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The Great Hunters

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Buffalo Hunting and Escapes ... Frederick Courteney Selous

Selous personally shot nearly two -hundred buffalo. Some of his more dangerous encounters are recorded here in his characteristic, careful, controlled style.

Though the buffalo of Central South Africa when wounded will usually charge its pursuer if it sees him close at hand, yet, if he is at a distance of over fifty yards, he will only do so in exceptional cases. Although many accidents happen in the pursuit of these animals, yet, in my opinion, the danger incurred in hunting them is marvelously exaggerated. I know of several instances where buffaloes have charged suddenly, and apparently in unprovoked ferocity, upon people who never even saw them until they were dashed, in many cases mortally wounded, to the ground; but I believe that, in at any rate the majority of cases, if the whole truth could be made known, these buffaloes would be found to have been previously wounded by some other hunter, and finding themselves suddenly confronted by another sportsman in the thicket or patch of long grass to which they have retired to brood over their injuries, at once rushed upon the intruder, perhaps more from the instinct of self-defence than anything else.

Such a case occurred to a young Boer, Petrus Potgieter, several years ago on the river Impaqui (1). One morning old Petrus Jacobs (2), the well-known old elephant-hunter, had been shooting buffaloes along the river, and besides killing some had wounded others. In the afternoon young Potgieter was pursuing a herd of giraffes over the same ground, when one of the wounded buffaloes, which was standing in a patch of bush near to which he passed, rushed out and dashed both him and his horse to the ground. The infuriated animal then made a blow at him, and, catching its horn in his coat, tore one side of it off.

Before receiving any further hurts Potgieter made his escape into a mopani tree, and the buffalo retired. The horse died of its injuries.

I myself once had a horse killed under me by a buffalo (3). After crossing the dry sandy bed of the river Nata, I rode out in search of game, and when the sun was about an hour high struck the spoor of two old buffalo bulls, and after a severe chase at last sighted them, looking, with their short legs and huge round sterns almost devoid of hair, very like rhinoceroses. I waited till we reached a tolerably open piece of ground, and then, reining up short, jumped off about thirty yards behind the nearest, and taking steady aim, pulled the trigger, but, instead of hearing the anticipated report and answering bellow of the buffalo, my ears were greeted with a sharp metallic click that at once told me there was no cap on the nipple. Thinking it had been brushed off by one of the bushes whilst galloping in pursuit, and not imagining that such a thing was likely to occur again, I hastily put another on, and, jumping on to my horse, soon made up the lost ground and once more neared the old bulls, one of which being considerably in the rear of the other, I determined to confine myself to him. Just then he crossed a little dry gully, and, on reaching the opposite side, turned for the first time and eyed me savagely from beneath his close-set rugged-looking horns.

I had now pursued the old brute for a considerable time, and this, of course, had not much improved his temper (which in an old buffalo bull is not at the best of times of the sweetest), so, expecting a charge, did not dismount, but, reining in my horse, took a quick aim and pulled the trigger with just the same result as before. The buffalo, probably not liking the idea of charging through the gully, turned, and again resumed his flight. Putting on a third cap, I now kept it down with my thumb, and soon once more close behind him, and had galloped for perhaps a couple of minutes more, when, entering a patch of short thick mopani bush, he stopped suddenly, wheeled round, and came on at once, as soon as he caught sight of the horse, with his nose stretched straight out and horns laid back, uttering the short grunts with which these animals invariably accompany a charge.

There was no time to be lost, as I was not more than forty yards from him; so, reining in with a jerk and turning the horse at the same instant broadside on, I raised my gun, intending to put a ball, if possible, just between his neck and shoulder, which, could I have done so, would either have knocked him down, or at any rate made him swerve, but my horse, instead of standing steady as he had always done before, now commenced walking forward, though he did not appear to take any notice of the buffalo. There was no time to put my hand down and give another wrench on the bridle (which I had let fall on the horses neck), and for the life of me I could not get a sight with the horse in motion. A charging buffalo does not take many seconds to cover forty yards, and in another instant his outstretched nose was within six feet of me, so, lowering the gun from my shoulder, I pulled it off right in his face, at the same time digging the spurs deep into my horses sides. But it was too late, for even as he sprang forward the old bull caught him full in the flank, pitching him, with me on his back, into the air like a dog. The recoil of the heavily-charged elephant-gun, with which I was unluckily shooting, twisted it clean out of my hands, so that we all, horse, gun and man, fell in different directions. My horse regained its feet and galloped away immediately, but even with a momentary glance, I saw that the poor brutes entrails were protruding in a dreadful manner. The buffalo, on tossing the horse, had stopped dead, and now stood with his head lowered within a few feet of me. I had fallen in a sitting position, and facing my unpleasant-looking adversary. I could see no wound on him, so must have missed, though I can scarcely understand how, as he was so very close when I fired.

However I had not much time for speculation, for the old brute, after glaring at me a few seconds with his sinister-looking, blood-shot eyes, finally made up his mind, and, with a grunt, rushed at me. I threw my body out flat along the ground to one side, and just avoided the upward thrust of his horn, receiving, however, a severe blow on the left shoulder with the round part of it; nearly dislocating my right arm with the force with which my elbow was driven against the ground; and receiving also a kick on the instep from one of his feet. Luckily for me, he did not turn again, as he most certainly would have done had he been wounded, but galloped clean away.

The first thing to be done was to look after my horse, and at about 150 yards from where he had been tossed, I found him. The buffalo had struck him full in the left thigh; it was an awful wound, and as the poor beast was evidently in the last extremity, I hastily loaded my gun and put him out of his misery. My men coming up just then, I started with then eager for vengeance, in pursuit of the buffalo, but was compelled finally to abandon the chase, leaving my poor horse unavenged.

To my mind there is no more exciting sport than following into thick covert the blood spoor of a wounded buffalo. Step by step, with rifle advanced and full cock, the hunter creeps forward with every sense on the alert, especting at every instant to see the creatures dark, massive form. It is perfectly wonderful how difficult it is to distinguish the dusky black shape of a large animal when standing motionless in the gloom of dense bush. If, however, your eyes are trained to such work, so that you are pretty sure of spotting the buffalo, if not before, at any rate at the same moment that he sees you, the danger of the proceeding is much diminished, as these animals almost invariably stand at right angles to their spoor, and upon sighting their pursuer, first look at him and then swing themselves head on, before charging. This gives on just time, if cool and ready, to put a bullet into them between the neck and shoulder, which usually, if it does not floor them makes them give up the idea of charging. When once started, however, a buffalo is a very difficult animal to stop.

Once, when hunting with George Wood (4) near the Chobe (5), we came upon an old buffalo bull lying down in some long grass. My friend gave him a bullet as he lay, upon which he jumped up and stood behind some mopani trees, only exposing his head and hind-quarters on either side their stems. After eyeing us for a few seconds, he turned and went off at a gallop, but before he had gone many yards Wood fired at him with his second gun and knocked him over; he was on his legs again in a moment, and wheeling round came straight towards me at a heavy gallop, his nose stretched straight out and grunting furiously. When he was about twenty yards from me, I fired with my large four-bore elephant gun, and struck him fair in the chest. This staggered but did not stop him, for swerving slightly, he made straight for the Kafir carrying my second gun; this the man at once threw down, and commenced climbing a tree. The buffalo just brought his right horn past the tree and scraping it up the trunk so as to send all the loose pieces of bark flying, caught the Kafir a severe blow on the inside of the knee, nearly knocking him out of the tree. The sturdy beast then ran about twenty yards farther, knelt gently down, and stretching forth its nose commenced to bellow, as these animals almost always do when dying; in a few minutes it was lying dead.

Buffaloes that have been wounded by lions are usually, and not unnaturally, ill -tempered. One cold winter morning I left my camp before sunrise, and had not walked a quarter of a mile skirting round the base of a low hill, when, close to the same path I was following, and not twenty yards off, I saw an old buffalo bull lying under a bush. He was lying head on towards us, but did not appear to notice us. My gun-carriers were behind, having lingered, over the campfire, but had they been nearer me I should not have fired for fear of disturbing elephants, of which animals I was in search.

As I stood looking at the buffalo, Minyama (6) threw an assegai at it from behind me, which, grazing its side, just stuck in the skin oh the inside of its thigh. Without more ado, the ugly-looking old beast jumped up and came trotting out, with head up and nose extended, evidently looking for the disturbers of its peace, and as Minyama was hiding behind the trunk of a large tree, and the rest of the Kafirs had made themselves scarce, it at once came straight at me, grunting furiously. I was standing close to a very small tree, not more than six inches in diameter, but as I was unarmed, and to run would have been useless, I swarmed up it with marvelous celerity. The buffalo just came up and looked at me, holding his nose close to my feet, and grunting all the time. He then turned and went off at a lumbering canter, and I then, for the first time, saw that he had been terribly torn and scratched on the hind -quarters and shoulders by lions. Had he tried to knock my little sapling down, he might, I think, easily have accomplished it; as it was, my legs being bare, and the bark of the tree very rough, I had rubbed a lot of skin off the insides of my knees and the calves of my legs.

All representations of South African buffaloes charging with their heads lowered are purely imaginary, as they never do so; but on the contrary invariably hold noses straight out, and lay their horns back over the shoulders. They lower their heads just as they strike.

As with all dangerous animals, it is impossible to judge by the speed with which buffaloes run away from you, of that which they are capable of exerting when the positions are reversed. Considering their heavy build they are marvelously swift, and even in the open, a fairly good horse will have to do all he knows to keep in front of one, while in bush, anything but a very quick animal stands a good chance of being overtaken. A buffalo cow, although very severely wounded, ran down in the open a horse Lobengula (7) had lent me, and on which my Hottentot driver was mounted; she struck the horse as it was going at full speed between the thighs with her nose, and, luckily, striking short, knocked it over on one side, sent its rider flying, but before she could do further damage a bullet through her shoulders from George Wood incapacitated her for further mischief.


  • The river Impaqui. In Matabele country between Tati and Gubulawayo.
  • Old Petrus Jacobs. Pieter Jacobs (1800-1882.) Perhaps the greatest of the many Boer hunters. Started hunting in the African interior in the 1840s, and continued until about 1880. He killed between 400 and 500 bull elephant. He, Viljoen and Swartz were the first Transvalers to visit Lake Ngami in 1851. Died as a result of injuries received when mauled by a lion.
  • A horse killed under me by a buffalo. This happened during Selouss first journey from Tati to the Zambesi 20th May 1874.
  • When hunting with George Wood.i.e. in 1874. Wood had immigrated to Natal in 1865. He was a great elephant hunter and traveler.
  • The Chobe. A large river north of Lake Ngami.
  • Minyama. One of Selous's assistants.
  • Lobengula. Matabele chief; successor to Moselekatse.