Thirty minutes of shooting light remained. It was the last day of a 10-day Cape buffalo hunt in the Save Conservancy, Zimbabwe, and we had just ‘bumped’ the herd for the seventh time that day. The drizzle was now rain, and visibility was poor as we ran, half-crouched, to get downwind of the herd, hoping that the late hour would keep them from going too far…
Ten glorious days of hunting in Zimbabwe! Every night lions were outside our tents as close as 25 yards; leopards snarling and ‘sawing’ a little further away; elephant were everywhere, along with hyenas, Cape hunting dogs, civets, honey badgers, genets and more. Heavenly!
But this hunt had had a far less alluring start!
Almost two years before, I had decided to act on a long-time dream of hunting a Cape buffalo. I read widely, focusing on reputable authors (Robertson, Boddington and Wieland). After much research, into possible calibers, I acquired a CZ550 American Safari Magnum in .375 H&H, and had extensive customization done by CZ’s gunsmith of choice – glass bedding, action job, trigger, barrel band, Winchester model 70 wing safety and quick release Warne scope rings. I fitted a Leupold VX-III, 1.5-5×20.
I also acquired an accurate bolt-action .22 rifle as a training aid, and fitted it with a comparable scope.
I began a training regimen to develop muscle memory for shooting a .375 well. I practiced with the .22 until 99 out of a 100 shots were inside 2¾” at 50 yards off sticks – the same with the .375, except 10 out of 10 in the black. I extended the range with the .375 to 100 yards and 6” targets and rehearsed getting into a shooting position quickly (sticks or off hand), with quick first and follow-up shots, wearing all the kit I was planning to use. Finally, to round this out, I set up a full-sized buffalo target at 50 and 100 yards (much to the chagrin of other range users) and fired three shot groups off sticks as quickly as accuracy allowed – with all shots in the vital zone, ideally through the top of the heart. Around 3,500 rounds of ammunition later, I felt confident.
A special challenge was getting my 56-year-old body back into reasonable shape – light weights, crunches, brisk, four-mile walks with a loaded pack, and shedding ten pounds of beer muscle! Everything was going according to plan! And then it wasn’t…
Five months before the hunt, my .375 appeared to need a new barrel, and during the disassembly process it became clear that the glass-bedding job was not acceptable. A mad scramble ensued to find a good gunsmith able to replace the barrel, if necessary, within the limited time available. John Lewis stepped up and was able to lap the existing barrel, re-crown it, sort the trigger out (he also disconnected the set trigger) and did an expert pillar bedding job. With hunting ammunition (Norma African PH 350-grainers) the rifle shoots less than 1” 3-shot groups at 100 yards. One month before departure my rifle was back, and I could return the back-up loaner. (Unfortunately by the end of the hunt, a crack had appeared in the stock at the tang and an area of stock finish had peeled off).
The first morning in the Save – with added pressure of a skeptical audience of PH, manager and trackers – the rifle zero check and shooting off sticks went well. Then we set out hunting buffalo. I felt like a small child on Christmas morning!
But buffalo were hard to find. We spent nine days chasing elusive Dagga Boys in singles or twos, and a lot of time crawling in dense bush trying to get a shot. It was early in the year, still green and soft underfoot, temperatures reaching 104°F with high humidity. Normal routine was to cut a fresh track either at a waterhole, or on a so-called road, and then follow the tracks on foot as soon after first light as possible. Invariably the bull would take a siesta, either in reasonably open terrain where we would ‘bump’ him as we tried to get close for a good look, or in thick bush where we would play chicken with each other for a bit, often getting very close.
“Someone is going to get hooked doing this,” Roy cautioned, and we would back off. Some days we wouldn’t see the animal at all, but a number of times we saw the broad, rear end of a big buffalo exiting stage left (or right). Often we found ourselves in the riverine bush along the Save River, as the bulls would regularly head back there – it had everything a Dagga Boy would want – peace and quiet, shade; great grass, deep cover and mud.
Once we chased a bull for a full day. A characteristic right rear track (perhaps an old snare injury) made it clear that we had followed him before. This day we thought we had him as he grazed along peacefully. He was heading in the direction of a waterhole so we cut around, got the wind fully in our favor, and set up an ambush, but without success. The area was thick with lions – there were at least four groups exchanging insults most nights – contributing to the buffalo being somewhat skittish. The possibility of becoming dinner sharpens the senses! Also, there was good and abundant grazing and bright moonlight.
We returned well before dawn, and drove over fresh tracks where he had crossed the road some distance from where we had lost him, and waited for daylight to begin tracking. We were certain he was ours, but not 15 minutes later Roy pointed out that two lions were tailing the buffalo – their tracks were clear in the soft mud.
It was obvious the two lion had harassed the Dagga Boy for most of the night. Their tracks told of an epic struggle as they flanked him and he ran off… as they must have leapt onto his back and were thrown off… as he backed into some thick bush and challenged the lions face to face. We were soon close behind this drama and expected to see two lions cornering our buffalo at any moment. We knew we were very close but, once again a change in wind direction, and with much crashing the bull took off.
He ran a full mile or more. We gave him time to settle, and continued until we found him fast asleep under a couple of trees some hours later. He was no more than 15 yards away, his huge body visible but lying down, and it wasn’t clear which way he was facing. Robertson’s book (and common sense) advises against shooting at buffalo in that position, and as we considered our options, a relief tracker who was two yards closer to the buffalo than I, realized his predicament. Finding himself unarmed in no man’s land between well-armed hunters and an obviously unhappy buffalo bull, he began his escape and evasion routine.
Results were predictable and very funny, if disappointing… the bull erupted from a deep sleep and charged off with all the finesse of a locomotive. Roy shouted, “No shot, no shot,” as I looked at him with a, “There never was a shot to take?!…” look. Roy stared at the ground, took a number of deep breaths, and mouthed a few unintelligible words. Baloy muttered his agreement in Shona, and the relief tracker with one foot still in the air looked very sheepish!
During our hunt, the model 70-style safety began to become ever more difficult to engage, and as we set off for that afternoon, the bolt could not be closed – a situation that required a trip back to camp to remove a tiny hex screw and disassemble the entire bolt. By the time this was resolved, hours of hunting time had been lost.
The next day was Day 10, and we began at first light. We found no buffalo tracks as it had rained a little – but we did find pug marks from apparently the same lions (they were locked onto this bull with the tenacity of the IRS on a tax evader!). Duke, our camp manager, had taken my hunting buddy Steve for a drive in the direction of the river to check whether a herd had crossed into the conservancy. Eventually, good news by radio – we could now track a herd and not just one buffalo! We did our best Paris-to-Dakar impersonation to where the tracks were, thick across the cutline, the rich, warm, slightly sweaty earthy smell of buffalo still clinging…
We immediately set out to catch up with the herd, hoping to do so before they bedded down. It took quite some time to get close, and by then part of the herd had taken up in the shade to rest. So began an exhilarating stalk as we tried to locate a good mature bull and get a shot. One time we were able to head the herd off as they clattered away, get the sticks up and prepare to shoot – only to have a group of 40 or so cows and calves come boiling out the scrub at 50 yards. A beautiful sight, but no bull.
We got within 15 or 20 yards of another group using the “Robertson stalk technique” – rifle on the lap, rear end on the ground. I cleverly maneuvered behind Roy so as to avoid the thorns and debris, when the wind shifted and the bush exploded with noise and settled-in dust. Early afternoon we decided to take a break and try to catch the last group in the herd once they were up and on the move. We had latched onto a group of tracks that included obviously good-sized, mature bulls, and played a cat-and-mouse game until late in the afternoon. This part of the herd was still resting and it was getting really late. We were running out of time! I had become proficient, if not enamored, with the Robertson stalk technique.
We knew this was our last chance. We went painstakingly, carefully… and the wind swirled again and the entire group thundered off! Roy had the sticks. It started raining. We ran after the herd of perhaps thirty animals, many of them bulls, trying to get the wind in our favor and head them off. As it was close to dark, and without them having seen us, we hoped they would not go far. We ran a fair distance to cut them off and set up the sticks, and got the .375H&H ready.
Five buffalo emerged from the gloom at 65 yards, noses up, sniffing the air. Four were bulls, with two carrying the widest spreads: one on my far left near a dead tree – clearly mature – another to the far right with a slightly wider spread, but young. As they craned their necks to stare I began to get a sight picture on the mature bull as PH Roy Ludick, confirmed, “Take the one next to the tree.”
I was already sighted, and squeezed the shot immediately. Perhaps three seconds had elapsed. All three of us rushed to the animal’s last known location, intent on tracking immediately before the rain washed away the blood trail. We found blood and heard him moments later – he had run 150 yards with a 350-grain Woodleigh soft point through the top of his heart. I shot him again from behind through the spine with a 350-grain solid for good measure – he didn’t flinch.
After a nine-mile day and long stalk (with much running and crawling thrown in), I had my solid-bossed buffalo bull, mature, caked in mud, with scars and tatty ears. Absolutely beautiful! Given the lateness, the rain and being the last day of the hunt, some risks, it had worked out!
The driver came up with the 4×4 and a celebratory beer. We gutted the bull, cut him in half (and counted fingers – razor-sharp knives and poor light!), loaded him, and dug in the back wheels of the 4X4. I had to drop the “great hunter” pose and put my beer down to help.
I am not sure who was happier – me or Roy (not to mention Baloy who was by now footsore and tired of chasing buffalo).
Now for that tuskless elephant in 2016!
Gerald Green, an international executive for twenty-five years, is a member of SCI, NRA and a local shooting club. Gerald hunted extensively in South Africa where he grew up. He and his family live in North Carolina and are active members at a local church. He is passionate about hunting, shooting and fishing.
Gerald, Roy and Steve. Buckfever check!
Not Beau Geste, the dry Save River riverbed with riverine bush on each “bank.”
Perseverance pays off. Half an hour of light left on the last day – as we found him.
The posed picture after dark. Scarred face, ragged ears and hard bosses.
Roy and Gerald – a clearing in the riverine bush, but where is that Dagga Boy?
Team buffalo – Roy, Final and Baloy.