Dangerous-game Hunting – not just for “Real Men” By Bill Head
Uninitiated Americans often see African adventure through images of fictionalized rough and dirty “Real Men” like John Wayne (Hatari) or Robert Redford (Out of Africa). I did. But frankly, guys do not go to Africa and find lonely heiresses or rope rhinos.
Merely an ordinary deer hunter, I made my first safari to the Karoo, hunting for kudu and oryx from a comfortable, cliff-based 5-Star chalet with a chef. I ignored warnings that once you go, Africa gets into your head. But beware – it does!
Upon arrival in Windhoek, I was told that “my” buffalo permit might not be available, but Jamy Traut thought he could convince a local chief to find an extra. I need not have worried.
My primary quest was to hunt Cape buffalo with a .416 Taylor. That wildcat was developed by Bob Chatfield-Taylor to get .416 Rigby performance out of standard-length brass. The escapades of the caliber were made famous by John Wootters, an adventurous outdoor writer best known for his Whitetail books. I met John and his wife Jeanie when introduced by former NRA Director Bob Bear. I saw the most magnificent buffalo trophy mounted above John’s stone fireplace. I followed John to his workshop where there were two more trophies, both even bigger. Almost drooling with admiration at their size, I said. “No matter what gun you used, the hole in the end of the barrel just would not be big enough.” John handed me a cartridge. “Yes, it is. It’s a .416 Taylor.” My .375 H&H now appeared smallish compared with the fat .400-grain cartridge I held.
Immediately I promised John I would take a .416 Taylor to Africa. MG Arms converted my 7 Mag, LH, Win CRF M70. John offered his original reamer and whatever else was needed. Kerry O’Day barreled the action, truing it, adding sights and barrel band, bedding the stock with extra epoxy here and there. I installed a mercury recoil reducer and a Weaver 30mm, 1-5 illuminated scope. When sighting from an unweighted Lead Sled, the Taylor produced better than half-inch groups with 350 Barnes TSX loads that Kerry recommended. In 2013 at the January 2013 Dallas Safari Club convention, I formally booked an October 2013 Caprivi hunt with Jamy Traut. Unfortunately, John died just three weeks later – he would share my adventure from a loftier location.
I first saw the Caprivi when trekking by Land Cruiser to a remote camp. We saw hundreds of elephants in Botswana, across the Chobe River. While there, chasing elephant, buffalo, croc, hippo and red lechwe, I became obsessed with getting a large croc, and spent many fruitless days hunting them. Then a week after I left, a 14-year-old girl with a 7-08 took a 14.5 foot croc from “my” blind!
While chasing rogue elephant we spotted a large buffalo herd on an island in the Chobe west of Kasane, claimed that day by active Botswana military in small gunboats. There were a couple of wide-horned hard-bossed Daggas there. Alas, the river was a boundary for nations, a national park, and ethical sportsmen. I hoped the herd would swim north as others had done to escape the overgrazed Chobe Park, but the island held enough forage to last longer than my hunt. I had a buff permit in hand, which was why I booked with Jamy in the first place, though a friend who went south for Namibian leopard leaving me his croc permit. So I was now in a dilemma – croc, or buff, or both.
Jamy suggested we scout buffalo in between the long time spent in two different blinds waiting for the “right” croc. At 115 degrees it was too hot anyway to read my new book about some “Horn” written by a gin-drinking New Yorker. Five days later we were onto a herd of about 150 free-range buffaloes. We walked after them for miles. The sandy, grassless soil on that island was blinding bright with reflective heat hot enough to cook a shoe with you still in it. Around mid-day, the herd lay down under some small bushes that still had a few brown leaves. We flanked the main body but came onto a fringe group resting in and among some other low brush we had not seen while making our approach. We were on a slight rise of an eroded sand dune. No wind. The fringe group, BB gun close, did not move or care. We could see on the very opposite edge of the herd, with sizable cows and young bulls, a rather nice, big, Dagga Boy. He knew we were there. Like a ghost, day in and out he knew, appearing then disappearing only to reappear always at the back of the main group.
That black, mudless, birdless, ghost of a herd bull kept at least one or two cows and a few calves between us. At the distance from me on the low dune to him, maybe only 80 to 100 yards, I set up a few times to take a shot, but nothing. He moved only when the cows moved. The cows moved only when the calves moved too far. Frustratingly, no clear shot could be made. This game went on for hot day after hot day as the herd kept moving, crossing water-filled channels seemingly in a grand circle. Terrain and cover varied on each island, or channel bank. Finally, one night a fisherman came to our tented camp to report that a large herd had moved to a nearby island. He was nervous about their proximity to his hut and those of his village.
Early arrival found us within sight of the back of a westward-moving column. It appeared to be the group we had spent the last several days following. My ghost bull would surely be there, but with 298 extra eyes. These buffalo were way out in the open with plenty of grass to eat, safe from the approach of lions. Worse, the fisherman’s island was pretty bare. Practically no trees, brush or cover existed away from the small village, except for that terrible short sword grass. About a flat as the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, of Botswana, there was one low relief river meander that crossed about two-thirds of the distance to the buffalo. The minute I saw the setup I knew we would soon be crawling. Crawling is a skill that you need to hunt Africa if you leave your Land Cruiser. Being a masochist helps too. “PH Crawling” is a duck-walk then a butt-n-scoot, then a belly slither. None of it is fun or easy. In the heat I was running out of my most important advantage – attitude.
In Dallas I had told Jamy that I would carry my 10.5 lb Taylor the first 100 miles. On Day 11, at about mile 88, I gave in and handed the rifle to a 20-year-old skinner companion. Four hundred yards later he handed it back for my crawl with Jamy.
Off we went single file at a walk, then a bent-over sneak, then the duck, the butt, and finally the belly. Even though the morning sun was behind us, the blistering heat from the previous day was in that darn grass and in my face and hands. We crawled on and on. In the warm grass it was like standing over the slow heat of a Texas branding fire while waiting for the first spring calf. Jamy, sensing I was not having a great time, whispered jokes and stopped to calibrate the herd’s movement. We were on an intersect vector. Then a mild breeze and the little evaporating dew refreshed the grass – the sweet smell a devil’s lure to go on. We waited to measure wind from where to where. I lay there. “One whiff, and that ghost will know it’s me, and spook,” I thought.
Now, with a steady breeze in our faces, we crawled again. I swore a bit too much at myself. We got within 50 yards of the port stern of a westbound mass of indistinguishable black bodies with a sea of moving legs. Lying there, we whispered about seeing three or four shooters. Jamy commented that the big boy was again at the back. At this point, if I had two permits I would have been tempted to cheat and send a solid through a cow to get him. Of course, Jamy would never hunt with me again if I did. For just a second we would see a glimpse of the big boy’s shoulder or a hump. Cows would be grazing in front and behind. No real moving. Just ever so slow feeding with a lot of heads up and down, always looking. No alarm.
One of the shooters paraded over to check us out. A desirable #2, he was possibly demonstrating that he did not trust whatever was lying on the ground. Although the bull was pawing and snorting, Jamy ignored him, as did the ghost and most of the herd. “Is he worth taking,” I asked. “Do you owe him money?” Jamy laughed. “Wait, and we might get an opening on the bigger guy.”
Waiting seemed endless. Sword grass started to smell like dry, hot, dusty hay, and the herd began to walk a bit, tightening up, wary. The middle-aged, hard-bossed #2 was getting closer and closer. At about 25 yards, he picked up his tempo and lowered his head, bellowing.
Aware that the herd was about to move off and that my persistence was waning, (and not really wanting his client to get stomped), Jamy said that if the snort-and-head-bouncer got any closer, it was OK to shoot #2 before he got real determined. Oh, really?
Number two snorted convincingly. “OK, Now!” I heard Jamy’s whisper. Still prone, I placed a 350 Barnes TSX into the high heart, near the right inside shoulder, quartering upward back somewhere. I did not feel recoil. The buffalo ran in two tight circles then fell over. I elbowed up to send another, but Jamy stopped me. “Well done.” The ghost and his herd stampeded off, but only by about 300 yards, then went back to grazing. Our game scout ran over. “Sniper!” he congratulated me.
We cautiously approached the buffalo to give an insurance shot, but Jamy said it was not needed. I was just grateful I would not have to crawl any more. We stopped for the usual pictures while a small crew from the village came with a cart to collect some meat.
I had accomplished what I had promised John Wootters I would do – hunt Cape buffalo in Africa with a .416 Taylor, though I was sorry not to be able to tell him my version of the hunt. I am not disappointed in the horn size or boss, just that an incredible adventure was over. However, I would have liked to get a clear shot at the ghost. I will to go back, at a cooler time, with better mental stamina and, of course, with another rifle project.
Bill is a conservationist, scientist, and rancher/farmer. He started hunting as a teenager with a Sears 22. The rifle and the hunting process was always the attraction. Currently a contributing editor to World Oil Magazine, Bill works with his wife on education projects in Namibia. As a senior technologist, he has worked over 40 years in U.S. and international research, oil and gas exploration, and production. Bill has been instrumental in several new international ventures, coordinating local and global operations, and has managed one of the petroleum industry’s largest computer facilities.