I suppose that today nothing new can be written about hunting Africa’s notorious Cape buffalo. Such an awesome and intimidating animal has been hunted for so long, producing hunts that are occasionally life-threatening, always exhilarating, and filled with heart-pounding excitement. Buffalo hunting has inspired ink to flow from the pens of many famous African scribes, hunter clients, and professional hunters. Somewhere back in time, after he had charged enough hunters and killed more than any other, he was deservedly dubbed “Black Death.”
I’ve hunted Cape buffalo several times in Tanzania and South Africa and have three wide, heavily-bossed heads and a thousand memories for my efforts. I hunt with a bow; Cape buffalo included.
This buffalo hunt would be with Wintershoek/Johnny Vivier Safaris (WJVS) and Winterschoeck Safaris near Kimberley, South Africa. This area has lots of rough terrain, thick heavy brush, and lots of buffalo. With a bow, I knew an old hard-bossed bull would perhaps be the ultimate challenge. What I didn’t know was the bizarre turn of events that would put me personally face-to-face with Black Death.
I’ve hunted with Johnny several times before and he’s the type of man that anyone would quickly admire and trust. I commented often on his old worn Ruger .458. Johnny has carried that one gun all over the African continent. It is worn completely smooth, the bluing has long faded away and the stock’s finish has been replaced with a hand-made patina of some 30 years. This gun is especially fascinating to me, much as other legends; Jack O’Connor’s pre-64 .270 or John Wayne’s loop-levered Winchester. Johnny has lived a lifetime of adventure and faced countless dangers–all with his faithful and ever-present old “4-5-8” in his hands.
Not only did I not realize the danger I would face on this hunt, I didn’t have a clue how critical a role that legendary old gun would play.
It was early morning when Johnny and I pulled into the 40,000-acre Wintershoek Private Game Reserve that is located 65 kilometers south of Kimberley, South Africa. We were met there by Strauss, Yvan, and the professional hunting staff. After a quick cup of coffee, Yvan, a professional hunter (PH), and our tracker named Brighton joined us, and we were off to look for buffalo. My standards were very high, advising Johnny that a 40-inch-wide bull was my minimum and it had to be an old hard-bossed buffalo.
We drove through a portion of the 15-square-mile concession stopping frequently to glass and to sneak into rocky canyons and pockets of thick brush. There were a lot of buffalo around Wintershoek, and by the end of the first day we had seen an honest 28 different bulls, several which may have met my criteria. Despite all those bulls, I did not come close to having an opportunity to pull my heavyweight bow back even once.
In a previous interview I had replied without hesitation to the question of the toughest animal to take with a bow. “A big old Cape buffalo, they have no weakness and they never cut you a break!” No surprise, my experience-based opinion was being validated yet again this day!
Next morning we shivered atop the open rover as we pulled out of camp, tires crunching over heavily-frosted grass. It was another crystal-clear perfect African day…or at least it started that way. By mid-morning we had spotted seven bulls in a group. A stalk to within glassing distance revealed nothing close to what we were after. Two hours later we were bouncing across an open grassy valley when we spotted three bulls lying under dark heavy brush. These were three old bulls that looked to me to be big, and Johnny and Yvan confirmed. The stalk was on! We circled far out around where the bulls were bedded to get the favor of the wind and line up plenty of needed cover to stalk within bow range.
As we closed to 200 yards we could see the sun glinting off of a large curved horn in the heavy cover. At 100 yards the bulls were still bedded. We were on our hands and knees slowing crawling ahead as quietly as possible. At fifty yards, trying to be extremely quiet, we were barely inching ahead when we saw the small cluster of camelthorn trees shake and one of the bulls emerged from its cover to stare straight at us.
Unfortunately for me I was caught in the bull’s full view and I froze in an awkward crawling position. Yvan, slightly blocked from the bull’s sight by some brush, slowly eased himself flat to the ground and Johnny, who was behind me, was able to lay flat and somewhat relaxed.
Now, if you’ve ever seen the stare of a Cape buffalo bull, even a picture, you’ll understand what I was feeling. The buffalo had heard us crawling and had come to take a look…a look that was so stern, penetrating, and intimidating that I did not move a twitch, knowing that the old bull, with the slightest confirmation of danger, could be gone, or worse, he could charge.
As minutes turned into ten, then twenty, then a half-hour, the buffalo motionlessly stared at me. My back stiffened then turned to pain, my lower legs had gone asleep and now just ached! My left hand held my bow and my right hand was clenched in the red sand supporting much of my forward body weight.
Finally, after what seemed like a torture session, the bull broke off his near hour-long vigil and turned back into the brush and out of sight. As quietly as possible I collapsed onto my side. I was in serious pain from muscle fatigue and spasms. My legs, back, and arms were in total agony and my right arm and hand were stinging and numb.
Just then, the whole cluster of camelthorn trees shook and all three buffalo bulls came to face us, still laying on the ground 50 yards away. Yvan and Johnny whispered to me almost simultaneously, “get ready to shoot!”
So here I am, slumped over, aching all over, holding a Mathews MR5 set at 82 pounds, which at that moment I seriously doubt I can even pull back. My legs and arms were stinging like needles from being asleep and my right hand felt dead.
I fumbled around to slide an arrow into the rest and snapped the nock onto the string, all the while the three buffalo bulls stood at full alert staring intently at us with that renowned look ”like we owed them money.” From an awkward prone position, I ranged to confirm the distance of 44 yards to the biggest bull.
I strained to straighten up and rose to my knees, tugged the bow to full draw, and swung the forty-yard-pin toward the center of the big bull’s chest. THUNK! My bow went off…and I wasn’t nearly ready! My right arm and hand were so numb I had set off the release without even feeling the trigger. All I knew was that the sight pins were somewhere on the left side of the buffalo when the bow went off.
The bulls whirled and ran. A second later all was quiet as I sat there dumbfounded by what I had just done. Johnny said, “Scottie, you may have shot too fast? I think you hit him low-left, maybe through the arm pit!”
“Too fast,” I defended, “I wasn’t even ready! I was barely at full draw!” Oh, I was frustrated with myself!
The blood-covered arrow told the bitter story. I had wounded a Cape buffalo. I had screwed up big time, and I felt terrible. Now we had to track him down and finish the job. Tracking a wounded buffalo has been the basis for countless mishaps and close-calls over the decades. An old Cape buffalo bull is a thick-bodied massive brute of solid muscle, with a bad attitude to match. Once wounded, they are just plain unpredictably dangerous.
Brighton the tracker had no problem following the buffalo tracks across the sandy soil. The steady blood drips confirmed he was tracking the correct bull. Johnny, Yvan, and I circled back to the truck and caught up to the tracker who had now gone about a half-mile. At this point it was apparent that my arrow had not been lucky enough to hit anything immediately fatal. This situation could get ugly as directly ahead was a dense thicket of cover and it was a sure bet the bulls had taken refuge there. This is where common sense dictated I put away my pride along with my bow and try to finish it with some big, heavy medicine.
I asked Johnny if I could use his big gun to attempt to kill the wounded buffalo and finish the job I had botched with my errant arrow. Of course he said yes, and he explained how he aimed with the open sights. I tested the trigger on an empty chamber. No surprise, it was a crisp and clean pull at about four pounds.
We snuck into the shade of the thicket atop fresh buffalo tracks accompanied by the tell-tale blood drops.
Through binoculars, Johnny spotted the three brutes amidst the tangle watching us and despite the thick brush, he was somehow able to decipher that the buffalo positioned on the right was the big wounded bull.
I lined up the open sights the very best I could a squeezed off a shot. BOOM! The big gun’s report reverberated in the heavy cover and the bull rocked back as the dust blew off his chest at the impact of the big 510-grain Barnes bullet. The brush exploded as all three bulls lumbered away, out of the thicket and across a huge grassy expanse.
We raced back to the truck, jumped up in the rear-mounted seats and took off around the big thicket hoping to keep the wounded bull in sight. We sped down a dusty little path and caught a glimpse of the buffaloes galloping away. Yvan was driving and we bounced down the bush path as fast as we could to try and intersect them. As we cleared another big clump of brush and tress we slowed to a stop to relocate the bulls.
There they were! Still running, but now only two bulls were loping away. My spirits jumped as I thought he must have dropped from my rifle shot! Then, there he was coming up behind us, still running hard. He had veered off from the other two bulls and had turned and was running toward our direction…maybe 125 yards away and coming straight at us.
Johnny said, “Get ready to kill him when he turns.” I was already leaned over the padded railing of the rear seats and steadied the open sights on the rapidly-approaching bull. At this point he was just running in our direction. He hadn’t really seen us, and I assumed when he did notice the truck sitting there he would change direction, offering me an easy broadside kill shot through his front shoulders. I could not have been more wrong!
As he galloped around the only patch of brush between him and us, about 75 yards out he spied the truck and us sitting there. But instead of veering away from us, his wandering gallop transformed into a riveted and deliberate charge. His gallop shifted into a full-speed death-sprint straight at us!
Now if you’ve ever seen a Cape buffalo running, just imagine one of those massive beasts coming at you at full-speed, pumped full of adrenaline, with blood in his eyes, and hell-bent on getting revenge!
“He’s charging! Shoot him, Scottie! Shoot him, Scottie!” Johnny screamed. My first shot hit him square in the chest at 60 yards. The wallop of the big bullet barely broke the stride of the now full-blown charging bull. I worked the bolt in a split-second and now was holding on his heavy horn boss as he neared the truck. Johnny was going crazy…”Shoot him, shoot him, Scottie!” I was on him good and I knew it, but waited an extra instant. Then at ten yards, as the buffalo took a slight stutter-step to leap up into the back of the truck, BOOM! I hit him hard square in the center of his head, blowing a huge piece of the horn boss clear off! He dropped like a ton of bricks–almost sliding into the truck–digging a deep ditch in the sandy soil as he kicked and bucked to get back on his feet. I worked the bolt and chambered another big slug as Yvan spun the rear tires of the little Toyota to back away from the buffalo. The dust flew everywhere, in the air from the spinning tires, and from the charging, sliding, and wild bull!
Just then, little Bakkie, Yvan’s wire-haired terrier, who was somewhere in the truck bed, leaped from the truck right onto the buffalo. “Shoot him again, Scottie!” Johnny yelled. “Don’t shoot the dog!” The bull was up and somehow coming at us again. BOOM…another giant bullet blasted into the wild buffalo’s head. Down he went again! Bakkie was biting at the kicking buffalo, and then he yipped and went flying as the bull’s hind leg caught him just right.
Incredibly, the crazed bull spun around trying to get up again. The buffalo’s eyes were wild with rage.
Johnny instinctively knew his gun was empty and shoved me another cigar-sized bullet, which I instantly chambered, snapped the gun to my shoulder, and shot again, BOOM, blasting the bull through the brain one last time. Down he went again.
There he was, still kicking…bleeding out of a half-dozen half-inch-sized holes.
For 10-15 seconds, which seemed like a half-hour, that bull was indeed the notorious, deadly, and unstoppable Black Death. He simply could not be killed! Now, finally, he was lying there, all 42-1/2 inches of heavy, hard-bossed magnificence…all down for keeps.
Wow! What had just happened? Johnny was going crazy, back-slapping me with shouts of “Great shooting, Scottie!” Bakkie was back on the buff again, chewing on the down-for-good bull. Yvan jumped out of the truck in disbelief and relief. I just stood there shaking, keeping one eye on the bull almost expecting it to get up again. What an experience of excitement, fear, and who knows what we all were feeling–certainly relief!
As the dust cleared we all took a few minutes to catch our breath. We recounted step-by-step what had happened and how the outcome could have been a whole lot worse.
While I wouldn’t trade that entire amazing experience for anything, there are two key points that I will probably never forget. One was the bull itself; such wild rage and raw power that can barely be stopped. Like a basketball player going for a full-court breakaway layup, the bull had locked onto me standing there on the truck and there was no doubt he was in the process of leaping up into the back of the truck when I brained him. To those few that have experienced a full-on buffalo charge, only they have witnessed the bull’s body language change as he charges near, as Johnny puts it; he knows he’s got you. He almost swells with anticipation and preparation of the impact. He wanted to kill me!
The second was the look on Johnny’s face. Oh, how priceless! Imagine now, Johnny Vivier, superman of PHs, renowned professional hunting legend standing there, co-target of a wild charging buffalo bull…without his trusty and ever-faithful old .458 in his hands! Instead, his gun was in the hands of his client. He had to trust me, as he shouted direction and encouragement, all the while praying I would somehow hit the right spot. Fortunately, the good Lord looked after us all that day, the day an old Black Death Cape buffalo bull tried to validate his feared nickname against Johnny Vivier’s amazing 458.