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Buffalo By Boat

Buffalo By Boat

When the pounding rains of the wet season end in March, the part of Namibia’s Caprivi Strip stretching southeast from the village of Katima Mulilo seems to be more water than land. The low-lying region becomes pinched by the swollen Zambezi and Chobe rivers that spill across their wide floodplains, turning previously dusty flats into sodden expanses covered with grass and game.

Enough water remains a month and a half later to cover my boots and most of my lower legs as I follow PH Anton Esterhuizen across the sopping terrain behind Kasika, a small cluster of mud-and-thatch huts on the edge of the concession where we’ve come to hunt buffalo. It’s 6:30 in the morning, the sun has not yet risen above the high hill across the Chobe in Botswana, and at least for now the goose bumps on my arms are the result of bare skin being exposed to cool air and water. Anton wears sandals and, grinning, looks like he wouldn’t mind a swim. He knows in a couple hours we’ll both be sweating.

Logistics are a big part of any safari, and on this trip the abundant water dictated our approach. By road, Kasika was about 150 miles east of our well-appointed base camp operated by Jamy Traut Hunting Safaris. With part of the route being submerged, the only practical way to the concession came mainly by river. Yesterday started with a short boat ride out of camp, crossing the swamp-like floodplain of yet another river named the Kwando, squeezing through a narrow channel that wound among thick stands of 12-foot-tall reeds penetrable only by beasts of substantial bulk like elephant and hippo. After driving to Katima, we spent most of the day running a J-shaped course down the Zambezi and then up the adjoining Chobe in a 16-foot pontoon boat equipped with twin 50 hp outboards, arriving at Kasika late in the afternoon.

This morning on the floodplain, the boat is much smaller, exclusively man-powered and not nearly as stable. When a quarter-mile of wading brings us to deeper water, two villagers are waiting in a dugout mokoro. Sitting low in the water and not much wider than a man, the typical 8- to 10-foot Caprivi mokoro is a boat only in the sense that it has sides and floats most of time. As I carefully step into one of the slim, solid-wood crafts and feel it start to lean under my weight, I remember the sign back at the landing warning boaters, tourists and other two-legged, tender pieces of meat about the ever-present crocodiles. I kneel in the bottom of the mokoro, which is already covered in a couple inches of water, and hang on to the hand-carved gunwale like it’s going to help.

The lean natives, obviously much more trusting of both their boat and their balance, stand erect at either end of the mokoro and use long-handled oars to half push, half paddle us across the plain. Our destination is a large island of slightly higher, tree-covered ground where game scouts spotted a herd of buffalo the previous afternoon. Anton and I reach it without incident, not much wetter than when we started, and watch the boatmen skillfully glide back across the flooded land to retrieve the rest of our party.

As we gather in a rough semicircle around Anton, six big-bore rifles among our group of nine, a trip that had taken on the air of a pleasure cruise less than 12 hours before suddenly becomes much more serious. I can hear it in the PH’s whispers, and I’m glad for it. Getting here was fun, but now it’s time to attend to the business of killing an animal that could just as easily kill me. Anton checks the wind while I chamber a .416 round into the Kimber, detach the sling and stuff it into my back pocket. Now we’re hunting.

■ ■ ■

“Stay close, in a line,” Anton says softly. “You must be quiet.”

The sandy ground muffles our footsteps as we sneak through the yellowwood and mangosteen trees, helping us heed the PH’s direction. We’ve gone about 200 yards with surprising silence and I’m wondering how long it will be until someone coughs or sneezes or rattles a branch, hoping it won’t be me, when Anton suddenly drops to a crouch. A couple seconds later, I see it, too. A gray-black, square-like shape stands out against the island’s palette of tan and green. With the help of 10X magnification I realize I am looking at the backside of a buffalo, complete with swishing tail, only to watch it disappear behind a screen of scraggly limbs.

“Cow,” whispers Anton. “Probably more very close.” He points to a huge termite mound to our left that towers 20 feet above the island. “Let’s go there and have a look.

We stand in the shadow of the mound, smiling, excited, nervous. For several of us, including me, this is our first encounter with buffalo. After a long survey with the binocular, Anton reports the herd is scattered in the trees ahead of us. He will take me and three others—PH Dries Brönner and his son Reinhardt, who is filming the hunt, along with our tracker, Fabian—on the stalk, while the rest stay behind. A few minutes later I’m crouching next to Anton in the yellowwood thicket, staring at a group of a dozen buffalo lying in the shade 60 yards away.

The herd has fed all night on the floodplain by the light of a waning full moon, and with their four-chambered stomachs full of grass, the buffalo are content to ruminate. They are in no hurry to move; everything they need is within sight. The same goes for us. I take a seat, leaning the weight of the rifle against my shoulder, and realize it was well worth a day’s boat ride to be in this very spot.

■ ■ ■

More than an hour passes, and I have looked the group over well enough to know they are all cows and calves. I like Anton’s style. He’s patient, gathering intel about the herd and the landscape, planning possible routes that will get us closer, waiting for the buffalo to determine our next move. Three days ago he stopped a charge from an enraged cow elephant at a mere 6 yards with a single shot. This is a man who does not rush but takes decisive action at exactly the right moment.

That moment comes when a larger body moves through the shadows. It’s a bull and, by Anton’s quick estimation, one worth pursuing. The cows rise and follow the brute to the left. We crawl to the right, doing our best to stay below the top of the sparse grass.

Our plan is to stalk into the herd from behind, the wind blowing across the buffalo’s backs and into our faces. We move 40 yards, and then stop to glass for 20 minutes. Thirty more yards, 30 more minutes on the binos. It is now obvious the island is crawling with buffalo. We catch glimpses of the edge of the herd 50 yards ahead, slowly moving right to left through the dense brush. If we can reach a small hill 75 yards in the distance, we’ll be in the middle of it and have a vantage point from which to find the bull.

But our path is blocked. A scant 20 yards from the mangosteen we’re kneeling under lies a cow with a calf. She’s cloaked in shadow, mostly obscured by a fallen tree. The only thing that warns us of her presence is a twitching ear. I am at once tremendously grateful for flies. Had they not been bothering the buffalo, we may have stumbled right into her. The stalk would be ruined, or worse. Another cow with a calf joins the pair, and they move off together.

I wipe the sweat from around my eyes and look at Anton. “Close,” he says simply. We’re about to get closer.

■ ■ ■

The hill is surrounded by fan palm, and we crawl to its edge. Four feet high with broad, overlapping leaves, the palm hides our approach. It also hides the buffalo. We can hear them sloshing through the water just on the other side, but we can’t see them. When I realize the low grumbling sound in my ears is coming from one of the buffalo’s stomachs, I wonder with some alarm if we have gotten too close.

As I slowly rise and peer through a small void in the vegetation, immediately my vision is filled with black. The buffalo can’t be more than 15 yards from us. Gripping my rifle, I feel very small as I return to the ground. Through the thumping of my heart I barely hear the small bull move away.

Anton motions for me to stay put while he and Fabian slide on their stomachs along the border of the palm. They disappear behind a wall of brush, working their way up the hill. I’m thinking about what would happen if a buffalo decided to wander over to our side of the palm when Fabian appears, rapidly motioning for me to join him.

Three bulls are on the side of the hill, slightly below us, 25 yards away, Anton tells me when I squirm up next to him. The biggest, the one we saw more than two hours ago, is lying in the open. I steal a glance over the palms and quickly notice the bull has a wide boss with horns that curve deeply downward before sweeping back in wicked hooks. He’s our boy, and I give Anton a nod.

“When that bull stands,” he says, “shoot him right in the shoulder. You’ll have two seconds before he sees you and runs. Use the sticks.”

As I kneel beside the PH, he carefully raises the shooting sticks to form a tripod. When I stand behind them, I see the bull is already on his feet, staring in our direction. The rifle finds my cheek and the V formed by the sticks at the same time, and the safety goes off without me thinking about it. Even though the scope is set at 1X, it’s full of buffalo. I direct the crosshair to that triangular-shaped area on the bull’s shoulder I’ve studied in photographs for seven months.

“Wait until he turns broadside,” Anton whispers.Seconds seem like minutes. The bull knows something isn’t right, but he’s more curious than scared. He takes a half step, slightly turning his body toward the muzzle of my rifle. I don’t remember pressing the trigger, but my shoulder rocks under the recoil of the .416. I chamber another round, recover, and see the bull is still on his feet, bucking and spinning in a cloud of dust.

“Hit him again,” Anton says firmly, the need for whispering now past.

I step around the sticks, find the bull’s shoulder in the scope and send a 400-grain solid through his vitals. To my dismay, the bullet seems to have no immediate effect, and I work the bolt again. But as the cartridge reaches the chamber, the bull stumbles. There is no need for a third shot.

Soon the villagers arrive via mokoro. They will feast for days on plentiful meat. They will take it by boat to their huts and cook it for their families as we celebrate a successful hunt.

Later tonight, motoring back up the Zambezi as its surface reflects a blood-red sunset, I will have plenty of time to recall the tense moments of the stalk. At one point, we were surrounded as much by buffalo as by water. My boots are wet, but my mouth is still dry.

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