• Kev Thomas Writes

A Buffalo in the Chete

Above: Chete Safari Camp is situated high above Chete Gorge on Lake Kariba's western basin. The camp overlooks Chete Island which lies in Zambia. During the late 1950s into the early 1960s the area was one of two release areas for the over 6000 head of wildlife rescued from Lake Kariba's rising waters (a man-made lake) during Operation Noah. After Zimbabwe's independence it became Chete Safari Area. Sadly, during the past 10 years it's been subjected to heavy poaching.

Chete Safari Area on Lake Kariba is rugged, remote, and challenging. Brian and Kathy from Denver, Colorado, were on their first trip to Africa. After a long drive from Bulawayo, we finally arrived at camp, and were met by doyen Zimbabwean PH Roy Vincent, and his gracious wife Rene. Roy took us straight to our accommodations, and not long after, we were enjoying cocktails round the campfire. Followed by an excellent dinner, and then bed.

Next morning, with the predawn light nudging the birdlife around camp into song, we were up and about, enjoying coffee, and readying ourselves for the day that lay ahead. Moving to the zeroing range, Brian uncased his rifle choice for our buffalo hunt. It was a Ruger #1(1H) single shot in .416 Rigby, using 400gr Swift A-Frame bullets, and this excellent rifle was wearing a fixed x4 power scope. The Ruger #1 is a single-shot rifle, with a Farquharson-style internal hammer falling-block action, manufactured by Sturm, Ruger & Co. It was introduced in 1967. An underlever lowers the block allowing loading, and cocks the rifle.

Above: Buffalo dagha bull, and herd spoor, can often be found in a number of drainage lines and springs found across Chete.

Chete has a number of drainage lines between the rugged jesse shrouded ridgelines, and two fairly large rivers. To the west is the Senkwe, with the Lwizilukulu to the east. Both ultimately drain into Lake Kariba. Natural springs are also common features and the daily buffalo hunting routine, as with most big concessions is to depart camp at first light (the legal limit) and slowly traverse the cut lines, while also checking springs in search of viable buffalo spoor.

Like elsewhere, buffalo are found in breeding herds, or bachelor groupings comprising adult bulls of varying ages, and solitary old ‘dagha’ bulls. Bachelor groupings seldom number more than about seven individuals, and are fun to hunt. Hunting buffalo breeding herds is also an option, although I’ve found in buffalo culture, it’s the cows who are the alert ones. Getting close to a cow herd undetected calls for a high level of hunting skills, because of an overabundance of eyes, ears, and noses. The ideal technique if wind and cover allow, is to get into the front of a moving herd, and then wait in cover, and let them move onto you as they graze. By late September though, looking for a good trophy bull in a breeding herd can also become problematic, because at that time of year, the prime mature trophy bulls often leave the herd.

Above: Getting close to a cowherd calls for a high level of hunting skill because buffalo cows are extremely alert to any possible threat.

Finally, the other option for hunting buffalo is to find the fresh tracks of a solitary, cantankerous, myopic, and arthritic old dagha bull in his twilight years. Hunting solitary old bulls can be tremendous fun due to their attitude, and the incredible places they seem to lie up in. Often, the post hunt recovery proves more difficult than the hunt itself. However, and despite the fun solitary dagha bulls afford, one must be cautious if time is a limitation because due to their very age, and through horn wear, a solitary dagha bull won’t always be carrying that dream set of horns. Having said that, hunting a wily and sage old heroic ‘scrumcap’ bull is buffalo hunting in its purist form.

Above: Hunting a solitary, wise old 'scrumcap' dagha boy can be both challenging and rewarding.

During our pre-safari communications, and en route the concession, I’d discussed all of these buffalo hunt scenarios with Brian and Kathy, and from day one we hunted hard. Many hours were spent on spoor and the days were long and hot. On some occasions we didn’t even close with buffalo, however, it certainly wasn’t from lack of trying.

Sometimes while hunting, we’d skirt a cowherd of elephant and use this as a welcome break, to rest, and to also give Kathy a chance to video. One morning, we found spoor of a fairly large herd, and my trackers, like eager hounds on scent were keen to let slip, so we took it up. The hours passed, with the heat building up and the morning breeze beginning to lose its consistency, becoming instead our aggravator, swirling in all directions. Suddenly, the trackers, as one, dropped to their haunches, Lucky Ndlovu to my immediate front, silently pointed into the long grass, and as he did so, the acrid wild bovine smell, a distinctive windblown signature of buffalo, carried to our nostrils on a sudden eddy.

Brian was kneeling to my left, and rising up slightly, I could just make out the forms of the buffalo through the grass. Reddish browns, giving way to dark black and the slate grey of older individuals. A number of them were lying down and I could also make out numerous sub-adults and calves in the group. But what of a trophy bull? I was still pondering the question when a vagrant wind eddy carried our dread human scent to them. With a sudden loud crashing of brush and breaking branches, they thundered off as one, rocking bodies, heaving flanks, curled up tails, clattering horns, and choking dust.

Above: The herd took off as one, and left us behind in a cloud of red dust.

We followed in their wake, and managed to close with the herd twice more but there were no shooters, so we took the long walk back to the rig. On day four we left camp in the pre-dawn dark, and then not far south, in the vicinity of the Kasikiri River, we intercepted a large mixed herd of buffalo. They were moving slowly westwards, unhurried, and spread out. Cows, calves, sub-adults, and a scattering of breeding bulls, plus a few arthritic old dagha bulls tagging along.

When we’d initially intercepted the herd, they were split either side of the cutline, so after having hesitated momentarily I drove on through the herd. There were a lot of buffalo, and it felt good. After driving about 300 metres we hit another cutline, so swung west, the direction the buffalo were headed. And then we drove about 1km, before we stopped and I killed the engine. After doing that, we just sat quietly. Listening. Tracker Lucky gave a quick flick of the ash bag and thankfully the gentle breeze was in our favour. Without further ado, Brian ran a shell into the chamber of his Ruger and then we headed into the brush at right angles to the cutline. My plan was to get directly in front of where we anticipated the spread-out herd would appear. And then wait for them.

Above: When we'd initially intercepted the herd they'd been split either side of the management track.

Buffalo move quickly, so we hurriedly ducked and weaved through the scrub mopane. While we did this the grunting and coughing of the lead elements was drawing closer. They were almost onto us, and we still hadn’t found a suitable place to hunker down and ambush them. We left Kathy and the game scout, with my second tracker Moyo on a rise near a donga. And then Brian, Lucky, and myself sprinted across an open area of red clay and shale, and quickly dove into a scraggy patch of scrub mopane. Just as the leading members of the herd hove into view, including the leathery old lead cow. As she moved forward her moist uplifted nostrils constantly probed and deciphered the scent molecules carried on the wind.

Above: And then Brian, Lucky, and myself sprinted across an open area of red clay and shale, and quickly dove into a scraggy patch of scrub mopane.

With the three of us lying prone, there were buffalo everywhere we looked. In next to no time the lead group were grazing all around us, although steadily moving forward. Anxiously, I sought a suitable trophy. However, none were in sight. One can’t lie around in the middle of a buffalo herd undetected. The cows miss nothing. Particularly so, those with dependent calves. Bulls on the other hand seem to plod along contentedly. Until danger threatens.

A solitary old cow eventually grazed her way right up to us. Lucky hugged the ground face down, as I lay on my back with my feet towards the approaching beast. Brian was lying prone to my left. Without seeing us, she came on until she was mere feet away, before suddenly stopping and then craning her neck in an attempt to identify us. As it dawned on her that we were a threat, she snorted loudly before barrelling sideways, sand flying in all directions from her worn old hooves. Her actions caused a ripple of uncertainty to spread, and the lead elements of the herd stood in a semi-circle staring our way and trying to figure out what the problem was. The wiser ones then began to wander off, although not in panic, and still there was no trophy bull in sight.

Despite this development, and such was the size of the herd, buffalo still kept moving towards us. Totally nonplussed. And as I lay pondering the wisdom of my leaving Kathy on her own to our rear with an AK47 armed game scout, and an unarmed tracker, a patch of dense scrub to our front suddenly opened, and there he was.

He stood staring our way. Head held high and offering a perfect frontal heart shot. Brian and I began to crawl towards a small patch of waist high mopane scrub between us and the buffalo. Reaching the bush, I slowly rose up onto my knees then tapped my left shoulder. Brian rose up and slowly slid the .416 onto my shoulder, taking mere seconds to get settled. Sucking in a deep breath, I held as still as possible. The buffalo meantime, lifted his head higher, glaring at us, so Brian didn’t waste time. With the .416 Rigby shot still loud in our ears, and in acknowledgement of the bullet strike, the buffalo heaved forward. He was about 40 paces to our front. And then he stumbled, spun through 180º and lurched back into the thick stuff. Disappearing from sight. Brian hurriedly reloaded while mouthing a clearly audible ‘Whew!’

As the panicked herd fled, the noise was indescribable. The red dust rising up like a cloud above the scrub. Horns crashed together. Cows’ bellowed, and young calves chirped. Suddenly, all was quiet, the relative stillness periodically punctuated by a buffalo’s guttural burp cum cough, as the dust too, slowly dissipated, leaving us with nothing more than an acrid wild bovine smell clinging to our nostrils.

Brian felt good about his shot. Always a good sign for a PH, so we moved forward to where the buffalo had been standing, and on the tracks, we found blood. Lots of it. However, to our immediate front there was just a tangle of thick scrub, with an uninviting air about it. Going into it bent over at the waist and clearing the way with your rifle barrel, goes against human nature. And particularly so if there’s a chance you might suddenly end up with an angry buffalo hanging on the end of the barrel.

We’d heard no ‘death rattle’, and that’s not unusual. However, we waited for another 20 minutes before gingerly making our way into the thicket. Lucky moved along the blood spoor ahead of me by about eight paces, and Brian was a pace or two off to my left. If the buffalo was lying wounded, I wanted him to do the killing. It was his trophy and he’d come a long distance at great cost to collect it.

After about 40 paces the thicket began to thin out, and we found the buffalo lying down facing his back trail. He’d once more turned through 180º and in his dying moments, filled with silent fury awaited his aggressors. Blood foamed from his nostrils and after tossing a stick his way, we approached this most tenacious of all African trophies. Old habits forced me to circle the still form and then instruct Brian to approach down the length of the body while I covered him, until he could prod the dulled eye with his rifle barrel.

Above: Brian with his 40" buffalo after a challenging hunt.

He was a fine 40” buffalo. An old dagha bull that’d no doubt been enjoying the company of the herd. His back bore the scars from earlier tussles with lion, and his ears were ripped and scarred. Just as noble in death as he had been in life, he took those stories away with him to that place in the sky where the buffalo spirits dwell. Brian’s 400gr Swift A-Frame had driven through the buffalo’s heart and lungs before lodging in the paunch, where we recovered it.

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