African Buffalo in Savage Sudan An Armchair Safari with Abel Chapman

I had not specifically included buffalo in my Sudan program, not because I already had specimens, but because previous experience taught me that any systematic pursuit of these great bovines involves a certainty of hard work and endurance that tests one’s physical powers to the utmost. Should luck or chance throw a buffalo across my path, then fine.

At various points both in Kordofan and to the east of the White Nile, we (my partner Willoughby Lowe) struck fresh buffalo spoor. But, though often following the track for considerable distances we had never been rewarded by a vision of coal black hides ahead. Sometimes the burning spoor led right through the forest and out into the open veld beyond. When this veld was bounded by forest that looked not more than a couple of miles away, we persevered. But on each occasion the tireless hoof-prints continued on and on and never did we succeed in overtaking them. However, a fortune that is denied to systematic effort may sometimes be vouchsafed to the easier category of chance.

We were navigating the western bank, slowly coasting along in Nuer country when the game-like look of certain forests inflamed us with the resolve to make a great effort to reach them. The difficulties of reaching them, common to all White Nile forests, were here accentuated. The river throughout the region subdivides into several channels separated by narrow but miles long islands, each usually impassable by reason of the broad buttresses of papyrus which outflank it. One such island now interposed itself between us and our goal. From the masthead we could see the island itself and the main shore beyond, deeply bordered by heavy papyrus barriers which might preclude all hope of landing.

However, when dusk fell we discovered a sort of break or breachable channel through to the island. So we chanced it and eventually anchored. It was a happy decision. By dawn we had cut a passage through the intervening island, reached open water beyond, crossed another papyrus barrier and reached the main shore. At first it also seemed impenetrable but soon we rejoiced to note a slight break. This proved to be the private landing place of a hippopotamus, a sort of tunnel winding through 50 yards of floating swamp and submerged roots with deep water between. Not knowing whether we would meet success or failure, we took the plunge. Eventually we reached solid land, possibly being the first white men who had ever set foot thereon.

Hardly had we landed when fresh buffalo spoor, converging on the watering place with other unmistakable sign, convinced us that the element of chance was going in our favor. From the start this forest proved full of game. Tiang and cob were ubiquitous. We passed troops of waterbuck sheltering in deep shade. Reedbucks on the outskirts, oribi in thinner bush, while the marshy parts were traversed by giraffe, and elephants had broken down trees by the acre.

The day commenced with a rather starting adventure. We were walking in file, my head guide leading, and Lowe just behind me, when we all stepped right atop a pack of hyenas all sound asleep in the tall grass. In a moment the forest glade was alive with great bouncing beasts. Bakara handed me the rifles and presumably the captain of the hyena gang, roused from sleep by the flight of his troop, raised himself not two yards from where I stood. He was clearly unaware of the fact that I was almost treading on his tail. Nor did he ever realize it because a bullet in his neck laid him out.

Everywhere the floor of this virgin forest was studded with the tracks and evidence of buffalo, their spoor crisscrossing with an intricacy that forbade any herd being followed beyond a short distance. However we had the luck to strike a trail which seemed “good” and along this we hastened. After a while, Bakara whispered, “Gamoos” (buffalo). We realized that his savage eyesight has surely seen the beasts, though to mine (aided by binoculars) not an animate object was distinguishable amid the confusion of bush and bough, with intercepted lights and shades that lay in front. But well we knew we were face to face with dangerous game and that sensation always thrills.

Since neither of us could detect the slightest vestige of what our savage guide clearly saw, we advanced with infinite caution towards a five-foot conical ant hill that stood 50 yards ahead. From there a meticulous survey revealed a single darker blur among the forest shades beyond.  The blur was inarticulate. But, was it buffalo? If so, the beast was standing end on. BUT which end? So overshadowed was every detail by over arching foliage and a maze of intervening twiggery, that nothing definite was revealed. Intently I watched that crucial blur until, after ages of suspense, a bough lifting the breeze admitted a ray of sun and it glinted on horns…great rigged corrugated horns. The buffalo I now saw stood directly facing, and I could clearly define the broad sweep of his horns standing out in the clear on either side of his huge sour-square bulk.

One awkward obstacle remained. The bull was 100 yards away, but exactly half way between us, a thick white horizontal bought interposed itself so low that to almost cut the ridge of his spine. To be fatal the shot must strike above the horn bosses, but yet pass below that obstructive branch. In interval looked like a scant four inches. At 100 yards one ought to manage that or stay home. Moreover, I had a solid rest on the ant hill and the .375 solid struck the selected spot with mechanical precision. We all heard the impact but none of our three pairs of eyes saw anything more.

The dark blur had vanished. How and where? No time for reflection. At the shot, the forest seemed on the move, and a second huge black bulk loomed up obscure and indistinct amid the shades. Again an opportune glint of sunlight revealed the enormous corrugated bosses of an old buffalo bull, standing full broadside at 100 yards. The second bullet struck fair on center shoulder and the beat stumbled forward and fell. We could see, however, that he still held his horns upright. I had only three more solids so, having to consider contingencies, I asked Lowe to finish the beast with his Winchester. The effect of two well placed bullets from the less powerful rifle was merely to set the fallen buffalo on his legs again. In two steps he vanished from sight and my buffalo also vanished.

The situation became involved. I had hit two buffalo bulls but neither was at hand, nor was anything in sight except for endless bush. But from beyond the narrow limited of vision came a tell tale index: a chorus of subdued bellowing told us that the great bovines were still close to our front and with them, presumably, the two stricken bulls. Since a wounded buffalo represents a perilous proposition, we proceeded with caution and advanced to investigate. And within moments we would witness an amazing spectacle.

In an opening of deep grass, we thought we saw a prostrate form, but alongside it stood others, pushing and poking their fallen friend with their muzzles — even horning him — to the accompaniment of confidential grunts, snorts and bellows. The object was clear: arouse their friend to the sense of danger.

Surely a striking scene of animal sympathy.

The spectacle fascinated us, but suddenly something distracted our interest. From broad on our right came a crash through the brushwood and there loomed the apparition of another great buffalo bull, making straight towards where we stood. Precisely what were that buffalo’s intentions or what was his frame of mind, I did not know. Nor did I want to inquire.  One hasty glimpse revealed a broad muzzle carried horizontal with a mass of grass and bush stuck across the horns. Without spoken word, by mutual instinct we fled. During our advance, in anticipation of such contingencies, I had taken precaution to note a tree which seemed to lend itself in case we needed refuge. It sprang from the summit of an ant hill and, being double-trunked, formed a rude sort of ladder. I lost no time in reaching its shelter and scaling it, despite the cruel thorns. Usually I prefer not to be hurried in this type of operation, especially among 3-inch thorns, but this occasion was one of urgency.

I saw no more of the intruding bull. Curiosity had replaced exigency. Explosive grunts within a yard of my feet made me climb higher. But by the time I gained a safe position, the bull disappeared in the bush. From my perch I could distinguish, I thought with uncertainty, the position of both fallen buffaloes, each one surrounded by sympathetic fellows, while others lingered in the shade beyond. None saw us in the trees. Few wild animals ever look upward, and with buffaloes the overhung bosses of the horns form a specific obstacle. Moreover their foes are not usually arboreal.

For more than 30 minutes we remained aloft, with myriads of biting tree ants adding to the misery of the thorns. Then there came a loud and continuous bellowing resounding through the forest. This signified the death throes of one of the victims. I was sure of this. Either Selous or Jackson had described it. Bakara also interpreted this signal for he rushed up (from I know not where) and grabbed my rifle (which had fallen on top of the ant hill. He urged me to come forward. However at this point I still regarded inactivity as a safe policy and ordered him to sit down until all the bellowing subsided. He understood.

Once silence reigned again we reassembled and continued a cautious advance. In a little inlet opening close ahead and within 10 yards of each other lay both presumed dead bulls. The survivors had cleared and we saw no more of them. But another sudden event awaited us. When we got to within 20 yards we noted that the nearer buffalo was not dead. His great armored head rose up and there ensued an awe inspiring moment when those massive horns swung around directly towards us. No friendly tree offered shelter and, had the stricken beast been able to regain his legs, we should have been in a bad position. But by sheer good luck he was too far gone for mischief and though the Winchester again failed to produce the slightest effect, a .375 solid at the base of the neck promptly resolved all doubts. That rifle had put both bulls out of action with a single shot each, nor had either animal moved 20 yards from the point where the first bullet struck, though each eventually required a “finisher.” A bout with buffalo is always apt to develop nerve trying situations and this one proved no exception. This incident produced two critical and trying moments: the first when the solitary bull crashed down directly upon us, and again when we approached the fallen foes only to discover both were still alive.

But soon we could examine our noble trophies at leisure. What superb pictures of brute power and massive strength. Sullen deep-set eyes overhung by massive bosses, rugged and ridged like primeval rock, hairless foreheads shaved clean by constant crashing through thorn thicket and jungle, bushy almost walrus-like whiskers pendent from either lip forming a sort of moustache, and a strong black bristly beard beneath the chin. But beyond these hirsute muzzles, a far more important character differentiates the buffalo of the White Nile from their East and Central African counterparts. The horns spread out laterally on a far more even plane, less curved downwards, and the frontal bosses, instead of being convex, are nearly flat at the basal palm.

On our way homeward that evening, triumphant but weary and heavy-laden, we spied, towards the outskirts of the forest, two big and bulky looking beasts that in the rays of a lowering sun shone silvery grey. It was too late to undertake a fresh adventure…but we were convinced that these animals were a pair of elands, although it is generally accepted that elands do not occupy this part of savage Sudan. So ended the 19th of February 1914.

These virgin forests, with their teeming game, we came to regard as our private buffalo hunting reserve and delightful days were spent becoming acquainted with the big bovines and other co-tenants. The herds, born and bred in primal security and unconscious of care or cordite, continue to roam. But even the unharassed animals continued alert to the last degree, as keen in all the senses of sight, sound and scent as any wild beast I have ever pursued.–Selected and Edited by Ellen Enzler-Herring of Trophy Room Books

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