Two and a half hours after spotting the herd, I am on the sticks. The wind, almost imperceptible but constantly switching, had not been friendly. I picked a spot, settled the front sight, and began to squeeze the trigger. This was the culmination 20 years of dreaming.
I had always dreamed of traveling to Africa. I imagined myself following in the footsteps of John Hunter and Teddy Roosevelt chasing the infamous Cape buffalo. I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. My dad, Andy, was the same way. The difference was that his dream had been nagging at him for a good 40 years longer than mine. Going from dream to reality was simply making the decision.
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I’ll skip the boring frustrations of getting there. A couple of pieces of advice, though. Read every rule for the airline you are flying and the countries you are flying through regarding firearms. Check your flight status often. We had an unexpected reroute through the Netherlands. This required an import/export permit that we would not have had time for had we not caught the change early.
Our outfitter, Jurie Meyer of Jurie Meyer Safaris, and his wife, Celia, met us at the Johannesburg airport and drove us to a guesthouse in Pretoria. There was a curfew in Gauteng province brought on by a spike in COVID cases and unrest in Johannesburg surrounding the arrest of former President Jacob Zuma. Since it was already late, we welcomed a chance to lay down and see the countryside in the daytime. Though we got precious little sleep.
We arrived at the property around lunchtime. It was a beautiful piece of real estate of about 20,000 acres surrounded by thousands of additional acres with a farmhouse and a permanent camp for clients. The main house had electricity and was where the meat we shot would be stored. The camp featured two thatch-roofed houses. Hot water was available, though intermittent at times. A couple of hours a day, a generator was fired up to keep the kitchen fridge cold and to allow us time to charge phones. We also met the rest of our staff.
My professional hunter, or PH, would be a man named Russell Getcake. Russell had been either a PH or game manager most of his adult life. We discussed at length everything from game meats to the hunting industry and the values we shared. We talked about a variety of animals, ranging from squirrels to elephants. We were partnered with Mechanic, a man from Zimbabwe who had been a tracker for Jurie for over twenty years.
We resighted the rifles and rode around a bit to get the lay of the land. The next morning started early. It was unusually cold. While driving along a ridge with the rising sun behind us, Russell, Mechanic, and I stumbled upon a herd of Cape buffalo bulls. What luck!! We backed up further up the ridge. The herd moved up on a parallel ridge. We hailed Jurie on the radio to come join us. He came with another tracker, Ndomiso, along with Dad and my brother, Matt. As we were standing around creating a strategy, the herd suddenly reappeared. One young bull stood alone staring us down. Robert Ruark once wrote that buffalo look at you like you owe them money. I can attest this is 100% true. The small one moved off, taking the rest with him with, none presenting a shot. We were, however, able to confirm at least one shooter in the group.
We circled around down the hill to gain the wind and started moving up a draw. Stalking was painfully slow. Everything crunched underfoot. Visibility had shrunk considerably. We reacquired the bulls but a switch in the wind soon sent them thundering off further into the bush. The process was repeated. This time, I was on the sticks waiting for our bull to step into an opening. These animals were never more than 30 yards distant, but the cover made it difficult to ever find a whole animal. Again, they winded us.
Finally, on the third attempt, we were able to get an opening on the target bull. He stepped up in that classic pose. The same “owe them money” look. Almost daring you to try something. I repeated my mantra. “Be a good hunter. Pick a spot,” just like so many times before on squirrels. The difference was, this squirrel was 1500 pounds with horns and an attitude. The angle was directly frontal, and I found a spot about one-third up his body and dead center. The grass at his feet was just brushing where I would place my bullet. I squeezed the trigger and sent a 300 grain bonded soft point his way. Through the recoil, I could see him lurch forward and throw his head down. A sure sign that he had been walloped. I racked another round and scanned. He was lost for a few seconds in the brush and chaos that ensued. His posse left him behind. We could clearly hear him breathing heavily. I saw him coughing up literal buckets of blood and put another 300 grainer, this time a solid, into his shoulder and he fell. It was only a few seconds before we heard the death bellow.
A curious thing then happened. His partners came back and began to hook and beat up his body. We could only speculate that he had been the dominant bull of this bachelor group and they were getting back at him. They stuck around until we had to chase them off. At this point, the insurance was paid. A third round to the back of the neck.
Not much can really prepare you for the size of these animals. I have been within slapping distance of Spanish fighting bulls and was still astonished. Heavily muscled and stoutly built, even in death they are breathtaking. Having my father as part of the backup and brother to capture pictures and videos made the experience more special. My bull measured a spread of 38.25 inches with extremely closed bosses. After hanging him for a couple of days, we cooked the tenderloins wrapped in tin foil directly on the coals of the fire during our traditional sundowners. The food, by the way, was exceptional. The very next day, Dad would take a 42.75 inch bull. Possibly the largest ever taken on that property. Now I could focus on plains game.
Impala and Waterbuck:
I had no real goals for plains game, just parameters. I had brought my own rifle on this trip. A bolt action .375 Holland & Holland. It wore no scope, only the standard express (iron) sights. After using it on my buff, I wanted to spend the rest of my time stalking with this rifle and seeing what the bush had to offer. It wasn’t long before we found a small group of waterbuck. A couple of cows accompanied by one good bull. We moved around to gain the wind and crept over a rise. They remained feeding in the same area and I took the shot at about 50 yards. The bull took off like a rocket and piled up after about 100 yards. A good 25.5” specimen about the size of an elk with a musty smell from the oily secretions on his coat. His steaks were among my favorite of the whole trip.
Impala, the most common game encountered, proved to be one of the wariest. We rarely saw them not running away. Though we had heard hyenas regularly and saw one leopard (both predators roam freely in this region), we did not know if they had the animals on edge or if it was something else. Impala travel in large herds so that the number of eyes, together with the unpredictable winds and cornflake texture of the leaf litter, made stalking seem impossible.
After a few days of trying and failing, it finally came together. We shadowed a herd for some time. We were spotted a couple of times while other times the herd just decided to move off. Once, we were pinned down in deep cover. The impala were spread out in front but we couldn’t see most of them. They snorted but the wind was favorable. We remained perfectly still while they attempted to figure us out. It was only 5-10 minutes but felt like an hour.
Eventually, we determined that there were no shooter rams in the group. However, the landowner gave us permission to shoot ewes to thin the herd. We caught up with the animals feeding on a brushy hillside. We were on the adjacent hill looking across and I could see one ewe by herself about 80 yards away. She turned to walk across my window of opportunity and I center-punched her shoulder. She was dead before she hit the ground and I clearly saw her belly flash in the sunlight. Impala are a beautiful little antelope. “Little” being a matter of perspective as they are still about the size of our whitetail deer.
The next day found us just on the other side of the ridge where we first encountered my buffalo. I spotted another herd of impala and we gave chase. Slowly moving through the brush, we herd them gallop off. Spooked but not scared. The wind remained in our faces, and Mechanic relocated them. I had a single opening at about 50 yards where they were filing past as they fed.
With my naked eye, I caught a glimpse of horn on the edge of my window. I threw up my binos and confirmed it to be a mature ram and whispered to Russell who replied, “Yes, he’s a good ram. Take him.” The ram was already moving, and I had a mere second or two to pull the trigger. The rifle barked and we lost sight of the herd. Upon finding the hit site, we noticed chewed grass and gut material on the ground. My heart sank at the thought of a gutshot. After a few yards, Mechanic found a few drops of blood interspersed with the stomach contents. Then, to my surprise, the trail turned into just blood. Good blood at that. My spirits rose and we found him dead after maybe 80 yards. The shot was a few inches back. Understandable, given the conditions, but didn’t really explain the stomach contents. My guess is that it was in just the right spot to damage some part of the digestive tract. Regardless, the ram was dead in just a few seconds and measured just over 20” on his longest horn.
They say the first thing you do after finishing your first African safari is start planning your second, and I can say that buffalo hunting is in my blood now. Until next time, I have my stories, pictures, and a few more scratches on my favorite rifle and will gladly regale anybody who will listen. If there is any hunter out there who is uneasy about traveling to Africa, especially in these times, I can assure you that this trip was everything I thought it would be and more.