Hunting on hallowed ground
By Marc Newton
Photography credit: Marc Newton
The Managing Director of gunmaker John Rigby & Co. is offered the chance of a lifetime: to shoot a Nile Buffalo in Uganda with the first London Best rifle made by the company since returning to London in 2013.
Uganda, to hunters, is a special place. Dubbed “The Pearl of Africa” by Winston Churchill, this is the real Africa, untamed, beautiful and harsh. I’d been invited to join one of Rigby’s most loyal supporters and clients, now my great friend, Merle Sampson, to hunt Nile Buffalo. It was the stuff of my boyhood dreams, and not an offer to be turned down. What made this offer even more spectacular, is that Merle was letting me use his new London Best in .416 Rigby. Not only would this be the first buffalo for this rifle, but it was also the first gun produced by Rigby to be ordered from our London workshop since the company was repatriated to the UK.
We met at Kampala to drive the five hours to our first camp, based on the western shore of Lake Albert. In the distance the Blue Mountains of the Congo towered hazily, and as we sat down to our sundowners, a city of small fishing boats eased out from the edges of the water. Once the sun had set, each boat lit a lamp, and like so many stars they reflected in the dark water. Being on the equator, the heat and humidity was overwhelming, and despite the dangers of snakes, spiders and other nasties, we slept with every window and door open in the vain hope of a cooling breeze.
We hunted for several days in this spectacular area, Merle succeeding with Nile bushbuck and Defassa waterbuck, and both of us shooting Ugandan kob, an antelope that looks like a mixture of an impala and a waterbuck. The mighty buffalo, however, eluded us. The jungle is incredibly thick in this region, and despite frequently coming to within 20 yards of these unpredictable creatures, and being within sound and smell of them, getting a clean shot was proving difficult. We spent three days tracking the beasts, patiently waiting for them to come out of the thicket. On one such occasion, while we lay in wait, the tracker leapt into into the air like a springing sand grouse. A black mamba had slithered past him – a creature to be highly respected.
We decided it was time to try our luck further north, where the more open terrain would, we hoped, give us a greater chance of finding a Nile buffalo. Two-and-a-half hours on a Cessna 206 aircraft held together by gaffer tape and the pilot’s prayers brought us to the Karamoja region, famous for being the stamping ground of Walter “Karamoja” Bell, the renowned elephant hunter, who frequently used a .275 Rigby in his pursuits. Our tented camp was not far from the Lidepo Valley National Park, a few miles from the border of South Sudan and Kenya. What a place.
The infamous dictator, Idi Amin had a hunting palace in the area we were hunting and it could be seen in ruins overlooking the plains, a stark reminder of an extremely difficult time in Uganda’s history. The country’s wildlife populations suffered catastrophically under his regime and directly afterwards, when chaos reigned: rhinos were entirely wiped out, elephant populations dropped from an estimated 35,000 to 1,000. Elephants are perhaps Uganda’s greatest success story, with an 800% increase bringing the population to an estimated 8,000 today, thanks to a zero-tolerance policy on poaching. Hunting, which was reopened in 1994, brings in a large proportion of the financial support for the conservation taking place today. Our drive from the gravel airstrip to the camp gave us glimpses of the now abundant wildlife: hartebeests, roan, duikers, kob, tsessebe and vast herds of Nile buffalo, giving us the impression this might be easy. How wrong we were!
Finding an old bull
My intention was to shoot an old bull, one with character and past breeding age, rather than a trophy-sized head. Of course the old boys are the ones who know what hunting is about, and they seemed to have a built-in GPS system that led them, again and again, to the safety of the National Park. Two days of seeing plenty and stalking a few was a draining business, and though the territory was more open here, and therefore made for easier tracking, it was tough going. I could have got a shot at an estimated 45in bull, but he was a prime herd bull, and feeling sure of finding an older bull, I passed up the chance. We found an old bull with recent war wounds to his head, and tracked him until he, too, gave us the slip and crossed the park boundary.
As the last day of our trip dawned, I started to think about all of the bulls we had passed up. I didn’t regret my decision. Hunting is hunting, and I would have gleaned no pleasure from shooting an animal in its breeding prime. Rather come back another time and be even more satisfied when I finally caught up with my old dagga boy. I’d all but given up hope, until, at 5pm, our tracker spotted several old bulls in the distance through the bush. I readied the Rigby and started the stalk with our PH. I handle rifles all the time, but now I saw and felt the .416 in a different way. We crept closer and closer to a particularly old bull, a looming great beast, his battle scars evident from our position about 70 yards from him. The PH put up the sticks, and told me to take the shot when I was ready, but as sometimes happens, his view was different from mine, and I could only see the head and neck. Placing the rifle on the sticks, I waited. After what seemed like a lifetime, the old bull took a step forward, quartering towards us, giving me a clear view of his front.
I can’t remember squeezing the trigger, I was so focussed on the bull. It’s with absolute clarity, however, that I remember seeing his legs lift, and I can still hear the sound of the 400-grain bullet hitting something so massive. The bull staggered 40 yards, falling into a dip where we could still see him. We agreed to wait, and not to take a back-up shot unless there was immediate danger. Now, however, there was a different problem: a young bull was approaching from our other side. The fallen bull’s tail was still twitching, and as much to chase off the young bull as to make sure of the kill, the PH asked me to take the back-up shot. The solid ammunition went through the great creature’s spine, and sent the younger bull packing.
We waited five minutes before approaching the bull from his back end. Time and time again, I’d been warned that it’s the dead ones that will kill you, so we were extremely cautious.. While I’d been calm and focussed during the hunt, by now my hands were shaking thanks to the adrenaline coursing through my body. The bull was in his 13th year and had done his bit for the gene pool. The tips of his horns were well broomed and he weighed in at a vast 1,600lb. He was cut in half where he had fallen by the trackers, and everything was taken back to camp for butchering. That evening we feasted on his liver and onions, the best I’ve ever had. The remainder of the meat, including the stomach and the lungs, was distributed among the locals, with not a scrap wasted – whatever the greens wish to believe.
What an experience, and what a way to fulfil my boyhood dream. Hunting in the footsteps of Walter Bell, for such a magnificent animal is something that will be sharp in my memory forever. Merle later informed me, though I don’t recall it, that as we waited to check whether the bull was dead, I repeated over and over again, “My first buffalo, my first buffalo.”
Box out: The rifle
I was incredibly honoured to be allowed to use Merle’s .416 Rigby. This was the first buffalo for the rifle, and the rifle was the first to be produced by our London workshop in the new Rigby era. The rifle was commissioned by Merle in 2013, and is a London Best, with a single square bridge Mauser action. It has Holland & Holland pattern scope mounts and is engraved with the Big Five by renowned engraver Hendrik Frühauf.
Box out: The Nile Buffalo
Distinguished from its close relative, the Cape buffalo, by the fact that its horns rarely reach below its jaw, and the horns are more commonly separated at the base. No less dangerous, the Nile buffalo (Syncerus caffer aequinoctialis), is slightly lighter in colour and in weight than the Cape buffalo. Distributed across Uganda, Ethiopia, Eastern Chad, South Sudan, Somalia and Cameroon, Nile buffalo tend to move out of the dense jungle to the savanna regions when the rains come (March to November in the Lidepo Valley). Females first calve at four or five years old, and then usually only once every two years. Herds commonly consist of a few hundred, though they will congregate in their thousands, while the males spend much of their time in bachelor groups, though old bulls often prefer to be on their own.
Rigby London Best rifle in .416
Leica Geovid 8×42 binoculars
Hornady DGX 400-grain ammunition