South Africa: 2015
Stalking Black Death
By Joe Byers
Day One, just past dawn, three bachelor Cape buffalo bulls slipped into a large patch of extremely thick bush on the Rock Haven property. Professional hunters Piet Otto and Rassie Erasmus glassed their location from a high vantage point half a mile away, but the swirling wind decided them to postpone a stalk.
Late morning the wind abated, and the two PHs, their client and I began slipping into the thickets of the Limpopo Province. I hoped to take a Cape buff with a crossbow. My friend, Victor Gavin, was a Vietnam War veteran who had survived three helicopter crashes and as many landmine explosions, and trauma had taken its toll – he could walk, but not crawl, which complicated the stalk.
With the wind in our faces, we inched through brush so thick that Erasmus had to cut a route with clippers. He moved the ground litter aside with each step so that we could tread silently in soft sand. An hour into the sneak he cut fresh tracks and signaled for Victor to be ready to shoot in an instant. Fifty metres farther, I suddenly sneezed. Attempts to muffle the sound made it louder, then leaves rustled and sticks snapped directly in front of us.
I knew that animals often sneeze as well – so though the buffs were alerted, they did not stampede, but the element of surprise was gone. Erasmus walked us half a mile ahead of the location and asked Otto to follow the spoor, a maneuver that could push the bulls from the thicket.
Victor laid his pre-1964 Winchester .375 H&H magnum on the cradle of sticks, anticipating the bull stepping from cover. Once in the open, we hoped the bull would hit our scent, stop for a second, and allow a shot.
Thirty minutes of suspense passed, when Otto appeared behind us. “I spotted the bull in its bed,” he whispered. “It was swinging those big horns from side to side watching for danger and checking the wind, so I backed out.”
Hoping the bull would remain hidden, we followed Otto into the thicket again. This is crazy, I remember thinking. If a buffalo charged, we’d barely have time to blink, much less aim and shoot. There were no large trees for cover, and the danger of our pursuit became very clear. If black death came knocking, we were there to answer. But at the bedding site we found the black ghost had vanished without a sound. Erasmus chose to back out and use the day’s experience to devise a plan.
In North America, after a shot at deer or elk, you can be virtually assured that the animal will flee and that you can stalk it with little worry of harm. Not so in Africa. In fact, Cape buffalo have been known to remember persons that harmed them years earlier, and retaliate.
As Cape buffalo pass their breeding prime, they are forced from the herd by younger males who take on the breeding rights. As one might expect, these senior males are the grouchy old men of their species and become short-tempered, mean, and prone to charge without provocation. These solitary males are known as Dagga Boys, from the Masai word, “mud”. As the buffalo ages, it loses the hair on its rump, making it prone to sunburn. To remedy the situation, the old males wallow in mud.
Perhaps the scariest element of Cape buffalo is its memory. Elephants have great memories, and Cape buffalo have also proved this characteristic. They are notorious for waiting patiently in ambush for hunters who have wounded them, and charging in revenge.
I had the good fortune to hunt pronghorn antelope in Montana with Nikki Atcheson. This incredible lady had hunted buffalo a few months earlier and literally had felt the wrath of an angry retaliation.
Hunting with her party, she shot a buffalo in dense brush, wounding the animal. Always a dangerous situation, she, two Professional Hunters and two trackers took up the spoor. As the trail led into thick bush, the buffalo waited in ambush, ran past the two trackers, bowled over the two professional hunters and horned Nikki, tossing her like a rag into the air. Eventually, the two PHs killed the buffalo, but the beast seemed destined to wreak revenge on the hunter that wounded it, and died on top of her. Fortunately, Atcheson was flown to the nearest hospital and the prompt attention of her safari company and the skills of professional medical attention saved her life.
Studies have shown that Cape buffalo can remember a negative experience from two years previously, and react. And they sometimes charge hunters for no apparent reason. I hunted with a PH who guided a rifle-hunting client to a sleeping buffalo in Namibia. The two sneaked up on the buffalo and shot it in its bed. They were celebrating and about to take pictures, when a second buffalo suddenly charged from the bush. Luckily the PH still had his stopping rifle in hand. Buffalo charge thousands of times, reportedly goring more than 200 people each year.
In 2015, two friends and I conducted a crossbow safari, using three brands of crossbows of modest power, and took 15 animals with 15 arrows. Sizes ranged from a huge eland bull to a bushbuck. The performance of this ancient technology was so impressive, I wanted to up the ante and try for Cape buffalo.
I discovered the CAMX 330 crossbow which was built for extreme durability and power, providing over 100 ft.-lbs. of kinetic energy, well above the minimum required for dangerous game. I experimented with heavy crossbow arrows, eventually developing a 720-grain shaft and broadhead combination that shot consistently.
Buffalo hunting with archery gear is particularly challenging due to the physical nature of the beast. Eons of fighting has developed skin on its neck that can be two inches thick. In addition to a tank-like body, the beast has developed overlapping sets of ribs. For the archer, this means an arrow must penetrate a tough, thick hide, stout muscle, and cut through two sets of bone just to reach the vitals.
Because the Rock Haven property had limited water resources, Erasmus erected a tree stand near a waterhole with the most recent tracks. Trail camera images showed the big bull usually watered at night, yet occasionally drank just before dark, a behavior I hoped to exploit.
Day 3. As the safari progressed, Otto and I focused on ambushing a bull at water, while Gavin and Erasmus stalked a different area on foot. The Rock Haven property is aptly named as it has two large mountains with huge boulders. These high rock outcrops were ideal for glassing the valley below, but moving from observation to hunting took plenty of effort. One passage, known affectionately as “The Devil’s Throat” was particularly rough.
Although each day got Gavin closer to a shot, one promising stalk was ruined when the senior hunter stepped on a stick and spooked the buffalo. Erasmus had a tradition that such hunting transgressions were addressed by a “penalty drink,” a stout shot of blended whiskies and hot peppers. “If you miss a shot or snap a stick, you will pay the consequences,” he laughed, as we all cheered Gavin as he took his “medicine” at the evening campfire.
Apparently, the good-natured kidding the previous evening made a difference, because Erasmus and Gavin sneaked through the same area and found the buffalo bedded and possibly asleep. “Aim for that tiny leaf,” whispered the PH, choosing a lethal spot on the huge animal that faced away from them. Gavin took a deep breath, settled the 1×4 reticle on the spot and squeezed the trigger.
At the recoil, the buffalo stood and took a few steps into the bush, completely disappearing. Gavin was ready for a second shot, but sneaking into the dense thicket seemed unwise. Then they heard heavy breathing, an indication of a double lung hit, and finally the death bellow.
The bull I hunted proved to be a wily adversary. I had arrived in camp Monday at noon and planned to begin the hunt the following day. However, wind conditions from the waterhole tree stand were perfect, and my PH suggested that I begin right away. In America, the saying goes, “The best time to hunt a tree stand is the first time.” Once a tree stand has been hunted, human scent is present and there is the chance to be seen or heard.
Ironically, the same premise would apply to my buffalo quest. Although the stand had been in place for a month, most of the cloth concealment had blown loose, and we took no scent precautions.
We entered the stand at 3:00 p.m. and about two hours later, the buffalo stepped into an opening 75 yards away. My heart pounded as I envisioned getting a shot the first evening of the hunt, but conditions soon changed. The waterhole I watched was also used by a host of other animals, including a herd of wildebeest. The buffalo seemed intent on drinking until a wildebeest saw movement in the treetops and began alarm snorting. Within minutes, the buffalo turned and trotted away.
Early the next morning, we revisited the stand and improved concealment with green cloth that was stapled fast so it wouldn’t move. We also used scent reduction, spraying all our gear and clothing to minimize human scent. Despite these steps, the next five sits had no buffalo sightings. Wildebeest, impala, and warthogs drank unconcerned, but the buffalo only drank at night and seemed to approach the water from a variety of directions.
Sitting in the open tree stand overlooking the water took great patience. Animals constantly looked up, and the slightest movement or sound would stampede them. Finally, on the sixth night on stand, the buffalo showed up in daylight. Instead of approaching the water directly as did the wildebeest and impala, it stood stoically, scenting and watching. Finally, it stepped to the water, drank head on, and then turned broadside as wildebeest approached from behind. Seizing the opportunity, I raised my crossbow, sighted on the animal’s heart, and squeezed the trigger. At that instant, the bull rotated back toward the water and the arrow struck the brisket instead of the shoulder.
The big bull raced away and we followed to evaluate the shot. We found a small amount of blood, yet nothing that showed a mortal wound. With darkness approaching we decided to return in the morning.
My PH had videotaped the shot and we played the footage in slow motion to better judge the effect of the shot, yet it was inconclusive. After a long night of worry and self-examination, we headed back toward the waterhole, Erasmus with his .458 and Otto with a .375. We picked up the trail and sneaked along the spoor, hoping to find the bull expired in its bed.
The bush was thick, and the two big guns sneaked, duck-walked, and glassed the brush to catch a pre-emptive strike. I followed with my crossbow, although it would be useless if the wounded animal charged. We located where the buffalo had spent the night, finding no blood or sign of distress.
At this point, the crossbow hunt became a rifle hunt – I asked my two PHs to kill the animal if they got the chance. As we followed the spoor, the buffalo seemed to walk in a direct path. We planned to circle ahead and ambush it as it passed by. Otto and I made a quarter-mile hike while Erasmus slowly followed the track.
An hour later, we were in position when we heard the distinct sound of a snapping stick. The buffalo was heading toward us, and I hoped against hope to get another shot. For the next 15 minutes, I held my breath, mentally pleading for a second opportunity.
Finally, Erasmus approached from the opposite direction indicating that the buffalo had sneaked past us and crossed a two-track 300 yards away. How such a huge beast could travel in dense brush without making a sound seemed impossible.
Each morning we traveled the two-tracks on the property looking for fresh sign. We restricted our stalks and searches to those with the wind in our faces. Buffalo fear neither man nor beast, and often flee with the wind at their rump so that they can smell what is following them. Our worst nightmare was a sudden wind shift where the bull could smell our tracking efforts and ambush us with a deadly charge.
A trail camera caught an image of the buffalo drinking at the waterhole two hours after dark on the third day of the recovery, yet my crossbow launch was the last time the animal was seen. Crawling on hands and knees was the only way to approach the buffalo, yet doing so was in invitation to disaster. Once pressured, it moved, fed, and drank at night.
Although I had hunted Cape buffalo ten years earlier, my opinion and respect for this huge animal increased dramatically. I had exploited its strategy – by drinking with other animals, it used them as bodyguards to detect danger by scent or sight.
In keeping with African tradition, a hunter who draws blood pays the trophy fee, and counting out the payment was dutifully done. “I don’t believe a brisket hit will be fatal,” Erasmus said. “I once guided a buffalo hunter who shot an arrow through the top of both lungs. I had to kill it a few days later with a rifle, and was amazed that the lungs had nearly healed in such a short time.”
Seeking another chance, I rebooked for the following year. Had the old bull learned my scent? Would it remember the hunter who harmed it? In 23 years of African bowhunting, I’d never lost an animal and I didn’t intend for this one to be the first.
Joe Byers has been captivated by African hunting since his first trip in 1994. He is a regular contributor to the African Hunting Gazette, blogs prolifically on TheHuntingPage.com and has recently published “The Ultimate Guide to Crossbow Hunting.”
For more information on this ranch-style hunting, e-mail Rassie Erasmus at firstname.lastname@example.org