October 28, 2010
By Patrick Meitin
While bowhunting cape buffalo in war-torn Africa, fears stem no from black death, but men.
By Patrick Meitin
Photography: Mark Anderson
The guerilla war that ravaged Rhodesia for more than 15 years had grown particularly nasty during the final months, each side seeing the writing on the wall and jockeying for last-minute standing. Riding down from the low, black-seamed Matopos Hills, feeling the cooling breeze pouring through open windows, and with lukewarm Castle Lager to patiently sip, it was easy to forget all that ugliness.
If you could only dismiss the mine-proofed Rover, the ever-present grenades one pushed aside to grasp a binocular or sandwich and the 7.62mm F.N. machine gun PH Allan Van Kemp toted everywhere as a woman does her purse. "Hedgehogs" rode over each door -- pipe fans spread skyward like outstretched fingers -- creating flute-like song at speed. Yank a lever above the rear-view mirror and those fans dropped on hinges to fire five charges of 12-gauge buckshot to either flank in a way of dissuading ambush.
The Matopos country we'd left had been cut intermittently with deep ravines, making the relatively scarce but quality game quite approachable. I'd enjoyed a cheery week well above Southern Rhodesia's low-veldt swelter and owned a couple worthwhile prizes to show for my efforts.
Yet while many plains-game concessions remained well removed from hotbeds of strife, the best Cape buffalo areas -- such as the Zambezi Valley, our next destination -- remained highly questionable. Ian Smith's government was winning the long terrorist war, but politics were becoming thorny. With the world against him (including U.S. President Jimmy Carter), Smith could win the war but lose the country. I'd endured some fairly staid, if good-natured, ribbing during the past week simply for being American. I'd found myself explaining repeatedly I was not of the jackass party.
The passenger planes had been shot down over Kariba and all their survivors viciously butchered, making it easy to question if Rhodesia's sudden affordability justified the obvious inconveniences. I can only counter by pointing out that the political chaos of the late '70s created an absolute low point in African hunting. There were simply few other options -- certainly not at those prices.
I awoke with a start, my feet rattling empty beer cans and civilization looming in the distance. My good cheer began to dissipate, replaced by nervous energy. Roadblocks became part of the scenery. Allan had lived so long in a country at war it distressed him not at all, but teenage boys in G.I. Joe garb wielding automatic weapons never sat well with me.
By twilight the following day, after a wicked day on the road, I could easily observe the tension I'd suffered yesterday transferred to my stalwart leader. It was growing gloomy and we were far from our destination. One does not travel after darkness in war-torn Africa. Allan was pressing the Rover to its limit, drumming the steering wheel and whistling discordantly, fragments of a tune almost recognizable but not quite revealing itself. Allan was unsure of the way, having been obliged to resort to Plan B, as it were.
While spending the previous night at his family home, disturbing news arrived. The Zambezi had been deemed unsafe as conflicts intensified in the eleventh-hour power struggle, and several members of his safari crew were unaccounted for.
As pavement gave way to dirt, Allan was overrunning his headlights as I swigged beer and recalled Chief Joseph's enduring words and maintained a forced calm. I'd convinced myself I believed this and so lived by it, watching the world hurtle past and leaning into the curves as if enjoying a youthful ride. Still, the lights of the fortified lodge produced an inner sigh of relief.
"Apologize for the hurry, but we shouldn't want to get caught out over-late. Mickey Mice all about," Allan said with his gapped-toothed grin. "Time for life-giving gin, hey?"
We bowhunted buffalo a week, leaving the Rover to a pair of army-assigned bodyguards at daylight, trudging up sandy dongas in search of scattered watering holes where buffalo came to drink under the cover of darkness. Tracking them through thronged woodlands and riparian thorn I'd witnessed absolute wizardry; trackers "Sam" and "Tom" not only sorting things out through a confusion of spoor, but pushing trails through places where there was no trail -- at least to my eyes.
At one point, watching Sam tracing the sign of a lone Dagga Boy (an old bull cast from the herd) through spoor left by a sizable mixed herd, I inquisitively questioned his methods. Sam spoke some English. He pointed out a single track with a stiff grass straw he'd been chewing. "Thees juan -- thee Dagga -- ease new, as you cahn see," he said. "Thees juan, it ease odor." He stated this as if reading a newspaper headline. When I pressed him further, he essentially repeated his first statement, shrugging for emphasis.
"Blighters are amazing, no?"
Allan broke in. "When they're quite young, these Matabele, they're put in charge of the family goats. It's everything the family possesses, so it's important that nothing should happen to them. One buggers off; they track it and return it to the herd. They learn tracking from a tender age."
Those buff were edgy. I wondered how I might actually get a shot. They seemed to know they were followed, circling to test the wind before bedding, ever suspicious. There had been a general eradication effort due to hoof-and-mouth disease before the war really heated up. Not that these buffalo carried hoof-and-mouth, or had been proven to transfer it to cattle, but just in case. The war had provided temporary amnesty, but these were the survivors, rebuilding the herd slowly but with fresh recollections of the former mandate.
We were on buff each morning and evening -- shading up during the heat of day for a chop-box lunch. We had not come even close to earning a shot. The eighth day was half behind us and we were no closer to collecting a buff, all the more maddening given the literal Eden of plains game all around, including sable -- the only animal that had been able to temporarily detour our single-minded pursuit of buff. At least with sable we had come close and could see success was possible. It was not so with buffalo. A sensible man would have forsaken the quest and taken advantage of that which was within reach.
But I coveted a buffalo badly -- adolescent fantasy turned adult obsession.
Anchoring A Bull
We overtook the three bulls early the next morning, slipping ahead through high cane, islands of clutching camel-thorn and scattered termite pillars, discovering sharp-walled channels to fall into while advancing on the faint hoof clatter that alone guided us. Tom flicked campfire ash from a worn leather pouch at his waist, keeping tabs on the wind.
We had not spied a buff, yet we were as close as we had ever been. I could hear their bellies grumble and smell them on the wind as clearly as feedlot steers. We slipped up a shallow erosion cut, bent over like question marks and stepped deliberately. I placed an arrow on the string of my 90-pound recurve.
And then Sam squatted and pointed.
Allan was at my ear, breathing the words delicately, "He's really quite decent. The angle's also nice."
Yet I wavered. It wasn't that I didn't believe Allan or did not desire this specific bull as badly as anything I'd ever wished for. The plain truth was I couldn't see the darn thing.
Allan pointed steadily over my shoulder. Tom gestured like one of Bob Barker's lovelies presenting a new car. His entire being screamed, "Here's a fine buffalo bull for your taking -- if the price is right!"
There was slight movement in shadow; a lighter shade of black on black and the bull sprang into swift focus. He was close, but he was on the move again. I tugged the bowstring and hit my anchor, crowding the periphery of cover about to swallow my bull entirely. There was a hollow thump that instantly detonated an explosion of smashing wood, hammering hooves and suspended dust. Within seconds it was conspicuously quiet and Tom rattled quietly in shotgun Sindebele, stabbing himself half way down his torso with a rigid thumb. No interpretation was required. I had hit the one-ton bull too far back.
"Tom believes you've anchored him," Allan said in a normal tone, the sudden volume shattering. "A bit back, but good for the angle." I was unaware of such an angle but willing to play along to ease the growing nausea in my gut.
After an hour wait, and 400 yards of slow tracking, that sick feeling returned. There was much blood -- frothy and dark -- enough that even I could stay abreast of developments.
Pressed to guess, I called it liver and single lung. Sam and Tom ranged ahead, as cautious as birddogs in sandspurs. Two hundred yards later, one of them pointed to one side, grabbing Allan's attention before pushing the track ahead. Where they'd indicated was a deep-worn game trail, obviously well used. I couldn't help but observe Allan handled his F.N. a bit more deliberately, eyes scanning about furtively. I caught his attention and shrugged in way of query.
"Terrorist highway," Allan offered simply. Then to my blank stare, "Route in from Mozambique, headed to TTLs. Tribal Trust Lands. Bad bit."
I scrutinized the trail more closely, noticing clipped branches and the well-weathered edge of a boot track. Allan motioned me on and we came upon the trackers crouched and grinning. We stalked to them and Sam threw a chin toward a piece of shadow. A dark hulk showed against a mass of shadow. Allan pulled binoculars from his eyes, leaned in and whispered softly, "Just there, between those lighted cane stalks. Give him another for insurance."
I shakily fought the heavy bow to anchor and took my shot with care. The double-walled aluminum (2018 inside 2216) made a formidable missile and held a 200-grain, tanged Caldwell with Howard Hill blade. The arrow sank home and the buffalo lurched from his bed and barged through dense cane with astonishing grace. Another crash erupted from another quarter and we all whirled, Allan training his F.N., following the commotion.
"His pals," Allan said, showing his gapped teeth. "Leaving him to his fate." One of the trackers hissed and Allan turned again. "Listen here," he said, "your bloke's done for." I listened for some seconds before understanding the low moan I could discern some distance away was my bull.
Admiring him took some time, as did picture taking. We were emotionally sapped, out of water and famished. We left the boys to their duties and made our way to the road and chop box. I grasped quite suddenly I was completely turned around, had no idea which way the Rover lay. The bearing Allan chose would not have occurred to me.
"Get out of this swamp, hey," Allan offered. "Wouldn't fancy running into Mickey Mice in this stuff." He pounded me on the back for no apparent reason and beamed happily.
It felt fine to walk, to really walk, to engage my legs and cover ground; not that crouching, sneaking locomotion we had been employing since daybreak. It was early afternoon, and I wondered aloud where the time had gone. I could feel it in my lower back, but it felt good to have earned something, to realize a notion that had long been only boyhood fantasy. I had to shake myself sporadically, appreciate anew that it had actually happened and was not just a dream.
I suddenly remembered the cigar, a sealed-tube Havana hoarded for celebration. I found it in my pack and lit it, puffing and marching smartly, soaking in the surroundings I'd neglected while under the burden of serious chase. We walked a long time, and it was difficult to believe just how much ground we'd covered while absorbed in the intense atmosphere of the stalk.
We emerged from cover and Allan began to bark in frantic tones, bodily throwing me behind a low anthill, bellowing in a foreign tongue, then in plain English that in my bewilderment and sudden fright took some seconds to grasp. Then Allan's tone softened and I could hear spirited laughing from somewhere not so far away -- the deep, throaty laughs of African natives. Allan was on his feet, looking down on me, showing those gapped teeth and offering a hand to help me stand.
"Silly bit, that. Must apologize. Wasn't thinking it through," Allan said, still grinning, and then speaking again in Sindebele chatter toward the nearby laughter. "Army blokes, you know, chaps coming up from an unexpected direction. Should say we nearly got ourselves shot, hey."
We approached the Rover, the two army-assigned bodyguards lighting cigarettes with English Enfields tucked under arms.
Allan spoke to them in amused tones and they showed sugar-cube teeth and chuckled anew, the shorter one shaking his head. Allan related more information and they lit up and slung their rifles and approached me with wide smiles, bowing their heads slightly as they offered congratulations in broken English and grasped the thumb of my proffered hand in turn, bobbing forward as they spoke.
"Didn't believe in your bow and arrows,"
Allan offered. "Think you're a hell of a fellow."
"Tell them thank you for not shooting us," I said, grinning and welcoming the attention.Allan related this in their native tongue, which instigated laughter all around.
"Lots of biltong [jerky] on the way," I said, wanting the good cheer to last. This they understood and bowed their heads involuntarily, repeating in unison, "Yes, yes!"
Allan dug cans of beer from the chop box, still reasonably cool from inside the thick wooden crate. Creating dispensing holes with my knife, I downed the contents in three long tips, feeling the cool elixir running down my throat. The blacks laughed and pulled grenades from their pockets to return to the tray between the front seats as if returning car keys to their accustomed place. It all seemed so natural now. Home was very far away.