Michael Abell

Black Death on the Rocks

Michael Abell
Black Death on the Rocks

Buffalo Trace is a fine Kentucky Bourbon and when ordered on the rocks is simply, “buffalo on the rocks.” In the African parlance, Cape Buffalo are called, “Black Death”. They are called that for good reason. In 2012, the year before this hunt took place, I read an article that said five Professional Hunters (PHs) were killed by dangerous game animals in Africa. It said all five were killed by Cape Buffalo, not one by a lion, leopard, elephant, hippo, rhino or crocodile. Cape Buffalo are also one of the most abundant of the big game species on the African continent and certainly the most prevalent of the dangerous game. We were about to learn that “Buffalo on the rocks” isn’t just a cool way to order your bourbon, sometimes it’s a way to hunt “Black Death”.

In late July of 2013, Aline and I arrived in Zimbabwe for the hunt. We met our PH, Jonathan at the airport. On the ride to the conservancy, we learned that he knew the land very well having grown up there. He was a fifth generation African and learned his trade from his father, Daryl, and older brother, Dion. We were very happy with the lodge and our accommodations.

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After unpacking we got to spend some more time with Jonathan and learned about their style of hunting in this part of the Bubi Valley of Zimbabwe was to use the large rock massifs or kopjes to glass vast areas and then put on a stalk, much like we do in the western United States. I was unaware of this prior to our arrival, but by the end of the safari I would be quite familiar.

The first day of our hunt was Election Day and to Jonathan’s surprise and regret all the staff were gone to vote. It appears his father’s love of democracy surpassed the safari booking schedule and he gave everyone the day off. I took the opportunity to discuss Zimbabwean and sub-Saharan African politics with Jonathan. I’d studied such topics for my master’s degree and found Jonathan’s views fascinating. We had a great day, despite the lack of staff. We got close to a bachelor group of younger buffalo bulls and stalked within 35 yards of some zebra. Aline and I really didn’t care about the slow first day, we were very happy to be back in Africa on safari and that was good enough.

Overnight the wind was ferocious and we awoke to cold temperatures and rain. After a great breakfast we huddled by the large stone hearth, were warmed by the fire and watched the weather.

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We finally went out about 8:30am and drove the roads for a couple hours until the tracker, Sakhile (sa-key-lea), called Jonathan to stop. Off the right side of the truck were fresh buffalo tracks. Jonathan verified the good news and then we bounded ahead a couple miles, rushed into the bush with the wind in our favor and climbed some high ground. This is where I realized that Jonathan’s hunting style starts out the same as most buffalo hunters, but then veers off into something normally done in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, or Utah. We would do this all safari. Cut track or somehow spot game, then move to high ground, sometimes very high ground and wait, glassing for a shot. The views often tremendous.

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It wasn’t long before we could see six bulls moving up the valley a few hundred yards away. Jonathan immediately decided we were in the wrong place. We backed out and bounded ahead again a few hundred yards climbed another kopje and got set up. I was amazed to see the bulls again, within the hour, feeding in our direction. The last bull looked to be a real big old bull, so we held tight. The bulls kept coming and the wind was good. None of us realized the bulls would walk almost right on top of us and into the thicket at the base of the kopje. In tight cover and inside of 30 yards, it was hard to determine which bull was the trophy bull. We were all trying to shrink into the rock. I was as low as I could get on the rifle and still shoot. Jonathan was trying to pick out the right bull. We let them feed right on by at less than 20 yards and were blessed the wind was totally in our favor. It could have been a dangerous situation, but there was no way to know the bulls would simply continue walking right toward us, what a rush.

We did however pick out distinguishing features on the trophy bull. He had a bald spot with an open wound on his rump and red hair on his face. We would know him coming or going from now on. I asked Jonathan if he was sure that bull was worth taking. I also told him I wasn’t afraid to shoot on the second day of the safari. Jonathan responded, “We were very lucky. That doesn’t happen very often. Michael, I’ve been hunting buffalo a long time. I know you would be happy with that bull, because I would be happy with that bull.”

Jonathan decided to drive to the head of the valley and climb the biggest kopje I’d ever seen and wait the bulls out. If they continued up the valley we would see them again.  While glassing from the bald knob on the end of the kopje, about 400 vertical feet off the valley floor, Jonathan spied a tremendous old impala ram alone. Aline has great animals from multiple African Safaris and is a talented marksman, but the humble impala gives her “buck fever”. There’ve been times while “making bait” on a leopard hunt, that she could not shoot due to the shakes. I asked her if she wanted to try first, to climb out on that ledge and second to get a shot off on this impala ram to “end the impala shakes”. She of course said yes. It was a serious climb. At one point, we had to span a large fissure and Aline was uncertain how she would make it. So, I climbed into the fissure and let her climb over me. In short order she crawled to the end of the cliff and got set up for the shot lying prone on the edge. I had to stay back and could not watch, only Jonathan and Aline fit on the edge of the precipice. At the report of her rifle I heard Jonathan, “Yes, that’s it. He’s down.” Aline made a marvelous long range shot and had the first animal of the safari in the bag.

We tried all day to get into position on the buffalo again. Three times we climbed to high ground, found them, stalked down to the valley floor and lost them.  Nearing dusk, we were discussing calling it a day, when we unexpectedly caught a glimpse of some buffalo going into a dry creek bed. They were a few hundred yards away and we were not sure they were the bulls we saw earlier. The light was fading and a dark dry creek bed is no place to be with cape buffalo, so we called it a day and drove back to the lodge in the dark .

The weather on the third morning cooperated and we out of the lodge much earlier. We drove the roads near the bulls we left the day before and after a few hours we found tracks. Jonathan immediately turned the truck around, drove quickly down the valley to the next road the buffalo would have to cross in the direction they were headed. They had not crossed. So, we know they’re somewhere in the couple miles of forest behind us. Jonathan turned the truck again and headed for a long low ridge of kopjes that ran parallel to the direction the buffalo were feeding. The ridge provided us multiple vantage points to peer into the valley at long range and relative safety from the buffalo feeding in the thick forest below. We moved from vantage point to vantage point, glassing for the bulls and picking apart the forest. On the third stop to glass, Sakhile disappeared. He returned with a broad smile and said he found the big red-faced bull from yesterday. Jonathan told us that the bull was ahead with three other bulls, bedded at the base of the kopjes we were on. Then we all fell in line quickly and quietly. The closer we got, the lower Sakhile moved, until when in very close range of the buffalo I would testify that he was slithering over the rock. Jonathan crept close behind, while Aline and I stayed back and waited for a signal from Jonathan.

Then it happened. Jonathan signaled me to move up.

When I was close enough to hear him, he we spoke in whispers.

“Stay very low and get to the edge…get ready to shoot.” 

At the edge, he asked, “Can you see them?”

“No.” I replied.

“You’re looking too far out. Look straight down.”

To my shock the bulls were directly below us, only 60 yards away.

“Yes.”

“Good…now look carefully and find the boil on the ass of the big bull.”

“Got it, but I cannot see his head, are you sure?”
“Yes, it is him.”

A bird in Africa called the “Go Away Bird” starts to call loudly. Their alarm call tells animals in Africa it’s time to run away.

“Michael the birds…damn…get ready make it count… the bull is getting up.”

All I can see is the boil on his rump, so I move my cross hairs from there to the top of his shoulder. There’s no time to get nervous. The bull stands. I aim as low on the shoulder as I can without hitting the rocks in front of me or the rocks in front of the bull. I take the slack out of the trigger and my .458 Winchester Magnum erupts as the thicket below explodes. I recover from the recoil and chamber another round as Jonathan reports, “Michael only 3 bulls run out of the thicket…there were 4 bulls in the thicket.”

The intrepid and unarmed Sakhile is already moving down the rocks and into the thicket. Jonathan tells Aline and I to make sure our rifles are fully loaded and to follow him. We pick up safe intervals behind one another and move into the thicket all rifles at the low ready position. Sakhile is ahead of us and I’m trying to cover him without allowing Jonathan or Aline to cover my field of fire. Jonathan is at the ready moving slowly into the thicket scanning on the left flank. I am moving and covering his right. Aline is covering our rear. This is where buffalo get their name, Black Death. Wounded buffalo are known to run, hide and lie in wait to gore and trample their pursuers. Dead buffalo nearly always give a death bellow, we’ve heard no such bellow. The hunting party is tense. We creep and scan, check Sakhile’s position, creep and scan, check Sakhile’s position. Minutes seem like hours and we are nearing the edge of the thicket where it opens onto the plains. Suddenly we hear shouting in a deep thick African accent - DEAD!”…”HE IS DEAD!” Sakhile is standing arms raised triumphantly over his head. We move quickly to where Sakhile is standing and find a bull laying on its back, motionless, blood running out of its nose. Jonathan says, “I didn’t hear a bellow…follow me.” As we get within twenty yards, Jonathan reminds me, “Michael it’s the dead ones that kill people. Shoot him again through the spine right between the shoulders.” I put another 500 grain .458 Nosler Solid into the bull’s spine. There’s no movement. He is dead.

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We all exhale. Smiles, handshakes and congratulations are shared all around. I walk around to the front of the bull, he has red hair on his face. It’s him.

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Johnathan and Sakhile are now figuring out how to get the Landcruiser to the bull and walk off to do some planning. Aline and I are enamored with the beast and stand in awe. After the shock wears off, she says, “The first solid found it’s mark.” She’s right. It hit in the “golden triangle.” The area just above the heart, where all the plumbing that provides blood to the body resides.

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Jonathan and Sakhile hike off to get the truck. As Aline and I wait, we marvel at the size of the bull and talk about the blessings of such early success. We also talk about how hunting from rocks above the valley floor, glassing for game, and stalking from a point of advantage is awesome. I say out loud, “Bartender, make mine a Buffalo on the Rocks”, and we both laugh. Jonathan and Sakhile are back in about 45 minutes with the truck and I ask, “How are we going to load this giant angry bovine, there’s only 3 men?” Jonathan laughs and says, “Watch this!” He cuts two slits about 6 inches long in the buffalo’s rump, runs a rope through, and attaches that rope to a block and tackle. Then he runs the winch cable through the block and tackle and hit’s the button. Sakhile and I only have to keep the buffalo moving in a straight line, the winch flips the beast into the truck bed in a matter of seconds. I’m impressed to say the least.

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Back at the skinning shed I’m still marveling about how the day went and falling in love with the red hair on the face of this beast, when Jonathan says, “41 inches”. “What, you’re kidding? Really?” I reply. “Yes Michael. He is quite a big one…told you that you’d be happy.” He’s right, a mature bull is classified as over 36” up to 40”, anything bigger is a truly a blessing.

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The next morning, we weren’t sure what to do first. None of us, Johnathan included, believed we would have such early success on a trophy bull. We booked a ten-day safari and it was only the fourth morning. It was time for Aline to hunt. I knew she wanted to hunt at night and call hyena. I also knew she wanted a warthog. It is a strange thing as a North American Hunter, the diversity of game in Africa. It seems other worldly, but you must decide what to pursue, they don’t all live in the same type of terrain and the area we were hunting was well over 100,000 acres. We discussed it and told Jonathan, “Let’s go hunting today and see what happens.” Not long into the morning, Jonathan wanted to stop driving and climb rocks. We followed, and climb we did, kopje after kopje, glassing for game in each pocket, draw, and valley. Sakhile would often move out ahead and would randomly return with news of game over the next ledge or top of the next kopje. Upon returning from one of his solo excursions he said simply, “Kudu bull.” Jonathan turned to me. I pointed to Aline. She smiled and said simply, “Yes.” We crawled up a rock face, over the summit and down into a pocket on the other side. Sakhile was sure there was a big bull in the forest below. Jonathan so trusted Sakhile, that we simply sat for hours glassing. Then Jonathan sent Sakhile all the way over the horizon to the next valley, just in case the kudu bull had moved. Sakhile appeared an hour later on the ridge 800 yards away, signaling for us to follow. When we got there, we once again crawled up the rocks, 200 feet above the valley floor. This time Jonathan could see the bull. Again, we glassed and waited, glassed and waited. I stayed above and to the rear of Aline, so as to be out of the way. After hours of waiting, it happened. Aline and Jonathan started moving slowly and pointing. Aline’s face got very serious, her finger went to the trigger and her .300 Winchester Magnum barked.  Jonathan said, “You hit it, good bull that.” We moved quickly down the rocks and into the forest. Aline’s kudu bull was dead the instant the bullet hit it. She’d made yet another impressive shot and had a great old bull.

The sun was setting as Sakhile drove us home. Jonathan, Aline and I were all in the back of the truck still talking about Aline’s big kudu bull and what a great shot she made. We were hoping to see game in the dwindling light, but we were not very seriously looking. Just then, Jonathan stops talking, as if something is certainly wrong. To my surprise, he says, “Bushpig…big bushpig…grab your rifle.” Then Jonathan knocked on the roof of the truck for Sakhile to stop. The truck was still moving when Jonathan said, “Right we must go, jump…Michael Jump!” I’m not sure why I followed his command, but I was surprised at myself when my feet hit mother Earth and I did a pretty good combat roll. I came up ready to shoot the bushpig, when Jonathan caught my rifle, “NO! That’s the female.” The light was fading to darkness I could not tell which was which. He let go. I swung to the other pig and the .458 erupted. The pig dropped. What a contrast of the two hunts today. We spent hours of waiting and Aline made a long range beautiful shot on a big handsome old kudu bull. Then a mad scramble out of a moving truck, combat roll on a dirt road, and shot a boar so ugly it’s pretty.

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The next day we try hard to get Aline a bushbuck and saw a quite a few, but none old enough. We also saw a great deal of game and spent a lot of time climbing rocks and glassing terrain, but the day was uneventful. That was fine by us, because we were sure looking forward to going back out after dinner to call hyena. Aline has always wanted to take a hyena and we’ve had a lot of fun trying to call them before on previous safaris. Most people discard the hyena as a game animal, but they are challenging to hunt without baiting them or killing them as a “bycatch” on a big cat hunt. Also, I don’t think most people realize that an old male hyena can be five-foot-long and weigh up to two hundred pounds. They are a thrill to hunt and a worthy adversary when trying to call them in. As we are loading up to go out, the first thing I realize is that Jonathan’s audio system and calling equipment are far superior the other PH’s who have taken us hyena hunting. His plan is similar, we will go to locations near hyena dens just before dark and set up quietly, hopefully without being detected and wait for sundown. As soon as the sun goes down we will start calling, sounds simple, but it never is.

We get to our first location, set up and wait. The sun goes down and Jonathan turns on his calling system. From the pitch black forest returns an immediate loud bloodcurdling “Whooop.” Shivers roll down my back. The night is still and starlit, without any moonlight, perfect. Jonathan uses his calling system and a dialogue of sorts begins with an entire pack of hyena. Suddenly, they’re all around the truck. How did they get here so fast? It is as if they grew up out of the ground. Jonathan tells Aline to get ready, she does, and he throws on the spotlight. But there is no shot. The hyena are too clever and move out of the light each time. Mere minutes pass and they are gone. Dear God, did that just happen? An entire pack of hyenas came into the call and surrounded the truck. If only one would have stood still for just a heartbeat, I’m sure Aline would have done her part. We try multiple set ups over many thousands of acres throughout the night and get multiple answers, but no hyena. We get back to camp in the early morning and collapse exhausted.

The next morning at breakfast, Aline reminds Jonathan that she wants me to shoot a zebra and we’re not just on a bushbuck hunt. He replies, “Yes ma’am.” During our morning driving and glassing from kopjes we’ve seen baboon, waterbuck, a herd of cow buffalo with young males, wildebeest, and impala. We’ve yet to see zebra or bushbuck and it’s getting to be time for the midday repose and repast. When a herd of zebra cut the trail in front of us and drop into a small valley on the other side. We jump out of the truck and head up the rocks. Sakhile, Jonathan, and I play chess with this stallion in the rocks and small draws for the better part of an hour before we get the wind and terrain to our advantage. We crawl behind a small outcropping of rocks down off a main ridge onto the valley floor. We can see the zebra herd ahead through holes in the bush. When we get to within 125 yards the wind starts to betray us and Jonathan knows it’s now or never, but we are on our knees and only Jonathan can see the herd. In whispers once again…

Jonathan asks, “Can you see the stallion?”

Michael, “No I cannot.”

“I’m going to stay on my knees and put the shooting sticks straight up, you stand, get on them, and if you can see the stallion, shoot him.”

“Got it.”

Jonathan puts the sticks up.

I cautiously stand and get my rifle on them.

I can see the stallion.

“Jonathan I’ve got him.”

No reply.

“Jonathan I’ve got him.”

No reply.

“Jonathan I’ve got him.”

No reply.

I look down, Jonathan has his fingers in his ears.

I chuckle to myself.

Breath, relax, aim, squeeze, boom - a 500 grain Trophy Bonded Bear Claw from my .458 through his chest, but to my surprise he thunders away at a gallop bleeding hard. My God, the buffalo didn’t run like that when he took the same hit. Zebra are so tough. We follow him immediately. We track and find the stallion quickly, but the stallion catches movement and gathers himself to run. Jonathan is putting up the shooting sticks, but he is too late. I raise my rifle offhand and put a 500 grain Nosler solid through his neck. He’s down instantly. As we walk up to the stallion, I marvel at how beautiful and tough they are. Then I remember how much I love zebra. It is one of my favorite game meats in the world and we were treated to a wonderful meal just a few days later.

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We take the zebra to the skinning shed and head back to the lodge to rest up, eat dinner and prepare for another long night’s hyena hunt for Aline. Nothing of consequence happens on the way to the first calling location. I’m still amazed at how good Jonathan’s calling set up is: speakers, amplifiers, CD player, and remote control. We stop the truck and let the forest settle down, it is quiet and clear, no moonlight again. Jonathan starts the calling sequence using an individual hyena calling to find his mate. There is an immediate response. Jonathan switches to the sound of a feeding frenzy on a wildebeest and an entire pack of hyenas respond and they come running. He tells Aline to make ready and he throws on the spot light. Aline can see eyes and is about to shoot when the hyena runs. In fact, the whole pack spooks. Jonathan thinks they don’t like the truck and tells us to dismount and get into an old empty concrete cattle dip tank nearby that hasn’t been used in decades and then Sakalie drives off. While waiting for the hyena to make the next move it gets so quiet, the quietest I’ve ever heard anywhere on Earth. The absence of sound is so profound I’m moved by it at first. Then, I stop staring into the forest for hyena and look up at the night sky. I can see the entire Milky Way and realize I’ve never seen it before with my own eyes. There are so many wonders to behold on the Dark Continent. The silence is broken when Jonathan whispers, “time to go.” I ask if I can try calling them back, he laughs and says, “With what? Your voice? (Chuckle) Sure, right, go ahead.” I let out my best “Whooop!” and there’s an immediate answer! Jonathan is shocked and we stay another twenty minutes, while I try to bring them in with just my voice. We don’t kill a hyena and Jonathan radios Sakhile to bring the truck. We all break down laughing hysterically, about me “talking to hyena.” We had so much fun at the end, me calling and Jonathan and Aline chuckling, when the hyena answered that it really didn’t matter that we didn’t get a shot. Memories were made right there and that’s the real currency of adventures.

The following morning, we are tired and moving slow. The plan is a bushbuck for Aline and so we start off in a whole different direction. We are not yet a mile from the lodge when we see that a huge animal has been dragged across the road. Jonathan stops the truck and we follow the trail. We find a dead yearling giraffe dead surrounded by huge leopard prints. I was able to put an entire .458 shell in the pad of one of the leopard’s footprints. One of the giraffe’s hindquarters has been eaten. We are confounded about the size and power of a predator that can successfully kill a small giraffe and drag it off. Jonathan decides we need to anchor it to a tree and put up a trail camera. We all pitch in and drag the giraffe about ten yards to a forked tree. Sakalie and I pull on a trunk of the tree until they stretch apart, while Jonathan pushes the giraffes head through, and we let go. The two small tree trunks snap back together and the head is solidly anchored. It took all three of us grown men to drag the giraffe and that fact is not lost on us. This giant leopard is probably in the area. We are all appropriately tense. After the trail camera is up and we drive away, I find myself trying to imagine the cat that did that, what a beast.

Soon we are back on the hunt for bushbuck. We check all the likely areas around the lakes and kopjes nearby. We find two small bushbucks, but no old males. Jonathan decides we should climb the highest kopje on the concession and glass for them. Once on top, Jonathan shows us the ancient ruins of a bushman’s village. The top of this kopje is flat and probably seven acres in size. I’d imagine it was a wonderful place to live. There are small stone walls, pieces of pottery and other evidence of a village. I almost lose myself in an Indiana Jones type archeologist’s fascination, when everyone walks away to continue hunting. So, I snapped back to reality and followed. We start glassing an immense expanse of terrain all around this massif. We spy a great deal of game, but nothing mature and worth pursuing. When Jonathan spot’s bull eland nearly straight down below us and walking toward the rock out of sight. Aline encourages me to follow Jonathan out onto a ledge where we can see almost straight down, but she is staying on top for safety. I’m a retired infantry officer and I’m not scared of heights. I have parachuted out of planes and helicopters, no problem. So, when I say I was nervous to climb out on this ledge, I want you to understand it was serious. I took my time climbing over the edge and down to the ledge. Finally, out on the ledge I find a crack with a small tree growing out and I lean back into the crack and use the tree as a rifle rest. Taking a deep breath, I try to relax and range the valley floor straight down – 143 yards. I settle back, breath deep and find the old bull eland in my binoculars. There is not an ethical shot, we must wait.

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Three hours later and I am still standing on a ledge. It is 429ft or 43 building stories down to the valley floor. We can still see the old bull and his younger companion bulls feeding in thick forest below. We keep tabs on them. Minutes turn to hours. They finally start moving, but it is right toward us. Now they’ve stopped directly below us in the shade of this massif to bed down and we cannot see them. We climb back up to the top and discuss strategy. We decide that I should take Aline’s .300 Winchester Magnum for its greater range and that Jonathan and Sakalie should scout for another vantage point. Another hour passes while Aline and I rest in the sun on top of the kopje. Jonathan returns and says, “You’re not going to like it”. We move to where he wants to climb over the edge. This time Aline forbids me to climb over the ledge. Jonathan insists we climb over the edge and drop down to a lower ledge that is about two feet wide, from there he says we will be able to get a shot. It is near vertical and I tell Jonathan, “I’m not dying to kill an eland, pun intended.” A few minutes pass, while Aline and I discuss it, and Jonathan looks on anxiously. Then, over her protests, I climb over the ledge with her rifle slung over my back. We make it safely down the ledge and shuffling along it, I find another tree growing out of a crag. I wedge myself behind it and use it as a rest. The bull is standing 204 yards away. The shot angle is severely vertical.

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There are some zebra moving toward the eland. Jonathan sees an opportunity and starts pitching small egg sized rocks off the ledge at the zebra. He hopes the zebra will run and spook the eland out into the open. The zebra run. The eland run. Jonathan, now spotting from his binoculars says, “Get ready…the big bull is moving….he is the one on the right.” There are four bulls total. I relax and try to breath. They are moving away quickly.  The zebra change direction and the eland stop. I settle the reticle and take the slack out of the trigger. The bull’s back legs buckle. He’s hit. The young bulls run and my old bull follows. Jonathan implores me to make follow up shots at the moving bull, something I would not normally do, I hesitate and then comply. I shoot at my bull until the gun is empty, then realize the cardinal sin of rifle hunting. I have no more ammunition. I switched rifles with Aline. The .458 rounds in my ammunition pouch are worthless. Jonathan realizes I’m empty. I watch in amazement as he climbs the rock face sideways with his .300 Winchester Magnum in one hand and completes a traverse a baboon would be proud of. He gives me his rifle and says, “Hit him again”. I respond, “It’s not zeroed for me, just give me two bullets”. Jonathan complies. The bull has stopped at 321 yards and looks sick. No one can be sure if I hit him while he was running. I have time to breath and squeeze the last shot. At the report of the rifle, the bull falls where he stands. We climb back up the kopje to find Aline, who could see nothing over the cliff’s edge. She is standing there very nervous and praying. We all must catch our breath before we can tell her what happened. What a hunt! It takes a long time to navigate off the massif and get to the bull, but when we do I am very proud. He is huge and very old. He has a thick shag carpet between his ancient old ivory tipped horns. I hit him twice.

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After dropping the bull at the skinning shed we go back to the lodge to rest up for another hyena hunt. As we are unpacking the truck we are discussing the two follow up shots on the running bull. Jonathan and Sakalie disagree about what happened earlier. I disagree with them both. Jonathan believes that I shot a different bull with those follow up shots. Sakhile believes I hit him once while he was running and missed him the other two shots. I believe that I was aiming at the running bull, but not leading it. So, the running shots fell harmlessly in the dirt. We must go back and track the other bulls to see if any of them were hit. We put our gear back on the truck and drive back to where my bull fell. Sakhile finds the tracks of the other bulls and we begin. We track the other bulls for nearly a mile. There was no blood. Sakhile and Jonathan also don’t believe, from the eland’s tracks, that any are dragging a leg or acting wounded. They concede, that I was right and we go back to the lodge. I’ve never been happier to miss an animal.

After dinner Aline wants to hunt and we decide to try to catch a bushbuck before sunset and then stay out and hunt hyena. Jonathan also decides that we need to bring some of the awful and bones from the zebra. He thinks we should leave some each place we get a response from hyena in hopes that it will keep them close. We get down to the largest kopje near the lake without incident or anything of note and begin glassing. We saw four bushbuck, but nothing old enough to shoot. We climbed down off the rocks and prepared for the night’s hunt.

The hyena come running into our first set up as soon as we turned on the call. Aline is getting ready to shoot. While Jonathan is set to turn on the light. It is immediate pandemonium. The giant dogs are howling and barking all around the truck. Jonathan switches on the light. Aline sees the eyes and just as she is ready to shoot, the dogs run. This happens multiple times. The adrenaline rush is real. The entire team is a mess with excitement. Alas, Aline gets no shot. We leave an offering of zebra guts and bones, then move on to the next set up. This time we are in a wide canyon with kopjes on both sides. Jonathan turns on the call. It echoes down the canyon. “Whooop!” is immediately echoed back. I am baffled by another sound, echoing towards us in the still night air. Then I realize it’s the footfalls of the running hyena. We scramble to get set up amongst the whoops and howls surrounding us as they bounce of the canyon walls. The pack approaches the truck with great speed, but at the sight of it they break and leave with a similarly impressive haste. It’s past midnight when we get to our third set up and begin calling. We hear a distant response and wait. Nothing comes in. We leave the remainder of our zebra offering and depart.

Bushbuck dawn approaches and we are all making preparations to get Aline a bushbuck. As soon as the grey predawn light illuminates our path we depart for the old dry lake. The lake is about a half mile wide with a small one acre patch of tall reeds near the center, in what used to be the deepest part when it held water. As we approach the damn, we spy an old bushbuck and the hunt is on. Before we can get into position we are busted and the bushbuck slinks into the patch of reeds in the wide open center of the dry lake. Sakhile climbs a tree to watch the flanks of the reeds with a radio and Jonathan decides we should simply wait the buck out. After a long while I volunteer to stalk around to the other side of the reeds and push my way through, certainly this will cause the buck to leave and give Aline a shot. Jonathan agrees and I’m off.

Jonathan gives me handsignals as I stalk up to the reeds and I enter at the point he directs me from a few hundred yards away. I am only a few yards deep into the tightly packed reeds when I hear the bushbuck break out. I freeze. I wait. I hear no shot. I back track out of the reeds and walk back to the truck. When I get there, I wonder why Aline is looking at me in a strange way. Before I can speak, she says in a very spooky voice and points at me, “Jonathan um…” Jonathan looks at me and says, “Oh shit man!” I look down and it appears that my clothes are alive and moving. I freeze, horrified. I have thousands of ticks covering my body. Jonathan leaps out of the truck and begins beating me with his hat. Aline yells, “Take off your clothes!” Who am I to resist a woman as pretty as my wife screaming, “Take off your clothes!” Jonathan understands and stops beating me. I strip down to my underpants and get into the back of the truck, as Jonathan speeds away.

I am in my early 40s now and have always been an athlete. I’m less impressive naked than I used to be. But all the Africans we pass as we speed back to camp seems quite impressed by me. I suppose if it wasn’t my physique that was impressive. Maybe it was the rosy shade of pink my entire body had become in the cold winter air. We were in such a hurry, we didn’t think for me to get into the cab. By the time we get to camp I am a very nice shade of red. Aline does a tick check all over my body, while Jonathan puts my clothes into a trash bag, which he fills with cattle dip anti-tick liquid. The vampire bug crisis is averted. I have new clean clothes on my back. It’s time to find Aline a buckbuck. Africa never ceases to surprise me.

We start checking all the likely bushbuck areas of the valley for the small secretive antelope. The dry lake is empty of bushbuck as well as water. Then we check the big lake, which is empty of bushbuck, but full of water. Then, to no ones surprise, Jonathan wants to climb the tallest kopje that leads to the west side of the big lake. We glass for a while in all directions, but find nothing. I realize that Sakhile is gone, just about the time he returns with good news. He’s found an old male bedded. We stalk over to where Sakhile found the buck and I cannot see it with the naked eye at all and struggle with my binoculars. The ability of African trackers to see game with their naked eyes never ceases to amaze me. We wait for hours and the big buck never moves. We sit tight and keep our vigil.

Sakhile is acting funny. What’s his deal? He looks at Jonathan and points. Jonathan looks where Sakhile pointed and smiles. Then he whispers, “A younger buck is walking towards our buck.” We all sit tight and watch the drama unfold. First, a female buckbuck stands. That explains why the old male was holding so tight. When she starts to move away the old buck stands and moves between her and the young buck. The young buck stupidly continues toward her and then it happens. The forest explodes with energy as the old buck chases off the young buck in a violent sprint. We watch the show as they twist and turn through the forest and then disappear. All we can do is wait and hope the old buck wins and returns to his lady. He does and they bed down in the same fissure in the forest floor. We wait.

Another hour goes by and we are baking on the rock. It’s after midday and there’s no respite from the sun on this bald rock face. Jonathan and Sakhile have both stalked away and back again multiple times, trying to find a better angle. They cannot. Aline sits like a statue. The doe stands and begins to slowly feed. A few moments later, the buck follows. Without guidance or provocation Aline quietly repositions higher up on the rock face, gets behind her rifle and says, “I’m going to take him.” Jonathan and I simply exchange surprised looks. Aline’s rifle barks. The old buck sprints downhill toward the road and tumbles to his death seconds after the shot and mere feet from the roadside. Aline has her buck and a magnificent old buck he is.

We try again that night for hyena. This time we bring Jonathan’s nephew, Ian Andrew. Our first calling location produces no response. We move on. The second calling location produces one short tentative, “Whoop.” We move on again. At the third calling location we get a powerful response and everyone quietly does their job. Jonathan and Aline move out in front of the truck 75 yards into the dark forest. I suggested this tactic, because every hyena that came in so far turned and ran when it saw the truck. Ian Andrew’s job is to follow them with a sack of rotten meat, dump it on the ground and return to the truck. I am running the caller. Ian Andrew returns at a sprint and is sure he’s being chased by hyena. He’s wrong, but I don’t blame the young lad. The dogs are close. I never saw Jonathan turn on the spotlight and 45 minutes later they return to the truck, no shot. We try one more location and no hyena, but when Jonathan throws on the spotlight he sees a grysbok, a big one. He hands me his varmint rifle, chambered in .22 Winchester Magnum. It takes a moment, but I find the grysbok in the sights and the .22 barks. Jonathan is terribly excited. I don’t understand, why. The grysbok fell where it stood and Jonathan runs over to it. It’s a small antelope, so he simply carries it back to the Landcruiser. At the truck Jonathan is visibly excited, “Michael this is the biggest grysbok I’ve ever seen. It is certainly a record, maybe the world record.” I am happy, quite happy with the chance encounter and the blessing of such a harvest, but I am skeptical about its record book status. Nevertheless, the ninth evening finally turned up an animal for Aline and I in the darkness.

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Dawn on the tenth morning was late. I was lying in bed waiting for it. When I finally saw the grey light creep into our lodge and heard the first birds began to sing, I dressed and went outside. The camp staff were already beginning to move and there was coffee. I poured a cup and watched a fire being built in the hearth. The last day of a hunt like this is certainly bittersweet. A few years of saving money. An entire year of planning. The travel to Africa and the first nine days of hunting seemed, now, at this moment to have gone by too quickly. They passed almost like the smoke from the fire, slowly at first until they just disappeared up the chimney. Aline quietly strode into view and I was brought back to reality, just as the sun crested the eastern horizon.

Warthog was the order of the day. This was our third safari and Aline has always wanted to harvest a mature old warthog. She had her chances before, but to her credit she held off. The hogs she’d previously had an opportunity to harvest were mature, but not old. She’s serious about the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation and the ethic of harvesting the oldest males from a population. We are in Africa, but the conservation model and ethic still apply. The oldest males are often no longer breeding and quite often have been kicked out of the herd by the younger stronger males. They’re simply waiting for the specter of death, which usually comes when they slow down. Whether it’s an injury or old age that slows them down, eventually they can no longer outrun the many predators here. When that happens, they are chased down and eaten – alive. They fight, sure they do, but death in nature is a far crueler option than the hunter’s coup de grace.

We go through the normal tactics Jonathan has in his bag before lunch. Driving to likely spots warthogs live, climbing kopjes and glassing for them. We spot no hogs, none. We then retreat to the lodge for lunch and Jonathan decides we can glass a water hole near the lodge. We are all tired, including Jonathan, although he will not admit it. We’ve hunted day and night for the last nine days and sitting by a water hole, close to the lodge is a fine idea. I especially like the idea, because no one hunts this close to the lodge. Less hunting pressure means we might actually get it done this afternoon. Shortly into our sit, I remind Aline that the last time we “sat water” she napped, while I stood watch. I told her that the first shift we were doing the opposite. So, I nodded off. I wasn’t out long when a wisp of wind washed over me and I woke. I noticed Jonathan was gone. Aline explained he walked back to the lodge. I sat up, looked toward the water hole and said, “Are you going to shoot that hog or what?” Aline was startled and grabbed her binoculars, “I didn’t see him come in.” A good warthog was just then kneeling to drink as the rest of his family group walked in behind him. Aline whispered, “Go get Jonathan.” Shooting any animal in Africa, without a PH is a bad plan. I sneak off quickly and quietly and return with Jonathan. Who looks the hog over and says, “Too small.” Aline must have agreed, because she didn’t argue. Jonathan disappeared again. Aline and I watched the hogs finish drinking and move back into the forest. Aline put down her binoculars and sighed. Just then a very big solitary male stepped out of the forest and surveyed the waterhole. Looking through my binoculars, I said, “Are going to shoot that hog or what?” Aline thinks I’m joking, but I didn’t say anything else. She saw the old male hog and said, “Find Jonathan.” I immediately bump into Sakhile. We weren’t totally without supervision, as PHs sometimes do, he left Sakhile to watch us. Sakhile has seen the big old hog and is already on his way to get Jonathan. Mere moments pass when Jonathan returns, looks through his binoculars and says, “He will do.”

BOOM! Not one second elapses between Jonathan’s pronunciation that the hog was old enough and Aline’s rifle’s bark. She was ready the instant Jonathan gave his approval. The hog is dead where he stood. We hike down to the waterhole, over 225 yards away and are pleased to find a truly old warthog for Aline.

This magnificent safari could not have ended on a better note. The classic African animal that Aline’s been after on three different safaris was finally hers. We took the hog to the skinning shed and acted like conquering heroes. I’m not sure why. I suppose it was how the warthog capped off the entire safari for us all. I also suppose it’s because we didn’t get a hyena. For those who have fallen in love with Africa, the terrain, it’s people and the hunting you don’t need much of an excuse to start saving for the next safari as soon as you get home from the last one.  The pursuit of the whooping giant dogs, that respond to calls at night, is certainly reason enough for us to return. We will.

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Hunting Post Script: I didn't think to write about it, but going through the photos I was reminded of the amazing way they grow tomatoes and keep the monkeys, birds and varmints out. About a 1 acre tent, covered rows of poles and wires used to grow thousands of pounds of tomatoes.  

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Recipe –

Here’s what you need, “soup to nuts” to serve up your own black death on the rocks -

Ingredients:

____ A willing soul, a semi-stout heart, good legs, feet and hips – priceless

____ Time Off – (# of days) x (what you get paid daily) until you get it done = ???

____ Booking a dangerous game hunt: $1,000 per day for the dangerous game hunter and $250 per day for your companion to hunt plains game$1,250 per day x 10 days = $12,500

____ Flights for two to Africa and back economy class, roughly $5,000

____ Dangerous game rifle chambered in at least .375 Holland and Holland - $1,500

____ Ammunition to practice prior to going on the hunt 10 boxes x $100 = $1,000 (Hornady DGX .458 WINMAG the cheap stuff)

____ Ammunition for the hunt itself 2 boxes of Custom Nosler Solids in .458WINMAG = $320; 2 boxes of Federal Trophy Bonded Bear Claw in .458WINMAG = $320 total - $640

____ Ammunition for Aline’s .300WINMAG; practice + hunting 8 boxes of Barnes X $45 = $360

____ Air Service to help get you, your weapons and bags through customs in Africa $700

____ Clothes, binoculars and other gear – you should already own it

____ Overnight in Johannesburg before flying to Zimbabwe $200

____ Tip  20% of the safari, plus tracker and camp staff - $3,000

____ Trophy fee for the buffalo - $3,000

____ Trophy fees for the other animals - ???

____ Shipping of your animals home to the United States - $2,000

Total Cost:  $29,900

Directions:

Okay, most folks first thought is, “Oh my God, thirty grand!” Well yes, that’s about right. And that’s why it takes us three years to save up and go on this type of adventure. This was the first and last safari we paid retail. Every safari before this one and every safari after this one we’ve bought at a local chapter of Safari Club International, like one near our home at:

http://www.kentuckianasci.org/auction.html The hunts at these local chapter auctions are vetted by the leadership of each club and especially at our club, they’re high quality. The money from the auction goes partially to fund the missions of Safari Club International and partially to fund our local chapter missions. Our biggest mission with the local chapter is a summer camp for kids who want to learn to hunt. They get a five-day camp for free and learn about all things needed to be a hunter. On the last day they take their test and earn their state issued hunter safety card as well. The other great thing about buying safaris at venues like this is that they are often sold well below their retail value. This can help anyone do their first African safari. This safari in particular was expensive, hunting “black death” is not cheap and should not be cheap. Especially, wild big country free roaming Zimbabwean buffalos. After you purchase your safari at the auction you’ll want to contact a travel service in Africa, we use http://www.hunterssupport.com/hunters/ Anne and her people will help you get your paperwork approved before you arrive in Africa. They will meet you at each plane and get you through the airport until your final destination, where your PH and his people should pick you up. I highly recommend someone like this and trying to do it without help, especially if it’s your first safari is a fool’s errand. Next, you must search for the best price throughout the winter and spring before your hunt for plane tickets. This is best accomplished by an experienced safari travel agent, but you could do this on your own. Either way, I highly recommend you fly to Atlanta and take the Delta 201 flight direct to Johannesburg. You can overnight easily in the City Lodge Hotel, which is safe and part of the airport complex. Then get up the next morning and catch your next flight to your final destination on the continent. We’ve tried other methods. The worst is going through New York, then refueling in Senegal, and arriving early in the morning in Johannesburg. You must immediately catch the next flight to the destination. Where you arrive spent, exhausted and not ready to hunt. And because the New York flight leaves early in the morning, you’ll probably have to overnight in New York, which is actually worse than Johannesburg. Check before you leave to see if your transfers (rides) to and from the airport are included in the cost of the safari. Some outfitters and PHs charge extra, some include it. Tips are interesting, as the safari is already expensive. But honestly, tipping is worth it. They really earn it. You’re treated like royalty the entire time you’re on safari, especially by good reputable outfitters and PHs. The staff prepare all your meals, do your laundry daily and take care of all your wants and needs. The landowners, outfitters and PHs are responsible for managing their land and the animals on it. They use the money to keep their entire conservancy or farm running. These are huge tracts of land, hard to imagine for most Americans and keeping poachers off the land and protecting their animals is a huge expense. It’s hunter’s dollars that do that. It’s what gives value to the animals. I realize it’s counterintuitive that hunter’s dollars save the animals, but that’s the truth. We take only one or two representatives of a species from the herd, which lives on and is protected resource. So, the safaris cost pays for a great deal more than just the PH and Outfitters costs. Also, the local people in most of African have no jobs, none whatsoever. They are usually subsistence farmers and have a diet almost void of protein. A safari outfitter provides local jobs and a great deal of protein from the animals harvested to the local people. A rifle is an interesting subject and I am not going down that rabbit hole. The rifle you are most confident with in the minimum legal caliber for dangerous game, .375H&H, is the best choice. Your comfort and confidence with the rifle mean much more than anyone else’s expert opinion. Only hits matter and animals lives are held in the balance. If you don’t have one, you could borrow one from a friend or buy one. Just make sure you know what ammunition the rifle “likes” and practice before you go. You could also rent a rifle and ammunition from the PH or outfitter. This is becoming a more popular solution as African Nations make traveling with firearms more and more difficult every year. Trophy fees are based solely on what you chose to shoot. There are places in Africa, mostly South Africa, where the conservancies are quite small and the hunts are not really fair chase and wild. I don’t hunt at such places. We like to hunt big wild tracts of land for truly wild animals. But the thing about Africa, especially well managed conservancies, is that the game is plentiful. You will see game all day every day. You must be ethical and disciplined in what you chose to harvest. Some PHs are liberal with their age classifications and will let you shoot younger males. This can get expensive quickly. You must know what you want to hunt and what you’re willing to pay. Also, when paying for trophy fees you’ll need to decide if you want to travel with tens of thousands of dollars in cash or ask if the outfitter will let you wire them the money after the safari. Either way, you’ll need to research the animals you want to hunt and hope to harvest in order to be able to pay the trophy fees and not get yourself in too deep. Finally, what do you do with your animals after you harvest them? Great question. The PH and the trackers will get the animals from the field, skinned and butchered. They will salt your hides and clean your skulls, that is included in the safari. The choice cuts of meat are prepared in camp for you and your hunting party. The rest of the meat and I mean all of it, every morsel will be eaten by the camp staff and farm staff. If there is too much it will be distributed to the other villages locally. Nothing goes to waste. The PH or outfitter will also get your hides, skulls and horns to a local taxidermist in Africa to be mounted and shipped to the United States or simply “dipped and packed” and shipped home. Either way you’ve got choices to make. If you had time to visit the taxidermist in Africa and are happy with their work, having them mount your trophies, crate them and ship them home is the least expensive option. If you’d rather have your local taxidermist do the work, then have them dipped and packed. Shipping by plane is very expensive. Shipping by boat takes a little longer, but it is significantly less expensive. Finally, DO NOT have your trophies sent directly to you or to your taxidermist. Most ports of entry into the United States are NOT familiar with African animals. If you ship them directly to your local hometown there’s a chance the U.S. Customs Agents won’t know what to do. They’ll leave them sit until they figure it out. While they sit they might ruin. If you’re unlucky they’ll eventually give them to you. If you’re very unlucky they will ship them back to Africa at your cost. They best plan is to higher a brokerage service that brings things like this into the United States all the time. We use http://www.hunter-international.net/ Maria or her husband Hunter, will take good care of you. They’ll get a limited Power of Attorney (POA) from you, allowing them to act as your agent to import the shipment. When you give them the POA, you’ll want to step back and simply answer their questions and pay their fees. They will use their contacts and professionally move your shipment to the tannery of your choice and arrange final disposition from the tannery to your taxidermist. And they start by tracking the shipment from Africa. Their services are well worth the money. These are the necessary costs to cook up a good safari. Good luck and happy hunting.

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