I’ve wanted to hunt Cape buffalo for ever. After an inspiring photo safari in East Africas’ famous game parks ( Serengeti, Masai mara, Ngorongoro, Aberdares, etc.) in 2012 and again after my brother and I did a successful plains game hunt ( Kudu, Eland, Warthog, Mountain Reedbuck, Burchell’s Zebra, Springbok and Impala) in South Africa’s Eastern Cape region in 2013, the urge to hunt buffalo became irresistible.
So in 2019 I booked a trip with outfitter Johann Veldsman, Shona Hunting Adventures. We planned an “own use” non-trophy hunt in the former Caprivi strip, the Zambezi floodplain region in extreme NE Namibia. Good thing we were hunting near rivers. Namibia had been suffering through the worst drought in recorded history, and some spots had not had a drop of rain in over two years. Buffalo were plentiful, as were elephants on the grassy, sandy flood plains. We stayed at another outfitters lodge, whose territory Johann leased for this hunt. He has a home property near Kamanjab west of Windhoek, but there is no buffalo there. So the hunt had two locations. Well, actually three. Here’s the short version of the first part, with the buffalo hunt story …
After flying out of Toronto, my first stop over was Cologne Germany to pick up my hunting buddy Meinolf. He was to be photographer on my trip. I had planned a day and night to rest and acclimatize to the time change in Germany and get ready for the next leg to Africa. But Meinolf had different ideas.
I have a German hunting license so as soon as I got my bags stowed in his guest bedroom, it was “Lets go hunting” … Wild boars in the parks of the city of Cologne at night. He’s a master forester in charge of Cologne’s 10,000 HA of parks and woodlands, So, who needs sleep? – off we went. I’d hunted wild boar and deer with him several times before, but always “ansitz” (alone from a high seat) or “triebjagd” (a group hunt for driven game). Never “spot and stalk” at night. It’s a very different experience than our hunting in Canada. Walking down paved bicycle trails in the forest, at midnight, between housing subdivisions, with a suppressed .30-06 and night vision binoculars. We found a mob of pigs, and shot a young boar after an exciting stalk in the moonlight.
After some more paperwork to get my rifles out of temporary storage at customs, some minor problems with an airport security rule, and and a helpful ride from the police to the international departures terminal, we departed Frankfurt the next evening. Good thing we allowed several extra hours for all that. We landed in Windhoek after a comfortable but sleepless first class Air Namibia direct overnight flight. And proceeded to wait some more. Our regional flight to Katima Mulio was delayed in Zimbabwe for half a day. It seems that someone neglected to pay the fuel bill and they had to sort that out before they would let our plane refuel and leave Harare to pick us up. Tip to self and others: get some local currency at the international terminal before you leave, we had nothing to buy lunch with, only Canadian and USA dollars, and credit cards. They don’t accept those at the little municipal airport vendors. A nice lady made some calls for us so we could securely store our bags and spend the afternoon at a hotel restaurant just a km or so away as we waited. It was very interesting to fly over so much unoccupied land full of dry sand rivers and scrub thorn trees on the way to the Zambezi region. Not much population in most of Namibia. The ecosystem can’t support much agriculture.
We met Johann at the little airport and drove a half day to the hunting area. We’d hunt in the Kabulabula community conservancy. It covers about 90 sq. km in the Chobe floodplains. What a conservation success story! Namibia has figured out that wildlife is a sustainable, renewable resource more valuable than grazing cattle and goats. Game populations are thriving on the community conservancies. People are learning to appreciate and co-exist with large dangerous game, as long as they get some benefit from meat and hunting fees and employment. We were greeted with the sight of elephants grazing with the local cattle right in front of our thatched huts. Lions roaring and hippos grunting in the moonlight made for another sleepless night.
The next day we met the local PH Nelson, Nelson’s tracker, the Government game guard, and the local guide. Along with Johann and his assistant Ben, and Meinolf and me, we had quite an entourage. Did I say I am used to hunting by myself or with one companion in Canada? We had two Land Cruisers full of hunting “crew”. At least we had lots of eyes to spot game. The day was spent driving near the Chobe river, and stopping to peer through binoculars near the big herds of buffalo we found out on the grassy plains. We made several stalks on small groups of dagga boys. We found them tucked into the little depressions and oxbow bends and dry channels that the river made during its flood stage meanderings. I was surprised that some of those bulls just chose to stare us down rather than move off. Buffalo do seem to have an “attitude”! I also had a cultural surprise. Finding a dead elephant calf with snares set all around it so that witch doctors could collect feathers of vultures to make magic charms.
We didn’t find “the one” the first day, so we retired to the camp just at dusk, satisfied with the day and encounters with an abundance of game. That night we shared stories with some outgoing American clients who were just leaving after their successful hunt for buffalo and lechwe and crocodile. They were going on to do some fishing for tiger fish in Zambia. Gave me more ideas!
Before dawn the next day we got news of a good size herd a few KM off to the west, so we had a destination in mind as the sun rose. We found a group of old non-breeding bulls that had separated themselves from the main herd near a big bend in the river. They were about 40 M from the water. The centre of the river is also the Botswana border. Johann had told me of the buffalo he had shot nearby the year before. How he had made a solid but non-fatal shot, and the wounded buffalo crossed the river to be lost in Botswana where the Chobe National park bans all hunting activity and the border is guarded by military patrols who shoot first and ask questions later. The story had a happy ending though. During the night lions chased the bull back to the Namibia side and it died on the correct river bank and was recovered in the morning. A better outcome than they anticipated. Not all lion activity is so helpful. Just a few months before my visit, lions chased a big herd of buffalo into the river. More than 500 buffalo drowned in the nighttime panic. We found one really big skull and horns of a bull that did not survive that adventure.
Anyway, Johann was nervous about losing another one, and informed me, rather than asking, that he would be backing me up when I shot. And, Nelson would too. So we snuck through the long sparse elephant grass in to about 90 M from the group of 8 bulls. One old boy stepped out and challenged us with head up and a gleam in his eye. I was shooting my Merkel .450-400 3” N.E. double rifle, and placed a 400 gr. Hornady DGX ( bonded) just in the crease between neck and his right shoulder as he faced us quartering slightly to our right. And another North Fork cup point solid up his rear into his chest, as he whirled on three legs and hobbled to get away with his right shoulder dangling. The impact of both shots was easy to hear and see. I was glad they hit where I aimed. Both Johann and Nelson shot too as he ran, but I never did see any effect of their shots or bullet holes later. It’s unlikely that they missed, but I’m not sure what the effect of their shots contributed. He only ran about 20M and dropped. I was so happy to see that, I started walking forward with an empty rifle. Johann glanced at me and said “reload NOW the others are deciding what to do” OH crap. What a rookie mistake. I didn’t take my eyes off them, but it was a relief to hear the ejectors ping and the thunk of two fresh rounds drop home as seven dark powerful beasts bunched up and came about in a defensive formation, and seven pairs of eyes stared back at us from under those thick, hooked horns. And then they all left. Except my bull, looking rather massive and grey and rumpled and magnificent and tick infested and muddy and strong. But very dead. That always seems like a surreal moment, when the object of your desires is in hand. Happy and sad and thankful and full of awe and respect.
I gave the bull a pat and thanked his departed spirit, and enjoyed the photos and congratulations and general celebration as we began the chores. Buffalo are very big. And really heavy. A large hunting party suddenly seemed like a good idea. After skinning and butchering, with some kites swooping in to grab a snack, we selected some backstraps for our supper. We drove the truck load of meat to one of the local villages. Alfread, the local guide got first pick of the meat. He chose a big bowl full of tripe, and bits of lungs, kidney, and and a little actual muscle meat. He seemed very pleased. The village people divvied up and carried all the meat away in a very short time.
We stayed up late that night, around the campfire. Eating buffalo steaks grilled on thornwood coals and sipping whiskey and telling stories and listening to the night sounds as the full moon rose. It was a good night, but not an early morning. The next afternoon we went for a interesting and relaxing boat ride on the Chobe river. We watched and photographed numerous elephant, buffalo, crocs, hippo, and a bunch of other game and birds. What a wonderful spot.
It was difficult to leave, but we had a two day drive to Johann’s own home territory to spend the following week hunting from his picturesque lodge nestled in the Huab river valley. But that’s another part of the story…