A Walk On The Wild Side in Zimbabwe

3 11 2008

“You lookin’ at me?!”                                                 (Cape Buffalo)

It was mid-afternoon and the Zimbabwean heat was already easing as the sun softened to warm orange. I was on a 3-day walking safari through the remote Gwayi Valley near Hwange National Park and had been trekking since just after dawn. My guide and I were well off the beaten path, miles from telephones, roads and civilisation. We ate and slept deep in the bush and I was completely dependent on Mark’s experience and bushcraft for survival.

 

Following a narrow trail, Mark stopped and pointed at the ground. I came up alongside him and followed his finger to a patch of softer sand and an enormous track.

 

“That’s the freshest buffalo print you’ll ever see.” he said. “Come on, let’s find him.”

 

Although no expert on the Cape buffalo, I did know that it was amongst the single most dangerous creatures in all of Africa – especially lone buffalo and especially when followed. They were renowned for massive strength, considerable weight, surprising speed and a rather nasty temperament. They were also wily creatures known to circle back and leave their pursuers on the horns of a dilemma.

 

Before I could object, Mark set off with silent purpose while I scurried behind trying to keep up, remain quiet, not panic…and create enough saliva to dampen my suddenly parched mouth. Because of the dense bush, our vision was limited to a narrow corridor created by the rough trail we were following. Mark moved effortlessly along the path while my legs were sliced and diced by every thorn along the way.

 

Suddenly, there was movement ahead and a massive grey-black rump thundered across the path. Mark raised a hand for me to stop. With his eyes fixed on the bush ahead he gestured at the spot where our friend had been.

 

“Was it a rhino?” I breathlessly whispered, unable to believe that something that massive could be a buffalo.

 

“No,” he quietly replied. “It’s the buffalo. A Dagga Boy: a young male. He’s nearby. Follow me and do exactly as I say.”

 

With that, he placed his finger on the trigger-guard of the rifle, raised it across his chest and continued forward very slowly and quietly, his eyes scanning the bush and the trail.

 

I followed his every step, desperately wanting to tap him on the shoulder and suggest that perhaps I wasn’t really that interested in wildlife after all and that a spot of needlework in the nearest retirement home sounded better. But before I had a chance, Mark had stopped dead in his tracks and hissed for me to do likewise.

 

With my body struck with premature rigor mortis and my mouth slightly ajar, I stared ahead, beyond the barrel of Mark’s gun and straight into the malevolent eyes of the biggest Cape buffalo I had ever seen.

 

From barely a few dozen metres distance, he glared at us menacingly. I could see his nostrils opening and closing with each breath and the sun glinting on the moisture. A great boss of horns curled to sharp points either side of his huge head. He stamped heavily on the ground and edged forward shaking his head angrily. Mark hissed for me to remain still.

 

The buffalo shook his head again and snorted loudly. I remained rooted to the ground, frozen partly in obedience and partly fear. Mark was a statue before me. The buffalo stamped and shuffled forward again, staring at us and shaking his head in irritation. I swivelled my eyes to the extent of their sockets straining for a tree to climb. There was nothing other than thorn bush.

 

Again he stamped his heavy hooves and edged towards us. Sweat trickled from my hairline, stinging at my eyes, while flies taunted my inability to swat at them by gravitating to my open mouth. The stand-off continued for what seemed a lifetime but in reality was likely little more than minutes. It was broken only by Mark tapping on the stock of the rifle. The buffalo’s large ears twitched at the sound but his eyes remained fixed. Mark tapped again.

 

I had no idea what he was doing but was just glad that he was doing something! My appetite for the status quo had long expired and I wanted it to end…one way or the other. The buffalo edged forward again. Mark tapped. Finally, with one last shake of his massive head, the buffalo stamped forward and then swung around powerfully and charged away into the bush and out of sight.

 

I breathed again.

 

“Cheeky bugger!” Mark turned to me with an enormous adrenalin-fuelled smile. “He wasn’t scared at all.”

 

I confessed that I certainly had been, and mentioned my efforts to find a tree to climb.

 

“Wouldn’t have done you any good if there’d been one right beside us.” he explained. “He would have been on us before I could have raised my rifle and before you could have lifted your foot.”

 

I nodded sagely, glad that I hadn’t been aware of that little pearl a few moments earlier.

 

“But you know what did worry me?” he asked, obviously about to tell me whether I wanted to know or not. “There were two of them…and I didn’t know where the second one was!”

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

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