02 October 2019, 18:38doctari505
Bigfoot, Hand Brake and Wonky-Knee!
Bigfoot, Hand Brake And Wonky-Knee!
“A Cape buffalo hunt has been my lifelong dream” was 78-year-old Frank’s introductory comment to me at the recent Dallas Safari Club Convention. He then added, “I’m told you’re the guy to talk to about buffalo – so can you please help me make it happen?”
Wow, what a nice question to be asked, because the conservation, management and sporting pursuit of these formidable black bovines has been, for the greater part of my professional life, my absolute passion. “I’m of the opinion that a buffalo hunt should be more than just the quest for a unique animal – instead it should be a wilderness experience where the search for a nice old, battle scarred Dagga Boy will involve other absolutely unique and special ‘African’ experiences. Having to dodge elephant cows and their calves or bumping into lions while following buffalo tracks should be an essential part of the hunt. Also, no buffalo hunt is complete without the nights being disturbed by the nearby grunting of hippo’s, the giggles of hyena, lion roars and the saw-sawing rasps of leopard calls. Many miles of following buffalo spoor should leave you both exhausted and amazed at the skills of the African trackers. And you should get the opportunity to track, stalk and look over numerous bulls before finding the right one. To me, this is what a proper buffalo hunt should be all about. The area I have in mind will deliver all this, from a tented camp on the banks of the mighty Zambezi River, with its own unique scenery, sounds and spectacular sunsets. There is in my opinion, no better way to experience purest, wildest Africa than with such a hunt. So, if you’re seriously interested in what I suggest, it’ll be my pleasure to make your dream come true. I know just the safari area because I’ve hunted buffalo there many times, and I know well the PH and outfitter who’ll make it all happen. I can assure you you’ll not be disappointed.”
Frank was instantly hooked on my African wilderness experience suggestion so I took him around to meet Buzz Charlton of Charlton McCallum Safaris or CMS for short. Buzz and CMS are no stranger to this AR forum – with good reason as they are, in my opinion as good as it gets when it comes to such matters. Frank and Buzz hit it off right away and the safari – a 10-day September buffalo hunt in Zimbabwe’s Nyakasanga Safari Area located in the mid Zambezi Valley, was subsequently booked.
Frank then confessed to a problem – his left knee was in bad shape and in need of replacement, something he was reluctant to have done before the hunt. But if he wore a knee brace and walked quite slowly, with the aid of a hiking pole, and if the terrain was relatively flat and not too hilly, Frank reckoned he could, with some prior training managed the required 6 to 8 miles of walking a day. The next problem was his rifle. Someone would need to carry it for him because with his wonky knee, he could not. This was when I happily offered my services. I would gladly become Frank’s rifle-bearer in exchange for the opportunity to return to one of my most favorite hunting areas.
It is often said that the planning and preparation for a buffalo hunt can be as enjoyable as the hunt itself. Being at the DSC convention sure was a bonus because it enabled us to start this process right there and then. Frank needed a rifle for the occasion so off to the Winchester booth we went for him to look at my suggestion – a Model 70 Super Express in .375 H&H. My experience is that the venerable .375 H&H when loaded correctly, is absolutely adequate for buffalo, simply because its recoil for the relatively inexperienced, is manageable and as a result, shot placement is usually good. Frank liked the look and feel of the Winchester so he ordered one. Next was the need for a scope – and Frank also liked my recommendation – a 1.5 to 5 power Leupold VX III with a nice bold reticule. With rifle and scope sorted next on the agenda was suitable ammunition for this versatile combination. A visit to the booth of Lonnie Cribb of Superior Ammunition soon had this important aspect of the hunt done and dusted. I’ve long been a ‘heavy-for-caliber’ bullet man where it has become my experience that 350-grain .375 bullets really shift this classic old cartridge up a gear. Lonnie agreed with what I believe are the best, ‘buffalo suitable’ .375 bullets – 350-grain North Fork SP’s for the initial shot, to be followed up with 350-grain Cup Nosed Solids for any backing shots there could be time for. Target velocity for this bullet weight was 2350 fps and Frank agreed to ship his rifle/scope combination to Lonnie so he could work his magic and develop these loads, which he eventually did. As it would later transpire, it is just as well we took the precaution of using this combination.
Next it was off to African Sporting Creations for a pair of Courtney boots, ankle sock protectors and leather rifle and binocular slings. Our last port of call was to introduce Frank to Debbie Gracy of Gracy Travel. Debbie would handle Frank’s flights to and from Harare and assist with the paperwork for his rifle. So as to avoid the hassle of taking a firearm through South Africa, Buzz suggested that Frank fly to Harare via Dubai on Emirates. This Frank subsequently did and it proved a good decision.
Over the intervening months Frank and I then kept in regular e-mail contact. His fitness/walking program progressed well and soon he was walking with ease in his new Courtney’s, the required daily distance. September eventually arrived and I flew from Johannesburg to Harare so as to be there when Frank arrived on the evening Emirates flight. Buzz’s business partner, Myles McCallun was at the airport to meet us and take us to our overnight accommodation – Amanzi Lodge. We were soon to learn that driving in Harare at night, is not for the faint hearted. Due to extended power outages the whole city was in total darkness – no street or traffic lights were working and the volume of traffic surprised me. Crossing busy intersections in such conditions was to put it modestly, challenging – but Myles had it all under control. To be honest, I was very thankful to be welcomed at Amanzi with a glass of fresh orange juice. After his long flights Frank was exhausted – a couple of Zambezi Lagers, a good dinner and early to bed we went because Myles wanted a 6:00 AM start the next morning so as to miss the early morning school traffic.
Our flight from Charles Prince airport the Sugar Estates airstrip at Chrundu was uneventful. From the air it was sad to see how desperately dry the Zambezi Valley was. All the inland pans were empty which meant the wildlife had only two options for their daily water requirements – the Zambezi river itself or a couple of remote springs at the base of the escarpment.
Buzz was at the airstrip to meet us and within an hour we were at the CMS fly camp on the banks of the Zambezi, a mile or so upstream from the mouth of the dry and sandy Nyakasanga river. The term ‘fly camp’ is somewhat misleading. Our individual tents were large and spacious, with a shower, flush loo and basin on suite. Set under large and shady Natal Mahogany and Albida trees the camp provided all the creature comforts needed for an extended stay in such a remote location – a shady dining area and comfortable campfire chairs right on the banks of that mighty river. There was even a fishing boat for evening drifts for tigerfish. What more is needed in a hunting camp than a comfortable bed, hot shower, flush loo, running water, lots of ice, cold beer, good food, daily laundry, happy and smiling staff, good Scotch, lots of firewood, laughter and stimulating fireside conversation. All this the camp provided and then some because it had the ‘atmosphere’ a slick, well-run operation creates.
Our drive into camp confirmed Buzz’s initial comment – “we’ll be spoiled for choice because there are buffalo everywhere”. This was plainly evident – both buffalo herds and small groups of bull tracks were to be regularly seen, crossing the dirt road which runs next to the Zambezi.
It took only two shots, one with each bullet type to confirm that Frank’s rifle was dead on at 100 yards – the ideal sighting-in distance for the relatively close-range shots for which the thickly bushed Zambezi Valley is famous.
First to fall to Frank’s .375 was a nice zebra stallion. A perfectly place frontal chest shot quickly proved the effectiveness of the 350-grain North Fork SP’s as the stallion only made about 20 paces before dropping.
Around the campfire, Buzz, Frank and I had some interesting discussions regarding buffalo ‘trophy quality’. Having recently spent 5 years at the Southern African Wildlife College where I got the opportunity to conduct a research project comparing the herd dynamics and trophy quality of two adjacent buffalo populations, one of which was hunted and the other not, my focus these days is very much concentrated of the genetic sustainability of trophy hunting. My research proved conclusively that SCI’s current buffalo scoring system is wrong. It encourages the shooting of pre-breeding age bulls and all but one of SCI’s record book highest-ranking bulls were shot before having the opportunity to breed – which in the long term is simply not sustainable. I have no problem with exceptional trophy quality bulls being hunted, as long as they are old enough to have had every opportunity to lead a reproductively successful life which for free-ranging buffalo populations south of the Zambezi means bulls 12 years old or older.
Frank was suitably convinced so the quest for his buffalo set an interesting challenge - “to find the oldest, most characterful buffalo in the Nyakasanga”. On the first morning of hunting buffalo Frank got a shooting opportunity at a lovely breeding age 40-incher. Buzz called bull a ‘spectacular shooter’, I said he was only 9 years old and while a nice bull, still too young.
So numerous were the small groups of bulls drinking along the river each night that for the first time in my extended buffalo hunting career was it possible to follow up to three such groups in a day. This was because Buzz and his two trackers each carried hand-held radios and GPS’s. Knowing exactly where we were at all times and having radio coms with Eddie, the ever-smiling CMS driver who also had a GPS made long walks back to the Landcruiser after unsuccessful hunts unnecessary. Eddie regularly collect us at the closest road, thus saving us lots of walking, and while driving to these collection points he would scout for additional bull tracks. This saved lots of walking and time which allowed us to follow many additional bulls which was truly wonderful.
There are many how believe that because buffalo bulls are on their own or in small groups and away from the herds they are post breeding age dagga boys. This is not the case. Breeding age bulls, those aged from 8 to 11 years of age leave and rejoin the herds regularly as their body condition and consequently strength fluctuates. Dominant herd bulls lead a hard life – constantly having to be on guard duty from predators or rivals, grazing at the back of the herd on trampled food, or most importantly from not spending enough time ruminating while otherwise occupied, all contributes to these bulls losing condition. When too much body condition is lost such bulls leave the herds for some R & R. This is when they regain their strength and condition in preparation for the push and shove fights that will ensue to social dominance come the next rainy and consequently breeding season. For this reason, bulls in bachelor herds can be any age – from as young as 7 to as old as 12. And this was what we experienced when we eventually got the opportunity to get a look at the many bulls we followed. Their ages covered the full ‘mature’ spectrum.
Like the human ear and nose which grows throughout our lives, a buffalo bull’s front feet also get bigger the older and heavier such a bull gets. Old bulls also tend to drag their front feet and over time this wears flat the leading edge of their front hooves. With this in mind I believe it possible to age a bull quite accurately just from the size and shape of his forefeet tracks.
Nice and early on the third morning out, we found the tracks of the bull we came to call ‘Bigfoot’. So large and distinctly unusual was this bull’s right front foot that one on the trackers commented – “there is a giraffe in the Zambezi Valley!” The front edge of Bigfoot’s track was also worn flat and he was a loner. All this indicated an old bull and so we followed his tracks with enthusiasm, and what a fantastic hunt it turned out to be. Thanks to a steady breeze blowing from the east, we were able to track and then stalk Bigfoot was he slowly limped his way through the Jesse, while feeding on its fallen leaves. When I got a glimpse of Bigfoot’s large body size, his well-developed ‘chinlap’ and blunt tipped horns I aged him to be ‘at least’ 13 years old. He looked to be a spectacular trophy and as a bonus, he was totally unaware of our presence. I handed Frank his rifle and he got himself comfortably set up on the shooting sticks. He then patiently waited for Bigfoot to offer a shooting opportunity.
It is customary for buffalo to feed into and across the prevailing wind in a zig-zag fashion and this is exactly what Bigfoot did. He eventually zigged to his left into a clear shooting lane, exposing as he did do, his left shoulder. This was the moment Frank had long been waiting for and his shot was well placed. The heavy-for-caliber North Fork broke his left shoulder. Evidently hard hit, Bigfoot simply hobbled a few paces and then turned 180 degrees to expose his right shoulder. This is where Frank placed a CNS and immediately thereafter Bigfoot dropped to the ground – all of which was dramatically caught on camera by the hunt’s cameraman, Justin Drainer. This footage and that of the rest of the hunt will in the future become a Track Across Africa episode.
That Bigfoot was old was obvious – and my initial estimation of him being ‘at least 13’ was conservative. When I eventually got to measure his two, lower jaw, first molar teeth and age him with the Taylor method, he turned out to be well into his 14th year. In the Zambezi Valley and similar rainfall areas when predators occur very few buffalo make it past 15 years of age so Bigfoot was close to the end of his natural life. What a bull he must have been – to have survived for so long with a broken right front leg metacarpal bone – the reason I suspect for his exceptionally large front hoof, and when his internal abdominal organs were removed we discovered that his last rib had been broken off from where it attached to the spine and was sticking into his abdominal cavity! A fight for social dominance is the logical reason so such an injury – once again testify to the toughness and tenacity of these incredible bovines. Frank was understandably very chuffed with this lovely trophy.
While approaching the dry and sandy Nyakasanga riverbed early one morning we surprised a clam of half a dozen or so hyena feeding on a buffalo calf carcass. The larger female hyena all scattered upon our approach but an obviously suicidal male was reluctant to leave the scene. We suspected he’d been bullied and intimidated by the larger females who by so doing had prevented him from feeding. So, when the clan’s dominant female hyena ran off he ignored our presence and approached the carcass to feed. This turned out to be a bad mistake indeed. Such opportunities are ‘fall in your lap’ ones, and Frank quickly took it. This exciting footage was also captured on film.
The opportunity for Frank to hunt a second buffalo arose and he quite understandably took it. In the quest for second buffalo we visited a couple of springs at the base of the escarpment. They were spectacularly beautiful but the rugged terrain of the escarpment proved to be too much for Frank and his wonky knee. Realizing this, we stuck to the flat, easy-walking valley floor for our subsequent buffalo hunts. And while doing so we bumped into two male lions. We also had to dodge elephant cows and their calves regularly. With little hunting pressure, the Nyakasanga elephants are chilled and this enabled up to enjoy numerous close-up and personal encounters with these fascinating pachyderms.
We were well into the hunt for a second buffalo when we found the tracks of a bull we subsequently named ‘Handbrake’! This was because he was dragging his four feet, just as if walking with the handbrake still on. Buzz and the trackers recognized this bull’s spoor and reckoned it was that of the spectacular 40-inch bull we’d seem on the first morning – the one I’d aged to be 9 and therefore still of breeding age. Why such a youngish bull should be dragging his feet was a mystery to us so we followed his tracks to find out why. For Buzz’s excellent trackers, Nyati and Criton, this was their easiest tracking session yet – like following the center line of a highway, and we caught up to Handbrake as he stumbled his way across the deep sand of the dry Nyakasanga riverbed. Handbrake looked exhausted as he plodded wearily along, and so unsteady was he while doing so that I thought he was about to fall over. Something was most definitely not right with Handbrake so after a quick glance in my direction to get my approval, Buzz gave Frank the thumbs-up to take the shot – before the good-looking bull fell over in front of us and died! Buzz called out to the bull and he obligingly turned side-on to look at us. Frank was already on the shooting sticks as he did so and fired immediately, but the bullet landed a bit too far forward, right on the shoulder joint, breaking the left front shoulder. This was easy to see as Handbrake turned and ran off, presenting as he did so a left-hand quartering away shooting opportunity. Handbrake stumbled and fell just as Frank fired a back-up shot but he quickly regained his footing and as he ran away Frank fired again at his left-hand side flank.
As we struggled after the bull, through the deep soft sand of the Nyakasanga riverbed, we spotted a large, heavily maned lion also crossing the Nyakasanga, a 100 or so paces away. He too was limping and it was obvious that he too had been following Handbrake. With our collective attentions all intently focused on where the wounded buffalo had disappeared, there was not enough time to snap off a photo of the lion, but I instantly realized that he was most likely the cause of Handbrake’s exhausted-like state.
With a broken shoulder and a back-up cup nosed solid through the left lung, Handbrake did not go far. We soon found him looking very sorry for himself and he dropped quickly to another CNS into the chest cavity.
During the cutting up and loading process, the reason for carefully selecting the right ‘backing bullets’ became clear. Frank’s third back-up shot was perfectly placed, well back on the bull’s left flank, and as is so often the case with left-hand side quartering away back-up shots, the CNS needed to pass through the rumen in order to reach the chest cavity. Rumen content, all 50 gallons of it, makes a formidable obstacle for any bullet. This was why I’d recommended CNS’s for such shots and they worked perfectly.
Handbrake was a spectacular bull – with beautifully curled, wide spreading horns. Still too young in my opinion, despite a solid boss, but given the unusual circumstances of the attendant lion, it was I believe the correct decision to take him. The taking of two spectacular but different aged bulls slotted in well with the Tracks Across Africa show being simultaneously filmed because it provided a good opportunity for me to explain the aging process and why it is so important to place emphasis to old, past breeding age bulls.
Over the remaining few days Frank hunted a bushbuck and a baboon. His baboon hunt turned out to be a remarkable display of beyond phenomenal tracking. Non-fatally wounded after the initial shot, the big dog baboon was tracked for 4 long hours through thick Jesse bush until finally found and the affair concluded. This was as good a tracking exhibition as I have ever seen, and I’ve experienced a few. There can be no doubt Buzz’s trackers, Nyati and Criton are two of the best, and what a pleasure it was to watch these masters of this difficult artform.
When the lower jawbones of Frank’s two buffalo were cleaned I removed their first molar teeth and carefully measured their respective crown heights, worked out the averages and plotted them on the Taylor Teeth Aging Graph. As mentioned, Bigfoot turned out to be well into his 14 th year, while Handbrake was, as I had predicted, early in his 9th year.
To end off an amazing safari we spend the final day at nearby Mana Pools. Our charter was on time, we flew directly into Harare main and a couple of hours later, Frank was on his way home, via Dubai to NYC. This was an easy way to end a successful safari and depart Zimbabwe without the hassles of traffic and roadblocks! There can be no doubt, Buzz and CMS are at the top of their game – what a pleasure it was to experience this well-oil safari operation. And as for Frank, the hunt fulfilled his ‘African wilderness experience’ expectations and then some. A good sign for any safari is having a client talking of returning before its conclusion. After showing Frank some nice and big Tom leopard tracks, his Mr. Spots fire has now been light!
Till next year, Doctari.
Camp was set up on the banks of the Zambezi under shady Natal Mahogany and Albida trees.
Our tents were set up right on the bank of the Zambezi.
So was the campfire/sitting out area.
Buzz and Frank with the zebra stallion – it dropped quickly to a frontal chest shot.
The dry conditions of the Zambezi Valley were very evident on out first buffalo hunt. This is when I became known as Africa’s most overqualified gun-bearer!
The size and squared-off front edge of a bull buffalo’s track are a good indication of the bull’s age. These were the type of track we looking for in Frank’s quest to find the Nyakasanga’s oldest, most characterful bull.
‘Bigfoot’s’ right front track was huge. without a doubt the largest buffalo track any of us had ever seen, and its front edge was also worn flat. This was a bull we just had to find as he would surely be special.
With his hiking pole and a knee brace, Frank was able to walk well
Frank prepares himself for a shot at Bigfoot. Capturing it all on film for a future Track Across Africa episode was cameraman Justin Drainer.
Bigfoot turned out to be a spectacular old bull, well into his 14 th year. Buzz reckoned he was the oldest buffalo CMS have ever hunted. I hope they are now convinced that such bulls are remarkable trophies.
Bald from old age, Bigfoot sure was a special old bull. There can be no doubt, Frank sure succeeded in his quest for the Nyakasanga’s oldest, most characterful buffalo.
The underside of Bigfoot’s right front hoof. This is what caused such a distinctively large track.
The reason for Bigfoot’s enlarged right front leg was obvious. The metacarpal bone below the knee was broken so his whole lower leg was loose and wobbly. Without weight being put on it, it never wore down and so enlarged to an enormous size.
A daylight, own kill hyena is a not-to-be-passed-up trophy. This mature male made the fatal mistake of returning to a buffalo carcass after the female hyena in the clan had run off.
This spectacularly beautiful spring is at the base of the Zambezi Valley escarpment and a popular watering hole for the area’s large elephant population.
We bumped into this lion while tracking buffalo, and aged him to be early in his third year.
The Nyakasanga’s elephants are very chilled. This enabled us to enjoy many closeup and personal encounters. Here cows feed on albida pods while buffalo bulls lie in the background. In his quest for a second buffalo Frank got the opportunity to look over about 40 buffalo bulls of different ages.
We named his bull ‘Handbrake’ because he was dragging all four of his feet - as if walking with the handbrake still on! In the sandy soil of the Zambezi Valley this made tracking him especially easy.
Handbrake turned out to be the 9-year-old, 40-inch bull we’d see on the first morning out. It was evident that he had the previous night survived a long altercation with the lion that was also following him. I suspect this was why he was dragging his feet. Had Frank not killed him we felt sure the lion would have because he was still hanging around.
Left-hand side, quartering away backing shots need to pass through the rumen to reach the chest cavity. It takes a carefully selected bullet to do this. This is the CNS’s entry wound into the rumen. It passed right through this large internal organ, penetrated into the left lung lobe and exited the chest cavity to be recovered in the armpit. Interestingly the size of the entry hole into the rumen is three times that of the bullet’s caliber.
This 350-grain North Fork cup nosed solid was recovered in the buffalo bull’s armpit after penetrating through the voluminous rumen and the left lung lobe. As far as buffalo back-up bullets go, this weight and bullet type are the best there is for the .375’s.
When a buffalo’s teeth wear out, that’s it, game over. These are the lower jaw, first molar teeth of 14-year-old Bigfoot and 9-year-old Handbrake. Decades of measuring such teeth has taught me to age live buffalo accurately.
The Taylor 1 st Molar Tooth Aging Method enables us to accurately determine the age of sexually mature bull buffalo. The crown height of each quadrant of the tooth is measured. This gives 8 measurements which are averaged and then plotted on the graph. By linking known age to visible secondary sexual characteristics and signs of ‘age’, it is possible to accurately determine the age of any mature buffalo bull. We also known at what age such bulls start and end their breeding tenure period – information which I hope will, in the future create awareness for the importance of genetic sustainability so as to preserve tomorrow’s trophy quality.
The final session for the Tracks Across Africa filming.
A day trip to nearby Mana Pools with lunch under an Albida was a fitting end to a wonderful safari.