This story takes me back many, many years. To about 1984 as I remember it. The time of a devastating drought that tortured our South African Lowveld for months on end. It was pathetic to see the game, many of them skin and bone, tottering around in search of non-existent food and water. But I am getting ahead of myself.
In one of the private reserves bordering Kruger National Park, the management were proactive and began culling impala before the drought really took hold. The numbers of impala culled slowly grew as conditions worsened and I was one of those called in to help. Not because I was an expert shot or hunter but because I was friends with the son of the chairman of the reserve.
We culled both at night with lights and during the day using silenced .22s with sub-sonic rounds. It was during one of these day time excursions that I had my first really narrow escape while hunting. I had shot two impala in the back of their heads as I stalked the mixed herd of ewes and rams down a well bushed hillside when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a low shrub shake even though there was no breeze to speak of. When I turned to look directly at it, I soon discovered the cause. A lioness was crouched down some 20 paces away watching me – I suppose she had been hunting the impala as well or been attracted by the smell of blood – and it was her black tipped tail lashing the small, low, no-name shrub and causing it to shake. My heart froze! It felt as if something had given it a short, hard, sharp squeeze. I knew enough to know that looking the cat in the eyes was to invite a charge and so I carried on with what became the longest walk of my life. It was incredibly hard to walk away on the diagonal and not run or look around. I expected at any moment to be grabbed from behind, bitten and killed.
My friendship with the chairman’s son nearly ended then and there because he had been watching the whole scene unfold from his battered, World War 2, vintage Land Rover from the top of the hill. When I eventually returned he was laughing so hard he could barely speak. "You should see your face," he spluttered. "You have gone a pale, yellowy purple colour." Apparently, as soon as I turned away from the lioness, she had done much the same as me, only much more quickly and had melted into the surrounding bush. I will never forget that close encounter and I still remember that one of my many thoughts was, "Please, Lord, do not let there be any young ones."
As the drought wrapped its tentacles round the Lowveld and started to strangle the life out of anything living, the reserve’s rhino population came under threat and the decision was taken to start culling the large bulk grazers like buffalo. At this stage I had hunted precisely six buffalo in my life, including the first – a pathetically small, soft bossed bull which, had I known then what I know now, I would barely have given a passing glance, let alone shot at the insistence of my useless guide – and the last, a big, 43 inch, hard bossed old dagga boy which, for many years, hung in my Johannesburg study. But by comparison to my friend, who had shot none, I was seen as an expert and roped into the culling team again. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread and I was eager for the challenge.
On my last buffalo hunt I had met William or Phiri-phiri (which meant hyena-hyena in the local language). William was the local witchdoctor or sangoma and I had been impressed both by his tracking skills and the way he had led me onto the bull in the late finals of the stalk. Once we were close, he had circumscribed a half circle downwind of the bull, which brought us out ahead of it. When the dark debt collector put in an appearance, he was grazing directly towards us as we crouched down behind a small, low bush. I was rock solid using a branch as a rest for my Brno .458 and the solid bullet, which struck just over the middle of the boss as the bull hoovered up the sparse, dry, blonde grass, killed that big beast three times – once by severing the spine, twice by passing through the middle of the heart and, the third time, by bisecting the lungs. It fell where it had stood with the last mouthful of grass still between its teeth. It did not twitch, bellow or take another breath. It was dead. It had passed onto that happy hunting ground in the sky. It was deceased. It was an ex buffalo. To this day, many, many buffaloes later, I have never seen a bull die this suddenly. It was immediate. He was, quite literally, dead before he hit the ground.
So, when I was asked to participate in the buffalo culling I found William again and asked him to be my tracker. On the morning in question, William soon picked up fresh spoor, which later turned out to be a 13 strong bachelor herd. There was still dew on the early morning grass – which made the tracking so easy even I could follow it – when we caught the small herd as it grazed on the remaining panicum riepens, a broad blade grass, on the banks of the dry Shlaralumi River. It was there that my inexperience nearly cost me my life. I wanted to show my friend what a big deal buffalo hunter I was and decided to drop the biggest bull with a shot behind its ear as I did with impala and springbok, the only two other animals I had ever culled. As it shuffled slowly forward at a distance of some 60 paces, I let it have it with the .458 that had proven so deadly on the previous buffalo.
At the shot, the bull reared back on its hind legs and almost toppled over before regaining its footing and following hot on the heels of the swiftly vanishing herd. This was not good news. Severely wounded animals soon separate from the herd and, despite picking up the occasional drop of blood, which soon stopped, as far as William could tell, "our boy" remained with the herd. Worse still was the fact that, although they initially ran into the wind, they soon changed direction and moved with the wind at their backs. They would smell us as soon as we closed in!
I had read so much about wounded buffalo circling back and hunting the hunter that I irritated William no end by insisting we cautiously inspect every likely ambush spot. But, by the time the sun was well and truly up, my adrenalin levels had subsided, I was no longer hyper-ventilating and, if anything, had not only recovered my initial misplaced confidence but was almost a little cocky. I mean I was a real buffalo hunter now. How true the expression that familiarity breeds contempt.
Initially, the tracks were easy to follow as they left deep gouge marks in the soft riverine turf. As they headed inland over harder, sun baked soil, tracking at first became more difficult for me and then, incredible as it may sound, I could not pick up the tracks of any of the 13 strong herd any more, let alone "our boy". Not so William who, nose to the ground – which placed an even greater onus on me to be sure I spotted any movement up ahead – diligently followed the invisible spoor.
Despite this, he also saw the herd long before I did and we adopted the tactics we used previously and circumscribed a half moon downwind of the by now calmly feeding herd as they ambled slowly along. "That one," William whispered as he pointed surreptitiously to the bull in front grazing directly towards us. Why I did it, to this day I do not know. Maybe I was still so angry with myself for making such a mess of the first shot. Maybe it was relief at thinking I could fix the mess I had made but, suddenly, I found myself standing bolt upright directly in front of the lead bull a mere 20 paces away. I don’t know who got the biggest fright – me or the bull – but, before he could do anything, I shot him between the eyes and he collapsed where he stood as if hit by lightning. A twitch or two from the hind legs and that was all she wrote!
But it was the wrong bull! My unerring, all-knowing tracker had been wrong. I was amazed but it was a useful lesson. I had relied on William even though my initial impression had been that the boss of the second bull was different to the first. I had not trusted my own judgment and not asked William to make certain of his. Even though we were not strong enough to roll the bull over, we should have been able to find evidence of blood from the neck wound but there was none. Oh, oh! Back to the drawing board.
I thought that, having badly spooked the herd a second time, they would now run even further and it would take longer than the initial two hours to catch up to them. Wrong again. In fact, we caught up to them much more quickly this time and William pointed out when the front of their hooves stopped digging into the turf as they ceased running, how the length of their tracks shortened as they began to walk and then deviated from a straight line as they began to feed. At more or less the same time, the herd split up and the tracks began to meander all over the place.
He held up the odd leaf and twig they dropped as they fed. Some were still edged in wet saliva. We were closing in. Lastly, he made me feel the dung with the back of my hand to gauge the warmth. It was also much firmer than the green splatters they dropped as they ran away and, although it had developed a dark brown skin, a cursory scrape with my boot showed the fresh green beneath. Even the urine was fresh and there was the odd patch on the ground that had not dried completely in the warm, mid-morning winter son.
The third time we caught them was an action replay of the first time, except I asked William, not once but twice, if he was sure we had the right bull and, to be fair, I had no second thoughts myself even though I could see no blood on the hide of the bull in the dappled shade through which it was moving. It must have dried I thought or be hidden because we were looking at the bull from the opposite side. By now it was almost lunch time and the herd was heading for thick bush to rest up and ruminate. Our half-moon tactic did not work as well as they were moving more purposefully and we came in at the herd from the side.
I took the offered shot at the vital triangle and the buff ran about a hundred paces or so before we heard the crash as he fell but we waited the obligatory half an hour even though we heard the characteristic death bellow well before then. I confess I was a little weary and the cigarette and apple I shared with William was more than welcome.
I could simply not believe it. It was the wrong one! Again! The only bullet hole that we could find was the one I had just made! We had both been so sure.
I hate to admit this but I shot two more bulls out of the same herd and not one of them was the bull I had wounded. By 17h00 I was tired, frustrated and more than a little irritated with myself and William. I was also hungry and thirsty – apart from half an apple I had not had anything to eat since 05h30 that morning and, for at least the last half an hour, thoughts of a long, ice-cold drink had haunted my imagination. I had totally lost my sense of humour but I learnt more about tracking that day than in all my previous years put together. It was as if William was trying to make up for his mistakes by showing me why he thought the bull we shot had been the right one.
When we found the remnants of the herd in some thick mopane scrub – the word mopane comes from the local name for butterfly and describes the shape of the leaves – I was almost blasé. I had lost all my fear of these big, bus-bodied behemoths and just wanted to get the job done. I shot the biggest of the bulls in the vital triangle, watched it hurdle a crumpled mess of rocks and pile up within about 25 paces. William started flicking his right hand up and down while at the same time repeating, "Makulu sterk (very big)" again and again.
Not wanting to waste any more time, I did not wait for the death bellow – that cold drink was beckoning – but walked up behind the bull and fired a shot into what I thought was the back of the brain but which, as we found out later, hit nothing but horn and, without re-loading, walked around the front to admire the huge beast. This was my third major mistake because, as I crouched on my haunches directly in front of the bull admiring its 42 inch spread, he opened his eyes.
I have no clear recollection of what happened next because, when I came to my senses, I was some ten foot up a slender mopane tree and the bull was leaning its boss against the trunk. I was shaking like a country outhouse on a very windy hill and later discovered I had lost the skin from the insides of my elbows and knees.
I could not see what had happened to my rifle and it took me a while to remember I had a .44 Ruger Red Hawk in a holster under my arm. In those days I had a deathly fear of being run over by something that wanted to stand on me or chew me after losing my rifle and had bought the most powerful hand gun then available. I also can’t remember how long it took me to gain enough control over my involuntary shakes but I remember telling myself time and again, "Do not drop the #@&%$ revolver!"
I shot that buffalo five times in the back of the neck and shoulders, albeit with soft-nosed ammunition and, for all the good it did, I might as well have been throwing peanuts. It was the last time I ever took the revolver hunting with me and, today, it rests virtually unused in my gun safe.
It was about 21h00 when I heard the buffalo groan, slump to the ground and let out its final bellow. It took me even longer to climb down from the tree because, by then, the thought had struck me that, seeing as I had left a trail of five dead buffalo behind me in the veld, I might have attracted a number of predators keen on a free meal and the last thing I wanted to do was bump into any of these four-legged garbage disposal units. Eventually I summoned up the courage and, by the light of the gibbous moon, followed the Shlaralumi River back to camp, which I reached at about 03h00.
The next day William was nowhere to be found. The heavens opened and the drought was broken. The river next to camp came down in spate and we were stranded on the wrong side to the buffalo. Nevertheless, we drove along our side of the river to see if we could cross anywhere but to no avail. As we were about to turn round, my friend pointed across the river. There, in the pouring rain, stood a huge, lone buffalo bull facing the vehicle from about 50 paces with only the fast flowing river between us. I was almost certain this was THE bull but I had been wrong five times before and we let it be.
William came back three days later, much the worse for wear. He said he was sure I had been killed and it had taken him a day to stop running and two days to hitch a ride back. For years I waited anxiously for news of the wounded buffalo but none was forthcoming. Either he was one of the bulls I shot and killed or he died of his wounds or he made a full recovery. I like to think it was the latter.