There are really just two ways to hunt Africa’s Cape buffalo. Most common throughout my hunting career has been tracking. This is because most of my buffalo hunting has been done in relatively thick thornbush or open forest, where, absent blind luck, there isn’t much choice but to find tracks and follow them. Tracking buffalo is a great and classic African hunt. You get to see the African trackers work their magic, and although the goal is to find really fresh tracks so that you can be pretty certain you’ll catch up, buffalo often walk considerable distances while feeding and moving to and from water. So you might get a pretty good workout along the way.
The second option, practical only in really open ground, is to hunt by glassing. Over the past 35 years I’ve done this a couple of times in hilly country, and there have been a few chance occasions when circling birds or dust gave a herd away, and we’ve been able to move straight in on them without tracking. Today, in the swamps of coastal Mozambique, hunting buffalo by glassing isn’t just a random thing: It’s the way it’s done.
One constant in Africa is change, and one of the big changes in modern African hunting is that Mozambique has returned as a solid and safe hunting destination. This has been a 40-year journey. A desultory bush war started in late 1960s, resulting in an expeditious withdrawal of the Portuguese colonial power in 1973. That’s when the real trouble started, a brutal civil war that lasted for nearly 20 years. In the 1960s Mozambique was a paradise for wildlife, but African conflicts are hard on game. When peace was finally achieved in about 1990 there wasn’t much left. I hunted Mozambique in 1989, when there was a very tenuous cease fire, and game numbers were so low that I didn’t think there was much hope. I was wrong. Wildlife is more resilient than we often appreciate. Pioneering outfitters moved in and protected the game, and in the past 20 years Mozambique’s wildlife has rebuilt to an amazing degree.
This work is ongoing in many areas, but the shining star is probably the Marromeu Reserve, the Zambezi Delta. In 1970 there might have been 40,000 buffalo roaming the floodplains. In 1990 less than 1,000 remained. In 2011 the World Wildlife Fund’s count showed 18,000, and in 2012 should go over 20,000. This is a good number; in the old days, when there were twice as many, the Marromeu was famous for stunted buffalo with poor horns. I’ve flown the Reserve (which is not hunted) and the surrounding hunting areas several times; there are many herds large and small, and there are beautiful bulls in almost every herd.
Although there are few African areas today that boast a concentration of buffalo into the tens of thousands, there are still many areas that offer great buffalo hunting. Coastal Mozambique is just one of them, but it’s unique in that the swamp buffalo hunting is altogether different. We call it “swamp hunting,” and it is – sort of. Typically, however, the prime hunting months are late in the African season, September through November, after the waters have receded. At this time the Delta is a vast patchwork of treeless grassland cut by papyrus-lined rivers. These swampy channels never dry up, so you can’t drive to the buffalo. You can wade the rivers and reach them on foot, a tough hunt in extreme heat and no shade. Several Mozambique outfitters use swamp vehicles – most popular is the Canadian Argo, designed for the moose bogs – to get out where the buffalo are, but at some point you’re still going to have to wade the boggy rivers and do the rest of the hunt on foot. It’s going to be hot, and there isn’t any shade out there.
So it’s not an easy hunt, but it is an altogether different buffalo hunt. If you’re walking from the forest line it starts by climbing the last trees and glassing out across the treeless floodplain. If you use swamp vehicles, then you can penetrate deeper into the swamp, but now there are no raised vantage points, so you climb up on the Argo to glass. It’s dead-flat, so even an extra feet of elevation makes a huge difference. You might see a herd of buffalo as a shifting black mass, but that isn’t what you’re really looking for. Instead you’re looking for white cattle egrets, circling and diving. You can be certain there are buffalo underneath them.
So now the hunt actually begins. You must get the wind right, which can mean a huge circle, but eventually you have the buffalo under the egrets in sight, and then starts the approach. If you’re lucky there might be strands of papyrus or patches of taller sawgrass to use as cover, but these swamp buffalo find security in wide-open short grass, so you will probably run out of cover before you get in range. Now you have decisions to make. If the buffalo are moving, perhaps you can get ahead of them. If they’re already resting, which, by the time you reach them, is usually the case, then you have decisions to make. Is it possible to crawl close enough, or must you wait for the buffalo to start to move again?
Either way, sooner or later you will start to crawl. Until now you probably thought your outfitter’s suggestion to bring gloves and kneepads was silly, but after hands and knees for just a dozen yards on spiky burned grass and sun-baked soil you’ll be glad for them… or you’ll wish you had them! Often you’ll do quite a bit of crawling before you have any idea whether there are mature bulls in the herd, but chances are they’re there.
Sometimes you get close enough, sometimes you have to relocate, and other times you spook them badly enough that you have to go find a new herd. But eventually you’re in range, and now comes the tricky task of sorting a good bull from the black mass. At this point the excitement is much the same as a tracking hunt, but the rest of it is much different, with the herd often in sight for hours before you’re close enough to make a decision. It’s truly an altogether different buffalo hunt, not necessarily better, but an equally fascinating and often more tense experience. In today’s Africa the swamp hunting in Mozambique offers a wonderful option.
Oh, there is one more option for buffalo hunting. That’s the chance encounter, which can happen anywhere… including in Mozambique, on the way to the swamp. If you run into a great bull, all you have to do is step from the vehicle and take the shot. I would never suggest to anyone that this is a bad thing; when Lady Luck smiles, one shouldn’t kick sand in her face. But, although you may have a great trophy, it’s a regrettable thing because you’ve shortcut almost the entire experience of hunting buffalo. The good news is that such an opportunity is rare enough that I can honestly say it has never happened to me!
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