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Bradley Hilltopics

Winter 2009 • Volume 15, Issue 1  

Web Exclusives
Krupa fills in for Schock | Fitzgerald to speak at commencement on Dec. 20 | BU professors address financial crisis | Hostage in Mumbai | BU senior participates in Fellows Program at Stanford | Science Foundation Grant | Parkinson's expert honored | Print and drawing exhibition coming | Alums meet BRAD COHEN ’96 | Front of the Class viewing party | Student nurses convention | Past faculty award recipients | Launching interest in engineering | Cape Buffalo hunt | Sewing class | Slideshows: Markin Center; Founder’s Day/Homecoming 2008; STEPS engineering camp

 

Regret erased: Cape Buffalo at last

When MARK WOERNER ’77 retired as a foreign service officer for the U.S. government, hunting a Cape Buffalo topped his list of “50 things I want to do before I die.” He recounts his adventure in this essay.

“You know, the one thing I regret was not hunting Cape Buffalo while I was posted to Africa.”

I spoke those words over a few drinks in January 2007 to my good Zimbabwean friend Don, whom I met while my wife and I were posted to the U. S. Embassy in Harare, Zimbabwe from 1999–2002. I knew Don, retired from the Zimbabwean National Parks service, was a professional hunter (PH). I didn’t know Don had entered into an arrangement to find and guide clients with Nyati Safaris in Mozambique.

Part of Don’s reimbursement was the hunting rights to two Cape Buffalo bulls. I was flabbergasted when he offered me the opportunity to hunt one, free of fee! The offer was very generous, but I declined. I had retired from the U.S. Foreign Service a few months earlier, and I told Don I wanted to see how our finances worked out. We spent a great two days together, and then he resumed his travels.

The day after Don left, I mentioned his offer to my wife Ann. She was adamant that I take Don up on it. She knew I had hunted impala once while in Zimbabwe and that I always wanted to go after a buffalo, probably as a result of my early hunting on my father’s central Illinois farm.

Getting There

One’s wife is always right, so I told Don I’d be happy to hunt! After getting the necessary shots, anti-malarial medication, gear (no camo clothing if you transit Zimbabwe — it is illegal and might get you branded as a mercenary), and putting in considerable physical and marksmanship training, I was off to Africa in late October 2007. I arrived in Zimbabwe to learn that Don underwent emergency surgery four days earlier and could not travel. However, Don, although quite ill, formulated plan B, and a few days later, I was on my way to Mozambique with probationary PH Bert.

Africa — It’s Always Different

The drive to Mozambique was an adventure in itself — 14 hours, with often beautiful, but sometimes slash-and-burned African bush on both sides. We arrived in the town of Marromeru about 90 minutes before dark, feeling confident, as we only had 12 miles to camp. However, there was no marked route. After driving around on various dirt tracks, we asked an old man where the camp was. He hooked us up with another man, who retrieved his bicycle from his dwelling, loaded it on the truck, and guided us to camp. We never would have found it, especially since it was dark by the time we arrived. Why was the gentleman so helpful? He likely expected a good tip (which he received), but more importantly, he knew that if we were successful, he could get as much nyama (meat) as he could carry. If you want something done in the African bush, meat rules!

The next morning, Bert and I headed out in Land Rovers with Cunat and Debbie, the camp’s professional hunters, to look for a small group of bachelor bulls. We drove for a while, bogged down, and then walked — although it wasn’t exactly a stroll. To elaborate: Whatever your pre-conceived notion about what African terrain is — throw it out. There is no single type of terrain. Africa is a huge continent, with virtually every type of ecosystem except arctic tundra. I’ve hunted impala in a savanna dotted with rocky hills, and my wife and I have been in the rain forest in Victoria Falls, the park-like Zambezi river valley, large lakes, semi-arid game parks, and the beautiful eastern highlands, which people compare favorably to Scotland and Ireland.

Where we were hunting was entirely different again — 11 feet above sea level, hot, and deceptively flat. The areas of tall (8 foot plus) reeds and grass we saw were in fact river beds, not flowing with water this time of year, but with standing water under the reeds, filling the elephant footprints — footprints that were two to three feet deep. We kept a fast pace through this, but several of us — myself included — slipped into the elephant holes, and/or fell. The good part was, getting soaked in that water really did cool you off.

After walking a few miles, we sighted the buffalo — it was a combination of the dust they raise and the birds, which pick the ticks and insects off the buffalos’ backs. We started the stalk, but the wind was swirling from all directions, as evidenced by the incredibly tall, black dust devils spinning in the distance. The bachelor group winded us, and they took off — a truly majestic, if somewhat disheartening, sight. I was particularly struck by the immense power of the animals. We started running to head the herd off, while the trackers tried to turn them in our direction. It didn’t work, but the sight of these three-quarter-ton animals in full gallop was something to see.

Getting Fooled — and Turning the Tables

The second day held new promise. After tending to blisters, we set off after a lone bull. We tracked the buffalo to a thick area of grass, with a game trail leading in (and out). Cunat sent the trackers around to flush the bull out while we set up the shooting sticks about 15 yards from the game trail.

I prepared to make a quick shot. We waited — and waited. I rested the weapon, then went back to ready. A sudden explosion of noise, an adrenaline surge — and a family of bush pigs erupted through the bush.

We were about to pack it up, when the PH spotted the bull — but not in front of us. The old boy wasn’t stupid. He emerged sharply to our left, looked at us for a split second, and took off in the river bed, in one of the weirdest gallops I’ve seen. Because the buff’s head, hump, and forequarters were so massive, he was sinking in the river bed, in the midst of all that tall grass, with every running stride. It was like glimpsing a fast moving jack-in-the-box! I might have shot, but didn’t; the risk of merely wounding was just too high.

We took off running again, to try to get a shot if he broke into the open. However, river bed and all, he was still much faster than we were.

Making like Lions

After lunch, we caught a break.

We knew a small group of old bulls was in the area. We drove and walked in their general direction, over very broken, elephant-potholed terrain — and then the PH spotted them. A group of four old bachelor bulls — dagga boys, so named for the penchant of taking mud, or dagga, baths — were several hundred yards away, over open terrain covered with short grass … in places, very short.

The wind was steady, blowing in our faces. We walked single file, low to the ground. Then we crept, even lower. When we were a couple of hundred yards away, Cunat, I, and the tracker crawled. Finally, we slithered on our bellies. At that point, it flashed into my mind that we were moving exactly like lions. Buffalo hate lions.

We managed to get within about 60 yards of them before the cover became too sparse. They were arranged so that each could view an overlapping area. They knew something was nearby, but were unsure what. The PH whispered that we would have to stand up so the buffalo would, thus offering me a shot. He carefully laid the shooting sticks flat on the ground in front of me, and then slowly raised them into position. The bulls were twitchy, but still down.

Cunat asked if I was ready. I looked back at my feet, making sure they were clear of weeds, vines and rocks. I steadied my breathing, and we stood up.

So did the bulls. The one I was to shoot had been lying sideways — it would have been an easy, broadside shot if he’d stood that way, but he moved around to face me. Frontal shots aren’t that easy, but I made a quick decision to try for a low spine/lung shot, as I was worried about grass deflecting a heart shot. Things went smoothly and quickly, thanks to the rifle, and, I believe, a fair amount of practical pistol shooting I’ve done over the years. I rested and steadied the rifle on the shooting sticks, pasted the front sight on the bull’s chest, and pressed the trigger.

He hunched, and they all took off running. Cunat said I hit him hard. Then, he ran after them. We all followed, and even though I was in pretty decent shape, I was reminded that I was 52, not 22! We caught up to Cunat, and began the tracking job. The bull was badly wounded, but still capable of charging, as we later learned.

Being Alive

Tracking in and out of the high grass — much has been written about it, so I’ll only say you are intensely alive and alert during the experience, at least as much as during the stalk. Cunat remained incredibly calm but very alert. Knowing the buffalo will circle around you and charge from behind means you have to maintain 360 degree vigilance. That’s the hunters’ job — both the professionals and the client (me). The trackers are unarmed and rely on the guys with the guns for their safety.

We tracked for two hours, and we started to lose the light. We knew the bull was badly wounded and nearby, but the light was tricky. The trackers marked the last blood spots, and we walked back to the trucks and loaded up. That was the worst part of the experience — knowing the animal was out there, hurting.

However, we were handed a reprieve. Less than five minutes, after we started out, Debbie (who had split off) reported she had spotted a lone bull staggering, and then going down. We headed back to almost exactly where we had left a couple of minutes earlier.

That bull was down, but by no means out. Cape Buffalo experience an incredible adrenaline surge. Mortally hit, the bull still surged to its feet when it saw us, and started to charge from about 15 yards. We fired; it went down. Then it popped up again! We fired again — down and up! Another volley, and finally, down for good. Its legs stiffened and stuck out, and it moaned a death bellow. Still, I didn’t unload until the beast was confirmed dead.

The bull weighed between 1,650 and 1,750 pounds. The horns were worn from age and fighting, but it had an extremely large, hard boss. Younger bulls often have longer horns. However, they are still breeding. More and more, hunters are encouraged to go for the old bulls, like the one before us. They are out of the gene pool, and they are also generally harder to hunt — they didn’t get old by being stupid.

Photos, Food, and the African Night

The sun was almost down, and there was work to be done. After a quick round of photos, the butchering began. The trackers took some meat for camp use, then quartered the rest. That meat went to a local hospital and an AIDS orphanage. Nothing goes to waste in Africa. Hunting there, done right, is the essence of conservation.

It was dark when we returned to camp, bruised, sweaty, dirty, blistered, bitten, scratched — and incredibly happy. A shower was followed by drinks, a fine meal, and viewing the brilliant southern sky through a telescope. Later, I grabbed a last beer and sat in the dark on the porch of my A-frame, overlooking the moonlit river, reliving the experience and listening to the sounds of the African night, especially the bass bellowing of the hippos in the distance. It’s the best lullaby I know.

 

Krupa fills in for Schock | Fitzgerald to speak at commencement on Dec. 20 | BU professors address financial crisis | Hostage in Mumbai | BU senior participates in Fellows Program at Stanford | Science Foundation Grant | Parkinson's expert honored | Print and drawing exhibition coming | Alums meet BRAD COHEN ’96 | Front of the Class viewing party | Student nurses convention | Past faculty award recipients | Launching interest in engineering | Cape Buffalo hunt | Sewing class | Slideshows: Markin Center; Founder’s Day/Homecoming 2008; STEPS engineering camp