Limpopo March 2019 part 1: The buffalo

zambezi

Well-Known Member
Setting the scene:

I have just returned from 10 days hunting in the Limpopo region of South Africa. The stalks took place on three ranch farms all separated by less than 20 minutes driving in the Hoedspruit area not far from the intersection of R40 and R526 roads in that province. The accommodation was on Boulders Game Ranch, the Buffalo hunt took place on Excellence Farm and the Eland stalk took place on Garonga/Selati [27 000ha].

Critics of hunting in South Africa often state that it is a big detraction that hunting takes place on high-fenced farms that are smaller than those in, say, Namibia. Typically ranch sizes in SA range 1000ha – 30 000ha. The argument runs that on the smaller units you may take sight of the fences, or stalk the same section of bush more than once in a week. I really do not see this as a serious negative. Make no mistake: these farms are bigger than any I hunt on in the UK, and by some margin. And herds I saw one day disappeared the next. There was enough real estate for a 10 strong gang of dugga boys to simply melt away for days on end. If as I did, you walk and stalk, then farms of these sizes are enormous. My PH calculated we walked over 100km in 8 days of hunting. And whilst we certainly encountered the same watering holes and copses sometimes, the approach was different, at different times of day and the spoor on the ground revealed new visitors each time.

The package of PG + DG animals I selected was brokered by Patrick Reynecke who is a trade member on this forum. Patrick is an affable chap with a limitless font of bonhomie and banter. When the hunting day closes he is as comfortable in the bar with a beer and a cigarette and has a reel of anecdotes to share. He is an Afrikaner which is to say a member of the dutch-language speaking folk of South Africa [but speaks English perfectly well]. His surname’s spelling will be unfamiliar to UK folk, and it may help to know that it is pronounced “roy-nek”. For the PG portion of my safari, my PH was Grant Botha. If you ever get to hunt with him then know you are in good hands: good tracking skills in his own right independent of the native experts, committed to walk and stalk and prepared to put in the work.

Unseasonably late rains in the Limpopo region meant that the thornscrub was extremely dense and visibility stalking into buffalo on Excellence Farm was often 30m or less! It was exhilirating, exhausting and challenging. Add to that the fact that daytime temperatures reached or exceeded 40°C [which was above average for this time of year] with high humidity on most days: It was physically sapping.



The buffalo hunt:

The buffalo hunt commenced on day one by trying to locate the herd’s present whereabouts on Excellence farm’s 6500ha (?). This was done by criss-crossing Excellence farm in a land cruiser whilst PH [Ian Brown of Blaser promo fame] and tracker scanned for fresh sign on the road, its verges and at each river crossing. Day one we encountered the herd crossing a road. We reversed 400m away from them, parked up and discussed the stalk strategy before setting off in pursuit on foot. At that point I suspected the hunt was going to be a slam dunk. Hoo boy, was I wrong…

Our peleton of hunters and trackers strode up the road to the point where the buffalo had entered the dense thornscrub and threaded a pursuing path through the skin lacerating thorns pausing periodically to listen for oxpeckers, herd noises, anything. The herd moved quickly and surprisingly quietly. By contrast we seemed to be taking turns to find kindling with our feet and snapping it loudly under foot. The heat was relentless. We caught up with the herd on a number of occasions, but the dense foliage meant we could only glimpse fragments of black hide, indistinct body parts, and like dazzle camouflage it worked well to obscure size and distance.

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Invariably, at these close quarters in near opaque conditions the herd discerned more about its pursuers than ever we did about them. It was a cycle set to repeat itself several times over three days. It was tantalising, dangerous and frustrating. In the first two and a half days of stalking the PH put up the sticks just once, and that more in hope than expectation: We had observed the herd at 80m - 100m and they appeared to be feeding towards us and to our left. If they maintained that trajectory, it was a possibility that one or more would emerge into a clearer section of the scrub in 60-200 secs. I set up my .375 and readied for that eventuality. Once again it was not to be: whether swirling wind or movement or noise we will never know, but the herd became aware of our locale and took flight in the opposite direction. The gound rumbled as they cantered off, their path audible but invisible to us each and every time our encounters took place on level ground. On other occasions, when we were on higher ground and they started running downhill and then up the opposing valley slope, we could map their escape path by the signature ripple of the tree tops as the sum of their bolide bodies jostled with the vegetation in their way. It was a sobering thought to consider what would transpire if they ran towards us rather than away…

Then impasse: one of the ranch’s fences had been compromised in the summer storms of a few months earlier and the bulk of the herd discovered that portal and sauntered onto an adjoining property. There could be no pursuing them there. But not all was lost as the property in question was a tiny well-fenced parcel of land on which a mining operation was running. i.e. the herd was easily locatable and could be driven back across the boundary. The mine allowed the Excellence farm trackers to spook the herd back through the fence breach and back on to the home range. But fixing the 30m of broken electric-fence would not take place for some weeks yet and so there followed a few days of herd shuttling between the two blocks of land. By late afternoon of a given day staff would relocate them onto Excellence, by night they wandered back to the mine before we (hunting party) could travel to Excellence from our camp at Boulders Game Ranch.

On our third full day of hunting we realised that even if we managed to get the herd to stay on Excellence by day, the foliage made it unlikely that we would be able to craft a viable encounter with a candidate cow. So we hatched a different plan: The Excellence staff waited until myself and the PH were esconced in an ambush position within the Excellence courtilage and only then commenced their drive of the buffalo across the mining property’s boundary. Understand that we could not shoot at the pinch point offered by the fence breach location for fear that a wounded animal could return to the mine and cause havoc with the work force and equipment there. So the ambush set up was well within Excellence and was based on most likely pathways to be taken based on recent spoor evidence. Our first guess was wrong, the herd did not come our way. And when the beaters backed off, the buffs returned to the mine by a route unseen from our kopje eyrie.

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We reset the ambush at an alternate position that gave a good vantage over the route they seemed to favour that day. The beaters recommenced bovine relocation and we had success: a swirl of dust on the horizon heralded their approach down a dry river bed and we were perched on a boulder off to one side of that drainage. If they maintained steady progress, they should hove into view broadside to our position, hopefully not at a canter.

In the event they veered away from us and up a hill rising from the river bed 400m from our position and proceeded in that vector until their path was once again curtailed by other fencing. They pivoted once again, now moving somewhat towards us but still 350m+ away and up a hill. At this point the tree tops on the hilltop across the valley were swaying and hoof strike on rock audible. 300m and closing. They now headed directly toward us and downhill. At approx 200m the PH triumphantly declared that the barren cow at the head of the herd was indeed our target. Good fortune in one sense, but a frontal shot on a moving buffalo at 150m was out of the question. As the herd reached the base of the hill and stepped onto the sandy river bed in front of us, they paused momentarily as if to gather their bearings and doubtless test whether the trackers were still in pursuit. The lead cow turned right and started to track a 35° path away from us up the hill to my left. In a matter of 2-3 secs her body had shifted from facing me, to sideways-on orientation, and thence to quartering away. She seemed to have stalled slightly in the quartering away position and it was then I decided to place my shot just behind her left foreleg. My calculation being that the projectile should pass through the heart area, possible exiting slightly forward of the right shoulder.

Between making my bullet placement calculation and squeezing the trigger the cow and closest bull had winded or seen me in my seated position 65m across the dry bed and their heads and shoulders had swivelled in unison to stare in our direction. Thus my point of strike was executed perfectly, but the projectile’s anatomical pathway had changed to sub optimum, missing the heart but almost certainly damaging one or both lungs.

The herd switched from trot to all out sprint and scaled the hill to my left at full pelt. The cow was being overtaken but crested the hill with the rest. The melee presented no safe follow-up shot. Clearly mortally wounded, it would nonetheless be necessary to follow up and deliver the coup de grâce. I described the shot to the PH and we set off in pursuit. Ian now headed our group with his trusty Blaser .500 Jeffery ready in hand. That is an imposing firearm but clenched in Ian’s huge mitts it looked like a toothpick. If you ever have to follow up a buffalo, I suggest the combination of the .500 Jeffrey and Ian’s imposing stature, ability and experience is the right stuff to have with you.

On cresting the hill the brush once again became impenetrable. We pushed through it with extreme caution, rifles ready. The cow had not walked far, and the herd were long gone. But we had difficulty approaching for a final shot as she mustered enough energy to move 50m ahead of us three more times. We decided to divide and conquer: Grant and the trackers continued to push from behind whilst Ian and I sprinted an arc around the animal’s left flank to set up an impromtu secondary ambush site. It looked set to work well as we could hear her laboured approach to our new position. It is impossible to describe the heightened excitement at that point. The sprint had almost zero impact on Ian but I was breathing hard! I grappled to control my heaving chest and racing thoughts. I knew a mortally wounded buffalo was approaching me and I was galvanised to hold fast and deliver despatch. All those hours rehearsing shooting from hand, fast reloading with snapcaps and [thanks Carl] top-loading if I were to exhaust the rifle’s magazine all zig-zagged across my fevered brain.

Then a rifle report rang out. Grant had taken an executive PH decision. In his pursuit of the cow, he had been afforded very few sightings of it, let alone clear ones. At that point we had perhaps an hour of daylight. His view was that I might not be able to safely anticipate the animal’s approach to my position. His .458 shot into the cow’s hip pinned it to the spot. Ian shouted to Grant to stop firing and Ian and I then closed on her position. Two addition rounds from my rifle brought the hunt to conclusion.

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A wave of emotions attended the hunt’s culmination. Relief, definitely. But also a bitter sweet sadness. It is hard to describe that process to a non-hunter, and uneccessary for me to do it in any depth on this forum. At my feet lay a barren and elderly cow whose removal from the herd was destined to happen one way or another. I had chosen to be the means. I felt that I should have done better by her. An inch or two to the left and perhaps she would have been spared the additional 20mins pain at the end of her days?

Now began the hard yards of extraction: the trackers produced razor-sharp billhooks with 60cm handles and started to hack a crude pathway from the animal’s final resting position back to the nearest track. The Landcruiser did the rest. The cruiser was reversed up to the carcass and its front bumper mounted winch cable laced through a pulley system above the cab and thence to the tailgate. Once the winch hook had been passed through the tarsal tendon gap in the hock, the winch inched the beast onto the cruiser’s load bed.

I hope to write a second piece on the PG portion of my trip. All of the quarry there were brought to ground with a single fatal shot bar one outing which seemed to be an inexplicable miss. I am proud of all those perfectly executed hunts and savoured Wildebeest and Nyala on the braai for the first time as fruits of those labours.

I will be back to Africa. With my wife’s blessing. Not sure I can afford another buffalo. But I sure hope I can!
 

Cootmeurer

Well-Known Member
Great story, thanks. But also, damn you! If you remember the thread about bucket lists, you have just made my bucket bigger - someday I'm going to have to go to Africa and try my hand at Buffalo.
 

delta wolf

Well-Known Member
Cracking write up, thank you. Can't see me ever hunting a bull but a cow could happen one day perhaps.
 

Rory

Well-Known Member
Great write up, really thrilling to read. I just wonder if you were being had with Reynecke's surname pronunciation. It should be 'Ray-necker', as 'roy-nek' means 'red neck', the name the Boers gave to British soldiers in the war as they got sunburnt!
 

zambezi

Well-Known Member
Great write up, really thrilling to read. I just wonder if you were being had with Reynecke's surname pronunciation. It should be 'Ray-necker', as 'roy-nek' means 'red neck', the name the Boers gave to British soldiers in the war as they got sunburnt!
No kidding ;)
 

zambezi

Well-Known Member
A couple of land area corrections to be made: Ian Brown has today advised that Excellence farm is 2000ha, not 6500ha as I first posted. Also the part of the Selati area on which I hunted is approx 4000ha, not 27000ha. In my defence, I had several farms described to me in the 10 days and their dimensions and attributes blurred somewhat. Apols for slightly flawed recollection. Regardless, all the properties were huge if traversed on foot which I did a great deal.
 

Bushwack

Well-Known Member
:lol:
Great write up, really thrilling to read. I just wonder if you were being had with Reynecke's surname pronunciation. It should be 'Ray-necker', as 'roy-nek' means 'red neck', the name the Boers gave to British soldiers in the war as they got sunburnt!

and they still get sunburnt!...:lol::lol:
 

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