F&S Classics: Ghosts of Africa
For his final safari, our rifles editor stalked an animal he has long been fascinated by—the Cape buffalo
Editor’s Note: To celebrate David E. Petzal’s 50th anniversary at F&S, we’ve asked staffers and contributors to select and share their favorite story of Petzal’s (no easy task—there are a lot of good ones). Today’s selection, “The Ghosts of Africa” (December 2017–January 2018), was made by Colin Kearns.
In April 2016, I learned that Dave Petzal would soon be traveling to Zimbabwe to hunt Cape buffalo. I asked him if he would like to write a story about the trip, but he wouldn’t take the assignment until he came home—if he came home, he added. He did come home, thank God, and he did have a story a to tell—one hell of a story.
However, he warned me that if I was expecting some epic adventurous yarn, I was out of luck. “The killing of the poor buffalo was a textbook job after a masterpiece of tracking by parties other than myself,” he told me in an email. “I can’t construct a thrilling narrative out of something that was almost a foregone conclusion. But I can make it interesting.” To describe “The Ghosts of Africa” as interesting is akin to describing the search for a wounded Cape buff in the tall grass as dicey. This is my favorite David E. Petzal story of all time—and assigning it to him remains a highlight of my career at F&S. —Colin Kearns
He was very big, even for a Cape buffalo (around 1,800 pounds) and very old (around 12 years) and very smart. But he was condemned to death by his hooves, which were also huge and which left an unmistakable track in the sandy soil of the Zimbabwean lowveld. When you leave a signature like this and have three people following you who can track the memory of a ghost over hard rock, the odds are not in your favor.
Or you could say that his death was caused by a book. In 1953, when I was 11, I read Killers in Africa, written by a professional hunter named Alexander Lake. It permanently scarred my youthful brain, and I developed a fascination with Africa that persists to this day.And so, having been on 10 safaris, I decided at the age of 74 to go to Africa again. A great many of the people who go on safari do so in late middle age or old age, when they can finally afford it, but when they are well past their prime. I know of two men who had only weeks to live when they made their last safari. I know of another who had major back surgery and was wheeled directly from the operating room to the airport, pumped full of painkillers. I shared our camp with a 62-year-old who had seven vertebrae fused, and who could not stand erect without effort; another hunter in another camp was 65, diabetic, had suffered a stroke, and could not completely control one of his legs. They all came and they all walked, sometimes a lot, and with great effort, and sometimes in great pain, because this is Africa, and if you are an African hunter and if this is the price you have to pay, why, you pay it.
Why the hell am I here? My last three safaris I hardly pulled the trigger, and on one of them I spent three days sitting in a baobab tree above a water hole, simply watching animals and having a hell of a good time. I don’t need to kill anything more.
When I was in college, I read War and Peace, and my professor made us all take a blood oath to reread the book when we were 65 instead of 18. We would appreciate it a lot more, he said. Perhaps that’s why I came back to Africa; because at this age you don’t take things for granted and you’re running out of time in which to take them in any way.
My friend John Wootters told me that the last time he got to Africa he smelled the woodsmoke, which is one of the constants of life here, and got tears in his eyes, because he was back. John is gone now, so perhaps I’m here for him.
Or perhaps I’m here because I’m part of the last generation that will see something like this. Drought, and poaching, and pressure from human population will eventually drive the wild animals into zoos. In a national park nearby, there’s a small pack of Cape hunting dogs of which perhaps 200 remain in all of Zimbabwe, and maybe 1,400 in all of Africa. Once they roamed in the many thousands, but distemper, and ranchers with rifles, took care of that.
Why Cape buffalo? Because there’s always the chance that something will go wrong. I think it’s the same with people who skydive or race motorcars or climb mountains. It’s the realization that no matter how prudent and careful and skilled you are, fate can intervene. I’m not afraid of buffalo; if you have a powerful rifle and are backed up by an even more powerful rifle, the odds are all in your favor.
What I am afraid of is an accident. On the first day I told my PH: “I’m a very experienced hunter. I handle guns all the time. But I’m an old man, and old men do dumb shit. Watch me.”
My PH was James “Buzz” Charlton, 44, a Zimbabwean with whom I had hunted in 1992 when he was 19 years old and an apprentice. Even that young, he displayed a remarkable tolerance for my nonsense, and I took an immediate liking to him. In 2016, Buzz was now a grown man and a seasoned pro who had escaped death three times.
The first time, he leaped from a canoe as a hippo’s jaws crashed shut where he had been standing an instant before. The second time, a black mamba struck at Buzz’s head from a tree as he passed underneath and sank its fangs in a leather hat Buzz was wearing. If the snake had been on target, Buzz would not have survived. Buzz’s third encounter with the Reaper came because he declined to shoot a cow elephant with a calf. She showed her gratitude by smacking him with her trunk, breaking six of his ribs and hurling him 30 feet down a river embankment, where he broke his coccyx on landing and lay there unable to move as the enraged mom screamed above him. Buzz realized that either the bank would give way and she would fall on him, or she would make her way down and finish what she had started, or she would leave.
She left. He lived.
Buzz has a wife and two young daughters. He is also a direct descendant of Lt. Col. Anthony Durnford, one of the British officers who was killed at the Battle of Isandlwana in Zululand in January 1879. Roughly 24,000 Zulus went up against 1,200 men of the 1st Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot, and no one wearing a red coat was left alive on that field. In 1979, a movie was made about Isandlwana called Zulu Dawn, and Col. Durnford was played by Burt Lancaster.
In the Age of the Treestand, Africa is one of the places where walking is not only encouraged but necessary. You won’t walk after leopards—the only practical way to hunt them is from a blind—but you’ll walk after everything else. If you’re hunting buffalo, you’ll walk a lot; you can figure on about 6 miles a day. If you’re hunting elephant, you will really cover the veld.
A couple of years ago Buzz guided a middle-aged client to an elephant, and in the course of a 21-day hunt, the man’s weight dropped from 160 pounds to 145. The next year, at the Safari Club Convention, the hunter’s wife approached Buzz and said, “I’ve come all the way here to tell you one thing: If you ever do that to my husband again, I’ll kill you.” Then she turned on her heel and left.
Walking in Africa ranges from difficult and unpleasant to nearly impossible and hellish. If you’ve ever hunted in African summer, when the heat rises above 100 degrees and the tsetse flies and sweat bees are open for business, you’ll be a changed person at the end. Lowveld Zimbabwe is mostly level, which is good, and where we were, in the Savé (Sah-vey) Valley Conservancy in the African winter month of May, walking is not the torment it might be, but it’s far from merely putting one foot in front of the other.
Every bush, tree, and shrub has thorns—most of them quite long, and some of them quite barbed—and you have to shove your way through with nearly every step. (I think of Shakespeare’s line spoken by Richard III: “that rends the thorns, and is rent with the thorns.”) You must also pay attention to the muzzle of your rifle, because prudence dictates that there be a round in the chamber. And you must watch the rifle of the PH who is walking ahead of you, his rifle unslung. He shifts its 12 pounds constantly, and if you get too close you can get a couple of pounds of highly figured walnut in the face.
You must not step on twigs or trip on branches, and above all you must not step in crap—one of the constants on the plains of Africa. It ranges from old, dry, innocuous buffalo crap to fresh, semiliquid buffalo crap, which must be avoided at all costs, to newly minted lion and leopard poop, which is truly terrible stuff and will probably require that you burn your boots if you place a foot in it. Elephant dung gives new meaning to the phrase fiber in the diet. Elephants like to push down trees and eat them—bark, branches, and all. There is poop all over the place because animals go wherever they please. It’s one of the fringe benefits of being an animal.
Then there is the heat. During May and June, which is prime safari time, the nights are cold and the air is often cool during the day, but the sun is ferocious. The real heat comes at 9 a.m., and you’ll typically have three hours of hiking in it. By noon all the animals have sought shade, and you get to go back to camp and take a nap until 2:30 or three o’clock when it begins to cool off.
When I began hunting in Africa, water was carried in a 1-gallon bag made of sisal fiber. This was slung over the radiator of the hunting vehicle, and a tracker carried it when you got off the truck to stalk a critter. Or he didn’t. Africans can go all day long without drinking or eating, so sometimes he forgot. Now, the water comes in plastic bottles, and one of the trackers will always have a knapsack full of them. They are cold, and you’ll be asked over and over if you’d like a drink. I couldn’t get used to this and found myself wishing for death by dehydration so everyone would just leave me alone about the water.
There are other signs that Africa is growing soft. Time was, when you left the truck to track something, you then got to walk back to the truck. That meant that a 5-kilometer walk would become a 10-kilometer walk. Now, Buzz carries a two-way radio and a GPS, and Eddie, his driver, stays with the truck. When the walk is done, Buzz calls Eddie, who also has a GPS. They figure out where he is, and we are, and the truck comes and gets us. At my age, I think this is simply terrific.
The Hunting Party
Trackers are the guys who find what you want to shoot. They also do everything else, and Buzz’s crew executes with a snap and precision and élan that reminds me of a really good military unit. Buzz says that if he had to replace them he would retire instead. On the line of march, we always keep the same order: In front there is Criton, a handsome man who is well over 6 feet tall and was once so strong that he could pick up half of a butchered buffalo cow and carry it off. Criton’s former PH was killed by an elephant, and Criton was bashed pretty badly himself, so he is not the same as he once was.
Behind him comes Nyati (“Buffalo”), another 6-footer who tracks almost as well as Criton and has a stupendous pair of eyes. Nyati is a former schoolteacher who can tell you the name of any tree in the Zambesi Valley in Shona, English, and Latin.
Then comes Buzz, whom you have met, then me.
Last in the line of march is our game scout, Smart, who is that, and the quietest of the bunch. He is permanently assigned to me and is never more than a few yards away. I have no idea what he’s supposed to keep me out of, or save me from, but there he is. A government employee, Smart is the only nonmember of the team.
Eddie, our driver, is a head shorter than anyone else. When not driving, he rides on an iron plate welded to the front of the Toyota and hangs on to a T-bar. (Buzz calls this arrangement Eddie’s “office.”) His job is to look for tracks crossing the dirt roads. Eddie is a joyous human being—there is no other way to describe him—and is absolutely petrified of snakes, which is another reason I like him. Every morning, when we start out, I hand him my cased rifle to put in the truck’s gun rack and he says, “Thank you, David,” to which I answer, “Da tenda, Eddie,” which is Shona for “Thank you.”
Watching the trackers at work is to watch a ballet that ultimately leads to something dying. Buzz, Nyati, and Criton circle one another constantly, bent forward slightly at the waist, hands behind their backs, flicking finger signals that only they can read. Buzz, especially, makes constant checks on the bush around us. Ugly surprises lie in store for those who do not keep tabs on their surroundings.
These men track at a speed that is impossible for you or me, and they see things we never will. I can look at a thicket where there is a herd of 200 buffalo and will see a patch of gray. Buzz will look at that patch and say, “Young bull, maybe 36 inches, boss not hardened.” Nyati will look at the patch and tell you what the young bull was eating five minutes ago by the slobber on his muzzle.
Robert Ruark wrote, famously, that Cape buffalo look at you like you owe them money. Maybe they did in the early 1950s when he made his first safari, but now they look at you in fear and loathing, and with good reason. Here’s an illustration:
We were tracking a trio of bulls, one of which was a big one, and got within 20 yards of them. Then the wind shifted, and quicker than you could say “Mother!” the three of them charged us; however, it wasn’t a charge. They had gotten our scent, panicked, and bolted right at us because they hadn’t seen us. Then they did see us and did a change of direction worthy of three cutting horses. The big one in the rear put on the brakes so hard that he fell forward and crashed muzzle-first into an 8-inch-diameter acacia tree, completely uprooting it and no doubt crushing his nose in the process.
This is how they feel about humans—but shoot one and everything changes. A wounded buffalo is a vengeful buffalo, and the last thing many an African sees is old nyati boiling out of the bush at him, ready to kill for some real or imagined insult.
Dugga is Shona for “mud.” A Dugga Boy is an old buffalo bull that has been driven out of the herd by younger bulls, or has left voluntarily because he craves peace and quiet. He’ll find a mudhole and make his home there, possibly accompanied by a younger bull or two for company. Dugga Boys are covered in mud. I don’t mean they’re spattered in it; I mean they are truly plastered. The body parts that are not coated in mud are covered in crap.
Dugga Boys have come to be the preferred trophies for enlightened hunters. It’s healthier for a herd to have its prime breeding bulls left in peace and have the old-timers taken off to trophy rooms.
So, on the morning of the sixth day of hunting we cut the monster track of a really big Dugga Boy, along with two of his friends. But he was too clever for us, and continually circled around, using the swirling wind to keep track of where we were. After an hour or so of dodging and dancing it was close to noon, so we went back to camp to leave him alone and let him regain his inner tranquility and smear some more doo-doo on his nasty bits.
At 3 p.m. we picked up his track. There was no doubt it was the same bull. Now, the wind was blowing hard, but it was blowing in one direction; the swirling had stopped. He was alone this time, but he knew we were after him, and his tactic was to keep just out of sight until he figured out where we were and then let out a basso profundo grunt and go crashing off for a quarter mile.
We would circle around to where we thought he would be, and almost always the trackers were right about this. Finally, it paid off. Nyati saw his namesake in a patch of brush 110 yards away. Buzz said it was the right bull, and quite a good one. The buff would not stay where he was; if he moved to his right we’d lose him again, but if he went to the left there was an open stretch of ground where I would have a second or two for a clear shot.
He went left. Buzz yelled. The Dugga Boy paused and looked toward us to see what the yelling was about. I held on the lower third of his shoulder and pulled the trigger. Buzz, who was watching him through binoculars, later said that the impact of my .416 bullet was so violent it sent a cloud of dust off his entire body.
Buzz looked at me and asked, “Good shot?”
“Good shot,” I answered.
Then, I turned my scope from 3X to 1X, because fatally shot buffalo often decide to get payback with their last minutes of life, and if he was one of these he was going to come for us very fast.
We waited. Dying buffalo have a distinctive sound they make at the very end that goes MMMMMMMMMMMMMBAAWWWWW. We listened for that, but what we heard instead were grunts and moans. It was his valedictory. After 15 minutes there was silence. Buzz and I, rifles at the ready, went to where we had last heard him. He was stuck between two trees, his rear toward us. He had run for 60 yards and in his desperation had misjudged the distance between them. Then he ran out of life. My shot had cut the top off his heart and shattered his lungs. He still lived for a quarter of an hour.
I shot him three times more behind the shoulder because it’s the dead ones that get up and kill you. He was a huge bull, the biggest I had ever seen up close. He was also quite old, and if I had not taken him, before long he would have ended with the fangs of a male lion through his nose as lionesses gnawed at his spine. If the cats were really hungry, they would have begun eating him while he was still standing. Probably, a bullet was better.
Scattered throughout Zimbabwe are piles of boulders called kopjes, which is Afrikaans for “rocky hills.” They are chunks of granite that gradually became exposed as the softer rock around them eroded, and they date to the Middle Stone Age, roughly 40,000 years ago. Kopjes are beloved of cobras, mambas, and leopards, and they have been looking on impassively since men hunted Dugga Boys with stone-tipped spears.
Kopjes will keep their silent vigil long after you and I have departed. Hopefully, they will still look down on Dugga Boys and men who hunt them.