Up Close and Personal in the Limpopo
By Joe Gray Taylor, Jr.
The morning had begun like many hunts for Cape buffalo anywhere. Our hunting team cruised traces cut through the thick jesse in the early morning cold looking for fresh tracks that may have crossed during the night or early morning. Our sharp-eyed tracker, Josias, naturally saw them first, and immediately my PH and outfitter Phillip Bronkhorst, and the rest of us – assistant PH Pieter Taylor, and a young videographer, Rickey – bailed off the cruiser to study them in detail.
The extremely fresh sign indicated a small group had just crossed, no doubt drifting into the very thick thorn brush for a rest, or to find their way to water. A particularly large set of prints indicated the likely presence of at least one mature bull. We carefully trailed the group for no more than a kilometre, when a breath of the fickle morning wind touched the back of my neck. As dust rose above the brush, large animals could be heard running off in the distance.
We had all started to relax and consider our next move when Josias suddenly knelt to one side pointing into the bush. Looking up, I could see just bits of an approaching black mass coming directly up our scent line. Josias moved behind us and, leveling rifles, we began to back up, hoping the bull would eventually break away. As we backed across a very small open patch in the jesse, a young, but mature buffalo, burst forth on the far side perhaps 35 metres away. He halted, head up, belligerently staring at us. With a lot of shouting, we slowly backed away, eventually breaking contact. On his first DG hunt, our young videographer provided a marvelously rich and descriptive commentary as we made our way back to the Land Cruiser.
It was something of an accident that I was hunting buffalo at all in South Africa. Previously, I had the privilege to hunt them in the Caprivi and twice in Mozambique. I had expected my next buffalo hunt would have been in Zimbabwe or Zambia. However, two years previously I was sitting at a banquet table at the annual Central Texas Wildlife Legacy gala in Austin. My table mate was Phillip Bronkhorst, and he had donated a cow buffalo hunt to our organization for the evening auction. As it came up, I happened to ask Phillip if the hunt could be upgraded to a bull at the usual trophy rate. It could. He also said that these were managed herds, not purchased and released animals. I have rarely bid on an auctioned hunt, much preferring the comfort of some research. However, on this evening, the hunt had no bidders, and rather than let a generous donation to our organization go wanting, I raised my hand. We sealed the deal with a handshake, and late June found me departing Austin, Texas to link up with the SAA flight to Johannesburg at Washington, Dulles.
Sited on his own property, Phillip’s lovely and very comfortable camp is in the Northern Limpopo some five hours from the Johannesburg airport. It offers easy access to a number of ranches in the area offering a wide variety of game and covering a huge range of biodiversity from sandveld, through bushveld, to the Waterberg. We would be hunting on Rudy Heinlein’s vast “Circle N” property in the heart of the bushveld near the Limpopo River.
I had hunted high-fenced property with Jamy Traut when he was with Eden in Namibia almost a decade before. Therefore, I knew large properties with self-sustaining herds could offer an outstanding hunting experience. However, my only buffalo hunting had been in wilderness areas. I was curious about hunting the big black bulls on one of the Limpopo’s huge fenced concessions, but after the first abortive effort and the belligerent youngster, any concerns were quickly fading.
Late morning found us many kilometres away, the morning coolness having given away to the dry warmth of a typical southern African late fall day. We had found additional tracks crossing the roads and around waterholes, but nothing quite fresh enough to take up pursuit. Suddenly Josias tapped my forearm and the top of the cruiser – an electric moment everyone recognizes who has experienced an African Safari. As we halted we could pick up several dark shapes moving slowly but steadily through the thick thorn bush. In moments they had disappeared.
A quick look at the tracks indicated a couple of large bulls in a small group of animals. We immediately took up the spoor. Phillip was convinced they were heading to water, and we possibly might catch them in the open ground around the pan. Like all ethical outfits, Phillip would not allow us to attempt a shot there, but with a bit of luck we would have the opportunity to clearly evaluate the animals.
We followed at a forced march over the next four to five kilometres. A walking buffalo can set a blistering pace compared with humans, particularly those constantly monitoring wind and thorns, As the sweat worked into my eyes, I noted that two or three miles sprinting after buffalo felt pretty much the same whether along the Zambezi, the Kwando, or Limpopo Rivers.
The breeze had settled for a bit, and we were able to carefully maneuver around one side of the group of bulls. We could see eight animals ranging from three or four years of age to a couple of large bulls clearly pushing eleven or twelve. One of these was very wide (40+) with fairly flat curls and bosses, while the other was a bit narrower but with the massive helmet that some older bulls develop. Either was a very respectable candidate to take back to Texas. I should note that we had no limitations on the size of the bull that we could take. However, the goal was at least an eleven- or twelve-year-old animal.
We backed out and found a shady tree where we could unpack the cooler for some lunch and water – we would take up the track again once the animals had left the waterhole. I said to Phillip that both bulls were fabulous, but given a choice, the wider flatter one looked awfully good. Little did I know at the time, another might have a vote in that decision.
Around 2 p.m. we were again on their track, and by 3:30 we had closed to where we could see the animals bunched in a large group in the thickest brush. They had apparently joined another group, bringing the total number now to 15 or 20. Sorting out “my bull” was going to be tricky. The late fall light was also telling us we only had so much time.
We had just begun to probe the brush, when again we felt the light breeze touching the backs of our necks. Immediately the main herd began to move off, and in a replay of the morning, a large shape detached itself and began moving purposefully up our scent line. We carefully tried to back away, but our options were limited. Getting into brush so thick that we could only see a few feet would be asking for real trouble.
Fortunately, at about 50 yards, Phillip could see it was the old bull with the huge boss. With our backs to thick thorn we would not be given a choice. He finally set the sticks and whispered “Joe, this is your bull!” At 25 – 30 metres the buffalo’s head and chest cleared for an instant. The Blaser R8 was steady as I hit him with a 300-gr Swift A-Frame, loaded by my friend Lance Hendershot with his “Extreme” line of custom ammunition. The bull staggered off approximately 60 metres, giving me a rear quartering shot which put him down. Although sad, it was a relief to hear the mournful bellow. It seemed as though the big-bossed bull had, in fact, chosen me.
However, we were not quite done. As Pieter headed out for the truck, the death bellow caused the original bachelor group to break off from the larger herd and return. Phillip and I backed carefully away while Josias and Rickey scrambled up a nearby tree. For the next half hour or so, we watched the incredible sight of half a dozen bulls violently hooking their fallen comrade. It was a behavior about which I had read, but never seen. Then the arrival of the truck scared off the other animals, so we were able to take a few pictures in the late afternoon light, and load our massive old prize for the drive back to camp.
On the way back, I relived the long day and mused about both my preconceptions and the actual hunting experience. I shall always love the wild places and I hope I can again pursue the truly wild buffalo herds that inhabit them. However, I had just taken part in an incredibly exciting buffalo hunt in the Limpopo, far and away the most adrenalin-packed in my experience. Although the animals we had pursued had been born on the vast property we hunted, their behavior showed that they were still the big, truculent beasts they are by nature – we could have been in any wild place in Africa. I have no hesitation recommending the experience to anyone.
With the big bull down early in the hunt, the remainder of my time in the Limpopo passed almost lazily. We hunted the beautiful Porini Ranch in the foothills of the Waterberg trying to better a pair of 55-inch kudu I had taken in Namibia several years before. Despite the arrival of extremely cold and blustery weather, and a nearly full moon, we saw wonderful bulls every day.
At least a half-dozen mature animals were easily over 50 inches; magnificent choices at any other time. On the third day we glimpsed a huge bull from the Cruiser that we felt would have surpassed our self-imposed minimum, but were unable to regain sight of it once we entered the thick brush where most seemed to be hiding from the cold wind.
Another day, we decided to ease down a thickly wooded, spring-fed stream with towering ridges on either side. A pair of klipspringers eyed us suspiciously from less than 50 metres away, their beautifully marked ears flared in our direction. Leopard tracks covered the ground, and although one particularly large set looked like they could have had been left by a lioness, they would have been from one of the huge male leopards often found in the Limpopo. Scattered bones all along the streambed bore mute witness to the richness of their hunting area.
As noon approached, a dry rustling and the sour pungent odor of pig alerted us to the presence of a bushpig sounder somewhere in the brush immediately ahead of us. We carefully maneuvered around and through the green tangle trying to get a glimpse of the rooting animals. Suddenly, Phillip paused and pointed ahead and to the side. On the opposite bank of the stream, quartering sharply away stood the largest boar that I had ever seen. In this instance, speed was far more important than pinpoint accuracy, and we made no attempt to set the sticks. The Blaser barked and the animal collapsed where he stood.
A wise bit of guidance about safari, says to take what Africa gives. We had not found the kudu we sought, but we had been given at high noon a giant of a bushpig, a far rarer, and to me at least, desirable achievement.
In the ensuing days, we successfully stalked an impala and a beautiful zebra. We capped our last morning with South Africa’s iconic black wildebeest. A careful stalk on a typically nervous herd gained us a 150-metre shot at a truly magnificent old bull. I have no doubt that he would score very highly in either SCI or Rowland and Ward’s system.
All too soon, the hunt was over. On the long flight home, I replayed the extraordinary experience time and again. I look forward to continuing to relive those adventures in the years to come. Phillip is a fine a gentleman, a passionate a hunter and a great conservationist. Whether a general mixed plains-game hunt, a buffalo hunt without the usual logistics drama of Zimbabwe or Mozambique, or a specialty hunt for night creatures, this outfitter should be on anyone’s shortlist of potential destinations. It certainly will remain on mine.