We hopped on the Argo before daylight and headed out into the swamp. Andre was the lead PH now. He had been with Saaiman safaris for 12 years and knew these swamps as good as the black poachers that grew up in them. He was an accomplished bowhunter himself, having shot a Cape buffalo and was the PH for dozens of bowhunters over the last decade. Willem assumed the role of back-up PH and that took pressure off for him to carry my camera and focus on filming. Dominga, who is Andre’s main man, continued as our buffalo tracker and it became obvious that these two worked as a team.
This double rainbow came out as we headed for the swamp. Was this an Omen?
The plan was simple: We would take the Argo to the last tree before the swamp and from there it was all on foot. The tree was used for spotting. Willem, Andre and Dominga climbed to the top branches and surveyed the great swamp from there. They spotted white birds, several miles in the distance, and the hunt was on.
It took us several hours of walking to reach the papyrus swamps. The terrain and cover was much better here but getting there had its challenges. We had to cross miles of open marsh flats followed by a few rivers before settling into the papyrus bogs close to the buffalo.
We moved quickly on foot and Dominga was always aware of the exact location of the buffalo at all times. By early afternoon we were in “the zone.” All movements were now critical. All talking was in whispers. Andre and Dominga discussed strategy and directed me to follow them to the letter. And when I didn’t Dominga would immediately correct me.
We started crawling - several hundred yards to be precise. I had no idea where I was going, we were so low to the ground I just took my queue from Andre who followed Dominga’s lead. By their actions I could tell we were close, but I had no idea how close until Andre pulled me slowly and quietly into position behind a clump of grass. I then eased up as slow as death. In front of me was 200 buffalo, and a cow was chewing her cud no further than 8 yards away! I gulped, we had never been this close to relaxed buffalo before and it really added to the ‘pucker factor.’
The conditions were perfect. There was a steady wind that was blowing the grass and papyrus which helped to mask both movement and sound. From behind the moving vegetation, Andre pointed out a bull that was bedded directly behind the cow. He was a shooter, around 37,” with good hard bosses. Andre ranged him – 20 yards. A chip shot. But he needed to stand up. You never shoot a bedded cape buffalo; their vitals are covered and completely out of position. The waiting game was on.
I settled back down into a comfortable position. Andre and Dominga kept a close watch on the bull. Buffalo will generally stand up to stretch and reposition themselves every hour so the wait wouldn’t be too bad. Thirty minutes went by and a rain shower had started. Then all wind stopped. Without warning the entire herd crashed away. Andre looked at Dominga and then looked at me. In his Afrikaans accent he said “F’n rain.” The showers created unstable wind and since we were within spitting distance, even a slight swirl gave us away. We were so close!
Andre and Dominga backed off but would not give up on this herd. We circled far outside of them for a ½ mile then stopped. We moved in and the entire cycle of crawling started all over again. An hour later and all four of us were positioned within 80 yards of the herd. Most of them were still on their feet and the wind had kicked up again. Conditions were perfect. It was then that Andre noticed “the bull.” He called me in close and pointed him out to me. He was 20% larger than any other bull cape buffalo I had ever seen. His horns were shiny black and his ears were torn to shreds. Andre said “That’s the boss, he’s extremely old and nasty and he’s probably fathered half of this herd.” He was unreal. The mass on his horns were like nothing I had ever seen before. But to a trophy hunter he had a flaw; His right tip had been broken off and his left tip was slightly worn from age. Andre’ wanted to know if I would shoot him. Without hesitation I said “yes!” In fact, I wanted this old bull more than any “trophy” bull out there. I didn’t care about scores or symmetry. This bull was exactly what I was looking for. A mean-ass, butt-ugly buffalo bull that was smart and tough and had been around the block. Andre was happy with my answer. He wanted him too. Lots of guys shoot 36” buffalo with hard bosses and good curls that score well in SCI, but few ever see such a massive creature with such character. We were both focused on him.
The massive old bull that I wanted so badly
His position was not good, so Dominga got down on his belly and we crawled through some of the nastiest crap you can imagine until we were in a patch of brush just 30 yards from the bull and broadside. He had cows all around and occasionally his vitals would come into view - but not long enough for me to draw. We stayed put. This was going to work. There were at least 60 buffalo in plain sight and not one of them knew we were in position a mere 90 feet away. My heart was in my mouth and my breathing was deep and fast. I was nervous but still in control.
With the wind perfect and blowing steadily around 10 miles an hour nothing could go wrong. Or so I thought. A half dozen cattle egrets landed on limbs above us but I thought nothing of it. By the look Dominga gave Andre I knew something was wrong. They flew from branch to branch and began to cackle. The bedded buffalo came to their feet and they all looked in our direction before moving out of sight. “The birds gave us away” Andre said. The buffalo knew there was something up even though they never detected us directly. Through years of partnership buffalo learned to trust these birds.
I was so close once again!
Now if it were me, I’d have given up and searched for another herd. These guys kept on this one and again we were stalking, crawling on our knees, and finally on our stomachs for hundreds of yards before we were back into the herd again.
From where I was standing I saw nothing. We had dug ourselves into a thick patch of brush with a tiny shooting hole in front of us. I couldn’t see it, but the buffalo were feeding in a straight line. Andre motioned for me to get in front of him while Willem and Dominga hung back. I could hear the buffalo, but couldn’t see them. Dominga grabbed us and motioned for us to quickly move back! I questioned why. But listened anyway and stepped back about 8 yards under his direction. Just then a buffalo cow appeared. She was working the edge of the reeds and had I not moved would have been within an arms’ length of her and her calf.
We watched as the entire herd kept coming. My visibility was quite poor and I had one completely clear shooting lane that gave me no lead time to draw. At least 20 buffalo fed by when suddenly Andre said “that’s a nice bull, take him” I drew my bow. No sooner had the bull walked into the lane then he was out of it again. But my brain went dead and I continued to track him from behind the brush until I had what I thought was a clean shot. I released and my arrow deflected on the brush toward the ground.
The herd ran off and I knew I had screwed up. My first and only shot ever at a cape buffalo and I pulled the ultimate rookie mistake. I had no clear shot and let my intense desire to kill a bull get the better of me. The herd ran off a short distance and then casually walked away. The bull I shot at was a nice one; he had hard bosses and would make anyone proud to take him with either gun or bow. I kicked myself over and over again but before I could beat myself up too bad, Andre and Dominga were back in stealth mode.
They crept into a small island and were strategizing again. Andre backed up and said “Pat, come now” I moved up front as we moved around the far side of that little island. Andre pulled up his rangefinder and said “26 yards” and pointed to the ground where I should kneel. I got an arrow out and clipped on my release. No sooner had I done that when I caught the glimpse of a cape buffalo feeding toward me. But it wasn’t just any buffalo, it was the old man of the swamp; that massive old bull we had seen earlier.
Now, let’s talk about shot placement. Very few animals we ever bowhunt are 2000 lbs. or more. And out of those, fewer still have a kill area smaller than a paper plate. The buffalo is one of them. And shot placement was all I thought about until the bull looked up and stared me down. Despite wearing the perfect camo pattern for these swamps I was very close and very open. He saw something, but I remained frozen with my bow raised, my release clipped and the brim of my hat slightly lowered to shield my face.
Taken from the video frame just before I shot
The bull took two more feeding steps and looked up again. I knew Andre was behind me with the artillery but the last thing I wanted to hear was a gunshot. I kept it together even though my heartbeats and breathing were off the charts. The buffalo turned to feed and I saw my chance. I drew my 90lb Bowtech Tribute and put the twenty yard pin right on “the triangle” which every buffalo bowhunter burns into his brain. Everything else was as I had practiced. A smooth release and a perfectly arced arrow that cracked upon entry and buried all the way to the nock!
Immediately after the shot the bull spun to face us. It was the longest 1/2 second of my life.
The bull lunged forward and ran to his left before turning completely around and facing us. His last thought had to be fight or flight. Thank God he chose the latter. He turned and ran off toward the herd. They were still trying to figure out what was going on. I asked Andre and Willem for their assessment of the shot but deep down I knew I was on the money. Before I could so much as stand up, Andre said “He’s down already!”
I couldn’t believe it! Four years of imagining this moment, worrying about penetration, shot placement, and how I, and my gear, would perform at the moment of truth. I’ve had whitetails go farther than this 1600lb Cape buffalo. He was down in 10 seconds and dead in 30.
We still waited a half hour. This was more for the other buffalo whom had now grouped up and were agitated. I’ve also been around dangerous game long enough to know that most of the time it’s the ‘dead ones’ that kill you so I was perfectly happy with spending these moments slapping backs, shaking hands, and thanking Andre, Willem and Dominga for the team effort and making my lifelong dream come true.
Andre congratulated me as I thanked him for making my dream come true.
Walking up to my 3rd dangerous game species was filled with anticipation. I’d never seen a bull with such mass. This one was remarkable. What a hunt!
Pat Lefemine, Willem Van Dyk, and Andre Van Deventer
We spent an hour taking photos while Dominga ran back to fetch the Argo. They caped and butchered my bull but I had one last request. It was important to me and it was an unbelievable opportunity for me to share with all of you. I won’t say what it is, but we will be bringing it to you in our next feature immediately following this one.
With the Argo loaded up, we drove back to camp where we spent my last night in the swamp. I will never forget this place, or this hunt. I am truly thankful now that my previous two attempts in South Africa were unsuccessful. This experience was by far one of the best I’ve ever had anywhere in Africa. And I hope to return to Mozambique again one day. For any of you thinking about hunting a cape buffalo – there is no other place to be. And now I know how the great Safari hunters of yesteryear felt.