Seven Ways to Ruin an Otherwise Perfectly Good Safari
I am writing this article in my head as we thread our way through the Jesse looking for the client's buffalo. Shot yesterday around 10 a.m. We are not sure where but we now think in the jaw and possibly also in the rump. He fired four shots, but there was no visible reaction to the first, other than the buffalo turning broadside. On the second, a clear sixty yard broadside shot, both bulls took off, two more shots crashing through the bush after them. There was bright blood for a while, then watery blood, and then just water. Not urine or stomach fluid but saliva. Lots of saliva, wherever the buff has stopped, usually under a large tree. It's 36 degrees in the shade and sweat is pouring from our bodies as fast as we can replenish from the bottled water carried by one of the trackers in a canvas rucksack. The client stayed with us for most of the first day, until around 3 pm when we ran out of water. Today he made it until around 11 am, when it started to get really hot. He stayed with the vehicle while we pushed on, the PH and I, with our trackers leading us deep into the bush. First to a dry waterhole, then to another that held water, and now back into the folded country, blackened by fire in places, bleached everywhere by the merciless October sun now reaching its zenith. There is now an intermittent drag mark in the sand, a rear leg that has stiffened up overnight. I try to concentrate on scanning the brush, looking through it, checking every dark patch. But my concentration is wandering and I find myself stopping to cool off wherever the trail leads through shade. I recount the events of the past few days in my mind, catalogueing the errors that got us into the situation we now find ourselves in. Nobody was having fun. Not the PH, who carried the obligation to his client like a pack on his shoulders; not the trackers who grimly followed the fresh spoor; and not the writer, whose role is to get some video of this hunt, although now I am carrying a double rifle as well as my camera, thinking that death by buffalo is not part of my plan for the day.
Thankfully, most safaris go off well. The game is plentiful. The PH does his job, putting the client in position to make a clean shot. The client shoots what he came to shoot and the animals expire without a fight. He gets good trophies, plenty of pictures, and goes home with fond memories of his new best friend the PH.
However, once in a while, hunts go sour. Sometimes through no fault of anyone. Uncooperative leopards, unexpected sickness or injury, or just plain bad luck can ruin a hunt. But in most cases, safaris that go South do so for a short list of avoidable mistakes. Here are seven that came to mind while we were trying to salvage the salivating buffalo.
Before the client boards his flight, he can stack the odds against a good experience by making the following basic mistakes:
1. The wrong hardware. The most important requirement for a successful hunt is that you are able to reliably put the right projectile in the right place in field conditions. The hunter must be intimate with his rifle and have absolute confidence in it. Shooting a few rounds from a bench at a target does not count. Yes, it helps to know your rifle will group well. But no trophy is ever shot from a shooting bench. You must be able to shoot from field positions at partially obscured targets at unknown distances, targets that don't stand still for long and are sometimes moving, either away from you or (gulp) toward you. Shooting offhand, from a standing position over sticks, from the kneeling and sitting positions must be practiced, and practiced, and practiced. Did I mention practiced? That's the only way to build confidence in a particular rifle. Until you can put the projectile in the right place every time. This projectile must be big enough, be tough enough, and have sufficient energy to puncture the vitals of your quarry from all angles. But not so big that it rattles your teeth and causes you to close your eyes as you yank the trigger. If you can't shoot a heavy caliber without flinching, you have no business hunting dangerous game. Stick to plains game until you are ready for the bigger stuff. And you must use appropriate ammo. Lots has been written on this subject, so I won't repeat the technicalities here, but I will refer you to a recent article in this publication on bullet performance as a must-read.
2. Inadequate fitness and footwear. Yes, many a hunt is no more strenuous than a short stroll in the bush. Particularly early in the season, when game is not skittish. For these hunts, just about anyone wearing any kind of shoe will manage. But as the season wears on, some serious hiking may be necessary to find game, and some crouching and crawling may be necessary to get into position for a shot. If an animal is wounded, be prepared for a death march. Don't make the mistake of thinking "Gee, I spend all day walking around at my job/on the farm etc." Those places are generally level and you are not covering the kinds of distances you may have to cover on a hunt. So do some serious strenuous hiking wearing the footwear you plan to take on safari. In other words, buy your boots when you pay your deposit, not when you pack your bags. And walk in them, until you can walk for four hours non-stop. Even if you are fit, blisters can make your life a misery with a capital M. So get that problem out of the way before you board the plane.
3. Being unprepared for the African sun. Spending all day in the African sun is not something you can plunge into. Humidity is low in hunting season so the UV is at full volume and it will burn pale skin in one hour. So take sunblock, wear a hat, and even then get a tan on your exposed skin before you board the plane. Winter in Africa comes during the summer months for most foreign clients. The first day of your hunt should not be the first sun your face (or bald head) have seen in months. Sunstroke, heat exhaustion, or even a bad burn will take the joy out of hunting and can end things prematurely for you.
Once the plane lands and the safari begins, there are several ways to really mess up the hunt:
4. At the range. It never ceases to amaze me that almost every gun needs adjustment at the range. Temperature, humidity and elevation changes can cause a rifle to shoot to a different point of aim. Baggage handlers are notoriously rough on guns. And more than once I have suspected that the TSA inspectors have fiddled with scope knobs for their own perverse reasons. The corrolary of this observation is that your rifle will more likely than not be out if you don't check it. So bring enough ammo (and please, stick to one type, you can't fiddle with your sights when you are stalking), and CHECK YOUR ZERO after EACH AND EVERY flight, relocation, or unexplained errant bullet. And if there is some kind of problem with your gun, you need to fix it before you go hunting. Loose scope mounts, broken scope internals, loose stocks bolts, the wrong bolt (yes it's happened), ammo that won't feed or won't eject...all of these things must be eliminated before the hunt starts. If you can't fix the problem, borrow a rifle. A good PH will not let the hunt proceed as long as there are mechanical problems with your rifle.
5. Taking the shot. There are two ways to get into trouble here. The first is to shoot when the PH says "Don't shoot". This may seem unlikely to the reader but I have seen it with my own eyes. If the PH doesn't want you to shoot, there's a reason that may not be obvious to you. For example, another animal behind the one you are looking at; the animal is lying down; there is a limb across the vitals; he's not sure it's a good trophy, or there is some deformity on the offside tusk/horn; he's not sure it's the wounded animal you have been tracking; you are in an area where the quota for that species is exhausted; it's too far or the angle is wrong; there may be a better bull behind the bush; and so on. Paradoxically, you can also get into trouble by shooting when the PH says "Shoot!". If you aren't sure of your shot, for example you have "buck fever" or are out of breath, you aren't going to please the PH by shooting and wounding the animal. Or, if your PH is more interested in the size of the bill than in the size of your trophy and you know better, you may decline to shoot a mediocre animal.
6. Admiring the shot. You may think you have made a great shot but until the animal's brain function ceases it's still capable of getting away or giving you a nasty surprise. So it's wise to keep shooting until the animal goes down, and then shoot some more until the eye test tells you he's finished. Sometimes the animals that go down the fastest have the least permanent damage. A bullet that passes close to the spine or brain will knock an animal off its feet in a convincing manner, but thirty seconds later that animal will be up and ready for business with no or minimal impairment. It's also wise to enlist your PH to back you up...when you really need the second shot, there is very often no time to put in a second good shot. Think of it this way..if the backup shot is not necessary, then no harm is done. You killed it, the backup shot just made it go down sooner. If the backup is necessary, you will be glad you insisted on it. You will have your trophy and your own skin will be intact. So there is nothing to lose by having the PH back you up. Only the vain and the inexperienced won't let the PH put in an insurance shot.
7. Letting your character flaws leak out. All but the saints among us have faults, imperfections and weaknesses in our characters. Some just hide them better than others. The stress and excitement of a hunt on the Dark Continent have a way of revealing our flaws, and these can lead to bad karma and bad decisions, either of which are not conducive to a successful and satisfying hunt. I can name a few that I have noticed. The hunter is usually a big shot at home, otherwise he wouldn't have the financial wherewithall to be hunting in Africa. So he may not be the kind of person who readily admits his lack of knowledge or experience. On the contrary, he may play up his knowledge of guns, hunting, and African wildlife. The one ranch hunt he did three years ago could be passed off as a series of hunts. He won't admit that he's not sure of something. So instead of asking, he may pretend he knows what he is doing at all times and the PH may pick up on this and not be comfortable advising or helping the client on a fine point. So the hunter is unsure but he doesn't show it, while the PH doesn't want to patronize his client so he assumes the client knows what to do in a given situation. As in "I can make that shot" or "Yes I see the big bull". Another fault that reveals itself from time to time is the tendency to blame others for your mistakes. This can really sour the hunt in a hurry. This flaw tends to appear around the time when mistake no. 5 is made. Short tempers aren't fun when the going gets a little rough, which is exactly when they tend to erupt. If the vehicle breaks down or has another flat tyre, the PH is going to feel crappy enough without the client riding him. Alcohol is another tricky one. Overindulgence is a flaw in itself and it tends to lubricate the other flaws so they leak out as well. Be wary of it. Letting your male appendage do the thinking for you may not ruin a hunt, but it can surely ruin a marriage when the bugs floating around Africa follow you home. Suddenly the discretionary income you had to spend on guns and hunting is no longer discretionary.
The client's feet are in bad shape, he has deep blisters on one heel and raw toes on the other foot. Every step he takes is painful. And his face and head are badly burned by the sun...he declined the hat offered by the PH on the first two days so the offer was not made again. He wants to return looking like someone who has just slain a buffalo, as he has plans to attend a meeting of the Explorer's Club the day he gets back to the US. His legs are scratched up by thorns. The heavy double rifle he is carrying is digging a divot in his shoulder, and he now wishes he had brought a 375 bolt rifle. Three times now, he has been close to buffalo, too close, and those polished hooked horns were sobering. Instead of standing broadside as he imagined, they were all facing him, their chests obsured by grass and brush. All of them looked like they wanted to kill him. The front sight of his rifle was black and indistinct against their dark bodies, when he practice-aimed at one of the cows in the last group. His eyes are not what they used to be. At the range, the gun grouped poorly, about a ten inches low at 50 yards. It did the same thing back in New York but he figures he will just get close and aim high. The gun has way more power than necessary to kill a buffalo so there is margin for error, he rationalizes. He has a large collection of guns and this is one of his favorite doubles. He fantasized about taking it to Africa many times. His assumption that buffalo present a big target so what the heck, now seemed not so. He isn't sure he can pull this off but he is committed now, deposits paid and the hunt underway.. He broached the subject of taking a leopard instead, using his scoped Rigby 275 takedown, but the PH seemed annoyed by that the second time he brought it up, so he let it slide. The days are dwindling, more have passed than remain.
The daily routine is now familiar. Find tracks at the water, follow, glass, stalk, get closer, and glass some more. The right buffalo has eluded the party thus far. Suddenly, one of the trackers beckons to the side. On the other side of a rocky outcrop they spot the two bulls they have been tracking, partially obscured by brush in the bottom of a shallow ravine. The PH begins the stalk, client close behind. They move in. At sixty yards, looking down on the two bulls, they edge around an anthill undetected. The PH lowers his binoculars and whispers "That's a decent bull on the right, we can't get any closer, wait until he turns broadside". The client is not sure..it seems too far away and when he looks down the barrel, the front sight is as wide as the bull's hindquarters. He says "This calls for a Texas Heart Shot", expecting the PH to tell him no. But the PH, who has never seen a gun that will throw a 1000 grain slug, says "If you think you can do it go ahead". A voice inside the client's head says "Get it over with, the painful walking, the sweating, the tsetse, the thorns". So he lines up, holding as best he can about a foot above the root of the bull's tail, and the gun recoils hard, obscuring the scene in a cloud of white smoke. When it clears, the PH says "Hit him again"...but he hesitates for a second, not sure which of the two bulls he should shoot at. The one on the right is now broadside so he aims high on the shoulder and fires again. The PH holds his fire as he was instructed not to back up, and notices that the bull shows no reaction at all to the heavy slugs. The bull is still broadside, offering an easy target. The bulls start running. Meanwhile the client reloads as the smoke clears, and now the bulls are making for the ridge. Again the client fires, aiming at no particular spot on the second buffalo. This time the gun doubles and he is knocked back off his haunches by the tremendous recoil.
Adrenaline surging through his body and still stunned by the last shots, the client hardly hears the PH telling him to reload and follow. There is blood, bright red blood. A clatter of hooves on stone brings him out of his daze. He looks up from the blood to see the black bull clearing the ridge runnning strongly. He follows the PH and the trackers, moving fast. More blood, watery blood. The PH smells it and says nothing.
Three hours later, the client finishes the last bottle of water, pouring a quarter of it over his red scalp and down his neck. The bull is still out ahead somewhere in the thick Jesse. I shouldn't have shot, he thinks, I should have insisted on getting within 25 yards as we discussed at the outset. If only the PH hadn't pressured me to shoot......
The last day of the hunt begins. There won't be any plains game hunting with the Rigby, we are still tracking the wounded bull. Yesterday, the PH made that clear when the client wanted to go out after plains game in the evening, after tracking the bull through the heat of the day. The PH called off the pursuit when, pulling on our last reserves of energy, we spooked him along with four others around 3 in the afternoon on the previous day.
The two scouts have fallen behind so it's just the tracker, the PH and the client. They enter an area of thick brush. Suddenly, a movement. A buffalo is walking ahead of them, an indistinct black object moving ahead of them. The PH beckons and they leave the track, looping downwind. Now he is moving across their front, limping slightly at the rear. They move with him, catching glimpses of the bull through openings in the brush. The PH wants the client to finish him, as the client has told him he wishes to do, again without backup. He signals to shoot. The client hesitates, waiting for the bull to stop. He is not sure this is the wounded buffalo....and if it isn't and he shoots this one badly he knows that's an extra $5500 and he wants to be sure of taking home at least one trophy. They keep alongside for about fifty yards. He doesn't want to mess this up again. Suddenly, the bull breaks into a run and the opportunity is lost.
I join the group when they cross the road, stopping to replenish their water. The buffalo is running now, staying well ahead of us. There is no longer any blood on the trail, there hasn't been since we left the track on the first day. We think we hear him but we don't catch sight of him. His tracks show he stopped briefly under a large shade tree. Looking closely at the ground, I see a small spray of saliva. I whistle quietly, beconing the PH. He smells the clear liquid and says "It's the wounded one for sure".
The bull leads us in a big circle, crossing the road near the spot where we left the Cruiser. He is now running downwind. The PH calls a break and we head back to camp for lunch. He is determined to see this buffalo dead and he is pretty sure he knows where to find it.
Later that afternoon, when the heat is going out of the day, they return to the spot. I stay in camp as the client has complained about too many people making too much noise. The wind is still wrong, so they make a large loop coming up on the same area of dense brush where they jumped the him earlier that day, from the downwind side. The client is thinking, with a only a couple of hours of light remaining, that the hunt is over. He is going home without his trophy and $10,000 poorer. He follows nevertheless, it's automatic now. Slowly they thread their way into the middle of the brush. A dark movement causes everyone to stop. Signalling the client, the PH moves forward one step at a time. He stops and squats, bringing his Swarovskis to bear. The buffalo is standing broadside but partially concealed by a thick fallen tree. He can't see any wound and the shoulder is right behind the leaning tree trunk. The client brings his gun up, but he glances at the PH as he does so. "Don't shoot"..the PH mouths the words and shakes his head. This buffalo doesn't look right. The horns are worn down. The PH is looking at the horns when an explosion over his head stuns him for an instant. The bull drops in a heap, partially obscured in a cloud of white smoke, and the client starts forward at a run. The PH grabs the client by the collar and holds him back. He raises his 458, shoots the prostate buffalo in the shoulder, and the client follows with his second barrel. "Where did you shoot him?" asks the PH. "In the shoulder" replies the client. They reload.
They move forward to examine the fallen beast, approaching from the rear. The tracker prods the buffalo with a stick, first in the rump and then in the eye. There are two holes in the shoulder. And another high in the neck, right behind the skull. "That must be your first shot" the PH says, thinking that this is a mediocre trophy at best, and wondering how a shoulder shot from 30 yards could have hit the buffalo behind the head. They roll the buffalo over with some difficulty, but there are no wounds on the other side, apart from one exit wound in the neck that has taken a chip out of the offside horn. "Congratulations on your second buffalo" he says. The client realizes the hunt is over and wishes he could have shot something with the Rigby.