In the Buffalo herd

Kevin Thomas is ready for his close-up – and he gets less than 40 metres away from an old dagha boy on a hunt in Zimbabwe’s Bubye Valley Conservancy

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After about three hours of tracking, we finally closed with the four dagha bulls in dense scrub mopane. Scrub mopane that is still in leaf is tricky stuff to hunt a buffalo in, more so to my mind than Zimbabwe’s jesse bush.

A bit taller than your average man, the coppiced mopane thickets are almost impenetrable, with massed scraggily branch growth, and dense leaf cover. It makes for limited visibility, and the possibility of bullet deflection when in a tight spot – thus the need for premium bullets.

Although I’m a ‘bolt’ man, in an extremely close quarter scrub mopane encounter, a double with a solid in each barrel would be comforting. Once, back in about 2010 when I was guiding a Spaniard and his son on a Bubye Valley buffalo hunt, we were so close to a solitary dagha bull in dense scrub mopane, all we could see from about two rifle lengths’ distance away was a small black patch of his flank. The encounter was deathly quiet and tense, then he thundered off, crashing through the scrub – thankfully.

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Cold and misty, Bubye Valley is an unforgiving place to be before sunrise

Earlier during Jamie’s hunt, we’d left the Bubye River to the east and behind us; the riverbed, a mist-shrouded, meandering ribbon of glistening sand, and jumbled shiny boulders bounded by dense reed thickets, green riverine brush, and tall shady trees. Amid the boulders and sand there were pools of water, and it was at one of the pools where we’d found the dagha bulls’ spoor, then a crisscrossing network of churned hoof prints, damp urine patches, and wet dung, where they’d lingered in the pre-dawn cold, contemplating things bovine and watching for danger. The Bubye Valley Conservancy has an extremely healthy lion population, and buffalo are one of their prey species. Periodically when hunting you’ll find lion spoor superimposed over the buffalo tracks in the wake of a herd.

Like the buffalo, we had lingered in the cold pre-dawn because there hadn’t been enough light for us to start tracking our quarry. The biting Matabeleland cold had us blowing into our cupped hands while quietly stomping our feet, as we willed on the sun’s red orb slowly rising on the horizon, burning off the clinging veil of mist that hung heavy across the river as it rose.

Bird life, too, was slowly coming alive around us in the ever-lightening mopane woodland; crested francolin coveys were vocal and scurrying ahead of us. On the previous dawn we’d been in the same place, and followed the same dagha bulls’ spoor, until they’d merged with a big herd and I’d called the hunt off – too many eyes, ears, and noses.

Late afternoon that day, we’d hunted to the west in the dry mopane woodland. Visibility was good and the grassed, open tracts between stands of woodland were well populated with herds of zebra and blue wildebeest. Towards sunset, we’d managed to follow a group of frolicking wildebeest bachelors, and with shooting light still good, Jamie had grassed a nice bull. Evening back in camp was pleasant and relaxed, as safari should be.

It was at  one of the pools where the dagha bulls’ spoor was located

It was at one of the pools where the dagha bulls’ spoor was located

On this our second morning, it didn’t take long before we had enough light to follow spoor and warm up. So, strung out in Indian file, we’d moved off, initially with two trackers up front, then me, followed by Jamie and his 16-year old son Josh, and then the BVC game scout. The rising sun at our backs gently filtered through the mopane woodland in slanting golden panels, and it wasn’t long before we’d left the river far behind, a gentle breeze wafting into our faces as we moved forward – a positive omen.

The buffalo group was ambling along somewhere to our front, spread out, unhurried and grazing. As the morning warmed we knew they’d start to seek deep cover to lie in, and by about 9.30am they were doing just that. Their spoor led us out of the woodland and into the dense scrub mopane and acacia thorn thickets.

Periodically I’d hiss a quiet warning to the trackers, ‘tssst’, as we caught a glimpse of a Natal spurfowl covey scurrying away in the underbrush; we’d freeze and let them move off. The Bubye Valley Conservancy is blessed with a rich array of game birds, not all of them noisy when disturbed. However, the Natal spurfowl panics quickly and gets airborne with a raucous ‘krrrr-kik kik-kik’, giving any wildlife in the vicinity an immediate ‘heads up’.

 The biting Matabeleland cold had us blowing into our cupped hands while quietly stomping our feet

We hadn’t been in the thick stuff for long – and by then I purposely only had one tracker in front of me, with Jamie behind me, as we wove our way through thorn thickets and around tangles of dense green in-leaf mopane scrub – when suddenly the tracker dropped to his haunches while pointing to our left, and as if the move was choreographed, we too went to our haunches.

JHKT061At 90 degrees to the spoor, a lone dagha bull stood facing his back trail, head held high, with glistening nostrils testing the fickle breeze. They’d obviously swung round in their search for a resting place, and ended up to our left. Luckily for us, the wind held.

Leaving the trackers with Josh and the game scout, all of whom were hunkered down, Jamie and I inched our way forward in single file on our bellies, until we’d reached the cover of an old mopane tree. While still lying down, I quietly opened the shooting sticks and set them up, before we slowly sat up, well tucked in behind the tree trunk and hidden by green foliage. Then we waited and watched.

It would now become a game of patience, a much-needed human trait with any form of hunting, and only possible with strict discipline. Any unnecessary movement or noise from any of our group would have compromised the stalk.

There were four bulls in the group, but we could only see one. We could certainly hear the others, though they were totally hidden from view inside the thicket. The one we had visual on was well positioned for a broadside shot, about 40 metres from us across a slight opening in the scrub. Annoyingly, though, he had a leafy sapling blocking his left shoulder from view – we needed to see that shoulder for Jamie to get a clear heart/lung shot. We’d already had a look at his horns, and he was a taker, so I wasn’t too worried about us not having seen his three colleagues.

There was little we could do other than remain absolutely quiet and unmoving. As it was, just before we’d seen the dagha boy, some red-billed oxpeckers had flown up from the buffalo group, their sharp, hissing call immediately pushing the tight group of bulls from a relaxed mode into a more nervous adrenaline-charged alert. The one we could see was extremely tense and suspicious, and we could only hope that he’d eventually present for a killing shot, rather than crash away and disappear from sight.

The Bubye Valley landscape,  dotted with boulders and pools

The Bubye Valley landscape, dotted with boulders and pools

Suddenly the dagha boy snorted and swung through 180 degrees, then stood staring in the opposite direction. However, because of the sapling, he wasn’t presented well enough for a telling shot – so we continued our motionless wait, an acute cramp in my one calf threatening to floor me and compromise the stalk.

Behind us, and down the line, I heard someone trying to stifle a cough. I cussed silently – that was all we needed. In the dense scrub we heard some pushing and shoving, followed by a grunt – it was the other bulls jostling. This scuffle caused the bull we could see to once more turn through 180 degrees, stepping forward at the same time and exposing his shoulder for a clear shot.

JHKT072Jamie, who’d been waiting patiently and quietly with my .375 H&H resting on the shooting sticks, didn’t waste time and drove a 380-grain Rhino Solid Shank, in front of 63 grains of S355, into the dagha boy’s shoulder, causing the bull to lurch forward, stumble, then once more turn and gallop off in a noisy clattering of shale and breaking brush, up a slight rise to our right front, before disappearing from view, the dense scrub closing behind him.

After about two minutes, we heard him fall noisily to the ground, then struggle briefly before it all went quiet. Moving forward to where he’d been standing at the time of the shot, we found blood. We waited for a death rattle but heard nothing, so after a 20-minute wait, we cautiously made our way through the thicket, and after about 50 metres broke out into grassed woodland.

The ground rose away from us in a gentle slope, at the top of which was another dry, tangled thicket. We couldn’t see anything from where we were, so I sent one tracker up a tree. Once he had the elevation advantage in the upper branches, he said he could see the buffalo, head twisted back, hull down, and seemingly dead.

Jamie Cox on the right, and his son Josh,with Jamie’s excellent dagha boy

Jamie Cox on the right, and his son Josh,with Jamie’s excellent dagha boy

That was the good news; however, the dead buffalo’s bachelor colleagues had no intention of deserting their fallen comrade. According to the tracker up on his lofty perch, they hung around either staring at his stilled form or glaring in our direction. This behaviour is not unusual when hunting a dagha boy out of a bachelor grouping, and I’ve had it happen on a number of occasions.

It eventually took a fair amount of shouting, one or two thrown stones, and a shot in the air to drive them off – and even then, they departed at more of a grumpy amble than a hasty exit. Once we’d closed in on the dead bull, we studied him with quiet reverence, each of us deep in our thoughts, and grateful for his quick death.

It was then time for the congratulatory handshakes, after which I and the game scout walked back 6km to collect the truck. There were still photos to be taken, a track cut in to recover the dagha boy, and then a triumphant return to camp, after a superb and exciting hunt.

Kevin Thomas’s new e-book, The Hunting Game, is out now: http://bit.ly/TheHuntingGame

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