There is a saying in the African bush, that if one thing doesn’t kill you, something else will, and nothing could be more true of the Cape buffalo. Sometimes called black death, they have long been the quest of many a bold sportsmen for that very reason; they are extremely dangerous to hunt. As Roosevelt, Hemingway, and Capstick would surely tell you, Cape buffalo are smart, alert, and notoriously ill-tempered.
Like any worthy trophy in hunting or fishing, the old boys are the hardest to get. These old bachelor bulls, or “‘dagga boys,” have left the herd and struck out on their own. Wisened and maddened by years of pursuit from man and beast, horns worn down from countless battles, they rarely leave thick cover, making it very difficult to track them, or get close to them. And so the game must often be played on their court, in the places they eat, rest, and traverse regularly.
Of the ways to hunt these buffalo, the most effective and thrilling is good old fashioned tracking on foot. Starting from a watering hole around dawn, you follow what look to be the biggest bulls’ tracks, hoping that they are not laying in hiding, waiting to waylay you. Sometimes you get lucky and catch up to them while they’re still feeding, which helps to mask the sound of pursuit. But most of the time you don’t catch up to them until they are bedded down in the heat of the day. Needless to say, startling them out of a midday nap doesn’t do much to improve their already cantankerous disposition.
The wind is a major factor, requiring constant diligence to stay ahead of the midday swirling gusts that have plagued so many buffalo hunts. You can spend hours just evading the wind, sometimes moving only a matter of inches in what seems a lifetime. If they catch your scent, you’re not likely to get within firing range, unless they decide to charge, which I can assure you, is quite unnerving. Of the several dozen buffalo hunts I’ve filmed, success was found when we caught the bull unaware with a carefully aimed shot, showing no sign of our presence.
But these things are tough; not tough like rawhide, or a rugby player, I mean TOUGH. I’ve seen a bull take 8 shots in the vitals from 400 grain bullets, and still stand in defiance. If they see or smell you, they will fight till their last breath, and if they get a chance, brutally kill you. They have a temper and sense of vengeance that could rival the most ruthless of mafia bosses, so it’s best to remain unseen, unscented, and aim true. Should your shot not find its mark the first time, that wounded bull will most likely find thick cover and wait, saving its energy and rage for a final charge. A friend of mine in Zambia was gored and battered to within an inch of his life by a wounded bull, and it was only after he pretended to be dead that the buffalo collapsed and died. Thankfully, every charge I’ve witnessed thus far has ended with a buffalo on the ground, instead of a med-evac chopper.
In the end, it’s their tenacity, toughness, and death-dealing that makes the cape buffalo one of the most revered animals in Africa, and the reason so many hunters risk their life in pursuit of them. They have become my favorite of all the African game, and I have nothing but respect for them, mixed with a healthy dose of fear. I count myself among the lucky to have spent so much time hunting them, which are stories I hope to tell my children, and grandchildren some day.