Six years ago, in 2013, my wife Debbie and I travelled to Namibia on a most enjoyable plains-game hunt. Our travels took us through the Caprivi Strip and into Botswana and Zimbabwe. There I saw for the first time truly wild Cape buffalo. And it was there that I realised my desire to hunt the Black Death. What follows is my story of this quest. On this hunt I was joined by my youngest son, Kevin. It was my wish for him to see Africa before this Africa vanished.

After departing Calgary on the evening of 5 June, arriving at London’s Heathrow airport for an eight-hour layover and then off to OR Tambo, we arrived in Johannesburg just after 7 in the morning on 7 June. After retrieving our firearms from the South African Airline representative, we went to the South Africa Police Detachment to clear our firearms for temporary import. Everything went well and we cleared South African

Everything went well and we cleared South African Customs, and proceeded to meet our contact and driver, Dumas. He waited patiently while Kevin tried to get a cellular package for his iPhone, which delayed our departure from the airport.
We headed north on the N2 highway, leaving at around 10:30 to meet up with our PH, Marco, and his staff – Issac the tracker and Grace the bush chef. Introductions were made and we were off to the hunting area, Makuya, a tribal concession across the Luluvu River from Kruger National Park. On the way there we dropped off Grace, who would be rejoining us later when we went to Sable Lodge to take part in Kevin’s plains-game hunt. It was almost dark when we left Grace, and we still had at least an hour’s drive or more to our sleeping accommodation.
Thankfully the camp attendant, Kobes, had a hearty supper for us on our arrival. Our room was a tented lodge with a wooden-slat floor and deck on the edge of a 200-foot cliff above the Luluvu River, looking over into KNP. Sleep was welcome. It gets cool at night, maybe down to 5 to 8 degrees Celsius, and the heavy blankets were much appreciated. The camp is best described as basic but comfortable, with no electricity unless the power plant is operating. All the cooking and water heating is done with 40-kg propane bottles, with on- demand hot water and flush toilets available in the sleeping tents.
The next morning, 8 June, arrived soon enough and we started with a hearty breakfast. We also met a fellow big-game hunter from Reno, who had already collected a Cape buffalo, as well as a 40 – 50 pound tusker elephant. We also made the acquaintance of his PH, Alec, and his wife, Raven, and another PH, Stephan, who was there to assist Alec. Alec’s father, Claude, had a fatal encounter with a Cape buffalo about ten days earlier while scouting out a route to retrieve a buffalo his client had hunted. The buffalo had caught Claude off-guard from about 10 yards. No-one in the party had a firearm, and he was killed almost immediately from a blow to his thigh. It was a harsh and stark reminder that dangerous-game hunting can and sometimes will live up to its name.

‘However, when poachers kill an animal, they leave behind the skull and horns as they have no market for it and, in the case of a buffalo, they only have use for the meat to sell on the black market for their personal gain.’

After breakfast we had some business to attend to, registering our attendance at the conservancy outpost and sighting in the CZ .416 Rigby. I took my shot in an abandoned borrow pit at 50 m and Marco presented it to the conservancy warden as evidence of proficiency. We were then introduced to our park ranger, nick-named Rambo. Rambo meant business, as he would always accompany our party, carrying his assault rifle all the while. His job was to protect us from poachers, as well as to discourage any poachers that we might encounter on our hunt, by apprehending or deterring them by whatever means necessary.
When I first booked my hunt with Pieter Potgieter of Motsomi Safaris, I checked out the hunting boundaries on Google and was led to believe that Makuya was a relatively small area, about 6 by 12 km ­– i.e. 6 000 to 7 000 ha. It was soon to be found that I had been grossly misinformed by Google Maps.
After an early lunch back at camp we embarked on our first hunt, this time to the north of the main camp. Marco, Issac, Rambo, Stephan and his tracker, Edson, and Kevin and I bounced along the rocky bush trails and rugged rocky hills with the two PHs and their trackers, looking for spoor. Any evidence they found was apparently at least six hours old, as I was informed that Cape buffalo will usually water at first light and then slowly graze on their way back to their bedding area. I have to admit, I don’t know how they determined the age of the track.
Over the next while I did learn about some of the things they look for. We followed several tracks in the hope of jumping a lone bull, to no avail. What we did discover, however, was that there was evidence of poacher activity in the area earlier. When a hunter harvests a Cape buffalo there is no remaining evidence other than blood or maybe a cartridge casing; when a natural predator takes an animal, the bones are scattered about. However, when poachers kill an animal, they leave behind the skull and horns as they have no market for it and, in the case of a buffalo, they only have use for the meat to sell on the black market for their personal gain. The first day of hunting ended as the sun descended into the western horizon. At supper that night Greg mentioned that he was intending to hunt for his second buffalo, as his first had a bit of an abnormal horn.
The hunt planned for 9 July was south of the lodging camp, about a forty-minute rough ride over the rock and sand trails. We were informed by ranger Rambo that poachers had shot and killed a buffalo the previous night in the area we were going to inspect. Regardless of the previous nights activities, our plan was to be at the area to hunt before first light so that the trackers, Issac and Edson, could get on the spoor as soon as light allowed. Forty minutes later and after being entertained by impala, kudu, warthogs and waterbuck leaving the river after their early morning drink, we reach our starting point. Fresh spoor was found and the tracking began. It was just before 07:00 and the sun was barely peeking over the hills of Kruger Park.

Following the spoor, we were soon closing the lead the buffalo had on us. It was a rocky ascent through mopani and acacia brush, uphill from the Luluvu River valley. What little wind there was, was slightly in our face, and we got to within hearing distance of the herd, estimated to be about 12 to 15 in total. However, there was still no sighting of horns, only lower limbs. I noticed a slight shimmer in the mopani leaves, as did the PH, and then, with the slightest change in the wind direction, the herd caught our scent and stampeded upwind and away from us.
Marco and Stephan agreed the best thing we could do would be to wait half an hour to let them settle down. Although they had not seen a bull at all, they were not about to quit on this bunch. Thirty minutes later Issac again got onto their tracks. He suddenly stopped, as he had detected the presence of an elephant nearby. I don’t know if he had eyes on it but we circumvented it none the less. We resumed tracking the buffalo, this time getting to probably within thirty yards. Legs were visible in the mopane bush but not much else. However, it was all in vain – nothing more than an experience because we had no sooner contacted them when the fickle African bush breeze turned. They caught our scent again and bolted, this time considerably further as they ran out of hearing range.
Whether these buffaloes were the victims of the previous night’s poaching or not, they weren’t sticking around for us to check them out. In Marco’s opinion we should forget about them and look for other prospects. Edson, who had remained with Marco’s Land Cruiser, was radioed to pick us up on one of the numerous dirt and rock tracks dissecting the region. With nothing left to lose – maybe it should be nothing ventured, nothing gained – Marco and Stephan proposed that we just take a slow drive along some bush roads to see what we could see.

‘The longer we waited, the more a young buffalo seemed to get curious about us, watching us but not really becoming overly worried.’

A little while later both Issac and Stephan identified a single set of tracks. Stephan thought that it was a lone, very large bull. The theory is that big hoof prints most probably indicate a big bull, and these were huge tracks. After 15 minutes of following the buffalo tracks, we came to a location where a lone set of elephant tracks joined the buffalo tracks, and soon after that two sets of human footprints joined the mix of tracks. Rambo immediately became suspicious and believed that they belonged to a pair of poachers following the lone elephant. Now things were getting really interesting as poachers have been known to shoot to kill rangers and legitimate hunting parties. After following the salad of tracks for about 10 minutes, both the elephant and human tracks left the buffalo trail. Rambo radioed his findings to his headquarters and fortunately no shots were heard later.
Shortly after the elephant tracks disappeared to the left, the track we were following joined a herd’s tracks and maybe, just maybe, they had joined up with a herd ahead. Tracking now began again in earnest. Probably no more than 20 minutes passed before we came upon a herd of about 20 buffalo, bedding down in front of us. 
Marco motioned me to follow him as we attempted to creep forward and get a better look. With a combination of crawling and doing the Hoover manoeuvre over rocks and dirt and thorny things, we managed to get to within 40 yards of the group, only moving when it appeared none of the herd was watching. Marco whispered to me that on the left of the group, just on the edge of the bush, was a bull. He couldn’t judge his boss as the animal was lying down, quartering away from right to left – at least that was how it appeared to me. After what seemed like an eternity, but was probably no more than 10 minutes, I managed to get into a marginally more comfortable position. Marco had all the while been watching and trying to assess the horns of the bull in front of us, while also keeping an eye on the rest of the herd and hoping to catch sight of that big-hoofed bull. The longer we waited, the more a young buffalo seemed to get curious about us, watching us but not really becoming overly worried. Then, as twice before, the wind ever so briefly changed direction and the young buffalo watching us caught our scent – we were busted again and were left listening to them crashing through the bush away from us. Three times in one morning and all under the same conditions! And still we had no real good sight of a good old buffalo. There was nothing to indicate that the big-hoofed buffalo was with this herd as none of its tracks were evident in the tracks of the herd that had been spooked.
We waited for another 20 minutes. Both Stephan and Marco thought it was still worth the effort to try to find the big-hoofed buffalo’s tracks and see where it was going. And off we went again. For at least the next 45 minutes we followed its track, taking us into a gradual decline along a sandy watershed, ending up in a incredibly thick, thorny brush-choked drainage. Visibility was often down to less than five yards, and thinking about what had happened to Claude just two weeks earlier, gave me an uneasy and unpleasant feeling. 
It soon became apparent that finding the individual buffalo’s tracks was next to impossible in all the bramble, and with a bit of frustration and futility the tracking was called off. We packed it in and headed back to the Land Cruiser where Edson awaited us – probably a 3-km hike. 
Marco thought it would be for the best if we retreated to go and have lunch down by the river and kick back until three in the afternoon, when the buffalo would be getting ready for their afternoon graze down at the watering site. 
Lunch consisted of coiled boerewors cooked over an open fire, some soft drinks, water, energy bars and discussions as what to do next to try and find a good buffalo. At around 15:30 or so we all got onto the Land Cruiser and drove back to the lodge. Our route this time was higher and away from the Luluvu River as we followed the road adjacent to the coal-mine property, marking the west boundary of the tribal hunting concession, Makuya. The drive back was uneventful and by the time we got back to the lodge, the sun had set and everybody was ready for a couple of pops and some hunter chit-chat.

‘However, if the buffalo moved further into the reserve, it wouldn’t be an issue.’

At the camp we were informed by Kobes that Alec and Raven had yet to return with Greg, but that Greg had shot another buffalo that afternoon and they intended to return the next day to retrieve it. A while later we could see the lights of Alec’s truck returning along the river track to the camp. Shortly after their return we all got together to develop a strategy for the next day’s events. The plan was to get up even earlier than before and get on the road outside the Red Zone and onto the tarred road for an hour’s drive south, and then to re-enter the Makuya tribal reserve at the southern end and try our luck there. Our hope was to be back in the reserve and tracking by first light. 
10 June started early, as planned. We had an hour’s drive ahead of us and so, after a filling breakfast prepared by Kobes, we loaded up the Land Cruiser in the dark. Marco was driving, with Kevin, Stephan and myself in the quad cab, and Issac, Edson and Rambo bundled up in warm clothing and riding in the back. Ten minutes of bumpy gravel track got us to the tarred road and we hasten on to the southern entrance to see if fortune would smile on us that day. The sun is just beginning to show itself on the eastern horizon’s cloudless silhouette as we approach the locked fence. As we entered the hunting area, the clanging of cowbells could be heard as the local tribal herdsmen took their Brahman-cross cattle out to graze for the day, just on the other side of the Red Zone dividing fence. Already the ground conditions appeared significantly different, as there was more of a sandy texture to the soil, whereas closer to the lodge the ground was rockier. The trees were more mopani and less acacia and there appeared to be more openings among them. But the hills and draws persisted. 
It seemed as if only 15 minutes had passed while we travelled along the perimeter fence track when we came across a small clearing. Maybe a hundred yards into the clearing there was a small group of Cape buffalo standing at the edge of the bush, watching us pass by. Everyone on board the Land Cruiser had their eyes on the group as we passed but Marco kept his cool and drove at an uninterrupted speed past them for at least another half mile east before stopping to discuss plans. By doing so he was hoping that the buffalo would not be suspicious of our presence.
After a group discussion about what we had observed of the buffalo, we decided to try and sneak up to them for a better look. I thought that there was a least one bull of interest but admittedly my evaluation skills were pretty minor. Rambo informed us that the herd was too close to the fence and we wouldn’t be able to shoot at them at their current location because of the proximity to the local tribe members. However, if the buffalo moved further into the reserve, it wouldn’t be an issue.

Marco’s plan for the stalk was to head into the reserve away from the fence, and then to make a long loop to our right in the hope of making contact with the herd, which appeared to be progressing further from the perimeter. 
As we headed away from the truck, Marco, along with Stephan and Issac, took the lead looking for the herd’s spoor. I was following close behind in anticipation of making contact. Marco asked again, as he did on all previous stalks: “Are you ready, soft in the chamber, solids behind it, safety on?”
I assured him yes, soft chambered, solid as backup, safety on, and as in all the stalks beforehand, I double checked the quick detach scope mounts and scope magnification at 1.5x. Kevin and Rambo followed in single file behind us as the clanging of the tribal cattle neck bells faded away in the distance. 

As we slowly looped around into the suspected direction of the herd, we came upon their recently made tracks and we knew that we were closing in on them. Again there was little wind and there was still some dew on the leaves on the ground. As we approached the area of our search, it seemed as if every leaf or twig I stepped on sounded like a thunderclap. And then someone, either Marco, Stephan or Issac, spotted the herd 80 to 100 yards ahead of us, slowly moving through a cluster of trees, seeming oblivious to our presence.

Marco motioned me to close up to him, Stephan and Issac remained stationary and Kevin and Rambo slowly caught up with them as Marco and I began our slow crawl closer to the herd. Issac must have become invisible as Marco and I inched our way forward. We had crawled and hoovered to within 40 yards to check out the group before I realised that Issac was with us. Marco checked the herd, mentioning his observations to me in a hushed voice. He was certain that the herd contained two bulls – the herd bull and an old dagga boy with good bosses – but he wasn’t sure of the horn conformation. He also thought that the herd bull wasn’t solidly-bossed yet. The herd gradually grazed past in front of us and the old dagga boy went across from right to left, but behind a young bull, and not permitting us to have a good look at him. Marco was confident that there was a bull worth pursuing in front of us.
The herd continued to meander to our left until they had all passed by. They then seemed to turn further to our left and drop over into a downward slope and out of sight. Marco grabbed the shooting sticks and followed, keeping the herd in sight by watching the tops of their backs. The backs and tops of their horns were visible as they seemed to change direction again and grazed past us at a distance of 30 yards. The herd was now strung out in front of us – maybe 50 yards long, and maybe 25 animals in total. We noticed a slight change of wind and quickly began to reposition ourselves. However, almost at the same time, the animals on the left side of the herd caught our scent and crashed through the brush away from us. The right side of the herd didn’t seem to be immediately aware of the danger, and hesitated ever so briefly before following the leaders. Busted again after an hour’s stalk – this couldn’t be happening!

Marco had a different idea, however, as he took off after them, frantically urging me to keep up. After a 100-yard dash through the brush and over rocks, we reached the top of a deep draw. Marco instructed me to get on the sticks and be ready. The buffalo had dropped down into the deep draw on our right, and were climbing up the other side when Marco said to me: “They’re coming up the other side and passing from right to left. I think the old bull is coming up towards the end. When he gets to that opening in the trees across from us, I will make the call and you shoot him.”

One of the dagga boys with that look that gives a man shivers down his spine

Marco must have been on the binoculars as he whispered: “There are two or three cows, then he’s next.” I anxiously waited on the sticks, trying to slow down my breathing to make a good shot. First cow, second cow, third cow … they all passed by at a brisk walk. Then the old bull appeared in the opening, intent on following the herd, a slight rise up the hill, slightly quartering away, maybe 10 degrees left to right, 75 yards away. Marco made the call, the bull stopped briefly, turned his head and gave us that Bill Collector’s look. Safety off, crosshairs on the vital triangle, Marco whispering “Shoot!”, and the .416 Rigby sent its 400 gr Swift A Frame on its way. I watched as the bullet impacted just behind the left leg point of shoulder, angling slightly forward. The bull jumped up in the classic fashion, its left front leg apparently paralysed. Marco shouted at me to shoot the buffalo again but he disappeared into the brush.
An avalanche of emotions and thoughts came over me, from elation to doubt. Did I hit him solidly? Is he down? Then Marco exclaimed ecstatically: “You hit him hard, you hit him hard! Great shot! You hit him hard, a great old bull!” It was then that I realised that Kevin, Stephan and Ranger Rambo had caught up with us and Kevin had caught the action on video. Handshakes and congratulatory hugs all around. What a rush! Wow! 
Then came the obligatory 30 minute wait before investigating the results of the hunt. I took off my DG scope in anticipation of a quick shot in the bush. Someone mentioned that they thought they may have heard the buffalo’s death bellow, so we headed on down the draw and up the other side to where the bull was last seen. He wasn’t there. A quick look around by Issac verified the route the bull had taken after the shot, and 80 yards or so away Stephan called out: “Here he is!”
We approached him from his rear. He had not expired yet and struggled desperately to get up. Marco directed me shoot him again, and several times more until he expired and we heard the death bellow. And wow, what a bull – solid bossed, big bosses, beautiful form, an old, real old dagga boy bull! We took many pictures of this grand old trophy animal and the crew that made it all possible. A track was hacked through 700 yards of bush and we loaded the old boy onto Marco’s one-ton Land Cruiser – all 1 800 pounds of him, and the crew of seven! It was a 6-hour drive over the rocky terrain back to the lodge. We were unable to leave the reserve because of the Red Zone quarantine requirements. The old bull would have to remain in quarantine for at least 30 days. And then I realised how big and wild this area next to Kruger National Park was.
This hunt, the disappointments, the anticipation, the journey to this end and the ending, which was pure elation. Thank you, Motsomi, thank you, Makuya, thank you, Africa, and especially thank you, Marco and Issac. All the books I’ve read, all the videos I’ve watched can’t convey the experience. This was much more than I ever expected! ASM