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Hunting buffalo and pulling teeth

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It was just after sunrise and the warm yellow glow settled softly around us. We were slumbering in the back of the pick-up truck, as my father drove us out to the commercial farming area of Guruve. It was a comfortable trip for us… warm, smooth, and protected from the elements. We weren’t used to this luxury, so as the light fell on us, our heads nodded.

Ivan Carter and Dave Christensen were dozing opposite me. I was lucky that they had also been in town on their time off and had offered to tutor me on my first buffalo hunt. Dave had, at that time, already been a fully licensed Professional Guide for several years. Ivan had recently been licensed a Professional Guide and was now working on his Professional Hunters (PH) License. We were all watching his progress with interest. Professional Guides (PG) were more knowledgeable, with excellent bush skills and were usually better trackers than PHs, since they did all their own tracking every day.

On the other hand, Professional Hunters made more money and were for the most part hunters first and guides second. No matter how experienced he was, a Professional Guide was not allowed to take hunting safaris for "hire or reward". Ivan wanted to do what no one had done before – get both licenses. Only five per cent of candidates who made it to the proficiency exams after completing a four year apprenticeship passed the finals. And even amongst those few, half would be given "restricted licenses", meaning they would have to shoot more dangerous game, or accompany some hunts, or, in the case of one poor sod, just come back a year later "with a decent haircut". It would, of course, have been easier to do a Professional Hunters License which would allow him to guide anyway, but all guides knew that unless one went through the guide licensing system successfully, it was rare to be accepted as a specialist walking guide with a PH license. So, Ivan was going for both.

And then there was me, lowly ‘Learner’ Professional Hunter, which basically meant I could do game drives and the like and be apprenticed to a Professional Hunter or Guide. Which in my case was Rob Clifford, an ex-National Parks officer with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the bush and many years hunting experience. In those days, we still did one year as a ‘gobby’, then one year as a courier, and two years as a Learner Hunter (assuming we passed the written exams) under a PH. Finally, full-license written exams followed, and if we had passed the written, there was a ten day practical field proficiency exam.

At the proficiency exam, we would be expected to shoot or back-up on an elephant or buffalo hunt. However, to even have any chance of making it at the proficiency exams, any hunter-to-be worth his salt had to have at least several buffalos, elephants, and other dangerous game shot and many more backed up and accompanied. The only way to shoot big game in those quantities, unless you were a millionaire, was Problem Animal Control or "PAC".

I looked down. The layer of blood from the old elephant bull was still congealed like black treacle on my battered shoes. I would have to sort that out before I guided any clients back at Fothergill Island. Since I was about to hunt, it didn’t matter of course, but normally I would clean them and then powder them in ‘mealie-meal’, before letting them dry and brushing them with a suede brush. As usual, we were all wearing sharply ironed green cotton shirts and Khaki Drill shorts, with thick leather and polished brass belts – all de rigeur for Professional Guides and wannabes in those days. We looked smart at first glance, but I knew that on closer inspection the holes in my threadbare shorts, which had been darned by the ladies in the staff village, would stick out like a sore thumb. Still, on a salary of $200 per month, and with ammo, transport to other areas for experience, cigarettes, and books to pay for ¬– never mind a few pennies towards my proficiency exam fund – I was damn lucky to be wearing any pants at all!

I did not mind, of course, it was worth it. I loved it too and it was definitely good for me – although I did wish I could afford a few more days on the town and better luck with all those gorgeous creatures who frequented Sandro’s, Archipelago’s, and the other clubs in Harare. Tough shit, I would have to hope that more clients brought their pretty daughters on safari with them, and that Rob did not catch me trying to chat them up – or Ivan for that matter – the bugger had sent the waiter up to the bar to deliver a shovel and a spade to me the last time I had got anywhere near a girl. I was still being ragged about it by the other learners, especially Russell Gammon. Russell was delighted, as I had recently put an unrolled condom, strategically placed to fall out as he opened it, as he invariably would do to check on a bird, in his bird book just before he went out on a drive with six Quantas stewardesses. The results had been spectacular.

Anyway, one night out, and as usual, some slick townie had taken a dislike to the skinny, sunburnt, long-haired bush-baby talking to his girl. My knuckles were still in agony and my hand badly swollen from the brawl that had ensued. I had noticed the wry smile from Dave as he asked how I hurt my hand, and then enquired how the hell I was going to shoot with it. My casual display of slapping my hands together and stretching the fingers had been excruciating, but seemed to have done the trick, although he still looked pretty dubious, probably thinking about the rest of my current disabilities. I glanced at the rest of me. My legs were covered in mosquito bites as usual. We couldn’t get insect repellent very easily back then, and would not have thought of buying it if we could have. Then, I looked at the gash on my thigh and thought back to the bull elephant again. He had Floppy Trunk Syndrome or Flaccid Trunk Paralysis.

We had been watching him and the other bulls affected by this on the Matusadona shoreline for a couple of years. It started at the tip and slowly the paralysis worked its way up his trunk. He adapted well at first by trapping the indigofera, or couche grass, between one foot and the part of the trunk just above the paralysis, and then balancing it on the same point on the trunk before carefully carrying it up to his mouth. Drinking meant getting into the lake and using their mouths. There were different theories about what was causing it. Later, it would be proposed that it was the same indigofera, which they so enjoyed eating and was so nutritious. At that time, theories flying around ranged from lead poisoning to black widow bites (they built little tepee-like nests in the grass that grew all over the shore). Unfortunately, the bull was so far gone that he could no longer use any little tricks to get the huge volume of food he needed daily into his mouth. We had seen him on his knees trying to bite the couche grass, which grew in shallow water, directly with his mouth.

Sadly, the old chap had weakened to the point that his hip bones were sticking out like huge plough disks, his skin was hanging off him like dirty canvas curtains, and he wasn’t eating or drinking anything anymore. The warden of Matusadona, Andy Searle, decided that he would be shot and invited in the University of Zimbabwe vets to do an autopsy to try and determine what was causing the paralysis. This of course, would be good experience for us learner hunters and therefore we accompanied the hunt. Since he was in the open on the shoreline, we could not go with Andy on the final approach, but managed to get a good view from the small bluff where the island ended and the exposed area between the island and mainland area began (the lake was so low at that time that Fothergill was a peninsula and not an island).

The floodplain was beautiful, a mix of soft green grass, spiky dead trees, and red earth with the woodlands rising up behind into the Matusadona Hills. The bull was feeding on the southern side and Andy approached him from the northeast. The wind was easterly, which meant he could approach the elephant directly with the sun behind him without worrying that the elephant would smell him. It was about 10am, so the sun was low enough that the elephant was even facing away. There was nothing between them in the way of cover, except the odd termite mound or small gully. Elephants have very poor eyesight, but are more likely to pick up movement if it goes across their line of sight. If you keep moving quietly, directly towards them, they will not know until you are fairly close – as long as you are quiet of course. With the sun behind him and walking softly, we knew he would be able to pretty much walk right up to him. And, that is what he did, almost…

Just as he was about 80 metres away, the wind changed to a northerly and he was busted. The bull spun and ran southeast, diagonally towards the tree line. That was thick Mopani scrub, and if he got in there it would be hard work. Andy ran too, releasing the safety on his .458 and sprinting diagonally to cut him off. I was impressed; Andy could run like hell.

Then he did something truly amazing. At full sprint, just as some rugby players shift their weight onto one foot and then change direction, Andy put all his weight onto his left side, stiffening his body and thus giving himself a tiny pause and a stable position for a fraction of a second. He had been quickly bringing up his rifle just before this, and as the Afrikaners were famous for doing during the Boer War, he sighted and fired as the butt touched his shoulder. The bull immediately crashed to the ground, a perfect side-on head shot, at eighty metres, whilst both hunter and prey were in a full sprint at different angles to each other!

We crouched dumbstruck for a very long time, whilst he casually strolled over to the bull. Then, we were put to work. We ran back to the Land Rover and vets, and then raced back to the spot. As soon as we got there, the vets started discussing with Rob and Andy what they wanted. Rob turned to us and said simply, "skin it and give the vets what they want". Russell, Jesse, Benson, and I had skinned elephant several times already, as well as many other animals of course, and quickly grabbed the bundle of knives and got to work. "Gobby" or Paul as his mom called him, was also there. He was still at school and used to come and work as a "gofer" in camp. He was put to work sharpening knives as they were blunted – which was continuously.

It was over 40˚C already and it was hard work. Rob wanted us to do 13 panels this time and skin the feet and trunk for practice as well. As was the norm, one of us would pull back on a panel with a large butcher’s hook, so that another could do the knife work more easily. Rob and Andy carefully checked our work from time to time to make sure we weren’t leaving any fat on the skin. Not good for the skin, and would, in the case of game with hair/fur, later cause "hairslip".

We tried to be as neat and tidy as we could, but eventually got covered in blood and gore up to our armpits and groins, mainly thanks to the vets sending us into the guts to get bits of this and pieces of that. At some point, the knife slipped in my hand and as I stepped back I slipped, landing in the bloody mess. The sharp knife blade came down on my leg putting a nasty looking, but not too deep a cut in it. Not noticeable at all with all the blood all over me, so I did not get any sympathy and did not expect any anyway.

At one stage, Rob told Gobby to quickly move the trunk into the shade and skin it there, so that the vets could get whatever muscle samples they wanted. We all stopped to watch briefly, with grins on our faces and winks at each other, as he attempted to move it. He soon realised that he wasn’t going to move something that weighed about 125 kilograms, and stretched when you pulled the end. We helped him move it, ragged him a bit, and then got back to the hot bloody business. The vets got their samples and Gobby made the mistake of sticking his knife into the inflated intestine whilst standing in front of it. Needless to say he got sprayed from head to toe in semi-digested vegetation. Not that bad actually, basically fermented grass with a peppery smell, but when he saw the nematodes on him wriggling around, he started to retch.

In a few hours (too slow as we weren’t that experienced yet), we were done. There was no need to butcher the animal as the carcass would be left in its entirety for the scavengers because we were in a National Park. The only thing left to do was remove the ivory. This would be done correctly, removing the entire tusks, including the fragile, egg-shell thin bases. We even looked for the ‘ivory pearls’ that developed above the base of the tusks. Later on, after scrubbing all the blood off my limbs and dressing my wound, while we all had a beer, I chatted to Andy. I was wondering how I would ever be able to shoot like that and mentioned this to him. I found his advice fascinating. He told me not to think about all the details about where on the different animals and from which position I should place my shot, but instead to learn to "see" the heart and brain within the animal. "Learn the exact size and position of the brain within the elephant’s head, and then look at different elephants from different angles, over and over, imagining the brain within the head until you always see it there if you want to. Do the same with all animals". Good advice. Tragically, Andy was killed a few years later when the chopper he was flying crashed in Hwange National Park. He was a great conservationist and a very good man.

I looked again at my Veldskoen shoes and saw that Dave was wearing the same. Then, my gaze wandered over to Ivan and I noticed that he was, as usual, barefoot, complete with healing wound where he had stitched up a cut with fishing line. I was still trying to figure out whether this barefoot lark was genuine eccentricity, bravado, or whether it would be worthwhile doing, so as to approach game more quietly. I had my doubts, not that going barefoot would be a waste of time, or that it would be painful – we had all grown up running around bare foot – but rather because a noisy client would probably stuff up such "dedication"; stomping along behind you in bloody great boots with all the "safari" gear, jingling and squeaking like one of the gorgeous creatures in the clubs I mentioned earlier. I looked away and scolded myself. I had to get out of the cynical frame of mind; it would do me no good.

A couple of years before I had been a paratrooper in the Foreign Legion based in Corsica. I had been doing well, getting my wings four years below the minimum age required to join the unit. Then, things had gone very wrong and I was forced to choose between following my own code of honour or the Legion’s. I chose the latter, knowing that I would forever have regrets no matter which code I chose, and cursed the men who had forced me to make that choice. I had gone into a black depression and had burned a long, deep, and hot anger. I had used every effort to control it and found that the bush was a medicine that worked. The reckless streak came out from time to time and I knew there was a shadow hanging over my head because of it. Even the name Bvanyangu, given to me by the Shonas, reflected this and somehow followed me everywhere. I had been battling to understand, relate to and interact normally with people and, although I was rapidly improving to the point that I could guide clients and have a good time with them myself, I was still prone to go on the binge and end up picking fights with the biggest buggers I could find. Not a good trait as a lowly and unproven Learner Hunter. It did not matter that I had my reasons, because that was nobody’s problem but mine, and I would have to deal with my issues "chop-chop" if I was going to become what I hoped – a professional with a bright future. Also, I was also going to need a lot of help to gain the dangerous game experience I needed to get my full license, and that meant lots of favours.

Dave had already impressed upon me that I needed to swallow my pride and start begging anyone and everyone. To Professional Hunters: "Please Sir, I am looking for dangerous game experience. Would it be possible to accompany a hunt, I can work as a skinner for free or do any other work" – grovel, grovel, grovel. Pretty much the same story with National Parks Officers, Rural Council Wildlife Officers, farmers – anybody and everybody I thought could help. I had already done hundreds of walks with Dave, Rob Clifford (my official tutor), and all the other Professional Guides and Professional Hunters who came through Matusadona National Park. We were lucky to have a boss like Rob who kept us going non-stop.

When we weren’t doing game drives or boat safaris we were in the workshop servicing and repairing the old Series II and Series III Land Rovers we used, building hides, assisting with game capture, culling impala, building a boma to house cheetah for release into "Matus", counting game, and helping with problem animal control. Every spare moment was spent either accompanying walking safaris or tracking and approaching, unarmed and alone, lion, elephant, buffalo, rhino, and anything else that we could find, again on "DC’s" advice. It all added up, but no matter how good in the bush and how well studied and professional, I would not get anywhere without dangerous game experience.

I came back to the present. I couldn’t believe my luck. The day before Andy Searle had shot the elephant, a message had come through from my father saying that a farmer in Mvurwi had a buffalo with a snare round its neck which needed to be shot and would I be interested in doing it? Hell yes! I was already traveling to Harare to have my wisdom teeth taken out, so I could do it the day after. That was the plan, accompany the elephant hunt, fly to Harare the next day, party that night, the following morning have my wisdom teeth taken out and then the next day out to Mvurwi to shoot the buff. Easy!

Idiot! Hunting a buffalo the day after a 45 minute operation under general anaesthetic would have been bad enough, but the operation ended up taking nearly four hours, as they had to chisel deep into the upper and lower jaw bones to get them out and cut my lips to get better access. I was now sitting in the pick-up with a cut leg (no problem), half my knuckles broken (I could handle that one) and a swollen head that was throbbing with agonizing pulses of pain from my neck upwards. I couldn’t really turn either way and struggled to speak properly. Instead, I kept my pip stock-still and made incoherent gargling sounds. I could not take the pain-killers, which they had given me when I checked out of the hospital, "on condition I would stay in bed at home and come back as soon as anything was not right", because I would be handling a firearm. I suppose hunting buffaloes wasn’t quite right…

We arrived at the farm and Mr. Irvine came out to meet us. Dressed exactly the same as my father, he was in typical tobacco farmer attire, polished shoes, long socks, shorts, collared shirt, and the inevitable floppy hat. They could have been twins, they even both had pipes. Anyway, he wasted no time in telling us that the buffalo was in the lands right now and we needed to get moving quickly before she wandered into the bush again. We all piled into his open Land Cruiser and trundled off, discussing the situation as we went along. Or rather, I tried to ignore the pain and make my questions and comments sound normal as everyone else chatted. A few weeks earlier, a herd of elephants had come up from Mavuradona Wilderness Area and broken through his fences. Before they could be repaired, our buffalo had wandered through. She already had the cable snare round her neck when she arrived and had since taken to hanging out with Mr. Irvine’s cattle… much to the consternation of the herd boys. Mr. Irvine wouldn’t have minded having her, except that there would be problems with the Department of Veterinary Services due to the threat of Foot and Mouth Disease, and of course, that she would eventually take out one of those herd boys.

We came to a stop at a sloping field. There were cattle in the distance, but none nearby. A treeline ran down one side towards the small river at the bottom of the slope and the buffalo cow was standing quietly in the open. I looked through my binoculars and drew a breath. She was a beautiful animal, in her prime, healthy and muscled with a sleek, unblemished hide. She was looking towards us, as she had obviously heard the vehicle. Ivan and Dave called me over to discuss the job at hand. It was decided that Ivan would conduct the hunt and that I would use his rifle. It was a .458 Remington Model 700 with a black ‘plastic’ stock.

Ivan handed the rifle to me along with two boxes of ammo. One box of soft-nose and one box of monolithic solids. This was my first test. I loaded up, three rounds in the rifle and twelve in my ammo-pouch. "What have you loaded?", came the inevitable. "All monolithic solids except for the one up the spout", I answered. "Why?" he asked. I explained my reasoning, "we are doing a hunting approach and therefore don’t expect to fire the first shot in self-defence. If we were doing a guiding approach with clients I would load all monolithic solids. Our first shot will be heart-lungs, so soft-nose will do a better job.". "Correct", he answered, "you never use soft nose except on a first heart-lungs shot, and you never take a head shot except in self-defence or on a wounded animal."

"Let’s go" he said, "How are you going to approach it?" This was the norm, it would be up to me and he would step in if and when he felt necessary. "We can’t move down the treeline, as the wind will be a problem, so we need to loop far back round beyond the treeline and then cut back up it from the bottom of the valley. That should put us about 60 metres from her". "Is that close enough?" he asked. "No", I replied, "we will then have to go down on our bellies up to 40 metres from her, or closer if possible." "Good", he answered, "let’s go".

We followed the route I had worked out, quietly but quickly, until we arrived at the bottom of the valley, at the base of the treeline. More slowly and carefully now, we began to move uphill, using the trees as cover. The cow was still facing uphill towards the vehicle. When we reached the point we had earlier noted, we got down on our bellies and began to ‘leopard-crawl’ across the open area towards her, very slowly and quietly. As we reached a point about 40 metres from her, we stopped. I knelt on one knee and Ivan squatted. I flicked off the safety and raised the rifle to my shoulder. Just then, she turned and faced us. My head was pounding with pain and I was ready to throw up again from the nausea when I lowered the barrel slightly, not wanting to take a head shot and thinking a tad too long. Ivan immediately hissed at me, "Heart shot just below where her mouth is, now!"

My head cleared, I ‘saw’ the heart, and immediately fired. As I did so my head exploded. The recoil drove the cheek rest into my mangled mouth and everything went black and I fell over for a second, but immediately scrambled to my feet, reloading and spitting out blood. The buff had arched her back and bolted. Just as I was wondering how badly I had messed up, Ivan said "Good shot!", and a second later she fell. We threw a couple of stones, then we approached her carefully from behind. When we were sure there was no more life left in her, we checked her out. The others had joined us by now and Dave immediately said, "Mr Irvine thought you’d buggered it up and I told him, no, when they arch their backs like that it’s a heart shot!" Everyone proceeded to congratulate me.

Once I’d recovered a bit, we skinned and butchered the animal together with the farm-workers who were given the meat. Dave stuck a ramrod into the entry hole and we checked the heart. "Straight through" said Ivan, "yet look how far she ran, oven 50 metres." I was offered the trophy, but politely declined. Although I understand their appeal, they are not my thing. By now my father and everyone else were looking at me with worried expressions, as I had apparently turned a sallow grey colour and was swaying. Mr Irvine suggested tea, to which we all heartily agreed and headed up to the house. I dropped my watch in my cup (still don’t know why I had it off my wrist), then I dropped the cup. I went to the bathroom and threw up a large quantity of blood.

That night the haematoma I had not known was there burst in my jaw, gushing blood out of my mouth. I was rushed to hospital, where they determined I had been bleeding internally for the past thirty-six hours, most of which I had been swallowing. As I lay in the hospital bed, feeling proud and light-headed from the drugs they had pumped into me, I reflected on how much I had learned about hunting in the last few days and how much more experienced I was. I had no idea that I still knew virtually nothing about hunting buffalo, especially problem ones, and was about to learn that the hard way in Mozambique from the teacher from hell, Mr. Stephen John Edwards, ex-tsetse control and veterinary department hunter, author and eccentric.

Rory J. A. Young


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•  •


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