By Malcolm Macdonald

The phone rang amidst the paperwork scattered over my desk. It was my cousin – with a question that did not need a second thought to answer: “Can you assist in guiding a hunt in October in the Lower Zambezi National Park region of Zambia?” The hunting party would comprise of a great bunch of guys, with some wanting to hunt and others just wanting to enjoy the scenery that the Zambezi has to offer.

The day arrived and all the necessary gear found its way to Lusaka without a glitch. The Land Cruisers were loaded and we began the five-hour drive to the hunting grounds which would be our home for the next week. Filled with excitement, we arrived on the banks of the Zambezi just at sunset. With gin and tonics in hand, a fire blazing and the camp full of chatter, we all knew this adventure was going to be one for the books ­– with two buffalo bulls, two hippo bulls and a croc on quota.
Each day would begin with a 04:00 wake-up call with hot coffee and rusks, while my cousin and I ensured the Cruisers were loaded with all essentials, and were ready and idling. It was a good hour’s drive to the hunting block every morning and in order for us to be there at sun-up, there was no time for late risers. The main focus would be buffalo in the mornings and late afternoons, with an attempt at the aquatics during the extreme heat, when temperatures would exceed 50 degrees day.

The suicide month that the valley is
known for

The morning of Day 1 my client and I covered a lot of ground in search of fresh tracks to follow. As we traversed this new area, with the escarpment as our backdrop, it was evident that we truly were in a special place, and we were filled with an undeniable sense of adventure. Around mid-morning we decided to stretch our legs a bit and found a small group of tracks fairly close to one of the boundaries. After two hours of steady tracking, it became evident that this group of animals was heading out of the area, so we radioed the vehicle to meet us at the nearest road. With the heat being unbearably uncomfortable, we headed for a shady location along the river to have lunch and relax for a few hours before round two that afternoon.

A much-welcomed breeze rustled through the trees as we took in the scenery all around us. A handful of large crocs drifted past our position, whilst a small pod of hippo made themselves comfortable not 300 m from where we were taking a midday siesta. Unbeknown to us, the other hunting party had also come up empty- handed in their pursuit of a respectable buffalo and had headed to the river for an attempt at a hippo bull for one of the other clients.
The stage was set, and we had a front-row seat as we watched the scene unfold. They identified a grand old bull to one side of the pod, half submerged on a sand bank, as they began their approach with the boat. This would prove to be a challenging shot for the client because of the movement of the boat in the current – especially an attempt at a side brain shot as they drifted past the animal at approximately 50 m. The boat engine was switched off and all went deathly silent. The client was using a Sauer 90 .375 H&H loaded with Hornady 300 grain DGX factory ammunition, while my cousin was on stand-by with his original John Rigby & Co .470 Nitro Express loaded with federal premium 500 grain solids.
At the shot, the hippo bull simply collapsed where he stood. The report of the shot was followed by the very evident ricochet as the bullet exited the animal’s head. The client received the mandatory handshakes and pats on the back. We were all collected from the mainland, pictures taken waist deep in the water with this lovely old warrior, and then the fun of the recovery began.
Rolling the bull and towing him off the sand bars with the boat proved more challenging than predicted. We had to plan the retrieval correctly in order to beach the hippo at exactly the right place on the mainland to complete the recovery process. This took the better part of the remainder of the day, with all the meat being recovered for the local community and one back leg being saved for croc bait. We ended day one with a leisurely drive back to camp, sipping ice-cold beers and watching the sun dip behind the horizon.
The morning of Day 2 found us at one of the water points near the escarpment where a large herd of buffalo had watered in the early hours, and had headed off into the almost impenetrable jess block bordering it. A quick game plan was made: the Ruger MK2 Magnum in .416 Rigby loaded with Barnes Triple Shock 400 grain bullets was handed to the client, while I gently closed the action of a beautiful Holland & Holland .500/465 Double loaded with Woodleigh 480 grain solids. The wind was checked, GPS location marked, and water bags loaded to the top as we slowly made our way along the narrow, carved-out elephant paths in the thicket. Following a herd of this size was not difficult at all and progress was steady. We stopped briefly every-so-often to listen to and assess the wind direction in the hope of catching up with the herd before they bedded down for the day, and the thermals affecting the wind making closing on the group more difficult.

Brett with his lovely hippo bull taken on land with his double

It was evident that this herd had covered significant ground during the cool of the night. By 09:00 the lead tracker paused for a few seconds and as we came to a halt, we heard the faint crunching of leaves with the odd bellow. The cattle smell filled our nostrils … we were onto them!
Sportsmen with experience of hunting buffalo will be familiar with the feeling that follows: adrenaline floods your body almost instantly and you begin to feel your heart racing uncontrollably. At this point it is important to take a deep breath and not rush in an attempt for a shot. I assessed the wind with my ash bag. It indicated a different approach and I took the lead with the client right behind me. We began flanking the herd that had started to bed down due to the oppressive heat. Our first loop brought us to within 20 yards of a group of cows, with one animal being the biggest cow I had ever seen, easily exceeding 42 inches in width. We kept stalking the herd for a good two hours as the wind kept threatening to give away our position. However, we had no success locating a respectable bull for the client. It was at this point that I decided to be a bit more aggressive in our approach and forcefully get amongst the herd in the hope that during the chaos a good bull would present us with a shot.
The jess sounded as if it was on fire as the herd got our scent and began to rumble off, with us in hot pursuit. Making use of the small gullies and paths, we managed to get within 10 m of parts of the herd at times, with one great bull presenting a two-second window for a shot before he shook his heavy head and blew through his nostrils into the air as he crashed off. A quick look behind me revealed my client grinning from ear to ear as he clenched the rifle in both hands – to say he was loving it would be an understatement!
It was nearing mid-day so we decided to pull out. We called the vehicle to collect us at the nearest road and headed back to camp for a relaxed afternoon, a much needed power nap and possibly some fishing until sunset as we scouted for an appropriate location to set our croc bait that had been ‘maturing’ in the sun. Upon our return we found that the other hunting party had played cat-and-mouse with a group of ‘dagga boys’ that morning but had returned empty-handed. We spent the afternoon relaxing and enjoying some good banter and great food.
The high water levels during our trip made the spotting of big lizards a challenge. In addition we had to find an appropriate bait spot that offered good visibility and a clear shooting lane from the boat. However, by sundown we had positioned the hippo leg between two large reedbeds which, if everything worked in our favour, would offer approximately an 8-metre opening in which to take a shot at the reptile as we drifted past his position.
With hardly any light left, we arrived back at the camp at the same time as the other hunting party. They were full of smiles and laughter, asking if we needed any lessons from them on ’how to get the job done’ as their client had bagged the second hippo on quota.
As drinks were generously poured around the fire that night, the story was recapped for us. During their fishing excursion, they had lucked upon a hippo bull grazing on a sand bank. The client had taken big game before and was willing to try a slightly different approach. Turning off the boat motor, my cousin, armed with his Rigby Double and the client with his Krieghoff .500 Nitro Express, jumped into the reeds, shoulder deep in water as they made their approach onto the sand bank. They managed to get within 10 m of the grazing bull before the client executed a side brain shot. What a hunt with two double rifles in hand and a hippo taken on dry land!

Day 3 dawned and we were tracking the same big herd of buffalo that we had followed the previous day. At first light we located tracks a few kilometres before the escarpment water point in the relatively open woodland. Within the hour we were glassing over a portion of the herd just before they entered the jess for the day. With the client set up on the shooting stick with the .416 Rigby, I glassed the herd and for a brief moment thought that we would be done and back in time for breakfast.
That thought was short-lived as I felt a slight breeze on the back of my neck, sending the herd off in a cloud of dust into their playground, ‘the thick stuff’. Once again, we played cat-and-mouse with them for the better part of the morning, eventually pushing them out and into more open country. We backed off and returned to camp. We planned to return in the late afternoon with both clients in the hope of possibly taking both bulls out of the same herd at last light.
By 16:30 we were back where we had left the herd earlier. The thermometer was showing a reading of 53 degrees Celsius – and we were sweating! My cousin, having a gut feeling and knowing the area fairly well, decided to double-check a nearby water point, whilst my client and I followed the herd. It was not 20 minutes later that we heard the unmistakable thud of his client’s .500, followed by a few more. They later told us they had arrived at the water point and had spotted a group of buffalo in the shade of a small thicket a short distance away. They made a quick stalk and a chest shot bagged the biggest bull. They then followed the very obvious blood spoor at a snail’s pace – the bull had separated from the group and entered a thicket. Still on their hands and knees, they found the bull lying down and facing in their direction. A few additional shots from the .500 and .470 ended the ordeal.
Shortly after we heard the last shot from my cousin’s party, we came upon the main herd still bedded down at the top of a small gully, making an approach fairly simple as long as the wind held steady. With the sun sinking behind the escarpment, the temperature dropped and we were in a perfect position to glass the herd as they began to get up and started feeding at a leisurely pace.
Diana smiled upon us, as among the first 10 buffalo to get up there was a beautiful bull with a solid boss and respectable spread. The few minutes spent on the shooting sticks had prepared the client to gain control of his nerves and as the bull stood broadside, looking in our direction, the report of the .375 echoed up the escarpment. The bull lifted his right shoulder – it was evident that the shot was perfectly placed. The herd was up and gone in seconds, with the bull falling behind.
We ran forward in the fading light and kept him in sight in order to avoid a potentially dangerous situation. The bull managed no more than 80 m when he went down and ploughed his forehead into the ground. Two more shots were taken for good measure. Indeed, my client had truly earned his first buffalo under trying circumstances. Pictures were taken and the buffalo was loaded onto the Cruiser just as the other party arrived to join us. This was a truly special hunt – with two brothers each taking a buffalo bull, on the same afternoon, just minutes apart!

Brett’s buffalo bull finished off in the
thick stuff

A great buffalo earned the hard way

Day 4 found us all having a lie-in and a slower start to the day. This was certainly much needed as everybody seemed to be taking strain, whether from the physicality of the hunt or the celebrations of the previous evening I wouldn’t know. After a well-prepared brunch, and the client still wanting to harvest the crocodile we had available, we decided to take a very relaxed boat ride in the direction of our bait in the hope of a bit of luck. Both scoped rifles were loaded onto the boat as the client wanted to use the .416 Rigby if the opportunity presented itself.
The boat trip was scenic and being more relaxed, we could take in all of the sights and sounds around us. A bachelor herd of elephant bulls waded in and out of the water, grazing on the small islands, while hippo popped up around every corner, blowing water into the air to make their presence known. Approaching the bait site, we kept our distance, with binoculars glued on the site of the bait for any sign of a decent crocodile.
Bingo! We could not have ordered the setup more perfectly if we had tried! There was a 14-foot croc lying perfectly broadside next to the bait, right on the water’s edge. Excitement filled the boat as we continued past his position in order to drift with the current back towards the reptile after the client had been set-up for a shot from the front of the boat. With the client in the prone position, using a rifle bag as a rest, we began the approach with the engine switched off. The ripples of the current slapped against the sides of the aluminium boat, sounding louder than usual and the boat moving faster than expected.
The crocodile came into view and the .416 sounded like a cannon going off. The 400 grain Barnes bullet broke the croc’s spine. Empty cases were ejected and new rounds were chambered as a precautionary measure to prevent the animal from slipping back into the river. We approached this prehistoric lizard, which seemed to get bigger and bigger as we got closer. We loaded him onto the boat in order to take better pictures close to our camp, and radioed the rest of the team to meet us and to assist with the offloading.
My cousin and I agreed: we had the past few days spent with a great bunch of people from different walks of life, all with open minds regarding conservation through hunting. It was obvious that our clients had enjoyed a truly great adventure along the mighty Zambezi. The congratulatory backslapping, the genuine sincerity and laughter that I am sure could be heard across the river in Zimbabwe, was proof that these friendships would last a lifetime. ASM

A good 14 ft lizard