A Working Man in Zululand

I have been to Africa a couple of times for plains game and am fortunate enough to have taken a number of species that are in the SCI Record Book.  Recently, while sitting at my desk and looking at my trophy wall, it hit me — it was time — time to step up to dangerous game.  But, being a working man, how could I ever afford that?

Well, with that dream in mind, it was soon time for my wife and me to travel to Las Vegas and the SCI Convention.  We checked into the Mandalay Bay and made our way to the convention floor.

As we worked the aisles, we often stopped to enjoy the many examples of fine taxidermy, including all of the Big Five — elephant, lion, leopard, rhino and Cape buffalo. As interesting as they all are, I kept being drawn to the Cape buffalo shoulder mounts.  We stopped at the booths of several African safari outfitters, but a dangerous game safari always seemed to be out of the price range for a working man.

On the second day, we stopped at a booth where a hunter and an outfitter were reminiscing about a recent buffalo hunt.   A small sign announced: “Harloo Safaris – Zululand.” I lingered and soon the hunter introduced me to the man he said was the best outfitter he had ever hunted with.  The outfitter’s name was Edmond Rouillard.  I was immediately impressed with how easy-going and very knowledgeable he was.  I explained my desire to hunt Cape buffalo, but that I was just a working man.  Edmond said: “Hey ‘Working Man,’ yes you can. Come with me to Zululand.”  Hunting one of the Big Five turned out to be affordable after all.

While at Convention, I picked up a copy of Buffalo! by Craig Boddington.  That work soon became the go-to authority for my upcoming hunt.  One of my first decisions was the choice of caliber.  Boddington relayed that a .375 was the minimum while the .45s and above worked, but were not necessary.  Well, that led me to the .416s.  While my old Model 70 in .375 H&H would have sufficed, one cannot pass-up another rifle when the need arises.  Maybe desire is a better term than need, but nonetheless, when an opportunity presented itself for a Ruger M77 Mark II in .416 Rigby, I jumped at it.

At $10 per shot for factory ammunition, I figured that practicing with cast bullets was the way to go.  RCBS makes a fine 350-grain .416 cast bullet mold.  A 50/50 blend of wheel weights and linotype coupled with Accurate 5744 powder allowed me to work up to nearly factory velocity loads. I started practicing at the bench, and soon was shooting off of sticks. Several weeks later, the day finally came for me to fire the factory loads I would use in Africa. Much to my delight, the 400-grain Federal Trophy Bonded Bear Claw ammunition had virtually the same point of impact as my cast bullet loads at 50 yards.

Game day soon arrived, and checking my rifle in with Delta Airlines proved to be a surprisingly simple process.  The flight from Los Angeles to Johannesburg went quickly, thanks to the latest Tom Clancy novel.  In Johannesburg, the staff at the AfricaSky Guest House took care of the necessary firearms permit and their agent whisked us through customs.  After a restful night with them, we were on the road north for the four-hour journey to the home of Harloo Safaris near the town of Pongola in Zululand where the widely respected PH, Greg Lawson, met us.

We found ourselves in a fully staffed and well-appointed lodge deep in the bush.  My wife, Sharon, was very pleased with the accommodations.  It was all that you would hope to find for a true African dangerous game safari experience.  They call buffalo dangerous game and we would soon discover exactly why!

That first afternoon we went to the range to check to see if my .416 was still on target after the long flight from the U.S.  I fired two rounds at 50 yards off of shooting sticks.  Both were center target and two inches apart.  Greg gave an approving nod, and I think he also wanted to see if I could handle that big Ruger.  That evening, we congregated around the campfire where Greg Lawson thrilled us with hunting stories and insights into the local Zulu culture.  Then, after a long day, we were off to bed.

The next morning, we were awakened at 5 a.m. by the call of a drumbeat – what a great way to begin the day.  After breakfast, Greg and I and were off with our two Zulu trackers, Eric and Andreas.  I filled my magazine with stout .416 rounds and Greg charged his CZ with potent 300-grain .375 H&H rounds.  Within a half-hour, we had our first encounter with Cape buffalo.  The two bulls we saw gave us the hard look that only buffalo can give.  I was impressed, but Greg said it was early and that we could do better than that – so we continued on.

We were soon into herds of numerous plains game species.  I was focused on buffalo but Greg encouraged me to make good use of my camera, too.  We had the best of both worlds — great photography opportunities and a game-rich hunting environment.  As the day progressed, we ran into singles and small herds of buffalo, but again Greg said these were not what we were looking for.  After some discussion, we decided to leave the flatlands and ascend into the mountains near the Swaziland border.  Greg informed me that while the mountains would present more challenging hunting conditions, the bigger bulls found security there.

After some time, we arrived in the high country and Greg stopped to check some tracks.  Movement ahead drew his attention to a lone buffalo bull on the ridge above us.  I watched as he raised his binoculars.  Greg was very intent and soon turned to me and said, “Look near the ridge line.  That’s what you came to Africa for.”  It was indeed what I came to Africa for – a fully mature bull with deep curls, and a wide spread.  He asked, “Can you make that shot?”  I answered, “I can do that.”  The shooting sticks came out and I settled in.  I placed the crosshairs on the centerline of the shoulder and three-fourths down.

Taking a deep breath, I let out half and squeezed the trigger evenly.  Watching through his binoculars, Greg said that the bull turned just as I fired, but appeared hard hit. I have always heard that a buffalo bull can absorb a lot, and this one was no exception.  In a heartbeat, he disappeared over the ridge and the real challenge was about to begin, for we didn’t know what we would find once we reached the top.  What we did discover was blood and fresh tracks, but the bull was gone.   Now it was time for those amazing Zulu trackers and Greg Lawson to do what they do best while keeping us all safe.

Quickly, it became apparent that the blood and tracks were in a zigzag pattern, which indicated to Greg that the buffalo was trying to pick up our scent.   Greg uttered, “The hunter has now become the hunted.” I felt the grip of gut-level tension and began to learn what real fear was.  We all became extra vigilant, concerned about a possible ambush.

At that point, the wind was in our favor, but that would change.  The tracking was rough as the ground was littered with both large and small granite rocks.  We found ourselves going first down hill, then up, as well as alternating between open ground and thick cover.  At one point, the cover was so dense that Greg flipped his quick release levers, removed his scope and relied on open sights.   We continued on.

The jess became so thick that we could only see a few feet, when Greg suddenly motioned for me to hold back.  In an instant, the trackers raced past me and I knew the situation had grown even more serious.  Just as we had feared, the old bull had circled around and was lying in ambush in the dense brush off to our right.  Greg, only able to see a single leg in the thicket, threw the .375 to his shoulder and fired just as that buffalo charged!  When Greg’s bullet struck, our attacker turned and fled.  I followed Greg as we raced after our adversary.  Within 50 yards, we again located the buffalo and, thanks to Greg, I was able to put in the finishing shots.  It all happened just that fast.  Greg Lawson stood his ground and is the bravest man I know!

All of us sat down, exhausted, and let the adrenalin melt away. Though drained, we were relieved to see things end well.  We were then able to determine that my first shot was well placed, but because the buffalo turned just as I shot, the .416 bullet took out one shoulder and one lung instead of the heart and both lungs as intended.

Later that day, I was given the chance to help cape my buffalo.  The meat went to the local Zulu people and I had the makings of a terrific shoulder mount with a spread in excess of 41 inches.  Before long, sunset was upon us and it was time for dinner, followed by a very special ceremony.  We gathered by the fire pit where Edmond and Greg presented me with the Laguiole, a ceremonial knife in honor of my success in taking one of the Big Five.  I couldn’t have been more proud, especially to have my wife Sharon there with me.

So when all is said and done, I can assure you that in answer to the question: Can a working man have a great dangerous game safari?  Yes he can in Zululand!–Tom Nichols

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