Nyati on the Limpopo.
The pursuit of these armor-horned bovines has lured me to the Dark Continent on seven previous occasions, and for the first time I had two buffalo on license. My good friend, professional hunter Siegfried Duhring, picked us up at the Johannesburg airport, and following some local cuisine, we spent the night at the Afton House before catching a flight to Harare. The following afternoon we were greeted at the Harare airport by our PH, Brent Hein's wife Michelle and their children Megan and Kyle.
The next morning, we drove six hours south to Chiredzi where we met Brent, loaded our gear, and drove three and a half more hours to Sengwe Camp located on the "great, green, greasy" Limpopo river.
On the first morning of our ten-day safari, we checked my rifle before traveling west on a bush track paralleling the white, sandy river bed with only a shallow stream of water following the contour of the land. It was not long before we cut the fresh spoor of three dagga boys and pursued them for nearly two hours through the densest tangle of combretum I have ever attempted to walk through, spending more time crawling through tunnels established by buffalo than walking upright. We caught up to them on several occasions, but saw only parts of the animals before they disappeared. All we could hope for was to catch them grazing in the small clearings ladened with grass, or better yet, crossing the expansive river.
All our initial effort produced was a shredded shirt and some bleeding legs. On our extended hike back to the Land Cruiser, we spotted four bulls crossing the sandy river bed heading south. After lunch we returned to see if the bulls crossing earlier would return before dark, but our plan was interrupted by four naked African kids playing in the river right where the bulls crossed. We then visited one of the locals who had a bull invading his corn field and discovered much sign, but no bull. Day one ended with an excellent dinner followed by enjoying the warmth and therapeutic effects of our campfire.
On the second morning we negotiated our way west of camp along the river in the dark to a well-used crossing discovered the previous day. Short of our destination, fresh spoor was observed; the 'Cruiser came to a halt, and the noisy clattering diesel engine turned silent. While several loquacious Egyptian geese glided overhead, we prepared for another excursion into the ocean of thorn scrub.
As trackers fastidiously worked out the direction the bulls were heading, Brent and I walked further up river to see if they had crossed the river--they hadn't. Returning to the trackers, we entered the maze of skin-ripping, shirt-shredding combretum.
Within an hour we discovered ourselves back on the river road when we spotted three mature bulls crossing the river, only to pause and look back at us before they disappeared into the security of the South African bush. Suddenly we heard the sound of cows and calves ahead of us. Assuming they were about to cross the river, we dashed to the river bank. Upon reaching the bank, which provided a panoramic view of the dry river bed, my rifle was on the sticks, but not before fifteen buffalo entered the river bed in haste.
Within a huge dust cloud generated by the leading buffalo, a cow and a heavy-horned bull with deep, pendulous horns appeared, pausing sixty yards from where I stood. Brent whispered "Take him" and the quiescent morning was shattered momentarily by the bark of my .375 H&H. The bull hunched up and began to gallop towards the other members of the herd. In a contrail of dust generated by the herd as they fought the lack of traction in the deep sand, I fired a second time. A third shot was impossible as the buff had reached the others. All I could do was watch as they dashed towards the border, but as they reached the middle of the river, my bull collapsed in the manila-colored sand of the Limpopo. Suddenly, concern evolved into jubilation as we had one bull down and eight days to take another. Admiring its massive coal-black horns while in my hands verified why I travel over 10,000 miles each summer to pursue Africa's mega fauna. The remainder of our morning, following a photo session, was spent quartering the animal and ponderously transferring it to the shoreline and the 'Cruiser.
After lunch we delivered one of the hindquarters to the local chief, which is a regional custom. The rest of the evening was spent looking for spoor east of camp, but located nothing fresh. As the sun sank below the tall, green ubiquitous fever trees and darkness blanketed the region, we concluded day two enjoying the warmth generated by our campfire, but this time with a buffalo in the salt.
To have scored so early on a great bull, in such challenging terrain, was gratifying, but we now were on the third day, and I was anticipating just how it would turn out. Before daylight we walked the river road, scanning the jungle floor for fresh spoor, and shortly afterwards, we came across the spoor of three bachelor bulls, but continued walking in a westerly direction for nearly a mile to make sure they hadn't crossed the river.
We caught up to the bulls in less than two hours, but again, all we could see were parts of them before they meandered off. It was frustrating to crawl through and under the combretum only to see a leg or two. No telling what kind of headgear they supported, but that's buffalo hunting. An exercise in futility, we returned to the 'Cruiser.
On a hunch, we travelled north of camp to the heavily populated, over-grazed communal land, then southeast to an area occupied by thorn scrub, but nothing like what we contended with along the river. As we ventured deeper into the sparsely vegetated area, we came across fresh tracks of a single bull, but with the sun overhead, we returned to camp for lunch in order to spoor the dagga boy in the cooler evening hours. While enjoying lunch on the Limpopo, nyala, kudu, and impala entertained us on the opposing bank. The entire evening was spent spooring the lone bull before darkness curtailed our efforts. Returning to the 'Cruiser in the dark, we concluded our third day, looking forward to a hot shower, some fine bush cuisine, and a short stint around the fire, all of which are highly anticipated events in the bush.
On the fourth morning, we travelled less than a quarter mile east of camp when an abundance of fresh buffalo spoor became obvious in our headlights, but the herd of fifty-plus animals crossed into South Africa at daylight.
Returning to the west side of camp, we tracked another herd for one hour before they crossed the river. Two heavy bossed bulls trailing the herd actually paused in the river bed to look back at us, but at an estimated 200 yards, I made no attempt to shoot as the slightest error would allow the animal an opportunity to cross the river into South Africa.
The evening hours were spent sequestered on the north bank of the river right where the herd had crossed at first light, but only one hyena and eight nyala showed up to obtain some water. It was an enjoyable evening as dark-capped bulbuls, white-fronted bee eaters, a brown-headed kingfisher and a single hoopoe fed undisturbed within viewing distance of us.
Utilizing darkness to conceal our movements on the fifth morning, we returned to the heavily used crossing east of camp. This time we set up behind a sand dune located in the dry river bed hoping to catch buffalo crossing the river, but once again they failed to appear. Later in the morning we travelled west of camp, located fresh spoor of several bulls, and tracked them for over an hour before we bumped into the animals. We were only a few yards from them when they erupted from their beds, but again visibility was nonexistent, so we returned to the 'Cruiser. Not ten minutes down the road we spotted another herd close to the bank. Dropping the trackers off, Brent and I continued further upriver until we could enter the riverbed and position ourselves where we thought the herd would cross to evade the trackers--but instead they turned north.
The entire afternoon was spent negotiating a virtually unused track so littered with log jams from the spring flood we nicknamed it 'Armageddon Road'. The end result of this excursion was the sighting of one green mamba and two flat tyres.
Travelling west along the river before daylight on the sixth morning, two duiker dashed in front of us in our headlights as we exited the truck into the cold, ink black morning. We walked several miles of the river road to see if buffalo had crossed, and once we confirmed they hadn't, we returned to the fresh sign of the dagga boys we found closer to the 'Cruiser and entered the verdant maze of green combretum in pursuit of the group.
After spooring the bulls for two hours, we accidentally bumped into them. After giving them time to calm down, we continued to track them only to get close enough to hear them dash off. Discovering that we were only a quarter mile or less from the river, Brent and I, along with the game scout, rapidly proceeded to the river bed while the trackers remained spooring the group in an attempt to see them cross the river and possibly get a shot, but they refused to exit the dense undergrowth. It was a long, hot walk back to the vehicle.
Our evening plan developed when one of our trackers who missed the morning hunt to visit his sick child located fresh buffalo spoor on his return to camp. Not a quarter mile northeast of camp we entered the semi-open lowveld littered with mopani and knobthorn trees, relinquishing to tall, green-barked fever trees, rain trees, and mahogany as we neared the river. Within an hour we caught up to them just as they began to feed. We could hear them, even saw the smaller trees shaking as they milled around in the maze of undergrowth, and continually heard bulls clashing their armor-plated bosses against each other, but darkness was rapidly approaching.
It was a big herd, and we had to move in order to increase our chances of seeing them. As puffs of white powder from William's hand designated wind direction, we prepared to move when six rare, lacquer-black-crowned guinea fowl perambulated within only a few feet of us.
We hadn't taken twenty steps before the calm herd erupted into a melee of thundering hooves and dust, bulldozing their way through the bush. Certain they hadn't seen or winded us, we continued in a half circle until we came upon some undisturbed members of the herd. Stealthily, I placed my rifle on the sticks, while dust generated by the herd drifted back down on top of the undergrowth. For what felt like an eternity yet couldn't have been more than thirty minutes, we peered into the sea of thorn scrub in hopes of seeing the feeding animals. An opening no wider than a truck door provided me an extended view into the maze of vegetation.
As I peered through my scope, a calf appeared, then a cow. Seconds later, several cows crossed the narrow opening. I was enjoying the view of the animals when a bull appeared and Brent whispered 'Shoot'. Almost instantly, my CZ barked and the bull collapsed. Trees began shaking all around us now as the confused herd began running. Then like an apparition, I saw a group of muddy, gray buffalo approach and stand over the downed buffalo. At one point I thought that it got up, but a loud bellow confirmed that it was down for good, and the herd stampeded off.
As darkness blanketed the dense bush, we cautiously approached the buffalo lying before us, and all I could think of was how privileged I was to enjoy such a magnificent experience.
Our seventh day was spent retrieving, not spooring buffalo. We returned to the downed buffalo by cutting our way through the underbrush. And even with six individuals armed with razorsharp pangas, it took a while before we reached the animal. Shortly afterwards, the 1,600-pound-plus buffalo was quartered and loaded into the Cruiser, with only a mound of fermented grass remaining at the site. After lunch we honoured the tradition of delivering another hind quarter to the chief before travelling almost a hundred miles to visit the concession owner operating out of the Malapati Safari Area.
On the eighth morning, I woke up with chills and remained in bed for most of the day. Fortunately, Jan had some antibiotics in our medicine kit that assuaged the fever, and by evening I could at least enjoy the campfire. Concerned about my condition, we parted camp early on the ninth day for Harare. Nine and a half hours later, the large, solid black gate opened to Brent's compound, and we were greeted by the exuberant smiles of his children as they were overjoyed to have their daddy along with us back home.
Tired from the long trip, we retired early because Jan's hunt started the following morning when we hit the curio markets.
On the tenth morning my fever dissipated and Brent, Jan, and I, along with the kids, shopped in Harare. We started out by having breakfast in the courtyard of a quaint little restaurant as fire finches pecked away on scraps from our table. The highlight of our day was at the market where the native Zimbabwe talent is ostentatiously displayed in both rock and wood carvings.
Finally, we bid our sad farewells as Michelle and the kids dropped us off at the Harare airport. We waved until we could no longer see our newly made friends, only to look forward to our returning next year.