By Larry Irwin


Zimbabwe:  July 21-30, 2008


Up to and for much of a 10-day Cape buffalo hunt in Zimbabwe, Murphy’s Law wrecked everything. During that time, I was utterly terrified by armed military personnel, the professional hunter got lost, we had a flat tire, and found the spare tire nearly flat. We saw no buffalo until the fifth day of the hunt. Potential shots at two individual bulls were foiled, once by a zebra standing behind the targeted bull and again by a blue wildebeest within the shooting lane.


On the sixth day we spotted a truly outstanding Dagga Boy. After hearing the slap of the bullet, I saw the hard-hit bull stagger. But he regained his balance, bucked, and then kicked and ran. A dense mopane clump prevented an insurance shot; the PH and his assistant inexplicably were not prepared to back me up. Now, the dread of following up a wounded Cape buffalo in the thornbush was thrust upon us as darkness fell… 

With so many details to consider, most international hunts amazingly unfold without hitches. Yet, despite one’s best efforts, a large host of unplanned events may cause minor to major trainwrecks. Sometimes, attacks by dangerous animals stop the parade. My first Cape buffalo safari was beset with a cavalcade of human errors and frightening events that could have exploded into unmitigated disaster. Instead, the adventure instilled an even greater resolve to return.


My first dose of Africa’s indescribably addictive enchantments had caught me in 2000 in Namibia, where I shot a superb kudu and a nice gemsbok. Five years later, I shot more plains game in South Africa. By then, I was thoroughly enchanted, and it was time to go for the big stuff. So, during the SCI International Convention in 2008, I booked a 10-day hunt for Cape buffalo in Zimbabwe.


The outfitter/professional hunter promised to personally guide me within the Nyaminyami (or Omay) concession near Matusadona National Park. This location provides opportunities for clients to tour Victoria Falls and nearby National Parks. The PHarranged for private transfer for the six-hour drive from Vic Falls to company headquarters in Bulawayo, and promised to escort me from Bulawayo to the safari camp. An excellent plan, it seemed. 

Vic Falls and Chobe Park were superb. Yet, these experiences dissolved into despair shortly after I headed to Bulawayo. My hunt coincided with an impending Zimbabwean national election. The incumbent President, Robert Mugabe, had ordered travelers to be searched for gold, silver, and jewels, which were being smuggled out of the country. My driver and I encountered several military checkpoints along the highway. Rustic gates were erected and manned by fierce-looking 20-somethings packing semiautomatic rifles. These bush cadets angrily shouted orders and questions, such as, “Show me your passport! Where is your hunting permit?” I was scared spitless because I had yet to acquire a hunting permit. I could show only my U.S. passport and a visa from Livingstone, Zambia. The authoritative and incessant yelling and clenched-jaw threats with deadly weapons summoned flashbacks of terrorist scenes from the 2004 movie, “Hotel Rwanda.” I checked my pants to see if I’d had an accident. Upon leaving the second checkpoint, I considered uncasing my .375 H&H. Of course, using a bolt-action hunting rifle in a firefight would prove suicidal against semiautomatic weaponry. I hopelessly agonized that each subsequent checkpoint might turn frenetic.


My fears eased upon arrival at the safari company’s offices in Bulawayo. Yet, the flicker of security disappeared when I learned the PH was on safari and would not be my guide. He was replaced by a less-experienced PH who I dubbed “Bogus”, for reasons that will emerge shortly. Apparently, Bogus had guided hunters in the Omay region a decade previously. He arrived late and limped badly—hardly instilling confidence in his capabilities. We picked up his apprentice guide, Simone, along the way.

Darkness fell before we arrived at camp, and few landmarks remained of Bogus’ 10-year-old memories. Bogus became discombobulated, if not totally lost. We got horribly stuck in sand, punctured a tire, and the spare was low on air. Proceeding grindingly slowly, we struggled into the safari camp at about four in the morning.


The next day we searched for buffalo tracks along bulldozer-roads built by the British when the country was Southern Rhodesia. We inquired if villagers had seen buffalo recently. Perhaps anticipating financial rewards, villagers often spouted that they had indeed seen buffalo, “…three days ago at a certain location…” Yet, after reconnoitering the indicated areas for three days, the “tips” proved false. Late on the fifth day, we spotted a small group of buffalo across a wide valley, but we could not catch up.


On the sixth day, searching the vicinity of Lake Kariba, we began to see buffalo herds of 20-35 animals, lifting my hopes. We tracked one of the larger groups, which led us in a circular route through dense thickets for four hours. Suddenly, we were amid possibly 50 buffalo moving toward us. Kneeling as the animals passed us on both sides, I spotted three bulls walking directly toward us. They stopped shoulder to shoulder some 40 feet away, looking about as friendly as the front four of the Chicago Bears NFL team. I softly inquired of Bogus, an arm’s length away, “Big enough?” He shrugged and whispered, “I can’t see them clearly.” He saw only black patches at 40 feet! After a tense Robert Ruark stare-down, they ambled off. Shaken, and checking my pants again, I wondered if a shot would’ve led to disaster, realizing they could’ve killed us before we snicked off our rifles’ safeties. Murphy’s reprieve, I wondered.


While walking back to the truck, the two trackers and the government scout stopped abruptly and nervously began backing up. The scout picked up a thorny branch and began furiously striking the ground. The object of his ferocity: a large puff adder adorned with beautiful markings. I shuddered, thinking that such a deadly creature could’ve lurked where I was kneeling in the thickets.

We searched the same area the next day. While rounding a hotel-sized rock formation, we drove within 50 yards of a group of about 30 buffalo with at least two good bulls. After an awkward stand-off, they slowly moved over a hill; we followed. After six hours of alternately catching up and bumping the herd, we turned around because the sun was about to kiss the horizon.


As we topped a hill that afforded a nice view of Lake Kariba, we glimpsed a stunning bull with widely swept horns and a huge boss, in an opening about 200 feet away and perhaps 75 feet below us. He was a bona fide Harry Selby-approved 40-inch-plus Dagga Boy! He stopped, offering a nearly picture-perfect broadside shot. Bogus set up the shooting sticks, and you can bet a bottle of your best Glenlivet that I got on target faster than Annie Oakley in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. Still, I had the presence of mind to hold the scope’s crosshairs a tad high to assure the bullet would drive deeply into the bull’s boiler room.


Holding onto my third breath, the “thwap” of the 300-grain bullet from my .375 Ackley Improved Winchester was quite pronounced, and he was rocked to his knees. Staggering as he regained his balance, he bucked like a Professional Bull Riders’ rodeo bull, and then ran. As I worked the bolt, I glanced sideways to see if Bogus and Simone were aiming their .416s. Professional hunters generally perform the finish work on dangerous game, unless the client specifies otherwise. I was gob-smacked to see both Bogus and Simone with their hands covering their ears and their rifles pressed between their legs! The bull disappeared behind a dense mopane clump and I was unable to send a follow-up shot.


After listening for what felt like years for the death bellow that didn’t arrive, my not-so-intrepid companions were obliged to take up the spoor. We immediately found both deep-red and bright frothy blood splashes on bushes on both sides of the trail. The bullet had driven completely through the bull’s chest. The spoor led to a narrow drainage-way where the jesse was extremely dense. Visibility was only a few feet. By then, the sun had set, and with daylight fading fast, we wisely stopped. To continue tracking a wounded buffalo under such conditions would’ve been an embossed invitation to the Biblical destroyer. We would return shortly after sunup, confident we would find the bull stone dead.


The following morning, after tracking the bull less than 100 yards we found where he had collapsed to his side in the sand. The elongated depression of his body was nearly filled with a massive pool of blood, the surface of which remained uncongealed. It looked like he’d arisen only seconds earlier. With the two trackers a few steps in front, we spread out in a 10-yard line—Simone, Bogus, then me (ordered to stay one step behind), and finally the scout, who packed a .30-06 with a cracked stock. The tension was thicker than creosote smoke. With shouldered rifles, we proceeded with wide-eyed caution, believing the wounded Dagga Boy was close enough to breathe down our necks.

After one-stepping for another 150 yards, then turning a corner, the two trackers suddenly stiffened and began backing up, very much like they did with the puff adder. “Africa’s version of show time,” I thought. As four safeties were snicked to “fire,” I heard what sounded like raucous screaming. The boys then wheeled and scattered like quail past Simone, Bogus and me. The unspoken message was crystal: “Get the Hell out of Dodge!” We obediently turned and ran.


After my adrenaline-fueled imitation of an Olympian sprinter helped me gain some altitude, I asked a huffing and limping Bogus, “Is the bull charging? Why aren’t we shooting?” He simply blurted, “Elephants!” Needing no further encouragement, I hastily continued moving toward the others atop the hill. Simone explained, “There’s a mob of cow elephants with calves down near the spring.” He was aware of the spring, but Bogus had never been there. Momma elephants defending their babies don’t bluff and can swiftly convert a body into a puddle of bloody ooze. Some of those that threatened us were tuskless, and thus presumably extra nasty. Now we had to deal with two menaces simultaneously.


We returned the next morning, whereupon the gangster jumbos unceremoniously again escorted us away from the spring, where we thought the bull probably had laid up. After that, I had two additional days left on safari, and could have hunted plains game. But I dutifully spent the remaining time searching for the wounded bull which, after all, was a superb specimen. We cautiously searched for the bull’s tracks in a circular area surrounding the waterhole. We also watched for vultures and for scat of mammalian scavengers. Yet we found no evidence that might indicate a dead or living bull. Finally, the safari was over, and I returned to Montana, where Murphy launched one final insult: my custom Winchester was “lost” for five exasperating months.


At this point, the reader might ask if I regret not retrieving my first Dagga Boy and forfeiting the trophy fees. Certainly, I regret the failed promises, poor communications and my part in a beautiful animal possibly suffering a lingering death. I do not regret forfeiting the trophy fees for lost and wounded game, which I believe is proper policy. More importantly, the adventures, albeit terrifying at times, instilled an even greater resolve. I returned to Africa in 2010 and shot a good Cape buffalo in Zambia. I returned in 2017 when I shot a very big-bossed Cape buffalo near Kruger National Park with Claude Kleynhans, who tragically lost his life to a buffalo a year later.


The allure of Africa beckons me to yet another return, whether Murphy’s Law prevails or not.