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Armchair Safari – Buffalo Hunting in the Transvaal

An Armchair Safari with F. Vaughn Kirby

Although Kirby is noted for his leopard hunting prowess, and for being the first person to describe the different ways of hunting leopard depending on the location, his descriptions of hunting other dangerous game, such as Cape buffalo, in In Haunts of Wild Game, published in 1896, are always interesting. —Ellen Enzler-Herring

Some years ago (1891), I had a very good day’s sport in the bush on the south side of a river known locally as “Mtitshi.” I was with two friends and had a lucky escape from a potentially nasty accident. I must say here that, owing to the nature of the bush, there are only two ways of getting a shot at these animals. In my opinion, the best is to take up fresh spoor from the spot where they have been grazing during the night and follow it, but with one boy and perhaps a couple of dogs, into the bush. If strict silence be observed, and ordinary precaution as to wind direction be taken, an easy shot may thus be obtained. One day I bagged a very fine bull this way, dropping him dead with a single shot; but his companions, six in number, not knowing the direction from which the shot came, charged down on us, and but for the welcome shelter afforded by a particularly dense patch of bush, and the stems of some fine yellow wood trees, it would have fared badly even on that occasion.

In the district of which I write, a horse is almost useless, as even when passing from cover to cover, the distance is so short and the ground everywhere so rough, that a horse could not get anywhere near the dangerous game before they retreated for cover or reached another safe retreat. Naturally the buffalo stands a far better chance of escape under these circumstances, for on the flats, once they are ridden out of any dense bush in which they may have been found, a horse gallops into them quickly and they are easily shot. In the bush it is difficult to avoid a charge, for a buffalo once started is a very awkward beast to stop and the united charge of a number of animals is irresistible.

On the day in question I had secured the services of a number of natives living at kraals several miles apart from one another. The various parties turned up on the appointed day in straggling bands. My partners and I had gone scouting the previous day and camped on the top of a high distant ridge some six miles from the bush we intended to hunt. The next morning we took the cart down to a spot hopefully much nearer to the intended scene of action and then accompanied a crowd of natives to the banks of the river. A party of spoorers had left some two hours before to find out the exact bush in which the buffalo then were. They ascertained that a small group had crossed the river during the night, and were in a detached kloof where, had we known of their presence, they could not possibly have escaped us.

Unfortunately, before the spoorers discovered that the buffalo had come through the river, they walked almost on top of them in this small kloof. They started at once, rushed down the ridge to the river, which they recrossed, and, keeping in the scrub along the bank, entered the big bush at the lower end. One partner and I were on horseback and we reached the top of the ridge just when the buffalo were crossing the river. The first intimation we received of the game being afoot was the loud shouting of the natives, whom we could make out running hard down by the river bank. Unfortunately I found it impossible to get my horse down the ridge to the river as it consisted of great boulders and thick scrub over and through which it would have been suicidal to take a horse. However, thinking it possible that the buffalo might attempt to get out of the bush and climb to the ridge by means of which they could then cross over into the deep kloof on the other side. So I galloped hard to the other end, over the worst possible ground, hoping to be able to cut them off at that end should they attempt an escape there.

Before I was abreast of where it was possible the buffalo might break cover, I heard shouts from the natives who had crossed the river, and then other shouts higher up the ridge. One after another I saw their dusky forms appear on the spur above and below the bush. I knew at once that they had outflanked the buffalo and prevented them from getting out of the kloof and I also knew there was no need to hurry. The buffalo were probably in a deep and extensive hollow in the hillside where the bush was even thicker. If the beaters tried to move them again, they might go straight up into the thickest part of the bush. So I had to place a line of beaters across the narrowest part of the path, and another line at right angles to the river. I posted both hunting partners (there were three of us) about 500 yards apart along the line of the river on the same side as I stood.  Everyone would make his own decisions as to movement once the buffalo had started.

It just might be possible that, once started, the buffalo would again try to cross the river on to our side and make for the long, irregular strip on which I then stood. Once my gun bearer rejoined me (after about thirty minutes), I signaled the natives to cross the river, enter the bush and drive the buffalo. We waited a long time before hearing anything. They were searching for spoor while, most important, trying to keep their line together as they went along to prevent the bulls from breaking back. Unfortunately, a couple of the natives got distracted by a honey bird and wandered off in search of the hive. In doing so they spooked six buffalo, which dashed back and escaped through the bush without being seen by any of the party.

Then suddenly another group of ten buffalo dashed through the bush in the direction of the neck. I waited no longer. It was likely that the buffalo were all together and none likely to attempt to recross. Jumping on my horse, and grabbing my rifle, I galloped to where we could cross to the other side and could distinctly hear buffalo crashing through the bush, about 300 yards up the ridge. I also saw a large black object passing through the bush, but so much of him was hidden there was no chance of a shot. After crossing to the other side, I sent word to the natives to maintain their line but to move up. Then I dismounted and tried to climb the hill, which was very steep. And thick — one had to crawl through, over or under the bush and fallen trees and scramble over great moss-covered boulders which were common on the kloof. Just as we all reached the top we could hear that the buffalo were somewhere nearby.

We could not hurry because, due to a landslide some time before, the hill was now a mess of thorny creepers and boulders piled in every direction. One would have guessed that nothing could pass through this wiry scrub, but soon we would have convincing proof otherwise. After a tedious climb we reached the top of this bank and found ourselves in the middle of an open spot in the bush, perhaps 100 yards wide and 150 long. The upper part of this clearing was surrounded by very dense bush and covered by thickly matted jungle grass, which likely had not been burned in years. In the center the grass was about five feet high, with spots where it had been trampled by all sorts of game. From the hill to the river was a steep slope.

My attention was attracted to a dark spot, which, upon approaching, turned out to be a native perched in a tree. He claimed that the buffalo we first startled had come into this strip of bush and he was followed by others. Thus the men had made a line through which the animals could not escape or break. They seemed properly cornered but we still had to prevent them from retreating to where we had first found them. The rough nature of this terrain would have prevented us from catching up with them or from getting them out in the open again. It was most likely now that the bulls would come out into the open as they had not spotted the men in trees. My gun bearer was anxious that I should also take a tree, I would have done so eventually but I wanted to learn more about the footpath. So, instead I instructed him to climb the hill with my double rifle, while I took my Medford back to the bush to get the boys in a better line. I was actually not expecting the bulls to move for some time, until they were driven out, or else I would not have done this.

For some unknown reason, the buffalo took alarm suddenly, and without crossing into the open, stole back through the bush towards the cover at the other, upper end. This they would have been unable to do had the beaters from below climbed up faster. A shout from one of the boys warned me that they were on the move. By chance, they ran to the left flank of the advancing beaters who, firing their rifles, turned them. Then the bulls made for the slope which we had just climbed. Then some of the dogs ran into them, and this, combined with shots dropping from the trees, forced the bulls to burst out of the bush and charge grandly down along the edge of the open space towards the spot where I stood shoulder-deep in tangled, thorny scrub. I had no time to clear out and there was not a tree near me. Nothing but a maze of creepers, briars and matted grass in front, behind, and on all sides. What I would have given then for my heavy rifle. But it was too late.

I prepared for the worst. I cocked my Medford and stood fast, with as much coolness as I could command, awaiting the oncoming of the great brutes, I heard two shots fired from the tree where my gun bearer (how I envied him at this moment) and another native were perched. Then the thick jungle in front of me was forced down and out came a huge bull, swerving slightly as he saw me. He crashed past so closely that I could have almost touched him with my Medford. Swinging around, I let him have it square in the shoulder. The next moment the bushed closed behind him as he vanished in the gloom of the kloof in the direction of the steep gully before mentioned. I barely had time to jam in another round when again the scrub waved in front and another great outstretched head and neck appeared not over 15 yards from me. It was a near thing and a lucky escape. Fortunately this buffalo fell headlong to the shot, tearing up the ground as I sprang aside to avoid a charge. But this bull also recovered and dashed off to the left, right towards the straggling line of natives that were advancing up a footpath. Three or four other animals joined. Several shots came from the bush along with shouting and yelling from all sides. I heard my dog’s deep bark.

It appeared that the first object an enraged buffalo met was a native with a Martini carbine. After he dodged behind a tree he fired a shot but the bush was too thick and another trophy got away. My dog picked up a scent and kept on the trail right back down to the river. Meanwhile I took the spoor of the first old bull and found him lying just on the edge of the gully about 200 yards from where I first shot. A little later we heard my dog baying a wounded buffalo in the river. With no men available to help the dog, the buffalo broke bay and entered one of the kloofs on the other side. I took a few men with me and went after this bull which had lost a great quantity of blood. It appeared to have a fine set of horns and some of the men confirmed this, while other disagreed.

By now my one of my hunting partners had not attempted to climb the hill, being knocked out from the intense heat. So, he had remained below at the river and unfortunately was unable to climb up in time to get a shot. Then a fearful thunderstorm, which had been threatening for hours, broke over our heads and in a few minutes every member of our hunting party was drenched. We formed a decidedly bedraggled, sorry looking crowd as we struck out again on the spoor after the worst of the storm passed. The air was purified but the rain continued to come down and we soon found that any further searching was pointless. The blood spoor was entirely obliterated. We could follow the tracks into the kloof but they led to the tracks that buffalo had made during the night and early morning. We were forced, eventually, to give up. The boys managed to gorge themselves far into the night.

One bull carried a fine head — in fact about one of the largest bush-buffalo recorded. Their horns are decided more stunted than those of buffalo in the open veldt. Their bodies were more hairy and their height, smaller by a hand. Aside from that there is no difference in the animals.

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