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Red Dirt, Black Death

By Dave Wilkins

Jimson, the head tracker, spun around, caught my eye and pointed to his ear. I frantically nodded my head, “yes,” and tried to catch Hendrik and Tim’s attention as they were walking about 20 yards away. Finally, I gave a light whistle that stopped Hendrik mid-stride. I pointed to my ear and then forward. About the same time, we heard it again.

Bleh, blehh, blehhh...

We all gathered close and waited for another sound. Hendrik and Jimson spoke, whispering they said it was the wounded bull being gored and beat up by other buffalo. Another bellow echoed through the bush. We’d soon have another close encounter.

Our adventure started in March 2016. Hendrik and I were working the booth at a hunting expo when Tim showed up. I had worked with Hendrik from Matwetwe Safaris for almost 14 years. We do many hunting trade shows together, and this was another one of those weekends. I had just been at Hendrik’s place in South Africa six months earlier with Ron G. on his lion bowhunt.

We had a great time with Ron and Hendrik in the lower Kalahari of South Africa. Tim was in that same camp on a plains game hunt. We hit it off and stayed in contact with one another. Tim stopped by to see Hendrik and me at the show. Tim said he wanted to hunt Cape buffalo and put money down. As he handed Hendrik the deposit check, he looked at me and said, “Dave, I want you in camp. Please make plans on joining me for this hunt.” I told him to twist my arm so I at least had a good excuse of bodily harm to tell my wife the reason I had to go back again.

In June 2018, my daughter Morgan and I found ourselves sitting in Atlanta’s airport, waiting for Tim to arrive for the final leg of our journey together. Tim would start off gun hunting for buffalo and then switch to bowhunting for the remainder of his trip. We’d join Tim in the bush for his buffalo until he tagged out. Morgan and I would then enjoy our own hunting after that. Tim had 10 days for his hunt. Morgan and I would be around for about four weeks so, we had time later for our own hunt list.

On our first morning in camp, we went to the rifle range at daybreak to make sure Tim was comfortable with Hendrik’s .375. After several bull’s-eyes at various distances, we were off in search of a good bull. We spent lots of time driving, searching for bulls, and had lots of spoiled stalks. We covered many miles only to get rejections due to swirling winds or a pair of eyes that had gone unnoticed. Along each track or trail followed, we always learned something new.

Although buffalo tend to keep to themselves, they also rely on other species. Buffalo have excellent noses, but their eyesight falters. The ox pecker birds follow the buffalo, and the birds helped us locate bulls on several occasions. Jimson, Hendrik’s head tracker, would hear the birds long before seeing the buffalo. We had a little advantage and slipped into where they were. Those that we did get within range of either did not have a shooter bull in the group or would give just a split-second opportunity before they turned the red dirt into a dust cloud.

The Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer caffer) of South Africa is a formidable foe. Nicknamed black death, this mass of muscle and bad attitude are to blame for numerous human deaths every year. It could be a hunter following-up a wounded animal or some poor sap who wandered down the wrong trail at the wrong time. Either way, when in buffalo country it is best to be alert.

The thick brush can be an ally or an enemy, depending on the situation. One would think spotting an 1,800-pound black mass would not be too difficult in any terrain or environment. Amazingly, like most creatures great and small, they will use the tiniest bit of cover to virtually disappear.

Day 1 ended with some sightings, some stalks, a little less boot leather and a desire for a seat by the fire and an ice-cold Castle.

The African ring-necked dove gives off the most soothing coo every morning for the first hour of daylight. It’s similar to our mourning dove in North America in size, color and beauty. To me, if I never heard another sound but that coo every morning, I would be in heaven. Even if not hunting, I still get up at the crack of dawn just to listen to their wake-up calls.

The following morning was a repeat of the Day 1. We got back to the same general area where a group of bachelor bulls was spotted the day before. We cut a fresh set of tracks and decided to get after them. Jimson is a walking, talking, tracking machine! I have been fortunate to be on many tracks with him, and it’s always amazing to watch his talent and his craft. I swear he could track a fly through the air.

Each track is a story for him to interpret. Each twist and turn in the trail told him the animal’s next move and destination. We cautiously followed the herd spoor. Crunchy leaves underfoot made it more difficult. Along the way we bumped into other animals, exceptional animals, animals that are on my wish list and Tim’s also. But we had to focus and stay with the task at hand. Buffalo first.

We pushed Day 2 right up to very last light. Sightings and weary legs, but no buffalo hit the ground. The fire was already burning hot when we arrived back in camp.

This was Tim’s third safari. Even though he was using a gun for the buffalo, he is a die-hard bowhunter. A very dedicated person, he will only pursue the animal on his terms. If he wants to spot and stalk a certain animal with a bow, that’s how it will be. No gun, no waterhole. If he doesn’t connect that way, then it wasn’t meant to be. He is a great sportsman. His past safaris have had one thing in common: Day 3 of his hunts have always been the best. His “Three” was starting to align just right.

We picked up fresh tracks again and followed them for about an hour. The morning sun was just peaking over the trees. Jimson hesitated, stuck out his hand in the “stop” gesture. Up ahead we heard a little commotion and crept slowly to a small opening. Eighty yards away was a group of buffalo. Just to the left of the group was a hard-boss bull staring straight at us. I set the sticks for Tim as Hendrik glassed the bull. Tim was on the sticks and Hendrik gave the green light.

“Take him!”

At the rifle report, the bull buckled to his knees briefly. He got back on his feet, but no follow-up shot was granted because the other buffalo scattered all around him. They all disappeared, and the dust settled. We found a little hair and not much else at the impact location. A few yards into the brush, Jimson found first blood. From the bull’s reaction and initial blood, we were sure of a good hit. Off we went. Four of us set out on the trail with our No. 1 man, Jimson, leading the way. The terrain went from bare dirt to knee-high grass, to thick brush and back again. Jimson singled out the bull’s track and was able to discern it from the others.

Unfortunately, after just a couple hundred yards or so, the blood trail stopped. Now the test began. Jimson worked his magic and only temporarily lost the track. After a little back and forth wandering, he would again pick it up, and we would be back after it. Only once did we jump the bull.

Jimson stopped and motioned for Hendrik to join him in a small group of trees and bushes. We noticed he was pointing at the ground, the trees and bushes, almost everywhere, waving and pointing. Hendrik then called Tim and me over to join them. He explained what Jimson and he were looking at. Tore up ground, broken trees, bushes bowled over and more. The bull had been here.

He joined up with three other bulls, but they wanted nothing to do with him because he was wounded. They evidently attacked him by goring him, shoving him and anything to get him to leave the group. Jimson said it was an instinctive trait. The wounded animal would only bring danger to the rest of the group, so they wanted him gone. We carried on and followed another hundred yards. Hendrik and Tim split off just a short distance while Jimson stayed on the track. Just then, Bleh, blehh, blehhhh… Jimson spun around, caught my eye and pointed to his ear.

We snuck up ahead. The bellowing got louder. Through the brush we saw several black blobs galloping back and forth. Sure enough, there were three bulls and our wounded one. The three were goring and shoving the injured bull just like Jimson said. Tim and Hendrik slipped a little closer for a clear shot. Finally, a shot presented itself. Tim hit him again. The bull went 10 yards and hesitated. Tim squeezed another round off and the bull dropped.

We approached slowly, and Tim gave him a final insurance shot from 30 yards. He had his buffalo! We shared many high fives, smiles and sighs of relief. We called for the truck, and the rest of the crew joined us.

Back at camp that evening, the fire and beverages were extra special. The flames danced, and the stories started. We were already reliving the past 48 hours. Staring into the bush TV, it reminded us all of great friends, fun times, beautiful animals and His creation. Most of all, many wonderful memories

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