We headed into the African bush with the pothole paved road giving way to gravel and then seasonal dirt tracks. Bridges? Who needs bridges? Along the same way the few electrical poles disappeared too. People walked or road bicycles. Villages eventually became widely dispersed before the countryside finally cleared of man. Game scout check stations with gates mark the route where our paperwork was verified. Looking up at the top-seat, my college-age boys, Robert and Johnathan, had hair blown wildly and broad smiles.
The afternoon temperature is perfect. Elephant, impala and puku gather on the sandy river bank across from camp. We can’t swim or really even get near the water due to the crocodiles. There is a prehistoric reptilian 14-footer basking in the sun; its teeth exposed in a constant grin. Hippo cows and their calves float in the river while bull hippo honk constant challenges in the murky water. Monkeys chatter in the trees above the tents and the few tsetse flies buzzing about look like a common housefly but have a painful bite.
I have brought a .375 H&H Winchester Model 70 Safari Express and a recently refurbished veteran of many hunts, my reliable .30-’06 Super Grade. The boys have both bought new Super Grades as well — Robert a .300 Win. Mag. and Johnathan a .338 Win. Mag., both topped with Leupold scopes.
With an hour of daylight remaining, we set out in the safari rig scouting the upper riverine area of the Nyaminga GMA in Zambia. We three hunters sat across the top seat, my wife, Jeannette, in the cab with our PH, Ross. The scout “A-team” rides shotgun hanging off the back of the rig.
As we slowly drive along the riverbank, we jostle over hippo holes. The ride is bumpy with cab high grass and brushy thorn trees grabbing and stabbing while spiders dangle ahead. Murky strange animal shapes lurk in the brush. Impala and puku stand and stare while Chobe bushbuck scramble through leafy gaps. A huge crocodile slides into the water. It is clear no one has been here. We are the first party of hunters since the previous season as the vines, branches and small trees are cleared from the track. Axes cut the trail and point the way while shadows creep in as we hit camp right at dark.
The danger is real. Hippo now seem to turn up the volume and splash past in the river. A week earlier a hippo used a camp river bank as a slide and got caught up in a water pump dragging the whole kit in with it. Hippo are Africa’s number one herbivore killer. Not to be outdone, our first night featured an elephant’s calm stroll through camp tearing branches down and feeding along the way. A lion roars somewhere and a startled bird squawks. At lights out, we can hear wings flapping in the trees. In the wild African bush night there are no electric fences keeping the tourists in and the animals out.
Cape Buffalo Hunting
Our hunt party consisted of several safari rigs, PHs, dual tracker skinner teams, Government scouts and we four hunters. We make quite the caravan bristling with guns rolling through dusty villages as we pursue Cape buffalo first by scouting for a resident herd that had been hanging around cleared rice fields, hiding in the mopane timber groves by day. There was reported to be a real bruiser in the group. A short hour into first morning light with the sun not quite up, we were hunting for Mr. Dugga Boy in the tall grass — and it was over head high grass.
We were afoot threading through the grass. In order, it was PH Ross with a .375, his head tracker Lamec with the “sticks,” me with my .375, Jeannette with a camera, tracker Sable with an axe, the boys Robert and Johnathan unarmed along with Tryson, the game scout, with his ancient beat up .300 with half an iron sight. Mike and the rest stayed with the vehicles as we went in.
Sneaking, crouching we were bunched up swinging around a small grove the herd had taken refuge in hiding from view in the thick, dry amber grass. The hacksaw grass edges gnawed at our skin. Ross’s telltale cigarette smoke softly wafted above us. Sable’s handmade axe glinted on his shoulder.
Bovine grunts emanated from the foliage and shuffling hooves shook the ground. A small tree swayed. Was it a “dugga boy?”
Time slowly ticked. Then the buffalo winded us and were moving, rumbling with more grunting unseen behind the grass curtain. A mere dozen yards separated us from the buffalo when a mature, wide, soft-bossed bull peered through the verdant screen directly upon us. His dark, bloody gaze froze us, and time seemed to stop.
Way too close! Glancing at Jeannette her eyes were saucer huge. I had the impression she was thinking she had other things to do. Moments later, the bull waggled flies from its ears and moved on with the herd. We circled several times experiencing more of the same until the buffalo gave us the slip. Wild Africa would not be giving in easily. It was a very thrilling and satisfying first encounter.
The next day it was very cool in the morning. We made a long drive in darkness to the eastern side of the concession. First light found us in a distant village with the locals just beginning to stir. They were gathering the last of the crops, burning and gleaning fields for a few remaining sweet potatoes. These same hand-tilled fields were also fresh with buffalo and elephant spoor from nightly raids. Their prints were sharp and clear enough to distinctly see fine elephantine “fingerprint” cracks and ridges in the soil.
We parked in the road and the villagers enthusiastically pointed in multiple directions. Foot and bicycle traffic paraded by at a respectful distance. Babies on backs and baskets on heads, it was rush hour.
Scouts were sent into the crowd and, after a long while, returned stating that buffalo, two of them, were directly behind us in the tall grass. They had been there the whole time laid up where food was easy and nobody was dumb enough to attempt joining them.
It was a classic Peter Capstick adventure waiting to unfold. Cautiously parting the wall of stiff yellow straws, we trail a jumbled bull-squashed route into a small clearing. Dung scent hangs in the air as crickets hum. There is just enough room to swing a cat. We push forward to a bedding ground under a tree. Fresh bull pee wets the matted foliage. It is seven feet from the end of the gun barrel to the wall of vegetation and I casually mention to Ross that I would like the opportunity to decide on the bull to shoot.
His cigarette smoke remains unmoved in the air. We back out, circle, bulls swish ahead and the dance continues. We climb up rocky high ground to better survey the field of battle. The bulls have been circling and toying, staying out of reach. You could spend all day at that, or at least until they decide they have had enough and blast out on you at short range with no room or time for error. So with sweaty relief we elect to end our second encounter and move on ourselves.
Driving past a fork in the road, the way becomes only a path as we pass a field with makeshift football posts, huts and corn cribs. We pull up in a village outpost that later turns out to be our A-team government game scout’s home. Parking under a tree we break for lunch. Locals bring cooked peanuts to munch while hens and chicks peck bugs at our feet. Children pile up in a doorway with curiosity. We pass them empty plastic water bottles to squeals of delight.
Further on, the Land Cruiser straddles the footpath while laying tread deeper into the wild. This is supposedly the “road” north. We are on a vast plateau with the rolling mountains in the distance of North Luangwa National Park to the west and another national park to the southeast. Grysbok dart from trackside brush while impala calmly stare at a safe distance.
We stop as the trackers want to examine buffalo spoor in the dust. Many buff have recently crossed this way. We head off a half mile to a group of trees to investigate and take a break in the shade. Once parked, we disembark. Moments later, PH Mike exclaims, “There are the buffalo.” Not 200 yards distant, the buffalo were casually walking away to the south, unaware of our convoy with the wind blowing gently toward us.
No sooner do we spot them than a huge black dust devil swirls up beyond their intended direction. It is black from ash picked up from grass fires. The mini tornado blows through the herd, straight at us and misses by just 25 yards. Was it a strange omen? I glanced around for Poe’s raven.
Our buffalo party again consists of PH Ross, Lamec the head tracker, and me hunting with observers Jeannette, Robert and Johnathan, tracker Sable and Tryson game scout. We circle wide downwind out into the plain keeping mopane groves between us and our quarry as we gained ground parallel to the group at 200 yards. The hunters sneak in for a peak to judge bulls from a tree-festooned termite mound while the observers watch from the rear. There are at least 100 animals with cows leading the advance guard into the wind. They straggle through the trees into the open plain, then a good bull at the rear decides to lay down in a grassy spot, holding up the show.
They are stretched out for hundreds of yards kicking up dust as the sun bears down from above. Lying behind gnarled branches scoping the scene, Lamec picks a tsetse fly off my shoulder. We slowly adjust our view, crunching stiff desiccated brown leaves beneath us as the wind shifts. After a bit, we decide to continue circling and get ahead of the group so that they may file past and give a better idea of the bulls available. We rejoin the observers and begin a dusty single file miles march across the burnt soil and patchy short grass. We maintain a distant visual contact with the herd by their dust cloud.
Our pant legs are becoming black with ash. We are sweating, but our clothes are dry as moisture immediately evaporates. The grass is sharp and razor like and I’m amazed the buffalo can eat this stuff.
We come to a lone tree a bit closer at the head of the herd. The wind shifts again, now blowing across toward where we came from and into our faces. Ross says the midday winds become unpredictable and the herd has stopped, unsure of the wind.
Drinking some water, we evaluate our options. Ross, Lamec and I continue circling the herd and leave the others beside a tree with the game scout with his half-sight gun and the tracker his axe. Our scent is blowing across the herd’s front quarter at only 100 yards. If they walk forward, they will wind us and bump into the observers. Worse, they could wind us and blindly charge into the others.
Time ticks by. The wind swirls and the herd reverses course. We slide into range at 75 yards behind some mopane. There is a herd bull among them — big broad and grey with mud, but with too much grass, cows and a few trees in the way. The wind swirls more and we pull back.
We gesture to the others our intent is to continue circling upwind and they are to follow. We are in full sneak mode moving up and in while crouched. We are pretty much exposed until we reach a spindly tree while the others occupy our old position.
The herd has bunched up behind a grove of mopane. Dust swirls. We elect to move forward behind a downed tree. On the opposite side, out of sight but rather close, is the herd. The wind is blowing straight down, but must be missing them to the right. Suddenly, a young bull comes running out to the left with the herd bull in pursuit. Ahh, we now understand. They are preoccupied and disappear behind brush to the left. The herd doesn’t follow and remains hidden.
We wait to see what they will do. I am thinking of using the downed tree as a rest, but it is too low. Ross sets up the sticks, but I will be fully standing and exposed. The grass is ankle high in this spot if not burned or just plain dirt under foot.
Not having a good angle, I elect to stand. With the herd still out of view, we move forward another eight yards. Sticks up at 45 yards and gun ready, the young bull walks out headed right. Ross loads his rifle. I am already loaded.
My heart beats in my ears and then the great herd bull “dugga boy” appears. He is walking broadside. Now is the time. The Winchester is aimed, steadied and the scope’s red dot illuminates his chest right behind the foreleg as he fatefully makes his move.
I am loaded with Federal Safari grade Swift A-Frame 300-grain bullets. Two more are in the magazine and five cartridges reserved in a leather belt holster. At the shot, the bull instantly lurches forward running. The first sound heard after the gun roar is thundering hooves. Pandemonium ensues with dust flying as the herd vacates. My bull piles up where the herd just left. He had gone a little more than 30 yards.
We trot forward with an eye on the herd as I reload. My bull is on his side with feet splayed making a low groan, no infamous bellow. Checking the herd again they are stopped less than 100 yards out, facing us, bunching and jostling. At 20 yards from my bull, I call out for the insurance shot and take it square in his chest. All sound stops, and the herd moves off.
Reloaded again and with the rifle on safe at the ready, we approach. We give the bull respectful time and appraise his size. Getting closer I see his nostrils trickle blood. No movement when touching his rapidly glazing eye. The bull’s bosses are huge and covered in bits of smashed tree. He’d been knocking the stuffing out of a mopane. He is fully hard headed, with massive bosses and deep, sweeping hooks.
Lamec points out his right eye is slightly injured; possibly from his recent fight with the younger bull or maybe the mopane tree’s revenge? Ross offers a sincere hand shake. One shot kills on Big Five dangerous game Cape buffalo are always welcome.
Within moments, my family of observers catches up. They saw the shot and experienced the excitement of the hunt and close exposure to the unpredictable herd. We snap some quick pictures of the “Dugga Boys” with this fine trophy animal. The smiles say it all — relief and happiness.
The trucks arrive with rest of the trackers, scouts and PH Mike. The bull is proclaimed an excellent old kakuli. He sports a dual “coconut” helmeted boss with wickedly deep hooked horns. The trackers are murmuring kakuli amongst themselves. All are pleased and congratulatory. Everyone jumps in for more cell phone photos. It seems our new African friends really do love pictures. This third encounter went textbook perfect.–Stuart Ward