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  • Writer's pictureKev Thomas Writes

Of Buffalo, Oxpeckers, & An Octogenarian

 

 

Looking down on the Sengwa River from the Chiwonde viewpoint in the Chirisa Safari Area.

Coming in low from the north, the Cessna 206 looked like it was going to clip the mopane trees surrounding the Chiwonde strip in Zimbabwe’s Chirisa Safari Area. PH Dave Willis and myself were pleased to see the plane’s belly close up and smell the hot avgas as it passed overhead. It was late afternoon of 20 July 2006 and we wanted to get our inbound clients into camp and their rifles zeroed. Willis and I had made our ways separately to Chirisa from the rugged Sijarira Safari Area on Lake Kariba’s southern shoreline. It is a grunt of a drive; bone jarring, and parched. Fine dust like emery paper between your teeth. Perspiration burning your eyes. I doubt the road has seen a blade for thirty years, deeply rutted and pot-holed; the washboards test a vehicle to its limits.

 

When Dave Willis drove into camp, a day after me, he too looked like he had been shaken up and spat out. On the drive into Chirisa, once clear of the washboards and potholes, you hit the gusu sand. It is so thick and clinging, nothing can move in it without effort and whacks of torque. After that kind of travel, reaching camp is like winning the lotto. We had both been contracted to do a 2:2 seven-day buffalo hunt. Safari is not just about killing, it is an experience, where every part of it is like gold. The dry grey drabness of a Zimbabwe winter, the needle hot stinging bite of a tsetse fly, colour washed crimson sunsets clouded in heat haze, the nocturnal grunting wood-saw sound of a leopard, a famished hyena voicing its hunger woes on a moonlit night, hysterical guinea fowl disturbed by the hunting rig in an early morning floodplain mist, PH and trackers conversing in guttural whispers. And dust, always dust. Yes, these experiences and so much more, visual, and audible, are the mix that is Africa. The relaxed client, who enjoys that aspect of safari, normally takes home the quality trophies. Strange, but seemingly true.


PH Dave Willis's and my vehicle at Chiwonde airstrip in the Chirisa Safari Area.

Midway down the bush strip, the 206 touched, kicked up dust, briefly leapt into the air, angled slightly, straightened out, and then touched again grabbing ground. Reaching the end of the runway the pilot turned his machine and taxied towards us. Alighting from Willis’s rig and stretching, one of our trackers ventured in fanagalo ‘Yena fikile’ (‘They’ve arrived’). After shutting down, the pilot climbed out and opened the door for his passengers to disembark. First out was Cordell, a tall laid back, friendly Texan. Immediately after introducing himself, Cordell stuck an unlit cheroot into his mouth. It stayed unlit for the safari duration. Next came Verel ‘Red’ Leair, equally laid back, he hailed from Milwaukee and looked to me to probably be in his early seventies.

 

On most African safaris where two PHs are guiding two clients, the decision as to who hunts with whom, is never an issue, and after loading their gear, ‘Red’ Leair climbed into my rig for the bumpy ride back to camp. En-route, he excitedly explained to me how it was his first trip to Africa and his first ever safari. His one and only priority in his words, was a ‘Big buffalo bull I can show my poker playing buddies back home.’ Red looked tired from the long hours of air travel and as we ploughed our way through the heavy gusu back towards camp, I asked him if I could pose one question to him. This after he had informed me, he was ‘Pretty damn fit.’ Red told me to go right ahead and ask any question I wanted, so I asked him how old he was – it had been worrying me. Hunting dangerous game is not only a mental exercise; it is demanding, and calls for high levels of fitness and stamina. With a smile, Red Leair replied with the words, ‘Eighty-four.’ It took a few seconds to sink in before I quietly said, ‘Eighty-four, you’ve got to be kidding me?’ He assured me he wasn’t, so I complimented him on being the oldest person I had ever guided. It was his turn to remark, ‘Kevin, you’ve got to be kidding me.’ Red asked it as if he assumed professional hunters guided dangerous game hunting octogenarians on a regular basis!


Red Leair assumed I guided octogenarians on a regular basis

After having been shown his chalet, Red rushed around taking photos with his digital camera, and then after getting settled, we headed for the zeroing range. Both hunters were using .375 H&Hs Red was using his nephew’s Browning Medallion wearing a 3x9 Leupold. Cordell was carrying a CZ 550 Safari, dressed with a 1.75x5 Burris and it only took one round from each of them at seventy-five meters to show us they knew how to shoot. Both hunters were using factory 300grn Federal Sledgehammer solids. All PH Dave Willis and I now had to do was put a buffalo in front of Red and Cordell.

 

Our first evening in camp was spent round the campfire, overlooking the dry sandy Sengwa Riverbed. Red and Cordell settled on brandy and orange juice cocktails. Not a common mix in Africa where imbibers normally bruise their brandy with Coca Cola. Off to one side of camp, a baboon troop noisily clambered around a sandstone cliff face trying to find some security for the night. Despite their baboon precautions and loud arguments, on the second night of the safari, a determined leopard managed to pluck a hysterically wailing teenager off its cliff side perch, we listened to the chilling sound effects. Terrified youthful baboon hysteria, then painful wails and pathetic screams. Then silence, followed by contented feline crunching noises. Our camp was fittingly called Ingwe Camp (Leopard Camp).

 

Checking waterholes for fresh buffalo tracks.

From the first morning we hunted hard, Cordell and Dave working their own areas with Red and myself doing the same. As with most buffalo hunting in Zimbabwe, following fireside coffee and toast, we departed camp in the pre-dawn dark, and then at first light, checked waterholes for buffalo sign. We also checked the sandy management tracks for sign of herd or bachelor group crossings. On that first day of hunting Red and I approached two different herds and his ability to walk was impressive. Neither herd had anything worth shooting but I was a little perturbed at Red’s inability to define clearly, a particular animal I may have pointed out. The bulky binoculars he said he’d liberated from the US military about sixty years prior didn’t help any either. I couldn’t see through them at all!

 

It soon became apparent Red’s limitation would not be his age or his ability to walk - it would be his eyesight and his hearing. Buffalo have extremely acute senses of hearing, smell, and eyesight. Two hunters’ trying to hold a loudly whispered conversation from forty paces away normally gets their attention. Once buffalo in a hunting area are aware of the human predator threat, they depart the scene post-haste. At lunchtime on that first day, we found ourselves back in camp, and then during the afternoon checked a favourite area of mine around some mineral springs, known as the Chawachambere. There were no buffalo, but in the cool shade of some tree bound dongas, we walked into three lionesses, and they too, added to Red’s overall safari experience. During the late afternoon we saw twelve sable off to one side in the gusu, a good sighting for the Chirisa.

 

PH Dave Willis and Cordell did not get to shoot a buffalo that first day either, but they too had an enjoyable time. Our evening was once more spent sitting by the campfire enjoying cocktails, snacking, and spinning hunting yarns. Dinner was kudu fillet taken from a kudu shot on an earlier safari, the venison having had adequate time to mature. We washed it down with a mature South African Pinotage. After a hard day’s physical hunting, few sport hunters’ waste the night hours yarning, and camp was soon silent. Wake-up call would be at 04hr30.


We didn't get lucky for the first few days but always enjoyed a pleasant BBQ back in camp.


Day two did not produce the goods either, although we all saw buffalo, but there were no shooters. Middle afternoon saw Red and I hunt the Sipani springs area where we found no fresh sign of buffalo, however, we enjoyed sitting in the cool shade of a Natal mahogany watching elephant bulls at water. For Red, another exciting safari experience. Day three of the seven-day safari proved more productive for Cordell. After closing with a herd of about thirty buffalo, PH Dave Willis got Cordell to within fifty paces of an old dagga bull. Cordell shot it a total of five times, his first three shots being exactly where they should have been, in the distinct knuckle on the shoulder, one third up the body, following the line of the foreleg. Willis later recalled how the bottom of a water glass could have covered those first three shots. After each of these shots, the crusty old buffalo went down, then got straight up again. After the third shot, and with his shoulder broken, the bull began to bellow, so moving in closer, Cordell whacked him twice more. Between the first and last shot, the buffalo managed to travel about eighteen feet. Cordell would later laconically remark his $100.00 box of ammo took $25.00 worth to kill his buffalo. Red and I did not fare so well, and I could see it was beginning to gnaw at the old man. Gutsy as he was.

 

Days four and five saw Red and myself, with our crew, hunt hard without respite. We drove the heavy gusu management roads, found spoor, tracked for hours but our efforts never paid off despite the hard work. Following a buffalo herd that has already passed by hours before, calls for a fairly accelerated follow-up pace on behalf of the hunters. You have to do this to catch up, and hopefully find them grazing peacefully or bellied down. Red was able to stay the course, but at a reduced pace. This too, worried me. More worrying, was upon closure with a herd, and by then I was focusing on dagga bulls only, Red was still having difficulty seeing the buffalo.

 

PH Dave Willis relaxes back in camp with a welcome beer after he and his client, Cordell Hull, got lucky.


On day five, we followed four bulls from a mopane bound waterhole at the southern end of Chiwonde airstrip. It was an easy walk on level ground with good cover. By this time Red was fairly despondent and concerned about what his poker-playing buddies would think if he came home without a buffalo. He was also starting to chastise himself for having come on safari at his age. As a PH I could only tell him the safari wasn’t over until the fat lady had sung. I really wanted this humble old man to get his buffalo. We closed with the unsuspecting bulls, but Red could not make any of them out amongst the grey scrub. It was by then late morning and a dread wind eddy carried our scent to them. We were left looking at dust and tangled brush still shaking from their recent passage. On the long tab back to the rig, Red had some stomach problems and although he was uncomplaining, I was worried about his becoming dehydrated. We headed back to camp and spent a subdued afternoon and evening.

 

In the pre-dawn light of day six, we made our way back to the Chiwonde airstrip and once more checked the muddy waterhole for buffalo sign. There was nothing, so we pressed on south and about 2kms down the track cut spoor of four dagga bulls – the trackers - as keen as hounds, soon ascertained that they were indeed our quarry of the previous day. Leaving the rig, we took up the spoor, and after three hours of hard walking the trackers suddenly dropped to their haunches and froze. Hlongwane pointed with his outstretched chin, and there, about 130 yards to our front, a solitary grey hull. Motionless. Boulder like.  Red could not make it out, but I was not too concerned as he and I quietly moved forward, leaving both trackers to wait under a bush in our wake.


Red's buffalo was unfortunately still a bit young, I'd guess going 5-years old, and not one I would normally have allowed a client to shoot. However, we were down to 6-hours of the safari left, and it was highly unlikely the 84-year-old would have made it back to Africa for another hunt.


After we had closed to about 80 yards, the redbilled oxpeckers alert to our presence, scrambled off the buffalo’s back into the air. Others immediately followed suite, rising up from their buffalo hosts, who were still hidden from our view. When alarmed, oxpeckers have a distinctive sharp hissing call, kssss – kssss – kssss. Although just audible to my slightly rifle fire impaired hearing, I knew the alarm had been put out. Almost simultaneously the relaxed form of the buffalo I could see, came alive. Head up, musculature tense, wet black nostrils sifting the air. Again, kssss – kssss – kssss. Agitated, the bull shook his massive horns and moved out of view behind some bush.

 

With the bull momentarily out of sight, Red and I quickly moved forward, Indian file, from cover to cover. All the while, with a constant flick of my ash bag, I kept a close eye on the wind factor. When we had closed to about 45 yards, we crouched down behind a scraggily limbed tree. By now, I could clearly hear the shrill kssss – kssss – kssss. It was a good sound, telling me the buffalo were still there and that the oxpeckers had not yet departed. And then, suddenly, as we watched, a bull stepped back into view. He froze in the window of scrub to our front, facing from left to right. All of his senses were cocked and locked and he held his head high, accusing eyes staring along his nose, but fortunately he was staring fixedly across to our right.

 

Red was standing directly behind me and could not see the unfolding scenario to our front. As I watched, another bull stepped into view, then spun around through one eighty degrees, facing back from whence he had come. He was directly behind the first bull and the scene to my front now looked like one buffalo with a head either end. Frustrating. Ever so slowly, I pulled Red to my front and with my mouth close to his ear, asked if he could see the buffalo. He could not. While he strained to pick them up with his circa WW2 Iwo Jima binoculars, both buffalo moved back into cover. One had been a superb trophy with an ironwood hard boss an easy 15” and a spread of at least 39”. Each horn terminating in a vicious backward pointing hook. Red was annoyed with himself for not having seen them, but as we watched, another bull stepped into the window. Red picked up the movement and joined me in the glassing exercise. He was a younger bull than the other two and although still a bit soft on the 14” boss, the bull was breeding mature and went at least 38”. By this stage of the safari, we only had another six hours of hunting left, before Red would be headed back to his poker-playing colleagues.

 

Leaning down close, I whispered to Red to do the deed. Not wasting time, he used a handy branch as a rest, saving me the need to open my shooting sticks. Initially, Red had a hassle picking up the bull in his scope and I was readying myself for a possible quick anchor shot. As I watched the trophy, Red did the gunning exercise and in tandem with the noise of the shot, the buffalo went down hard. Red wasted no time in running another shell into the chamber, by which time the bull had turned his nose skywards, his pointed horn tips dug into the dirt. It had died instantly. A quick glassing told me Red had thwacked him in the Brachial plexus – a network junction of eleven nerves extending down from the spine, at the base of the neck. A more common description of this shot-placement is 'the point of the shoulder.' Just to be sure, I got Red to put in another bullet, and after ascertaining the bull was indeed dead, we did the handshaking and congratulatory thing. At this point of the safari, there was a lot of bottled-up emotion in Red, and it all came out in wracking sobs of relief, there in the Chirisa bush, under a hot African sun, although by then he had a real buffalo story to share at the poker table back in Milwaukee.  



               A visibly tired but elated Red on our last night in camp. In front of him are his liberated WW2 US Army binoculars. I couldn't even see out of them!



This Blog post will be my last until the New Year - I hope 2024 will be all that my readers would wish for, and a lot more.

 

 

 

                           

 

         

 

                             

 

                         

 

        

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