South Africa: 2015
The Dark Continent and Black Death
By James Field
A close encounter with a four metre black mamba on my second safari for my first Cape buffalo, made the exciting event even more exciting. Previously, I had hunted plains game in the Eastern Cape Province – now I wanted to go up against the legend of what many of the old hands refer to as “Black Death”.
“Black Death” – the dramatic description comes from the reputation for vindictiveness of the Cape buffalo towards those who pursue them. Many hunters and guides have been stalked, attacked and killed by an enraged animal – not too surprising if you upset these 2000lbs plus beasts by shooting them. And they do take some killing.
These seemingly docile bovine animals are the ones to be wary of if the first shot doesn’t kill. As everyone knows, they tend to either run away or charge the hunter, both events highly dangerous, the former being the more unpredictable situation of the two.
Of course, any beast that has been shot but not immediately killed must be despatched as soon as possible. But even when heart-shot, buffalos have the most extraordinary stamina and may live for a surprisingly long time, during which they are renowned for circling around behind the hunter and bursting from nearby undergrowth in a full and surprisingly fast charge to wreak bloody revenge with those wickedly curved horns and razor-sharp hooves.
This reputation is also likely to be a consequence of hunters walking past where an injured beast is laid up, when it subsequently – and not unreasonably – attacks from cover as they approach or pass by.
Buffalo are not in any way endangered and the southern savannah variant I hunted is one of three African sub-species – there are well over three quarters of a million, making them the least vulnerable animal of the fabled Big Five. Like much of Africa’s wildlife now, the vast majority now exist on privately owned land, mostly game farms or wildlife conservancies.
And so, in 2017 I found myself hunting a free-range Cape buffalo bull on one of the larger privately owned hunting areas in Mpumalanga Province, South Africa, a few miles away from the Kruger National Park and the border with Mozambique. Called Maurice Dale, and about 20,000 acres (80km²), it is owned by the well-known conservationist John Hume, who is renowned for his work in breeding white rhinos.
According to some, he is the biggest private owner and breeder of these animals in the world. It is said that he has a greater number of rhinos than the entire present population of that in Kenya, the country which was once famous for the hunting of its super-abundant wildlife by the great hunters of yesteryear, such as Theodore Roosevelt, Robert Ruark and Ernest Hemingway.
Sadly, when hunting in Kenya was banned in 1977, only poachers benefited, leading to the disastrous decline in animal numbers, the scale of which is surely one of Africa’s biggest scandals. Furthermore, the poachers’ methods are anything but humane: poisoning, snaring and shooting with automatic AK-47s is typical, even today, with the carcasses left to rot, and scavengers frequently dying from the poisoned meat. Ironically, it was claimed that the establishment of a ban on hunting in Kenya was to limit the damage caused by the ivory trade, but without the value-based stewardship by those over whose land these animals roam, it has become an impossible situation where only the illegal poaching trade profits.
I was with my friend and PH, Andy Renton, of Kei River Safaris, for my third safari, to hunt a second buffalo. Previously, I had used that most traditional of guns, a double rifle in .470 Nitro Express caliber. Superbly efficient, perhaps to the point of it being a slight anti-climax – even though I made the mistake of putting the soft nose round in the left barrel, when it should have been the right.
Nevertheless, a front trigger heart shot at 30 yards with a .470 solid did the trick. The follow-up shot confirmed matters, and after running a mere 15 yards, the buffalo succumbed.
This time, to add variation and a little more spice, I chose to use a bolt-action rifle in .375 H&H Magnum, the minimum legal caliber for dangerous game. A tuned Sako 85 topped with a Schmidt & Bender 1.1-4×24 scope was my choice, which, using premium Norma PH ammunition, later accounted for several species of plains game up to 190 yards away. More rounds, but less knockdown power than a larger caliber double – and the scary possibility of a miss-fed round when one least wants it!
After two days of quartering the estate in sweltering weather and following spoor to locate small herds several times but finding no shootable bull, our tracker, scrutinising the ground, suddenly looked up and gave us a huge white grin, and told us that he had found evidence of a small group of bachelor bulls and that he thought it likely one of them would meet our criteria; how these guys can tell these things from the spoor, I really don’t know.
For three hours we followed the tracks on foot and eventually glimpsed the three bulls just as they ambled into heavy undergrowth to get out of the 38°C midday sun. One of them was perfect! We stealthily made our way, my PH, the outfitter’s two sons and me to within 60 yards of the three bulls, and in the shadow of an overhanging acacia tree behind some low undergrowth we set up the shooting sticks.
I placed the rifle on them – and then ‘my’ bull lay down, the other two remaining standing… Well, at least it allowed me to relax a little, but for an hour and ten minutes we all stood there, silent and immobile, with the light wind in our faces and me continuing to hold the rifle ready on the sticks, my team pressing close behind me. Sheldon, the younger of the two Afrikaner boys, had been filming the pursuit with a video camera but now, disappointingly, the battery was nearly flat. Brendan, the older one and who was to be my dedicated backup with his .460 Wetherby rifle, was commendably alert. However, I noted that Andy was in a very cramped position and was keen to move to a more comfortable stance.
Suddenly – at last – there was movement. My bull stood up, but for a further long eight or nine minutes he stood directly in front of one of his chums, denying me a shot in case of a shoot-through.
Then the one behind him slowly moved away and, “Smoke him!” Andy murmured in my ear. Less than a second later, my rifle kicked and I immediately reloaded with a solid, watching all three of the buffalo run to my right, crashing through the undergrowth, across a track, and into another thick stand of miombo. I knew it was a good shot but it still surprised me that he could run like that.
Then, with Brendan alongside me, his hand firmly on the back of my left shoulder to let me know where he was without me having to look, we advanced to where they had disappeared and maneuvred so we could see into the undergrowth. Then the target buffalo appeared, broadside on, walking slowly across a glade just 50 yards in front of us – I instantly fired again, raising a tell-tale puff of dust from his right shoulder.
“Perfect shot James,” Andy murmured as Brendan also fired a shot, as by now the priority was to put this beast down, as much for humane reasons as to protect ourselves from a charge by this extraordinarily tough animal. But once again he ran! Reloading, we reached the strike point, turned towards where he had disappeared, scanning everywhere, the tension and the focus absolute – then after another fifty yards, suddenly, there 20 yards away in the dark shadows I made out the unmistakable outline of those deeply curved horns, just waiting for us a few feet into the undergrowth, and without any hesitation I shot again, as did Brendan. Surely the buffalo was now dead? After five well-placed, heavy caliber shots, it was impossible that he still lived, but in the well-known words of many who’d gone before us I remembered that, “it is the dead ones who kill you.” So, very cautiously approaching from behind, I placed a final shot in the base of his neck. The hunt was over.
The tension instantly evaporated, bringing a mixture of fatigue and elation, but also sadness, to all of us. Then began the appreciation of the animal, the round of handshakes, and the photographs. Maybe I had brought the weather from England with me, and it then started to rain, a cooling but welcome warm tropical shower. It was not unpleasant, and gave us a chance to radio for the recovery team to make their way to us, which took an hour and half to arrive. During this time, we realised that Andy was in some pain. Because of his cramped position while we were waiting to take that first shot, when I pulled the trigger and set everything in motion, he lost balance as moved and staggered against a thick African thorn at shin height. The thorn penetrated and broke off seven centimetres into his shin. It sometimes seems that every shrub, tree and bush in Africa is either pointed or hooked. I subsequently learned that it took Andy three trips to hospital to have a further piece of that thorn taken out each time.
The removal of this buffalo benefited the herd which had grown too large for the available resources and it was clearly past its prime, as indicated by a heavy tick infestation. (A bite from one on the back of my leg was probably what gave me the rather unpleasant dose of tick fever I later suffered…) The meat entered the local food chain, and we were pleased to be reminded that as visiting hunters we were also helping to provide employment and support to the local economy.
I thoroughly enjoyed the hunt, perhaps responding to some ancient genetic programming. Who knows? What I do know is that this will not be the last time I visit Africa; perhaps Namibia or Zimbabwe next time, or Zambia where the people seem particularly happy and welcoming.
But where will it be?