Buffalo in Bushmanland
By John P. Warren
“Either shoot the buffalo today, or shoot me,” my wife Joyce said to me – only slightly jokingly – when PH Jamy Traut, his trackers, the conservation officer, and I came in from the morning hunt on the third day.
It was a hot, dry camp over east of Tsumkwe, Namibia. There were no leaves on the trees. There was no shade. There was no breeze. The ice was gone and the drinking water was warm. You could see between the sticks that were supposed to provide privacy for the bucket shower. The tents heated up in the day as only tents in full sun can. Definitely not a complainer, Joyce just voiced what we were all thinking – that whenever we squared away the buffalo, we could pack up and get out of Bushmanland. Do not get me wrong. I love Bushmanland, have lived right off the western edge of it twice, for months at a time, doing game counts, management plans, and culling, between Grootfontein and Tsumkwe. But I have to admit, this was uncomfortable.
We had seen buffalo almost from the beginning – the very first afternoon we tracked and caught up with a good-sized herd as it moved toward water in the evening. A couple of bulls had offered possible shots, and although they sported impressive “helmets,” none of them would go even 36 inches. That, along with outstanding bosses and strong back curls, was the minimum I had set for myself on this first buffalo hunt since I had lived in Ethiopia and hunted Nile buffalo as a youth when Haile Selassie was still in charge there.
We had lived in Namibia for over a year, and love its people, its game, and its spectacular scenery. We bought a bakkie, and know our way around. It was important to me to get a Cape buffalo in Namibia, so I had turned away from chances in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and South Africa. In 2008, we were living and working for three months near Grootfontein, and while having dinner over at Eden with our neighbor Jamy Traut, he told me about a problem buffalo cow in Bushmanland. I was keen to go, but the timing didn’t work out (and I guess she’s still there).
Planning for 2009 with Jamy, I ended up with a permit for Bushmanland. We were living in the area at the time on a private reserve – a wonderful place – strictly a game reserve with no domestic livestock. Most of the staff members considered themselves Bushmen, and we developed wonderful friendships among them. We participated in their delightful, tri-lingual church services in the tractor shed every Sunday morning. I worked almost every day with at least one of the three unbelievably skilled trackers (Simon, Joseph, and Mische), which was always a wonderful experience for an old ex-schoolboy-trapper/skinner and lifelong hunter like me. Joyce helped the two Marias and Monica learn how to prepare and present meals suitable for European and American clients that had already started coming to the beautiful new lodge and bungalows that the owner had just finished.
As an aside, late in that 2009 trip, but before we went with Jamy to Bushmanland, I was presented with the opportunity to hunt a problem leopard. My good Namibian friend, Heiko, had done me a huge favor when he procured my 2009 hunting permits, and had gotten for me one of the extremely few last available leopard permits, since Namibia had declared a temporary halt on leopard hunting due to some questionable tactics allegedly having been brought in by some foreign PHs. I had taken two leopards years before, in Ethiopia, with my old sporterized 1903 Springfield, and had been in on others, but I had no idea I would ever hunt one in Namibia.
We had several leopards on the property, but this big old tom had been feasting not only on eland calves on our “home” reserve, but had periodically gone outside the high fence – presumably through warthog holes – and had feasted on some of the neighbor’s young cattle. One neighbor threatened to put out poison, which would have indiscriminately killed all kinds of carnivores in the area if we did not stop this big old cat, and I was asked to take care of the problem with our wonderful tracking crew. After two weeks of baiting with warthogs without a hit, we got lucky with an unseasonable pre-dawn rain and a very fresh track of the old tom. We took up that track, and in three hours we found him near a fresh eland calf he had killed and partly consumed. I had an easy shot, and we had the beautiful old cat.
Jamy had sent a camp crew ahead to set everything up. We got to the hot camp just after noon, had a light lunch, and settled in. It was very hot. Joyce suggested setting up a fly under which she could sit and read while the rest of us were hunting. Then, seeing how unbearably hot it was in our un-shaded sleeping tent, we put another tarp over it to provide a bit of shade. Joyce had brought a little plastic pump-spray bottle, and we kept it full of water and periodically sprayed ourselves with it, hoping for a cooling breeze which almost never materialized. Nobody had been assigned the ice detail, and we had none from the outset, because what little there was had been dumped in the cooler with beer and soft drinks, and was already melted. Each time we opened it to get something to drink the temperature went up a degree or two. By the second day, everything in camp was about the same temperature.
The first evening, Joyce went with us on a scouting trip. That was when we caught up with the first herd of buffalo and looked them over. Joyce had been sitting reading under the fly, and decided at the last minute to join us, forgetting that she already had taken off her walking shoes and put on house slippers. When we saw fresh tracks and then with our glasses saw that there were buffalo, several of us (including Joyce) got off the hunting car and began a stalk. After a few hundred yards through the sand and thorns, I looked back, and there was Joyce, in her house slippers, gingerly but stoically following along!
We left Joyce in camp on the second morning and walked maybe 12 miles, following the tracks of first one group of bulls, then another. By mid-morning we were hot and tired, but each of us had a bottle of water, and we kept on. At one time the Bushmanland conservation officer was walking in front of me, when “wham!” Something heavy hit the sand right in front of me. It was his .416 Rigby rifle. A beautiful, genuine Rigby – and he had dropped it!
We tracked one group of four bulls very carefully, right up to where they joined a herd of cows in thick bush, complicating everything. We were very close – about 30 yards. I could see parts of several cows but was never sure of a bull. One of Jamy’s trackers went up a tree, but that did not help much, either. Finally, the light breeze swirled, they got our scent and went rumbling off. We followed them for a mile or two, but they either heard us or got our scent again and we gave it up.
Back to that third day and Joyce’s ultimatum… In the afternoon we hunted hard. We drove to cover vast areas, looking to cut a fresh bull track. We walked and walked. We checked several waterholes. We saw a lot of buffalo sign. We followed several bull tracks until some fickle breeze ruined it for us. Just before dark, we were heading back to camp when one of the trackers saw just a wisp of dust. We stopped, and all of us focused our glasses on that small cloud of dust a mile away across Bushmanland.
The sun was low, but we picked up four Cape buffalo on the move – all bulls. After carefully studying these bulls through his spotting scope, Jamy said that the two in the middle were good ones. They were quite far away and unaware of us, so we planned a strategy. We immediately started off on foot through the thorn bush to intercept their path, making a wide half-circle to come up with the breeze if they kept to their current direction. There was not much cover. Everyone but Jamy and me stayed way back. After maybe half an hour, Jamy told me to sit down behind a very small and flimsy bush and to be ready with the .458 loaded with a 500-grain Hornady soft point in the barrel, followed by solids.
Within maybe three minutes the first bull came, crossing from left to right in front of me at 20 yards. He stopped for a heartbeat, looked briefly at us, and moved on. He looked HUGE to me, and threatening. We were motionless. Then, the second bull came. He looked at me and did not like what he saw. He immediately jumped a half-step to his left and at the same moment, Jamy whispered, “Take him – take that one.” I found the perfect spot on my scope, set at 2x, and fired. I was having trouble loading my second shot for just a moment when I heard the guys behind saying “He’s down! He’s dead.” It was a raking heart-lung shot. He was dead after running 40 yards, and we heard his somehow hauntingly sad death bellow.
I did not want a wounded buffalo at dark, so I was delighted that we had him. Ecstatic. He was a beautiful bull, dead from one shot, and here I was, in Bushmanland, in Namibia, with MY buffalo! He had the perfect head that I had dreamed of, with massive 14-inch hard bosses, great dips and curl-back tips. His width was not tremendous at 38-39 inches, but he was very handsome, and earned a silver medal from NAPHA. As I type these words he is above my shoulder on the log wall in my 1840 log cabin office here at Deer Lodge Farm in Virginia, between the biggest gemsbok I ever saw and a wonderful gerenuk from Ethiopia.
We worked hard till dark to get photos and then to load him in the back of the hunting car. It was a half-hour to camp. I enjoyed every moment of the trip, riding in back under the night sky, with my .458 and the Bushmanland buffalo. Arriving at camp, we were all cognizant of Joyce’s earlier ultimatum regarding me shooting either her or a buffalo that day, and although we did not take it that seriously, we decided to give her a bit of a hard time when we got in. We acted a bit dejected, and started talking about needing the rest of the week to find a bull. But then, in the flickering fire-light, she saw the head of the huge buffalo hanging out of the back of the Land Cruiser truck. We spent a good time looking over the bull, and then sat down to sundowners around the fire, gazing up at Namibia’s billions of stars, and waiting for our tents to cool down a degree or two. It was all good.
Today I had shot the buffalo in Bushmanland.
John Warren, a native Texan, has a Ph.D. in economics. He worked three decades as a natural resources economist and project manager in Latin America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and Africa. Recently, besides consulting in the Caribbean, Ethiopia, and Panama, he has made six trips (totaling 13 months) to Namibia. He and his wife Joyce live on a farm in Virginia. Their two daughters and 14 grandchildren (four adopted from Ethiopia) live in Canada and Spain.