The Cape buffalo is a major African trophy, and highly ranked among the big five. When wounded the heavy horned bovine, seldom brought down with one shot. It was early morning, and our party were hunting sitatunga in the Moyowosie swamps in West Tanzania. My American client was Peter Atwell a doctor, in the prime of his life. A good horned sitatunga was upper most on his wish list. The spiral horn antelope, known among the hunting fraternity, as the ghost of the swamps. For its nocturnal habit, of roaming the wet lands and feeding at night. Our daily routine, began a hour before sunrise of each day. For over a week. Our hunting party had left my tented camp by canoe.’.
Made of fibre glass it was light in weight, and skimmed over the waters surface. My long-time tracker-cum-driver Swai, and skinner Jackson, stood and towered above us. We sat wrapped in blankets, our rifles across our knees. The swamp at that early hour, coloured in different shades of grey. With long poles they punted our party, through the shallows, paved with water lilies. Down open channels, between clusters of reeds and stands of bull rushes. A while later an island of dark papyrus loomed. On the opposite side, was a herd of buffalo feeding on swamp grass. Caught our scent and retreated. There was a mighty roar of water that suddenly erupted from below their hooves. Followed by a deathly silence as they stopped. Then started again as they took off and distanced themselves. The splashing diminished and the noise petered out.
We entered a gloomy hippo tunnel, were the papyrus arched over head and dew dripped down. Eyes and ears attacked by zillions of ‘zinning’ mosquitoes. We pushed on and later ran aground on a sand-bar on a spit of land. A giant fig tree stood above us. Its roots, like massive tentacles, were wrapped around a cluster of boulders. Rifles slung over our backs. Peter followed me, and we climbed a rickety ladder and sat on the floor of our ‘machan’. A wide view over the swamp, covered in mist. Below us, in the swamp and surrounded by reeds and bull rushes were two hippo bulls. They snorted grunted, then ducked below the surface, and low waves lapped on shore.
Swai and Jackson, had waded bare footed onto shore. Their hands and teeth chattering with cold. Made a fire next to the rocks and warmed themselves. Daylight filtered in and the mist rose. Glasses raised to our eyes. We took stock of our surroundings. Only the same female sitatunga, was feeding, her babies still by her side. Disappointed, as we talked in low tones. The swamp came alive with birdsong. Guinea fowl, with a reedy clatter, scurried through the low bushes and came down to drink. A fish eagle took flight and gave a plaintive cry. Peter scanned between two massive islands of papyrus.
“I see the buffalo herd.” he said. My eyes glued to my glasses. I watched, a flock of pearl white egrets fly towards them. Their wings spread in a puff of white,they landed gently, on their backs. I smiled and returned to our task at hand. The sitatunga was on the move, her young tagging slowly behind her. She waded through the shallows, and vanished into, a cluster of papyrus, to laze away the day light hours.
The ladder suddenly shook violently, the tree swayed and my men scrambled onto the ‘machan’. Eyes wide with excitement, they chorused, “Mbogo!” (Buffalo!) in Swahili, and pointed to the edge of the swamp. At first I saw nothing, then a slice of movement caught my eye. The pieces of the puzzle came together, and a dark shape appeared. It was a bull its, body partly covered by rushes and clumps of wispy grass. It plodded slowly towards us. First its massive head appeared. Then gained ground, and the horns grew in size. They were massive and the bosses were like old bark, and rock- solid. Mud-covered, its coarse-haired body, and I made it out to be an old ‘daga boy’. A lone marauder, kicked out of the herd by younger bulls. He walked out into the open and its hooves clattered against loose stones. Luck on our side, he stopped under us next to the boulders, and our canoe in sight.
A smile rippled over our faces as we peered anxiously peered down. He shook his massive head against pestering flies. Ragged, thorn-torn ears slapped against his massive horns.” Shoot it! The horns are good well over 45!” I hissed and pointed to my iron-sighted 375. Swai handed it to me. Jackson looked on. Ever so slowly. Peter worked the bolt and slid a quality soft point into the chamber. The bolt closed and safety snickered on. He slowly leaned over the side and aimed.
We held our breaths, our fingers pushed into our ears to dampen the sound. Then watched Peters every movement with bated breath. Unaccustomed to the iron sights, he had difficulty as he tried to focus them on his quarry. His and the buffalo’s position required an awkward shot, down between its shoulder blades. He paused, turned, looked at me and shook his head. The tension palpable. He pointed to his 7mm Remington mag and we changed rifles. The machane swayed as we moved and ‘dugga boy ‘remained as still as a statue. Only his jaws moved as he ground his cud. Peter snuggled up to the scope. He paused, fiddled with the scope setting. He finally took aim, took his shooting breath and fired. The noise of his shot and the crack of a branch as it broke, blended.
My worst nightmare became reality. The floor of the ‘machan suddenly collapsed! Swai and Jackson, quick to react. They clung to branches and looked on as we began to fall. With a loud ‘whooshing’ sound, the branch, and machane plummeted down towards the swamp. Still branded into my mind, was the ‘flash show’ of leaves and rolling blue sky. Our arms, flayed legs twisted and bodies mixed with rifles and poles. With one hell of mighty splash, We crashed into the hippo pool and, sank to the bottom and surfaced. The water was only up to our necks, and client’s well-being upper most in my mind, I blurted out, “You OK?” Shocked, and unharmed, we waded to shore and sat down on a buttress root. ” I suppose you charge extra for that experience?” he quipped, a smile on his face.
Swai suddenly appeared a worried look about him. He whispered to me, “Mbogo jaewerie na quenda?” (The buffalo has gone and is wounded. How was your shot?) I enquired. “Not great under the circumstances” Peter replied “The buffalo may be wounded.” I said. A sense of urgency prevailed and I left him, hurried off and joined my crew. Stripped down to our underpants. We slid off the bank into the swamp and the hippo cavorted amongst themselves. We dived down retrieved our equipment, and clambered back on land. Swai added wood to the fire. Jackson ushered me over to where the buffalo had stood.
He took the lead and we followed the spoor for a few yards. We found traces of blood smeared chest-high, on the reeds and vegetation. Definite proof that our quarry was wounded. We peered anxiously ahead into the undergrowth. Well aware that a wounded buffalo can turn on its tormentors and seriously injury or kill one or both of us. We returned, and saw that Peter, had stripped down to his underpants. His clothes hung over the shooting sticks, boots close to the fire. Swai poured him a mug of hot coffee from a Thermos flask. He opened his backpack. He rummaged inside, and found his Swiss Army Knife. We stripped down our rifles, then cleaned and dried them with toilet paper. Carefully we shook cleaned and check our amunition. Satisfied that all was well. We got dressed.
Our rifles were loaded. Shooting sticks in Jackson hand and our nerves on edge. We took up the tracks. They were easy to follow in the soft earth that fringed the swamp. The damp air smelling of rotting vegetation. We made steady progress and every so often, as tracks led us deep into bush snarled with creepers. We stopped, listened and glassed ahead, to no avail. Twice we found blood that was almost dry, splattered on grass and over the ground. Ever-so-carefully we raised low hanging vines ducked beneath them and carried on. Suddenly the hairs on the back of my neck rose, and the buffalo crashed away. Dry sticks snapped and hooves thundered against the ground. Followed by an eerie silence. Broken only the incessant call of ring-necked doves. Jackson lit a cigarette inhaled deeply blew out the smoke and we check the wind.
The breeze had betrayed our presence. He shook his head stood in silence and raised the palms of his hands in frustration. With just a wave of my hand, I signalled him to carry on. Our wits sharp and rifles ready. We continued on found hoof-marks and flattened grass where the ‘dagga boy’ had lain down. A pool of deep-red artery blood had formed and glistened in the sun. Again as we sneaked on and bull got our wind, he crashed away. Our patients running out. We threw caution to the wind and followed the tracks at a good pace. His spoor now moulded in the dust, on an old elephant trail, and hemmed in by a thicket. Jackson pointed to drops of blood with the shooting sticks. Behind him,dust filled shafts of sun light, penetrated the canopy above us and lit up the floor covered in leaves. We pushed on, and as beads of sweated formed on our brows. The vegetation finally thinned, the sky light grew brighter and we emerged into an opening. Swai clicked his fingers and we came to a halt..
“Mbogo!” he said,and pointed, eyes locked onto a thicket on the opposite side. Slowly Jackson set up the sticks and I rested my glasses on top. The ‘buffalo’ stood below a shade tree, camouflaged by a net work of shadow. The distance was more than a hundred yards and out good shooting range for my 375. I urged Peter onto the sticks with his 7mm. His barrel rested in the crotch and I talked him through its were -about and bullet placement. The butt of my rifle firmly against my shoulder, and front bead covering the whole buffalo. I told Peter to take his time and shoot when he was ready.
His cross-hairs on the buffalo’s shoulder, and nerves strung to snapping point. He finally squeezed off his shot. The sound of the blast rang in our ears. The ‘dugga boy’ staggered wheeled about and as it began to retreat. I had nothing to loose, I took a snap shot and my rifle kicked into my shoulder. The buffalo still in sight, we cranked our bolts and fired again and it disappeared into tight tangles, below a stand of low trees. Our surroundings hushed. My counterparts. Then punched their fists into the palm of their hands,and beamed with excitement. They claimed in positive low tones, they had heard the comfortable thump of our rounds as the hit home..
We re-loaded walked over the clearing and reached opposite side. Checked for blood, sat below a shade tree and waited to hear the buffalo’s death bellow. Nothing. All was quiet a tomb. Nerves on edge, we took up the spoor again. We passed through low shrubs and knee high grass, were our boots and shins got covered in blood. A loud rustle broke our silence and as we froze. The buffalo suddenly rose onto all fours from behind a low bush. The ‘dagga boy’s’ horns were wide a menacing. His powerful chest and body covered by a lattice-work of sticks. At first I just stood and squinted down the sights at him and held my fire. Peter quick to react, in one swift movement took aim and fired. With out removing his rifle from his shoulder. He crank his bolt and fired repeatedly into its chest.
The sounds of his shots tore the swamp to shreds and coursed through its lungs and heart. His magazine empty he took a few paces back, stood in a state of shock and began to reload. The buffalo’s head remained raised, and eyes still locked onto us. Peter cursed and as he fumbled with bullets and threw me a concerned glance. I wrestled his 7mm away from and thrust my 375 into his hands. Two more frantic shots rang out, and buffalo finally folded to the ground. It lay on its side, head and horns twisted into a tortured shape. My rifle still in his hands and trained on the bull. He swore at me and, demanded an answer to his question.
“Why didn’t you shoot?”
And as I snapped back, “You are paying the damned bill! Its your hunt!”
The daga boys life ebbed away gave its mournful bellow and died. The drama over, Swai prodded an eye with the shooting sticks. Peter lowered my rifle and snickered the safety on. A few silent moments of tension passed. We then crowed the buffalo Swai and Jackson at our elbows. Peter rested my rifle against a tree. And emotions began set in. He knelt down and if paying homage to his quarry. He ran his hands over the horns. He stroked its back and wiped the blood away. Tears welled up in his eyes, and he did not mind if we saw them. Jackson lit a cigarette and passed it to him. He took a few puffs, then threw it away. A slow crooked smile registered on his face he said,
” Let’s leave the sitatunga and hunt another buffalo!”