South Africa: 2017
Top of my Bucket List – Cape Buffalo
By Dave Brodhagen
Cape buffalo. Big, mean, and unpredictable. Hunting this animal may not be your cup of tea, but I had waited a lifetime.
For as long as I can remember, my heart had been set on hunting one African animal. All the stories I had read of famous hunters like Robert Ruark, and Ernest Hemingway had pointed me in only one direction – the cagey and dangerous Cape buffalo.
Over the last eight years I have travelled to Namibia, and to the Limpopo Province South Africa, escorting groups of hunters while fulfilling my own hunting dreams. In 2015, I attended the African Hunting Gazette show in Toronto, as a customer. Some outfitters I recognized; others were new, and fortunately I could sit with each and review the options for my next trip.
Finally, I ended up at the Hunting Safari South Africa booth, and immediately felt at home. The PHs there answered every question. Some answers I already knew, but I wanted to hear their responses. Although new to the safari industry, this outfitter was well established in game breeding and tourism, and apparently, they had a good stock of mature Cape buffalo.
Our nine-day hunting safari started in May 2017. Five of our group were from central Ontario and two from Nova Scotia, Canada. We met in Toronto for our twenty-hour flight to South Africa.
The first night we stayed at The Afton Safari Lodge close to OR Tambo International. After a peaceful night’s sleep and a full English breakfast, we met our friendly hosts, head PH Louis De Bruyn and dangerous-game PH Wessel Scholman from Hunting Safari South Africa. Excitement was high for the upcoming hunt.
On our way to the hunting lodge, we stopped at Trophy Solutions Africa in Polokwane, capital of the Limpopo Province and met the owner Johan van der Merwe. We wanted to visit the facility where our trophies were to be processed. Dipping, tanning, and packing details would need to be reviewed before our trophies could be shipped to Canada. We were impressed with the professionalism, right from reception to the finished taxidermy area, and left confident our trophies would be in good hands.
Approximately two hours later we arrived at the Hunting Safari South Africa camp. Tucked away in the bush, the lodge is beautifully decorated with hunting trophies and solid wooden furniture. We assembled in the main entrance where the staff welcomed us in true African style. Snacks and a toast to a successful hunt preceded the introductions of our group’s PHs for the week. In the morning, we would be up for an early breakfast and then off to the bush. Having arrived late in the evening we would have to sight in our rifles after breakfast.
Assuming I would have no further need of a big gun of my own, I had borrowed a .450 Ruger Number 1. After a few afternoons at the range I felt very confident. I had heard about the recoil of big guns, and I was surprised to find that it had little more kick than my Ruger .30-06. Zeroed in at 100 yards and equipped with a couple of dummy rounds, I practiced rapid firing from my shooting sticks. I knew I would need to be able to send off a quick second shot. Buffalo usually run when hit, are hard to knock down, and are extremely dangerous if wounded. So, I practiced and practiced. They say that dead buffalo kill a lot of hunters. I did not want to be on that particular list. The remaining six members of my group would be hunting plains game, and set out practicing with their rifles at 100 to 200 yards.
Our plan: Find the buffalo spoor; pursue on foot until I could get within shooting distance; place the bullet into the shoulder triangle, and the old Dagga Boy would drop… Well, that was the plan!
Our first day out, we checked some of the waterholes and roads for spoor. Abel, our tracker said that a very large Dagga Boy had frequently been seen in a dense section of bush to the west of us. Off we headed looking for a first glimpse. Unlike the more southern areas of the state, the bushveld was thick cover with only occasional open grassy areas.
I could see this hunt would be among the thorn bushes, giving little visibility. The uncertainty of what to expect from my quarry, and the fact that I had never used this rifle in an actual hunt situation left me unsure as to how this single shot rifle – and I – would perform. My anxiety grew with each step.
We soon found spoor that indicated a very large bull. The track was wide, and rounded on the front, distinctive among all the others. A pile of fresh dung splattered on the trail ahead alerted us – we were close. Wessel stuck his finger in the center of the dung. The warmth indicated that the bull wasn’t far ahead. Shiny and still warm, it confirmed his presence, and the direction he was headed. Two hours later we closed in on my Dagga Boy, but only once did we get a clear view of the animal. With heavy drooping horns with a wide boss, this lone bull was worth hunting.
Buffalo make a lot of noise as they push their way through the thorny bush, and this old boy was no exception. Occasionally we could hear him, snapping branches as he meandered through cover so thick, we could only catch glimpses of his dark form. I had hunted other parts of the Limpopo Province, but I soon found out that in this area, it is rare to find a bush, tree or plant without thorns.
By a sheer stroke of luck, we were forced to backtrack a few yards because of extra thick bush blocking our path. There he stood, through one of the rare openings in the bush, completely visible, ever so slowly moving away from us. The wind had been in our favor. Undetected, we stepped cautiously into a space between two bushes.
Wessel put up the shooting sticks. “He is broadside, take him on the shoulder,” he whispered. I settled the cross hairs onto the front shoulder. At eighty yards I hoped my typical grouping of two inches would drop the buffalo. As the adrenalin pumped, the recoil from the Ruger .450 seemed non-existent. Squarely, the bullet hit the shoulder. The buffalo turned and ran.
In spite of all the rapid reloading I had practiced, I did not have time to reach for the second shell before the buff turned, disappearing into the thick bush on the opposite side of the clearing.
We discussed the situation, waiting for a safe time before we followed him into the unknown. Excited, I was not sure if he was down, and until I saw him lying on the ground, I could not accept that the hunt was over.
Although with what appeared to be a solid hit, there was no blood. Nothing, except tracks to follow – three hours of slow, cautious tracking, before darkness settled in. I had read how tough these animals are – now I was finding out. We would have to abandon the search and come back in the morning.
As every hunter knows, when an animal is hit and not immediately recovered, the doubts begin. Was the shot good? Too far forward? Did the bull move? Right or wrong, every possible scenario goes through your head. Neels the hunting manager assured me we would find him in the morning.
Tough, this Dagga Boy was. For two full days we followed him through some of the thickest bush you can imagine. With temperatures nearly 30°C, shorts and a short-sleeved shirt seemed appropriate. Maybe not my best decision! My arms and legs were badly scratched, I even wondered if the buffalo, out of spite, had deliberately dragged us through the thorny brush. Many a time we knelt, peering under low-hanging bushes as small groups of buffalo ran by. A shift in the wind, then a flurry of legs and swishing tails would disappear into the dense bush beyond. We were thankful they were running the other way.
Fortunately for us, his track was so distinctive, that even in stony terrain we were able to eventually pick up the trail. Wessel and Abel, with the persistence of bloodhounds, stayed determined. When we thought the buff was lost, that single identifying spoor would magically appear. As the tracks disappeared over a small rise, it seemed our quarry was heading towards a nearby waterhole.
Finally, we spotted a black shape standing motionless about thirty yards away. Wessel glassed the buffalo. It was my bull. Cautiously, we positioned ourselves for what we hoped would be the finale. Wessel raised his Nitro .500 to his shoulder. “Can you see the vitals?”
Repositioned, I set my cross hairs on the shoulder. “Are you ready to shoot?” I asked Wessel. “After I shoot, you fire also.” At this distance I did not want to take any chances. I fired, and almost simultaneously I heard the bang of Wessel’s .500 nitro. Turning, the buffalo headed to his left, stopping even closer now, his head low behind a small bush. We expected him to charge. Slowly, we walked side by side toward the animal, trying to get a better angle. Ever aware, he waited, sizing us up. Wessel stood ready in case the bull charged. Quickly I focused the cross hairs onto the black body, and shot another 400-grain solid into the bull’s spine.
He dropped, and we listened for the death bellow. Confident that he would not get up, we approached. Not taking a chance, Wessel instructed me to put one more into the heart. Four .450 shots and one .500 nitro – who would have believed that one animal could be so tough!
To our amazement, we found that the initial bullet wound had scabbed over in only two days. Except for the droplets of blood leading down from the hole, little sign existed of him ever being hit.
Post mortem investigation showed that the original .450, 400-grain solid, had entered the shoulder, breaking two ribs and deflecting forward into the neck. Never in my wildest dreams would I have expected that a bullet of that caliber and weight could be deflected. I am grateful to my PH Wessel and tracker Abel. They have by far been the best team a hunter could wish for, and I stand in awe of one of God’s most magnificent creatures.
An eventful week. Every evening the success stories of the other hunters were told around the campfire, and over the dinner table. For Ralph and Eleanor, their highlight was being chased from the bush by an irate Cape buffalo. For Alvin, it was the diversity of animals and the realization that his childhood dream to hunt in Africa had finally come true. Alvin had, as they say, caught the African bug, already talking about returning. Mike and Freda kept us laughing, and Julian kept us serious, each having successfully taken the animals of their dreams. What more could we ask for?
The experiences and pleasure of hunting with the Hunting Safari South Africa team will last in our memories for years to come.