Loose Balls in Tight Cover

A charging Cape buffalo is no laughing matter.

From the May/June 2015 issue of Sporting Classics.

 

In the weeks leading up to our safari, Reid Freeman insisted that on this, his first, he’d go slow on buffalo, wait until he’d gotten a feel for them, maybe stalk a few with me and see how it all worked, maybe not hunt them at all. That sensible plan worked for about two hours, right up to the point when the first buff turned and came for us.

The trip was a last-minute thing, a call from an outfitter with whom I’d hunted many times and who needed a few buffalo culled from a mostly photo camp aptly named Mwiba, Swahili for “thorn,” near the Serengeti in northern Tanzania. Could I get there in, say, early November before the rains set in and take three or four old bulls? Oh, and bring a friend. I called Reid, who had long lusted for a taste of Africa, and a few weeks later we and our wives, Daphne and Stacy, were on a plane.

 


A red dust road skirts Ngorongoro Crater on the way to Mwiba, showcasing the extinct volcano’s handiwork.

 

It’s our first day in Mwiba and dawn comes up pink and gray and even a little purple over the hills toward Ngorongoro Crater as we drive out to hunt. Reid and I and professional hunter Paul Olivier are standing at the roll bar, the ladies sit shivering a little just behind us on the bench seat, and my old friend and tracker, Jeremiah, who was in at my first buffalo kill when we were both a lot younger, perches precariously on a rope stretched across the back.

We pass through Jeremiah’s village, a cheerful tangle of children and cattle and goats and woodsmoke among thatched roofs, then head down the narrow track that threads its way around rocky hills and thornbush ravines toward the Mungomawe River, which in Kisukuma means “River of Rocks.”

It’s a good ten miles and more than an hour’s drive before we drop out of the hills onto the broad floodplain, newly green from recent rains. The bush has been full of life this morning: impala, giraffe, zebra, a couple of kudu cows, and a zoo-full of smaller stuff, but nothing we want to stop and hunt. It’s fun to see it all through Reid’s and Stacy’s eyes, hear the same questions Daphne and I remember asking, watch the spell of Africa take hold.

 


Feuding impala rams blocked the backstop where the hunters sighted in their rifles.

 

The sun is well up and we’ve all shed our fleece jackets when we see the buffalo. At 800 yards they’re a low black smudge against a green-and-yellow copse of fever trees where they’ve just crossed the river. We stop the vehicle and glass for a few minutes.

“A nice herd there,” Paul says. “We’ll get out here and circle around downwind, see what the bulls look like.”

We grab our rifles and move downwind away from the open floodplain, and then walk quickly parallel to the river so we can catch up with the herd. At 200 yards we start to get glimpses of them through the thorn scrub, and we can hear an occasional bellow or breaking branch. We cross a dry streambed and stop on the far bank. The herd is strung out for several hundred yards in front of us, mostly cows and calves, a few young bulls, maybe 100 or so animals. There are no old bulls in sight.

We back off and trot quickly up the streambed for half-a-mile until the buffalo are out of sight, then cross the plain and move back toward where the herd seems to be heading. Jeremiah spots the lead buffalo, and after a few crawls and quick jogs along some shallow gullies we’re able to get a good look at the front half of the herd.

Paul looks over the bulls, passing them up one by one with a “No, still a bit soft in the boss,” or just a shake of his head. I turn briefly to check on the others who are crouched behind us, when Paul whispers, “There! Behind that tree. Wait for him to come up.”

It’s clearly an old bull, just what we want. I can see the sunlight gleaming on his smooth-worn bosses as he rounds the tree and ambles along at the edge of the herd. An easy shot as shots go, 60 yards and quartering toward us. I put the crosshairs just ahead of the shoulder joint and squeeze. The bull bucks and runs to the left. Swing and shoot, then again as he dodges through openings in the brush and disappears around one side of a dense thicket. I start running around the other side to cut him off, and I can hear Paul and the others running behind me.

The brush opens into a grove of whistling thorn acacia, and I can see the bull coming but there are too many low branches in the way to shoot, so I do a none-too-graceful slide into a sitting position and touch off another shot as the bull crosses a gap. I hear Paul fire just to my right and still the bull hasn’t slowed, but now he sees us and turns abruptly, coming straight and fast.

I learn later that after my fourth shot Paul assumed my magazine was empty, but I’m using a Dakota .416 Rigby and there’s room for five cartridges if you start with one in the chamber, so I’ve still got one more bullet.

 


A rose among the thorns, the boomslang is as lovely as it is deadly.

 

The bull is magnificent as he comes, horns laid back, nose extended, and his hind legs pumping like pistons. I find the V where his neck joins his chest and squeeze. His body jolts with the impact. He stops, turns once, collapses.

I sense a shadow behind me and look up. It’s Reid, his rifle still raised from moving up to cover me when the bull charged. His face is flushed and wildly, completely happy.

This, I think to myself, is going to be fun.

That afternoon and the next day and the next we concentrate on finding a good bull for Reid. Our luck breaks with a splendid thunderstorm that catches us out in the hills and peppers us with buckshot-sized hail. As the storm clears just at dusk we spot a fine impala, which Reid neatly dispatches after a soggy crawl. We eat fresh impala liver that night.

The next morning we find the tracks of two bachelor bulls. Tracking is easy in the soft ground and we move quickly through open forest and small clearings. The foliage is crisply green at first after yesterday’s rain, the colors slowly flattening into midday haze as the sun climbs. The birds are out in force. We spot hornbills, some doves, the brilliantly blue superb starling, but fortunately manage to avoid our nemesis, the “go-away” bird, which has spoiled many a buffalo stalk with its raucous calls.

After a couple of miles Paul spots the two bulls resting just ahead in thick woods. We move up slowly, and as the larger bull stands, Reid shoots. Both bulls bolt with the sound and disappear in seconds into fading hoofbeats. Reid is sure he hit the larger bull, and the bull certainly acted hit, but there’s no blood.

We follow tracks for several hundred yards, guns ready, until the two sets of tracks separate. We’ve found no blood, but one of the bulls is leaving a slightly twisted front-left hoofprint and that’s the shoulder Reid was aiming at, so for lack of better sign we follow that track.

The bull is still moving well, but Paul spots a bit of runny dung beside one of the hoofprints.

“Loose bowels,” he says. “This is the right bull.”

At least, that’s what I hear Paul say. The others are a little farther back and are a little less used to Paul’s South African accent, a mixture of British and Afrikaans.

“Loose balls?” Reid whispers to Stacy. “What does that mean?”

“No, no,” Stacy whispers back, “he must have meant ‘dragging balls.’”

Reid looks stricken. Oh my God, he’s thinking, I’ve shot the poor thing in the family jewels.

Paul and I are moving ahead with Jeremiah, unaware of the consternation trailing behind us or that Reid, who has been replaying the shot over and over in his mind, is now convinced he’s just set a record for buffalo hunting incompetence.

 


Each glorious day, a moveable feast. From left, the author and wife Daphne, Stacy Freeman, and Professional Hunter Paul Olivier.

 

A few minutes later Jeremiah spots the bull quartering away and looking back. Reid steps up quickly beside Paul and shoots off-hand, and Paul follows with a back-up shot as the bull takes off running across a clearing. It becomes a group effort at that point, all of us giving chase and taking shots as they present themselves.

This is usually the best strategy with a wounded buffalo; unless the bull is clearly about to go down, everyone pitches in. A couple of hundred yards later it’s clear this bull has been hit hard: he wobbles and finally goes down.

During the skinning we’re able to see where Reid’s first shot hit a bit low, breaking the left foreleg (the cause of the twisted hoofprint) but missing the vitals. His second shot angled through the liver, a killing shot but not an instantly fatal one, hence the bull’s final run.

There’s a comical moment when Reid points out the bull’s testicles are intact, and we share a chuckle as the “loose balls” translation gets straightened out.

It’s interesting to see Reid thinking through the hunt as we eat lunch beside the dead buffalo. His shooting has been adequate, especially for a first buffalo, but it’s clearly troubling him. He doesn’t believe he has done his best, and for a man who has worked very hard and done very well in life, adequate isn’t good enough. There’s little we can say. What’s needed is something that’s clearly on the agenda: another crack for Reid at a good buff. First, though, he’s going to be backing me up as I try for a second bull.

 


Reid’s bag of plains game, including this big warthog, kept the lunch box full.

 

As with Reid’s bull, it takes a couple of days and a lot of stalks on bulls that turn out to be too young or that give us the slip before we connect with another old male. Along the way, Reid takes a Coke’s hartebeest, an uncommon species, as well as a white-bearded wildebeest, one of the thousands we are beginning to see each day as the great migration moves through the area.

My second bull is one of a pair we stumble across as we drive slowly along a rocky hilltop. The bulls take off running, but they don’t go far and we’re able to catch up with them after only an hour’s tracking. The stalk ends in a long crawl, inch by thorny inch, until we have a clear view of the better bull as it stands between two trees.

I take the shot and immediately lose sight of the bull. We run toward where it was standing and are met by a startled buffalo, the other bull, as we come around the opposite sides of a bush. That bull wheels away, and we turn to see my buffalo lying on its side, hard hit, and dying.

I haven’t seen a lot of one-shot kills on buffalo, but this is one of them, testament to a Barnes Triple-Shock bullet and a dead-center heart-shot. I put in another bullet for insurance and we begin the long process of caping and field dressing.

For our picnic lunch that day our inimitable chef, Ali, has packed a starter course of boiled buffalo tongue (wonderful— if you haven’t tried it you’re missing a treat) and a ripe Camembert. Daphne helps serve and sweetly asks if I’d like some of each. I look at Reid; Reid looks at me. The moment is too precious to lose.

Risking my marriage and perhaps a bullet, I muse aloud, “Ah yes, another memorable day on safari. My wife gave me some tongue and then she cut the cheese . . .”

With her usual grace, Daphne just smiles serenely and pats Paul, who appears to be choking, rather firmly on the back.

 


There’s no telling what animals you’ll see on a safari.

 

And now it’s Reid’s turn again, just one more old bull to find and nearly half the safari left to do it. So naturally we struggle. Day after day we stalk bull after bull, sometimes wading into the middle of herds, sometimes following single tracks for hours, but the bulls that present shots are always too young and the old buffs always do something clever at the end to outwit us.

The stalks are good, fun hunting, of course, and there’s no shortage of drama and adventure to keep things interesting. For example, there’s the boomslang, brightly green and highly poisonous, that Stacy finds decoratively draped over the bush she has chosen for a bathroom, and there are the elephant we dodge from time to time as we follow buffalo tracks.

As with much of East Africa, the illegal ivory trade has produced some exceedingly aggressive elephants. We give them a wide berth when we can and keep a close eye on them when we can’t.

Every now and then we take time off for Reid to shoot dinner—a Tommy, a warthog—but even then we’ve all got one eye on the horizon, looking for a black blob. Buffalo will do that to you.

 


Hunting buffalo requires as a lot of hiking through the brush.

 

It comes down to the last afternoon of our ten-day hunt. Just after lunch we spotted a small group of buffalo and we’ve been following them all afternoon. Every time we get close the wind shifts and they spook deeper into the bush, but now we’ve finally gotten a good, downwind position and are watching the thicket where they’re bedded. We can make out at least two bulls, but no one has gotten a good look at them. The wind turns for a moment, just long enough to carry our scent to the buffalo, and they jump up and run again. This time, though, we’ve seen the heads: two young bulls, the rest cows and calves. Time to go.

We’re two hours from camp and in an hour it will be dark. As we drive back, Reid is disappointed but philosophical. After all, it’s been a great trip; we’ve had a wonderful time in paradise and gotten some very nice trophies. Time to crack open a beer and toast our last sunset in Africa.

We’ve just popped the tops on some cold Tuskers when the vehicle slams to a halt, the dust boiling around us pink in the evening light, beer and foam sloshed liberally across our laps. Paul and Jeremiah are pointing into the bush across a clearing. “Quick! Get your guns.”

Daphne and Stacy stay with the vehicle while Reid, Paul, Jeremiah, and I pile out and run hunched over along a line of low thornbush. We can see two bulls backlit against the sun. They’re not far away and still haven’t seen us, but there won’t be much light left for long. Paul throws up the shooting sticks.

“The one on the right,” he whispers.

 


Two buffalo stand in the African sunlight.

 

Reid takes a moment to settle down. I’m crouched beside him, looking up. He seems calm and steady enough as he fires. The bulls both break with the shot and disappear behind some brush, then one runs past.

“Not him!” Paul shouts, and I’m thinking Reid’s bull must have gone down, but he hasn’t. A second later we see him running after the other bull into the trees. Reid and Paul both shoot as he runs past, and then we start to chase him. The bull stops and turns, and Reid drops to one knee and shoots beneath the canopy of branches. I see the bull jolt with the impact, then wheel and run. We sprint after him until he’s out of sight, then slow to let Jeremiah find the trail.

A few minutes later we see the bull up ahead just as he starts to take off again. More shots, in which this time I join in, followed by another hard run.

The light is really starting to become an issue, but the bull has been hit hard and has slowed noticeably. He’s likely waiting on us in heavy cover. All of us know the risks of being ambushed in these thickets, so instead of following directly on the bull’s trail, we circle a little to the left and watch the cover. Sure enough, we see him just on the other side of a big bush. He’s completely still, watching us. A few more steps to get a better angle and we shoot again, and this time the bull goes down.

Stacy and Daphne, listening to the fireworks back at the vehicle, have counted 15 shots. At least eight have connected, including Reid’s first, a good one that broke a shoulder and hit one lung, and his kneeling shot right up the pipe that hit the same lung again.

Jeremiah retrieves the vehicle, the ladies and our unfinished beer, which tastes particularly good this time around. It’s a storybook ending. We toast Reid and the buffalo, the sunset, and our next safari.

 


Buffalo meat hangs in the trees following a successful hunt. 

 

SAFARI AMMO

For buffalo we were shooting Federal Premium ammunition in .416 Rigby and Barnes VOR-TX ammo in .375 H&H, all loaded with Barnes Triple-Shock and Banded Solid bullets. On plains game we used 7mm-08 and .338 Win. Mag. ammo loaded with Barnes Triple-Shocks. All performed flawlessly.

As usual with Barnes bullets, we recovered very few—almost all penetrated completely. We did manage to dig one .416 solid out of an acacia tree. As best we could tell, it had exited the buffalo, shattered a good-sized rock, and tumbled three inches deep into the tree. The tree seemed fine, but the rock and buffalo were history.

 

IF YOU WANT TO GO

We hunted with Tanzania Game Tracker Safaris (legendaryadventures.com) in the Maswa/Makao Game Reserve. Our professional hunter, Paul Olivier, can be contacted at Paul.Olivier@tgts.com.

 

 

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