The following appears in the January issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY PAUL D. ATKINS
Looking down from my tree stand I began to shake. I knew I would and was surprised I’d kept my composure as long as I did. After all, I was hunting in Africa!
The six big Cape buffalo bulls that were making their way towards my tree represented a surreal sight, each bull pounding the ground and creating a red dust storm that was blowing in my direction.
I was nervous, trying unsuccessfully to control my breathing and keep my composure. It took forever to get the release hooked to my bow, but after four tries I finally did it. This was going to be the most important shot I would ever make in my 35 years of bowhunting; I knew I couldn’t blow it.
WHEN I WAS A KID, I always dreamed of going to Africa to hunt Cape buffalo with a bow. Years passed, but unlike most dreams that die this one did not. Throughout that time I read every book, flipped through every magazine and watched every video I could on African hunting, practically wearing them out in the hopes of someday turning dreams into reality.
Time is a funny thing, but years later – college done, a family started and other pursuits completed – I landed a job that allowed me to save a little money and start an Africa fund.
It took a few years, but finally I had enough to go. So after some careful planning and searching, I booked a 2003 hunt with a good friend of mine, but it wasn’t for buffalo. They were expensive to hunt in those days, and on my budget it just wasn’t possible.
Still, I spent 10 incredible days in South Africa. Every day was awesome and better than the previous day, beginning with the predawn ride to the blind and then seeing all those incredible animals; it was simply amazing. I was extremely lucky on that first safari and took seven animals, including a 56-inch kudu and a 27-inch impala. And even though I couldn’t shoot one, I did get to see and film a lot of big buffalo on that trip.
Africa is a perfect example of all good things never lasting long enough, and once you get home you want to turn around and go back again.
Six years later I made my second trip to Africa, but this time on my own. My wife didn’t like the idea very much, but all my hunting friends were busy and just couldn’t make it happen. But I went, knowing a little more about what to do and what not to do when I’d get there. This trip included hunting those species that I had seen the first time, but ones I had not taken. Again, the buffalo was not on the docket.
Again, it was an awesome 10-day adventure. Memories from my first hunt mingled with the new ones, which created a mystical magic that few hunts can match.
Each day was something new – from spot-and-stalk hunts for red hartebeest to climbing a tree and hunting the black wildebeest. It was truly remarkable! I took eight animals in those 10 days and saw hundreds more, including the animal that I wanted more than ever, but couldn’t hunt: the buffalo.
LIKE EVERYTHING ELSE, HUNTING in Africa takes time and money, which can be tough to come by these days. Yet compared to some of the current prices here in North America, it’s still a pretty good deal.
After returning in 2009, I decided to cut back on travel and save for another trip across the Atlantic. It took time and many sacrifices, but I knew that I could get my fill of big game here in the Arctic by hunting moose, caribou and bears. I know; I’m lucky and understand that many would consider that enough, but the dream of bowhunting mbogo still haunted me.
So in 2015 I decided it was now or never and began making preparations for summer 2016. I had done my research, and with buffalo prices on the decline, I knew this was the time to go. More importantly, I had the resources and a friend who wanted to go with me. Lew Pagel, my longtime Alaskan hunting partner, wanted the experience too and was all in for the adventure. This would be his first safari and his first big bowhunting experience. The planning began.
After two trips to the “Dark Continent” with the same safari company I knew who to call; more importantly I knew what to expect. Dries Visser Safaris (driesvissersafaris.com) is the leading safari company in South Africa and has been for many years. It’s well known for producing the biggest trophies and also for creating one of the best experiences in Africa today. Dries Jr., along with his longtime friend and professional hunter (PH) Hein Lottering, are synonymous with African game and true Africanhunters. They’ve also become good friends over the years.
I emailed Dries and asked the necessary questions that all guided hunts require dates, cost and various other questions that you need to know when it comes to booking an adventure of this magnitude.
“Cape buffalo?” we were asked in the email. I said yes and that I wanted to hunt porcupine and I hoped a red hartebeest if we were lucky. Those two species had eluded me the last time in Africa.
Lew was excited as well, booking one of the many packages Dries has to offer while on safari. The “first-timer” package is popular and includes a bag list of the more common animals that you hunt on your first trip. Lew knew what he wanted and made preparations for such. We booked for eight days, hoping that was enough time to get it all done.
WHETHER HUNTING ARCTIC GRIZZLIES or Cape buffalo, there are a lot of things you have to prepare for when hunting dangerous game and I knew I needed to give myself plenty of time. Cape buffalo are big, nasty animals that can be incredibly hard to kill if not done correctly or without the right gear.
Everything I’ve heard, read or seen about these bad boys seems to be true, and having the right archery set-up was a must if I planned to get the job done. As a longtime ambassador for BowTech, I knew my bow wouldn’t be a problem. I have total confidence in the company’s, but I just needed to decide how to set it up.
Bowhunting dangerous game requires a bow that can produce 80 pounds of kinetic energy, so I called BowTech and had them send me their new 70-pound BT-X bows. I also ordered a dozen arrows and a dozen Ashby broadheads from Alaska Bowhunting Company, long known for producing great products used here in Alaska. This combination was deadly, meeting all the requirements needed to take down a massive buffalo.
Two weeks later boxes began to arrive with all my gear. It was exciting, to say the least, but having it and getting it set up to shoot were two different variables. I took it to my local pro shop and my good friend Roddy had the bow ready to go in no time.
“(It’s at) 81.4 kinetic and shooting bullet holes,” he said. I was pumped!
Preparing for any bowhunt requires practice, and the next four months you could find me shooting every day. Those big old arrows and broadheads looked funny setting on the Trophy Taker rest and I wondered at every shot if they would actually go to where they were supposed to. They weren’t the fastest, but each time the Copper John sight settled they found their mark.
Lew arrived where I was staying in Oklahoma a few days before our June 20 departure. We continued our practice sessions and visited a couple of animal parks to have a look at some of the species we would be hunting. It sounds weird, but you can’t believe how much this helps when it comes to hunting animals you have never seen before. We also looked at several mounts to try to get an idea of what big looked like versus not so big. It was a great fun.
Our plane ride over the Atlantic was smooth and the three-hour ride to camp, even though it was in the dark, went by quickly. Dries, Hein and Lew’s PH met us at camp, where dinner was waiting for us.
It there’s one thing about a safari, the food and drink are always good and plentiful. We discussed the next day’s events, and even though I had a bad case of jet lag, I found sleep easily for the excitement that was to come.
THE NEXT MORNING WAS what I was waiting for; it was a feeling that only an African bowhunting safari can produce. You can make a predawn walk to the truck, a drive to the blind or a tree, or maybe even a spot-and-stalk maneuver. Knowing that you’re getting ready to see some of the most magnificent animals in the world makes it all worthwhile. It’s also winter in Africaand the cool temps combined with long sleeves and jackets give the feel of fall in Alaska, making it that more enjoyable for a Last Frontier resident like me.
Hein asked me what I wanted to do first, and more specifically what was most important. Eight days is a long time on safari, but I really had only one goal and that was to hunt buffalo. I told him so and that anything after that was going to be a bonus.
We loaded up in the Toyota and hit the parcel of ground in which Dries operates. It’s an amazing place that encompasses an incredible 35 square miles and has just about every animal that calls the Limpopo province home.
As we pulled out of camp, impala, blesbok and small groups of sable could be seen here and there, jumping and darting through the acacia and scrub brush, making me feel as if I was home again.
The road we were on seemed to go on forever. It crisscrossed with others, all covered in that dusty red dirt that South Africa is well known for. That dirt was actually our primary focus for the first couple of days as we searched for buffalo tracks, trying to find a fresh set that had crossed in the night. We did this for two days with little luck, but on the third we spied more than tracks, spotting a small group of bulls at a nearby waterhole.
Hein turned to me and asked, “How about hunting from a tree stand?” I hadn’t practiced from a tree stand, but Hein also knew that those same bulls would use this waterhole for the next couple of days before moving on, and the taller trees that surrounded it would be ideal for an all-day sit. I simply said yes.
The bulls left and we hung a stand. My tracker, Jonas, is a miracle worker like all African trackers are, so in no time he had the stand hung and I was in it to check for clearance and make sure that I would be comfortable if we had to stay all day and into the evening. I was.
The next morning we arrived before daylight. I climbed the tree in the dark, settled into the seat and hauled up my bow and pack. The tree wasn’t that tall and I was sitting in the very top of it.
As the morning sun made its appearance , I glanced at the BowTech hanging peacefully on the hook and the big grey broadhead glistening in the predawn horizon. I was ready, excited and a bit scared all at the same time.
The morning dragged on, but there was never a dull moment. A big kudu bull walked right underneath me with no idea of what was above. He was so huge, if I hadn’t taken one already and wasn’t after something else, I would have shot him. I saw waterbuck, impala and a couple of warthogs make an appearance as well. It was fun watching them mingle in and out, and then all at once they vanished as only African animals can do. I knew something was up.
I could see them coming long before they arrived, their black bodies filing in from left and scooting through the low-lying thorn. This was it, the moment I had been waiting for.
I grabbed my bow and stood nervously, making sure everything was where it was supposed to be. I quickly went through my checklist: arrow on rest, check; arrow knocked securely to the string, check; release working, check. Lastly, I went through the different spots I had ranged just to make sure I had my bearings. I did.
The six bulls came in single file, stirring dust and filling the air with that old “cattle” smell as they approached.
The first two were smaller in horn length, with soft bosses, the second two a little bigger and lastly the two old dugga boys we had seen previously. The bull I wanted was in the back.
I stood and watched, wondering if I would get the chance I needed. I kept telling myself to be patient and not force a shot, a lot like hunting caribou back home. I was about to be tested.
THE BIG BULL CAME straight in and stopped 18 yards away and facing me. He looked nervous standing there for what seemed like forever. The other bulls mingled and fought each other while taking turns at the waterhole. Finally, he turned to go and I thought he was leaving, but he only circled the water to come in from behind to the other side. He was 22 yards from me, quartering away hard. I knew this was it, my moment of truth.
I don’t remember aiming; heck, I don’t even remember looking at the sight pins. I do remember thinking that I had to shoot him far back in order to get to his vitals. I released and watched 954 grains enter the black hide just behind the last rib and disappear completely, exiting somewhere on the other side. The bull bolted, along with the others, vanishing into the thick brush in front of me. It was done.
I sat down and tried to control the shaking while catching my breath. Hein was sitting in a tree 30 yards to my left but was already down and looking up at me, smiling and giving me a thumbs-up. I was ecstatic. I had shot my buffalo even though it still hadn’t sunk in. I knew I had accomplished my dream, or so I thought.
I climbed down and we started looking for my arrow and blood, but we found neither. I got worried. The arrow had vanished into his side, and from my angle it looked as if it had exited. Yet we never found it.
We tracked the bull with Jonas in the lead, but there just wasn’t any blood to be found. I was nervous now. We decided to wait a bit and give it a little more time. We did, waiting 20 minutes at the last track. We pushed forward with Hein carrying a rifle and me behind him.
Now, I’ve read all the stories about how buffalo will circle back and be waiting for you once you are within range. I was stressed and excited at the same time. This is what I wanted, to track my bull in the thick stuff and hopefully find him.
Thankfully, it didn’t take long. We could see the bull piled up just ahead, but he wasn’t dead. He was hit hard, and though we didn’t know it at the time, he was down for the count.
Hein moved me in for a final shot that in the end wasn’t needed, but when the bull raised its head one last time, Hein grabbed me by the back of the collar and was actually dragging me backwards. We waited and watched and in no time I had my bull. I was relieved and thankful. He was everything I had dreamed of: 41 inches with a hard boss and massive, a great trophy taken on a glorious day.
The rest of our days were filled with fun and adventure. I was able to take two huge porcupines, and even though the red hartebeest eluded us, I was able to arrow another impala and a decent waterbuck. Lew had himself quite the time as well. He took zebra, warthog and a very fine kudu with his BowTech Prodigy. It was a great adventure and, as usual, I was sorry to leave.
Africa isn’t for everyone, but if you do dream of hunting the Dark Continent, go now or, like I did, save and plan. Memories are all we have in the end and, believe me, it is all worth it. ASJ
Editor’s note: Paul Atkins is an outdoor writer and author from Kotzebue, Alaska. He has written hundreds of articles on big game hunting, and fishing throughout North America and Africa, plus surviving in the Arctic. Paul is a monthly contributor to Alaska Sporting Journal.