By C. T. Stoneham
Selected and Edited by Ellen Enzler-Herring of Trophy Room Books
After leaving Nanyuki, I journeyed to Naruku and at the end of a week’s journey found myself in the Aberdare Mountains with no prospect of earning money except by buffalo hunting. Twenty-five years after the rinderpest had wiped them out, buffalo abounded in every forest and bushy valley. The multiplication of the beast is cause for wonder. I took advantage of the opportunity to buy an unlimited resident’s license.
I heard stories about the buffalo’s viciousness, about unprovoked attacks and old bulls made irritable by constant harassment. It was said that no man was safe in forests inhabited by big herds. I made camp at the base of Ol Deroto and planned to hunt that mountain and lesser ones surrounding it. The country consisted of alternate patches of open grassland and belts of thick, cold forest. The term “cold” forest describes grasslands located at high altitude, receiving heavy rainfall and generally wet and misty most of the day. Mountain trees flourish and the ground is covered with shrubs, sort of creepers. It is knee high and affords excellent cover for small game.
Elephants, rhinoceroses, buffaloes, leopards, bongos, bushbucks, dik-dik, and giant forest hogs all live here. There is a difference between hunting for pleasure and hunting for profit. The sportsman might not feel anxiety about results and usually will not pursue game into an area where they are no match for him. The hunter, however, is forced to work hard and knows that each day of idleness increases his expenses, and each failure makes ultimate success less likely. Each time an animal is pursued and escapes it becomes more wary and communicates its caution to others in its herd. Long ago, the herds were scared off by the sounds of four- and eight-bores. But now old bulls readily go on the offense.
With me were four Wakikuyu porters, a Baganda cook, my hunting boy and two hunting dogs. They were as courageous, skillful and experienced in hunting as any man who ever trod those game paths. The Cape buffalo is gifted with abnormally keen powers of sight and smell and is one of the most sagacious beasts in Africa. He is also courageous and hard to kill. The buffaloes live in the forest at night and emerge during the day to feed, but they remain wary and reluctant. A buffalo rarely loses his life due to carelessness or over-confidence.
I believed that a single man had a better chance than a large party. In hunting, cunning is a necessary quality, and cunning often comes from experience and intelligence. A white man can receive no support from a native who is usually afraid, not bold, too inquisitive or even indifferent. I calculated my chances of success better if I hunted alone. But the buffalo soon learned that there was a hunter on their feeding grounds and refused to show themselves while there was a vestige of daylight. So into the thick forest I must go.
One morning a native passed my camp and mentioned seeing a large herd of buffalo about half a mile back. I started immediately, carrying nothing but my rifle and quickly found the spot described by the native. I followed the tracks into a patch of tall grey grass which had stems as thick as bamboo canes. I knew the grass extended for about two miles and that it terminated in a forest at least eight miles long by five miles wide, and that it was exceedingly dense.
I had been told that these buffalo would not graze twice in the same place so my only hope lay in tracking them to their sleeping place. I was cautious. I was very cautious, walking slowly and quietly through the grass. The buffalo had traveled against the wind and were not far ahead. At any moment I might come across some lying in concealment. The sun started to rise. I was drenched by contact with the wet surroundings and my knees were raw from continuous scraping against grass stems. Suddenly the subdued chuckle of a stream reached my ears. I scouted carefully before approaching it. Caution was justified. The herd had rested there before continuing their march. I judged the herd at 30-40, a small herd for that district.
I thought the buffalo would not go far before settling down. My safety lay in seeing the herd before they saw me. They would likely attack without provocation. But hours went by and the trail continued onwards against the wind. About 10 a.m. I saw the track wind out of sight against bramble bushes into the shelter of the trees. I thought the buffalo might be just inside, but no, they had gone on. It was clear that this herd was nervous.
The sun was unpleasantly hot so I was actually glad to enter the shade. It was safer and one could see farther than in the buffalo grass. Trails led in several directions and for a little bit I had trouble following the herd. The path they took along ravines was choked by bush and fallen trees. Big roots and boulders also blocked the way. But the creepers and roots were polished by contact with horns and hoofs so I knew it was a favorite road.
Buffalo make use of keen witted forest sentinels, often resting beneath inquisitive monkeys who let nothing pass within their range of vision without commenting on it. I had three duties: follow the spoor, escape ambush, and avoid other creatures. I tried to move slowly so that any animal that sighted me would not raise an alarm. Whenever the trail went into a thicket I detoured to the side of it and picked up the spoor beyond. Occasionally a buffalo left one path to strike across another. The knee high shrubs concealed the ground so the forest floor appeared even and undisturbed. But by studying greenery 20 yards ahead the eye could see where big beasts had passed and a succession of telltale leaves pointed out the route.
It was difficult and slow tracking but I managed to stay on the trail. My boys would not try to find me unless I was gone for 24 hours and even then I had no faith in their ability to find me. I knew that as soon as I fired the buffalo would do their best to kill me. In early afternoon I was ascending to a more open part of the forest and suspect the buffalo were finally fairly close. At the crest of the slope was a thick bush which I was sure harbored the herd. From their suspected position they could look back along the trails and the wind would inform them of danger from the opposite side.
Actually they were there and had selected their retreat in the curve of a precipitous river, so I was entering a horseshoe trap in complete ignorance of it. In other words, once I declared my presence, the buffaloes’ only was of escape would be past me — or worse. I started slowly up the hill. Half way up, a huge beast burst from the leaves almost at my feet. It was a giant forest hog. The fact that the animal went past me instead of away should have alerted me, but I was so concentrated on buffalo that I did not give thought to the hog’s choice of direction. So I steadied my nerves and continued into the trap.
At the crown of the hill, an acre of leafy, creeping plant flourished in the open. Beyond it, the line of bush was like a hedge. Straight across I caught movement in the bushes and crouched down to watch. At the end of three minutes, I saw the tail of a buffalo. They were ALL behind that cover and yet I could not see even one of them. A single makau tree six inches in diameter grew in a clearing 40 yards from the bush. If I could reach it and remain hidden, I should get a shot at the buffalo sooner or later. I crawled to it through shrub which was just high enough to conceal me and lay prone with my head around the right side of the tree. The forest was still. The time had come. I was determined to shoot two buffalo knowing that two wounded buffalo might be 10 times more difficult to contend with than one.
Suddenly I saw a movement and worked out the shape of a buffalo and watched until it took shape as flesh and blood instead of tree trunk. I could see it was a bull…good enough.
I aimed for the middle of the shoulder and fired. The beast fell. There was a snort and breaking of twigs. Immediately a violent smashing and crashing broke out amongst the bushes and into view came a line of shaggy animals 30 strong, galloping straight for me. My first thought was how cool and determined they looked. They did not rush in panic, but cantered steadily with heads looking up for the cause of the disturbance. It was a grand sight to see them sweeping through the trees, the fierce kings of the forest defending their ancient domain against the interloper. But then I thought of the threat of death.
Despite my resolve to shoot two, I did not fire a second shot. I was being charged by the herd and the only hope of safety lay in remaining invisible. The buffalo had not yet seen me. They came on in a long line like a cavalry squadron. The chasm behind obliged them to face the danger. Where no alternative remained, they were more than willing to fight. Three beasts, fairly close together, were coming straight for me. I could see their red eyes and hear their snorts. The rest of the herd was thundering along behind them. If I showed myself in that clearing the line would swing inwards, enfolding me in a circle of tossing horns from which I could never emerge alive. Of what use would a rifle be to me in such an attack! Concealment was the best chance. The three animals coming could not fail to notice me. At the last minute I would shoot the middle one, and run between the other two so that they would not be able to swerve into me.
When a few paces from the tree, the bull turned outwards to avoid it. That was my chance. I shot him, but a little too far back. However, it saved me. He reeled against the cow on his left, pushing her out of the way. I was on my feet in a second, ready to stand firm or dodge. The third animal saw me and came in a vicious charge. A long, curved horn passed within a yard of me as I leapt between the tree and the wounded bull which was much too hurt and astonished to turn upon me.
After three steps I tripped and fell face down into the shrub but maintained a grip on the rifle. A cow moved on, but I saw my wounded bull disappearing over the edge of the hill following the cow he had bumped. I took a hasty shot at the wounded bull. He staggered and wiped out a sapling and then collapsed out of sight. I heard the mournful bellow of death. So I had shot two and felt like the man who had delivered the last punch in a hard fight. But the fight was not over. The second bull was dead, but I was not quite sure about the first one. I was not yet ready to look for him at the moment, so I sat back against my friendly tree and smoked a cigarette. The forest was silent again as the herd passed on to a place of greater security.
Ten minutes later, I started to search for the first wounded bull. The forest was thick but the place where the first buffalo fell was easily found. A bush was smashed down and there was blood on the leaves, but the cause of it had vanished. This made me uneasy. A wounded buffalo in thick cover is perhaps the most dangerous antagonist in the world and is cunning enough to give few chances to the hunter. I could not leave the bull in this state, yet having escaped an onslaught, I was reluctant to invite another. But some risks can only be avoided by sacrifice of peace of mind, and this was one of them. A timid hunter is an unsuccessful hunter.
It was not hard to pick up the trail which led away into thick undergrowth. I expected to hear a warning snort at any moment. The sound of running water reached me. I came to the edge of a deep stream concealed by riotous vegetation. Retracing my steps a short way, I came to where the buffalo had turned off along a narrow trail, pushing through a leafy screen to get to it. Had he been standing there as I passed, he could put an end to me.
I grew more careful with each step. The path turned and twisted and was poorly marked. Impenetrable bush lay on the other side. Ahead I heard the stream and knew that it formed a loop around this blind thicket. The situation was dangerous. I could not let the bull catch me in this place so I turned towards the clearing, bent on getting out and into the open where I could at least see to shoot. Suddenly there was a snort to my right, followed by the crashing of a beast across my front. The buffalo knew I was there and was charging.
He stopped 20 yards way, but he must have circled round in silence for when I cut across to get away, he rushed again missing me by a few yards only. Although the bull came close on his second charge, I was unable to see him. Evidently he was not so badly hurt and if he made a sudden appearance, I should not be able to stop him. I noticed a small tree that forked 10 feet from the ground. It would keep me clear of the buffalo’s horns and give me a wider field of view. I climbed into it in silent haste and stared round over the tops of the bushes.
A dark object behind a fringe of creepers seemed to be the enemy. I took aim but at the point of firing felt myself slipping. It was the buffalo dashing past along the track. I was too concerned with holding on to my rifle to take advantage of the nearness to shoot him again. So, stalemate. The buffalo knew where I was, and he was waiting. I had no intention of descending. I knew the buffalo had his eye on me. So I remained crouched in the tree and waited. One can be patient when the penalty of impulsiveness is likely to be death. Eventually the buffalo disappeared, and I resolved to be absent when he returned.
I climbed down quickly and left the forest as quickly as possible. The other buffalo would be safe as I did not believe there to be any hyenas in the forest. I struck out for camp, thankful to be done with hunting for that day. I had a general idea of where camp was but there was a steep river bank in my way. The larger beasts, knowing about this obstacle, had not attempted to travel that way. I followed trails of small game for hours but with no success. What is thick bush like? Imagine a tangle of thorny briars interlaced with cables of monkey rope and reinforced with sanseviera. All this is three feet tall, with thick fibrous leaves topped with two-inch-long spikes. Then consider all this to be bound by creepers and threaded with nettle as tall as a man. This is “bush.”
To be held back from rest and refreshment at the end of this day was exasperating. To return the way I had come would entail several hours journey and once night fell, the blackness of the mist enshrouded mountains would make the choice of direction impossible. But just when I was resigned to spending a night in the forest, I found the runway of a giant forest hog. I followed his trail straight through to the cliff, climbed in and out of the chasm and emerged into the open forest which gave way to grassland. In another hour I was in my tent, drinking tea, watching the darkness clustering thickly over the heavy forest where I had spent such an exciting day. …and where I would return the next day to reclaim my trophies.