Have you ever had a premonition? I have. The strongest one was on the way to catch a plane to Tanzania – the plane was going to crash! The feeling all but overwhelmed me. It was so strong that I stopped my car, turned around and started to drive back to the office. Then it occurred to me that, if I gave in to this feeling, my life might never be my own again. I would continually be a hostage to whatever inner fear happened to grab hold of me. I stopped my car a second time, drove to the airport and caught the flight. I won’t pretend I wasn’t a very hot, sweaty and nervous passenger. I was but the flight obviously passed without a hitch and I chalked up my premonition to a subconscious fear.
On 22 May, 2011, the night before I was to fly from Ethiopia’s Omo Valley (in the south western corner of the country near the Sudanese and Kenyan borders where I had been hunting Abyssinian greater kudu), to go and hunt Abyssinian waterbuck and Nile buffalo on the Dati flood plains, about two hours flying time to the north, I had another dream/premonition. I could see a coffin containing my body being loaded at Bole Airport in Addis Ababa onto a flight back to South Africa. The person supervising the loading was my PH’s young wife, Amy Roussos and I could hear her explaining to the air cargo staff that I had been killed by a buffalo in Dati. The premonition was a first for me as I have never been dead in a dream before. Initially, I did and said nothing about the dream but I could not get it out of my mind.
The flight to Dati was a tricky one. As the Cessna Caravan lurched off the runway in the stifling 40 degree midday heat, it promptly sank back to mother earth and I was certain we were going to crash. I watched with my heart in my mouth as the pilot’s hand snaked towards the flap controls, flicked them up a notch and the plane snailed its way incrementally upwards and cleared the flat top acacias at the end of the dirt landing strip. Just!
We dodged thunderstorms most of the way and, two hours later, I could see the aircraft’s weather radar showing the merest sliver of green to our destination between two massive storms. We threaded our way between them and thumped to earth none too gently on Dati’s muddy, uphill, dirt runway with Betsy, our 1957 Dodge Power Wagon hunting car, a veteran of the Korean war, waiting to greet us along with the camp staff.
These flood plains in western Ethiopia are some 40 kilometres from the Sudanese border and form the catchment area for the big Dabus River, which flows into the Abbay or Blue Nile and on into the Nile itself. The plains measure some 15 kilometres by 100 kilometres. Six years ago, Jason Roussos of Ethiopian Rift Valley Safaris (ERVS), had "discovered" the big buffalo concentrations on the Dati flood plains (estimated to amount to some 2 500 animals) while flying Ethiopia’s western border looking for game, in general, and buffalo, in particular. The Nile buffalo, Abyssinian waterbuck and hippo he saw from the air warranted a closer look and, in due course, ERVVS, the company that he owns with his father, Nassos, was granted a five year concession and a small quota of these animals (12 buffalo, four hippos and four waterbuck per year).
They then pioneered a 40 kilometre road into the area at their own cost with a D8 bulldozer, built a landing strip and camp, hired and trained staff, recceed the area and were ready for business.
Last year, the Oromia regional government gave them 12 months’ notice that they were declaring the area a national park, although it is quite beyond me who they think will drive all this way to see only buffalo, hippo and waterbuck, especially as the area is flooded for half the year and getting around on the trackless flood plains when they dry out is difficult if not impossible for the normal 4×4. To compound matters, at almost the same time, the Federal government began trucking people into Dati (some 10,000 people in the first year), as part of its Re-village-isation Program. I was the last paying overseas rifle hunter that would hunt the flood plains. I say paying hunter because, in the absence of a dedicated safari outfitter backed up by a determined government wildlife authority, poaching will almost certainly return to the previous epidemic proportions. According to local information, about 200 to 250 buffalo (some ten per cent of the entire buffalo population) were poached each year before ERVS started its anti-poaching efforts which reduced these numbers to about 25 per year. In support of these local allegations, when the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority conducted the first game census in Dati soon after ERVS started hunting, in one day, they counted 40 donkeys loaded with buffalo meat leaving the flood plains.
The Re-village-isation Program involves removing large numbers of people, lock, stock and two decrepit ox drawn ploughs from areas which they have devastated and denuded by criminally bad animal husbandry and farming practices, to a fertile area usually previously occupied only by wildlife and/or small local tribes. In my opinion, it is very similar to removing an alcoholic from a bar where he has finished all the whiskey, taking him to another bar with a good supply and warning him to stay off the booze. It is a disastrous strategy to avoid having to address the real issues of over population and habitat destruction in the country which is destined, ultimately, to convert Ethiopia into the desert that most people think it is. All I can say is that Bob Geldof should not pack away his guitar anytime soon.
The Dati Flood plains are, for the moment, however, still surrounded by unspoilt green grass and tree covered hills and ringed by charcoal blue, steep, rocky mountains, the biggest of which rejoices in the name of Elephant Mountain, although these grey giants have long since vanished. Seen from the air, silver channels dotted with hippo pods snake their way through bright green grass meadows and brown, mop headed papyrus thickets. On the ground, the meadows metamorphisize into muddy hippo hummocks, hard on the ankles and where every pace must be perfectly placed. The papyrus thickets, in turn, are a tangled and impenetrable mess of brittle, burnt, black stalks and supple, new, bright green stems through which it is impossible to move but represent no greater obstacle to a Nile buffalo than a spider web does to a human.
The small rains begin in May (the big ones in October) and the regular afternoon thunderstorms soon turn the channels into rivers which overflow their banks and usually – if is still possible to use the word "usually" when it describes weather – flood the plains between knee and waist deep in water by June or July. I was cutting things fine. Of course, where the water covers worn hippo paths, wallows and channels, it is much deeper which makes wading through the muddy flows a game of Russian roulette – when you suddenly disappear over your head is merely a matter of when, not if.
There were two reasons behind my trip to Dati. Some years previously, Steve Kobrine, the well known African bow hunter and outfitter, told me that the waterbuck in Dati looked completely different to any he had seen previously. They were small in body and horn length (about the same size as a Crawshay’s defassa waterbuck from Zambia) but a bright orange brown in colour with black lower legs and the characteristic pale, defassa, pear shaped patches stretching down their rumps. I was intrigued and wanted to see for myself.
Now, I have never found waterbuck particularly difficult to hunt but, after three days of unsuccessful toil, trudging across the hippo hummocks, through fringing papyrus and having the snot scared out of me by lone dagga boys leaping up unannounced from neighbouring thickets – there are about ten buffaloes for every waterbuck – as so often happens, just as I was about to resign myself to a long, drawn out siege, a big, lone Abyssinian waterbuck bull stood stock still facing us on the edge of the papyrus 215 yards away and I had my bull.
According to Jason, he has shot only 12 Abyssinian waterbuck in his 12 year career as a PH. He added that probably no more than another 30 have been shot in Ethiopia over this time, the two biggest being barely 28 and 27 inches, respectively. Mine was a very respectable 25 1/4 inches and, in my opinion, is the most handsome of all the waterbuck. A broad cross section of these animals in the Dati flood plain habitat all look the same and they are completely different to any other waterbuck I have ever seen. Currently, these waterbuck fall under East African defassa waterbuck in the record books but, I honestly believe, if roan can be divided into different sub-species determined primarily by coat colour and geography, then the Abyssinian waterbuck is a far worthier candidate for differentiation as a separate sub-species.
The second and major reason behind my visit Dati was to hunt one last buffalo – a genuine Nile buffalo, syncerus caffer aequinoctialis, to complement the other four buffalo sub-species I had been lucky enough to hunt before – Cape buffalo, Central African buffalo, West African buffalo and the smallest and nastiest of them all, dwarf forest buffalo.
As we skirted one of the many papyrus thickets that separated the meadows, the bush some 20 paces to our right exploded into a crashing, thrashing crescendo of breaking stalks and thudding hooves. Jason rapidly shouldered his black, synthetic stocked, iron sighted .458 Lott. I sprang towards him and looked wildly behind me for my gun bearer who stood frozen in a half crouch some 10 paces away. Two huge, dark brown Nile buffalo bodies lurched through the papyrus at a tangent to us, cleared the fringe and galloped across an opening before vanishing into more papyrus.
This was only the second time that I had seen these slightly smaller and browner cousins of our own big, bus bodied Cape buffaloes – syncerus caffer caffer – in Ethiopia. On the first occasion with Jason’s father, Nassos, on the banks of the Sala River, almost due south from Dati, I had inexplicably shot a cow and part of the reason for this hunt was to try and make amends for the earlier mishap and to hunt one last buffalo.
I say "inexplicably" as, even to this day, Nassos and I are not sure exactly what happened. The bull we had been tracking all afternoon ambled into a gap between two shrubs which hid both his head and rump. We looked away briefly as we moved towards one another so that I could shoot off his shoulder and it could only have been then that the bull moved forward, leaving the slightly smaller cow standing directly behind him with only her mid-section and shoulder exposed to view. The incident cost me a fine of $1,500 and a letter of explanation to the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority which still rankles.
None of this was on my mind, however, as we trudged behind our local Mao tribesman tracker, Terfa, trying to find the meadow containing a herd of Nile buffalo which we had spotted earlier from the hilltop next to camp, now hidden some kilometres away in the grey afternoon drizzle. Jason snapped his fingers and we instantly halted. The outline of big, dark bodies could vaguely be seen through the thinning papyrus fringe to our front. Crouching, we retreated and left the rest of our eight man hunting party behind us. As we struggled forward again, deeper into the sheltering papyrus, a pair of warthogs and two buffalo cows jogged across a finger of meadow to our front. The fickle faltering wind had given us away.
"We are stuck," said Jason. "The wind is all wrong and we can’t push through the papyrus surrounding the herd. What to do?"
"Why not use two of our umbrellas and walk straight at them. I think the drizzle might mask our scent a little. Besides, we’ve come so far and we’ve nothing left to lose. If they run, they run," I suggested, thinking of one of Nicky Blunt’s old hunting tricks which he had taught me when we were last together in Tanzania.
They did not run but they were not comfortable. They shuffled first one way and then the other. The odd cow would trot off followed by one or two members of the herd and then stop and return when others did not follow. Some of the herd bulls walked towards us and then retreated as Jason imitated buffalo grunts, snorts and groans. The effect, however, was to break up the compact herd and spread it out in a long, suspicious, semi-circle around Jason and I as we crouched behind our two umbrellas and a thin screen of papyrus about 100 metres away. The drizzle fell steadily soaking us to the skin and it was a battle to keep our optics reasonably clear.
"There is one very big bull towards the middle but right at the back," Jason murmured. "We’ll not find a bigger one than him in Dati. Do you want to wait to see if he’ll give us a shot?" he asked. Are the Kennedys gun shy?
Half an hour later, the big bull and another almost just as big were standing facing us at a 45 degree angle some 113 yards away according to Jason’s Leica Geovids. I don’t have a shot, Jason," I said as I peered at the bigger of the two bulls. "No," he agreed, "the shot is too risky. We must wait to see if he will turn broadside while still in the clear," he added, reminding me, once again, of the vital importance of calculating not only the entry but also the exit point when thinking through a shot.
As the bull turned and angled towards the head of the herd, the 300 grain Bear Claw loaded by Federal flowed down my .375’s barrel and, immediately, the sharp sound of the shot was lost in the splattering smacks of soup plate sized hooves on sodden soil. It was then that the thought struck me for the first time that, if this bull was wounded, the rain would wash out the blood spoor in seconds. The next thought was one that had been ever present since I first saw the terrain. I knew that I really, really, REALLY did not want to have to follow a wounded buffalo into the papyrus.
Jason’s "You got him good. I saw him hump to the shot and lift his left foreleg. Let’s move up to where he was standing," was some consolation and I eagerly went forward with him. He planted the shooting sticks – I had not used them preferring my twenty year old, extended Harris bipod – at the estimated spot. We waited impatiently for the rest of the party to join us.
When they did, we explained the situation to them and fanned out in a line looking for blood. Not a sign. As we searched and the minutes ticked by, my original confidence started to wane. "How did the shot feel?" Jason queried and I could hear the doubt and uncertainty in his voice. The premonition from five nights ago resurrected itself in High Definition Technicolour in my mind’s eye. Please, no, I thought. Not now. Not on my last buffalo hunt.
Jason interrupted my ghastly thoughts which had vapourised all the moisture in my mouth. "Alright" he said loudly, "We are going to form a line abreast and walk in the direction in which the buffalo ran. Pay attention now and be careful. I am going to be on one side of the line and Pete on the other. "Amy," he said to his bride of nine months and who was with us on safari, "Stay close to Pete." How clever is that, I asked myself? I have only ever faced one buffalo charge. I redoubled my focus on the papyrus thickets enveloping us but said nothing.
We set off, pace for careful pace. Jason moved around a finger of papyrus to my left. Every one of my senses was working overtime. The rain had mercifully stopped and all the colours stood out in bright, sharp relief. I could hear, see and smell everything. I felt totally alive – from the tips of my fingers to the nails of my toes. Out of the corner of my left eye, I saw Birru, our local Mao baggage man, walk through the finger of papyrus. Suddenly, with arms and legs flailing, he levitated upwards and backwards! Jason instantly shouldered his rifle and leant into the shot! It never came. Birru had walked onto our buffalo, dead as the proverbial dodo, with almost no blood dribbling from the bullet’s neat entrance hole in the middle of the vital triangle.
It was a soaking wet, dog tired but happy band of hunters that emerged from the flood plains with the full skin of a genuine Nile buffalo at just after 21h30. A glass of red wine and a plate of steaming hot pasta half an hour later have never tasted so good!
Nile Buffalo can currently be hunted only in Uganda and Ethiopia. The Ethiopian variety are much smaller than those in Uganda which is also home to Cape buffalo which, in turn, are smaller, on average, than those found in countries to the southwest. Quite where Cape buffalo end in Uganda and Nile buffalo begin, can be difficult to establish but not so in Ethiopia which has no Cape buffalo. The acid test, I believe, is to draw a horizontal line through the eyes sockets of the buffalo. In the case of genuine Nile buffalo, the downward sweep of the horns will never break this horizontal line.
My bull was a bruiser by Ethiopian standards with a spread of exactly 30 inches and hard bosses of ten and ten and a quarter inches, respectively, but it will not make the 38 inch minimum spread for entry into Rowland Ward. In fact, only two Nile buffalo from Ethiopia do, shot in 1895 and 1922, respectively. Of the 69 entries, 66 come from Sudan and one from Uganda.