The winners of the inaugural Rigby Dagga Boy Award. From left to right: Hunter Frank Cean and his wife Ann Cean, Dr Kevin Robertson, Rigby’s MD Marc Newton and Myles McCallum on behalf of Buzz Charlton of Charlton McCallum Safaris.
My lifelong dream of a Cape buffalo hunt was initiated in 2019 when I attended the annual Dallas Safari Club Convention (DSC).
The desire to hunt Cape buffalo became a reality upon being introduced to Dr. Kevin Robertson. At the time I had no knowledge of Kevin, our meet and greet conversations were friendly and informative. At one point during our visit, Kevin asked what remained on my bucket list. My response was a Cape buffalo Hunt. He immediately asked if I was serious? Looking back, I believe it was at that point that we started along the pleasurable journey of friendship.
The story begins when Kevin introduced me to Buzz Charlton of Charlton McCallum Safaris. After a couple of hours of introduction to the many events which constitute an African Cape buffalo Hunt, Buzz had me convinced that I needed to go. At that moment my emotions were in overdrive, with the decision to fulfil my fantasy finally becoming a reality.
Kevin inquired about my hunting gear and I soon realised I was ill equipped for a buffalo hunt. As a result, he recommended I invest in a Winchester Model 70 in .375 H&H calibre which I subsequently did. What better place to look at suitable buffalo rifles than the DSC convention! Our next visit was to Lonnie Gibb of Superior Ammunition. From him, Kevin ordered custom ammunition for the hunt – two different bullet types, 350-grain North Fork soft points and similar weight North Fork cup nose solids. Kevin explained the soft point was for the initial shot as such a bullet would not pass through the buffalo from side-on, a precaution if there were more than a single buffalo or if it was very thick where one never knows what is behind the target animal. Cup nose solids are better and deeper penetrators, better suited for awkward-angled backup shots or if a shot through light brush might be needed.
During one of our conversations Kevin stated that he would be returning to South Africa because his visa would expire soon. The following morning, I asked Kevin for the dates when he would be in Africa. Since Buzz had provided me with a couple of dates for my hunt, I realised these dates were during the time Kevin would be in Africa.
I consequently asked Kevin if he had any interest in “tagging along.” His reply, “I would love to.” This conversation took place prior to asking Buzz if the idea of having Kevin participate in the hunt was acceptable. (Kevin knew I had a knee problem and had kindly offered to carry my rifle on the hunt, so as to make walking on my 76-year old legs easier.)
Upon presenting this idea to Buzz, he looked at me with a stern expression and asked, “Are you kidding me?” My immediate reaction was that he might be upset with my request. His next comment was “Do you know who this man is?” Buzz then took the time to elaborate on Kevin’s many accolades and it was at this point I realised how fortunate I would be to have anyone of his calibre along on the hunt as my ‘gun bearer’!
September finally arrived and, on the 9th, I left Kennedy Airport on Emirates Airlines, heading for Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. This journey would require 23 elapsed hours, with layovers in Dubai and Lusaka, Zambia.
Upon exiting customs in Harare, Kevin and Myles McCallum, Buzz’s partner in Charlton McCallum Safaris, were awaiting my arrival. Myles then transported Kevin and I to Amanzi Lodge, where we would overnight before our morning flight to the Sugar Estates airstrip at Churundu, on the banks of the mighty Zambezi River.
Due to an extended power outage throughout Harare the late-night ride to the Amanzi Lodge was a memorable experience. No streetlights, no traffic lights, and bumper to bumper traffic. At best, it was a dangerous ride and arriving to the lodge was a relief. I was indeed pleased Myles was our chauffeur! A couple of Zambezi lagers, a good steak dinner, and I was soon ready for a restful night’s sleep.
As scheduled, Myles arrived at 6am. Such an early departure was to avoid the morning traffic. Our ride to the Charles Prince Airport was uneventful and the single engine aircraft we would use for our trip to Churundu was on the tarmac.
The view from the aircraft revealed a very parched Zambezi Valley. There was no sign of water in the many pans we flew over. The only visible water was the Zambezi River itself. Buzz and crew were waiting at the airstrip to greet us. Our baggage was loaded into his Land Cruiser and we were introduced to Nyati and Criton (Buzz’s two exceptional trackers) and Eddie our driver and spoor spotter.
Our drive to camp along a track which runs adjacent to the Zambezi was encouraging and supported an earlier comment by Buzz, “you will be spoiled with choice – buffalo herds and small groups of Dagga bulls are plentiful, and they are all drinking from the Zambezi.” For the duration of the hour-long drive, buffalo tracks were observed frequently, crossing in both directions over the dirt road leading to our camp – and a wonderfully encouraging sign it was indeed.
Inspecting the camp area, I walked without purpose, enamoured by an environment entirely new to me; huge trees, the most magnificent and famous river, a shady campsite coupled with the many calls of unidentified animals and birds, all of which was absolutely enchanting. What Buzz had described as a tented camp was a long way from my definition of a tent! My tent was large and spacious, and equipped with a comfortable bed, a dresser for storage, a flush commode, hot shower and copper wash basin with running water! For a ‘fly camp’ this was comfort in the wild indeed!
Day one started by checking and sighting-in my rifle. I was pleased with its accuracy. I only fired two shots, one shot with each bullet type. The result was both bullets’ dead on at about 50 paces, the expected shooting distance given the thickness of the Zambezi Valley’s vegetation. Buzz nodded his approval – and we were off to a good start!
My first Zambezi Valley experience took place shortly thereafter when a small herd of zebra was spotted grazing a couple hundred yards from the dirt track. Buzz and the trackers conducted a short sneak on them until the zebras were about 75 yards away. The stallion was located, the tripod was setup and the zebra stallion was moments later by my feet, thanks to a single 350-grain soft point, ‘in exactly the right place’ as Kevin would later comment.
That evening while discussing events of the day, Kevin brought up the subject of selecting a suitable trophy Dagga Boy. Kevin provided the following: “Having spent five years at the South African Wildlife College, I had the opportunity to conduct a research project comparing the herd dynamics and trophy quality of two adjacent buffalo populations. One herd of which was hunted and the other was not. My research focus was concentrated on the sustainability of trophy quality within the context of trophy hunting. As a result of my efforts, I am convinced the current SCI buffalo scoring system is flawed. This is because it encourages the hunting of pre-breeding age and active breeding-age bulls, and this is simply not sustainable.”
Kevin explained that he has no problem with exceptional trophy quality bulls being hunted, as long as they are old enough to have had every opportunity to lead a reproductive, successful life, which for free ranging buffalo populations south of Zambezi means 12-years old or older.
About this, I was absolutely convinced, so my quest for a dagga boy now presented an additional and interesting challenge – to find the oldest, most characterful buffalo in the Zambezi Valley’s Nyakasanga Safari Area.
On my first day of Cape buffalo hunting, I got the opportunity to take a shot at a lovely, deeply curled, 40-inch spread bull. Buzz felt it had the qualities of a shooter, while Kevin stated emphatically that the bull was only nine years old and consequently still of breeding age. True to my commitment, and the ‘wounded buffalo stare’ of my gun bearer, I passed on the bull and watched in admiration as he slowly disappeared in the Jesse.
I bow to Buzz, Nyati and Criton. I was simply amazed at their ability to track buffalo when as far as I was concerned, there was no visible track. We tracked numerous groups of buffalo that first day, in my search to locate an old bull past breeding age. This was because we were able to cover a significant area. Both Buzz and Eddie carried radios. Radio communication with driver Eddie eliminated any backtracking. At the culmination of each successive track and stalk and the careful evaluation of the bulls we encountered, we’d GPS our position and then walk to the closest bush track. Eddie would be there to meet us with cold drinks in hand, and he’d also tell us about additional tracks he’s found while driving to the meeting point. This method saved a huge amount of unproductive walking and enabled us to follow, find and evaluate several additional groups of bulls each day.
Sighting and admiring these majestic bovines were for me a God-given experience, and one that will remain indelible in my memory-bank. As I document this hunt, I realise I am re-living a life-changing experience, and how fortunate I am to have been part of such an event.
In this hunting manner we observed several small herds of buffalo bulls each day. To my untrained eye most were ‘shooters’. Not so for Kevin! He would age each in turn, politely explain why they needed to be turned down, and we would move on. Kevin mentioned that breeding age buffalo bulls will often form their own small bachelor groups away from the breeding herds. The inexperienced think these groups are true past breeding age Dagga Boys but this is not the case. Breeding age bulls, those that are in the eighth to eleventh years of age bracket, leave and re-join the breeding herds on a regular basis as body condition and consequently strength, fluctuates. By not spending enough time ruminating, while otherwise occupied defending the herd and fighting off challengers, all contributes to a dominant herd bull gradually loosing body condition. When too much weight is lost, so is the bulls social ranking. Such bulls are then displaced from the breeding herds. Being in bachelor herds enables these bulls to regain their body condition and consequently strength which in tun then enables them to re-challenge for positions of social dominance and consequently breeding favours.
By the end of the second day of hunting we’d already looked over and evaluated in excess of 30 different bulls. For a first-time buffalo hunter, this was the most unique experience! Our luck changed early on the third morning when we located the track of a bull we came to name “Bigfoot”. The track of the bull’s right front foot was so incredibly large that Criton jokingly commented, “There is now a giraffe in the Zambezi Valley”.
The front edge of Bigfoot’s left-left-hand track also worn flat (another sign of an old bull) and he was a loner. All these signs indicated an injured, old bull, and we followed Bigfoot’s track with renewed enthusiasm. Would this buffalo be the trophy I had so long been looking for and dreaming about? I was on a razor’s edge, with my heart pounding and my nerves about to explode!
It is customary when feeding, for buffalo to graze into and across the prevailing wind in meandering, zigzag fashion, and this is exactly what Bigfoot did. By the time we’d found Bigfoot’s track, the condition of his dung indicated he was some hours ahead of us – but we quickly closed the distance as he appeared to have spent plenty of time zigging backwards and forth, browsing on fallen leaves of the thick Jesse bush. Despite this we followed his track with the utmost of caution so as to avoid bumping into him unexpectedly and alarming him or him picking up our scent should the wind change direction.
But thanks to a steady breeze from the north-east, we were able to eventually find and stalk Bigfoot to within a shooting distance without alarming him. When we finally got our first sighting of Bigfoot, it was of him as he limped along, without him putting any weight on his right front leg. Glimpses of him through the Jesse revealed an impressively huge body, large patches of grey hairless skin and rounded, very blunt- tipped horns. Kevin eagerly aged him. Bigfoot was, in his initial opinion, ‘at least’ 13-years-old. He was by far the oldest bull we’d seen so far, and by the looks of his blunt-tipped horns and overall ‘aged’ condition, he was most definitely a shooter!
While my outward appearance might have looked to be one of calm, my heart was in overdrive and my brain racing. Bigfoot had stopped, positioning himself behind some thick Jesse; he was barely visible. Buzz, carrying the tripod, was attempting to locate a shooting opportunity while Kevin exchanged the soft point loaded cartridge in my rifle, with a cupped nose solid bullet, in the hopes of penetrating better, any brush between me and Bigfoot.
My long-awaited moment of truth had finally arrived. Bigfoot was well within a reasonable shooting distance, about 50 paces, I reckoned, he was totally unaware of our presence. As I positioned my rifle in the shooting sticks, I was instructing myself to take my time, to identify a clear path to target and to squeeze the trigger with steady and deliberate pressure. I was eventually able to align my scope’s cross-hairs on Bigfoot’s front right shoulder through a small opening in the thick Jesse. I gently squeezed the trigger, and was surprised when the Winchester fired! I was immediately confident with my shot placement, and reloaded without hesitation as instructed. While doing so, I heard Buzz congratulating me on a good shot.
My shot was well-placed, a solid hit into the middle of Bigfoot’s right shoulder. He simply hobbled a few paces, and turned 180 degrees to expose his left shoulder. I quickly fired a second shot at him and within seconds, Bigfoot was down. We approached Bigfoot with caution, but he had expired, so quickly in fact that he did not even have time to emit a death bellow. I had completed my mission! Bigfoot was as ancient as Zambezi Valley bulls get – well past breeding age with blunt worn-down horns, a white hairless and scabby face and a large and knurly, rock-solid boss. He was and remains, everything I hoped and wanted him to be – a remarkable old bull!
I would be negligent if I did not include the recovery work required to transport Bigfoot to the skinning shed. I shot Bigfoot three quarters of a mile from the closest dirt track. I could not have imagined what took place next. Nyati, Criton, Eddie and the others cut away the brush with machetes and axes, wide enough to allow the Land Cruiser to pass. Three quarters of a mile, clearing the Jessie the entire way, what a feat. I am so grateful!
The campfire that evening was extra warm, soothing and enchanting. I reflected on the events of the day and consequently shot Bigfoot several more times. Kevin had followed Bigfoot to the skinning shed and returned to the campfire with Bigfoot’s two lower jaw, first molar teeth. The purpose of this was to age my trophy using the established Taylor method. As it would turn out, this measurement determined that Bigfoot was well into his fourteenth year. Shot in September, he would, it was calculated, have turned fifteen the following February.
Per Kevin, “In the Zambezi Valley and similar rainfall areas where predators exist, very few buffalo survive past fifteen years, which means Bigfoot was nearing the end of his natural life”.
Bigfoot’s lower right front leg must have been broken below the knee many years previously. The break never healed. This resulted in his lower right leg being loose and floppy, to the extent that it could not support his weight. This is what enabled his right hoof to grow so large – it was never walked on or wore down.
What a bull Bigfoot must have been to have survived, in lion-infested country for so long with a broken front leg. Kevin, who had inspected the carcass closely, also noted that Bigfoot possessed a broken 12th rib that was detached from his spine and had actually penetrated into his abdominal cavity. This too looked like an old injury.
Fights for social dominance can be violent and brutal affairs. Kevin suspected that this is how Bigfoot sustained these injuries, most probably when he was ‘de-throned’ for the final time. There can be no doubt, Bigfoot was once a dominant breeding bull – this gladdens me immensely. Knowing there is a strong possibility that his progeny still roams that special place, the Zambezi Valley adds a fitting end to a remarkable bull and the most wonderful experience and testimony once again to the toughness and tenacity of these incredible bovines.
Leaving Africa is like ending my story of an unforgettable buffalo hunt. This is difficult. My short story only scratches the surface of my adventure. I wish I processed the talent to convey my feelings better – but excitement of my African adventure is captured within my personal memories, for me to recall and enjoy, over and over again.
Africa is addictive, a single trip is never enough. My three trips only tease me to return. However, I have been blessed and I encourage anyone who desires to visit Africa, to do so, there will be no regrets only memories.
Bigfoot is now mounted in my carving shop and I relive the adventure each opportunity he and I have the chance to visit. It is my wish that you, the reader, have similar memories, they make life a much better experience.
– Franklin D. Cean