By Martin Pieters
The dust swirled in the midday heat of the Zambezi Valley, as we lay motionless behind a small outcrop of black rock that reflected its heat towards us. Shade was sparse apart from a clump of green about 15 meters ahead.
This was directly in line of the two Dagga Boys bedded down in some jesse 40 meters further. Just a small patch of black and a flick of an ear gave them away.
The day had started with a cup of freshly brewed coffee hot off the campfire. The staff were jovial as they loaded the Cruiser with Cokes, a couple of beers for the trip home later that evening, and a whole lot of water. Our ‘scoff box’ was filled with sandwiches and biltong, apples and some crisps – a five-star meal for the field. The shrill screech of a barred owlet broke the pre-dawn silence as we sat enjoying the cool dark morning. My client and good friend had hunted several times with me over the years, and we knew after yesterday’s trek in the hot Zimbabwean sun that today might not be different.
The drive from camp to our chosen area for the day was uneventful in the dark, with the headlights occasionally picking up the darting gleam of a springhare’s eyes as he hopped across the road. About five kilometers from camp we bumped into a young hyena as he casually trotted up the road towards the skinning shed. Hyena are a common menace around camp, attracted by the smell from the boneyard, and often stir up feelings of fear among the staff.
We began to make out the looming hills of the Zambezi escarpment, and a light breeze stirred the leaves of the mopane trees, but steep ravines, hills and a myriad of gullies leading into Lake Kariba turn the wind into a living thing. Mike (not his real name) had pushed himself to the limit over the last several days: long sessions on the tracks of groups of bulls, terrible winds, and one group of irate elephant cows that made us expose our position while on a closing stalk on some buff all made us pay the price, and Mike’s feet were no exception. Large blisters had formed on his left heel. Moleskin and double socks were helping for now, but another one of those days would mean possible complications and an inability to walk long enough to get into position for a shot.
A tap on the roof indicated that Steve, my trusty tracker and good friend of many years had seen something. We stopped and walked quietly towards the waiting crew who were excitedly pointing at a large deep imprint in the mud of a small wallow just off the dirt track.
“Nyathi,” Steven whispered, shaking his ash bag. Small hand gestures, and subdued excited chatter by the staff was all we heard as we slowly walked back to the vehicle to prepare ourselves for the hunt.
We huddled around the vehicle waiting for the darkness to lift enough to see. As the first rays hit, shadows shifted and the bush came alive with the hum of insects, the cooing of doves and distant roar of a lion. I was filled with the joy of doing something I love, thankful for being fortunate to experience the beauty Africa has to offer.
A small whistle alerted me to the whereabouts of my trackers. Steven has mastered the art of mimicking small birds, and we often communicated like this while on the hunt. Steven in the lead, followed by myself and then Mike, with the rest a few meters behind us. Heading west, we picked up freshly imprinted sign behind some soup plate-sized tracks of Dagga Boys a couple of hundred meters further on.
Mike was carrying a .416 loaded with 400-grain ammunition. His initial shot would be a soft, followed by solids if necessary. This is my preferred method when hunting Dagga Boys. I was using a .470 double. Given to me by General Norman Schwarzkopf while hunting together in Northern Botswana in the late nineties, this rifle has a special place in my heart. I have carried it ever since and it has saved my life on a few occasions.
There were two bulls, both huge-bodied buffalo judging by the tracks. It also meant four eyes and four ears, and having hunted this portion of the Zambezi Valley for many years that meant potentially wise old warriors, veterans of many failed stalks. I was sure that the human smell was imprinted in their DNA, and a mere whiff on swirling winds would mean a long day playing cat and mouse.
We had been walking slowly through several small patches of jesse bush when we came to an opening on the side of a low-lying hill. As is common, there is often a lot of seepage into these drainage areas creating, luscious patches of green grass. The tracks led through the grass, leaving freshly chewed snippets of fodder, obvious signs that the buff spent some time here feeding. Cautiously we glassed the thicker brush on either side and ahead, hoping for a glimpse of black among the grey. The wind was good and, being early, the dew made things quiet. The tracks led along an elephant path through a large thicket towards a pan that I had frequented on my last safari. Knowing the area well, I knew the pan was about two kilometers away, secretly nestled deep within some cathedral mopane. There was no road into this portion, and the area was untouched. A yellow-billed hornbill flew close by, hopping down in front of us, catching insects we disturbed from the grass.
Gradually the bush became louder with the sounds of birds, indicating we were getting close to water. Slowing our pace and staying close together, we crept forward until we could see the glimmer of water through the trees. Sweat fogged my lenses. Kneeling, we peered through the fallen trees and branches, we slowly made our way closer until were we at the edge of the waterhole. We picked up the tracks that led around the water and saw noticed that the bulls had ran through the water. Was it the wind? Had they see us? Heard us?
Then Steve pointed to a neat imprint from a lioness. She must have been what we heard early that morning from the truck. A curse under my breath made Mike laugh a little as he noticed the disgust on my face… “Bloody lions,” I said, “we found them first!”
The trackers had perked up a little, walking a little more carefully while sending cautious glances towards the greenery. We followed a good 500 meters and saw that the buff had settled to quick trot, still knocking over small shrubs and showing no sign of calming. We continued for another kilometer till the tracks turned into the hills and slowed to a walk. Beads of sweat were forming on our brows as the sun hit our backs, and a few annoying mopane bees started gathering around our eyes and ears. Glassing up the steep side of the hill, we had a fairly good view of the ridge as well as a few hundred meters to each side. There was only one sure route up and the buff had taken it. A wide ngwasha or elephant path wound its way up the hill, through fallen boulders and across steep gullies formed by many years of torrential rain.
Shouldering our packs we pushed upwards. Every step gave us wonderful views of the escarpment and the river that carved its way through sandstone cliffs to finally spill into Lake Kariba. With each step I tried to picture the terrain ahead. I had hunted this certain range for several years and had some idea of possible springs and decent bedding areas for cranky old buff. Nearing the ridge, we stopped for a breather and took a swig of cool water. Chatting quietly to the crew, we all agreed that the bulls were heading to a steep ravine between two hills, a common resting area for them as we had often found remnants of their dung. If my memory served me right, they had chosen an extremely difficult area for us to approach.
Large hills and gullies made midday winds a nightmare; steep rocky slopes with minimal cover made a stealthy stalk impossible; we needed luck and lot of it. The trick was a combination of stealth and speed. If we took too long, the heat would build up, winds would become fickle, and the buffalo restless. Too fast, and we risked spooking them if they saw us first – odds were definitely in their favor.
We stopped, crouched, and motioned for the rest to do the same. Both Steven and I had heard a sound – ox-peckers – a sure sign that we were close. We scanned the horizon and picked up a few buffalo ahead. They disappeared into the tree line about 300 meters in front. Game on! From this point forward, odds were slightly better as we potentially had a direction and idea of where they were. A short group discussion, and we carefully took positions and started the slow approach to where they could be resting. It was 10 a.m. and the sun was fierce, humidity was high and sweat drenched us. Steven’s back behind his water pack was soaking and my hand felt clammy against the comforting grip of my double.
Meter by meter we crept forward, coming to a stop every time we heard a noise, a rustle or if we had an opening through which we could glass ahead. The tracks led down the side of a ravine through some fallen black rocks that looked exactly like bedded-down buff. The bulls were walking slowly and dragging their hooves – the warmth and heat making them drowsy. They would sleep well, especially after a night of feeding and the fading of adrenalin from their encounter with the lioness.
How wrong could I have been!
I firmly believe that most good trackers that have spent time doing what they love have a sixth sense, and Steven was no exception. His uncanny ability to read the signs and his acute knowledge of the area enabled him to almost pinpoint where an animal would be at a certain time of the day. He froze, slowly crouched down beside the tracks and pointed ahead. Moving to the side and slightly right as he has done on countless hunts, Steven gave me room to scan ahead.
The jumble of fallen branches was enough to hide a fully-grown elephant bull, the intertwined limbs of the ‘shaving-brush combretum’ formed an almost impenetrable wall. Glassing from left to right in a slow arc, I slowly adjusted my binos to be able to see through the wall of green and into the dark shadows behind. A kudu barked in the valley below, and the shrill calls of a few ox-peckers ahead alerted me to the general direction of the buffalo, and I turned slowly around and peered intently towards the fading sounds of these “policemen.”
Mopane bees… It felt like thousands of the annoying little buggers were trying to get into both my ears and eyes. Glancing back, I noticed that I was not the only one bothered, as I saw Mike had the same issue, except one had made its way into his left eye and secreted a fluid that was making it water, temporarily blinding him. Steven took a bottle of water and flushed it out as best he could. A few minutes later we were back on track and with each step, the sound of silence grew as birds and animals alike found shade in which to escape the intense heat.
As I trained my binoculars at a certain discolored spot ahead, my eyes and mind played tricks on me – whatever it was, it was motionless, perhaps a rock, a buttress of roots or a fallen tree. Minutes ticked by and just as I was about to look elsewhere, a small movement made me hit the brakes. I stared fixedlythrough the brilliant optics of my 10×42 binos for what seemed like forever, when I saw it again… An ever so slight movement. My eyes adjusted, I tweaked the optics and wham!
The gentle flick of an ear!
The bulls were bedded down about 40 meters ahead and currently everything was in our favor. The wind was good, cover was ample where we lay motionless and, most importantly, we had seen them first. My heart beat a little faster and I could feel a small rush of adrenalin. They say this is a fight or flight reaction, and we were definitely in it for the fight.
No matter how many times I find myself in a similar position, the feeling always surfaces – it’s one of the reasons we do what we do. It’s not about shooting off a truck, sitting at a waterhole or in a machan. I am talking about the freedom of hunting large, unspoilt areas of the Dark Continent, about pitting oneself against a worthy adversary in his own back yard.
Judging from their position, the buff would begin to feel the heat on their huge, mud-caked bodies and might shift slightly, giving us a better opportunity for a shot or a better approach, or a glimpse at their horns. Old and solid, nothing beats a buffalo trophy than age.
Time went by and still we sat. Bees buzzed incessantly around our moist eyes. I felt dehydrated and my tongue felt thick. I was sure Mike felt the same and slowly pushed a half-empty bottle of tepid water towards him, careful not to make sudden movements or any noise. Startled ox peckers flew up as one of the bulls pushed his heavy body to his feet, and the small patch of black tuned into a behemoth of muscle as he stepped briefly into a small opening and further into the thick safety of cover.
Mike had his rifle ready, shouldered with the safety off, and knelt down. He preferred at that range to shoot freehand. I had hunted enough with him to know his abilities and was very comfortable with his skills. The fleeting glimpse did not allow enough time for an accurate trophy judgment from me or for a shot by Mike. But the silent message between us simply translated as “amazing!”
Then the other buff decided to join him and we heard some small twigs snap as he rose from his position. We were not so lucky this time as this bull walked directly away from us giving us a look at his tail or what was left of it. A small stump, sheared off about a foot from his anus was all that remained, totally healed and almost comical as it moved from side to side in a futile attempt to brush the biting flies from his flanks. He too disappeared from sight, leaving us huddled in the half-shade calculating our next move. Effort, our water bearer and assistant tracker to Steven, whispered in excitement:
“They are both big, bwana, especially the first one, did you see how fat he was… so much meat.” I was amused by his simple idea of a trophy – horns were great but they did not taste nice!
Steve threw an angry glace at Effort and mouthed something in Tonga that made Effort bite his lip and step back slightly. Pecking order is common on the hunting team, and every now and then Steven needed to show who was boss.
The wind was still in our favor as we moved back a little to the shade of a pod mahogany tree. These trees have an iridescent green hue at this time of the year and are one of the only large tree species with fresh new leaves. After some cool water to drink we were ready to go. A few words to Mike about the condition of his blister and a thumbs-up from him was a huge relief to us all. The sky was cloudless except for distant balls of puffy white over the escarpment towards the lake, and the only movement was the slow tumbling of a bateleur eagle in the thermals.
It was now 11.30 and we had been motionless for some time. To our left and down a steep embankment, was a major river, currently, wide, sandy and mostly dry. A few small pools had formed in some of the rocky portions and in areas where the water during the rainy season had cut away at the bank to form deep hollows. In some there were still had small fish in the oxygen-depleted muddy water, and were devoured by gathering maribou storks and fish eagles. To our right was an open patch of sparse woodland, dotted with outcrops of jagged black rock. About seven kilometers behind us was the vehicle. Ahead lay our quarry, two battle-worn buffalo, each armed with memories of previous encounters, cunning, and potentially deadly.
Standing into a semi-crouch, trying hard to keep our heads down, we grouped together and took our positions. Steven gripped the shooting sticks, shouldered his batonga axe and edged forward. Stepping in each other’s footprints to lesson any noise, we crouched, crawled and slid slowly forward, stopping every few meters to check ahead.
The acrid buffalo smell was strong. A fresh pile of light green dung with hundreds of tiny flies showed where one of them had bedded down.
Piles of dry dung littered the sandy patches below the low overhanging branches of the jesse. With lots of fresh water that trickled out from the rocks below to form a natural pool, the area was a wonderful cover.
The hair on the back of my neck pricked up as a cool breeze hit my sweat-drenched collar. The wind was shifting as was typical in the valley during the heat of the day, and the odds would be shortly in favor of our quarry. We were safe for now as our scent would be carried over them… once down in their domain, this might not be the case. Drying our hands on our shorts, we firmed our grip on our rifles, checked sights and safeties for any irregularities, and moved forward as one, doubled over like “U” bolts, ducking and weaving our way slowly through the branches and vines.
Steven knelt. We followed suit and my right knee clicked loudly. It sounded like a gunshot to me, but no one looked my way. I stared ahead. In a mass of vegetation, with grey and black shadows and rocks, 15 meters ahead lay a solid mound of black, facing away, with large worn horns splayed out on either side of his head. A torn ear and heavily scarred back was the result of a narrow encounter with his arch-enemy and the reason he had lost his tail. Slightly ahead lay his companion, another huge-bodied, almost hairless old bull.
Both were well beyond prime.
Although I had a pretty decent view of the buffalo to the right, it would have to be taken while he was lying down. Mike had branches blocking his sight picture, and could not move without the bull seeing him – we wanted close, but perhaps this was too close! Finding ourselves between a rock and a hard place, we attempted to flatten ourselves further into the ground while the trackers behind blended into the foliage.
The bull on the left shifted forward a little and went out of sight. The remaining bull rocked himself to his feet and vanished, leaving us slightly relieved. We decided to walk down a small game path towards the water. It took us over 20 minutes to reach the pool to have a quick drink.
The rustling of bushes in front quickly alerted us. I could see the crew on edge, every single muscle frozen. We could see the movement of branches and leaves about 40 meters ahead, moving violently. A crack of a branch echoed through the valley and silence was all that remained.
Minutes ticked by, not a soul moved.
The faint sound of a hoof clicking on a rock gave their position away – they were on the move, heading down towards the scrub mopane below.
Standing up and stretching, I attempted to get the bloodflow back to my left leg which had gone numb, checked my sights and safety, and motioned for Steve to pick up the fresh tracks. Disturbed mud and water still flowed into the pool left by one of the bulls that had taken a moment to wallow in some rather inviting locally produced ‘sunscreen’. Buffalo, especially the old bulls, love to cover their bodies with soothing mud, which gives them protection from biting insects. When the mud dries it eventually peels off, taking with it the majority of the remaining hair, leaving them almost bald and more grey than black.
Picking our way through fallen boulders and piled-up debris, we inched ahead to where the cliffs on either side were steep and impassable. The base of the cliffs were covered with the white markings of a thousand carmine bee eaters, the beautiful stunningly red-colored birds that live in colonies and nest in holes created in steep river banks, but at this time of the year there none as they had already left this part of Zimbabwe.
As we carefully rounded the bend in the river we saw a small herd of elephant cows and calves making their way through the mopane towards the pool of water below.
The arrival of the elephant posed a small problem as they lay directly in our path, and if they saw, heard or smelt us, they would gather together for protection and perhaps send out a few warning trumpets, and our hunt would be over for the day.
We backtracked out of sight and around the river bend to give them space, and headed up the tangled slope and away from the river and the elephant, using our hands for leverage and helping each other through difficult sections. We finally cleared the crest, and peering over the edge we could see the elephant slightly to our left.
About 200 meters ahead we focused our attention at the confluence of two. Scanning left and right, we could see no movement and had to assume that our quarry was there. We had a couple of options: each came with its own set of problems.
We could carry on in the heat of the day, attempt an approach and hope for a clear shot in the thick stuff, or we could wait it out for the cool of the evening when they would get up and feed.
Option 1 gave them the edge as they were safely and securely bedded down, ears, eyes and nostrils on high alert. We had seen both bulls, so trophy judgment was not on our minds.
Option 2 came with a whole set of new complications. They could bed down till it was too dark to shoot, they could feed into a position with a poor approach, or, if left too late, we would be out here after dark trying to make our way back to the truck through areas that were difficult enough to negotiate during daylight.
We quickly ran through the pros and cons of both options and agreed unanimously that it was now or never.
Making a small semi-circle to keep cover and to refrain from exposing ourselves on the ridge, we kept low and slightly behind a rocky outcrop. The sun was past its zenith and making its slow arc westwards to the distant blue of the faraway hills. Motioning for the rest of the crew to remain on the ridge and out of sight, I removed a radio from the pack and handed it to Effort in case we were separated during the final approach. I took a swig of water and followed Steve.
The three of us moved as one down the sparsely covered hillside, our eyes wary for any resting francolin or other game animals that could reveal our position, and alert the bulls.
Reaching the lower portion of the ridge, where the open bush met the thickness of the riverine vegetation, we stopped to listen. The raucous call of a grey lourie, the “go-away bird” echoed around us as he flew from his vantage point to another position.
Still, silence all around us. Perhaps they had moved further on…
It was 3.45 and as the heat lessened, birds started their cacophony. This would be to our advantage.
Moving forward on hands and knees we snaked our way into the undergrowth, brushing away dry leaves, extra careful not to allow any dirt to soil our barrels. Head down, I almost bumped headfirst into Steve. He had come to a halt, pointing to a dark mass. Once he was certain I had identified what he had seen, he moved beside Mike and myself, allowing us ample room for any possible action.
The buffalo was so close we could hear him breathe; binoculars were only necessary to get the correct position of his body, and to make sure we had a clear shot devoid of branches that could deflect the first round. He was standing, facing slightly away, not the most ideal angle given that a follow-up shot by Mike or myself would be impossible with the cover he had anchored himself in.
Mike shouldered his rifle, his right thumb eased the safety into fire position, and he hunched forward to absorb the recoil. It felt as if time had frozen. “Shoot,” I whispered.
I could see the white of his knuckles as he squeezed the grip on his rifle and carefully moved his index finger behind the trigger guard, to a slow, almost methodical pressure on the trigger… and baam!
The recoil knocked Mike back off his haunches, but this did not stop him ejecting the spent cartridge and closing the bolt face on another round, and at the same time I saw the strike of the bullet as dust flew up off the bull’s flank.Despite his bulk, the bull did not show that he had been hit; on the contrary, he spun around and crashed through the brush following the thundering sounds of his partner as if nothing had happened. The crashing continued for a short while and then all was quiet. Dust rose up from the bush and slowly drifted towards us, slowly dissipating
I asked, as was customary how Mike felt about his shot. “Good,” he said, “real good.”
We smoked a cigarette as we looked for sign, when a shrill whistle had us move towards Steve where he pointed to a spot of blood on a leaf. Both of us were loaded with solids, ideal for this type of situation.
Ahead and about three feet or so up from the ground, smeared on the trunk of a young tree was blood, still sticky. We picked up the spoor of the running bulls, careful to watch out for sign of one of them faltering or changing direction. After 100 meters they were still together but slowing down. We found more blood, not large quantities given that the quartering away shot would possibly not have exited. A little further on, and the wounded bull veered left, on a completely different angle to his buddy and slowed down to a trot. We stopped briefly to make sure he had not looped around again, but found that they had definitely separated and we were not far behind.
Now, knowing that we had one target, we could relax a little in the knowledge that the buffalo we would see at the end of these tracks was Mike’s bull.
Cautious, totally focused on what lay ahead, we had time on our hands so no need to rush. Steven continually turned his head left and right, up and down, glancing into the brush ahead to pick up movement or color.
Then the brush seemed to explode ahead of us as a mass of angry muscle burst through, sending dust and sticks flying in all directions. Steve was gone as Mike and I stood shoulder to shoulder, shocked at the ferocity and speed of the charge. Coming towards us, head held high, specks of blood, saliva and fury spewed from the bull’s widened nostrils. Eyes white and wide open, he was like a black avalanche of hatred from years of evading hunters, lions, poachers and drought.
He barged his way through the bush across gullies, taking down small saplings, and finally came to a sudden stop as his body weakened. Then he veered left and circled slightly back to rest and listen.
In front of him and very close he heard them, a breaking twig, and the sound of something unnatural brush against a branch. Then he saw them. Hatred swelled inside him, the pain in his side worsened and the foreign taste of blood in his mouth and nostrils infuriated him.
He launched himself forward, his huge worn curved horns tearing through the leaves and brush, his solid dome of a boss protecting his head.
He had timed it perfectly. His enemy stood barely meters away. He lowered his head so he could smash and hook them. But his lowered head obscured his vision for a split second and at this moment, both rifles barked out in succession.
Mike’s shot hit the bull squarely above the boss, through dense neck muscle, and he stumbled. The stoic old warrior collapsed in a mass of dust barely a few meters from where we stood.
A look at the bull showed that Mike’s shot had hit him correctly, but given the angle had possibly changed course and ended up missing the vitals.
Mike was over the moon.
As time was against us and we still had a lot of work to do, we took some pictures as quickly as we could, to be proudly displayed in a far-off land in a framed photograph, to be gazed upon by Mike’s children and grandchildren.
Mike wanted a European mount so we removed the head, and the trackers gutted the bull and tried to cover him as best possible with leaves and branches. We would have to return in the morning, and as it was, we would be walking back in the dark. Steven shouldered the massive head, and using his axe, balanced it on his shoulders and proceeded to make his way to the vehicle.
It had been a long day and the thrill of the hunt was replaced by exhaustion. Weary legs carried us home. I was not sure about Mike, but I could already taste the cold beer that waited in the cooler. The last several hundred meters was in darkness.
Finally, in the starlight, we saw my waiting Land Cruiser.
My respect for Mike was huge. After all he was 77.