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  • Writer's pictureKev Thomas Writes

Kavalamanja Buffalo

Above: The rustic safari camp at Kavalamanja looked across into Zimbabwe's Chewore Safari Area. It brought back nostalgic memories from when I'd been stationed in the adjacent Sapi Safari Area, as a young game ranger, nearly thirty years prior.

The Zambezi Valley heat during October is always unforgiving. At times it’s been referred to as suicide month. October 1999 was no different. Alaskan friends of mine, Steve and Mary, out of Fairbanks, were set to join me in Zambia for a classical safari style buffalo hunt.

I’d arranged the safari through Hunters & Guides, an outfit I was contract hunting for on a freelance basis at the time. Initially, I’d planned on hunting the Rufunsa Game Management Area (GMA). However, when we went into the area a few days before the client’s arrival, we found it to be devoid of wildlife, aside from a few small herds of impala. As for buffalo sign, there was hardly anything. We did find some old spoor though. Very old. Sculpted into the dry mud along the edge of what had once been a waterhole. After a hurried reassessment, we departed Rufunsa and headed further east. Our move took us into another hunting block towards the lower Luangwa River. Close to where it joins the Zambezi River.

Above: Our move took us into another hunting block towards the lower Luangwa River. Close to where it joins the Zambezi River.

On this concession, Hunters & Guides had their seasonal camp in a beautiful shady setting on the banks of the Zambezi River. Nestled in the shadow of the Kavalamanja massif. Rhodesia’s bush war of two decades earlier had spilled over into the area, and a scattering of conflict debris was still lying around. A constant reminder of a more turbulent time in that part of Africa’s history. Our drive into the area was easy as far as the Luangwa Bridge. Thereafter, and once we’d turned south and moved away from the gravel road which parallels the Luangwa River, we negotiated a pretty rough track. If it could even be called that. For the last few kilometres into camp most of it was downhill.

Above: Our camp was in the shadow of the Kavalamanja massif, where during the Rhodesian Bush War two Selous Scout colleagues of mine who'd been in Recce Troop had established a clandestine OP to monitor a ZIPRA base. Later taken out by Rhodesian security forces. On their move in under cover of darkness they'd been chased by a black rhino. Sadly, by 1999 rhino were no more black rhino in the Zambezi Valley.

The rustic Kavalamanja camp was downstream from Mupata Gorge, and opposite the Chewore in Zimbabwe. Looking across the river I felt a pang of nostalgia. Nearly thirty years prior, and when still a young game ranger I’d been stationed in the area. Now, as we stood gazing across the mighty river, a huge herd of buffalo ambled along the floodplain on the Zimbabwe side. I hoped it was a good omen for our pending hunt on the Zambian side.

Shortly before sunset Zane Langman drove into camp. Zane was a Zambian resident, and licensed PH so had joined us to front for me, and give legitimacy to a safari in Zambia for a non-resident PH. Unless you’re guiding back to back safaris in Zambia for a full season, for a non-resident PH an annual Zambian professional hunter’s license is extremely cost prohibitive. I certainly wasn’t going to purchase one for conducting a mere three safaris in Zambia for the 1999 season.

Due to bad radio communications, our attempted messages to Lusaka to ensure Steve and Mary were brought straight from the airport to Kavalamanja, never reached the driver. As a result, they ended up being taken to the Rufunsa concession. Eventually, and after driving back up to the Luangwa Bridge, due to my having become concerned at their non-arrival, I was able to raise Steve on the radio. Aside from his normal profession, he’s also a hardy Alaskan float-plane pilot. Steve had the presence of mind to switch on the Rufunsa camp radio, and with the help of the driver, was trying to establish communications with me. By this stage it was already 20:00hrs and they’d been travelling from Alaska without layover. Understandably, they were both jaded, if not a little irritable.

It would eventually take until 01:30hrs for them to arrive at the Kavalamanja camp. By which time they were totally exhausted, so after they’d gone off to bed, I decided to let them sleep until they were ready to get up. I next saw them exiting their chalet twelve hours later. Following a late brunch, we checked Steve’s .375 H&H Remington for zero, and then visited a few nearby waterholes to look for buffalo spoor, of which there was none.

Next morning, we were up at 04:00hrs and after a quick coffee and toast, departed camp by boat. We travelled upstream, and through the rock formation in Mupata Gorge known as ‘The Gate’. We then moored up and walked inland. North, Up into the rugged Zambezi escarpment. The heat, coupled to humidity was extreme and it was tough going on all of us. Steve, still not fully recovered from the travel lag, felt it the most. After traversing some rocky ridge lines, we eventually ended up in a valley of sorts. While walking in the valley we bumped into a herd of about sixty buffalo. Seeing us, they thundered off along a meandering game trail, back south towards the Zambezi River.

We followed them as quickly as we could. And then, when we were descending a steep incline, we were temporarily held up by a young elephant bull. He was contesting the right of way on the narrow game trail. After we’d resolved the issue in a diplomatic manner, we pushed on. The buffalo meantime, had swung away from the river and were again headed inland. From where we were, it looked like they were making their way towards some really rugged country. There was little we could do. Much of the surrounding countryside had been burnt, so we sat watching them slowly disappear into a shimmering, smoke saturated, heat haze.

Above: Steve glassing towards the Zambezi River. The buffalo herd we'd spooked initially moved south through this valley before swinging north again.

Walking back through the hills to the river took time. And by then Steve had developed a persistent headache, causing me to become concerned about possible dehydration. However, in time, we reached a semi-deserted commercial fishing camp. The lonely camp attendant kindly gave us a lift in one of their boats, to where we’d left ours. The morning hunt had taken us at least 15km through the rugged Zambezi escarpment. During the late afternoon, we took a slow cruise upstream by boat and spotted three good waterbuck bulls at the foot of Mupata gorge. Steve decided he’d like one, but later in the safari.

Above: The writer with our trackers and a Zambian government game scout during a boat ride back downstream to our camp.

Our next day’s hunt saw us once more leave camp in the pre-dawn light to try and avoid the harsh late-morning heat. We again used the boat to travel upstream, land, and hunt into the escarpment. It was a long, hot, tiring hunt, although we were able to ascertain the buffalo herd of the previous day had moved off into the Rufunsa National Park. Moving back out of the escarpment towards the river, we bumped into a few young elephant bulls, and also saw a herd of kudu. During late afternoon we used the boat to get us fairly close to the waterbuck, and then after a short riverbank stalk, Steve put in a telling shot and was rewarded with a 29” trophy.

Above: At the third waterhole we found tracks of a fair sized buffalo herd heading north.

Our third day saw us checking inland waterholes by vehicle. At the third one we found the fresh tracks of a fair-sized herd of buffalo heading north. Without wasting time, we took up the spoor. We’d only commenced the follow up at about 09:30hrs which was getting late, but trackers Lazarus and Max did a good job. At 11:30hrs in extremely dense sananga we flushed eight cows on the fringe of the herd. Because they weren’t sure where we were, they came crashing past us in a blind rush at about 25 paces.

After listening to the unseen remainder of the buffalo herd thunder off, we once more took up spoor. The tell-tale scent of wild bovine sweat, dung, and urine, strong in our nostrils. The heat too, was unrelenting, and our shirts were saturated with perspiration. Myriads of sweat bees swarmed annoyingly around our faces and ears. Each time we stopped during the long follow-up our water bottles were drained a little more of their precious liquid.

Eventually, and while moving slowly through the tangled thickets, with the two trackers keen eyes on the spoor, we were fortunate to suddenly detect two kakuli (dagha bulls) off to our right. Reacting to our sudden appearance, they galloped across our front. Heads held high and tails curled up over their rumps. And then at about 70m they suddenly stopped and turned broadside on. Undecided. Challenging. Nostrils testing the still air. It was all Steve needed, and quickly putting pin to primer he got off a quick shot. In acknowledgement, and as the unharmed kakuli ran off noisily, the other bull hunched and lowered its nose towards the ground. We thought he’d go down but he didn’t. As he slowly lumbered off Steve managed to put two more bullets into him. The bull didn’t even acknowledge them and running off, quickly disappeared into the sananga thicket.

Moving forward to where the wounded buffalo had been standing at the time of Steve’s first shot, we found a fair amount of blood. We then waited for twenty minutes before cautiously taking up the blood trail. As things turned out, we hadn’t gone much more than about a hundred metres, when the trackers suddenly stopped. They then backed off quietly, while pointing ahead into a thicket. The kakuli was lying down facing us along his back trail. The instant he detected us, and as sick as he was, he lurched to his feet and stumbled towards us ready to do battle. In the immediate aftermath of Steve getting in another telling shot, the noble mass of black musculature standing defiantly to our front stumbled, and then collapsed bellowing. As Steve ran another shell into the chamber, we heard the mournful death rattle come away from the by then still form.

Above: The walk back to collect the recovery rig had been a hard schlep without water until we reached the vehicle.

Due to the October heat it’d been a physically demanding hunt. The walk back out to collect the rig for recovery before darkness settled in put us onto our chin straps. It was a marathon. We only got back to camp late that evening but the 38” trophy with good bosses was an excellent reward for my hardy Alaskan friend.

Above: Steve with his well-earned buffalo taken during a truly hard physical fair chase hunt.

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