The Sound of Thunder
Posted on December 18 2020
The following Campfire story has been told to me by a friend in Zambia who is a Professional Hunter, Headman, and brilliant story teller. In the years that I have known and followed his work he has told me many tales of his experiences. They are certainly worthy of a book 'an interview with a PH' or a book of memoirs in Peter Capstick style. This story tells of a thrilling Buffalo hunt, and explains the emotions, adventure, excitement, and fear that can overwhelm you during such an experience in deep, wild Africa. Hunting dangerous game is not for everyone, especially in these conditions, but certainly an experience you would never forget......
* * *
The sound of thunder is ominous. It is the pending sound of violence.
The date was June 2014 and I had just returned from my first safari of the season and was privileged to have experienced some of the finest hunting of my career. I was returning from my Kafue concession in Zambia and had a story to tell. June is considered early season and there is still much moisture around after the rains which usually dissipate in May. This was the first hunt of the year.
For whatever reasons the usual big herds of buffalo had not yet crossed from the Kafue National Park into my Kafue concession. There was also quite a bit of Lion activity, which could make for a viable excuse. Therefore pickings were slim. However, all was not lost and my game scouts found evidence of some lone bulls up against the communal belt of Kaindu, who are the traditional landlords of this area. Here the soils are clay and are dominated by grass varieties of Hyparrhenia being thick and long and previously and adequately described by Capstick. The buffalo sought this damp dense cover and the hunting was electric and very exciting indeed.
The grass stems were as thick as fingers in places and mostly impenetrable for us humans. My client and I were initially both carrying open sight .404 Jefferys that had to be held upright as we pushed through the morass of grass. I remember taking a break that first morning and opted to upgrade to my .500 double rifle. After all this is what they were designed for and a second barrel would be welcome. June is our winter season and it gets bloody cold, the grass in most places is still fresh but here and there patches of burn afforded some visibility and I was hoping that these slight openings would be our battleground. The buffalo was having none of my thoughts and sought deepest cover waiting for us until the last few seconds before thundering off. Now and again you would catch glimpse of an ominous dark shadow but never a shot was offered. The grasslands were so expansive that often the buff would simply circle us and wait. Michael would be a few inches in front of me and was told to duck down if he saw or heard the animal. He trusted me enough to shoot over his head if need be.
In Zambia we call these solitary males ‘kakulis’ but are commonly referred to as dagga boys – dagga meaning mud. Their hoof print is oversized and often has a squarish appearance unlike the younger bulls whose print is more circular. In the Kafue these bulls are massive bodied and generally short on temper. The hunting is not every ones cup of tea, however my hunter was very experienced and wanted an up-close opportunity to use his open sighted .404J. In long grass your trophy is purely the buffalo and the sport. Horns are irrelevant. Age is determined before the chase and the shooting is offhand and quick, the target is often obscured and good bullets are essential. A double rifle is handy for this sort of work and during the next few days mine was often pointed with serious intent.
These lands are a potential minefield and steps are thoughtful and carefully placed. Glossy piles of fresh dung give you an indication of the proximity and direction of the animal but you will notice that when you get close to your quarry the bush becomes ominously quiet. It is almost like nature holds her breath and is content to quietly observe the unfolding drama. My mental state is to dismiss the instinctive and persistent signals to flee and I was not sure what everyone else was thinking when my tracker disappeared from sight to be replaced by a dark foreboding silhouette. The sound of thunder at your feet is a black storm that you have chased and is the sound of buffalo at close quarters. I might add here that I have experienced some clients who simply refused this pursuit and opted out hoping for more favourable conditions. However this client was of solid constitution and he relished this style of hunting.
The buffalo does not smell you he has sensed you and at a few paces! It takes a couple of minutes to compose one's self after such an encounter. Checking the guns are back on safe and with an unconvincing grin you wipe down your sweaty hands. Talk is whispered. When all are reasonably composed the game starts again. At first, the tracking is easy, as the running hooves have pounded the dirt spilling soil either side of the track. But it is not long before the buffalo again seeks deep cover; he is forewarned now and will walk wide circles to pick up your scent. The game is usually over at this point and these dagga boys will search out new territories and walk miles to seek them. The sun is high and the wind is fickle and probably a good time to break. The hunting for these old boys is reserved for the gloom of early mornings when they leave the cathedrals of long grass to seek grazing.
We were doggedly pursuing one particular bull that would stray into the communal farming belt and keep to the confines of thicket and corridors of high grass. I would say his territory was limited to a few square miles and we would pick up his tracks early and hunt him till the wind or odds were out of our favour. It has been my experience that to persistently harass an animal often leads to a charge scenario and as my job is to keep my client safe I would call off the hunt if I felt we had pushed the game too hard. My tracker blessed with a sixth sense and would warn me now and again that the buffalo was becoming agitated. He says he can smell it! There is only so much time that one can keep up with the adrenaline and it becomes dangerous to let your guard down in such situations. Common sense is often called upon and there are many a brave man who has been gored or worse by ignoring it. When we took a break there would be an outpouring of relief and a chance to mentally regroup. It was cold but we sweated. We had previously agreed that to bump the same buff a third time would be a good time to stop. It was a rule we adhered to daily.
I remember that morning well. It had been icy that evening and there was a frost on the ground. The open vehicle made for an uncomfortable ride and the dripping wet grass even more so. I made a small fire and some coffee to warm us before our pursuit whilst Michael scoured the ground for tracks. He returned shortly and with much excitement said that he had actually seen the buffalo and it was massive bodied. It was to be holed up in a small area of grassland adjacent to some thickets which we knew well. I decided this was an opportunity to change our hunting method and we would ambush this clever animal and use the wind to our favour. I was loath to shed my jacket and gloves but they can be a hindrance when shooting in tight conditions. We shivered and talked the situation through, and in the frozen twilight of the dank morning, we concocted what we thought was a cunning plan. Our approach would now be a complete reverse of our previous days hunting and we would use Michael’s scent to force the buff out of its scant cover and would station ourselves downwind and hide out in a gap that afforded us some degree of visibility. The stage was set and the show was about to begin. The anticipation was incredible and emotions high as we knew at close quarters the buffalo would want to fight rather than flee. The tracker simply had to station himself upwind of the grassy bed and this buff as always would seek the deepest cover. We were squarely in between. I remember it was like playing chicken on a train track! Blindfolded!
The sound of thunder and the breaking of vegetation warned us and the showdown was imminent. The noise was all around us and yet we could not see the beast coming. I was swinging my double looking over the front bead for a target that I could not see. I felt I had lost complete control of the situation and someone was going to get hurt. I was feeling very unprofessional at that point in time and worried about my client. Had I been too brazen? Typical of wild animals they do not conform to rules or the ways of man, and this one did the unpredictable. The old bull for whatever reason opted for the more open country of scrubland and stands of stunted acacia. This was somewhat of a relief and we regrouped to take on the traditional methods of the chase. Visibility was good but the wind was not and Michael would have to circle the immediate area for sign. It was extremely pleasant to be in the open and to be entertaining what could be considered a normal tracking hunt. The bull had made a mistake and this would be our opportunity. An Oxpecker (tick bird) flew overhead and pointed us in the right direction. The chitter-chatter of these small birds would eventually lead us to the buff and for the first time I felt we had gained the advantage. Again the trembling adrenaline courses through your body and the grip on your rifle becomes firmer. We quietly stalked the twitter of birds one tender step at a time. The old warrior had bedded down behind a fallen tree and sensing us at close proximity he lifted his great body and head from the debris. There was to be no clear shot until he turned and for what must have been a half a moment we locked eyes on each other and he looked down his nose at me in terrible anger. My client sent a bullet through his heart and he stumbled in death. His fight was over and we watched him draw his last breath. Our silence gave this grim beast the respect that he deserved as he had awarded us the best of hunting and had been an admirable quarry. The sun broke through the greyness of clouds and the birds resumed their dawn chorus. Africa had certainly been kind to us that morning.
Is this why we are attracted to the hunting of dangerous game? It is to experience emotions that are not known in ordinary life. We continue to risk our lives for the pursuit of our sport and are prepared to acknowledge defeat. This was fair-chase and it was us who were most disadvantaged. Anyone who has experienced a charge or wild animal at close quarters will know the eerie slowness of time and the immense concentration it takes to be firm. One has to look through the animal into its anatomy to place the bullet into a vital area whilst your body wants to flee. The hunting of Buffalo is what and how you make it and it is not for me to suggest rules or standards but to be in close proximity of these animals is somewhat primeval and I do it simply because I am able.
In my short absence from my camp and in between safaris a pride of Lion wounded two bull buffalo who sought the murky recesses of a nearby swamp. Probably hiding up in some long grass. The sound of thunder will have to wait for another day.
Written by Andrew Baldry, Headman Mutambashi
* * *
Andrew is a Professional Hunter, and the owner and manager of Royal Kafue LTD, a communal partnership project on Zambia's Kafue River. The project reclaims and rejuvenates dormant customary lands for the benefit of the attached Kaindu community under a small scale, high end, sustainable hunting model. The hunters' dollars fund this communal partnership and encourage the protection of wild African animals and maintains the wild landscape preventing it from becoming farmed land.
This project is one of the most successful community owned hunting models in Zambia where an over-poached and exploited landscape has been reclaimed, protected and is now a flourishing wildlife estate.
For more information about this successful conservation effort visit Conservation Frontlines to view a short video.
You can follow Andrew via his Instagram page @kafueroyal.