Getting There and Back is the Worst Part
One thing that has kept me going over the last 18 months of negative health diagnoses has been the opportunity to dream about, prepare for, and go hunting. This is a story of strong friendships, adjusted but never abandoned hopes, and that special moment between hunting friends when things go right. It’s also a story about you, to encourage you to get out there as a hunter to share your passion with family and friends. Please, don’t waste an opportunity to hunt in your backyard or around the world. You will never regret it.
My epiphany came on the elk opener, October of 2008. That was just days I before heard the bad, but not final news, about how serious my cancer was. I was up early that morning, somewhat by habit, walking up a closed logging road in my “neighborhood,” the Bridger Mountains. The morning was clear and cold, easily below 10 ̊.
Though I didn’t see any elk,It was one of those special mornings whenyou don’t care whether or not you shoot. I thought a lot about life that morning when Orion, the hunter’s constellation, leapt in the sky. It has always been an inspiration to me, but that morning had special meaning andevery hunt since then has been a gift from God.
My friend Terry has been the instigator for most of my hunts since then. We’ve hunted pheasants and grouse behind his wonderful Red and White Irish Setter, mule deer and elk in the foothills of the Crazy Mountains, and nowCape Buffalo in the Limpopo province of South Africa. Terry brought up the buffalo hunt idea in November, and asked if I was up for it. I didn’t need any time to think about it; my passport was up-to-date, and we were on! December isn’t a very typical month to hunt buffalo, but this was a chance that might not come again.
I packed quickly and efficiently. My plan was to take the buffalo with my
break-action 375 H&H Thompson Encore handgun, but I had Terry bring my Model 70 in the same caliber in case the handgun opportunity didn’t present itself. I also brought my proven 338 Win Mag Encore handgun barrel in case there was an opportunity for smaller antelope species
Here’s my daily recollection:
Days 1 and 2: Airport Arrival in Bozeman. “Do you have the correct permits to travel through Amsterdam with these firearms?” What a sinking, horrible feeling. Not having the required permits, even just for trans-shipment through the Netherlands, could mean their confiscation, even arrest. My trip planning was thorough, but not that thorough. There was no chance of getting these handguns and the rifle through without the permit, but fortunately, after a very friendly Delta agent rerouted me on a direct flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg, I was “flying high” again.
Meanwhile,Terry was routed through Amsterdam only to find there that his broadheads also required a permit, which he didn’t have. Threatened with a visit to the police station, he opted to have themconfiscated.
In Atlanta I was brought back down bya U.S. Customs agent with an attitude who made me miss my flight, spend the night in Atlanta, and cost me a day of hunting.It was okay, I’d be hunting buffalo in a few days.
Day 3: Jo’burg. Getting the firearms into South Africa was much easier than on myfirst hunt in 2006 and much easier than getting them out of the U.S. I met Terry andchecked into a nice hotel.
I was tired, but I’d be hunting buffalonearKruger National Park tomorrow!
Day 4: Angus arrived with hearty greetings, a Land Cruiser, and an urge to get out of the big city. Music to my ears. We head north, noting all of the road construction for the upcoming World Cup. Angus is a great guy, but his legendary driving is frightening, even in my jet-lagged state, made worse by the fact that everyone is driving on the wrong side of the road. It doesn’t matter, I’ll behunting buffalo tomorrow.
The camp accommodations, location and staff are top-notch. The food is wonderful, with lots of game on the menu. It’s strange for most North American hunters to have such nice digs, but this time they are most welcomed. After a nice chat around the fire and a wonderful dinner, I turn in early and get a good rest. I’ll be hunting buffalo in a few hours!
Day 5: Up early as is usual for me. We head down the road to the game reserve that is adjacent to andis open (no fence) to Kruger. It is nearly40,000 hectares of very good habitat. With gamefree to move in and outof Kruger, our hope is that some buffalo will travel into the reserve. We pile into the Land Cruiser, a1 ton Toyota diesel pickup with racks and winches. They are very reliable and tough. I would love to have one in Montana.
The early summer wildlife is stunning, with many young now on the ground. We stop for photos of baby wildebeest, zebra, impala, and giraffe! Pretty, cool, but I want to see some buffalo.
At 2 pm we come across the tracks of two bulls that watered a short time before. We walk up these tracks a bit, notice the wind is wrong, and skirt around in the vehicle to where we think they will be. The bulls are a couple of mature dagga boys, but we move off after watching them for ten minutes or so. After a brief confab, we decide to keep looking for better bulls as these are about 34 inches with small bosses. One is quite wound up, and Angus later said he is one not to be trusted. These two were my first sighted buffalo, and I’m on a high!
At around 4 pm, our tracker, Maxwell, spotted a buffalo—actually nine or more bulls, some very nice--in very thick bush. They are pretty nervous. We drive on, getting to a point where we might cut them off and stalk after them. This is exciting, particularly in the thick thornbush! I’m pumped. Unfortunately they moveoff steadily away from us, pretty agitated. Angus notes that these bulls will not stop traveling for the rest of the day. We leave them be.
During our travels in the reserve, we see considerable game including plains game, buffalo, elephant, white rhinos, a hippo, and tremendous bird life. We even heard two lions roar. The highlight, and most dangerous, was a perfectly camouflaged crocodile by the shore of a small lake that didn’t run into the water until one of our party (thankfully not me) got within ten feet of it! It was estimated to be an 8-9 foot croc. Given the camouflage and speed, I see why they are such a feared predator.
After dinner I look at the stars for a bit and see another of my favorite constellations, the Southern Cross. It’s as clear on a warm moonless night in South Africa asOrion was in Montana on that frigid October morning. Life is great.
Day 6: Up early, enjoy coffee, and chat with Terry. I think everyone’s getting a little anxious about coming across a good bull, but I know that’s hunting. Truthfully, I’ve been skunked so many times in Montana that holding out is never a problem. I could sense yesterday a bit of a deflation after the miss with the group of nine bulls, but I’ve come too far to lose my optimism.
I am, after all, a first-time buffalo hunter, and am very much under a microscope. The single-shot handgun issue is on my mind, and I make a decision the rifle is a better choice. The buffalo are agitated, and I need lots of time with the handgun. I tell Angus that the rifle will be my focus, and will only use the handgun is everything is right. This seems prudent and correct. I know I could do the shot with perfect conditions, but we are fighting the rainy weather, the agitated bulls, and now time. With the changes I have had over the last 18 months, I don’t want to spend precious time sorting out the firearm in the heat of battle. Angus understands my choice.
We travel to the hunting area, and hear of two groups of buffalo that have moved in from Kruger. One is a small group of bulls and the other is a herd of 30 cows, calves and bulls. We go afterthe larger group.
Wow! Many buffalo in thick, thick brush. There are some good looking bulls in the bunch, but we catch only brief looks at them as they move about. After muchhide-and-seek, we catch them in a clearing.
There, around a corner, stand three bulls facing us. Immediately, Angus says “The one in the middle, shoot him in the center of the chest.” Everything’s automatic, and all of the time I’ve spent shooting silhouette targets and reading The Perfect Shot come together. It’s about 80 yards offhand, and I’m surprised at how light the Model 70 trigger feels; it’s the adrenaline. The 375 feels like a 30’06, just as expected. The bull staggers from the 300 grain Swift A-Frame, I work the bolt. He wheels to his left before I can shoot again. These buffalo move fast! My shot felt extremely good.
We go after the bull. Angus is quite cautious, and is keeping a close eye on me. He has his 458 bolt, I have my 375 rifle, and there are two other rifles. Maybe Ruark really said “Use Enough Guns.” Terry has a camera and is behind us; our tracker has nothing and is in front of us. We’re following a very good, red, blood trail and moving forward.
My hearing is horrible from treatments, but others hear the bull go down a short distance away. Smiles and back slaps. I’m not buying anything yet, having read too much about buffalo and having too vivid an imagination. Around the corner is the bull, down on his stomach, against a small tree, and breathing. I shoot him again and he rolls a bit toward the tree, and I shoot again and again. Each of these shots would have killed him, though my earlier initial shot did it. My first shot was just like in Robertson’s book, at the base of the neck in the center off the chest. It destroyed the plumbing coming out of the top of the heart, and the bull’s heart and lungs were full of coagulated blood. The 300 grain bullet continued through the paunch and was lodged somewhere in the center of his hip. Perfect performance. I am pleased to have shot well, and there’s much relief and happiness all around. I’m beaming, as is Terry. What a day!
The bull is about 36 1/2”, with huge 16 1/2” bosses. A real beauty, and a formidable size. I now understand people’s passion for hunting these wild cattle. They are tough and take on anything. What a great animal. We load the bull and head to the skinning shed. It’s a very professional setup, and the skinners do a masterful job. I wish we could take some meat home, but this is a quarantine area. The European mount and the hide will bring back memories forever. After goodbyes, a snatched lunch, thanks and congratulations, we head back to the lodge for the day.
I’m really full of energy early in the afternoon, and sit in a blind for kudu. It’s hot, the animals are not coming in because of the recent rains, and I’m flagging. I fight sleep, think a lot about buffalo, but lose the battle and nod off. It’s a good thing the monster kudu are back in the bush because I would have missed them. We head back to camp, relive the hunt, and have a wonderful time. I call my wife, Máire, on Terry’s cell to relay the good news.
Terry tries for a bush pig at night. They have been coming in, but are quite spooky. Angus and Terry list this as one of the toughest species to get, and I believe them. Unfortunately, there are no shots for Terry on this trip.
Day 7: We decide to hunt a more open Highveld area near Angus’ new ranch on the eastern side of the Free State. This area is about 2.5 hours from Johannesburg, and entails another one-day drive with Angus at the wheel, again on “the wrong side of the road.” I have a great time talking with Angus about his farming and ranching, and again learn that farmers are the same the world over. We arrive at the farm and have a wonderful dinner with Angus, his wife Jenny, and her mother. Tomorrow we will go to a very good area for Eland and other plains game.
Day 8: It’s colder, about 58 ̊ F with light rain. We have avoided most hot weather, bugs, and snakes on this trip. All this is fine with me.
We arrive at the hunting area, and I love it. It’s like much of Montana, with open areas of green grass interspersed with brushy creek bottoms.
I keep expecting to see mule deer, but instead there are zebra, black wildebeest, giraffe, eland, and blesbuck. This is great, and Angus is keyed up.
We are told there is anEland herd on ahigh hill and drive up there. There are twovery impressive “blue” bulls. Angus and I stalk in open terrain. The black Wildebeest are stirring up trouble, and the eland are moving off slowly. We head for some rocks and a shooting spot.
I am set up with the 338 Encore pistol on a rock rest padded by my hat. The shot is there at a bit over 150 yards, with the eland bull quartering away slightly. Perfect; the bull should be mine, but something feels off and I don’t shoot. It’s not that I’ve had a Disney epiphany, something is just wrong. The eland drop below the crest of the hill. I tell Angus the shot wasn’t right, and we start to walk after the eland.
Ten steps, and I have no balance. I know I must sit, then lie down. My head is spinning. I can feel my legs and control them, but my equilibrium is gone. I vomit repeatedly with any movement of my head.
Angus is worried, and goes back for the Cruiser to get Terry. The eland are coming closer to check this strange thing out, and I look at the bull in my binoculars. I consider shooting him (180 yards), but think better of it given my condition. The truck arrives, and I suggest my nausea pills (back in the hotel, I think). Terry stays with me and Angus drives off. Terry later tells me that a cow and bull giraffe also came by to check me out. Still more trouble with nausea, have been on the ground for an hour or so and am getting cold. Terry finds an emergency blanket I always keep in my Montana hunting pack and covers me with it and his jacket. Some shivering, later hypothermia. Angus gets back after a futile search for my medications. Time for a doctor. I lurch and stagger into the back seat of the Crusier.
Newcastle: first a trip to the doctor’s office then a hospital. Hypothermia solved with blankets and high heat. I’m still nauseous and cannot stand. Another doctor orders an MRI for tomorrow. When they are checking me in, they ask my religion. Terry quickly answers, “Hunting.” True in many ways.
Terry calls Máire and I talk with her briefly. I try to be reassuring, but I’m far from mentally whole. I really don’t want to be stuck so far from home and from Máire.
The staff here are excellent. It’s about a 70 bed hospital and very clean. The nurses and doctors seem quite good, but the nurses’ aides want me to get up and shower. I am very unsteady but never lose consciousness.
Terry is great, again. He and Angus are there throughout, and are incredible liaisons with the doctors. I am really unsteady on my feet,but the nausea is going away as a result of some drugs.
Day 9. I keep my food down and have the MRI. It’s a modern-looking GE machine, and I’m reassured. No grass-hut hospital this. I’m diagnosed as having had a small stroke. Terry and Monica pull out all the stops to get him on my flight. The travel insurance appears a lot less useful than we had hoped.
Terry and I talk about life. I explain my philosophy which is to do as many things on your bucket list as possible, but always keep refilling it. I got my buffalo and now look forward to an Alaska brown bear hunt with Terry.
Days 10 and 11. I’m free! Discharged with a prescription and cleared to fly. Terry drives us to Jo’burg (this time he is on the “wrong side of the road”) and gets me a wheelchair. We meet wonderful people at the airport, including the Avis branch manager, the people assisting mobility-limited travelers, the airline employees, even the SAPS guys. Terry makes me sit, concerned that I might fall. I can todder a bit with a walking stick, make it ontothe plane, sit next to Terry, and get ready for the 13 hour flight. I’m really in another world, pretty fuzzy. Terry sleeps a bit, I watch bad movies. I hate this long flight, but it doesn’t matter because I just hunted buffalo, and I’m going home. We get through the Atlanta and later the Minneapolis airports, making our flights with seconds to spare.
Day 12: Máire and Monica meet us, and my home airport looks great. Terry’s a hero. We are allexhausted. It doesn’t matter, I’m home and just hunted a buffalo.