Off the Beaten Track in Zimbabwe

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 Off the Beaten Track in Zimbabwe – a father-son quest for plains game and Cape buffalo

By Alexander Richter

As dusk was falling on the dry savannah, I steadied my breathing and prepared myself for the shot. From the tall grass, his head lifted to reveal pitted bosses, flaring nostrils and glaring eyes. Darkness was encroaching as the last day of the safari came to an end. At sixty yards I squeezed the trigger of my Montana .375, the crosshairs steady between the animal’s eyes. A thunderous “crack” rang out and I lost sight of the large Cape buffalo bull…

Two weeks before that night, my father and I had driven six hours from Harare’s airport through Zimbabwean bushveld to the Save Conservancy. The landscape was totally new to me, and in the rural setting I was fascinated to see the round mud huts with their neatly thatched roofs.

Late in the night we arrived at the boundary of the area we would be hunting for the next fourteen days. Our PH, Lloyd Yeatman greeted us and helped transfer our luggage to the hunting vehicle. We drove on muddy roads through sugar cane fields, following the smell of burning wood, and finally arrived at Mkwasine Camp, lit with hanging lanterns. I chatted a while with Lloyd and his wife Sabine that first night, and later, possibly with the help of a local ale, I was soon in bed, falling asleep to the sounds of the night.

A gentle tap on my tent flap woke me. It was already the next morning, still dark. Breakfast was being prepared. We sipped coffee next to the warm coals from the previous night’s fire, and after breakfast we conducted a preliminary assessment of the area we were to be hunting, and sighted in our rifles. My father, a custom gunsmith and avid reloader, brought along a .416 Taylor, while I brought my new Montana .375.

It was not long before we were focusing on the game in the area. We came across four kudu bulls and I was quick to get on the shooting sticks. There were two very mature bulls. My scope must have been on six power from sighting in at the range, because when I settled my gun on the shooting sticks, my field of view was limited and shaky. I blew the shot on the large kudu, my bullet glancing over the rise in his shoulders and into the dirt. This sent the four animals running into the thick brush never to be seen again for the remainder of the trip. I contemplated many reasons and excuses for my shot being wrong, and sulked back to the vehicle. I always seemed to shoot poorly in Africa.

The following morning, I regained confidence when we encountered a group of eland in the open grass and I was able to drop the large bull with a single shoulder shot from my .375. A few days later, I placed a solid neck shot on a big waterbuck that was facing us straight on in grass up to its chin. The shot dropped the magnificent waterbuck, and I felt even more confident in my gun and shooting ability.

Lloyd thought it was now time to hunt my dad’s buffalo. Masanyani, an exceptionally skilled tracker, guided our crew through thick brush and reed swamps that afternoon. The reeds were so high that I could have been twice as tall and still not be able to see over them. At times I could hear buffalo crashing away, but it was too thick to see them. Crossing a sand road, we came across elephant tracks as well the prints of a black rhino. I was amazed that there was a rhino in our area – two armed government rangers were tracking it to protect it from poachers. The men had a small outpost just down the river from us, close enough that we could see their campfire at night.

Entering a new area, we crossed the crystal-clear waters of a creek and scaled a steep hill. After patiently following fresh tracks without sight of buffalo, we made it to a vantage point overlooking another reed swamp. Frequent traffic had matted down a path just wide enough to make an ideal shooting lane. In the event buffalo were to cross it while migrating across the swamp, we would be prepared for a steady shot. We waited there as the sun set and the bush quietened. I heard a buffalo’s nasal exhalation, and then the sound of more grumbling bovines. Our strategy was paying dividends. One, two, three buffalo crossed the path, grazing their way across swampy meadow. A bigger buffalo trailed them and crossed the path with a little more speed and caution. My dad was in shooting position, waiting for a respectable bull to present itself for just a few seconds. All the buffalo crossed the path, and we realized there was neither a big bull in the group, nor an opportunity for a shot. The sun went down, and we retreated to camp for supper and fireside conversation.

Before the sun was up the next morning, we parked and walked into an area where the tracks of two mature buffalo led from the dirt road. We stalked around a bend in an overgrown path, and suddenly Masanyani signaled. He got low to the ground and pointed to a lone bull grazing in the dew-covered grasses. My dad got on the shooting sticks and, as the buffalo turned broadside, his shot rang out and the buffalo trampled the thick brush towards the edge of the sugar cane field. The shot was a definite miss – Masanyani saw the shot travel in line with the shoulder but over the buffalo’s back. We tracked the buffalo for a short while before deciding to let the area settle till the next morning. Though we did not see the buffalo the next day, I was able to crack a shot off to drop a beautiful bushbuck that exposed only its white neck patch to my crosshairs through the dense foliage.

In our extensive quest for mature buffalo the next few days, we came across friendly locals that spoke only the Shangaan tongue, lion tracks,  a black mamba outside a den, restless and vocal baboons and a skittish bush pig – always something new. You could bet my adrenaline was pumping. After a few close encounters with big buffalo, my dad realized how hard buffalo hunting could be. Every time, we either came across large groups of buffalo that shielded the large Dagga Boys from sight, or we encountered big bulls that were always one step ahead of us in thick brush.

Eventually, on the last morning, we successfully one-upped a herd of buffalo with some mature bulls. My dad, Masanyani and Lloyd got into position within twenty yards of them. We were in an opening covered with vines overlooking the riverbed where the buffalo were walking. Near the back of the herd, an old bull with war-torn bosses made his way towards us. A quick field judge determined this was a bull worth taking. A few paces behind my dad, I had a movie director’s perspective as I watched him ready himself on the gun. The large bull was just a few steps in front of him. The heart shot rang out and echoed between the river banks, and the following stampede raised a dust cloud as the rest thundered off. The lead-stricken bull struggled to keep the herd’s pace. Another vital shot dropped it in the sand of the dry river. The pursuit of my dad’s dream Cape buffalo was over.

Many locals came to help pull the buffalo to a spot accessible to the vehicle. They all took their own photos with the buffalo, and provided lots of man-power for winching up the dead beast. Arriving at camp, my father was lifted onto the shoulders of the hunting crew and they danced with him, singing out a traditional song to honor the buffalo. I am lucky enough to have a picture of this scene to embarrass him in front of his friends in case he ever does so to me. (Just kidding, Dad!)

By now, it was within two hours of darkness. We wanted to take a final trip around the property before the sunset put an end to our Zimbabwean safari. A weight had been lifted from our shoulders after my dad got his buffalo, and our hunting crew began to relax. Our leisurely humor continued, then just as the sun began to set, Samuel let out a sharp whistle that sent Lloyd skidding the vehicle to a halt. Four big buffalo, standing in the open grass not more than a hundred and fifty yards away, stared at us. We glassed them and agreed the one showing huge horns was a very big beautiful bull. I had been convinced this whole trip that I was hunting a few plains-game species while my dad was hunting the buffalo, until the moment my dad told Lloyd he would like me to go after the big one. In twenty minutes the savannah would be pitch-black. I was so caught off-guard that I had no time to get nervous or anxious.

We crept a great distance up to a small tree but lost sight of the bulls. Suddenly, we saw just the top of the big bull’s head, sixty yards away, positioned to run straight towards us. I got on the shooting sticks with my scope on 1.5x and placed the crosshairs right between the eyes of the bull. I was shaking a little, but knew this was the shot I was going to have to take. I steadied my breathing and squeezed the trigger. Through the recoil, I was able to keep the tree that the buffalo stood next to in my scope’s field of view. Mysteriously, the buffalo was gone! I thought I had missed, but Masanyani and Lloyd convinced me that the bull had dropped. I wasted no time feeding another shell into the chamber of my .375, and lead the way up to where the bull had been standing. He was dead. We gave another shot for insurance, and then I could wait no longer to put my hands on the horns of my Cape buffalo.

My bull was everything I could ever desire in a perfect mature Cape buffalo. I initially felt sort of bad for stalking and taking a big bull on the last night of our trip, after my dad had pursued a quality bull for two weeks straight! But my dad was happy for me. We were in awe of what had just happened. Back at camp, everybody was surprised to know that the young man hunting plains game all this time, had shot a big buffalo between the eyes – one shot, twenty minutes before dark, on the last day.

I still dream of the days we had spent hunting in the Zimbabwean bush.