Mousso Buffel (Old Buffalo)
In Mthimkulu Reserve
By Steve Rogers
The unexpected email that arrived on Saturday 23rd August from my best mate and hunting partner Mike Ambrose really got my blood pumping. First and foremost, Mike and I love to hunt bovines….and most of all the Cape buffalo. Mike has hunted several times with Hannes Els of Limcroma Safaris (www.Limcroma.com), and it was from Hannes that we got this….
"On another note, I followed up on an opportunity that came my way. I have the opportunity to hunt Cape buffalo in a new area. This area was recently given to the native community and my good friend Johan Hermann has recently secured the rights to hunt this area, which borders Kruger National Park. 30 miles of river (Letaba River) form the boundary, which we cannot cross. This area has a very good number of dugga boys...lone bulls, because it has not been hunted before like the typical wilderness areas where we hunt (Zimbabwe, Mozambique, etc.). I took the day yesterday to go scout and see the place. It is like a dream for me to even think of the opportunity to hunt a piece of the more than 7 million acres of Kruger Park wilderness where elephants, lion and leopard are as wild as it has been forever. It is amazing!!!! The Kruger Park genetics are some of the best I have ever seen. They have seen several bulls in the 45-inch -plus range lately. Mike, I truly believe this is an opportunity of a lifetime. Do you know of somebody that might want to take advantage of this?"
Did he know someone? He sure did!! Tuesday, 30th September (yes…five weeks later!) saw Mike and I arrive in Johannesburg. We quickly and efficiently cleared our rifles and jumped in the bakkie with Hannes, Melcom (chief cameraman and general all-around good guy) and Kobus (Melcom's dad) for a short transfer to our charter flight that would take us to Phalaborwa.
The one-hour flight to Phalaborwa went quickly. Johan met us at the airport and after quick introductions and a few quick jibes about the wallabies and springboks we made the 1.5-hour drive to camp. Mike and I were a little fried but seeing kudu in the headlights and other eyes shining in the bush on the way in …and listening to Hannes and Johan talk …even if it was in Afrikaans…kept me awake!!
We were staying at the Mbaula Camp on the Mthimkulu Reserve which is in Limpopo Province. The camp is right on the banks of the Letaba River and it was like something out of a dream. Waiting to meet us were the rest of the team…Johan's lovely wife, Natasha; Basie, the camp manager; and Ronnie and Kobus, Johan's business partners in this new venture. The camp itself was originally a ranger station for the Kruger Park, and we were staying in the beautifully renovated old horse stables. We soon realized how honored we were and what a privilege it was to be with such an experienced and wonderful group of people and more so, to be the first hunters into this area in over 40 years. Mike and I talked quietly by the fire and hoped we could deliver on such a great opportunity.
Despite being very tired…sleep did not come easily. I heard lions roaring in the distance. After about three hours of "trying to sleep," Basie started rummaging around at about 5 am, and we got up to a welcome cup of coffee and a beautiful South African dawn. Mike and I were getting our stuff in order when Johan called us over. Looking down the Letaba, there were three dagga boys not more that 400 meters from camp quietly feeding. My heart was racing, and they all looked great to me….but Johan just smiled and called them "his camp bulls." Unbelievable. What a place. Little did I know I was to repeat this thought many times in the days to follow.
We would be hunting in separate teams and vehicles. I was with Johan and Ronnie with trackers Thomas and Million, and Mike with Hannes, Kobus, Melcom and trackers Jerry and Sam. Johan has named his new company Rigby Big Game Safaris and I said a quiet prayer to myself as we left camp for our first hunt, as I was using my .416 Rigby and hoped it was a good omen.
I was shooting my favourite load of 400gn Swift A Frames and also had 400gn Barnes Banded solids, should they be required. Johan was carrying his Victor Sarasquetta Double in .470NE. Mike was Using his Blaser in .416 RM shooting 400gn Barnes TSX and the same Barnes solids. He had also brought along his Searcy double in .470NE shooting 500gn Barnes TSX bullets.
We left camp and after firing two shots to check my rifle was still shooting straight after the long journey, commenced hunting in earnest.
At about 6:30 am, we saw the backs of two dagga boys feeding in the rushes of the Letaba River. We stalked to about 200 meters from them and decided to hold off, as they appeared to be heading out of the river bed and we wanted to give them a chance to get clear of the boundary of the hunting area (the river). I could not get a really good look at the bulls, and I have not hunted these animals enough to be able to judge them, but I could see that they both had good hard bosses…all I needed to know!! Johan assured me one was a "nice one" and we should try to take him.
The bulls moved up into some Mopani scrub and we got to about 100 meters from them before they realized all was not right and began to stare directly at us. The nature of the scrub is that it is very difficult to get a shooting lane, and I did not have a shot. Pinned down behind a termite mound, we decided to just wait. The wind was a bit fickle and after about 15 minutes I felt it touch the back of my neck and five seconds later the bulls blew out.
Over the next five hours, we tracked them for what must have been eight or 10 kilometers, bumping them twice more. On one occasion, I was on the sticks with the bull in the crosshairs at about 90 meters but had no shot due to some Mopani covering his shoulder. On a couple of occasions we thought we had lost them only for Thomas and Million to find their spoor again. Johan and I got separated from Ronnie and the trackers on one occasion which turned out to be fortuitous in the end….maybe the hunting gods were smiling on me ….as it was about half an hour before we got together again and this elapsed time let the bulls settle.
We spotted them from about 500 meters away lying down (I did not believe it was the same bulls we had been pursuing for hours but sure enough) and planned our stalk carefully as we knew it would be most probably be our last chance. I can clearly remember my heart pounding and sweat running into my eyes as we closed the distance. Johan and I made the final approach alone. The bulls knew something was wrong and were up and staring in our direction. I got onto the sticks and gently pushed the safety off as Johan glassed the bulls. They were standing at 60 meters in thick Mopani…once again no shot. They got nervous and moved away another 20 meters.
"The one on the left….he's not clear yet…see that small gap in the brush…if he takes a step, you have to shoot." The bull took the step, and I fired. I saw him react to the shot by hunching and jumping forward. Perfect! "Shoot again....…he's going down…yes, shoot again." I fired again and down he went. He had nose ploughed the ground and bucked like a bronco spraying blood out of his nose for 40 meters and when the second shot hit him and he went straight down. We were so excited we yelled and embraced. As we walked up to him, he death bellowed.
Reaching him I began to realize what a great trophy he was. While looking at him during the long hunt I had not focused on his horns, and as I mentioned I had no real idea of his size as I have no experience in judging these animals. Johan looked at me and the bull and said, "Mousso Buffel"…as well as a few other things I can't print! Ronnie and the boys came running up and we all celebrated. He was old, broomed off and very heavy in the horn all the way through. His bosses were massive. What a trophy.
Johan left to get the bakkie so we could load him whole, and I was surprised when the vehicle arrived back with Hannes and Mike, Basie, Kobus …and many other pairs of hands. In the time it took for them to arrive, Ronnie and I had run a quick measurement with his Leatherman. The bull was 47-plus inches wide and had 17.5-inch bosses. Unbelievable.
PH Johan Hermann, myself and PH Hannes Els
Mike and I sat together next to him, and for both of us it was a very special moment. We were living the dream. For me to take such a great bull and to have Mike with me was the summit of our long friendship and time together hunting all over the world. We loaded the bull …easier said than done…and headed back to camp.
After a nice lunch and a few beers to celebrate, Johan and Hannes got our feet firmly back on the ground by announcing it was time to go hunting again!! In addition to two buffalo, we both had kudu, nyala, impala and waterbuck on permit, and so off we went to see what we could find. Mike and Hannes were still concentrating on a dagga boy though.
Although I was still buzzing from the morning and had a constant video of the final stalk on my bull playing in my mind, the afternoon hunt was amazing. We saw at least 50 elephant. No big bulls but seeing so many of these majestic creatures in the wild was spine tingling. 14 more species were to make my mental video that afternoon in this wildlife paradise: giraffe, impala, nyala, Sharps grysbok, klipspringer, duiker, waterbuck, kudu, hippo, crocodile, buffalo, jackal, bushbuck and steenbok.
In truth, we were not paying too much attention when a lone kudu bull was spotted. Johan and I stalked him for a few hundred meters, but it was soon reinforced that in Africa you usually only get one short chance to shoot on any animal. He was too smart for us, and I remember seeing long wide horns disappear into the Mopani. We were not too bothered and called it a day.
We arrived back at camp just as the sun was setting. I had a tear in my eye when Hannes said grace. We had a great dinner and celebration with the team. For the whole team this was the first buffalo killed on this concession, and it was important for many different reasons.
We talked about our day around the camp fire. Mike and Hannes had seen many bulls in the 40- to 44-inch range but had not been able to get into a position to shoot. ….No, that is no typo or exaggeration, and I know it sounds unbelievable, but the genetics are fantastic in this area. Several drinks later saw us hit our beds and close the shutters on a day that I will remember forever.
The standard routine for the rest of the hunt was to get up at around 5 am, have a coffee and quick snack before departing camp at dawn. We would hunt until around midday before returning to camp for a good lunch and then head out again about 3 pm to hunt until dark. Day 2 saw Johan, Ronnie, the boys and I out looking for one of the plains game on my permit and Mike's team continuing on the buffalo trail. We saw 10 or 12 nice kudu bulls all around the 48- to 50-inch mark….not what we were looking for, four nice waterbuck bulls (none of which Johan thought were good enough) and a beautiful nyala bull around 28 inches that was too smart for us. He also had a smaller bull around 24 inches with him. I did not have a bushbuck on permit but we saw a great specimen that Johan thought was at least 16 inches as well as two or three mature but smaller bucks.
Mid morning we cut some fresh spoor of a herd of six or seven dagga boys. We followed them up and after an hour and a half, found them sleeping. We stalked in very carefully and glassed them from 30 meters. Awesome. This was what it was all about and what we had come for. There was a beautiful bull around 42 inches in the group that was a definite shooter; however, we were never going to take him and soon afterwards the wind shifted and they busted out. Oh yeah!!
As we were getting close to camp with about an hour of light left, we spotted a herd of buffalo. Stalking in to check them out they started to move off slowly after seeing us. The wind was good and they were not too bothered. The herd stopped about 100 meters from us on a slight rise, which gave us a good view as they casually milled around with some looking in our direction. Johan and I were standing together glassing when we both noticed eight or ten bulls on the far right of the herd. Johan thought they were probably not part of the herd but were just on the fringes trailing it. What a sight this was. There must have been 150 buffalo in the group. "Look at that bull on the left….Look at that one near the termite mound…..That's a nice bull there on the right…Young bull soft bosses in the middle….good bull next to him……"
There were at least eight bulls in the herd around or over the 40-inch mark. One particular young bull with a soft boss was huge…over 46 inches, maybe 48. Two bulls clearly stood out as shooters. The first Johan thought was around 41 to 42 inches….hard shiny bosses…broomed off and old. The second was a cracker…we thought he was 43 to 44 inches with high, heavy bosses and deep curls. A buffalo any "normal" hunter would shoot in a heartbeat. We decided to leave them undisturbed and let Mike know where they were in the hope he could get onto this bull.
Returning to camp there was not much light left, but Johan and Hannes were confident they could pick up this herd's tracks in the morning and they would not move far overnight. Mike and Hannes had had a long day in the field seeing many quality dagga boys but not the big one they were looking for. I had set the bar pretty high!!
Day three dawned and it was Basie's birthday (and also my mothers). Natasha whispered in my ear before leaving camp that it would be great if I killed something so we had camp meat and could celebrate his birthday in style. Despite being one of the most one-eyed springbok supporters I have ever met, and not shy about letting me know what he thought about the wallabies, this man Basie was a great guy. Leaving camp to the tune of Basie singing, "Watch me wallabies bleed mate, watch me wallabies bleed," I hoped I could fulfill Natasha's wishes.
After concentrating on plains game on day two, we were back buffalo hunting in earnest ….but of course would take whatever the hunting gods offered. We spotted a herd of impala with a good ram in it. Perfect camp meat. Although Johan was not very interested in hunting impala, I managed to convince him that I was and we commenced a stalk.
I was on the sticks and ready to shoot when the ram gave me a chance from about 120 meters, and I took him cleanly through the shoulder. He managed to run 10 meters even after being whacked with the .416…man these African animals are tough.
Continuing on we found fresh buffalo spoor only a short distance down the road and followed it up. After about an hour we caught up to them. They had done a full 180 degrees and were halfway across the river going back into Kruger Park. The open space gave us a chance to glass them in the river bed and going up the bank on other side. What we saw made us all look in wonder. It's hard to judge when the bulls are going away and don't look straight at you, but we were all pretty sure we had seen our first 50-inch buffalo. There were two huge bulls in the herd, but one was a true monster. Johan and Ronnie were certain that my shot from the impala had spooked them. That's hunting!
After stopping in a shady spot on the river for lunch we moved on. We spotted three kudu bulls, one of which Johan wanted me to shoot. Once again they outsmarted us, but we were having too much fun! Five minutes later, we spotted another kudu bull. There was no hesitation from anyone; this was a bull we should try to kill.
We commenced our stalk and quickly closed the gap to about 100 meters, but he was onto us. Johan got me set up on the sticks and said the bull was going to come from left to right at about 120 meters. Sure enough, he walked up a small draw …thankfully not running…and Johan whistled. He stopped, looked and I dropped him right there where he stood with a shoulder shot. The boys thought that was great, and we all celebrated.
He looked huge lying on the ground.. more than anything I could see how wide he was. As we approached him, we realized what an amazing bull he was. The photos tell the story, but he was old, heavy, 51 inches long and 50 inches from tip to tip. What a bull. Needless to say we were all ecstatic. We had a lot of fun in the photo session.
Johan, Million and Thomas and my Kudu.
We decided to call it a day and returned to camp. It was about 4:30 pm, and I had a cold Castle with Johan and Ronnie, and we sat relaxing talking about our day. I took the chance for an early shower and had a head full of shampoo when Johan called me and told me to get dressed quickly. I did a quick change act, grabbed my rifle and came out to be greeted by Mike and Hannes. They were coming back to camp and had seen a nice nyala bull about five minutes from camp. Mike had already taken a big bull with Hannes a year earlier and he was quick to say, "Lets go get, Steve".
Sure enough we found the bull exactly where they said, and Hannes talked me through the shot while the bull was facing us from about 50 meters. The A Frame took him square in the chest, and he ran about 30 meters before toppling over. This was the nyala of a lifetime. He was so old he had worn the ridges down from his horns. He had beautiful ivory tips and that great shape that only mature nyala bulls get.
I shook Mike's hand and gave him a hug. It was pretty dark and just as well because I was very emotional. This was a gift from him and the full body mount will take pride of place in my trophy room. He turned out to be just about perfectly even and the tape ran to 30 inches. I am not sure I will ever have another day like this in my life.
Mike had hunted hard again all day for buffalo. They had started the day by finding the herd that Johan and I had glassed the night before but unfortunately never saw the big bull with high bosses that we had seen. On another occasion they had been perfectly set up with a bull that they had decided to take which was asleep with another three bulls under a tree. Mike was in a sitting position and on the sticks. They were waiting for the bulls to wake up and stand up when for no apparent reason; they jumped straight up and bolted giving no chance of a shot. Maybe the wind shifted. These animals are not easy to hunt, but Mike was having a ball despite not having fired a shot….yet. One thing we were both sure of…there were no shortage of very big bulls here, and it was just a matter of time and having that bit luck that enables you to get a shot in.
Dinner was buffalo fillet washed down with some great South African red wine. We celebrated Basie's birthday and it was another day to remember.
Johan and Ronnie wanted to climb high onto a kopje first thing in the morning to glass a series of valleys. We got up on the kopje just after first light, and as I was glassing I was amazed to see a leopard watching me from another kopje about 300 meters away. I only got to look at it for about 10 seconds before it slinked off into the rocks, but I will never forget the sight of that beautiful cat, my first leopard sighting, in the half-light.
Sure enough we spotted some buffalo a couple of kilometers away and went after them. This was to be the start of a long day on foot. When we first got up to the group, the country was much thicker on the ground than appeared from the kopje. Visibility was about 40 meters and very thick with virtually no chance for trophy evaluation or indeed a shooting lane. Johan decided to bump the herd in the hope we would get a look at them.
We did get enough of a look to see a nice bull. He had a very hard boss, was broomed off and had broken his tip on his right side. We immediately knew this was exactly the type of trophy we were looking for. Well, we hunted him hard!! For the next six hours, we tracked him, and I had him in the scope at least three times at distances between 80 and 120 meters. But every time I had no shot on his vitals as it was covered by either another bull (one of his askaris) or some scrub.
Johan was amazed at the cunning of this bull. On one occasion, we had every animal in the herd broadside at 120 meters in the clear looking at us…except him…he would never stop for long…and was always at the front of the herd.
It was getting dark and we had been on him all day when we finally gave up. We were both totally spent. Our respect for this bull turned to sheer anger as Johan cursed him for being a coward and never facing us. I was in heaven. What a day.
Mike and Hannes had again had no luck, despite seeing a lot of good bulls. That night we had kudu fillet for dinner, which Johan did on the BBQ...or more correctly, in South African terminology, the open fire brie. Tomorrow was our last day, and it had come around all too quickly.
Our last morning arrived and I wished Mike the best. I had a good feeling about the day and desperately wanted Mike to kill a big bull. We left camp at the usual time around 5:30 am and had only gone about one kilometer from camp when the boys spotted some bulls just up ahead. Sure enough we could see two bulls off to the right, and we started our stalk. Johan and I had agreed that we would take the first old, hard bossed bull that gave us a chance. As we were close to the river, we had also agreed that Johan would follow up my first shot without hesitating. The thought of a wounded buffalo crossing into Kruger Park was not even worth considering and a chance we would not take.
We commenced our stalk. The bulls knew all was not right but did not bolt …just moved away slowly. One stood broadside at about 60 meters, and Johan told me to take him. I was ready to fire when Johan said to wait as there were three or four more bulls behind him, and as they were not too spooked we should try to get a look at them. The bull I was about to kill was a beauty…..over 40 inches and hard bossed. Four or five other bulls off to our left (which we had only just seen) got our wind and busted over the river which made the others nervous, and they too started to move from our right to left.
We quickly repositioned running about 400 meters around the side of a small kopje as Johan thought that was where they would emerge. I got on the sticks, turned on my illuminated reticle, and pushed the safety off. Two bulls appeared about 50 meters away…just walking but on the move.
"Shoot the second bull." I settled the cross hairs and that deadly red dot on the bull's lower shoulder. "Wait…there are two more bulls coming out.....there….Shoot the last bull." I swung the crosshairs onto the last bull, which was quartering away. He noticed my movement and stopped and looked at us. I fired. The shot felt good. The bulls all shifted into top gear with "my" bull still at the back of the group of four. Johan fired a split second later and the bull noticeably turned at the shot…away from the river…yes!!!
We lost sight of him and sprinted about 100m to find him standing with one of his askaris. He was head down, rocking on his feet with blood coming from his nose and mouth. I shot him again right in the heart and he went straight down. Ronnie came running up and we all just stood there in shock. We could not believe how quickly things had happened. This quickly turned into elation at our success and we enjoyed the moment. One thing was for sure, we had woken everyone in camp up!! It was 6:10 am.
Walking up to the bull I thought he looked wide. Johan and Ronnie had a strange look on their face. My first shot was good and was a killing shot. Johan's follow up shot was a great shot…or almost! It had hit the bull right in the middle of the neck and as he was using a solid, exited as well. It had somehow missed the spine. An inch either way and it would have pole axed the bull…pretty impressive shooting with open sighted 470NE as the bull was at full run and about 70 meters away. It certainly had the desired effect and turned him.
His horns were broomed and he had a hard, flat boss that was polished smooth with age. I spent some time just touching and admiring this old warrior.Ronnie had put a mark on my shooting sticks for the measurement of the first bull, and we all were amazed when this bull was at least an inch wider. Another massive trophy lay at my feet. He would end up stretching the tape at 48-plus inches with 15-inch bosses. I was stunned.
We left the boys to start the skinning job and went back to camp for a breakfast of some wonderful kudu liver and kidneys. Thomas and Million told us later that the askari bull that was him came back after about an hour. Amazing the sense of loyalty these bulls have.
Johan, myself and Ronnie with my second bull.
We spent the rest of the day looking for a good bull in the hope that we could contact Mike and get him onto it. It was getting late in the afternoon when I got the call on my Sat phone I had been hoping for. It was Mike, and he had taken a bull.
We made our way to where they were…not far from where I had shot my first bull…and found them just as it was getting dark. Well, what a bull he was. He had an awesome hard, heavy boss that was very high. He had a deep curl and fantastic length. The photos say it all. He was 43-plus inches wide. This bull would score the highest of the three great bulls we took and will go high in the record book. To say I was happy is an understatement.
Mike proceeded to tell me the story of the hunt: They had been sitting high on a kopje and had spotted at least 10 dagga boys moving slowly and feeding. While watching them and planning their stalk, they noticed two other bulls approaching the group of 10. It was clear from a distance that these two bulls were the ones they wanted.
While they were stalking in they heard the sound of bulls fighting. It looked as if the two old boys were not welcomed by the bachelor group. This could be a curve ball in that the group may have pushed the two other bulls away but there was no way to tell and no turning back now.
Getting into a good position, Hannes moved away from Mike to get on a termite mound to get a better view. Mike happened to glance to his left to see a bull walking in and it was only a matter of seconds before they got busted.
Mike caught Hannes's attention by hand signal, and as soon as Hannes saw the bull approaching he nodded and mouthed, "Shoot that bull !!" Mike let rip freehand, taking the bull front on. The second shot from the Blaser was only a second later and Hannes was later to say he could not believe it was Mike shooting again so fast.
Hannes, who was carrying Mikes .470NE let drive missing with the first barrel but connecting with the second …in the ass…but enough to turn the bull. Mike gave it to him again and down he went.
You could not hope for better company in the bush. Johan and Ronnie and I developed a very strong bond and friendship. Mike and Hannes reinforced an already strong relationship. Basie and Kobus run a great camp and Natasha somehow managed to bring a soft feminine touch despite all the testosterone and bravado that boils over in such a "boys own" environment. Her cooking was something to write home about. These gentlemen and Natasha are without doubt amongst the finest PH's and people Mike and I have ever had the pleasure to meet.
Make no mistake; this is a buffalo hunting paradise. The quality and numbers of trophy bulls is nothing short of amazing. It is challenging hunting and will involve long days walking and tracking in difficult conditions. These old bulls don't get that way by being dumb. Every day we saw huge numbers of elephant. Some days, we saw as many as 150. A couple of nice bulls were seen in the 40- to 50-pound range, and Johan has seen some true monsters. He will have elephant tags for this concession. This would be a fantastic spot to take the family. Mike and I will return as often as we can. This buffalo hunting is highly addictive.
Mike and his awesome dagga boy.