Out of Africa: A Hunter’s Journal

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the second episode of an African safari provided by Mark Hamilton of Minot. Hamilton began his safari June 16. A highlight included witnessing a fellow hunter take a trophy cape buffalo, a powerful animal considered one of Africa’s five most dangerous game.

During last week’s introductory report we talked about our arrival in Africa, our Sengwa Reserve hunting areas, the hunting camp, the weather, the hunting conditions, and briefly touched on the differences between hunting “plains game” and encountering “dangerous game.”

This week, we look specifically at the nature and characteristics of our first hunt species – Cape buffalo. The native Shona people call him “n-ya-ti.” The Swahili people call him “m-bo-go.” Those who have hunted him call him “black death.”

Asking African hunters to rate which of the big five animals they believe to be the most dangerous, is like asking hunters which of a .270 or .30-.06 is the better caliber rifle. Every hunter will enjoy his opinion and specific hunting situations vary greatly, but almost without exception, those who have hunted dangerous game will almost always concur. The animal most likely to kill you, especially when wounded, is the monstrous and cantankerous Cape buffalo.

Buffalo are a powerhouse. They are big – 2,000 pounds big – and properly mean, sporting the disposition of a junkyard dog. Robert Ruark in his classic writing about African hunting, said it best: “Buffalo look at you like you owe them money.” Anyone who has stared into the eyes of a buffalo at 30 yards will agree. At close range, his look will turn you stone cold, and stand your hair on end. You will be wishing you were back in North Dakota.

Nature equipped the buffalo with all the essentials of survival. Lions are constantly trying to eat them. Every moment of every day and every night, lions are trying to kill them. Hence, buffalo are nasty by nature. Their senses are tuned like the finest Stradivarius. They have all the tools. Cape buffalo boast incredible senses of sight, sound and smell with strength of a gargantuan – along with a woman’s intuition.

A Cape buffalo will toss a 500-pound lion over his head like a cat plays with a mouse. When wounded, he will lie in wait for you. He knows where his hurt came from, and he hates you with a vengeance. He will toss you like he tosses the lion and grind your body into the dirt and stand on you with his knees.

Having said all that, I must add that for the most part, most buffalo hunts are not particularly dangerous. While they indeed can be, most are not and they usually take place without serious incident. There are hundreds of buffalo taken annually by hunters throughout Africa and, by far, most will end well. But not always. If you wound a buffalo and he is still able, he will come for you. It’s crunch time, no pun intended, and either you or he will be left standing.

While in pursuit of buffalo, a particularly dangerous situation arises when hunting in thick, dense cover known as the jess. At other times they will lay in the tall grass. In either situation they most assuredly will see you before you see them. If you are upwind it is guaranteed that they will smell you. God forbid that you ever find yourself tracking his blood trail through the tall grass. He is waiting for you. You are knocking on heaven’s door.

A troubling dilemma is that buffalo don’t necessarily need to be wounded to be dangerous. Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, people are indeed killed each year by buffalo, and not always while hunting them. I personally have had two acquaintances killed by buffalo. Simon Combes, a noted wildlife artist from Kenya, was killed in December of 2000 while on an afternoon hike in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley with his wife and daughter. The buffalo came for them and Combes went to the fore, ushering his wife and daughter to the back. The beast threw him to the ground, stomped on him, and ripped open his chest. His daughter said, “He just came from nowhere.” Combes was no novice to the habits of buffalo. He was born and raised in Kenya and was among buffalo and other dangerous game often. He portrayed the same in his paintings.

On another occasion, a few years ago, an acquaintance who was a hunting guide from British Columbia was killed while hunting in Tanzania. Bob Fontana, of Fontana Hunting, was hunting lesser kudu when he and his professional hunter were surprised by a lone bull lying in deep grass as they passed by. The buffalo’s horns caught him in the buttocks and threw him end over end, crushing his skull in the process. The buffalo was then killed by the professional hunter at point blank range.

Please return to these pages next week for another episode of A Hunter’s Journal when we discuss the details of our own encounter with “nyati,” Africa’s black death.