As soon as the light was better he would take us to the buffalo that had been raiding the tiny patch of corn his family grew on this desiccated and crusted ground. As we waited for the sun, I noticed that he carried an ax made from a truck spring and a mopane tree root.
“For the lions,” was the answer when I asked why. I thought it would be a lopsided battle, but admired his fighting spirit. It is, I suppose, what has kept these people surviving in this hard land for so long.
This family lived in a small cluster of grass-roofed huts that were elevated on stilts, also “for the lions.” They cooked over an open fire and pretty much lived the same as their ancestors have for eons, isolated and alone. I laughed as a young girl flirted with us, running to her hut to put on her finest clothes and then prancing around with a cooking pot on her head, happy and full of life. Then I noticed the small boy sitting by the fire. His eyes were weeping pus and they were red, infected and inflamed. Without medical care, I questioned if he would be blind soon. I wondered further, would he even be alive in a year?
This was but a small glimpse of the true and real Africa. It wasn’t a high fence game farm with luxury and plenty, but Africa at its most raw and real. A place where life is hard and everything seems to be conspiring on a plan for early death. A place where lions and elephants fought over the water outside my tent at night; where a spitting cobra came inches from my head as I ate breakfast; where five lions walked by just a few yards from our campfire, not at all intimidated by our presence. This is a place where I brushed the scorpions out of my sink in the morning before I brushed my teeth and where we had to run from elephants that have few warm and fuzzy feelings for humans. This was Africa as it’s always been; untamed, wild, dangerous, exotic and wonderful. Without it, Cape buffalo hunting would somehow be diminished and shallow.
I had started the adventure days earlier dazed and confused from the after effects of Lariam-induced nightmares. I was unprepared and scattered and the trackers were off before I had my rifle loaded. Ben waited while I fumbled with my gear and my muddled thoughts. Then he and I trotted along to catch up. While I suspect it was just another day for all of them, for me this was pivotal. My first day ever of hunting buffalo. If it were possible to horde time, to save a moment forever, this was one I would keep. I guess we all have our obsessions; Ahab had his whale and Ponce de Leon his fountain. For me it was buffalo. I just hoped it ended better than it did for those two.
I had read all my life about the legendary abilities of the native trackers and had longed to witness it myself, but an hour into it I was having serious doubts. I consider myself a fair tracker, I even wrote a couple of books about tracking, but for more than a mile I had seen nothing on the ground to follow. My mind was considering that they were simply taking this “Madala” out for a walk. “Hiking with firearms” we call it in the states and I wondered how that translated in iNdebele. Suddenly Bongani stiffened and pointed to a small ridge fifty yards ahead. There, peering back through the brush like a spooky whitetail buck was the only “first” Cape buffalo I would ever see in this life. I stood without breathing until he turned and dropped over the other side of the hill.
Now, several days later, this ax wielding optimist was to lead us to yet another bull. A half a mile into it we found the herd bedded on top of a hill that was thick with wait-a-bit thorn and brush. The boy and his ax stepped aside as we crept in close and after a few minutes (or a few lifetimes, it was hard to tell which) we found ourselves surrounded by buffalo.
The sun was barely above the horizon, but already it was unbearably hot. The air was thick with the smell of baking wood and filled to the point of substance with the tension of being this close to so many of what may be most dangerous big game animal on earth.
The bull was only twenty yards away when we found him. He had a massive boss and the horn closest to us swept low below his jaw with the tip ending wide from his head. Tired of waiting, one of the trackers broke a stick, the bull turned to look at us and my heart sank. The right side was broken off at the start of the curve, probably during a fight.
The buffalo stood from his bed, faced us and suddenly I understood what Ruark meant when he wrote that a Cape buffalo bull, “looks at you like you owe him money.” The aura of malice and power that surrounded this bull made me believe that the challenger who broke his horn paid dearly for his sins.
“It’s your call,” Ben said, never taking his eyes off the buff. A buffalo this big and this close, if not feared, must at least be respected and Ben continued, “If you shoot, expect a charge. He might not, probably won’t in fact, but you must be ready. He is too close and whatever happens will happen very fast.”
I knew a taxidermist could fix the broken horn, but in a decision I hoped I wouldn’t regret, I passed. I had dreamed of hunting Cape buffalo all my life and I wanted my first buffalo to be flawless and untainted. We slowly backed away, keeping our eyes on the bull and our rifles ready.
Deep in my soul I knew that no matter what happened, I had made the right choice. This was not the first good bull we had walked away from, nor would it likely be the last. I was in Africa to hunt Cape buffalo, not just to shoot a buffalo. I craved the experience that would end when I pulled the trigger and I hoped I would recognize when the time to do that was right.