Buffalo Hunt in the Wild Heart of Africa
The Selous Game Reserve, sometimes called the “wild heart of Africa,” is unarguably one of East Africa’s greatest hunting grounds.
Comprising nearly 50,000 km² of savanna, rolling hills, flat plains, and miombo and riverine forests, it was first designated a protected area in 1896 by the governor of German East Africa, Hermann von Wissmann, and declared a hunting reserve by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1905. He intended his preserve to be the Crown Jewel of all preserves of the European colonial powers, and many thousands of natives were forcefully removed to build it.
After the defeat of Imperial Germany at the end of World War I, the British renamed their new colony Tanganyika, which in 1964 became the independent nation of the United Republic of Tanzania.
After World War I, the British took over the colony and renamed it Tanganyika The Kaiser’s preserve was then named after Frederick Courteney Selous, the famous hunter, naturalist and explorer. Coming out of Rhodesia, Selous had volunteered his services to the British Army where he was attached to the 25thFusiliers as a Captain.
In 1917, near the village of Beho-Beho, just north of the preserve now bearing his name, while on horseback observing the engagement between his troops and the German forces, he was shot through the head by a German sniper. At 65, Selous was dead before he hit the ground. He was 65 years old. The event was considered so tragic that the Kaiser himself sent a letter of apology to King George, regretting the loss of such a great man. Selous’s only son, Freddie, was killed exactly one year later flying his SE-5 biplane over enemy lines at the Western Front.
Today, the Kaiser’s former hunting preserve is still quite with us – still with its great populations of buffalo, lion, elephant and countless other of East Africa’s astonishing species.
On this, my first hunt in the Selous, my traveling companions were medical colleague Col. Diego Alvarez, USAF (Ret.) and Joe Denby of Global Safaris, who booked the safari in hunting block L-1.
We were met in Dar es Salaam by our PH, Gary Hopkins, of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe who escorted us through customs and to our charter to the northern Selous that took us over hundreds of miles of verdant and seemingly uninhabited Tanzania.
Two hunting vehicles and a host of safari staff awaited us. The two-hour drive to camp was through rolling forested hills, not unlike north-east Iowa, but with African hardwoods – teak and mahogany and a few large euphorbia species. The hills were interspersed with lakes of grass, and the shores were dense bush. At this time of the year, nearing the end of the dry season, the grass was short and beaten down, allowing great visibility of species such as impala and Lichtenstein’s hartebeest. We also encountered a small herd of elephant, the bulls sporting the long slender tusks so characteristic of Tanzanian elephant.
We arrived as the sun was setting along the banks of the Luanbero River. It was a classic tented safari camp, fulfilling my dream of what an East African bush camp should look like. We were met by the camp and hunting staff, and the watchman, who carried a beat-up, iron-sighted Brno in .458 Winchester.
His main job was to keep away a group of lionesses who seemed hell-bent on getting into the skinning shack at 4.00 a.m. every morning. They could be heard every day at this hour, growling and coughing on the far side of the river. They would then silently cross the river and approach the downriver side of the camp where the “butcher shop” was located. A shot or two from the .458 at the sand in front of their noses would usually send them snarling back across the river. Finding pugmarks in front of the tent one morning, I realized they didn’t always announce their coming or use the same approach into the camp. Consequently, I slept with my loaded .416.
The camp guard was something of a character. In his early twenties, he had the physique of a body builder. I later discovered how he managed it. He’d built a bench press-like apparatus out of saplings and made a formidable set of homemade weights using African ironwood for the shafts with weights concocted from concrete poured into bucket molds. When not actually guarding the camp, he could be found pumping concrete.
I knew on the night of our arrival that something was not quite “kosher” with him. Despite the 100°F heat, he was wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers jacket and shivering and sweating at the same time. Two nights later he produced a classic case of cerebral malaria, chasing the camp cook around, swinging a large panga, and declaring in Kiswahili that the cook was shetani, meaning the devil, and needed to be killed. He was quickly tackled by Gary and the trackers, although not without a struggle, disarmed, and trussed up in a Cruiser and hauled off to the nearest clinic, about 50 km from the camp. I fed him a couple of my malaria pills in the vain hope they might do at least a little good on the road. He spent the next few days on a quinine drip, improved rapidly, and re-joined us for the remainder of the safari.
Day One began with sighting in our rifles at the rough-built range behind the camp. Our Weatherbys proved to be spot-on and, much to my surprise, our PH also carried a .416 Weatherby. His only comment: “Nothing hits harder.”
Diego won the coin-toss as to who would take the first shot at buff, and we set out in the Cruiser seeking sign. About an hour later we cut the spoor of a small herd –feces and stomped-down grass.
A few hours of skillful tracking work brought us within sight of a herd of about 25 animals. Aware of our presence they ambled off, while we followed trying to stay downwind. After several hours of only brief glimpses, we finally closed with the herd.
They seemed to be settling down at the top of a broad, forested hill. With careful glassing, we were able to spot a good bull with horns of at least 40 inches. Diego and the PH moved in for the kill; but at 70 yards, the herd suddenly seemed to be aware of the approaching hunters and started running.
The bull that had been presenting a broadside shot suddenly turned to face the hunter. Alvarez, sensing that the bull was going to bolt, took a quick offhand shot at its frontal area. Although there’s nothing wrong with such a shot, it must stick to the absolute midline of the animal to be effective. A high shot just under the chin will usually break the cervical spine, and a low one will usually top the heart – both excellent killing scenarios.
When struck with the 400-grain .416 bullet from Diego’s rifle, the bull reared up like a rampant stallion and charged off into the bush. A follow-up shot was impossible. We trotted up to “ground zero” and found considerable blood and a very dead oxpecker. The shot had entered just inside the right shoulder area and exited the right flank, taking out the oxpecker that was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
We tracked blood spoor; it was not great, but appeared to be little challenge to the trackers. The bull had re-joined the herd, and it looked like they were booking to the next county. We tracked for several kilometres when a cow elephant with a calf sternly repelled us. As it seemed that her bluff charges were about to become reality, we made a hasty retreat towards the Cruiser – unfortunately, many kilometres away. We reached it just as dark fell. If you’ve been at that latitude, you know that the sun goes down rapidly and darkness descends with a swiftness not known to us Northerners. The Cruiser carried two tired and dust-dirty New Yorkers back to camp. Two pints of cold Tusker, and we were sufficiently revived for the great dinner that followed.
Soon after dawn we headed to where we’d broken off the chase. With buffalo tracks and no sign of the cow elephant, we started off after the herd. Although it was fairly easy to follow their sign, it became increasingly clear the blood spoor of our wounded bull was going from scant to non-existent. By noon it was evident they’d exited our block and the bull would have to be counted as a loss.
Next morning was my shot at buffalo. At first light we cut the tracks of another herd of about a dozen animals. We started our pursuit and despite the freshness of the tracks and feces, we didn’t glimpse the buff until about noon when we caught them moving in single file out of a grassy area and up a densely wooded hillside – a few cows and calves and two bulls – one, again, with horns of about 40 inches.
We maintained our pursuit, staying about 150 to 200 yards behind them, occasionally catching sight of black backs moving through the dense cover. Even though they never seemed spooked, they never seemed inclined to settle down either.
Finally, with no more than a half-hour of daylight left, we found them on the far side of a grassy meadow, about 200 yards wide, arranged roughly in a line across the base of a hill. My bull, right smack in the middle of the line, was presenting a nice, but too far, broadside shot. To our right was a deep dark ravine with thick, jesse-like vegetation – most surely where they would exit if disturbed, and no doubt a scary place to follow.
My tracker and I made a quick crawl of about 100 yards to the snag of an old tree that we planned to use for cover as well as a steady for the rifle. The grass was about thigh-high, excellent cover for our stalk. Reaching the snag, my fussing with getting a shooting lane suddenly caused 12 pairs of eyes to immediately focus in our direction. What was to be a broadside shot was instantly converted to a full-on frontal shot as the bull turned to face the intruder. I quickly placed the crosshairs on the center of the dark mass and pulled the trigger. At the sound of the Kugelschlag, which sounded almost like a tympani beat, I saw his knees buckle, his chin hitting the ground. Immediately, 11 buffalo were running to the right, straight into the black ravine, just as expected. Then almost immediately I heard a loud crash and the distinctive death bellow.
The tracker and I hotfooted to ground zero and found more than a large bucket of blood on the ground. Following it, we went 20 yards and found one very dead buffalo bull – no “finisher” necessary.
We had just enough light for a brief photo shoot and the skinners set to work. Autopsy work revealed that the bullet had entered at the center of the frontal area, opening up and missing the cervical spine, but taking out the large vessels at the top of the heart, ending up deep in the pelvis. Within 10 minutes of our gutting the bull, lions began roaring. Gary said they were at least five km away, but it felt more like one. The PH built a fire, more for light for the skinners than for lion protection, as lions have little fear of fire.
He gave the youngest and fastest tracker a rifle and sent him running back to the Cruiser, which was now a long way away and in the dark. It is a great testimony to the skill and terrain knowledge of the tracker that three hours later we could hear the engine and saw the lights bouncing along the hills. Beyond doubt, if left on my own without GPS, etc., I could neither have made it to the vehicle nor back again to the trophy.
On the night drive to camp, there was an impromptu a cappella choir of male voices singing hymns to their gods of the hunt.
Why are some hunters buffalo addicts? PH Harry Selby put it best: “You will always hunt buffalo.” For some of us, it may go even deeper. As we approach a herd spread across the African savannah, like the Paleolithic artists who painted the walls of the Caves of Lascaux with the animals of the chase, we find no greater proof of the magnificence and beneficence of the Creator than the scene spread before us. And as we close in for the kill, with its inevitable feelings of joy and trepidation, the “Circle of Life” that we are about to close on our quarry, that circle holds us as well.
Upstate New York OB/GYN Dr. James Pfeiff has made some dozen safaris to Africa.
His article about the 9.3 Mauser in Mozambique was published in SAFARI magazine.