Abdula, Lilian (Game Scout), Sue Tidwell, Mgogo (Head Tracker, Raphael Erro (PH)

The Widowmaker, Excerpt from Chapter 6


Racing through the mixed savanna scrublands, I dodged acacia trees and thorn-covered bushes, trying desperately to stay on Mgogo’s heels. Raphael and Rick were somewhere ahead of us. Whether it was 10 feet or 10 yards was lost on me. Keeping my eyes glued to the ground, I was looking for snakes while trying to stay upright and keeping my peripheral vision locked on my human lifeline. Although I couldn’t see Abdalah or Lilian, the rustle of parched grasses told me that they were trailing close behind. The previous day’s slow deliberate games of Follow-the-Leader were gone, replaced without warning by an urgent speedy version.


Running has never been my thing. Ever. Ever. Ever. Short legs on a 5’3” frame are not the best asset for sprinting the 100-yard dash. My body was ill-equipped to keep up a blood-pumping, air-sucking pace for any length of time. Luckily, adrenaline and fright provided a little extra oomph. There was such urgency, but I was clueless as to why.


Everything had happened so fast. Only 20 minutes earlier, amid the typical fanfare of parting encouragement, we pulled away from Masimba Camp and settled in for another jarring drive through pitted countryside. Not only was the morning’s breakfast still parked in my stomach like a freight train, but I was combatting another relatively sleepless night. We had again been haunted by the hyenas’ eerie vocals and Simba’s blood-curdling serenades. Restless nights in the bush seemed to be par for the course.


My food-induced, sleep-deprived stupor was shattered when Raphael and Mgogo pointed excitedly, rattled something off in Swahili, and pounded on the cab window. As soon as Mike stopped, everyone erupted from the vehicle like it was about to explode. Adrenaline permeated the air as Raphael, Rick, and Lilian grabbed their rifles and Mgogo seized the shooting sticks. Gawking in confusion, I followed suit and scrambled to the ground. Yet, I had seen nothing!


Before I could make sense of anything, we were dashing through the brush. The steady, carefully placed steps of the previous day’s pursuits had given me a sense of security, especially when it came to avoiding snakes. At this reckless pace, however, thoughts of sluggish puff adders or black mambas unable to make a speedy exit filled my head and provided an incentive to stay on Mgogo’s heels.

Our tent at Masimba Camp along the dried up Mzombe River, Rungwa West Game Reserve.

This is how we roll.

Just when I was about to keel over, we caught up to Raphael and Rick. They were crouching behind “a cluster of trees peering through a hole in the branches. Following their gaze, I saw them. Hundreds of them. Cape buffalo in a long strung-out formation barreling across the savanna only a few hundred yards in front of us. It was like a scene from a cowboy movie. Instead of familiar-looking cattle, the charging bovines resembled fiercer versions of black Angus bulls, only with massive terrifying horns. Hundreds of hooves kicked up clouds of dust as the ground trembled under our feet. Grunts, bawls and bleats rose above the thunderous roar. Somehow, during the mad dash, this clamor had escaped me.


After a moment, we returned to the previous day’s slower, more meticulous game of Follow-the-Leader, advancing tree to tree, 10 to 20 yards at a time. Adrenaline, disbelief, and blind obedience worked together propelling me forward, still on Mgogo’s heels. As the distance dwindled, stories of the Cape buffalo’s ferocity and cunning came flooding back to me. Cape buffalo — aka nyati, mbogo, narri, inyati, dagga boy, ‘Black Death’, or ‘Widowmaker’ — earned its designation as dangerous game and was placed among The Big Five by living up to the requirements of that exclusive club. Responsible for killing an estimated 200 people a year, these black brutes are every bit as deadly as lions, leopards, rhinos, and elephants.

As hundreds of forceful strides battered the earth just 200 yards away, stories of the buffalo’s ferocity flooded my brain. Dread filled my innards as the distance between us shrank. The fear, a primal ancient fear, was unlike any from our civilized world. My lizard brain, that part of me responsible for survival instincts, kicked in, driving me forward.


At my core, I knew that the safest place for me was in the shadows of the men and woman I was with. I trusted the calm, cool strength of my husband, and even after such a short time, I had complete faith in the skills of Raphael and Mgogo. Lilian too was close behind with her AK47, a rifle meant for poachers but nonetheless capable of other uses.


After darting forward a few more times Raphael suddenly stopped. Mgogo set up the shooting sticks. Rick rested his gun in the cradle of the tripod, placed his arm on my shoulder for stability, peered through the scope of his rifle, and put his finger lightly on the trigger.


At 140 yards, we were further than the preferred shooting distance. Apparently, Raphael felt comfortable with Rick’s accuracy at that range. Typical of all African hunts, a portion of the first afternoon had been spent at target practice sighting in guns, allowing PHs to judge their client’s abilities. A critical factor when assessing hunting’s logistics.


By the time Rick was on the shooting sticks and we were in position, nearly three-quarters of the herd had passed by. The flurry of pursuit was replaced by a waiting game. For the first time since exploding out of the vehicle, I stood utterly motionless gazing in wonderment as the mesmerizing scene played out in front of me. Buffalo after buffalo pounded by. Some were in bunches, some scattered, some hugging the fringes of the herd, with calves seemingly nestled in the middle. The irregular ribbon of supersized bovine spread out for hundreds of yards across the savanna. Except for the calves, they all looked like carbon copies of each other: huge black brutes with massive, curled horns. Horns that from an untrained eye all looked the same. I couldn’t tell a cow from a bull; a young bull from an old bull.


Like the kudu, Rick didn’t have the skill to judge African species. It was totally up to Raphael to find a mature shootable bull amid this hornet’s nest of galloping Nyati. As they continued to stream by, over and over I thought to myself, “What’s wrong with that one?” or “How about this guy?”


Above: Rick, Raphael, and Mgogo stalking zebra.

Right: Lilian Mremi, our Tanzanian Game Scout recording the harvest.

Far right: Rick and I with an oribi that he harvested.

You must remember, we sacrificed a lot to pay for our trip. The previous day’s 13 hours of dodging elephant potholes, tracking the old dagga boy, and stalking multiple species with no success were in the back of my mind. Although those experiences had been worth every penny, I knew the opportunity to hunt Cape buffalo had been Rick’s dream since picking up his first safari magazine at 8 years old.


Loving someone means that their dreams also become your dreams. And so even as a non-hunter with reservations about hunting certain species in Africa, I desperately wanted Rick to fulfill his long-awaited quest.


Another tank-like black blur stormed by. Then another. And another. As the tail end of the stampeding buffalo herd came into view, the conversation inside my brain switched from subdued questioning of each buffalo’s merits to urgently screaming, “What’s wrong with that one?!” Then, finally, my unspoken shriek was answered when Raphael pointed to the very last bull, a straggler 15 yards behind the moving mass of blackness.


“That one,” he whispered.


Unexpectedly, another thought entered my brain. What if I flinched as Rick was ready to pull the trigger? With his elbow resting on my shoulder, I would screw up his shot. Instantly, I squeezed my eyes shut. I figured if I couldn’t see, I wouldn’t react instinctively, possibly sabotaging the shot. On too many occasions in the past, calm had eluded me. While living in Alaska, where Rick and I met, each of our hikes included trailhead postings warning ‘Stay calm during a bear encounter. Do not run!’ Detailed instructions followed, primarily urging hikers to play dead if attacked by a brown bear and fight like hell if attacked by a black bear. Brown bears normally leave after the perceived threat is over, but a black bear will eat you.

Well, believe me, even with these tidbits of information firmly implanted in my brain, remaining calm is easier said than done. When spotting a bear from a distance, no problem, but flash a blackish blob 20 feet from me and I sprint. Fortunately, my 100-yard dashes were typically the result of friendly black labs rounding a corner. Not bears.


Anyway, I certainly did not want my instincts to be responsible for wounding any animal, let alone one nicknamed Widowmaker and Black Death. Also, as much as I hate to admit it, the thought of a $3,000 trigger pull crossed my mind. Wounding a nyati, whether it was recovered or not, would mean dishing out the Cape buffalo’s trophy fee and Rick losing the chance to harvest that species. Consequently, keeping my eyes shut seemed to be the best course of action.

Rick, Raphael (PH), Lilian (Tanzanian Game Scout), Zefania (tracker), Mgogo (Head Tracker), Mike (Driver).

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, the targeted buffalo spotted us, pivoted, and charged in our direction. I was, therefore, blissfully unaware that almost 1,500 pounds of disgruntled muscle was barreling straight at us.


Suddenly, I heard Raphael yell, “Shoot. Now!”


An instant later, the Boom! reverberated through my entire being. My eyes impulsively opened to see a cloud of dust and the blur of thrashing horns turning towards the receding herd. A second later, we were all we were all running across the savanna in pursuit. I had no idea if Rick had hit the buffalo or not.


Sixty yards later, everyone slowed. There he was: Nyati, lying motionless and sprawled out on the ground in front of us. Tension and vigilance pervaded the air as Raphael gestured for us to stop. Although the buffalo appeared lifeless, he instructed Rick to fire one more bullet into its spine, an insurance shot. This preventative measure was common practice for buffalo because of their reputation for retribution and refusal to die.


Even after the insurance shot, Raphael signaled for everyone to stay back while he approached the motionless mass as if it might explode at any minute. Using the long shooting sticks, he gently prodded the bull for any signs of life. Satisfied, he finally relaxed. Our whole entourage breathed a sigh of relief as worry and caution were replaced by excitement and awe. Gazing at the magnificent buffalo laying on the grass, Rick and I clung to each other as tears streamed down my face. Rick’s eyes, too, were glistening with sentiment.

Tears are peculiar. They convey a whole host of emotions. There were, of course, tears of joy. After over 40 years of dreaming about it, Rick had hunted a Cape buffalo in the wilds of Tanzania. But the tears entailed other things as well.  Remorse. Regret. Sorrow. Thankfulness. Awe. Excitement. Relief. Wonder. Loss. Even disappointment that the hunt was over. While these conflicting sentiments are a part of any successful hunt there was a whole other dimension to our emotions in Africa. Rick was, after all, harvesting species that we had both loved and idolized for decades.

Loading the Cape buffalo.

…In the retelling, amid another round of hugs and congratulations, I mentioned that I had shut my eyes and therefore had no idea the bull had charged.


Raphael looked at me intensely. Then implored in his calm serious manner, “Sue, please keep your eyes open.”


The look on his face spoke much louder than any words could have. Lesson learned. My eyes would stay open.


The good-natured banter also led to an answer regarding the earlier all-consuming question: What’s wrong with that one? Although the Cape buffalo all looked the same to me, there were subtle differences in the huge beasts if you knew what you were looking for. Both sexes do have horns; but only the males fuse on their foreheads creating the boss, or ramming instrument, as I mentioned earlier. Their horns are also much larger than the females. Therefore, picking out the males was easy. Well, easy for Tanzanians.


Distinguishing the old males from the younger males was where it got dicey. The bosses of the older bulls were larger, bone hard, and had a dullness to them. The younger bulls had bosses that were slightly smaller, shinier, and not completely solidified yet. The fact that anybody could distinguish these slight variations from over a hundred yards away, while they were in stampede mode, was dumbfounding.


Still, the primary reason that Raphael made Rick wait, and wait, and wait, until most of the herd had gone by was that the oldest,  and therefore the lowest-ranking bulls, are typically located at the back of the herd. Cape buffalo have a strong hierarchy. The low-ranking bulls that are no longer breeding or contributing to the gene pool are forced to bring up the rear until they are kicked out of the herd altogether to become dagga boys.


Animals forced to the rear of such a mob not only get inferior grazing, but they are also more at risk from predators. The high-ranking dominant breeding bulls, on the other hand, travel front and center, essentially the safest spot, while also having access to unsullied premium grasses. Finally, I knew the answer to “what’s wrong with that one?




Although we had expected our dinner might include the Cape buffalo that Rick harvested in the morning, we were at a loss for words when it arrived. Amid the broth in my soup was a large chunk of buffalo tail. Tidbits of meat were nestled between a framework of bones. Who knew that tails had bones? I sure didn’t.


We looked at each other wide-eyed, then dipped our spoons in the broth and hesitantly took a sip. Gaping in complete astonishment, all four of us dove in whole-heartedly. The soup was utter bliss. After our bowls were practically licked clean, Sue’s (our hunting companion) sable made it to the table in the form of lean and delicious grilled steaks.

Rick, Raphael (PH), Lilian (Tanzanian Game Scout), Zefania (tracker), Mgogo (Head Tracker), Mike (Driver).

After our meal, I shocked the whole lot of them, thanks to Lilian’s tutoring, when I casually, but a little awkwardly, stated asante kwa tamu chakula. Thank you for the delicious food. The enthusiastic reaction and beaming smiles of our Tanzanian hosts were even yummier than the buffalo-tail soup.


After dinner, Rod, Sue, Rick, and I took another chance sitting by the fire on the makeshift patio. We were pleased to find that the bats were dining in a different restaurant for the evening. Not having to dodge plunging excrement allowed me to reflect a bit.


What a day it had been: watching a herd of stampeding Cape buffalo; Rick fulfilling one of his life-long dreams; a nap under the shade trees as fresh oribi was barbecued on a spit; Swahili lessons; stalking multiple animals; and a fabulous dinner with lively conversation. Last, but not least, who could forget a huge chunk of buffalo tail creating a mouth-watering soup? The entire day was unforgettable.


Splat. Plop. The bats were back. Apparently, the main course was over, and dessert was being served under the canopy of the patio tree. It seemed the perfect time to call it a day. Who knew what the next day would bring? Lala Salama. Sleep well.


Cries of the Savanna. Available in print and audible at Amazon and most retailers. https://books2read.com/CriesoftheSavanna.

Also available in RSA bookstores or direct at https://rockhopperbooks.co.za/products/cries-of-the-savannah