Hunting Scared

Buffalo seldom charge, but when they do, they never bluff.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Sometimes, it was roars that disturbed my sleep. Other times, I was awakened by rumbles and screams. Remembering where I was, I'd sit up in the dark under the mosquito netting and swing my legs out of the bed, pausing to peer around for the silhouettes of scorpions before setting my feet down. Lifting the net, I'd cross to the tent flap and step into the cool August night air where bats swooped past my face and listen for the roars.

More frequently, though, from the Songo River flats below camp, it would be the screams, and under the Southern Cross I would see the moon-washed elephants bumping one another as they crowded around the salt lick. These were members of a healthy wild population of legally hunted elephants-a thing far different from the semi-narcoleptic attractions found at Africa's finer game parks and lodges. These were elephants that, in the words of Zimbabwean professional hunter Rory Muil, would "stuffing try to kill you"; and they weren't even my reason for being here.

Here was a million-acre hunting concession spread across the Tonga tribe's Binga Communal Lands up from the Kariba Lake shore in northwestern Zimbabwe. It was nyati, Cape buffalo, or rather a tragic addiction to them, that had brought me here to hunt with Rory. Not everyone necessarily gets hooked on nyati. In terms of side effects suffered, the first one is usually free. A hunter may get "lucky" and stumble onto a bull in open terrain, make a practically anticlimactic one-shot kill, and wonder what all the fuss was about.

Another hunter, after chasing snorting, stampeding buffalo around in the bush for days, may be so unnerved by the experience that he will happily make his first buffalo hunt his only buffalo hunt, and from then on stick to less distressing game, like grizzly bears. It is only after deliberately hunting Cape buffalo a second time, or a third, that a person makes a crossing to being something, and someone, distinctly different from whatever he was before.

Standing outside the tent, I didn't know if being drawn to the hunting of Cape buffalo required a special darkness or a heart of clear radiance. The only thing I did know, after having hunted six of them in 28 years, was that it was unlike all the other hunting of all the other game I have given chase to in Africa. Buffalo seldom charge unless made to, but they never bluff. Their sight and hearing, though not acute, are far from poor; their sense of smell is astounding; and all their senses are wired into a large brain and a redoubtable, decidedly uncowlike intellect. You have to hunt them on foot, you have to get close, you have to use a heavy rifle, and you have to shoot straight the first time.

Three days prior to my arrival in camp, a poacher and several of his associates had gone down to the Sengwa, the area's main river, in order to spear a buffalo who had tangled a snare around his head and horns and had the poor manners not to strangle himself to death. As the spearmen approached what they took to be a harmless, neck-roped buffalo, the bull was filled with a surge of adrenaline and snapped the snare-with a breaking strength twice his body weight-and proceeded to butt, gore, and stamp the poacher into the ground while the poacher's cohorts fled. Then the buffalo walked off, still wearing his crown of wire.

Among Cape buffalo the dugga boys, the old bachelor bulls, are the most unadulterated form of the buffalo drug. Dugga boys (the word means "mud" in Zimbabwe's Shona language) behave as if they own the wallows. Either bullies or grandees, they lay claim to the mud holes by seeming divine right. Their attitude toward much of the rest of the world, including humans, is about on a par. That, and all of the above, is what makes them interesting. It was why I was here to hunt my seventh with Rory.

With Rory the routine of the hunt was to check water holes early for a track that s not nezuro (yesterday). Today's track, if not up-to-the-minute, could still be used to judge what the bull would be doing in an hour, in the afternoon, or tomorrow. If it were shiny and fresh, we would be on it on foot. The buffalo knew well, though, where to lead us to make the tracking of them, if not impossible, then at least improbable: to unbroken dry shoals of quartz pebbles, through tall thick grass, over shelves of flat bare rock, and across noisy acres of fallen leaves.

"Like walking around in a crisp factory," Rory would say, taking a drag on his Newbury cigarette and looking like an even more shopworn version of the actor Patrick Stewart.

For six days the hunting was a matter of old tracks, no tracks, blown stalks, and wrong buffalo. Far from frustrating, those six days were valuable practice-I even began to find tracks myself when we had lost them. As the days went by, I also began to develop a premonitory awareness. At the end of a long fifth day, I told Rory my prediction: We would find the dugga boy, Old No. 7, on the seventh day. Rory did not argue.

On the seventh morning we looked for buffalo on a high grassy flat where we had seen tracks heading the evening before. The buffalo had already moved on, though. I didn't have to ask Rory where we were going next: We would go to his favorite area for buffalo, Kapinda, a distant part of the concession where stands of mopane trees grew up to the bottoms of rock ridges; where the bush willow could be thick, and long-yellow-grassed woodland parks rolled out over broad ridgelines.

The morning grew warm as we drove the more than 20 kilometers to Kapinda. Reaching the area, we moved slowly down the indistinct dirt roads looking for tracks and at midmorning found large round ones-those of two dugga boys together.

We parked the white Land Rover in the shade of a tree. I took my soft case down from the rifle rack welded to the roll bar behind the front seats, unzipped it, and slipped out the .450 Nitro Express Ruger No. 1. I ejected the snap cap, chambered a 500-grain soft-nosed bullet, and set the safety. I took a long drink of water (but not enough to slosh in my belly) from one of the canteens that John, the second tracker, carried in his daypack. It was time to go.

The track led across all the usual improbable terrain. We lost, and found, the dugga boys' trail time and again until we tracked them into a keep of tall crenulated rocks on a high ridge. We knew they had to be just ahead. And they were, bedded.

What gets buffalo killed, above all else, is the wind; but it is also what keeps them from getting killed. This time the wind swirled in their favor. We heard thunderous crashing, like three-quarter-ton-plus mule deer busting from cover, unseen. Hunkering in silence in the rocks, we waited to see if the buffalo would tell us what to do next.

Fifteen minutes later, Samuel, Rory's head tracker, spotted the two old dugga boys feeding among the mopane out on the flat ground below the rocks, as if all had been forgiven. They had not been irreparably spooked and had drifted back toward the outcrop.

Rory calculated. A low ridge ran near the buffalo, scattered with a couple of large rocks. If the wind stayed put and we went down in a wide circle, using the rocks as landmarks, we might be able to get within 100 yards.

Rory decided and we crawled out of the rocks, and when we were away from the buffalo's line of sight, we stood and worked our way off the ridge. I stumbled more than once on the way down, from simple clumsiness or excited tension, and I was certain I had started the bulls. We couldn't know, so we went on with the stalk.

On the flat ground, moving toward the low ridge and the landmarks, Rory asked me what kind of bullet I had chambered. I told him soft-nose.

"Solid," he whispered, and I reloaded the single-shot as quietly as I could.

Reaching the low ridge, we left the other trackers behind, and Samuel, Rory, and I climbed it, moving along the crest. The rock we had singled out to navigate by (black and wind-carved) was just ahead. I could see off the other side of the ridge, and there stood a black shape beneath the low branches of a mopane. I reached out and touched Rory, and he whistled softly to Samuel, and we all stopped.

We lined up three trees and used them for concealment as we worked closer, until the dugga boy was 60 yards away, slightly downhill. There was no cover, nor any place to get a rest, and I slid out alone from behind the last tree and set the fore-end of the .450 in a leather-covered cradle on the top of my hiking staff. I found the buffalo in the scope.

The bull had his head in the branches and leaves, but I could see a blocky rump, slightly swayed back, and heavy belly. His real weight was carried in the bulked hump of his shoulders. He was quartering toward me, and as I looked among the branches and leaves of the tree, I saw a boss and the curve of a horn and the glint of an eye: He saw something where I stood, but he waited for the wind to tell him what it was.

The buffalo's left ear drooped, and below its tattered fringe I could see his chest and the base of his neck. I whispered to Rory that there were twigs in the way, and he whispered back, "Not enough to bother that bullet."

I looked back through the crosshairs and found a place on the bull's chest that looked open.

"I'm going to shoot him in the chest, just below his left ear."

"That's a good place."

I held a little longer, making sure that what I was seeing really was the bull's chest. I slid the tang safety forward.

"Don't shoot unless you're absolutely happy," Rory warned.

I was tense, concentrated, and yes, happy-nearly euphoric in a semiterrified sort of way. My finger pressed the trigger, and the rifle fired.

The bull spun out from beneath the tree in a splintering of branches. He ran counterclockwise in a half circle, placing himself 15 yards farther out along the line of fire but partially covered by the mopane's trunk. His head was up, domed by the heavy boss, his Roman nose scenting for the source of the bullet that had struck him. Out of nowhere the second dugga boy pounded past and turned into the wind, drawing along the wounded bull.

They went straight away, making for a second, lower ridge. I had another solid in the chamber and threw the scope on the wounded bull (clearly the rear one of the two), 100 yards away now. I scarcely felt the powerful roll of the gun as it fired and the second 500-grain solid broke the buffalo's left hip. It didn't seem to slow him. The first solid, though, was finishing its work as he ran.

As I reloaded once more, the two bulls dould.

Reaching the low ridge, we left the other trackers behind, and Samuel, Rory, and I climbed it, moving along the crest. The rock we had singled out to navigate by (black and wind-carved) was just ahead. I could see off the other side of the ridge, and there stood a black shape beneath the low branches of a mopane. I reached out and touched Rory, and he whistled softly to Samuel, and we all stopped.

We lined up three trees and used them for concealment as we worked closer, until the dugga boy was 60 yards away, slightly downhill. There was no cover, nor any place to get a rest, and I slid out alone from behind the last tree and set the fore-end of the .450 in a leather-covered cradle on the top of my hiking staff. I found the buffalo in the scope.

The bull had his head in the branches and leaves, but I could see a blocky rump, slightly swayed back, and heavy belly. His real weight was carried in the bulked hump of his shoulders. He was quartering toward me, and as I looked among the branches and leaves of the tree, I saw a boss and the curve of a horn and the glint of an eye: He saw something where I stood, but he waited for the wind to tell him what it was.

The buffalo's left ear drooped, and below its tattered fringe I could see his chest and the base of his neck. I whispered to Rory that there were twigs in the way, and he whispered back, "Not enough to bother that bullet."

I looked back through the crosshairs and found a place on the bull's chest that looked open.

"I'm going to shoot him in the chest, just below his left ear."

"That's a good place."

I held a little longer, making sure that what I was seeing really was the bull's chest. I slid the tang safety forward.

"Don't shoot unless you're absolutely happy," Rory warned.

I was tense, concentrated, and yes, happy-nearly euphoric in a semiterrified sort of way. My finger pressed the trigger, and the rifle fired.

The bull spun out from beneath the tree in a splintering of branches. He ran counterclockwise in a half circle, placing himself 15 yards farther out along the line of fire but partially covered by the mopane's trunk. His head was up, domed by the heavy boss, his Roman nose scenting for the source of the bullet that had struck him. Out of nowhere the second dugga boy pounded past and turned into the wind, drawing along the wounded bull.

They went straight away, making for a second, lower ridge. I had another solid in the chamber and threw the scope on the wounded bull (clearly the rear one of the two), 100 yards away now. I scarcely felt the powerful roll of the gun as it fired and the second 500-grain solid broke the buffalo's left hip. It didn't seem to slow him. The first solid, though, was finishing its work as he ran.

As I reloaded once more, the two bulls d