No matter how big the calibre you carry, when you have a raging buffalo coming at you, make sure you keep your act together and shoot straight, says PH Craig Robinson
Texas hunters Dave Merkel and Terry van Loenen had booked a 14-day Cape buffalo, leopard, and general plains game safari with me. My thinking was to first get a decent buffalo bull down, and then to change hunting areas and work hard at trying to get a big leopard on bait during the last 10 days of the trip – little did I know what was in store for me and my clients.
After sighting in the rifles we drove to the safari area HQ and registered our presence with National Parks. Then it was time for buffalo, although we got off to a late start due to the administrative procedures, and this didn’t give us much to go on by way of finding fresh spoor. Although I’d hunted this safari area many times over the years, I decided to find out where the buffalo were moving. Personally, I don’t care much for hunting buffalo out of herds; there are just too many eyes, ears, and noses against you. Also, the herds had been hunted extensively.
I’d told Dave I’d take him through an area where we’d previously seen good dagha bulls. Dave was game for anything – he just wanted to see buffalo, and we soon found buffalo tracks crossing the road. However, after coming round the corner, we found an empty parked hunting rig, and so just carried on.
About an hour later – the sun was already low in the sky – I was surprised to see two huge dagha bulls standing not 20m away, so I tried hard not to get too excited and continued driving along the management track. When the bulls suddenly took off to our right, I knew they wouldn’t go far, so we parked, got our rifles loaded, and knowing that shooting light would soon fade, we wasted no time in getting onto their spoor.
Shortly thereafter, I spotted the buffalo weaving their way in and out of the grey leafless bush in which they can hide so well. At that late hour in the day, the wind is pretty constant and not swirling in eddies like it often does from about 9.30am to about 4.30pm, so with the wind in our favour, we approached as close as we could, using little pockets of jesse, scattered here and there, as cover. Slowly making our way around one patch, we found the bulls standing in grass mid-way up their bodies, and staring straight at us. Quickly glassing them to select the better of the two, I then set up the shooting sticks for Dave. Relatively speaking it wasn’t by any means a diffi cult shot.
Using a .375 H&H, Dave fired at the bigger of the two, and in acknowledgement of the shot, it staggered forward and then disappeared, but not at the speed they normally take off at. We picked up the bulls a few times in the jesse, but they were moving together and we couldn’t ascertain for certain in the thick stuff, which of them was the wounded one. They then swung around and crossed the road that we’d previously been travelling along. Because of the rapidly fading light, I decided to leave the tracks until the next morning, hopefully giving the wounded bull time to lie down, stiffen up and with a bit of hunter’s luck, die during the night.
Driving back, I asked Dave how he felt about his shot – always a good thing for a PH to do. He assured me he was happy with it, and described how he’d placed his shot on the outside of the curl (the buffalo had been standing broadside on, with his head turned towards us). Because it was a ‘wide’ bull, I knew there and then, that it was a gut shot.
Next morning, and after a rather sleepless night, we got off to an early start, an hour before the dawn light started to pale the sky, and made our way back into the area where we’d come off the tracks the previous evening. Loaded up with water and a few other things, in case it became a longer day than we were anticipating, we departed the vehicle and walked in to where the spoor was. It wasn’t long before we found little droplets of blood where the two bulls had constantly lain down, got up, and lain down again. They had then walked, walked, and walked. Finally though, the second bull left his wounded comrade. Our bull was on his own now.
We’d been tracking for about 45 minutes when the wounded bull suddenly broke out of some cover in front of us. Although I got a fleeting glimpse of him, I had no chance for a shot, and we watched as he ran into the middle of a herd of elephant cows, and then we waited while the elephant cow herd filed past us at about 30 metres – they were totally unperturbed.
Once things had settled down, we again picked up the tracks and continued to follow, however, the bull just continued to run and didn’t show any sign of slowing down for many kilometres. And then when he did eventually slow down, he just kept on walking at a steady pace. Periodically, we did lose the spoor, and by then it was getting nice and hot. Eventually, we found where the bull had come out into a bit of a clearing, in the middle of which there was a lone baobab tree and it was there that he’d lain down. Why he didn’t charge from this spot, I don’t know. If he had, and although it was open, he would have been on us in no time.
At this point, we took a rest and drank water. I didn’t want to push the bull too hard, hoping he’d forget about us. We sat there for about an hour, and then carried on following the tracks. Not long after, we walked into another herd of elephant cows resting up in the jesse, so we made a semi-circle around them and then came back into the little wash the bull had been following, only to then bump into more elephant. We circled four more times.
It was on our fourth attempt that we again bumped into the wounded buffalo, but he immediately galloped off through the jesse. I then ran hard along a small elephant path that crossed through the wash and up the other side. As I came up the bank on the opposite side, he was standing there, unmoving, like a black statue. During that fleeting millisecond I remember thinking to myself, ‘Darn he’s nice!’ before I quickly brought my Winchester Mod 70 .416 Remington rifle up, and held a bead right on the middle of his head – he was standing 60 yards away, and slightly above me.
At that point I made my first mistake. I lowered my sight and took him in the chest, thinking that Dave could at least have a chance at another shot. On receiving the 400-grain Sledgehammer bullet, he came at a speed I have never witnessed in a charge – and I have dealt with a few.
The bull came without any hesitation. Dave then fired, and I saw the bull stagger ever so slightly. I then fired my second shot hoping to break his neck, but because he was moving over very uneven ground like a steam engine crashing through the bush. It wasn’t as simple as one might think. I shoot competitive Service Rifle, so I’m an above average shot. By then I was down to one round and he was homing in on me with speed. I thought of shooting for the brain when he was 10 yards away … but held back. Five yards … but held back. Because he didn’t drop his head, I let him have it straight in the face at about two yards and then leapt to my right.
The bull hooked at me and missed, brushing me aside and knocking me off my feet with his shoulder. As I was recovering, I saw the buffalo had skidded and was down on his side but still trying to get to me; he was smashing his two front hooves in front of him, only inches away. At that point, he regained his feet, as did I, and he came at me again. I was desperately trying to reload when Dave fired a high gut shot, close enough to the spine to knock him down again. That’s when I saw my chance to get out of there, fast. The buffalo had again recovered, but by then I’d reloaded and finished him with a shot in the ear. Dave and the game scout also put a few insurance shots into him, to make sure he didn’t get up again.
Terry was a brave man, standing behind me with a video camera. He had managed to get the charge on film. This has to be one of the most aggressive and determined charges on film that I have ever seen. If it wasn’t for Dave’s high gut shot, I don’t believe I’d be here today. Thanks, Dave Merkel.
I honestly don’t believe that even a .500 Nitro Express would have anchored that buffalo that day. All of my shots were killing shots. The shot I took before I went down ripped up through his muzzle and under the eye, missing the brain by an inch. Even so, the bull was not fazed at all. With the speed at which he came at me, plus the circumstances with the jesse and uneven ground, it was not as easy as hunters are led to believe to anchor him. But had I brained him from the second that I saw him standing there like a statue, it would have avoided our near catastrophe. Don’t give the wounded animal – or your client – that second chance! It may cost you your life as it nearly did mine.
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