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Zambezi Delta: return of a great Safari destination.

The grass had been flattened by many large animals. The cattle smell from their dung drifted on the breeze. Our professional hunter, Mark Haldane, commented needlessly, "It's a very large herd."

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I agreed with his next comment: "They shouldn't have gone very far." We glassed across a huge expanse of grass. There were no buffalo in sight, nor could we see the white cattle egrets that would surely have been circling such a large herd of buffalo. I probably would have taken the tracks from there, and I'd have been in for a very long day. Instead we got back on the Argos and slowly followed the spoor. "Not very far" is a subjective term in the vast swamps of the Zambezi Delta, and we followed them for several miles before one of our trackers saw egrets beyond tall papyrus.

The herd was perhaps 500 strong, but we didn't see them all until much later. Now, with some papyrus for cover, we started moving on them. The wind was strong and directly in our faces, and we had enough cover to walk upright until the last quarter mile. Then we had to get lower and lower. As long as we had it, the papyrus offered great cover, but papyrus means swamp, and I floundered to my waist several times. At 200 yards we ran out of tall cover and went to hands and knees.

Too Many Buffalo

The herd was spread out, just dark forms above saw grass, with egrets circling overhead. By now we knew there were several good bulls among the buffalo we could see, with just a fringe of diminishing saw grass remaining for cover. We left the trackers there and belly-crawled to the last taller clumps. The nearest cow wasn't 40 yards away, and she was staring in our direction. I expected the herd to explode at any moment, but the wind was fresh and steady, and after a couple of minutes that cow ambled back into the herd.

Slowly, carefully, we scanned the herd. There was a good bull directly in front of us. He ambled around on the edge for a few seconds, then lay down with cows tight around him. A possibility. Another bull moved past just beyond him, then was lost in the press. A bit farther to the right we saw a wonderful bull, mid-40s with perfect horns that dropped down and curved upward. Maybe that one. Then he turned our way, and we saw his soft, hairy bosses. Not that one. Somewhere in the middle we could see another bedded bull, just his bosses protruding above the back of a bedded cow. From what we could see, he looked good, but we never saw him completely, and absent incredible luck, we never would. There were just too many buffalo.

Off to the right was an older bull, bedded by himself. He was not remarkable, but his bosses were long-since hard and his shape was good. We would never see all the bulls in the herd, and all I wanted was an old bull. He was probably 120 yards away and he was completely clear. "What about that one?" I whispered to Mark.

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"Maybe, but let's give it time." He was also working that side of the herd with his binoculars. An hour earlier and a couple hundreds yards out we had seen a good-looking bull on that side of the herd, and I thought this loner was probably him. I was wrong, but that's why Haldane is a professional hunter. "Come to his left, past two bedded cows. Check out that bull lying with his head to the left."

Just One Shot

Oh, OK, that was the bull we had seen earlier. He was clearly old, nearly hairless along much of his back. He was wide, but fairly flat-horned. I compared him to the bull bedded just in front of us. This wide bull was on the fringe, and as long as the herd didn't spook, he would probably give us a clear shot when he stood. He was about 90 yards, par for the course in a big herd. An inch or two at a time, Mark slowly raised the sticks, setting them low, barely above the saw grass. Just in case. And then we waited some more, allowing things to develop.

The bull to our front never moved. After a little while, the lone bull off to the right got up and wandered toward the herd. Then the other bull, the wide bull, got up, giving us a quick look at chipped, well-polished bosses. Good enough. He turned, facing dead away, but he was in the clear. No matter what happened, he must turn one way or the other and he would give us a shot

Slowly, I got up on the sticks, expecting the buffalo that were closer to us to start to move. I suppose they did, but I never looked their way again. The decision was made, and whatever ripple effect there might be would take a few seconds to reach the far end of the herd. Dave Fulson rose just behind me with the camera, and I knew he was rolling. Our bull swung slowly to the left, opening the broadside shot, then took a few steps toward the herd. Then he stopped. He was still perfectly clear, but I knew he'd be covered up immediately after the shot. I'd better be careful with this one. I brought the Trijicon post up the center of his foreleg, a bit over one-third into his body, and squeezed the trigger on the Ruger .450/.400.

The sound of the bullet hitting was plenty solid, but, predictably, when the bull took the bullet he lurched forward, straight into a black mass of rapidly shifting buffalo. Either the shot was good, or it wasn't.

We stood quietly while the herd lumbered into motion. Haldane confirmed a good hit, and now all we could do was wait, my best-case scenario being that the bull would trail the herd as they moved off. They drifted away slowly, and my best case wasn't good enough. One buffalo remained behind in the yellow grass, down and out.

Marromen Complex

We were hunting in Coutada 11 in coastal Mozambique, one of several huge hunting areas that adjoin the Marromeu Reserve, a great swamp formed by the delta of the Zambezi River. It was once, and is again becoming, a great stronghold for buffalo and other game. The reserve is mostly a grassy swamp, underwater in the wet months, cut by boggy, papyrus-lined rivers in the dry. The surrounding hunting areas have pieces of the grassy swamp bound by huge tracts of thick woodland interspersed with open pans.

Prior to Mozambique's long civil war, the area teemed with wildlife, the forest mosaic holding a wide diversity of antelope, while, up until 1973, the Marromeu swamp was believed to hold as many as 40,000 buffalo and large numbers of elephant. The bush war was hard on wildlife. In the early 1990s there might have been as few as 4,000 buffalo remaining, with most other species similarly reduced.

In 1994, when Haldane's Zambeze (yes, he spells it that way) Delta Safaris started hunting Coutada 11, game was scarce and some key antelope, such as nyala and sable, were almost: gone. That first year his count revealed just 40 sable. But hunting brought effective anti-poaching, and over the years the numbers have rebuilt. Haldane, a helicopter pilot as well as a hunter, does much of the game census work in the area for the World Wildlife Fund. In 2009 the buffalo numbers in the area broke 10,000 for the first time since the war, with incredible herds now roaming the reserve and the adjacent hunting areas. In his own Coutada 11 and adjacent Coutada 12, this year's count revealed 2,450 sable, a vast number of this fast-disappearing antelope.

Other species have rebounded similarly. I hunted the area briefly in 2006 specifically for Livingstone's suni and Natal red duiker, two pygmy antelope common in the region but extremely uncommon elsewhere in their range. I was so impressed that I returned in 2008, hunting in Coutada 10, to the south. That was my first introduction to swamp buffalo hunting in the Marromeu, an altogether different experience from tracking buffalo in thornbush. My wife, Donna, was with me on that hunt, and she got the sable she had long wanted. Heck, we saw mature bulls every single day.

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Nyala And More

What we didn't get in 2008 was the antelope I wanted most of all, the nyala. Native to Zululand's thick coastal thornbush on up through coastal Mozambique, the nyala is one of the nine principal spiral-horned antelope and very possibly the most beautiful. I've hunted them in South Africa, but I always wanted to hunt them in Mozambique. After all, when I was an Africa-crazed kid in the 1960s Mozambique is where one went to hunt nyala. I didn't get one in 2008, but it was altogether my fault. I got a long shot at last light, and my rifle chose that moment to be just a couple of inches out of zero.

I would have happily tried again there, but I had learned that, by all reports, Coutada 11 had a greater concentration of nyala. Since that remained the primary goal, it made sense to go to the source.

The nyala is a shy, cover-loving antelope, and the forested areas of these big coutadas are huge. For some years after Mozambique reopened, it was widely believed that the nyala were nearly gone. Haldane reported that the first few years he hunted the area they saw only the occasional track. I still had this mindset, so on that 2008 hunt I felt blessed that I had a chance at all and was doubly upset that I'd blown it

In 2009 I was probably in a bit better habitat, but, perhaps even more important, we planned the hunt around the dark of the moon, when nyala are more likely to be out and about in daylight. Also, we concentrated on nyala, and we saw multiple bulls every day. Most were too small. Some weren't small, but since we were seeing nyala and we had time, we probably passed a couple we shouldn't have passed.

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The big pans are circular clearings, waterholes that retreat to the center as the water dries, leaving good grass on the edges. The nyala seem to love these clearings, especially in the evening, so standard tactics are to walk in to a pan in the late afternoon--or, if it's really promising, go in a bit earlier, set up chairs and wait. One evening we checked a series of pans, and the light was going fast when we got to the last one. Off across the opening, right next to the far treeline, was a dark bull with horns that looked very good. We were 400 yards away, too far to shoot and no time to close the distance.

The next evening we returned to that pan with lawn chairs and books, arriving at about 3:30. The same dark bull was already there in exactly the same place, but this time with a female. The trickiest part was a big herd of sable at the waterhole. We had to get past them to get to the nyala. Mark led us back into the thick woods, circling back to a couple of termite mounds on the edge that might give us protection as well as a good view.

We got past the sable, but the nyala was gone. And then Mark pointed out a big dead tree on the edge of the forest, white against the dark green. "Look in the shadows to the left of the tree. See the white?"

Like a whole lot of folks, Mark is taller than I am. I stretched up as far as I could, and I could see the bull's white dorsal crest, raised in display as he courted his lady. Yes! There was one more antheap ahead. It would close the range and might give us a bit of height. The sable were just 50 yards to our right, but the wind was good. Bent double, we made it to the antheap, and just in time. The bull was moving to the left, his red female nowhere in sight. Mark set up the sticks, and I got on them.

The .300 H&H hit him hard, but he lurched several yards into the shadow and went down. We ran forward 50 yards, saw that his head was up, barely visible, body to the left. I held low and left, where the neck must be, and the bullet hit with a resounding crack. At long last I had my native-range, free-range nyala, a real beauty. But the excitement of that afternoon wasn't quite over. As we approached, there was a red duiker off to our right about 50 yards. Mark stopped and put up his binoculars. "Craig, I don't want to take anything away from your nyala, but you really must shoot that duiker. You'll be glad you did."

A lesson learned is that, when a PH you trust Suggests you shoot something--urgently--then you should be shooting instead of asking questions. So I raised the rifle and shot the duiker offhand. Of course, Haldane was correct; he was a monster (as pygmy antelope go).

Perhaps that's what I like best about Mozambique's coutadas. They're big and wild, and in the dry months they can be brutally hot, but they are a slice of old Africa, where you really don't know what you might run into. In camp with use were Mel Krenek and my friend Bill Jones. They both took nice buff (two for Mr, Jones with his .505 Gibbs). Bill took nyala, reedbuck, bushbuck, a monstrous warthog and a big old boar bushpig, often seen in the daylight in this region. He also took suni and red duiker, as did Dave Fulson. Krenek's nyala eluded him, but he took good sable, waterbuck and more. By all accounts, these areas were spectacular in the 1960s. They may never return to that former glory, but in today's Africa they're plenty wonderful right now.

Mark Haldane's Zambeze Delta Safaris operates in Mozambique's Coutadas 11 and 12, and also operates bird and big-game safaris in Natal, South Africa. For information, e-mail--gamehunt@sai.co.za

WORDS & IMAGES by CRAIG BODDINGTON
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Author:Boddington, Craig
Publication:Petersen's Hunting
Geographic Code:6MOZA
Date:Dec 1, 2010
Words:2438
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