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The Serengeti Serena resort in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, is not a place you go to hunt animals. It is a luxury camp (around $500 a night) where tourists relax before setting off in jeeps to take pictures of the local wildlife. My parents brought me there in 2010 to watch the great wildebeest migration. It's pretty cushy, but that doesn't mean it's safe. The resort has a rule: You must be escorted everywhere after dark by an ascari (Swahili for security guard, or warrior). They'd walk us around the complex with a big flashlight. They had no weaponry of any kind, and little if any training on how to deal with wildlife.
My family was sitting in the outdoor dining area, watching the sun go down and listening to the guinea fowl return to their roost. We saw the lone flashlight of an ascari walking a mzungu (white guest) back to his bungalow. Then I saw a large, shadowy figure appear out of the darkness no more than 25 yards in front of them. It was the immediately recognizable shape of a Cape buffalo.
Oh, they also kill lions. Not for meat -- they're herbivores. They're simply not f*****g around. And unlike lions, which are a threatened species, there is absolutely no shortage of this particular murder monster.
I yelled to the guard, "Hatari! MBOGO! NYATI MBOGO!" (This is the most important line of Swahili you can know: "Danger, buffalo! There is an angry buffalo!") The ascari ran to the nearest tree, 25 yards away, and scrambled up it. The guest didn't speak Swahili, or English for that matter, but he eventually got the idea and sprinted for the main camp.
With all of the commotion, the other guards showed up and figured they should do something. Not knowing what that might be, they all started yelling and screaming, hoping to scare the buffalo away. Unfortunately, this angered the buffalo. He charged the guards from about 25 yards away, which gave them all just enough time to scatter. The buffalo, feeling cheated, looked around for someone else to kill. He saw the rest of us sitting on the deck, under the lights, practically on display just for him, and said, "Yeah, alright."
He was 35 yards away and turning toward us. Some 15 tables' worth of people got up simultaneously and rushed back inside, clogging the French doors. I stayed where I was. But beside me was an earthen vase with Maasai spears thrown in for decoration. I grabbed one. As the buffalo closed in -- ten yards away, eight, nine -- I didn't raise the spear, or prepare to throw it. I'd never held a spear before. I merely stayed still and braced myself like I was in a lacrosse game, getting ready to make a massive tackle. Then the buffalo stopped about three yards away. He skidded to a complete halt, casually turned around, and trotted off into the Serengeti.
"Do you think it was because I held my ground?" I asked later as one of the staff poured me a drink.
"Haha, no," he said. "It was the wall."
I'd forgotten about the three-foot stone wall surrounding the dining area.
"But he could have jumped the wall, right?"
"Maybe," he said. "But don't think he was scared of you! Or of THAT."
He pointed to one of the dull spears, which were purely decorative. I could never have stopped a buffalo with that. I'd need a different weapon.
Two months later, my semester studying abroad in Tanzania was coming to an end. And wouldn't you know it? The program's local guide happened to be a licensed professional hunter. Talking with him, I got the magically stupid idea of hunting the animal that had almost killed me.
Our party began the hunt by setting off from the city of Arusha and driving four hours out onto the plains, where my guide had us stop at a village to buy some funny-looking plants.
"These are just weeds," Peter, one of our party, said.
They were Cannabis sativa L.
"Buffalo hunting stresses me out," the guide said. "This helps."
Buffalo hunting is very dangerous, and doing it with anything other than a clear mind is not a good idea, but being a budding anthropologist, I decided not to cast judgment on practices I did not understand.
That night, I went to grab my rifle, but Peter told me, "You can't use that. That will be a backup rifle, but you have to shoot this."
He handed me a beautiful Sako Safari Rifle in .458 Win mag. These retail for around $9,000.
"Holy crap," I said. "So, should I ... shoot it? Right now? You know, just to test it out?"
"No," he said. "Ammo's too expensive."
That night, going to my tent, Peter said, "Hey, Don't forget your rifle!"
I was a little taken aback, because up to this point, the rifles spent nights locked in the Land Rover. But because we were really out in the wilderness now and predators could wander into camp, I had to sleep with a rifle. A few nights later, we'd find leopard tracks right outside of camp.
It was the second-to-last day, 30 minutes before last light, when the tracker spotted a buffalo. "Dume, dume!" he said -- Swahili for male, male. "It's a male! It has balls!"
"I don't see a thing," I said. All I could see through the scope was thick African brush. No movement, no black shapes.
"Shoot!" he said, jiggling his binoculars. "He has balls! He has two balls! Shoot him!"
My guide had to position the rifle for me, and suddenly there was the buffalo's ass, about 180 meters away. Far, far from an ideal shot. My only hope was to hit the spine. I had three people urging me to shoot. My adrenaline was pumping. Tunnel vision. Sound fading away. As soon my finger hit the trigger, I saw nothing but clear Tanzanian sky. The .458 Winchester Magnum was a beast itself.
The shot only startled the buffalo, enough to make it turn broadside. I took my second shot. The hill went black. More buffalo. So many more buffalo. Apparently a whole herd had been sitting there in the shade.
The guide yelled "Shoot again!"
I realized I should probably find my buffalo and keep shooting at it. Those things can never be too dead. With the third shot, the other buffalo kicked into high gear and were gone. My ears were ringing, my shoulder was throbbing, but I got him. Then the guide looked at me and said, "You hit one, maybe two buffalo." We only had a tag for one, and our guide thought the first buffalo was the only bull in the whole herd.
The worst thing you can do when you're buffalo hunting is wound an animal. They get extremely aggressive, and will charge anyone or anything that gets near them, including trackers, villagers, children, and stupid 20-year-olds who didn't demand to sight in the rifle first. And don't think that you're safe just because you have a gun on you. A very experienced British hunter once tracked a wounded Cape buffalo to finish it off, and it caught him by surprise, tossing him and killing him.
"But I saw the buffalo kick when I shot it, both times!" I said.
"Yeah," said the guide. "But there was no death bellow." Cape buffalo let out a low, guttural moan as the last breath leaves their body. I had read about this for years, but in the heat of the moment, it had completely slipped my mind.
It was getting dark, so I had to spend a sleepless night in my tent worrying about some poor villager getting gored by the buffalo I'd injured. I drank the better part of a bottle of gin, but it didn't help me sleep; it just made for a miserable next morning.
15 minutes into searching, and the trackers said they smelled buffalo. There was blood on the ground, and we followed it.
"You hit just one, it's good," said a tracker.
We came to the body. It had died mid-stride. My first shot went through one shoulder, both lungs, and the aorta, and my second, moving shot severed the jugular. It was a clean kill, and the bull didn't make it more than 100 yards before expiring.
This wasn't trophy hunting. Meat is a luxury in East Africa. We hired 15 donkeys (and 20 Maasai kids) to haul the whole thing off.
We pulled the organs out and threw them in the fire to cook while we cleaned the buffalo.
"It's huge!" I said. "Is it a record?"
"Ah, no," said one of the guides. "It's not even mature."
"Look at the bosses [the horns]. Still soft. It's a child, this one."
We cut off some more meat.
"Still impressive, that I bagged it though, right?"
"Uh? Yeah, yeah, sure. Good job, mzungu. For you, good job."
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