I noticed it for the first time after Derek had shot his old, hard bossed, fully mature, 39 inch Cape buffalo bull. Up until then I had become progressively more relaxed walking fourth in line – tracker, PH, Derek and then me, on our first ever buffalo hunt, in the South African Lowveld. True, I had been as nervous as a cat on the original hot tin roof on the first day but, gradually, as the days rolled by and my tan started to develop, familiarity, if not contempt, started to breed, followed by a certain degree of “I am a cool, thirty year old buffalo hunter – true romance in pictures” kind of image, if only in my own mind. That was soon to change.
Within moments of loading Derek’s excellent bull onto the Landrover and me assuming the seat vacated by him in the front of the vehicle, suddenly, and I do mean suddenly, I could see, hear and smell like I had never seen, heard or smelt ever before in my life. Everything was fresh, clean and immediate. I felt alive to the tips of my finger nails. Totally and all consumingly alive! And I knew the very last place I was, was in front of the TV at home!
This was the first and last time I was to see Derek drop a Cape buffalo with one shot. Not drop, in reality, but kill as the big bull ran about 50 metres before grinding to a halt on top of a small, grass covered rise where the excuse for a PH shot it in the ‘Centre Mrs Venter’ and then claimed – outrageously so – that, but for him, the buff would have got away, despite Derek’s heart shot being there for all to see.
Derek used a Parker Hale .458 – bought at the last moment before the hunt – because it was the cheapest .458 he could find. You can see we were absolutely the most novice big game hunters. In fact, this was the first animal bigger than a wildebeest either of us had shot! With my extremely limited experience, I did not like his rifle. For starters, it just seemed shoddily made. Secondly, it was very light and kicked the snot out of you. Thirdly, the bolt was so loose, once pulled back to the limits of its travel, you could waggle it around as if it was waving good bye to the crowds.
I’ll come back to the Parker Hale in a minute. The point I wanted to make here was that, although Derek’s first buffalo was all but a text book experience, certainly one he could not have hoped would turn out better, for some reason, which neither he nor I could ever fathom, and while he went on to hunt buffalo many times afterwards, by his own admission, he never lost his fear of these bus bodied behemoths. Which is completely understandable when you consider that, for approximately 95% of the time we have been on this earth, we have been preyed on and killed by beasts like today’s Cape buffalo and, wisely, most of us have been genetically programmed to avoid animals like this.
One of our two other hunting buddies that joined us on these two 2 x 2 buffalo hunts was John Oosthuizen, now one of the African doyens of Cape buffalo hunting. I will never forget his call which I picked up in my hotel bedroom – I was away on business at the time. He was phoning from his hospital in Johannesburg. He had been flown there are after a grueling goring by a buffalo bull in Zimbabwe after his client, a short, rotund, Chicago lawyer, had wounded it. As Johnny explained, he had hit it “Centre Mrs. Venter!”
Ever the gentleman and keen to let the client to kill his own bull, Johnny had refrained from killing it himself when next they came upon the wounded beast. It was a costly mistake because, the third time they saw the bull, it was boiling out of a dense reed thicket at warp speed and from mere feet away. It was so close that Johnny only had time to fire from the hip before the bull had him. It flicked him high in the air. He landed on the bull’s back and, as he explained to me, “I knew when I hit the ground there would be no cold Cokes waiting!”
There was no time to scramble away. The bull was on him in a second and, this time, hooked him in the groin and flung him into the air again. At this stage, John knew he was in serious trouble. He thought what saved him was that the bull was just too eager to kill him. It was butting him with its boss while simultaneously trying to trample and bite – yes, bite – him. This gave John’s tracker and fellow PH, Kontella, time to grab the client’s rifle, move up next to the bull, put the rifle to its head and pull the trigger.
The shot was spot on and the dead animal collapsed onto John’s lower body. It took a while to extricate him and John said he will never forget Kontella’s face as he pulled down his shorts and inspected his injuries. He immediately tore off his T-shirt, wrapped it round John’s groin and created a pressure bandage as the femoral artery was weeping blood. Forget about a millimetre. Just a breath to the left and John would now be hunting in the big green fields above.
As it was, Johnny made a full recovery and carried on hunting Cape Buffalo with great success – although not without the odd major incident, including at least one full on charge from a totally unhurt, old, irritable dagga boy – for the next three decades and, it is true to say that, despite his major goring and other client induced close shaves, John is Mr Buffalo in African hunting circles today. He has never lost his love of hunting this founder member of the African debt collecting brigade!
I did not think more about Derek’s first buff hunt until I met Albie in Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve where I was hunting Nyasa wildebeest. Albie had arrived in camp a day or so before me to recuperate after being tusked by a cow elephant and the scars through his upper chest and back were still angry and red, although the one in his groin – Mrs. Van Der Westhuizen’s boy missed being unable to procreate by the proverbial hair – was hidden by his shorts.
Albie explained that, at his tender age of 19 – he had just received his Tanzanian PH licence – he had been hunting buffalo with a Spanish client. He had spotted a herd across a dry river bed at the foot of a hill. Down they went and into the riverine reeds shielding the actual river. As they entered the ten foot high reeds, he heard an elephant trumpet and the unmistakable sound of it coming closer at pace. He immediately sent the client off with the trackers at right angles to the prevailing wind and waited to receive the charge. He did not have long to wait.
The cow emerged from the covering reeds no more than 40 metres to his front and he fired a warning shot over her head. He may as well have blown her a good night kiss. On she came now in a silent, full blown charge, ears pinned back and trunk curled under her chin. Behaving with a calm that belied his inexperience, he waited for the cow to come closer. At 20 metres he shot the elephant in the crease about the eyes. The only problem was that, as he squeezed the trigger, the only sound he heard was “Click!” His Parker Hale .458 with its loose bolt had failed to pick up a round from the magazine when he closed the bolt and, the next thing he knew, he was flying through the air.
According to Albie, the elephant grabbed his arm and threw him like a frisbee. To cut a long story short of this terrifying and harrowing experience, the cow pushed him along and into the soft, riverine sand with its forehead. Then, lifting its head, eyed him carefully before plunging its thin, short, sharp tusk into his groin. At that time, the calf joined its mother and, while looking at its Mom every now and then, pushed/kicked Albie along the ground.
The Mom then took over and, this time, plunged its tusks into and through Albie’s upper right chest, just missing his lungs and out the back. I remember Albie telling me that he wanted to ask the elephant why it was so intent on killing him. After all, it was the elephant that had attacked him not the other way around. And then, to Albie’s amazement and enormous relief, the cow lifted its head, stood up, turned away and calf and mother walked off the way they had come.
To complete this truly horrifying experience, the client refused to drive the Landrover and Albie had to drive himself back to camp and then wait until the next morning to be flown to hospital in Dar-es-Salaam, where he believes his life was saved by a young, female, South African doctor.
What was clear to me during the week I spent with Albie as he drove the Landrover for the PH guiding me, was that the mere presence of elephant in the vicinity, was enough to make Albie perceptively aware/nervous and who could blame him. Certainly not me.
I remember thinking, after hearing what Albie had to say about his rifle, was how lucky Derek had been and how, if things had turned out differently, he could have been the one requiring emergency medical treatment. As it was, it was the only buffalo Derek shot which died after the first shot. Ever after, he seemed to have trouble with these behemoths and I remember our last hunt together in northern Mocambique where both buffalo he killed took days of following before they were put to bed.
Fear is a strange phenomenon. In the research I have done, it is clear that, physically, everyone is affected the same way. Heart beats increase as does breathing rate. We start to perspire; our sphincter tightens and so on. Chemicals suffuse the body preparing it for the well-known flight, fight or freeze syndrome. What is vastly different, however, is how we react, psychologically, to fear, which is totally unpredictable. Some people run at the machine gun nest decimating their fellow soldiers, while some run away from it. No-one knows why this is, just as no-one can predict which reaction will be provoked in any individual.
I put this combination of physical and psychological effects down to what happened to me when I suddenly became aware that the next buffalo was mine to hunt and, hopefully, kill quickly, cleanly and with one calm, carefully placed shot. The alternative possibility was that I might put myself in the unenviable position of having to face an angry, wounded buffalo, which had decided enough was enough!
Over time, I was fortunate enough to hunt all six buffalo sub-species, Cape, Nile, East African, Central African, West Africa and, pound for pound, that nastiest of them all, the dwarf forest buffalo. That sense of being totally alive when hunting animals that could stand on or chew me, however, did not leave. Nor did the feeling of huge relief after the bull was down and dead, safely and cleanly killed, without anyone in the hunting party being put at risk. Almost as importantly but more for my own ego’s sake than anything else, was the sense, the satisfaction, that I had done this myself, come through this challenge without help in the critical, final moments from anyone else because, after all, this challenge is a big element of hunting any member of the Big Five. Isn’t it?
It is, in my humble opinion, what drives many serious hunters to face this challenge again and again. It may also be what drives many a pretender to exaggerate the dangers of doing so. The fake charges, the threats to all and sundry they seem to thrive on. I will never forget, for example, the breathless prose of a ‘hunter’ explaining how the safety of the hunting party depended on his next shot as he faced a canned lioness from the back of a truck surrounded by armed PHs in a paddock in the Free State where no free range lion has existed for decades.
Over time, as I became more experienced in these situations – and forgive me, I don’t intend to brag or pretend that I am some professional hunter because I’m not, only an amateur who has been lucky and fortunate enough to hunt a lot in many different parts of Africa – my equipment became more refined and better suited to the task at hand. I became calmer when confronted with the odd dangerous hunting situation. I found I was able to think more clearly in the moment. I felt I was better prepared to face the odd, unpredictable situation. Mistakenly or not, I felt more confident.
Like the time the forest elephant we had been tracking in the Cameroon rain forests for three days suddenly reversed course and headed towards us at speed. Not a charge but a fast, shuffling run. That elephant had killed a pygmy tracker eight days beforehand.
Once the pygmy trackers evaporated as they often do in situations like this, I moved a pace or two forward, knelt down as this gave me a clearer view through the dense vegetation – visibility was restricted to about 20 metres – and, at about 10 metres, drove a 410 grain Norma solid through the bull’s right front leg and into its chest cavity with my .416 Rigby. This caused the elephant to swerve away to its left and allowed me a second shot into its rear and a third into the back of its head which, along with the prior shot by my guide, put a summary end to proceedings.
As time progressed, however, I found that all the senses of being so alive, the senses of relief and accomplishment, left me. I became, if anything, too calm, too at peace and I realised I had lost something. I listened to the advice of a good, tried, trusted and experienced hunting friend and hunted only those animals I found most challenging in the places and with the people I most liked hunting with but, inside, I knew something was missing.
The fear, the adrenalin rush was gone. I worried that I might become a danger to myself and others. Become just too Harry Casual. While the love of wildlife and wildlife habitat was, if anything, stronger than before, somehow, I no longer wanted or needed to experience the emotional roller coaster ride that no other activity known to man other than hunting provides.
It was time for me to stop. To hang up my rifles and become a spectator. Initially, I thought that I had ceased to be a hunter. With time, I realized that, once a hunter, always a hunter. Just like an alcoholic is merely someone who has drunk his allocated life’s quota of drink too soon, having started when I was nine years old, I felt at 70 I had probably hunted too much too soon. I was done but, like an amputee who, at times, can still feel the phantom limb, so, from time to time, I remember and feel the ghost of past hunting experiences and I am so glad I do. It reminds me that, even at the age of 74, there is still life in the old bullet yet!