A little hunting story - Buffalo

It is 5:30 in the morning. I am staying in the shower of my luxurious cottage. My legs scream with pain at any move I make. It is the 9th day of my hunt and we have been hunting for almost 100 hours in the last 8 days, including quite a few stalks that have strained every muscle in my legs.

However, let's tackle things one after the other...

Already 21 years ago, when I obtained my hunting license, the adventures of Ruark and Hemingway drove me to the African "Big Five" and especially to the buffalos. But, when I got my hunting license and went on my first hunts, I quickly became an opponent of trophy hunting and my buffalo interest took a back seat.

Then, unexpectedly a good hunting friend passed away and I realized that the time we have is limited as well as that our body and physical condition can quickly throw a wrench in the works. It may sound corny, but it was a real wake-up call for me, to tackle my hunting dreams. I started looking for an outfitter that offered sustainable and ethical buffalo hunting.

These two points sound very simple, but in reality, they are quite difficult to find. After a long search, I found what I was looking for. A hunting & wildlife estate of over 200 km² about 150 km northeast of Port Elizabeth in South Africa; "Fort Governor's". The estate is owned by a German entrepreneur and managed by a very experienced South African couple. The hunting approach is similar to German hunting. Shooting from a vehicle, for example, is strictly prohibited and they try to consider both, conservation and local conditions.

Finally, I booked my hunt.

I flew to Port Elizabeth with very mixed feelings, not sure, if a hunt of this style was really for me. The flight was easy as I had rented the rifle and equipment locally and was flying with light luggage.

Sean, the Professional Hunter at the Estates, picked me up at the airport. On the 2 hours' journey to the estate, including a coffee break, we were able to get to know each other. What was not clear to me at this time was the fact that we would spend the next 10 days from sunrise to sunset, every free minute together in the search of an old "Eastern Cape Mountain Buffalo".

When we arrived, I put my suitcase in the kitchen of my cottage, unfolded it, and was practically ready to go. I had my hunting clothes already on, during the flight. On the one hand my hunting clothes are very comfortable and on the other hand I didn't want to have too much stress in case my suitcase didn't arrive on time with me in Port Elizabeth. Therefore, I spent the afternoon relaxing at the main lodge with a beer in my hand and watching the chef at the barbeque. 

The next morning, the first day of my hunt, we headed to the shooting range at 8am. Hunting is only allowed if the hunter shoots with the weapon safely and, above all, accurately. This becomes all the more true when hunting buffalo, since wounding a buffalo can have serious consequences. I shot first with a double rifle in the caliber 375 H&H. All four shots were on the paper target and within a scattering circle acceptable to the double rifle. Then I shot a Heym Express in 416 Rigby. A type of Mauser-98 bolt-action rifle. Both shots overlapped slightly left of center and I found the rifle to be extremely comfortable to shoot. Thus, the decision was made for the 416 Rigby.

Since I wanted to experience the hunt as pure as possible, I decided to hunt only open sight with the white 4mm front sight. That decision reduced the manageable shooting distance to an effective 50-80 yards.

Everything was set and I was full of excitement about what was to come. After lunch, Sean and I took off in the Toyota Land Cruiser for my first stalk in Africa.

The mountainous terrain is mainly divided into 2 categories. The first one is found on the higher mountain slopes or wide valleys and is steppe-like with single forest and bush islands. This is where most of the antelope species are found and where the buffalo herds roam grazing with their calves. Unlike the buffalos in the big steppes, e.g. in Namibia, the herds here are not several hundred animals strong, but have approx. 20-30 group members and are led by an old and experienced cow. Often smaller groups of young bulls but also capital bulls follow these family groups in proper distance. As soon as a bull is no longer strong enough to compete with the younger ones, he usually becomes a dagga-boy. These old bulls are usually over 10 years old and often move into the 2nd terrain category, the thick bush. The thick bush consists of numerous thorny plants, which create an absolutely dense bush about 2-3m high. Hunters move here on the same paths as the animals. A hunt in the thicket bush is much more demanding, as it is impossible to dodge here and the terrain is very difficult. Normally, hunting is done only in pairs, with good confidence in the hunter, and not in groups.

As the twilight phases in Africa are very short (15-20min), we decided on the following day as well as all other days, to drive off already in the dark, at 5.30 o'clock. This ensured our arrival at the different mountain slopes already at sunrise with a chance to catch a glimpse of a movement or Buffalo.

On the 2nd day, we watched some warthogs right at dawn in one of the open spots. We decided to try a stalk. As we stalked from bush island to bush island, Sean suddenly stopped and tapped me almost imperceptibly on the left shoulder. When I turned my head to the side, I could hardly believe it. About 90 yards to our left, an ancient warthog trotted slowly grazing around the bush. We carefully retreated back into cover and made a plan, on how to approach him. We skirted around him so that we had good wind and at the end of a one-hour stalk, an approximately 11-year-old warthog lay in front of us. He had already physically set back, but his tusks were enormous.  

The following days began for me in euphoria after this success and I was curious about what was lay ahead. However, this elation subsided more and more when we spotted numerous buffalo and many antelopes, but none of the old buffalo bulls we were looking for.

The days began to follow a uniform pattern. When we spotted a promising dark spot on the horizon or a fresh track, we drove with the Cruiser as close as possible and then begun the arduous stalk. Since you never know if you are going for 30 min. or for hours, a "camel bag" with enough water on the back is a "must have" for this type of hunt.

The days flew by.

... it is 5:30 in the morning. I am staying in the shower of my luxurious cottage. My legs scream with pain at any move I make. It is the 9th day of my hunt and we have been hunting for almost 100 hours in the last 8 days, including quite a few stalks that have strained every muscle in my legs.

I get out of my nice warm shower. The dusty hunting gear is ready on the couch as usual. I check the fit of the spare ammo on the belt; 5 rounds: 2 soft, 3 solids. All good, as usual! I fill up my camel bag with fresh water and watch the lights of the Toyota coming up the trail. I grab the rest of the gear and I am on my way to the car.

I open the door, coffee is in the cup holder and Sean greets me with his big grin. We have become good friends in the meantime and both of us enjoy the easy days in the bush a lot.

We drive off.

The windows are down and we illuminate the area with the headlight, always looking for the lights of the one buffalo. So far without any success. After a short break to enjoy the sunrise, we are driving straight into a mountainous area with thick bush as far as the eye can see. A few days earlier, we had spotted an old bull in the opposite slope at midday.

We picked up his tracks and stalked him for over an hour through a small ravine. Somehow, the old warhorse must have picked up something. We could clearly see in the track that his hooves were no longer treading neatly into each other, but were offset about 2 inches. For some reason he had quickened his pace. We continued to follow the tracks. Unfortunately, we soon realized that he took a wide curve to get into our wind. We gave up; there was no chance for us to get close to the bull anymore.

Sean's comment: "That's the reason they are old"!

The old bulls are incredibly smart, know the area like the back of their hand and are full of energy despite their age. There is simply no guarantee to shoot such a bull, especially not if you try it fair at max. 50 m. Nevertheless, the hunt is every moment indescribably intense.

The morning went by, by way too fast and at lunch time we had checked several tracks, followed them a few times, but without finding a track of a big bull.

During lunch, I could tell Sean wanted to address something. I felt the same way. Therefore, I took the initiative and explained to him my desired approach for the last day of hunting. It was absolutely clear to me that we would only hunt today, since there would be no time for a possible follow-up hunt the day after tomorrow. The day after tomorrow, I would have to leave for the airport at 8:00 in the morning. Moreover, it was unthinkable for me to shoot one of the strong young bulls, from one of the bachelor herds. I had not come to Africa for that. So inwardly, I was already planning my second attempt next year.

As we chatted, I saw a great tension fall away in Sean and he visibly relaxed. He told me that he was going to propose the same thing to me and had been thinking for quite some time how he should probably teach me this fact. We both drank our coffee, happy that we had the same point of view. Now we were able to enjoy the last hunting hours relaxed and without pressure.

After the lunch break, we packed our stuff into the truck and started looking for spoors again. A few kilometers from a water hole, in the middle of a small valley, Sean spotted a strong bull track that was fresh after dawn, so it could be no more than 5 hours old. We considered our options and decided to come back again at 5pm, just before dawn.

The afternoon passed by, without spotting any more tracks or a buffalo. We headed back at 4pm to the area with the bull tracks from the morning. Once we arrived, we sat down on the ground behind a small bush in good wind and waited near an open patch in the thick bush. The open patch measured perhaps 50 m x 50 m with many animal tracks crossing. The place was a good spot due to a natural step in the slope, which was slightly elevated and offered a good view into the small open area. The disadvantage was the very limited view into the surrounding bush.

Shortly after we made it ourselves, comfortable four Kudu cows moved through the patch. They did not notice us, but they did not stop either and after a few seconds, they disappeared again in the thick bush. After that, it remained quiet for the time being. When I heard slight noises next to me and turned around, I saw Sean, taking a nap. My hunting companion did not seem to be very hopeful.

The sky was already turning slightly purple when we heard a crackling sound. Sean was immediately awake, as well as me too. We listened intently into the twilight. While Sean held the glass in his hand, I imperceptibly pushed the Rigby further forward and released the safety button, not knowing what was happening right in front of us. In case of a sighting, we had agreed in a few simple tip signs to avoid the need of talking to each other and possibly provoke a hasty escape. I saw nothing when Sean gave me the tip sign for "shot" on the left arm.

A moment later, a buffalo head appeared in my field of vision. The buffalo, of which I could not make out much, moved further and further into my field of view, when the shoulder was visible for me, I baked on, took aim and fired. The bull buckled and felt to the right side, the belly towards us. In that time, I had already reloaded and shot a second time through the sternum and in consequence through the spine. Both shots were instantly fatal.

Since we did not know if there were more buffalo around and as I did not want to kill another buffalo in self-defense, we ran towards the truck. When we arrived at the truck our pulses calm down a bit and we had time to discuss what had happened. Up to this point, we had not exchanged a word for hours. The whole thing happened so fast that I was not sure what I had even shot at. I trusted 100% on Sean for that assessment of the bulls' age. In that case, no other course of action would have been possible for the successful hunt. Real Teamwork!

We waited another 30 minutes in the truck and then made our way back to the patch. It was pitch dark by now, but we could see in the light of the strong moon, that the bull lay at the spot where I had shot him. The Eastern Cape Mountain Buffalo was about 12 years old and weighed a little bit under a ton.

Since the buffalo find little food on the barren slopes and roam in much smaller groups, fights between the bulls are not so frequent. Therefore, even old bulls can still have long and sharp horn tips.

The time of this hunt was an indescribable experience and brought me closer to a hunt that I had put aside with prejudices for me. I can only recommend to anyone interested to try a hunt for himself or herself on site and then decide whether or not to support this form of hunting. The Africa bug has taken control of me and I have spent in the meantime many beautiful hunting days on this continent.

All the shot game was taken and used. After the picture, the two of us, slaved for another good 4 hours to get the buffalo onto the back of the Toyota.

A word of advice at the end.

If you really want to enjoy the hunt, you should take your time and be able to live with the fact that you may have to travel a second or third time in order to get the buffalo or elephant you want. The professional hunter will always do his best to complete the hunt successfully. But it is a big country and there is no guarantee in hunting.

It is also important to discuss the wishes and the procedure clearly with the professional hunter. He knows his terrain and the real chances you might get.