And Then There Was Africa

It’s a year later and the immensity of the adventure of my first trip to Africa is still nearly overwhelming. The culture, wildlife, the tradition of the Safari and the hunt offer more than enough story line.

Starting at age 7, I took my son Tyler on our local hunts for elk.  At age 12 he started tagging his own elk, deer and pronghorn, but I left him home when I traveled for sheep and brown bear. On this hunt I would finally have him by my side.

Tyler had just finished High School, AP Classes, wrestling and football were behind him while and an engineering degree lay ahead.  Now was the time for us to go while we had the chance. We would share this first safari. Expertly arranged by Keith Atcheson, we would be hunting in Zimbabwe’s Bubye Valley Conservancy (BVC) with Brent Hein. I would hunt with PH Ade Langley and Tyler would hunt with PH Mark Brewer. They both proved spectacular.

Our goal was to experience a real safari, earning our trophies with boot leather, tracking our quarry in a place that was truly wild.  We wanted to see firsthand the conservation efforts that are working to keep what is left of wild Africa, her people and her wildlife in harmony.  The BVC is a wonderful example of this effort and has a rich history.

In the 1930s it was one of the largest cattle ranches in Africa and supplied beef to the allied forces in WWII. Shooters were hired to rid the massive property of its indigenous wildlife to allow the cattle to survive in the drought-prone area. The ranch was sold in the 1990s to Charles Davy.  He assembled a group of international investors and conservationists, converted the ranch to a wildlife reserve and renamed it the BVC.  It would be sustained by the profits from hunting, rigorously protected by an anti-poaching patrols.  Today the million-acre Bubye Valley Conservancy has the fourth largest wild rhino population in the world, and 35 species, including the Big 5, living in balance and abundance as they have since the dawn of time.

We were there to hunt Cape buffalo and Tyler was to earn one before we would focus on anything else.  To the chagrin of our most understanding PHs, my son and I insisted we would hunt together until he got his bull.  We were looking for an old bull — the more chips and chunks out of his horns the better. We knew well hunting Cape buffalo would be intense, but you have no idea how intense until you get “the stare.”

The routine was consistent. Go to a selected water point as the sun rose and look for tracks. If it was a buffalo herd, we would leave them be. But the tracks of lone bulls drew us into the tall grass and mopani to look for their owners.  The first two tries ended after a long walk that was terminated by a change in the wind and fleeing buffalo. The tracks pointed out by our skillful trackers showed the transition from grazing to stampede.

Late the second day Mark and Tyler stalked to within 10 yards of a bull.  The foliage was still thick in late June, due to ample rain, making this hunt more difficult. Mopani blocked the shot and with the sun dropping directly behind the bull, Tyler eventually could no longer look through his scope and he had to back out.

Wildlife was everywhere. Lions were abundant, as was all manner of plains game.  Bowled over mopani, tracks and scat were obvious evidence of elephants. Rhino tracks and scat piles were also prevalent.  This combined for a rich experience, demanding full attention whenever we were in the bush.

It is this underlying danger that makes this adventure in hunting both appealing and very real. For example, when I asked Mark why he is never ever without his .416, he said he and a tracker were mauled by a lioness next to the truck two years ago. They had just returned from tracking and were organizing when she pounced on them from the nearby bush.

The next morning, we tracked three bulls and after a few miles found them in their bed.  We circled and scooted in to 30 years.  The next half hour was tense but no shot was available.  Then, with a quick swirl of the wind they bolted leaving no opportunity for Tyler.  At the next water point was evidence of dugga boys getting a drink.

A few more miles of tracking and we spotted them in the mopani shadows 100 yards distant.  Mark, Tyler and Zenzo, Tyler’s lead tracker, moved forward to 25 yards.  Mark set the sticks and my heart was jumping out of my chest. I was praying Tyler was calmer than I.

Tyler rose and placed his Ruger M77 .375 H&H on the sticks.  After a lifetime, the bull stepped forward, exposing just his massive head, and there it was, the famous stare. After another lifetime, the wind hit our necks and he was gone.  We followed them for another hour, getting close at times but with them becoming warier. We backed out.  That afternoon Tyler took his first African game after a nice stalk with one shot, a fine old wildebeest.

Lions were roaring 200 yards from the next morning’s starting point. How do you describe the thrill of standing behind buffalo tracks under the sunrise in the African lowveld with lions announcing their rule.  Words cannot capture the joy of sharing that moment with my son. The bulls were aware of the loins and their tracks were mixing back and forth, starting, turning, returning.  The combination of the wind direction and the lion’s location had them shook up and eventually they picked their path into some very nasty thorn.  After a short mile or two the lions had closed the distance to 100 yards, again roaring to the morning.  We finally bumped the bulls. They had had enough and ran for miles.

Back to the land cruisers and a new water point. There among the abundant tracks, including cheetah, leopard and lion, were tracks of another group of solitary bulls. The day was heating up with the wind getting fickle. We figured our chances were low, but no chance for success without the miles of trying, so off we went.

The bulls were on a determined path at first. Then they began to meander and graze.  Losing the track at one point, we took shade under an acacia tree.  Suddenly there was hushed excitement. The bulls were spotted.

Zenzo, Mark and Tyler moved ahead through the grass, low and slow, inching up a rise until they spotted the bull. Tyler crouched and I saw him gather himself in preparation. Mark verified his advanced age and whispered to Tyler: “I want you to stand up and shoot this bull.”  Zenzo set the sticks. Tyler stood and placed the rifle in one smooth motion.

With care, Tyler took the most important and pressured shot of his life. As previously agreed, Mark tried a follow-up shot, but it missed its mark as the bull absorbed Tyler’s hit and whirled away. Those few seconds seemed like hours to Tyler. I could not see the bull from where I knelt, so I ran up just in time to see a bull disappear into the thorn.

Mark, Zenzo and Tyler talked about the shot. All agreed it was well placed.  After waiting 15 minutes, we took up the track. As we tracked we had francolin flush at our feet, hair-raising at that time. It was thick.  Tyler and Mark covered the front. Ade covered our left. I covered our right as we slowly advanced, careful not to stumble upon a potentially wounded and dangerous bull.

Coming to a small opening, we saw Tyler’s bull lying dead.  After an insurance shot, we all felt the relief, exuberation and sadness that always follows the taking of a hard-earned animal.  Tyler had hunted hard and well, maintaining a positive attitude after coming so close after multiple long stocks, only to be foiled by the wind.  His smile and that experience is the true trophy.

The following handshakes were vigorous and long as the team enjoyed the moment. Mark and Ade congratulated Tyler and expressed a job well done.  I could not have been more proud of Tyler.  He had performed as an experienced hunter, a man hunting well in Africa.  The shot the bull offered was facing nearly head-on 40 yards out, a very difficult shot with no margin for error. One shot to take this 12-year-old 40-inch bull.

After getting the bull back to camp, Tyler enjoyed his first toast of Scotch as Mark and Ade offered their toasts.  My smile was wide. The skinners retrieved Tyler’s bullet. It was lodged inside the bull’s heart.

Every dinner in camp was 5-star quality and from Tyler’s bull we had buffalo tongue appetizer with buffalo tail and buffalo shin bone soup for the main course. It was so delicious. That African evening was enjoyed around the warmth of both the mopani fire and my son’s success. It will never be forgotten.

Over the next three days with primary goals exceeded, we settled into the rest of the safari. The hunting continued to be fair chase, each animal earned and each one old.  We continued to see an amazing display of wildlife. Tyler even saw a leopard just off the road.

Tyler added an ancient eland bull and impala to his exceptional Cape buffalo and wildebeest. Ade guided me to a very old Cape buffalo bull, a waterbuck and an impala.  I share this to highlight the abundance of game on the BVC and the high degree of skill and ethics demonstrated by Mark and Ade.  We were so fortunate to have them as our PHs.  Our friendship developed fast and endures. The trackers were phenomenal and watching them read the story left by animal tracks was truly magical.

Midmorning on our last hunting day my son impressed me again.  We had stopped at a waterhole to eat and cool off.  We had just seen three eland bulls, one was exceptional and several more younger age class kudu, just under 50 inches. Tyler told us that he was happy with what he had and he wanted to let the kudu grow old. He just wanted to spend the rest of the day watching the wildlife, hunt some guinea fowl and then shoot doves over a pan late in the afternoon.  Again in awe, Tyler and I, in Africa, hunting doves over a waterhole; this was more than I could have ever dreamt. Heading back, we saw yet another pride of lions as the shadows grew long on our final day on the BVC.

I know I am truly blessed. It is a rich life we live. The Blue Bag we brought for a local village was to be delivered after we left. We had hoped to deliver it personally and see the soccer gear, clothes, hard candy, tooth brushes and shoes go to the school children.  Unfortunately, time and politics did not allow. But we did get pictures of the event.  The time we had with the trackers, skinners, camp staff and the PHs gave Tyler firsthand understanding of some of challenges that exist in this part of the world.

By going, we did our part to further the conservation effort that is the foundation of the BVC while providing thousands of pounds of meat to people who otherwise survive on corn meal alone. Together we made memories that will last our lifetimes, further enriching our strong relationship. Now around our campfires, when stories are told, we will save our best for last and say… And then there was Africa, when I was with my son…–Joe Nobles

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