The African night was receding as we approached the waterhole, but it was still too dark to see tracks. My mood was as dark as the night had been and was failing to rise with the dawn. We were running out of time on this hunt and I was worried about buffalo. Emotional highs and lows are necessary if the hunt is to be memorable and this one was hitting the bottom. But it was just as much physical as mental this time. Who knows if it was something I ate or simply a virus, but I was feeling like my stomach was full of killer bees, while the rest of me had been drained of energy and life. I was sick and discouraged and like a little boy who had been sent to his room without supper I sulked pitifully while the others stood quietly in the dark pretending they didn’t notice.
A baboon started barking to our left on the far side of the water hole, protesting loudly because we would dare to invade his domain. Like a sleeping neighbor awakened by a loud party, a lion off to our right began to growl back a surly response. The two bickered back and forth as I made my way behind a termite mound to be sick. After I finished and collected my rifle and what was left of my dignity I noticed a movement in the brush ahead. A large, sleek, lioness was slinking through the brush like a smoky specter, first there, then not, then perhaps. Her path made it clear that she was intent on making breakfast out of the loudmouth baboon arguing with her man. She passed by, paying no attention to the hominids bearing arms and soon enough the baboon was silent. His fate remained a mystery as in the new light the trackers had found the spore left by a herd of buffalo and we had started off in pursuit.
With the sun came the heat and in my fevered condition I was not dealing well with it. Usually when on the track of buffalo I am jazzed and full of adrenalin. When the trackers need to stop and sort things out I am like a boxer sent to a neutral corner, bouncing from leg to leg and trying to control the urge to return to action. But, today when they stopped I would collapse against the nearest tree and sit with my head between my knees, drenched with sweat. A fire had burned through this country, charring all the trees, so before long my back was covered with a mixture of wet, black soot and I didn’t care.
Hours later we had three miles behind us and still had not caught up with the buffalo. The high sun was burning out the spore as well as the hunters. It was well over 100 degrees and as humid as the everglades. A new and unproven tracker started to make too much noise and an argument in hissed Swahili erupted between Jaco and him. I found a tree, sat down and endured, knowing in my heart it was over.
But, they settled the dispute quietly and somebody found the track again. We followed and within half a mile the spore began to grow steadily fresher. Like trackers in every other place I have visited in Africa, these have a rhythmic way of shaking their right hands as they track, pointing at each new find with their index fingers. I have found that I can often gauge how fresh the spore is by watching these graceful hand gestures.
We are moving fast now and their hands are starting to look like they are directing an orchestra in a fast-tempo performance. One older tracker, Maulidi, adds an odd vocal accompaniment to the job of tracking. Each time he sees the next bit of spore he grunts softly to himself. For hours it’s been a mournful tune, as slow as a funeral dirge, but now he is picking up the pace and the grunts start to sound like the base track for a hip-hop rap song.
The trackers are moving fast, coursing each other like bird dogs eager to have the first point. We are moving quickly on the track, the mood is improving, even mine, and with each step we know we are closing the gap. We are back in the hunt.
The land is becoming rougher and more broken and we round the base of one of several small hills, going fast and feeling good.
Linda spotted them first, which made the trackers unhappy as it’s a point of pride to always see the game before the client. But, that’s soon forgotten as three big bulls break out of the herd to our left and on top of a small wooded hill. We freeze as the bulls wander back down the hill and right at us. Jaco throws up the shooting-sticks and tells Linda to shoot the lead bull. “No wait” he says, “the second one is better, shoot him.” The words are barely spoken when Malaya Hatari, Linda’s .416 Remington, shatters the tension. The center bull staggers and the three of them run up the hill in front and to the right.
I had seen the bull’s leg collapse before he recovered and knew I had the same thoughts that had concern painted on Jaco’s face. We stood silently thinking what neither of us wanted to say out loud, it might be a shoulder hit, or she might have hit him too low. I knew that the smart thing was to continue on the main herd’s tracks and try to fill my tag while we allow her buffalo time to make up his mind to die. But, how do you explain that to a friend who has just shot a buffalo?
The herd was still milling around in confusion at the top of the hill, perhaps 100 yards from us. Suddenly Jaco spots a bull staring down at us and slapped the sticks in front of me hissing, “take him, now!” The crosshairs were fast to find his chest, but as soon as they did a cow walked through them. As she did, the bull turned and melted back into the confusion of buffalo, trees and brush.
A bellow came rolling down the right hill and with it the trackers started hugging Linda. We assumed it was the death bellow of her bull, but it grew louder and rose in intensity until it became this anguished scream that sounded not like death, but rage.
Suddenly two buffalo came charging down the right hill, headed at full speed straight for us. We stood in the open, the nearest trees too far to reach. Soon, they were close enough to see that the lead bull was spraying blood out of his mouth and his side and that the bull following had blood all over his horns. In an instinctive act of protection the game scout grabbed Linda and pushed her behind him so that he could shield her with his body. Then realizing his mistake, that this lady was a hunter, he stepped aside. The delay allowed the bulls to close the gap too much. I was holding off shooting out of deference to Linda, as this was her bull, but they were too close and it was decision time. My gun was up and my safety off and I started to swing the crosshairs in time with the buffalo’s gait. I had about an ounce left on my trigger when Mamma Hatari made her .416 roar. The bull stumbled and Jaco’s .458 Lott spoke so fast that the two shots sounded like one. The bull hit the ground at full speed and skidded to a stop, throwing a cloud of dust and dirt into the air.
The second bull broke off and ran a short distance before stopping to glare back at us. “Take him,” Jaco hissed to me. The angle was not perfect, but I knew it would work. I hit the bull and at the shot he started to run. I tuned out the rest of the world and went into the place where I always shoot best from. The bolt ran smooth and fast and the next shot was off before I could think about it. It struck him through the ribs, the third was even faster and that one caught both shoulders. The bull went down behind a small hill covered with trees. I ran around the hill, reloading on the run and as I cleared the trees the buffalo was getting back on his feet. I hit him again through the shoulders and following him with the crosshairs as he hit the ground so hard he bounced, again through the spine and out the bottom of his chest.
We ran back to Linda’s buffalo as he was struggling to get up and she shot him under the right eye and ran the 400 grain bullet through his brain and the full length of his body.
It was over, but that took a minute to realize. As a competitive action shooter I often experience a moment of confusion after firing the last shot in a fast stage. It takes a moment to refocus the mind and realize I am done and this was the same. From the time Linda’s second shot hit the buffalo until now had probably been less than a couple of minutes, but as hunters we lived a lifetime. Now we stood wondering what was next. Africa was silent and waiting when Jaco’s loud and booming baritone began a song in Swahili. It rose and fell in volume and tempo as the trackers came back with the chorus. Jaco would sing the next stanza and they would answer, louder and prouder. Linda and I each heard our names, but we couldn’t understand the rest of the words. But, that didn’t matter, this was our song, this was our moment. It was eerie, haunting and perfect.
If I had one wish for the world, it may well be that every hunter should have a day like that one.
(This was excerpted from an article that appeared in the July 2006 issue of The American Hunter Magazine.)
One of the best places on earth to hunt cape buffalo is the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania. This wild country is uninhabited by people, but is full of wildlife including so many buffalo that hunters are allowed to take two bulls each. You will also see elephants, crocodiles, hippos, lions, baboons, zebras, hartebeest, impala and dozens more African species.
Our hunt was with Jaco Oosthuizen and his camp was one of the finest I have ever visited. The staff was outstanding, as was the service and food. Hunting here was one of the most enjoyable trips of my life and I highly recommend a safari with them.