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It’s like a war; something is going to die

Shooting a mighty Nile buffalo is a dream come true, but tracking the huge beasts across open country is anything but easy


Having stealthily crawled to within 30 yards of the group, our faint scent was carried on swirling winds to the herd, which then revealed itself to be far bigger than we had thought. Some 130 Nile buffalo hurtled off with drama and speed, mercifully in the other direction from us. This seismic act signalled the game was up for the morning. It was getting on for noon and the heat was coming off the ground in waves.

We’d all but turned back to head for camp when I heard a sharp inhalation from Gareth. “Stop,” he whispered, as he crouched down, indicating I should do the same. “Under those trees. Two bulls.” I followed Gareth’s lead as he made his way, quick and low, from tree to tree, to get close enough for a look. Would they be the right age? Would we get a shot? My adrenalin was creeping up, while the humidity and temperature were making me wheeze. We paused under a thornbush tree where we finally had a decent view of their bulk.

Glassing the expanse of the PiaNupe Wildlife Reserve, looking for a suitable bull buffalo to cull

This hunt, this place, was a dream come true, for we were hunting Nile buffalo in the shadow of Mount Elgon, one of east Africa’s great mountains. This was the Karamoja region of Uganda where my boyhood hero, Walter Dalrymple Maitland Bell, had gained his moniker of Karamojo Bell. I have read and re-read his adventures, for what young hunter wouldn’t be inspired by this Scottish adventurer who was soldier, fighter pilot, sailor, writer, painter and big-game hunter?

WDM Bell’s writing has had a lasting effect on me and is a huge contributing factor to why I do what I do. So to be hunting dangerous game on the hallowed ground that he likely hunted — he said he walked an average of 73 miles for every elephant he shot — was inspiring and intimidating all at once.

I’d been hunting plains game during my stay, but while I’d hunted Cape buffalo in other African countries, Nile buffalo was something I hadn’t yet had the chance to pursue. Bell almost certainly would have used a .275 Rigby, famously preferring smaller calibres to hunt with, this is no longer allowed because it is simply too risky for dangerous game. So I chose a .416 Rigby big game rifle, a rifle I knew and trusted, having used it on Cape buffalo.

I knew, too, from my lessons a few years ago with “the Doctor” — Kevin Doctari Robertson — that a shot at buffalo is not to be taken lightly. “It starts a war, someone or something is going to die as soon as that first shot goes off,” he said. The pressure was on. We’d had several chances over the past week at single buffalo but, as so often happens with a hunting trip, a suitable old bull — our main objective — had remained just out of reach. For a number of days I hunted with Gareth Lecluse in the PiaNupe Wildlife Reserve, where Karimojong Overland Safaris (KOS) had gained the concession for sport hunting seven years ago with express permission from the president of Uganda. Thanks to sport hunting, the area has subsequently undergone a remarkable transformation and is a great showcase for the argument that hunting can and does help restore and preserve wildlife. Our camp was rustic but comfortable, and the perfect jumping-off point for hunting all manner of plains game, some of which — notably the South Sudan Roan antelope — is unique to the area and cannot be legally hunted anywhere else in the world.

Spotting a suitable beast — an old bull — Simon settles his Rigby .416 big game rifle on to the sticks

Close encounter

We had a close encounter two days previously, tracking a large herd by a river and closing in. But we were unable to make that final advance to identify an old bull before they blew out. The problem with big herds is that there are always outliers and so many eyes, ears and noses to pick up predators.

A huge herd had been seen feeding near Mount Kadam in the Debasien range, an area Bell refers to in his books. At first light we bounced our way across the country in the vehicle to get close enough for tracking. No one said much over the roar of the engine, the tension tangible — hope, nerves and expectations all bound up in this expedition.

Gareth skidded to a halt. “On foot now. Check everything,” he said as I got out, my teeth feeling like they’d been rattled loose from the ride. I loaded the rifle with three 400-gr Hornady Dangerous Game Solid cartridges then a soft, or DGX, of the same weight on top. I checked I had spare ammunition on my belt — carry as much as you can is the mantra for buffalo. After grabbing the sticks from the vehicle, the three of us set off at a steady pace. “They’re moving. We’re lucky it rained last night, it has given us brilliant tracks,” added Gareth.

I followed behind him, looking at the ground to see the marks animals had left. It takes someone with huge experience and knowledge to be able to make sense of spoor from a herd that seemed to lead in every direction. Gareth walked at a good pace to catch up to the herd while it was still cool. The country we were in was open and cover was sparse, which meant it would be hard to spot animals until you were almost on top of them.

Worse still, getting a clear, clean shot is definitely less straightforward. Dotted in the long grass were thornbush trees that cast a little shade and, as we neared the area the herd was in, we started moving between them and using them for cover as
we closed in. “We’re now about 800 yards away from them,” whispered Gareth. “We need, somehow, to close that distance.”

The hunters abandon the bone-rattling vehicle, continuing their hunt on foot to get close to the watchful buffalo


Gareth paused while deciding how to proceed. There was a breeze — not much, but just enough to ruin this if we didn’t take precautions. We would have to loop around the herd, tripling our approach distance, but it meant we’d be in with a chance. We moved carefully, now in the stop- start, slow-fast movement familiar to anyone who hunts. Trying to keep my breathing steady and deep, not to let my adrenalin, nerves and excitement take over, I focused on following exactly in Gareth’s footsteps.

We’d managed our loop and now, unbelievably, were downwind of the herd and within spitting distance of being in range. Only 40 yards or so would do it. Gareth turned to me and indicated to get low. “Bum shuffle,” he said in a hushed voice. I laid the rifle across my lap, and copied his movements, hauling myself forward with my legs and hands.

We started closing the distance. Thirty yards. Twenty. Gareth paused for a beat, scanning the ground ahead of us before moving forwards again.

I felt the vibrations before I heard the herd. They had bolted. Whether there was an outlier closer than we’d realised or, perhaps, they were spooked by us or something else, I
don’t know, but our chance had gone.

The adrenalin that had been coursing through my veins vanished, “There was a very alive bull, agitated by the battle” and I felt exhausted, drained and disappointed. We stood, watching the huge herd heading off away from us. They weren’t stampeding, but they were moving too fast for us to catch up to them.

As we turned to make our way back to the vehicle, Gareth looked every bit as disappointed as I felt. We started to walk, but within two steps, Gareth dropped, and indicated for me to do the same. Slowly, cautiously, he grabbed his binoculars and scanned the ground to one side. “Under that tree. Two bulls, mature, 400 yards,” he whispered, pointing. I could just about see them.

For some reason, these two hadn’t moved off with the rest of the herd. In double quick time, we closed in on them. There was not a second to lose for at any moment they could decide to join the rest of the animals.

We closed in enough to give me a shot with the express sights of the Rigby. One bull was facing us, the other faced away. “Take the one facing us,” Gareth instructed.

I steadied myself, trying to drown out the thudding of my heart, trying to still the shaking of my hands. I was attempting this 100-yard shot with open sights — a very different business from optics.

Breathing deeply a few times and gently squeezing did the trick and the boom of the rifle took me by surprise. I worked the bolt and reloaded. The two bulls moved off, not fast, but enough to make it a little trickier.

My bull was in the lead, quartering away. My training with the Doctor took over and Gareth told me to take him again. I fired for a second time, putting another fatal shot with a solid hit through the length of the bull from haunch through to left scapula. They moved forward again, slower this time. After 50 or so yards, they stopped under the shade of a tree.

My bull dropped to the ground, the other milling around restlessly and not giving me a chance to put in an insurance shot. We also didn’t want to get any closer. Not only could this
situation fast become dangerous as we had a wounded and a very alive bull obviously agitated by the previous two minutes of battle, but we could also provoke a charge.

The huge herds of buffalo in the reserve illustrate perfectly that hunting and conservation can and do work together

Death bellow

We waited, hoping to hear that death bellow and hoping that the other bull would move off. The second bull still stood over the wounded one, and we could do nothing but bide our time. “Now,” Gareth said, as the other bull moved away slightly. I fired one more shot. That did it and, after a few minutes, Gareth decided we could move on the other bull safely. We approached slowly and when we gave a few shouts and whoops, the other bull trotted off.

The buffalo lay dead, conveniently for the skinners and trackers in the shadow of a tree. Views of Mount Elgon to one side and Mount Kadam behind reminded me of Karamojo Bell and his tales of hunting on these very grounds. As a hunter, every animal I pursue is a privilege, but to do so on these hallowed grounds was something that I had long dreamed of. I hope it remains possible for generations to come.

Mission accomplished: with one buffalo down, the team heads back to the vehicle