They say it can’t be done; or, to be more honest, they don’t say it can. Game rangers, bush-whacking story tellers, grim-faced lodge hosts and other regalers of wildlife lore all warn: do not get out of your vehicle if you happen to be within lowing distance of an African buffalo. And, if you should accidentally do so, get back in your vehicle and get the hell out of there swiftly, calmly and permanently.
So the possibility of deliberately initiating a close encounter with these powerful, magnificent and notorious beasts was no kind of an option until I met Jannie Jurgens, freelance trail guide at Kruger’s Wolhuter wilderness camp.
He first suggested such a thing not 24-hours after we’d been charged by an angry, rain-befuddled white rhino bull and had lived to tell the tale. I discovered the distinct difference between fact and truth during that little adventure: the fact was that the beast was no more than four meters from me; the truth was that it felt like one. I also discovered that believing you’re about to be trampled do death by a four-legged tank is not as scary as having a calm, polite hijacker put a gun to your head. Funny that.
But back to the buffalo.
Our little troop of intrepid walkers consisted of one charming and handsome German couple, the witty and delightful Dutch siblings, a sweet and serious German photographer, my partner, me, Jannie, and his sidekick, John. By now we considered ourselves pretty au faix with rhinos and were used to our hearts leaping and adrenaline pumping every time we came over a rise to find yet another cow and calf. We’d even started joking that there were more bloody rhinos than impala at Wolhuter. You could sense our collective pride as we quietly trod our way in single file through the dense bush and over the recently burned veld; our silence broken only by the odd crunch, gasp and camera click.
Things changed when Jannie suddenly bristled like an excited Jack Russell terrier and pointed to a hundred-strong buffalo herd not fifty meters from where we were admiring the sickle bush lanterns. I noted the fanatical gleam in his eye as he whispered, ‘I want you to relax. You must trust me. Keep quiet, stick close together and do as I tell you.’
I must interject here to tell you that he’d already shared his tale of sitting down like an English picnicker in a cow pasture, surrounded by hundreds of tranquilly grazing wild bovines. ‘Nutter’ was the word that came to mind.
But Jannie was the man with the gun and John didn’t roll his eyes at the boss’s orders, so we did as we were told and followed our guides closer to the now curious and seething throng.
I was quietly terrified, as was the pretty German woman, her eyes rolling like a nervous dog’s and her body as tense as stick of biltong. We took ten or so steps and then stopped. The buffalo followed our lead. We took ten more steps, as did they, and so on until the gap narrowed to the point where I knew they must smell my fear and hear the blood coursing through my veins. But as we drew closer, I noticed the most astonishing thing: while some of the bulls and larger cows were eyeing us suspiciously, others had started chatting among themselves, even beginning to nonchalantly graze. One little chap was gawking at us with a lack of self-consciousness akin to a child spotting a goth at a church fete.
And so it came to the point were we were not ten metres from the herd.
‘What life is this if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare. No time to stand beneath the boughs and stare as long as sheep or cows’*. It was like that. A mutual staring fest. And as I stared, I felt the deep emotion rising in me; a sense of raw wonder and gratitude so great I felt I might faint. I was no longer afraid. Wary, yes, but unafraid of these humungous creatures who could, if they would, maul and trample me to sausage meat.
I don’t know how long we all stood there. Probably only minutes. But they were some of the most wonderful minutes of my life. I felt that I had conquered Everest and found the Holy Grail. Then we quietly stepped away and the buffalo continued on their journey.
Of course I wouldn’t now stroll up to a daga boy and ask him how it’s hanging. I’m still extremely wary of daga boys. But I will seek out the opportunity to repeat my encounter with buffalo. Or perhaps lion next time.
*By William Henry Davies
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Image by Francisco Laso; Flickr/CC 2.0