Shadows in the Bush, Part II: Phil Caputo Hunts African Cape Buffalo in Tanzania

We left at first light and by 7:30 had picked up the spoor of a large herd, probably the same one we had chased two days before. The prints appeared to have been made earlier in the morning; the dung was soft. Fabian and Pius followed the track into some woods, then out into a meadow of golden grass dotted with trees. The easterly wind favored us, though I had learned not to trust it. After an hour we sighted the animals, resembling huge, gray-black boulders, some 200 yards away. It was the back end of the herd. Bulls are almost always in the lead, so we cut off to the left, cautiously working our way around to come nearer the front. The buffalo plodded into thicker scrub, lowing, bellowing, and breaking branches.

The stalk went on for an hour more and led in a U back to the road. With Wayne Stanton, the trackers, and I kicking dust to gauge the wind, we crept forward. In minutes, we'd caught up to the herd--it was off to our left. Each of us falling into a crouch, we came as close as 10 yards to some animals. I saw a cow grazing so close by that I couldn't figure out how she hadn't seen me.

This was still the rear of the herd. The rest had crossed the road and gone down into a wide, deep korongo, more a valley than a riverbed. We turned off to stalk above it, concealed by tall grass as dense as the bristles on a paintbrush.

Stanton paused to point at a group of cows and calves 75 yards downhill, their backs to us. Dropping to all fours, like a pride of lions, we moved parallel to the korongo, came to a narrow gully, and crawled through it until we emerged onto a hillside stripped bare of grass by a brushfire. Blackened trees were still standing.

Looking down, Stanton scrutinized the herd, which had moved farther into the riverbed, grazing slowly, preparing to bed down for the day, showing no signs of alarm. The stalk was now well into its third hour, the sun was burning through broken clouds, and I was getting impatient. I had to caution myself not to rush things. One false move would make all this careful effort futile.

TRIGGER TIME

The herd was about 150 yards away, a bit too far for shooting buffalo. Leaving the others behind, Stanton and I, cradling our rifles in our laps, went downhill on our backsides. Fabian followed with the shooting sticks. Using trees to hide our movements, it took a full quarter of an hour to cover 75 yards. Fabian set up the sticks, spreading the three legs wide so that I could fire sitting or kneeling.

"There's a mature bull with his head hidden by a tree and a cow alongside him, in front of him," Stanton whispered, pointing. "But his shoulder is exposed. Do you see him?" It took me several tries to spot him through my scope because the color of the animals blended so well into the charred hillside on the opposite side of the korongo. "There's a lump on his shoulder, with the sun on it, do you see that?" I answered that I did. "Aim for that," said Stanton.

Up to this point, with everyone doing the spotting and tracking, I had felt somewhat superfluous to the entire enterprise. Now I was at center stage and I had better do my job as well as the others had done theirs. What a difference between this and the photographic safari I'd taken in Kenya. Nothing was at stake there--miss a shot with a camera and I would get another.

Here everything was at stake. Miss with the rifle and I might kill the cow, which would be a disgrace, and might get me in trouble with the authorities. Wound the bull and I would be in more serious trouble with him, possibly getting myself or someone else killed or maimed. Stanton and I had agreed at the beginning of the hunt that he would not shoot backup for me, except in the most dire emergency. It was, in short, the moment of truth, at once scary and almost unbearably thrilling.

Resting the .458 in the crotch of the sticks, I cleared myself of all thought and emotion, centered the crosshairs on the lump on the bull's shoulder, drew in a breath, and exhaled slowly, squeezing the trigger at the same time. At the shot, the entire herd thundered off as one, a torrent of muscle and horn racing up over the opposite hill.

"You smoked him, Phil, good job!"

What was Stanton talking about? When I looked at where the bull had been, I saw nothing but burnt grass. In fact, there was something wrong with my vision. Things were clear out of my left eye but blurred out of my right.

"Where the hell is he?" I asked. "I don't see him."

Stanton reached down and picked up the right lens of my prescription shooting glasses. The Ruger's powerful recoil--which I hadn't felt in the excitement of the moment--had thrown my trigger hand against my glasses, popping the lens out of the frame.

With it replaced, I saw the bull atop the hill, some 40 yards from where I'd shot him. He was facing us, down on his knees, and as we approached for a finishing shot, he struggled to rise. I was close enough to see his eyes, baleful beneath his glinting horns. His intent was obvious--he meant to charge and kill the thing that had hurt him, but the bullet in him wouldn't allow his body to respond to his will. Moving to one side, I put a round in his spine. He fell, let out a bellow, and died.

I took everyone's congratulations with what I hoped was humility and grace, and thanked them all, then silently did the old Indian thing by thanking the buffalo's spirit. I didn't realize how much adrenaline was pouring through me until I held my hand out with the fingers spread. They were shaking.

ALL HEART

The skinning and butchering took over an hour, and I was pleased to see that very little, not even the intestines, would be left to the vultures and hyenas. I cut a piece of the liver and placed it in one of the tissue tubes from the American Museum of Natural History, for which I was collecting samples. This I tagged with the name of the species, my name, and the date and GPS coordinates of where it was taken.

Pius showed me the bull's heart, pierced by my first shot. It was another demonstration of how strong and tenacious of life a Cape buffalo is. This one was only an average bull, but he had run 40 yards and was prepared to do battle with a .458 soft-nose through his heart. I felt then, in roughly equal measure, pride in my shooting skills and sadness for what those skills had done. It seemed peculiar that something as puny as I could take the life of something this big and strong. Killing such a creature, whether for food, science, sport, or all three, was no cause for public or private chest thumping.

There was rejoicing at camp. Buffalo meat is quite tasty, and the staff were looking forward to their portion. Chef Hussein's dinner--buffalo tenderloin prepared in a relish of sweet caramelized onion--was preceded by the African version of Rocky Mountain oysters. Hussein had cut the bull's testicles into medallions and sauteed them in butter and oil. Stoney Steyn, who is very particular about what he eats, didn't realize the nature of the appetizer until he remarked," These mushrooms are excellent," causing Stanton, assistant PH Andrew Walden, and me to double over in laughter. The whole camp chuckled at Steyn's expense as, with a grimace, he set the delight aside. Walden urged him to finish it. "You have a young wife waiting for you in Durban, "he said to the 54-year-old photographer. "Don't you feel the power?"

BUFFALO NO. 2

It was back to business the next day. I had license to shoot two Cape buffalo, and there was a general feeling among the staff that this foot safari would not be successful until I bagged the second. That was my feeling as well. Before leaving the States, in a moment of overconfidence, I had promised the museum two sets of buffalo horns and skulls. We saw a trio of bull elephants shambling along in the early-morning light. Later there were sable, impala, hartebeest, and zebra, all of which I could shoot, except for sable; but we passed them up, intent on another buffalo bull.

Late in the morning we found a herd, then it was track and stalk once again. We came close to several males, which Stanton deemed too young to shoot. He added that if we were patient, we would find a mature one. Patient we were, but the ever shifting wind tricked us for the umpteenth time and the herd spooked off into woods so thick that it was almost impossible to see them.

We then lunched on buffalo burgers in a sand river, napped, and waited for the animals to settle down before resuming the hunt. Two hours later, we had to quit.

I took my usual bucket bath at the river, washing off a thick veneer of dirt and dried sweat, and delighted in the evening wind blowing on my naked skin. At dinner--buffalo tongue for an appetizer, a buffalo kebab for the main course--Stanton reminded me, as if I needed reminding, that seven days had been allotted for buffalo hunting. Tomorrow was the seventh day, after which I would have to content myself with lesser game.

It was all of a piece with the day before: a 7- to 8-mile tramp in punishing heat, bedeviled by tsetse flies, my hands and arms scratched by thorns. Getting close to a herd, only to have the cursed wind turn on us and panic the animals into a cross-country race. Once more, we wound up in a junglelike forest, where the only thing we saw of note was a gorgeous trogon with a luminous green body and a red throat, a bird so rare that it was the first one Stanton had ever seen, though he'd lived all his life in Africa.

About an hour before dusk, we resigned ourselves--the buffalo hunt was finished. Madebe, the driver, was radioed to pick us up. As the Land Rover approached, Fabian and Pius said in whispers that sounded like shouts, "Nyati!" and sprinted down the road. "An old bull!" Stanton said, jogging behind them. I took off and caught up with Fabian as he was setting up the shooting sticks.

He pointed down a hill. I didn't see a thing that looked like a buffalo or any animal for that matter. "Look more to your left," Stanton told me. Sixty to 70 yards away, the bull stood in the woods, staring at us. A moment later, he turned and moved off. Stanton and the trackers ran along the road, parallel to the buffalo's line of travel. Fabian set up the sticks a second time. Resting the rifle, I followed Stanton's directions, swinging the scope till I saw the bull, which had again stopped. He was facing me at about a 45-degree angle.

"Aim for the left side of his chest and you should break his shoulder or hit his lungs."

I was a bit shaky from the run and had trouble keeping the rifle steady, despite the rest afforded by the sticks. When the scope settled on the bull's chest, the left side, I fired. I knew I'd hit him solidly, but he was running nevertheless. My blood was up, or maybe I was just feeling mean from all the heat and frustration and fly bites. At any rate, I dashed downhill after him, and this time it was Stanton and the trackers following me. The old bull was stumbling. I ran till I was broadside of him, then, from 20 yards, slipped a hasty sling around my arm and shot him through the lungs. It took a third round to bring him down for good.

Fabian and Pius began to clap their hands with a syncopated beat, singing some chant that contained the word babu. Walden, gun bearer Hassani, and driver Madebe took up the song, dancing in a circle.

"What are they doing?" I asked Stanton.

"They're singing about you," he replied.

"Babu means 'grandfather' in Swahili. They're singing about how the old grandfather killed the old bull."

I looked at the buffalo. It was an old one indeed, with short but well-developed horns, a prominent boss, and a hide scarred from many battles with other males. I rested my hand on his massive neck.

"You needn't feel any regrets about this one," Stanton said. "He had about a year to go. Old age or the lions would have gotten him."

It was full night by the time we returned to camp with the quartered carcass. Madebe had radioed ahead, and the whole camp was waiting for me, calling out "Babu, ahyay! Babu, ahyay!" as I climbed out of the vehicle. Four men lifted me up in a camp chair and carried me to the fire, around which they and the others danced and sang. It was an elemental scene: the African rhythms of chant and handclap, the fire reflecting off the faces of the men, while the hippos chortled in the river and a hyena whooped, far off in the darkness.

HOW TO BOOK A BUFFALO HUNT

Walking safaris entail difficult logistical problems, so if you are interested in booking one, you have to go to an outfitter equipped and ready to handle such an undertaking. To do it properly, you will also need time. I did my hunt in 10 days but had to make compromises. Therefore, I recommend a minimum of 14 days and preferably 21 to 30 days (which can run up your expenses considerably). Some outfitters also conduct horseback hunts in remote areas. Contact MIOMBO AND KILOMBERO NORTH SAFARIS, P.O. Box 354, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; 255-22-2666174; miombosafaris.com. You can also try booking through an agent. I recommend JACK ATCHESON & SONS, 3210 Ottawa St., Butte, MT 59701; 406-782-2382; atcheson.com. Legendary Adventures Inc. is the authorized marketing agent for TANZANIA GAME TRACKER SAFARIS and WENGERT WINDROSE SAFARIS. I didn't book through them, but I'm told they're good. Contact LEGENDARY ADVENTURES, 10777 Westheimer Rd., Ste. 1060, Houston, TX 77042; 713-580-7100; www.legendaryadventures.com. --Philip Caputo

HORNS AND HUNTERS: The author with a mature bull and the whole safari group. At top, from left, the view from a temporary camp; Pius Raphael, senior tracker; an elephant that passed by the tents; cooking a meal by the Ruaha river. Opposite, the author on a long stalk. NOTHING WASTED: The remains of an elephant that was killed when it charged a professional hunter. Only a few bones and the hide are unused. ACT I TO FINAL CURTAIN: From top, the author (left) and PH Stanton looking for buffalo tracks; the first clear sighting; walking up on the dead buff; and the author securing a DNA sample from the liver.