From Sporting Classics‘ Horned Moons and Savage Santas.
The dogs barked. Then, one appeared upside down above the shoulder-high grass, tossed into the air by the enraged buffalo. Next came another cur, flipped end over end.
The four mongrel dogs with all ribs showing belonged to the five pygmy trackers who, with my French professional guide, Rudy Lubin, made up the team. We had followed buffalo tracks since early morning in the three-tier rainforest—a canopy of thirty stories high over lower trees over brushy, viny, thorny thickets. All of it under clouds hanging low in thick, moist air.
In Cameroon, we were one or two degrees north of the equator. I sweated profusely in the hot, wet place, with sticking and scratching foliage so thick the pygmies used sharp machetes to clear the way. We had found the forest buffalo, which grow to 800 pounds, and are said to be as bad about charging as their Cape cousins.
A cleft in the forest canopy allowed the tall grass to grow where the mongrel dogs found the buffalo and attacked. Size differential made no difference. They knew their job and it meant food. There was no statuesque stand with tail-high point; these dogs would bite from all sides, holding for the hunter. We’d followed three buff. One remained as we came close to see it. Between its horns, on its forehead, a dog flailed the air. The buffalo turned to face us. The dog fell off.
The pygmies ran. Rudy and I stood perfectly still as I slid the safety off. The buffalo glared. Body size and horn boss showed it to be a cow. A dog nipped at her heel. She turned, then backed away—from five yards. The jungle quickly hid us.
We stood, rifles leveled, for minutes … long minutes, listening. She didn’t come. We didn’t go for her. Although either sex was legal, we hadn’t come to shoot a female.
While we walked out, tendrils of mist still hung in the morning sky. Then rain, too warm to refresh, fell steadily. Earlier, my glasses had fogged. Useless, I took them off and adjusted my scope to compensate. Somehow the dogs, all four of them, found us at the truck. They appeared beat-up. One limped, but none bled.
Following the pygmy trackers was a wonderful experience. They showed the very essence of the hunt, pure hunting—primeval. Our lead man would stop to listen with his left leg posed in the air. Focused! At first thought by white men to be sub-human, the small people have shown otherwise. They have become bilingual—French and their own language. They have a sense of humor and have superbly adapted to their difficult environment. Their curs, working close, are better trained than most of the dogs I’ve hunted with.
Probably unchanged since prehistory, the jungles of Cameroon are hard to believe. They both thrill and scare. Seeing barked tree roots beginning 20 feet up and strutting out to buttress the gigantic trunks; seeing three- and four-foot-long monitor lizards darting and big elephant-felled trees convinces one of his smallness. And the sea of leaves, through which we often moved, sharply shorted our view. Only our knowledge and gear evidenced civilization. In such a primordial place, one’s survival instincts surface. The hunt here requires discipline and will. It’s not for the faint-hearted.
A former logging camp now served us. We got there from town after eight hours on a single-track road—open in the river washes, otherwise walled by thicket and forest. Rough-cut planks on a pair of tree trunks laid across the streams supported the pickup, but two bridges looked so “iffy” we chose to walk across.
The morning after the dog-tumbling, we seven men plus dogs again rode the old Toyota pickup down narrow logging roads, sometimes just traces—the jungle too vast and thick to hike. The pygmies’ eyes didn’t miss a track, and when they judged it recent, we followed. We would hunt whatever animal had left fresh tracks. In the previous two weeks we’d found bongo, Peter’s duiker, blue duiker, sitatunga, and Red River hog, which looks like a cross between a feral pig and a javelina.
Soon we came upon fresh buffalo spoor so easy to read that even I could track them through the tall grass. There were several animals, one they judged huge—Cape buffalo size.
We followed along a river for about a mile, then the animals headed into the forest on a trail. Rudy walked ahead of me, our trackers to the side and ahead a bit. I remembered the experience Bill Matney, another hunter at the camp, had the day before when a buffalo had suddenly appeared, coming on fast. The buff was young, he thought, but still big.
“I was totally surprised and transfixed, with my eyes and mind glued on him,” Bill had related. “I didn’t move. Instinctively, I held my rifle across in front of me. He ran over me. Then, after twenty yards or so, he decided the forest was the place to be and he ran back up the trail. I felt a fool; somehow I didn’t get hurt, only scratches from the fall.”
A hundred yards into the forest the tracks went left. We entered thick underbrush and I again offered my rifle to Dieudonné, the largest pygmy, to ease my travel, but he shook his head and said, “Tien, Patrone. Il est pres d’ici,” (Take it boss. He’s quite near.). He pointed to mud scraped from an animal high on some sharp-edged elephant grass. Between my fingers it was almost liquid. We were not far behind.
Quietly as possible we worked our way through the forest for fifteen minutes. The stillness was as immense as the trees. Then, a dog yipped, a tentative yip. Another barked and the dogs closed in for another gang fight and tumble. Maybe not too smart, these dogs had much spirit of combat. A buffalo made a loud, low grunt. The trackers urged me forward as I tried to ignore the thorns that stuck and vines that held.
Just fifteen or twenty yards ahead, the dogs and buffalo mixed it up. Barks, grunts, and some yelps, which said the dogs were being hooked or hit. Another wild, close encounter. Rudy and I hurried—it was like running underwater.
A shrill scream stopped us. It came from our right. Total quiet followed for about five seconds. No one moved. Then, more angry, high-pitched screams from both our left and right.
Rudy turned. “Gorillas,” he said.
To the screaming, the barking, and buffalo grunting came the rapid tat, tat, tat of a big male’s knuckles beating his chest. And he bellowed, deep and heavy. All of it was loud; close but hidden. The pygmies vanished. Rudy and I stood alone in the soggy forest, absorbing the powerful sounds of rage, fear, and anger.
The buffalo had led us between a family group of gorillas and their peripherally stationed guard. Then, added to the ferocious noise came roars—abruptly beginning and ending roars, like a horn honking.
The enveloping leaves blocked our view—and theirs. Foliage hanging so still contrasted sharply with the cacophony of screams, grunts, roars, barks, and chest pounding—stillness amidst chaos, making it seem closer. A blur of black arm, big nose, and big eyes showed. It screamed. It feigned a charge, just a step or two, and was gone.
It wasn’t terror or even fear that I felt. It was intense awareness. Every sense, every pore and nerve red-lined. I glanced questioningly at Rudy. He put his finger to his lip. Of course we’d not run. There was nothing for us to do. Too many animals, only two rifles. The sounds overwhelmed. I thought, Never again will I hear such a ruckus. I also heard my heart pounding in my ears.
The fight seemed to be moving away to our left, and as the distance grew a little relaxation came. Then, one of the dogs let out a wild howl. It must have been grabbed, thrown, or swatted hard by a gorilla. That may have been what motivated the other dogs to quit. One came to us and then two more seeking cover. We wished them away or that they could have brought the big buffalo. But apparently he was gone, and gorillas were not for dogs to fight.
Continuing their honks, screams—which reminded me of shouted obscenities—and the chest beating, the gorillas moved away. The danger passed. Our small friends reappeared and acted with bravado that those darned gorillas had ruined our hunt (their meat).
Walking out, I had mixed feelings: exhilaration from experiencing the primitive world, and sadness the hunt was over. I had no more time, but a trophy would not be needed for me to remember. That fierceness—so close!—will be in my memory as long as I have one.
There was no killing of buffalo, but the hunting, “the chase,” was genuine, good, and exciting beyond fantasy.
Now, remembering, knowing those buffalo and their friends the gorillas who saved them that day are still there, wild, in that fantastic, humid, dense rainforest gives pleasure … and perspective to life.
Cover Image: Thinkstock