The car engine, in low gear, screamed as we hit the first few metres of black mud, the spinning wheels met the water and threw a spray in a high arc either side of the truck. I quickly shifted into a lower gear and felt the tires gain some semblance of purchase on the slick muddy bottom of the swamp we were crossing. The trackers yelled from the back and the car crept towards the dry western bank, slowly losing speed as the front of the Toyota Land Cruiser plunged beneath the chocolate brown water. I shifted down again and felt the front wheels grip the rocky bottom as the vehicle pulled itself, water streaming out, from the grip of the mud and water. This was the Maasailand rainy season, a tough time on vehicles, an endless four-wheel drive adventure, but also the very best buffalo hunting in Africa and the very best time to be there.
Operating in Maasailand
Lolkisale, synonymous with huge herds of buffalo and incredible genetics, owned and operated by Harpreet Brar and Rungwa Safaris, this concession has for many years yielded some incredible buffalo. The wet season in particular is a time when the herds literally stream out of the adjacent Tarangire National Park. We were here for 21 days, not just for the buffalo, but in search of a big elephant as well. It was week two and we had been in buffalo almost every day and seen well over 500 elephants so far. Running a camp in Maasailand is not for the faint-hearted – it is a logistical nightmare through the dry season with no surface water and a water-truck hauling every drop that the camp needs through miles and miles of bad roads. In the wet season, river crossings, swamps and sticky black mud hinder one’s passage, sending vehicle repair and maintenance bills through the roof. Yes indeed, it takes an exceptional team to manage an area like this, to operate a camp that’s comfortable in the heavy downpours and sufficiently serviced with water when the earth is tinder dry.
Harpreet is a unique individual – unlike many outfitters operating on government land, Harpreet sees a 20-year-plus vision. In spite of generous government quotas, his offtake is a fraction of that due to heavily self-imposed regulations and requirements set by his PHs with regard not only to actual numbers shot, but also to trophy size and the ages of target animals. Tanzanian by birth and with a deep love of the wild areas of his country, Harpreet sees not just the short-term financial gain but the long-term conservation goals that will ensure that the blocks he owns – through careful management, aggressive anti-poaching and limited offtake – continue to provide the very best in trophy quality and genetics for many generations.
For hundreds of years the Maasai have roamed these open grasslands, following the rains; their herds of scrawny cattle providing food, status and wealth. Ironically wealth is now coming from tourism and displayed in cattle, the very cattle that are threatening the income by virtue of the fact that their large numbers and competition for water and grazing are displacing many of the more sensitive wild animal species and simply outcompeting others.
One of the attractions of Maasailand is the Maasai themselves. A very traditional tribe and fiercely protective of their heritage, these people live in the area following their nomadic routes. Little has changed in the way they dress – two pieces of red or purple cloth wrapped simply around themselves, with the ever-present walking stick or spear completing the look. Their habits and culture are dominated by two factors, two very important factors, namely their cattle and water. Traditionally feeding only on blood drawn from their cows and mixed with milk, these desert nomads would wander far and wide across the plains of central East Africa, following the water and the grazing.
Like everything in Africa today, however, times are changing and the culture is starting to get somewhat diluted. In northern Lolkisale large areas are ploughed at this time of the year and crops raised; few are the Maasai who feed exclusively on the traditional blood and milk mixture. It is interesting to note that in areas such as Lolkisale, and the famous Ngorongoro Conservation Area, the Maasai earn money from the tourists that pass through that area attracted by the herds of wildlife so abundant. It’s a self-destructing circle, however, as the money earned from the sightseers is often spent on cattle and the huge growth in the number of cattle resulting from this increased wealth is in danger of displacing the wildlife. Less wildlife = less tourists so the very asset that is creating the wealth is threatened by the wealth itself – another of Africa’s “unbalanced circles”! On the other hand, the Maasai traditionally don’t eat any wild game meat – it is therefore not uncommon to be hunting and see them literally in between herds of wildlife, possibly the only tribe in Africa that does not have direct conflict with the grazing species. Indeed, many NGOs visit the Maasai community, treating children, providing drought relief in the driest times, and digging wells which attract massive numbers of cattle into concentrated areas. Alas! Very little emphasis is placed on the simple fact that with help in the driest months, together with medical care, infant mortality has significantly dropped, yet family size remains the same, hence a very fast growing population in that part of the world.To read more, subscribe now!
Water – the very essence of life and the whole reason why a hunt is so spectacular in the wet season. Of course there are a few hidden seeps and springs here and there, many of them dug out by the Maasai who use them by day and the wildlife by night. To this end, as soon as the rains have been sufficient to create surface water in the form of puddles, river bottoms and pans, the buffalo come streaming in. A herd of 100 animals would be considered small and it’s not at all unusual to see herds of 450 or even 600 animals several times a day! It’s incredible how fast the lush green grass springs from the dusty plains, and within a matter of days the ground is a carpet of green. Days that start with clear blue skies like a fresh gift from God, quickly heat up, clouds build and on many afternoons scattered thunderstorms rumble across the plains, dropping their life-giving loads.
These rains are welcomed by all, from the huge African bullfrogs, the winged alates swarming from the termite mounds to start their new kingdoms – the deafening roar of a million frogs as one drives past the swamps, and of course the migration of first the zebra and wildebeest and then later the buffalo herds. Yes indeed – Maasailand is dependent on its rains and when they come the burst of life, life of every kind, is breathtaking!
Too many animals!
Hunting buffalo from a herd of 600 individuals in the flat acacia scrubland of Maasailand is no easy task. We had been walking for almost an hour. Having spotted the herd from the next ridge and seeing that the wind was perfect, we now found ourselves in the bottom of a small mbuga (river bottom). We could hear the grunting of buffalo as they grazed towards us, but we were trapped! As I slowly walked up the bank to take a peek, the closest cow, about 40 yards out, stopped grazing and looked in my direction. I froze, whispered to Andy Macdonald, my cameraman, to keep filming and to stay still. The cow was in a group of about 10, the hillside behind her dotted with hundreds of her herd mates – we were close enough to hear her breathe as she tried to work out what we were. She blew and turned around, walking back into her small group as we retreated back down into the narrow, sandy river bed.
We went up about 200 yards and emerged right in the midst of an acacia thicket – again, all we could see was a small fraction of the herd, all with their heads down in the thick green growth that just two weeks ago was blackened by the dry season’s grass fires. Ten minutes later I knew there was nothing shootable within range here and we went back into the mbuga and walked another 100 yards up. The bush either side of us was thinning noticeably and several times we froze for fear that we had been seen. It was time for another peek – we slowly walked up towards the open when something caught my eye; I stared into the dense green wall in front of us and the shine of a wet, freshly muddied horn came into sight. We were about 4 metres away from a young bull grazing at the base of one of the thorny acacias, completely oblivious to our presence. He shook his head, his ears loudly slapping his horns and I nearly jumped out of my skin! Andy was frozen behind me, his camera rolling. I reached into my back pocket for my ash bag and gave it a twitch; the ash fell straight down to my feet – no wind in here at all! That was almost worse than bad wind as our scent would be filling the area and the smallest breeze would send this bull off, and at this distance it could be right towards us – or away from us into the herd, taking them all with him. His next step turned him away from us. Another twitch on my ash bag showed a slight drift down the valley, the air carrying our scent off to our right.
We were trapped!
The young bull was slowly (way too slowly) feeding away from us at just 7 or 8 metres. To my consternation three old bulls, none of which were sufficiently wide to take, were walking down the valley towards us. They were still about 25 yards off so slowly, ever so slowly, we sank to our knees in the mud and started to scoot back. Samueli, my lead tracker, hissed and, looking back at him, he indicated with his eyes yet another buffalo, this time a cow walking down to the mbuga – right there, she lay down and started horning the mud. I whispered to the group to just relax and stay still. My .600 was in my lap and we were all huddled, touching each other. The old bull in the lead stopped, lifted his head and I thought we were busted. Then he started rubbing his boss in the drying mud at the edge of a puddle in our mbuga. So far so good; they hadn’t seen us, they hadn’t smelt us – but still all we could see was six of the many hundreds of animals in the herd.
A flick of movement caught my eye, close, very close, a dik-dik – no wait . . . two dik-dik . . . coming right towards us. I don’t know what they saw but the tiny male, his total body weight no more than 5 kilograms, gave his little snort and dashed off. The closest young bull lifted his head and blew, strands of saliva and crushed grass hanging from his lips, then he snorted and trotted off, alerting the cow behind us and the three old guys in front of us. Within seconds there was a thunder of hooves. “Come quick!” I leapt up and we dashed up the small rise and stopped to an amazing sight – there were buffalo running everywhere. I quickly got the sticks up, got the shooter on them and told everyone to stay ready and still. At about 60 yards the herd was milling around, all looking back, their heads held high, searching for the source of disturbance. As the minutes ticked by some started feeding again while others lay down. My eyes seemed to be bulging from their sockets so hard was I looking, my binoculars glued to my face as I scanned for a big bull, sweeping back and forth across the herd. I knew that time was of the essence here. We had a perfect set-up, we could see at least 30% of the herd and many were bulls – but try as I might there was nothing worthy of day two – not yet. The light breeze on the back of my neck was all the warning I needed. Two seconds later we had a wall of tails, grunting and jostling as the herd went another 200 yards. We had been close, so, so close, but yet so far!
Hunting – not just killing
That evening, as we sat around the fire recounting our experience, just one of three buffalo encounters that we had had that day, I was pleased to see how the involvement in hunting these beasts was truly taking over from the trophy itself. In the first few days my hunter had been focused 100% on size, but as the hunt progressed he was becoming more and more enamoured with the hunt itself. After all, in my opinion, the experience was the trophy. That is not to say that I would not be thrilled with a huge trophy, but in spite of the fact that we had returned to camp without a buffalo that day, none of us felt a sense of failure. On the contrary, it was a complete success – after all we were on a buffalo hunt, not just a shoot!
We did in fact take three very nice bulls on that safari, and for many days we had the very best buffalo hunting imaginable. We climbed mountains and glassed the vast and verdant plains, we tracked for hours, stalked and spent countless hours “engaged” with various herds or groups. We didn’t hunt buffalo, we hunted passion! And looking back as I sort through the photos of those three huge skulls, it’s clear that they are simply a reminder, simply a souvenir, something to take home that will evoke memories of all the great moments we experienced – sitting frozen still in the mud, crawling, walking and driving; the emotional roller coaster that careened from eager expectation to deep disappointment in seconds, from tension to elation and everything in between; the sights and sounds, the incredible scenery and the game that we encountered. Being up to our knees in mud as we winched and pushed and shoved to get our vehicle out of the mud – getting drenched as we hunted through heavy summer showers – surrounded by buffalo in the pouring rain. Yes, this was hunting – Maasailand, Rungwa Safaris, a buffalo paradise!
About the Author
Ivan Carter was born and raised in Zimbabwe and began his professional hunting career in 1988. He received his PH licence in Zimbabwe in 1990. With his passion for elephants and other big game, today Ivan is licensed to hunt in Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Botswana and spends over 180 days in the field each year in pursuit of dangerous game. He is the host of Dallas Safari Club’s Tracks Across Africa TV show on the outdoor channel. Ivan is a great advocate for sustainable and ethical hunting and truly believes in hunting as a conservation tool.
Like or friend Ivan on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ivancartersafrica and follow him on his adventures in the field . . .
Maasai, like many tribal folks, are always fascinated by their own image.
Maasai in traditional gear with their cattle.
Our second buffalo bull
Samueli, my lead tracker, and I glassing from a distance
The thick bush meant that you often would only get to see one or two of the herd, in this case a huge bull.