By Kevin Cunningham

 

It is almost a cliché to say that hunting Cape Buffalo is special. For me it began, curiously enough, many years ago hunting whitewing dove in Mexico with Ralf. Ralf was a successful, greying guy who loved the hunting and fishing life, and who was fortunate enough to have safaried in Africa from the time he was twelve years old. After a hot day of shooting doves, he and I would sip icy margaritas and he would reminisce about hunts and the animals he had taken – hissing crocs, trumpeting elephants, roaring lions, hyenas, baboons, leopards, horned plains game of every sort, and Cape buffalo. To my youthful ears it sounded like high adventure and a test of personal courage. Ralf had been everywhere and stalked everything, but he always came back for buff because, he said, they live up to their reputation for exchanging human damage for a poorly placed shot, and for fighting to the end, especially when they knew who killed them!

 

Fast forward thirty years to a lion-colored grass airstrip in the Save Valley of Zimbabwe. The little Cessna bumped down onto the hard dirt and came to idle in the shade under a towering baobab tree. When the engine shut off, all I could hear was the sound of the wind blowing a dust devil down the runway. A Toyota pickup drove to the plane. The driver got out, a junior professional hunter, introduced himself and me to the trackers, then loaded my gear. We watched the plane lift off over the tree line and turn north. I looked at the red ground and crackling dry landscape of thornbush and tan-barked trees with new green leaves brought on by early November rains. The horizon in every direction seemed 100 miles away. There was no sign of man. A lone silhouette of an elephant lumbered across the far end of the airstrip casting a silent shadow before the setting sun. I was back in big buffalo country, and only the fates knew what would happen over the next ten days.

 

After zeroing my rifles, we arrived at Sango Conservancy. This is the famed reserve of the Pabst Brewing Company family. It is managed to the highest standards in terms of protecting and preserving wild African animals in their free-range habitat and in a sustainable manner that includes very limited hunting. The hunts they allow are under strict quota and are conducted only with select PHs. The money raised helps to support anti-poaching, wildlife studies, and the feeding and livelihood of the workers and their communities. Those funds represent only a portion of the total personal cost to the owners in their continuing and tireless efforts to preserve 150,000 acres (60,000 hectares) of pristine African habitat and its precious wildlife.

 

Ingwe Camp, mine for this hunt, is a private camp, so I had the place to myself except for staff and my PH who stayed in a thatched bungalow across the compound.  I was greeted by staff with a tray of iced melon juice and cookies and shown around. Boss Rob, my PH, would be back shortly as he was attending business at headquarters. I stowed my gear and headed to the bar for an anesthetic after the 34-hour trek from Texas to Zim via Doha, Qatar. I settled into a leather chair on the veranda, watching the last light of sunset filter over the veld, sipped my iconic South African drink – a double brandy and Coke – and relaxed in proper bwana fashion.

A truck ground to a halt and a door slammed. In strode my friend and PH Rob Lurie. I had met Rob two years before under unfortunate circumstances. My previous PH,

Phil Smyth, had been killed by an elephant. Rob had stepped in along with other generous PHs to pick up Phil’s booked hunts for the benefit of Phil’s family, and so I had hunted the Senuko camp, about fifty kilometers down valley, with him the following year. We hit it off, and so when he called to offer me a hunt at Sango that another client had cancelled, I jumped at it.

 

Rob is head of the distinguished Zimbabwe Professional Guides Association. Though I have hunted with wonderful PHs from other parts of Africa I have been impressed with the professionalism that Zimbabwean PHs display as a result of their rigorous training and licensing program. Just ask any learner Zimbabwean PH what they have to go through to get a full license to escort clients into harm’s way. You would sooner sign up for Marine Corps boot camp and a couple of years in green hell than go the distance they go to get their ticket. Like Rob, the PHs I have had the privilege and honor to hunt with, are dedicated to preserving an ancient way of life. I got to share that life for the next ten days.

 

After a lovely dinner, more than enough Stellenbosch wine and catching up with Rob, I turned off my bedside lamp and sank into crisp sheets under a mosquito net. It was pitch dark. I listened to the trickle of the stream in the gully below and the chirping and calling of the night creatures. I thought of my rifles, going through a mental checklist – Dakota .416 Rigby bolt action with a new Swarovski Z8i 1.7-13×42 red dot scope for old eyes needing lots of light in often shadowy environments. For years my Z6i had served me well, but the improvements of technology over time enticed me into the new optics. They say in Africa, shoot the largest caliber you can shoot well. I chose the .416 Rigby as it is a legendary caliber for tough African dangerous game. I shot this rifle confidently and killed efficiently and humanely.  My other rifle on this hunt was a new, out-of-the box Hill Country Rifles custom .224 Valkyrie with a Z8i scope for smaller game. I had brought thirty rounds of ammo for each. For buffalo I prefer custom loads – 20 soft and 10 solids from Safari Arms with Swift A-Frame bullets – or whatever is next best available in the post-Covid market. Nothing against production ammo, but if I have the cash and order time, I want to know I have the best. For dangerous game, failure is not an option!

 

The morning knock-knock came at 4.00 along with a pot of coffee. An hour later, Rob and the team were waiting at first light with the truck.

 

Day one is always a wakeup call. This was real. I was jet-lagged. My shoes were stiff. I was not used to the new sling. I had conveniently forgotten the effect on my arms and shoulders of carrying what is a rather heavy rifle. That first walk of the morning was not like strolling to the shooting bench at home. My muscles were not in shape to follow much younger men all day. No taking a coffee break and chatting with a friend before going to lunch. A sip of water and let’s get on with it! That first day was meant to see how I walked in the bush, how I behaved, how I handled my rifle. By evening I was beat, but hopefully Rob could see that I was getting my muscle memory back, leaving my other life behind and getting mentally into the work at hand.

 

Over the next few days we bundu-bashed. Rob and I were in the cab while our trackers and game scout were above us on the top rack and bench where they could see what we could not. Around us monolithic grey boulders stacked up into kopjes. We bundled warmly in the early mornings and sweated in the afternoons, heads on constant swivel for sign and animals. There were the occasional close calls with unhappy elephants, appearing and disappearing lions, menacing shadows moving through the trees, and crocs feasting like Jaws on giraffe legs from the one that I had shot for bait. We ambushed a pair of klipspringers, and the trophy ram dropped to the shot from the .224. With that and a well-placed shot from the .416 on that old bull giraffe the day before, I was feeling good on the gun.

Over several days, we crossed paths with buffalo herds that had always passed that morning or the night before. The Dagga Boys’ tracks we saw were too either old or not big enough. One morning we glassed a herd that was climbing a steep bank on an island in the middle of a river opposite us. Most of the herd had moved into heavy cover. There was a big Dagga at the rear. He even looked big through my binos at 400 meters. I watched the tick birds on his rump. He paused, turning a black-horned head to watch us. He lifted his chin, stared, then disappeared in the blink of an eye into a wall of leaves. I was not too keen about crossing the croc-filled river barefoot to take up a stalk on this guy. 

Fortunately, Rob said the island was too dangerous to hunt. In it were poachers’ snares that caught and wounded elephants, buffalo, lion and leopard. Bumping into predators while hunting wounded animals in those tight quarters or, even worse, meeting wounded animals themselves, could be considered a life-altering experience. For once I was pleased to be excluded from the git-go!

 

As we stood on that riverbank looking at Monster Island (my name for it), I looked behind and around us and noticed the trackers doing the same. We were standing in a tunnel of twenty-foot-high reeds and tangled vines, no different from on Monster Island. I was last in line, so I watched our rear, wondering what shooting at close range in that tangle would be like with a scoped rifle.

 

We crept back out. I began to relax when we got back to the truck until I looked at Rob as he hurriedly started the truck and revved the engine. He was staring hard at a young cow with calf that was barreling down the narrow lane which was to be our exit 40 meters ahead. She came ears flared, trunk held high, and trumpeting. Behind us was another group of clearly nervous head-swinging bulls. I envisioned jumping from the truck at the last second before the inevitable collision, but luckily the cow suddenly backed off for a moment to check on her baby hidden in the bush nearby. Rob wasted no time in scooting past her with spinning tires and throwing up a cloud of dust.  I looked right into her eyes through Rob’s window as we passed.

 

 I am in no way a professional hunter. I have read Capstick and Boddington and John Taylor and whatever else I could find about African hunting. This time I was hunting my sixth Cape buffalo. I have spent hours looking through binos, hunkered down in grass or behind a termite mound. I have sat around fires talking to PHs and other buffalo lovers about what makes a great trophy. Early on I thought “wide” was the way to go, and then “drop” became the object. I got my “wide” in the Eastern Cape of South Africa and was lucky to have it rank 165 of the many buffalo recorded as of July 2019 in the SCI records. Now, after seven years of chasing them, I only hunt Daggas. Old warriors with fighting scars on their faces and necks, lion claw streaks on their backs, chunks of their hocks torn out by chewing beasts, healed in thick masses. I want to see dropped horns down low to their ears and lots of grey mascara under drooping and wrinkled eyes. I search for a boss that looks like the burl of an ancient oak. I hunt for a “character.”  A helmet of broken horn and one eye would be perfect! Past breeding age, they wander alone or in twos or threes, no longer fighting for herd dominance or breeding rights; they fight to survive another day unprotected except for maybe a loyal mate nearby. I have developed an affinity for them, a kinship that perhaps comes with my advancing age, knowing that there are no hospices in the bush and that the end can come unmercifully slower than from a well-placed bullet. Rob knows what to look for. I trust him when we have stalked two bulls through a searing afternoon only for him to call me off the sticks at the last moment because neither of them is a “proper Dagga.” All I want to hear is a whisper: “He’s a shooter!”

And so around 4.30 in the afternoon on the sixth day of the hunt, I put my boots back on swollen feet, bent down to stretch an aching lower back, and fumbled with my shoe laces with hands and arms stiffened from toting the .416. I was definitely on the old man side of the equation.

 

A buffalo had attacked some camp staff not far from our compound the night before. The same buff had chased a man up a tree two days ago in the same area just down by the creek. Rob thought that the culprit might still be in the neighborhood, so we were back in the truck. Sure enough, we cut two Daggas’ tracks in the road not a mile from camp. Rob switched off the engine and we rolled to a stop. The tracks were fresh and big.

 

As I stepped out of the truck, I put a round into my rifle’s chamber and felt my gut tighten.  I took two deep breaths, checked that I was on safety and fell in behind Rob and our lead tracker. What I like is that generally the stalk is a slow affair.  My legs are not what they used to be. Slow is good.  Making as little noise as possible I looked down, watching the heels of Rob’s boots as we angled down a forested hill towards the creek. I tried to step where he stepped and stop when he stopped. My heart picked up rpms as our progress got slower and more deliberate, until it was two or three steps, then stop and wait, a few more steps, stop and wait.

Then we stopped still. Rob looked through his binos, peering around a tree trunk. He slowly turned and smiled at me.

The lead tracker moved silently to a large boulder fifteen meters in front of us and slowly peered over the top. He froze. I could feel everyone’s tension rise. I concentrated on looking at Rob’s back in front of me, slowing my breathing to try to relax. Rob quicky moved forward and I followed close on. We reached the boulder. By hand signals the tracker told Rob that the companion buff had run away, but the older one was just on the other side of our boulder, perhaps twenty meters away and not seeing us because of the rock. However, the animal seemed to know something was afoot and was motionless. To our left at the far end of the rock was a small gully that opened into a hollow about four meters across. If the buff chose to go forward, he would emerge into that hollow to our left. In that case I would have a shot at him broadside from about 15 meters. Rob and I crept to that end of the rock and put up the sticks. Rob looked up to the tracker who by now was crouched about three meters above us on top of the rock, looking straight down at the buff just on the other side. The tracker’s hand fluttered.

 

“He is coming!” Rob whispered, this time clear urgency in his voice. “Get ready!”

 

I checked my safety to be sure it was at the half-on position. I gripped the fore end of the Dakota firmly in the V of the sticks and made sure my power was on low setting. Looking through the reticle down into the narrow hollow I could see the spot where I imagined the bull would step out. I waited, but nothing happened. I slowed my breathing again and stared through my scope, trying to blink as little as possible. Another minute passed. Rob gestured to the tracker above who signaled back that the animal was just standing still again, listening, smelling, sensing. Just then the tracker changed his hand, pointing in the opposite direction. The buff had turned around and was now moving back down the alleyway from where he had come. Rob and I moved quickly, resetting the sticks on a level place at the end of the boulder where the buff had first been observed. We were about a meter above ground level, but still partially hidden by rock, looking down at the place the buff where should now come out. I again set up on the sticks and waited. Events after that took on a dreamlike, almost like slow motion, but still quickly.

The buff emerged into a grassy area. I was on the sticks, moving my red dot around deliberately to find his center mass. He was facing us head down, eating little shoots of brilliantly green grass. He was lit up black and gold by the rays of the setting sun still bright over our shoulders. He looked up in our direction then turned slightly to his left in a quartering position. Rob hissed, “Now! Right on the shoulder.”

I shot. The red dot and all around it exploded in my reticle. The buffalo lurched forward instantly and came at us. I jacked another round into the rifle and shot at his hindquarter as he blindly plowed within a few meters of us, passing by our rock. I shot again, this time a raking shot from behind at 12 meters. With that he turned back towards us, coming to a stop at six meters from my rifle muzzle. For the briefest moment he looked up directly at us then turned broadside. At this point my scope was worthless as far as aim, so I looked over it, pulled the rifle in tight to my shoulder and basically shot-gunned my last round into his side just aft of his shoulder. In my peripheral vision I could see Rob’s double at ready in case the buff leapt onto the rock at us, but my last shot had turned him away. He trotted up the hillside near us. At about thirty meters he stopped in the shadow of a massive baobab tree and just stood there, blowing a mist of red with each deep breath. I could hear Rob saying, “Reload.” As I did so, the beast began to sway but his staunch legs would not buckle.

 

“Again. Shoot again,” Rob said.

 

This time I took careful aim on the sticks and put the last one just behind the shoulder crease halfway up the chest. He did not even flinch. The great head rose. He looked up at the tree and lay down. Still tossing his horns at his unseen enemy he bellowed once, then again, and all went still.

 

It is said in Mashonaland that only great chiefs may be buried under a baobab tree. The greater the chief, I suppose, the greater the baobab. When it is my time there will be no baobab. But I will always carry with me the memory of this valiant old chief and his tree, a sad, but good thing.

 

Ralf would have understood.

BIO

 

Kevin is a lifelong hunter who resides with his two black Labrador dogs on his ranch in Hunt, Texas.