Death Charge

There was no escape from the sledgehammer blows of a wounded Cape buffalo's horns.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Dawn spread over the mopane trees like a wave of gold. Another glorious African day was upon me. I had been hunting professionally for 15 years and my work had taken me all over south-central and eastern Africa, but I considered every day I spent on those rolling plains in Maasailand in northern Tanzania a great privilege. I was one of a fortunate few capable of making a living amid this wild magnificence.

With Kilimanjaro towering omnipresent in the background and the untamed unknown stretching out before me, there was always the smell of excitement in the cool breeze that drifted over the savannah. Slicing through the territory like angry old scars were the mostly dry riverbeds lined by the combretum thickets that provided daytime shelter for the area's many Cape buffalo. I had hunted in these tangled growths for buffalo many times before, and each time I had felt the adrenaline charge that comes from encountering this grand adversary up close.

My client, Paul Hicks, was a young cattle trader from Dallas. He was an American classic, with dark good looks that introduced a thoroughly decent man-exuberant, energetic and steadfast. Thanks to him I live, and sit here today to write this story.

Wounded at Dusk
It was around 4 p.m., and the big bull on the edge of the thicket looked straight at us as we looked at him. He held his head high as his nose worked the wind. Paul took a careful bead on the brisket and I watched the rifle jerk under his sweat-soaked cheekbone as he fired, but the moment I heard the thud and saw the reaction of the bull I knew we had a problem. The look on Paul's face told me he was not happy with his shot.

I looked over at my tracker, Miragi, and noted his frown with concern. He had been with me since my arrival in the country five years earlier, had helped me find my feet and had shown commendable patience as my Swahili tutor. A slight whip of a man with a sparkling smile, boundless energy and a most pleasant disposition, he excelled at not listening to me when it suited him. He could irritate the hell out of me, but he was a loyal and willing trooper and we had formed a strong alliance.

I was fearful as I watched the big bull disappear. The next stage was almost certainly going to be unpleasant. The vegetation lining the riverbeds was a snarl of dense thorn, and the rocky ground would make tracking difficult and dangerous. The thick cover offered little visibility, ensuring that our next encounter would be at close quarters.

The specks of blood we discovered brought more bad news. An aerated, pink hue would have been a heartening sign of a lethal lung shot, but the dark red blood we saw indicated the likelihood of a muscle wound.

We entered the thicket and moved quickly and perhaps a bit recklessly, but as night was falling, I was in a hurry to close in and kill the bull. I could see Miragi was wary yet I cut him no slack. In the last moments of daylight I spotted a solid, indistinguishable black lump up ahead. I crept closer and realized it was a buffalo, though I couldn't be sure it was the wounded one. I considered opening fire but restrained myself and moved closer still. Regrettably, the animal sprang into action and bolted away. My stomach sank as I noted the pool of blood where he had been lying. I had missed my chance to bring the proceedings to an end. Heavy of heart, we made our way back to camp.

At 5 a.m. the next day, I switched on my shortwave radio to the BBC News and was delighted to hear that my boyhood friend Nick Price had won the British Open. I couldn't help but smile at the tapestry that is life as I considered our wildly disparate situations.

As dawn arrived, we positioned ourselves back on the tracks. Initially, we made good progress, but then the blood spoor petered out. I knew there was a chance that the animal was only lightly wounded. But there was also theossibility that the shot had raked down the body, missing the vitals and puncturing the stomach. This would inflict terrific pain and ensure a slow, agonizing death. I wanted to avoid this.

The temperature rose and the sweat from the sun, frustration and fear poured forth. Impatient, I pushed Miragi harder, to little avail. I decided to move ahead of Miragi and Paul and try to flush the wounded bull. I caught sight of a dark shape and tried to crawl closer, but he crashed away. Furious, I gave chase and raced after him, determined to start shooting as soon as he gave me a chance. He broke out into the open, however, and outpaced me before veering back into the thicket. My eyes blurred with sweat as I ran full tilt after him into the brush. I tried to close in for the kill but the thorns ripped me to a standstill.

Ambushed
As if in a bad dream, I found I could not make any headway. Exasperated, I flung myself down and snaked forward on my belly. I arrived in a small clearing and halted while straining my senses for any sign of the bull. The silence was overwhelming. I knew he was close, but with ghostly skill he had disappeared. Now he was hunting me.

The bull was smart, he was upwind and he knew where I was. I inched forward, searching for any sign of him. My rifle shook in my hands. I knew one shot from my Winchester .375 H&H; would be all I'd get. I heard a crash and he was upon me. As I turned to face him his hulking mass smashed into my hip and I was airborne, my weapon lost to me. It is a testament to the skill and cunning of these great brutes that I failed to dispense a shot.

I hit the ground winded and helpless. I saw the bull lower his great head and power into me again. It was all dust and sickening pain as I felt one blow after another, and then suddenly I was in the air again, impaled on his right horn, which had entered my groin and thrust deep inside. Airborne, I hung motionless briefly, and then with awesome ease he tossed me onto his back.

It's quite bizarre what goes through one's mind in times such as this, but I remember thinking to myself what a bloody fool I must look-and thanked the good Lord that the audience was a small one. I tried to grasp the bull's tail in a vain attempt to maintain my position on his back, but he bucked and spun around, sending me hurtling back to the ground. His beady black eyes bore into me as he came at my head. I lifted my arm to ward him off and noticed that my left bicep had been separated from the bone with one slash. I watched the bull, transfixed, waiting for the deathblow. Almost in slow motion, he swung his huge black head away just prior to plunging his horns back into me when a rifle shot roared. The bull's mighty head jerked upward, taking with it the horns that had almost succeeded in killing me.

Paul had stormed to my rescue and his shot had saved my life. It slammed into the animal's shoulder, pummeling him back. I looked on in helpless bewilderment as another round from Paul's .375 cracked overhead. His next shot brained the beast and the great animal crumpled like a boxer bludgeoned to the canvas. Unfortunately, the bull fell astride my prostrate body, smothering me as his great weight crushed my broken torso.

Waiting to Die
I struggled to comprehend my plight. The abdominal pain was exquisite and I felt warmth running down my legs. I could feel my innards sloshing around inside and I knew there was an unholy mess in there. My mouth was dry and full of dirt. Gathering my senses, I forced my hand under the buffalo's rib cage and worked it into the hole in my inner thigh, feeling the bone that was my left femur. Certain that my femoral artery had been severed, I concluded I had hunted my last hunt.

With a calmness that surprised me, I explained my situation to Paul and asked him to perform some tasks after my departure. I felt for the poor man-he was shaken and emotional. I tried to prevail upon him to feel no remorse on my behalf. For reasons still not entirely clear to me, I found myself very much at peace and unafraid of death. I did take some solace from the thought that I was dying with some honor, and I was determined also to depart with some dignity. I was at ease knowing that an animal I had always admired and respected had accounted for me in a conflict of my choosing.

Confronting death, I searched my conscience as I think most people would in a similar situation. Throughout my hunting career I had grappled with the righteousness of what I was doing. Like many in my game, I had always felt a sincere attachment to the animals I hunted and often killed. To the outsider this sounds paradoxical, but it is true, and the realization that I was to pay with my life for some of what I had taken was a relief. I felt no animosity toward the animal that had savaged me-only affection, some sadness and enormous respect.

My mind flashed to the people most dear to me, in particular my family. Blessed as I had been with devoted parents and wonderful siblings, I gave Paul details about how to make contact with them and express my thanks and say farewell. Then, I thought, I was ready to die.

Paul asked to say a prayer.

Although of no serious religious persuasion, I happily agreed and closed my eyes and tried to follow the words. I prepared myself for the unknown. Everything went terribly quiet....

Well, I must say that there is something very embarrassing about going to considerable lengths to die stoically and then not doing so because one fails to expire, yet that was the ridiculous predicament in which I found myself! After about five minutes, I realized I could not have suffered the injuries I imagined. A punctured femoral artery would certainly have rendered me unconscious and I was very much alert. My self-diagnosis had been wrong.

Sheepishly, I opened my eyes to register the same situation I thought I was departing. I looked into the eyes of a puzzled Paul. Feeling a little guilty about being alive and realizing that maybe all was not lost, I asked him to summon the others and remove the buffalo from its present location. They were reluctant to do so. Africans are deeply suspicious of being close to death, so it was with some timidity that they approached. On seeing that I was alive, however, they rolled the animal off me. I could then see my legs and see that the bleeding, although severe, was not life threatening. I removed my gun belt and used it as a tourniquet. I then instructed Miragi and the scout to disappear at speed and collect my vehicle.

Four hours later I found myself on the floor of a light aircraft headed for Nairobi. I have never wanted to kiss another man, but the doctor who stood at the door of the plane afe poor man-he was shaken and emotional. I tried to prevail upon him to feel no remorse on my behalf. For reasons still not entirely clear to me, I found myself very much at peace and unafraid of death. I did take some solace from the thought that I was dying with some honor, and I was determined also to depart with some dignity. I was at ease knowing that an animal I had always admired and respected had accounted for me in a conflict of my choosing.

Confronting death, I searched my conscience as I think most people would in a similar situation. Throughout my hunting career I had grappled with the righteousness of what I was doing. Like many in my game, I had always felt a sincere attachment to the animals I hunted and often killed. To the outsider this sounds paradoxical, but it is true, and the realization that I was to pay with my life for some of what I had taken was a relief. I felt no animosity toward the animal that had savaged me-only affection, some sadness and enormous respect.

My mind flashed to the people most dear to me, in particular my family. Blessed as I had been with devoted parents and wonderful siblings, I gave Paul details about how to make contact with them and express my thanks and say farewell. Then, I thought, I was ready to die.

Paul asked to say a prayer.

Although of no serious religious persuasion, I happily agreed and closed my eyes and tried to follow the words. I prepared myself for the unknown. Everything went terribly quiet....

Well, I must say that there is something very embarrassing about going to considerable lengths to die stoically and then not doing so because one fails to expire, yet that was the ridiculous predicament in which I found myself! After about five minutes, I realized I could not have suffered the injuries I imagined. A punctured femoral artery would certainly have rendered me unconscious and I was very much alert. My self-diagnosis had been wrong.

Sheepishly, I opened my eyes to register the same situation I thought I was departing. I looked into the eyes of a puzzled Paul. Feeling a little guilty about being alive and realizing that maybe all was not lost, I asked him to summon the others and remove the buffalo from its present location. They were reluctant to do so. Africans are deeply suspicious of being close to death, so it was with some timidity that they approached. On seeing that I was alive, however, they rolled the animal off me. I could then see my legs and see that the bleeding, although severe, was not life threatening. I removed my gun belt and used it as a tourniquet. I then instructed Miragi and the scout to disappear at speed and collect my vehicle.

Four hours later I found myself on the floor of a light aircraft headed for Nairobi. I have never wanted to kiss another man, but the doctor who stood at the door of the plane af