Monday, 2 December 2013

The buffalo that refused to die.

Once in a while there are days that start out as fairly predictable and straight-forward, and end up turning into sweaty nightmares.
This was one of those.  It happened near the Albasini Ruins in the Kruger National Park.

Joao Albasini was probably the first white settler in the inhospitable Eastern Lowveld wilderness, known today as the Kruger National Park.  In the 19th century he established a permanent trading post on the banks of a small spruit, despite the dangers of malaria and tsetse flies.  The Albasini Ruins is one of the few places in the Park where tourists are allowed to get out of their vehicles in order to view the site.  An armed ranger is present at all times.

My friend Tom Yssel (then regional ranger of the Pretotiuslop division) phoned me one evening to ask if I would care to accompany him the next day to sort out what appeared to be a wounded buffalo.  This happened from time to time whenever a problem animal was in a particularly difficult area.  The dense reed beds of the Albasini spruit definitely qualified as such, especially during a wet summer.  I exalted in these adrenalin-high excursions and my wife loathed them - she hates lies, even little white ones.  She would have to re-schedule the next day's appointments, telling the patients that the good Doctor is unwell (kidney stone, migraine, flu etc.) and would therefore not be available for the day. She was also not very keen on me traipsing off into the tall grass with Tom, to "do all sorts of stupid things".  Fortunately she never really understood half of it.

At first light we were at Albasini, accompanied by Tom's tracker and a junior ranger.  The buffalo had been seen frequenting the dense reeds in the vicinity, and had been growing more belligerent by the day.  The previous day it had treed all three rangers on a bicycle patrol.  Nobody was sure if it had been injured or was just being plain aggressive.  Either way, it posed a serious threat to tourists.

Fresh tracks led straight into the dense reeds.  Going in on foot would be tantamount to suicide, as visibility was down to less than two yards.  Tom had his trusty canon (.458 Winchester Magnum) and I was armed with an R1 assault rifle.  The 7.62mm calibre is a little on the light side for buffalo, but on the upside you can have twenty tries in half as many seconds.  Precision shooting might not be on the menu, and with Tom's artillery piece as backup the R1 was good for the job.

The tracker got onto the bulbar, and with the junior ranger driving, Tom and I got on the back of the truck.
We would nose the truck into the reeds and creep as far as we could, looking for freshly trodden reeds.  Every time we found some, we would back up and re-enter the reeds hundred yards further down stream.
By about 10 am there was no indication that the buffalo had gone past our 'inspection line' and there was no sign that it had exited the reeds by climbing the steep opposite bank.  Now we were fairly certain that it was somewhere in an area spanning 100 x 50 yards.  Not that it really meant a damn thing, because the reeds were up to eight feet high, and as thick as the hair on a hound.
Plan B:  We would cut the area into 20 yard strips with the truck.  There would be no other option but for Tom to try for a spine shot, and I would follow up with the R1. 
On our second entry a tornado erupted in the reeds right in front of the vehicle.  The buff was heading further down stream at speed, offering only glimpses of its broad back.  Tom fired, and I followed up with a couple of double-taps but the buff just kept going.
Back to the old procedure, this time finding trampled reeds with lots of blood on them.  Every now and again we would catch fleeting glimpses of the black locomotive and pump streams of lead at it, to no avail.  By then we were beginning to hope it would succumb to lead poisoning.

We were a couple of miles away from Albasini by 3pm and flagging a bit in the heat.  The buffalo was still going strong when we came to a tourist road.  The reeds were a little sparser here.  With no blood on the road, we concluded that the animal was holed up in a small clump of reeds next to the road.  Due to the water we couldn't get closer than 15 yards with the vehicle.  We disembarked and tentatively walked a few yards.  In the stream we sank into the coarse sand up to our knees.  We re-assessed the situation.  Going in on foot was not an option and we decided to back up and approach from the opposite side.

Both Tom and I had 9mm Parabellums with extended magazines as standard equipment.  I drew mine and emptied the 20-shot clip into the reeds, probably out of frustration.  No movement.

We backed up, and as we crossed the small bridge, the clump of reeds exploded and the buffalo stormed across the road behind us.  He had a clear 30 yards to go, and we gave him the bad news big-time.  I suspect the Toyota sounded like an Apache Longbow attack helicopter.  The buff kept going and disappeared into another clump of reeds.
"No way", Tom said.  Well, something like that, but rather more spicy.
Some ten yards in there was a solid 'thump' and the reeds stopped moving.  We looked at each other.  "Yeah", Tom said and we disembarked once more.
Midway through reloading, the buffalo grunted, and we could hear its laboured breathing.  The reloading became rather feverish.  We eyed the thicket, but nothing happened.  Tom shrugged, took aim at the point from which the breathing emanated, and started emptying his magazine.  So did I. 
In the silence following the thunder the buffalo grunted and kept on breathing.
"No way", Tom said.  We reloaded and repeated the fusillade.
The buff grunted.
We reloaded once again and decided we had no option - this is it.  We went in, me on my knees and Tom upright directly behind me.  I would push the reeds aside with the muzzle of my rifle, with Tom ready to shoot.  Then a few inches forward, and he would push the reeds aside with me ready to fire.
Dead ahead the buffalo was still breathing audibly, and grunting from time to time.
This was sweaty work, and we were pumping adrenaline big-time.
With one last sweep we were right on top of the buffalo, close enough to touch.
Mortally wounded, it had fallen into the streambed behind a three foot bank.  Both the bank and the uppermost six inches of the animal were shot to pieces.  We felt very, very sorry for the animal as we administered the necessary.  We plonked down on our backsides next to the animal. "F*** me", we said in unison.  It had stopped breathing.  At last.
The tracker, standing on top of the buffalo

When skinning the buffalo that night, we found three 9mm bullets embedded just beneath the skin.  Why on earth it didn't charge at that stage remains an open question.  We were extremely vulnerable at that point.

 Maybe my good wife had a point....

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