. And with plenty of sightings, the outcome seemed a matter of time. That, in fact, was true. After days of tough sledding, we caught a group of bulls in glorious morning light and a fine old bull stood for a shot.
Up to that moment, it was more difficult than I expected. You see, this was my first South African buffalo hunt. There are reasons for this gap. When I first hunted down there, buffalo were almost nonexistent outside of parks. Since the 1980s, South African game managers have been breeding disease-free buffalo as rapidly as possible. However, breeding stock was scarce (and expensive) and buffalo are slow breeders so it takes time.
Over the years, I saw several breeding herds so I was aware that buffalo genetics in South Africa are exceptional. Against that were three issues. In a supply and demand business, prices for available bulls were extremely high. And with few bulls available, in my opinion some were being taken a bit too young. Finally, there was the reality that very few South African buffalo are free-range, and there were plenty of other options.
Over time, things changed and I just plain missed it. Most South African buffalo are still ranched, but they became widespread and there’s plenty of ideal habitat. Genetics stayed excellent, and the bulls taken have increased in maturity. As the numbers grew, prices fell but continued to increase elsewhere. In recent years, South African buffalo have become competitive, with high success and excellent quality.
I knew nothing about this buffalo hunting and recognized it as a gap, but doing something about it was a funny accident. Donna and I were at an SCI fundraiser at Dennis Anderson’s home. The bidding was active, and a customized Glock was being passed around. Donna liked it so I joined the bidding, finding myself (oops!) the proud owner of a safari with Diekie Muller in Limpopo Province. Diekie was kind enough to let me upgrade to a buffalo, so the hunt was on.
Like most South African operations, Diekie’s camp was excellent, set in the thick thornbush of the Limpopo Valley. His property had buffalo, as did most of the properties nearby. Today, buffalo are far more widespread in South Africa than I realized, but that’s just one fact I’d overlooked. We did most of our hunting on a big property up the road with extremely thick thornbush and lots of buffalo. The first morning we got onto the tracks of a group of bulls quite readily and I thought this was going to be a slam-dunk. It could have happened, but we were in the middle of them in thick stuff for hours with no chance for a shot. Then the winds got unstable. This continued for several days, and my opinion changed!
There was, ultimately, a fence. This is reality in most South African hunting. We rarely saw it, but there were plenty of buffalo and we had little problem finding tracks. Diekie was a good and careful hunter and his Zimbabwean trackers were excellent, but closing the deal was another story. These buffalo were as wary as any I have ever hunted!
One reason for that occurred to me, a second Diekie pointed out, and I felt stupid that I hadn’t thought of it. First, these buffalo live there. They know every rock, tree and patch of thick cover and have studied every stray eddy of the prevailing breezes. Second, which should have been obvious, is that while the buffalo are hunted little, they’re bumped frequently by plains game hunters and have no way to know that every kudu hunter isn’t after them. Their evasive actions are well-rehearsed and effective! Time and again we followed tracks into thick stuff, creeping along, knowing we were close, and then we’d catch a glimpse as they thundered off!
Although more difficult than expected, I never thought the outcome was in doubt; it was just a matter of time. On the next-to-last day, we finally got a shot at a gorgeous old bull and I blew it. The bull moved as the hammer was falling and I couldn’t call it back. I knew instantly — the shot was too far back. Penetration showed the pistol would have been adequate with a proper shot, but now we had a problem.
We lost the spoor and found it again; uncertain for a long time if our bull was still with his buddies or had separated. I was on the track with Jaco Coetze, working it out slowly in nasty cover while Diekie looped ahead. We had long been convinced this would end in a charge…and then we heard one snort just, followed by the deep boom from Diekie’s Krieghoff .470. Long milliseconds passed, then the second barrel.
We rushed to the sound. The buffalo was down, his nose seven feet from Diekie Muller’s shoes. It was a close call, my fault—and a real buffalo hunt I’ll never forget. Obviously, it depends on the property and the cover, but it convinced me South Africa’s buffaloes now offer a solid option.–Craig Boddington