Out of Africa: A Hunter’s Journal

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mark Hamilton departed Minot June 14 for the purpose of accompanying an African hunting safari which includes a quest for dangerous game. The following is the third installment of a series of reports from the field by Hamilton. This is his fourth trip to the Dark Continent, one that will culminate with a lion hunt in South Africa. This report is a continuation of the safari’s Cape buffalo and leopard hunt in Zimbabwe.

In the last episode of A Hunter’s Journal, we discussed the habits and characteristics of Cape buffalo and why it is such a formidable creature to hunt. Now, onto our hunt itself, a combination hunt for both buffalo and leopard.

Our hunt begins the day after our arrival at Sengwa Reserve. Sengwa is about 250 miles northwest Harare, the capital city of Zimbabwe. We are glad to be here and most anxious to get hunting! Our hunt here is 15 days in duration, during which we are looking for both buffalo and leopard, whichever presents itself first.

Cape Buffalo present the hunter with many challenges and difficulties. Each hunt is different, no absolutes as conditions vary greatly. In good hunting areas, such as ours, Sengwa, where the buffalo are plentiful, success is almost always certain. But our hunting was most frustrating as it involved many days and much effort, with long walks in the hot sun and many unsuccessful attempts.

Our hunt begins by driving the Toyota Land Cruiser slowly down a system of very rough trails throughout the 90,000 acre reserve. Riding in the open land cruiser, the professional hunter is at the wheel, with a complement of hunt staff up on top looking for animals, and also looking for spoor, telltale hoof prints and animal droppings. The most valued member of this hunt team is, without question, the head tracker.

Accounts of the skills of experienced trackers are legendary. The head tracker and the professional hunter work as one. I had often read about the abilities of trackers to find game, but I was skeptical. Their accounts must be embellished, I thought, until I experienced it firsthand.

A few years ago, I was hunting at a different safari concession, located on the Zambesi River on the northern boundary of Zambia and Zimbabwe. On an early morning of our first day of hunting, the professional hunter drove us to a small water hole on a dry riverbed. The sandy area was covered with myriad tracks. It was the dry season, no rain, and every animal in the area was watering at this small water hole. For me, it was virtually impossible to discern one track from the other.

The professional hunter and his tracker, Mandeboo, were walking around the water hole studying the tracks. The tracker asked, “Mandeboo, how many buffalo?” The tracker, down on one knee, studied a bit longer and replied, “three maybe four buffalo.” After a long trek through the thick bush, Mandeboo spotted buffalo about 60 yards distant. There were four of them. I never questioned the tracker’s ability again.

Now, on our own particular hunt, our tracker treated us to the same magic. We were following the tracks of a group of buffalo and discovered them about 85 yards in the distance. The hunter attempted a shot but the light was poor and the buffalo only stood for an instant before they went crashing through the thick brush. We made four more attempts, about 7 miles of trekking for another opportunity, but to no avail. The buffalo were either seeing us or, more likely, catching our scent. The wind was never consistent, constantly changing and swirling about, making it impossible for us to stay downwind.

Later, on our fourth attempt that day, the tracker could tell that the big buff had split from the herd and had gone off by himself. In a frustrated voice Gary Duckworth, our professional hunter, said, “This buff has now become a Dugga Boy,” the term used to describe an old buffalo who is generally past his breeding stage and leaves the herd. The old bull goes off alone, making him very difficult to hunt. Gary said the bull we were after was the largest buffalo he had seen at Sengwa. He estimated a 44- to 45-inch spread, a tremendous trophy.

“We likely will not see him again,” he said. He was right.

The next four days were spent in similar fashion, making four or more attempts each day to get within rifle range, but to no avail. The buffalo seemed to be catching our scent each time we were closing in. We could hear them in the brush and could see the oxpeckers, a bird that follows the buffalo and feeds off the ticks which infest them.

No worries just yet though, we are only at Day 4 of a 15-day hunt. More hunting ahead.

Join us again next week for more details of our buffalo hunt, its successful conclusion, and details of our leopard hunt!