Cape Buffalo Dreams

Cape Buffalo Dreams

Story and Photos: J. Alain Smith

Cape buffalo are quite possibly the most iconic dangerous game animal in the world of big game hunting. 

They have been written about for centuries by every explorer, adventurer and nimrod that has dared spend time in the wilds of the Dark Continent. From Ruark to Hemingway, Livingstone to Capstick, the big black buff has given authors plenty of thrilling material to write about. Perhaps because they inhabit most of the continent and provide tons of nyama [Swahili for meat] to any safari’s larder, they have been hunted more than most any other species and are definitely the most hunted of the Big Five. With an uncanny ability to absorb lead and stay on their feet, seething in rage and seeking revenge on the bastard that caused all the pain, they have provided many a hunter all the thrills he can handle and then some.

Depending on which study or author you wish to believe, buffalo tend to rank third in the most likely to kill you category, behind Crocodile and Hippo. Croc and hippo annually kill a lot of village people even today and decimate the local people population who live by the rivers and lakes. Both are ridiculously aggressive and Hippo especially have a well-earned reputation for aggression towards anyone who gets in their way whether on land or in the water.

Croc on the other side of the spectrum, kill you because they want to eat you, that’s it. Besides the few man eating lion and leopard made famous throughout history, Croc really are the only animal that looks at you the same way you look at a T-bone steak.

However, when the ceremony is held to present the award for “the animal most likely to kill you while you are hunting,” Buffalo take the gold, silver and bronze medals every time.

Being naturally ill tempered, especially when being pursued by hunters who do not kill them cleanly and have to follow the massive beasts wounded into the thickets they inevitably run to, these huge masses of aggression turn into one of Africa’s most efficient killers. Even when not wounded Cape buffalo and their assorted cousins that occupy a variety of habitat are infamous for not backing down from a fight, or for that matter, starting a fight. Their only predator, the mighty king of the jungle himself, the African Lion, looses more than three quarters of his attempts at taking down a buff. Smaller sized meat eaters don’t bother messing with buffalo, it's just not worth it. The deadly defense mechanism of Syncerus caffer is the hooked sweeping horns, deceptive in that you would guess they would be sharp and pointed at the tips considering all the damage they can do. But they are not; they are worn and rounded off. Where the damage comes from is the massive neck and shoulder muscles that drive the horn thru flesh and bones as if was bloody Jell-O. When a human being is hit by a bull’s horn, the internal damage is beyond brutal as its hydrostatic shock value pulverizes everything in its path.

Growing up, I was blessed at an early age with being turned on to the classic authors who wrote about their African experiences. The long travel, the indigenous natives, the deadly diseases, the poisonous snakes, the bandits and the daily ritual of fighting for survival were all part of the tales of adventures. For me though, the meat and potatoes of the books as far as I was concerned was the encounters with buffalo. I spent many a night reading over and over again about natives and white hunters being gored, tossed in the air like a rag doll, bleeding to death in a matter of minutes from the gaping wounds inflicted by the bull's deadly sweeping curved horns, along with the abject fear related to sneaking in on a wounded and very switched-on dagga boy. Like many young men in the 1960’s and 70’s I was captivated and longed to go on my own first safari, mainly to pursue Black Death on his terms, mano-e-mano.

When I finally got my chance to travel to Africa for the first time, hunting a Cape buffalo was at the top of my bucket list. Of course, I wanted to shoot some other stuff like Kudu, Impala, zebra and warthog, but the only reason I had saved all my nickels for so many years in preparation for the hunt was so I could kill a monster Cape Buffalo, period.

The hunt took place in the Dande concession of northern Zimbabwe in September of 1988. The owner of the area was a fine gentleman named Ian Piercy whose company was called Zambezi Hunters. Camp was a comfortable layout of thatched roofs with log poles supporting them. Underneath was our safari tent and across the swept sand stood the kitchen and dining area. This was the trip I began keeping daily handwritten journals of my hunts. Here is the excerpt from page one, book one:

Sept. 1 1988

Africa is all it’s made out to be. The wildness, the animals, the sheer number of animals is staggering. Our first day we’ve seen Cape Buffalo, kudu, bushbuck, duiker, klipspringer, impala, warthog and elephant bulls. Also, we’ve seen a lot of Black rhino sign. This is one of the last strong holds of the Black Rhino in the wild and I’d feel honored to see and hopefully photograph one. Hunted with Sten the old Kenya hunter.

My first encounter with a real Cape Buffalo, in the flesh, did not go well at all. I missed the first good bull I saw at 100 yards standing broadside. Truth be told, I was scared out of my wits by the recoil from the brand new 375 H&H I had bought only a few months before the safari began. I did not practice enough with it, it had a heavy factory trigger pull and the ammo I had selected on the recommendation of my booking agent did not group well in that rifle. That’s my list of excuses…

I learned a lot of buffalo hunting lessons on that first trip. A couple others were... 

Stay calm if possible when a brute that can rearrange your life plan is staring at you from close quarters.

Squeeze the trigger, don’t jerk it, even when scared senseless.

If you don’t have a good shot, wait until you get one.

You can never make up for a lousy first shot, so make sure the first shot is a good one. Nothing ruins a safari quicker than having to follow a meager blood trail for days on end with trackers and a PH who now think you are a complete bozo and should stick with putt putt golf.

I did eventually collect a tremendous bull after some serious lousy shooting occurred a few days later. It was almost impossible for me to miss the second time. We found the bull since my PH and I snuck inside 50 yards for a guaranteed “you can’t miss shot.” Let’s just say it still took several shots from my new rifle as well as the professional hunter's gun to bring the beast down.

When I think back on the whole safari, I realize I probably should have started with a plains game hunt, something a little tamer than chasing one of the Big Five right after I got off the plane. Between a completely new environment, time zone changes, switching PH’s in the middle of the safari [a whole story of its own], a leopard mauling one of the staff and Al Smith more worked up than Barack Obama at a Ted Nugent concert, it’s actually a miracle I killed anything on my first safari. 

After this first buff hunt I became completely addicted to chasing them. It was all I dreamed about, it became an all-consuming desire to return to the thrilling, adrenaline pumped plains of Africa and pursue my passions. That is whenever it was financially feasible.

Having just a few years earlier started a business with only $1500.00 in my pocket that I was barely able to scrape together and still trying to grow the enterprise into something worthwhile, I rarely had the time or the money to go to Africa in my early years. However, whenever I saved up enough cashola and could slip away from work for a couple weeks I did, and I hunted every buff the various governments would let me shoot, legally.

Hunting, in all reality, helped me become more successful in business for the simple reason that I came to the conclusion if I didn’t make a lot more money than I was, I could not go back to Africa or other dynamic hunting destinations like Asia. I wrote down a new business plan on my way home from Zimbabwe on a lined yellow note pad and kicked my business career into high gear as soon as I returned to my tiny office. All because of a desire to return to Africa and get a “scare the crap out of yourself” dose of chasing big stuff that can kill you.

I loved business and I still enjoy the art of the deal, but let me be honest, only when you have a rifle in your hand, sweat running down your back, palms soaked from wound up nerves and mouth drier than the Sahara are you really living life to the fullest.

At least in my not so humble opinion.

All of J. Alain Smith’s books can be found at and full episodes of Rugged Expeditions can be found at

Posted in Stories from the Hunt