The Rukometchi River is a tributary of the great Zambezi and is also the western border of Mana Pools National Park. In July 2018, the Rukometchi was a dry sand river dividing the Park from the Nyakasanga hunting concession. It was nostalgic to be back at Mana Pools, where 16 years earlier I had been part of a team that had darted and radio-collared a lioness for science. That work was funded by the Safari Club International Foundation and SCI Alaska and was performed under direction of Senior Park Ecologist Norman Monks. Now, a decade and a half later I was back on the wide flood plains and muddy pans of the Zambezi River valley with sights, sounds and smells that brought back memories of that lioness.
The grey herons and waterbucks still foraged in the pans, prehistoric ground horn bills still patrolled the cathedral mopanes, and we had spotted two lionesses almost from our Mongwe camp. But today the Park was off-limits because we were hunting with Buffalo Trails Safaris and using firearms more lethal than a dart gun. And any animal we tracked to the border was safe as soon as it crossed the Rukometchi.
The goal was buffalo, and Nayakasanga has a lot of them. That’s good because besides my buffalo, we hoped also to get bulls for my Idaho hunting partner, Les Stone, and my Namibian hunting partner Hagen Eggert. Our goal was three bulls in ten days; a buffalo triumvirate.
My confidence soared on the very first day in the bush with PH Paulillo Halsted when we spooked possibly two hundred before we even left the vehicle. They thundered into the dry mopane forest leaving a dust trail behind them. Our attempt to follow them up was foiled by variable winds and we ended up splitting the herd without getting a definite look.
A second stalk that afternoon was more successful giving us a chance to study about 60 buffalo from only 30 yards. But that herd definitely contained no good bulls.
To crouch undetected in the presence of buffalo is a wonderful and exciting thing. The grunting and breaking of branches, the odors of buffalo sweat and dung, dust and dry leaves and the grumpy look on each black buffalo face all blend to make an adrenaline cocktail. It’s a real-world experience that makes your heart beat loudly and your breath draw deeply. It’s a feeling only the hunter can know, and one that goes forever unexperienced by mere observers of nature. Hagen and Les, hunting with PH Jannie Meyer, returned with similar reports of buffalo that evening.
Les’ buffalo came the second day. He and his wife, JoAnn, were driving on a forest two-track when their PH Jannie Meyer spotted buffalo spoor crossing the road. They pulled over and evaluated the tracks, and Jannie decided they were worth following.
The long walk became progressively warmer as the day wore on, but they caught up to the herd in a brushy place with poor visibility. They could see only parts of big black buffalo bodies, and every now and then they were pinned down by a suspicious cow that often stared in their direction.
Finally, they attempted a low-profile approach sitting with rifles across laps and scooting across the sand and thorns on their backsides, but to no avail. After a couple of unsuccessful hours of following the herd without getting a good look, Jannie decided to change tactics. He knew there was a pan ahead and that the buffs might be headed to it. Jannie warned that they might not be headed there at all, but it was a chance worth taking.
They quickly circled around and concealed themselves with a view of the pan, and just in time as the buffalo started filing in. Jannie kept whispering things that clients don’t want to hear. Things like, “That one’s too young,” and “The one with the widest horns is a cow.” But finally, “Les, there’s an old magnificent bull!”
Les thought that the bull seemed too small with short worn horns. But Jannie’s advice was that he was an old guy and that would make a great trophy. Of course, it was Les’ decision and, at 40 yards after a righteous hunt, he decided to take him. Using his CZ in .416 Rigby, Les put a 400–grain Barnes TSX into the old bull’s chest. The old trophy ran about 30 yards and crashed.
Les is a veterinarian and has the odd habit of always performing a necropsy after a successful hunt. The bull’s heart was totally destroyed, indicating that it had been full of blood and ready to pump when it was hit by the 400–grain projectile. They recovered a perfectly mushroomed bullet that had retained 100 percent of its weight.
Despite this fantastic success, Les kept questioning whether or not he should have shot this bull or whether he should have held out for something longer and wider. Hagen is also a PH and the owner of Omatjete Safaris in Namibia. He advised that, “Age always trumps size.” Jannie examined the buff’s lower jaw and estimated the age as 14 years. It was the oldest bull so far that hunting season. Les’ bull is a magnificent trophy indeed. Ironically, it’s actually the one I wanted.
Mine buffalo came the very same day but miles away. Paulillo was driving Hagen, Birgit and me to the place he called “Paradise.” It was a long drive from Mongwe camp toward the Mana Pools border but situated in a truly scenic spot. It’s a wide plain dotted with palms and we saw elephant, kudu, zebra and eland there. We spotted one zebra stallion with a long deep wound on his rump. It was red and raw and had obviously been recently inflicted by a lion. It was also reputed to be a place to find buffalo and we expected to find tracks at a pan and then follow them for the day.
On the way we even spotted two cheetahs from the vehicle in the mopane forest. It was not your typical place to find cheetah, but there they were. We stopped the car to observe them and they stood and stared back at us. Two species of big, charismatic, predatory mammals momentarily sized each other up. What a treat, but the buffalo were waiting and off we drove.
We suddenly spotted four bulls from the car wallowing in a mud hole just to the left of the track. Actually, Paulillo spotted them. I was busy trying to swat a tsetse fly on the inside of the windshield and would have missed them entirely.
We drove past them another two hundred yards or so, and then switched off the vehicle. It was only 8:00 a.m. and the shady, sandy road made for an invisible, silent and very short stalk. Paulillo put up the sticks and indicated the proper bull. The best one is the one in front and quartering slightly to the right.
At only 60 yards, I placed the crosshairs one-third of the way up the chest on a line between the front legs. I concentrate on the shot and do not even examine the horns. I wait until Paulillo says he is clear of the other bulls and squeeze the trigger on command.
Upon the impact of the 400–grain soft point, he hunched and raised a front leg; indications of a good heart shot, but I did not hear the bullet strike and that was a bit worrying. They all disappear into the mopane with a great crashing and breaking of branches. Suddenly all is quiet except the beating of my heart.
Now again comes that part of the hunt where I always start to second guess my actions. As we look for spoor, Paulillo asks me if I feel good about the shot. I say yes. I am relieved when Dennis finds the blood trail and then my bull, dead only a hundred yards later. Although I’ve now killed three buffalo, each with one shot, it’s a bit nerve wracking on every follow-up. I’ll brag now, because my shooting is not always this good! With buffalo, one never knows if even a good shot is good enough.
My buffalo bull turned out to be wide and tall and long. He’s 39 inches wide with heavy bosses and Paulillo estimates him at eight years old. He’s a fine trophy and probably the one Les would have preferred and we joke that we shot each other’s bulls. But of course, who can seriously complain about two fine trophies on the same day.
Les had gotten his bull the old-fashioned way after a long, hot and thirsty trek on their spoor. Me, I had gotten lucky. If my pants had even gotten dusty that was just from the ride. I like to think of it as a gentleman’s hunt. That evening we celebrated over Zambezi Lagers as we listened to the hippos groan and moan in the mighty Zambezi.
The Zambezi River forms the international border with Zambia. The Zambian escarpment and its village camp fires, not to mention range fires, are visible on the far side. The river is dotted with emerald isles. It is a world of fish eagles, tiger fish, crocodiles and a great many hippos. We received advice not to swim.
The sound of hippos grunting was our last sound every evening and first of every pre-dawn morning since Mongwe Camp is situated on a steep bank only a few meters above the water. Even though it was off-season we managed to catch some big tiger fish. The technique for hooking a tiger fish is completely counter-intuitive to an Idaho fly fisherman.
Paulillo patiently and repeatedly counselled me to let them run with the bait and to set on the second run. But my instincts told me to set the hook whenever I felt something touch the line. I lost more fish than I caught. Boating on the Zambezi was a guarantee of seeing numerous elephants, hippos and crocs, with maybe even bushbuck or a waterbuck, but always a sublime African sunset. The Zambezi Valley is one of nature’s miracles. Its beauty repairs the hunter’s soul.
Finally, on the very last day Hagen’s turn came. On this day the entire crew set out together from Mongwe needing two vehicles, as usual at first light. We were hardly on the road when we spotted five or six bulls through the trees to the left of the track. But this was to be no gentleman’s hunt. They immediately crashed into the mopanes, heading down a series of rolling slopes below us that descended all the way to the river.
Since there were too many of us to follow them up with any hope of success, Hagen, Les and Jannie departed on the spoor while I did the manly thing and remained behind with the ladies. Female company is, after all, more pleasant, and they are certainly better looking than the aforementioned hunting party. So, Birgit, JoAnn and one of our Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife game rangers Amelia remained at the vehicle for the long wait. Amelia, as do all the game rangers, wore a green uniform and carried an automatic rifle, but her jovial personality and big smile went far to alleviate any discomfort associated with her intimidating wardrobe.
And we waited. After some unknown amount of time we heard large animals moving through the forest ahead of us. Only later did we find out that they were the same buffaloes crossing the road above and now headed away from the river. They apparently realized they were being followed. The morning became sunny and warm and still we waited.
Somewhere at the intersection of my hearing and imagination I thought I heard the distant roar of a lion and I became uncomfortably aware of the fact that I didn’t have a firearm. Finally, after hours we hear the shot. Perhaps ten minutes later there is a second shot, farther away. And 40 minutes after that they are out on the road. They are all dirt and sweat and smiles and we learn that Hagen has his bull. The first shot had been perfect, with the later second shot only for insurance. They had followed the herd for three miles before Hagen finally had a shot from atop a small cliff above the bulls.
Hagen’s bull was down but it was also a long way from a road. The next part of the adventure involved the entire crew cutting a pathway into the site. Saws and pruning shears removed brush that would have impeded the vehicle for perhaps two of the three miles, after which deep dry creek beds made further vehicle progress impossible.
From there we walked in to finally get to the bull. Now the animal was butchered in the increasingly warm sun and the parts and pieces went out under human power back to the car. A buffalo bull has a lot of parts and pieces. Les’ necropsy indicated a heart shot, but that the heart had been pumped empty just prior to the shot.
Sadly, all good things do come to an end. Soon Hagen and Birgit departed for Namibia, while Les, JoAnn and I were bound for Vic Falls and some camping in Botswana. We continued hunting in Chobe with the telephoto lens, but the end came after glorious success. We all shot well and secured our buffalo triumvirate, with the added bonuses of zebra, eland, hyena, waterbuck and tiger fish.
In contrast to what the detractors of hunting might expect, the Zambezi Valley is still a wildlife paradise after a century and a half of sport hunting. We also left with a mental inventory of birds and beasts, including the special little ones such as honey badgers and civet cats and with memories of the big ones including the elephant cow with calf who screamed at us in the darkness. These natural vistas witnessed are the experiences of a lifetime. If it were possible to increase our already deep appreciation of the natural world, these are the things that can do it.–Bruce J. Mincher