What happens when a PH suddenly finds himself in the shoes of his client? When what he had preached about for years was more exciting than even he could imagine….. When the tables were turned and the hunted quarry was staring at him through his crosshairs and not a set of Swarovski 10/42’s …
Rewind the clock – March 2011. WAIT – Rewind some more… January 2011. A few friends all involved in the safari industry had flown into San Jose, Costa Rica. We then found ourselves on a short “puddle jumper” charter flight over the islands’ main volcano, which was supposedly the easy and quicker option to reach our fishing resort. Right, we’re driving next time! During one of our glorious fishing days, that only the Costa Rica Rooster’s could provide, the topic was raised as to what my fiancée, Trish, and I wanted as a wedding gift? After a few seconds of consideration, with a confident look in my eye, I said:” A Cape Buffalo hunt.” (They were asking? Why not shoot for the moon and if I missed, I’d still land amongst the stars?! In any case, up until this point I was told that all gifts at a wedding are actually meant for the bride, why not let my one count?!)
March 2011 was upon us and I was blessed to marry the most fantastic woman in the world and share our day with family and friends. Mark, Paula, Glen and Carmen had made the journey south from KwaZulu Natal to join us. Midway through the evening I was approached by the two Haldane brothers, an envelope was stuffed into my pocket and a cold beer into my hand.
… and that’s how it all began. My Cape Buffalo Hunt.
With great excitement and last-minute instructions for all at home, Juan and I boarded the 06.00 flight from Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg. In Johannesburg we settled into our first beer of the morning before catching our connection onto Beira, Mozambique. In Beira we were met by Pete and Shaun, the resident Zambezi Delta pilots. We collected our luggage without a hitch and set off for camp.
Our first afternoon was spent around camp, checking rifles and giving Juan the tour of the operation. This was to be my 5th trip to Coutada 11, for Juan it would be his first.
Day 1 – The excitement of being on safari …
As eager as a child on Christmas morning and more excited than an angler witnessing a well hooked Marlin clearing the water, we rose at 03.30am. A quick cup of coffee and we were on the hunt for Buffalo tracks. At this time of the year the Buffalo are forced to concentrate around the last remaining waterholes before the rainy season starts in December, bringing relief to the thirsty land and its many creatures.
The Buffalo we were after was classed as a community Buffalo, only to be hunted in the forest region of the concession, with all the meat being donated to the local community. Coutada 11 is very different to many other Big 5 concessions throughout Southern Africa. It boasts such a wide variety of species and habitat that the hunter is spoilt by choice of hunting the sand forests, savannah, forest pans, flood plains, and ultimately, the swamps.
Our morning was a busy one, tracking down three different herds and looking over more than 80 Buffalo. At one stage we considered a good-looking bull in a herd that boasted 7 bulls. In the end we decided that the bull in question was too good to be removed from the gene pool, his mark was yet to be left on the herd.
During the course of the morning we had covered +- 15 km’s by foot, lunch back at camp sounded like paradise with the heat of the day fast approaching the 100 degrees Fahrenheit mark.
That afternoon we headed into the sand forests. The forests play home to some of the most sought after “Tiny 10”, including Red Duiker, Blue Duiker and the rarest, Livingstone Suni. Suni are considered by many as one of the most difficult to find of the “Tiny 10”. They occur in extremely specialized areas, with Mozambique boasting one of the highest populations throughout Africa.
Heading back to camp we spotted a number of Chobe Bushbuck. These fleet-footed forest dwellers perch themselves on top of massive termite mounds, surveying their surroundings with obvious vantage, always keeping a beady eye on any lurking danger.
That evening we hit the sack early, the next morning would be another 03.30 am wake up call.
Day 2 – Big foot – Little foot………
When it comes to hunting we all share the same fascination with the one that got away. Somehow we believe that no matter how limited the time or opportunity, we can and will crack it. We find ourselves day dreaming about “that” monster that has eluded everyone before and that we will be the one to outwit him at his own game. So we think… or we wish to believe.
Big foot – Little foot, is a well-known Buffalo around Coutada 11. Ask any of the resident PH’s about this sly devil and your question is usually greeted by a smirk. They’ve been trying to hunt him for more than 10 years now. He has outsmarted everybody who dared follow his strange tracks. One massive right hoof and a small left. How and why the size difference, nobody knows? Either way he’s a legend of a Dugga Boy, the kind I was after.
He had frequented a certain pan every second night, always entering at the same spot and leaving at another. His habit proved simple to predict, his tracks an illusion to follow.
That morning saw no fresh Big foot – Little foot tracks, we decided to continue on. In the afternoon we found ourselves in a familiar pan, the same pan where Steve Robinson and I had hunted that monster Nyala 3 years ago. As if déjà vu, a group of 6 Cape Buffalo were resting under the exact same tree, with one massive bull in the center. Unfortunately we spotted them too late and they were off, crashing into the forest. For the remainder of the afternoon we played a game of cat and mouse. The Buffalo kept winding us, never giving us the required shot. We finally called it quits at sundown.
Day 3 – Could it be D-Day for Big foot – Little foot?
At exactly 04.09 we found his tracks. We felt confident. Three young PH’s hunting together with two highly skilled trackers and enough stamina to walk the soles off any decent boots. Things started easy, the tracks were clear to follow, the Dugga boy had fed close to the pan for most of the evening. The tracks led us into the forest. For the first hour under forest canopy the going was good. Then we found blood, fresh tracks with old dung, then new dung with what we believed were old tracks. Suddenly at the base of a termite mound everything disappeared. We back tracked, checked, double checked, and rechecked again. The trackers were using every inch of experience ever instilled within them, to no avail.
After a lengthy discussion and the acceptance of a lost track we made the call to head back to the pan. If these tracks were not proving any worth, then surely the Dugga Boy was still in the pan, hiding in the Papyrus beds. We knew for a fact that he had entered the pan, as we’d swept the entry path with branches the previous afternoon.
With rifles loaded and ready to rock, together with our trackers and firmly gripped machetes, we entered the Papyrus. Within minutes our shooting lanes had all but vanished and we were gripped in a maze of reed. This was clearly not the smartest move to date. Friend and local PH, Poen van Zyl, turned to me at one stage; “Whatever you do NEVER tell my dad we did this, he’ll kill me if this Dugga Boy doesn’t”, he whispered. He had a good point. We were playing with our lives. Shorty, one of our trackers and the oldest of our hunting party was clearly not happy either. As he put it, he had done this before and had come bursting out of the Papyrus on numerous occasions, and that bursting was often on the boss of a Cape Buffalo.
With that in mind we called it a morning and headed back for lunch.
Day 4 – We got skunked!
Most safaris should at times experience a skunk day. One of those days where things just don’t go your way. When everything you attempt seems to bare no results. On day four we didn’t find a single fresh track. It was a much-needed day, sent by the hunting gods to remind us why we love this sport so much.
Day 5 – The safari jitters may be starting to set in …
As Professional Hunters we all share a similar problem from time to time. There are occasions when our friends/clients/hunters start questioning the area, the game and ultimately you as the PH. Fortunately for me and I can speak for most, the PH always seems to pull through somehow or another. When the spirit of success returns, and the clients questioning concerns seem a thing of the past and a mere distant thought, we are quick to forget that period of distress.
As the client on this particular occasion it was rewarding to see the effort put in by a team under pressure. Remember this was the second last day of the hunting season. Poen and his team dug deep – keeping the safari jitters at bay.
My Cape Buffalo – To be honest, I didn’t visualize the shot like many of my clients tell me they do. I didn’t watch hundreds of DVD’s or read a book about how to drop a Buffalo in one perfectly placed shot. I’m a practical guy, if a Steenbuck drops in his tracks with a shot on the shoulder, and a Kudu drops a few yards further with a shot on the shoulder, then surely a Cape Buffalo shot with a 416 should drop sooner rather than later with a perfectly placed shot on the shoulder.
Another possibility I never thought about, which shocks me today, I never imagined that my first shot at a Cape Buffalo would be of a bull running away at full speed 190 yards out. Now that I think of it I was pleasantly surprised, but extremely comfortable with the shot. 99% of my shots, which maybe happens twice a year, are of running game after they’ve been wounded. 80% of my annual hunting a year is on Plains Game, I don’t believe or see the need of backing a client; after all it is his safari. A back up only comes into play when my client cannot reach the required area fast enough and the animal is wounded, it is only then my job and responsibility to terminate that animals suffering. The times where my backup has been required on Big 5, it has always been at uncomfortably close quarters. A Buffalo breaking from the Papyrus 190 yards out and making a beeline to the forest on my second last day was not my ultimate idea of a Cape Buffalo hunt.
With all this information at hand and things happening in a fraction of a second, I led the bull and let him have it with my 416. At the crack of the shot the Dugga Boy stumbled and came to a rocking halt, a scene I’ve seen on many previous occasions, a perfectly placed heart shot. Right?
Poen gave me the assurance nod, a nod shared amongst PH’s, as if to say, great shooting. I was feeling good. Fantastic! (To be totally honest.) And then – And that’s why it’s called Cape Buffalo hunting, he stumbled – gathered momentum and took off crashing into the forest.
We gathered our gear, packed a backpack and set off to the spot where the bull had disappeared into the forest. From the outset we found blood, interesting blood. There was a lot of it. We felt confident we’d find him dying or just about. Then the forest erupted and he broke cover for the first of many times during that day.
We’d track him carefully, myself on the left, Gotchi in the middle, Poen on the right and Shorty behind, double checking the bull never veered off the obvious track. Juan followed in close pursuit, camera in hand. At times the bull would break a mere 10 yards ahead of us, Gotchi would instinctively drop to the ground while Poen and I would brace ourselves for the charge. It never came.
By midday the trackers started looking a bit despondent. Nobody could fathom that an animal could lose so much blood but still continue on, and on, and on. At 14.00 we sent Juan and Shorty back to the truck to collect more water and a few Cokes for the trackers, their eyes were getting tired and the point of danger had been reached. We’ve all seen it before, during the heat of the day after long hours on the track, a hunting party starts losing concentration and accidents happen. We called a break to “recharge” the troops.
After the short break we set off again. The bull led us from Miombo into Sand forest; Poen called me over and made it clear that the bull would soon draw the line. We’d better be ready. All this time on the hunt we’d enjoyed the company of Poen’s 18 month old Irish Fox Terrier, Rusty. He’s a great character and a survivor; ask Poen what it takes to pull him through sleeping sickness with all those Stesse Flies around. It’s quite the job. When the bull broke for the 5th time that day a 16.00 Rusty disappeared. Within minutes he had the Dugga Boy bayed. We ran as fast as our weary legs could take us, both firing off two rounds at the outraged Buffalo. He took off again, this time with Rusty more determined than ever. Rusty bayed him again. We moved in slowly sensing our battle was peaking to a climax. The bull took two more rounds from our 416’s then stumbled in our general direction before spotting us. He regained his balance and set off across us, this time I picked my gap and dropped him in his tracks – 16 yards out.
Not only did he boast a solid cracked up boss, but an old snare imbedded into his front left leg. He was a loner, a Dugga Boy, the bull I’d dreamt about all those years ago. I may not have opened the ball game in the most fashionable manner, but we stuck at it and finished the job 11 hours later. It was beyond anything I had imagined.
That evening we squashed a few screw tops and dented a fine bottle of Chivas. The following day would be our last. We had planned on sleeping in and cruising the concession, showing Juan a few more sites of interest.
Day 6 – Right place … Right time …
On our final morning we were kicked out of bed by Mark. He needed a team for culling and everybody else was busy packing up camp to close things down for the season. The community’s meat quota of Common Reedbuck had not been completed yet, and it was the last day of the season. We headed out towards the flood plain in search of 5 Common Reedbuck. On the way out Juan spotted a Sable bull a mere thirty yards from the road. We all snapped away with our cameras, he was a magnificent bull, and seemed more relaxed than usual. What a great opportunity. As we were about to pull off the bull turned to walk away. To our horror we noticed the bulls back left leg had been cut clean off about 5 inches above the hoof. A victim of local gin trap poaching.
We raced back to camp to receive the clearance from Mark, and then headed back out immediately to put the bull out of its misery. Arriving back at the area where we’d last spotted the bull, we put Rusty down immediately to start the tracking process. Within minutes Rusty bayed the bull; we crept up and finished the job.
Coutada 11 is the first Mozambican concession to develop an entire schooling complex – fully equipped with teachers, equipment and stationary. We can only hope that the efforts from Mark and his team will see a reduced percentage in poaching in the years to come. Education will play a major role in their vision.
The last morning of our safari saw us rise at 05.00. The planes had left camp a few days earlier as the rainy season was upon us, making the use of the landing strip a hazardous exercise. Mark asked us to grab our cameras and follow him. Down at the runway we jumped into his helicopter – “Hold on Jnr’s you aint seen nothing like this!” beamed the headset over the noise of the rotor.
We banked away from camp in the direction of the flood plain …
My Mozambican Buffalo hunt was a BIG bucket list tick in my life. It lived up to every expectation I ever dreamt about.
To Mark, Glen and your families – I have no doubt that we have many more fun-filled years ahead of us. Words cannot describe my gratitude for the gift of a lifetime. Thank you.
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