Tracking buffalo in Zimbabwe – too close for comfort

A buffalo standing in the grass

I had accidentally walked into a herd of irate buffalo boys and they looked at me with their beady eyes. Deep in the Zimbabwe bush, I realised my buffalo tracking skills were not as good as I thought they were.

Whilst I was working in Zimbabwe, many years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Bumi Hills, a fantastic lodge up on the edge of Lake Kariba and with views to die for. At the time I was working in Save Valley Conservancy and I had the great opportunity to be sponsored by Zimbabwe Sun Hotels. I say great opportunity as I got to visit a lot of the top notch hotels in Zimbabwe and stay there for free. That was only if I was going with one of the ZimSun hotel representatives. I couldn’t just march into a hotel and expect free board and lodging, which was a pity.

A Visit to Bumi Hills

So there I was, in a very small plane, being flown up to Bumi Hills for the day. After a few buzzes over the airstrip, to encourage the resident giraffe to move off, we landed on the shores of Lake Kariba.

We drove to the lodge and I was shown to my room.  Firstly, I was not expecting my own room, I thought that I was there for a day, although I had been warned to pack for a few days, and secondly the room was set in a stunning location that left me open mouthed.  The room was on the top of an escarpment overlooking Lake Kariba, it was so high up that I could see onto the back of a bateleur eagle flying below. The balcony was suspended out over the dizzy heights of Kariba plains. Everything had been thought of with the architecture blending into the natural surroundings. It was stunning.

It was also siesta time, so in true Africa style I had an hour snooze and then got up to look for the others. Maybe there would be time for a game drive before we left? I was right about the first part, I was in time for a game drive, the second part was that the rest had left me behind. I found out that I had been given the opportunity to stay for 5 days, to learn more about the wildlife and to increase my knowledge about all things Africa. What an opportunity to be given, and how generous. I embraced it with both arms.

The Art of Tracking Buffalo

And so began my five day extravaganza of learning more about the African wildlife from the guides and going out with them to do survey work, checking on the wildlife and being part of the crew. There were no clients there so I mucked in with them all. I went bug collecting, tree sampling and dung analysing, it was information overload and I absorbed it all. I learnt about butterflies, the resident elephant and how to track buffalo. The art of tracking buffalo came in very handy the following day, it was a good job that I was paying attention.

Two buffalo wallowing in a pool

Buffalo are dangerous animals, being one of the Big 5. They are not to be messed with. There are two types of herd that are normally found in Africa. The first is the breeding herd with a dominant male, females and calves. The second is the bachelor herd composed of youngsters that re-join the breeding herd later on, and older males that remain outside the herd as they can no longer compete with younger bulls.

The older males are often called ‘dagga boys’ as they spend most of their time wallowing in “dagga” (Zulu for mud) which helps to prevent flies landing on them. These dagga boys are no longer robust enough to compete for breeding stakes and are therefore rather hacked off with life, taking their anger out on most things. They are best avoided at all costs.

A Close Encounter

I was out with one of the guides to check on the whereabouts of the buffalo when we accidentally stumbled upon these dagga boys.

We had been watching the main herd of buffalo and were walking back to the lodge when we realised that we had just entered a group of dagga boys, and they knew we were there too. I immediately put a tree between myself and the buffalo, it was a rather thin tree to say the least, but a tree, what ever the size was better than none.  Well, it felt better for me anyway. I held my breath. There was no large crashing through the under growth, no sudden movements, and no bellowing; we were safe for the moment.

Two buffalo feeding

There were eight that I could count nearby, and I was certain that there were others in the bushes. I looked all around me and ensured that my tree was in the right place in relation to the buffalo. There were none behind us, which was a good thing. I did not want a buffalo to sneak up on me, which do have the tendency to do.

A Safe Extraction?

The next issue was how we were going to extract ourselves from the situation. Quietly was definitely one of the options, the other was with all limbs intact. I felt I was in a Tom and Jerry cartoon. We tippy toed from one thin tree to the next, trying to make ourselves very slim to accommodate each tree. I’m sure I could even hear the tinkle noise as we moved from one hiding place to the next! I could feel my heart exploding out of my chest. If it had not been so scary it would have been very funny. I am sure I now hold the world record for the longest held breath, it felt like half an hour.

Eventually we emerged out of our buffalo ambush, unscathed and certainly relieved.  With tentative scanning of the area we made it to the bar for a beer. That beer had never tasted so good.

Even now, after all these years of being in the bush, tracking buffalo makes me rather twitchy.

They are excellent in the art of ambushing.

Jenny Bowen

Author: Jenny Bowen

I live for travel, whether it is at home or abroad. It is a joy to explore new places, meet new people and to have an adventure. There are so many wonderful places to visit and such fascinating wildlife to see, you never know what is around the corner! Live life to the full and restore you soul.