“Did you hear the Oxpecker?”

“Did you hear the Oxpecker?” by Brian Gallup

We were in the bush with good men tracking the most dangerous animal in the world to hunt – the Cape buffalo. Though Sandy and I were soaked with sweat, we loved every minute of it.

Our plan was to hunt an old Cape buffalo cow in the Lowveld. We would sneak up close enough to get a good shoulder shot, I would do the shooting, my wife Sandy would do the videoing, and Pieter Kriel of Mkulu Safaris would do all the work. It was a good plan!

North of the Olifants River near Phalaborwa there is a lot of mopani bushveld, plus some nice big, rolling open areas, with kopjes surrounded by glacier-strewn boulders. The buffalo were in the mopani bush and you have to go in and find them.

The trees were widely spaced and we could see in any direction for about 100 yards – but so could the buffalo. The dry ground was covered with noisy leaves that were blown into serpentine piles. It was mostly flat land, with some ancient dry river channels. Mopane bushveld is exciting to hunt in. The tricky part is that the moody spring winds move through the trees from every direction.

We couldn’t have asked for a better safari crew. The two trackers, Samuel and Peter were good-spirited and on the ball. The outfitter and PH, Pieter Kriel and the back-up PH, Johan were real professionals, focused, able, and considerate. What’s more they loved the bush. And our cook, Michael, was awesome.

We would ride in the back of the hunting vehicle checking for spoor and watching for a herd. Johan was good with spoor, and he kept his eyes on the sandy ground as we drove slowly along, while Samuel checked deep into the bush for a glimpse of a herd. When one of them spotted something promising, we’d leave the truck. We wanted a herd with many cows.

If the spoor was good with lots of cow sign, we would start tracking. We repeated this several times a day for three days and never got close enough to a herd for a good shot at an old cow. It was hard work and the buffalo were easily spooked in the shifting wind.

Late morning of the fourth day we stopped for a break.

“We have been following two herds,” Pieter said. “One was mostly bulls and they moved east through here early this morning. Another herd with a good cow population grazed through recently. Maybe an hour ago. They are moving towards water.”

“The easiest spoor to read is the droppings. Cow droppings pile up like this,” Johan pointed with his rifle barrel. “Bull droppings splatter out. For the last half hour we have been following a smaller herd than before, and there is much less bull manure. This spoor shows plenty of yearlings and cow tracks.”

“You get the time line from the tracks and the dung,” Pieter added. “In this heat the dung dries hard pretty fast, and the wind quickly rubs the edges off the tracks in the dry sandy ground. A while ago some of the spoor we were following was a half-day old. Now all this spoor is very fresh. Two herds.”

At one point, Johan and Samuel were about 14 yards ahead of us, working the tracks and kneeling down to look through the trees for black buffalo legs. Pieter was with Sandy and me when he whispered.

“Did you hear that?”

“What?”

“Did you hear the oxpecker? There it is again. Look, you can see it now.” He pointed to something flickering in the treetops to the north of us more than 100 meters away.

“It’s a Red-Billed Oxpecker,” he said. “Where there is an oxpecker there is usually a buffalo. They eat the ticks and bugs off the buffalo. If I were following a wounded buffalo right now, I would mark this place with some stones, take a deep breath, and follow that oxpecker, because that’s probably where my wounded buffalo would be – circling around to get me!”

Johan and Samuel were still up ahead. When Samuel looked back, Pieter pointed to the oxpecker. The two grinned and nodded in agreement. The decision was to follow the bird.

We were back in the game. Sandy winked at me.  No tracks, no droppings. Just an oxpecker in a tree. We began to see more of them fluttering along as we went, while Johan who was in the front would sometimes crouch down and use his binoculars to look under the branches for those buffalo legs.

The bush seemed to be getting denser, then at a waterhole in an open place about 65 yards ahead, even I could clearly hear the oxpeckers. We nudged forward through the branches until I could see our herd of bulls and cows drinking. And red-billed oxpeckers!

We had some good cover and a light breeze in our faces. I could smell the buffalo. The gentle noise from the drinking herd helped cover any noise we made. We reached some good cover within 40 yards of the water. I waited with my rifle on the sticks for Pieter to pick out a perfect old cow.

You know how it feels. Three days of stalking, sometimes frantically trying to get a shot off in time, but mostly just walking, creeping, crouching, and crawling.  Now I was resting purposefully on the shooting sticks waiting for Pieter to say,”Are you happy? Take the shot!”

My single shot, break-open rifle, was a .577 NE loaded with the 700-grain Peregrine, Bush Master bullet over 116 grains of N550 powder.  I was watching a big old cow through my 1-5  Weaver scope, when Pieter whispered, “Yes, that’s the one! If you’re happy, take the shot.”

The cow was standing at 32 yards with her left side to me and her head up.  A bull stood beside her, and when he lowered his head to drink I had just enough room to slip the big slug over the bull’s neck and into the center of the cow’s shoulder. It was five inches above her heart, but it was still a good shoulder shot.

When a buffalo is hit in the shoulder it usually lurches, turns and runs for about 30 yards.  But this old cow hardly moved.  I saw the bullet hit, I saw the oxpeckers fly off her neck and I saw the bull jump away. For an instant the cow just stood there. As I opened my rifle and reached for another cartridge, she tried to lift her left front leg to take a step and she fell flat on the ground.

The Peregrine Bush Master bullet shattered her shoulder and plowed through her chest. The bullet showed a perfect balance of controlled expansion and penetration.

When we walked up to inspect her, Johan kept his rifle ready and watched the herd that was still close by. “A perfect cow to take out of the herd.” Pieter said, “An old cow, thin and worn out. Just as we planned.”

And above our heads, in the mopani trees we heard the oxpeckers.

Retired in BC, Canada, Brian recalls that his first formal hunting trip was with his father in 1958, for pronghorn antelope in southern Alberta, Canada. He and his wife Sandy have lived and hunted in some pretty remote places, including the MacKenzie River Valley in Northern Canada. They now spend more time in South Africa. “We keep going back to hunt and explore with our family and grandchildren. I mostly hunt Cape buffalo now.”

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