SA JAGTER/HUNTER | May 2022 | By DANIE GROBLER
BUFFALO HUNTING DURING THE “MONTHS OF THE SUN”
In Africa, we normally refrain from hunting during the summer months simply because it is very hot, with temperatures soaring to over 40 ºC. Early-morning temperatures can easily reach into the high thirties, and it doesn’t take much to go even higher. I was startled when a fellow .404 Jeffery hunting friend phoned me in midFebruary, inviting me to join him on a buffalo hunt the following week. The month of February in the northern Bushveld and Lowveld of South Africa is at the height of our summer, and hunting at this time of year is not for the faint-hearted. However, it only took one call to my wife to explain the unique opportunity. Twenty minutes later, I was part of a “.404 Jeffery buffalo bull hunt” in the South African Lowveld!
NOT FOR THE FAINT-HEARTED
Buffalo hunting during the hot African summer months can be an unnerving exercise. Soaring temperatures during the windless midday hours in thick “jesse” or mopane woodland can become a near-suffocating affair. Lone or small groups of old dagha boys generally bed down to ruminate in thick, impenetrable foliage during the middle of the day.
The only way to hunt these bulls is to get chillingly close to your quarry. Nearly murky mopane woodland forms the most authentic stage imaginable for such encounters.Mopane has a distinctive, butterflyshaped (bifoliate) leaf pattern and only occurs in Africa. It is the only Colophospermum in the Fabaceae family that grows A happy Danie Grábe (left) with a beautiful, big-bossed buffalo bull. in hot, dry, low-lying areas.
Hunters that experience such conditions for the first time are generally taken aback by the unadulterated intensity of the situation and the harshness of the unforgiving African bush. The famous ivory hunter Fred Everett vividly describes the African summer months in his book Heat, Thirst and Ivory: “The sun blazed down from a cloudless sky onto the bush with an intensity from which there is no respite. The ground, heated beyond tolerance, reflected the dry, baking heat back again – heat from which there is no relief. The mopane stood like gaunt, gray skeletons, and the only movement was the air, which shimmered and danced above the scorched earth.”
Let me explain further. Heat, Thirst and Ivory (Fred Everett) and Months of the Sun (Ian Nyschens) are two legendary hunting books that invite the reader into the world of early mid-20th century ivory hunting in Southern Africa. Both authors describe the joys and hardships they had to endure roaming the African bush across the vaguely defined borders of many Southern African countries. In later years, their financial successes in ivory hunting allowed them to progress to a point where they were able to acquire bigbore rifles for elephant hunting. Fred Everett bought his .404 Jeffery in Bulawayo in 1934. The rifle formed part of a matching trio of Mausers consisting of a .404 Jeffery, a .318 Westley Richards and a 9,3x62 Oberndorf Mauser.
OLD CARTRIDGES AND MODERN BULLETS
From the recounts of their hunting adventures, it is clear that both these hunters obtained very positive results with the .404 calibre in an era where bullet design and construction were questionable at best. Today, the .404 Jeffery is a formidable calibre when using modern, sixth-generation monolithic bullets such as Barnes TSX or Peregrine, or fifth-generation soft-nose Swift A-Frame or Claw bullets. Bullet construction has improved significantly during the last decade or two, allowing for larger-than-calibre wound channels. Performancewise, it effectively means you are hunting with a much larger calibre than the rifle you are actually holding in your hands. This significantly improves accuracy as you now have to deal with less recoil.
As many old hunters have mentioned in the past, it is the bullet that strikes the animal, not your expensive rifle! Any big-game hunter will tell you that bullet placement and construction matter most. Stopping power is very important to professional hunters, but maybe not as much to their clients.
The medium big-bores such as the .404 Jeffery (actually, .423” calibre) and .416 Rigby are therefore a good choice for biggame hunters that want something bigger than the .375 H&H. Their mild recoil, combined with excellent penetration capabilities and well-constructed bullets, puts them very high on the list of client hunters.
BACK TO THE HUNT
Getting back to the present, on the first morning of the hunt, Danie Grábe (the client and my friend) felt comfortable with the performance of his .404 Jeffery on the shooting range. John Luyt (the PH) had his .458 Lott, while I planned to follow only as secondary back-up with my own custom-built .404 Jeffery. Robin, another .404 friend operating as a game ranger in the Lowveld, also managed to join us for the first day of the hunt.
A limited number of trophy bull permits are issued each year for this area. Danie was fortunate enough to obtain a permit to hunt a particular size trophy bull. To this end, and with some very strict regulations in mind, the responsible PH needs to be very certain of the specific bull before the trigger is pulled. The main purpose of the endeavour was to maintain a sustainable, balanced dynamic of variously aged bulls across the different herds in the area. Consequently, it is not just a matter of confirming it to be an old, hard-bossed, mature bull. To our advantage, it created the wonderful situation where we had to approach numerous bulls in diverse terrain, just to be denied as it was not a legal shooter.
THE START OF THE HUNT
The standard starting procedure on such a gigantic property is to drive around, looking for fresh buffalo tracks. We only found fresh signs late morning on a road next to the Klaserie River. Deciding to follow the tracks into the riverine undergrowth, we immediately spotted several buffalo lying in the muddy water of a thick reed bed near the opposite bank. It took some effort to cross the rapids barefoot, having to negotiate the fairly fastflowing water and some very hot, slippery rocks underneath. As Robin did not carry a rifle, he suddenly became an important part of the hunting party during these treacherous crossings.
Eventually, we reached some large rocks on higher ground on the other side of the river just above the “buffalo-infested” reed bed. Two large bulls were visible through the reeds from our elevated position, with a large elephant bull feeding nearby. Danie and John scrutinised the trophies through their binoculars, while Robin and I remained a short distance away. In the meantime, the midday summer sun played its own intimidating part in the hunting proceedings.
After some time, John stood up and indicated that the two bulls were very large, non-shootable trophies. The two visible bulls jumped up from the reeds and laboriously moved onto the steep embankment.
Undetected until that moment, four more bulls scrambled out of the reeds. Unfortunately, none of them were shooters. Tired and hot, we moved back across the two rapids to find a shady tree for a well-deserved late lunch break on the banks of the Klaserie River.
The rest of the afternoon was rather uneventful, except when we crossed paths with a very irate black mamba. Unfortunately, a poor, innocent “bystander”, a rabbit, got caught up in the subsequent chaos. At least we managed to escape from the excitement without any small puncture wounds!
Day two started with some cool, slightly overcast conditions. However, experience dictated that these favourable conditions would not last very long. Things got very interesting about an hour later when we spotted a large dagha boy lying in the riverbed. We found ourselves high up on a cliff, towering over a large bend in the Klaserie River. We tried to keep below the skyline as we moved closer to the bull. However, he was not born on an Eastern Cape farm and somehow noticed our presence long before we managed to get within shooting range.
Later that morning, we crossed the fresh tracks of three lone bulls in a remote part of the reserve. Parking the Land Cruiser in the shade of a large mopane, we prepared for a long march in extremely humid, sweltering conditions. As always, the sun was trying its best to add to the experience of hunting in Africa! There was no doubt that we were hunting in the “Months of the Sun”.
However, our trackers managed to follow the difficult spoor through pretty dense mopane woodland and hard-baked soils. A freshly shed black mamba skin hanging on a small bush did not aid in easing the tense mood!
With visibility down to about 20 yards at most, we moved silently through the matted vegetation. As we had lost the track numerous times, we bumped the three bulls at close range to the right of where we expected them to be. At this moment, I suddenly realised my rifle was not loaded, which evoked a barrage of “verbal encouragement” from my companions! At least this helped break the unbearable tension.
Fortunately, we were blessed with several kilometres of more “glorious” sunshine on our journey back to the vehicle. Driving back towards the river, we received a radio call to inform us of the presence of a large buffalo herd about 20 kilometres away along a tributary of the Klaserie. Not wasting time, we decided to have lunch while covering the distance in the Land-Cruiser. We eventually reached a clearing with a small, shallow pan where several buffalo were taking a mud bath. Driving past them, we noticed a lot of buffalo all around us in the dense mopane and riverine vegetation.
It was a big herd with many mature bulls and cows. We drove some distance away and parked the vehicle. John suggested that the trackers remain with the vehicle, with only the three of us attempting what was going to be a difficult approach in the hot, fickle midday wind. This time, I focused more on loading my rifle than getting the camera ready!
Our approach took us on an elaborate encircling manoeuvre to get the wind in our faces. This worked well as we started to make out the dark, black shapes of some ominous beasts ahead of us. The air was dead still within the thick mopane. A deadly silence suddenly engulfed us... It seemed as if the world had come to a complete standstill. It was just the three of us and an unknown number of unfriendly beasts spread out in a wide arc around us. John and Danie managed to move into a good position about 5 yards ahead of me. I realised I should remain still as there were many buffalo within about 20 yards from us around the pan.
Several other animals were busy feeding in a wide area in front of us. A large, big-bossed bull started moving in our direction along the dirt track towards the pan. I could see John and Danie discussing the possibility of taking him. Resting my rifle against a mopane tree behind me, I started taking a video clip of the bull walking along the track, hoping to capture the first shot. He stopped about 8 yards from us, staring in our direction. Although the dense mopane hid our obvious presence, he seemed to know something was amiss.
I was still following the bull with the camera when, to my surprise, Danie took a shot at another bull that had also moved onto the road ahead of us. The bull ran a short distance into the mopane to our right when Danie took a difficult follow-up shot through the thick vegetation.
The initial .423” Peregrine VRG3 (monolithic) and followup VRG2 (solid) bullets stopped him in his tracks as he stumbled backwards and went down next to the dirt road. Tension ran high as some of the herd bulls moved towards their fallen comrade. A big-bodied, angry bull started bawling to our left while thrashing some mopane brush. As our bull uttered his death bellow, two other bulls approached him and started headbutting him in a brutal haze of dust. We remained motionless within the cover of the surrounding mopane, not wanting to entice a ferocious charge from any of the nearby bulls.
After some time, we emerged from the brush. Three enraged bulls stared at us before slowly turning from their fallen companion to retreat deeper into the mopane veld.
A flood of emotions engulfed us as we approached the fallen giant. Experiences such as these will forever be with us, no matter the “heat, thirst and bigbossed horns”. Hunting during the “Months of the Sun” is a privilege only bestowed upon those who dare embark on such a mission.
Carrying a .404 Jeffery over your shoulder will take you back to the days of those old ivory hunters in a flash. I now understand how the old-timers thrived under such daring conditions: It was not about hunting big game, surviving the big ball of fire in the sky or anything else; it was simply about being “there”! But then again, be cautious, your hunting companions will also be “there”, just to make sure you carry a loaded rifle. I also came to realise the truth of Fred Everett’s words: “Buffalo cannot look peaceful, they always glare.”