'Dugga Boy' Cape Buffalo Crossed Off Bucket List; Mossberg Patriot .375 Ruger, GPO Optic, Hornady
Updated: Nov 29, 2021
Hunting African buffalo has been on list for more than four decades, ever since the author read tales by Roosevelt, Hemingway, Ruark and other legends who made the early safari trips to the "Dark Continent." Safaris have changed a lot since those excursions, but the sights, sounds and smells of such an adventure still stirs your soul. We took a Mossberg Patriot rifle, chambered in .375 Ruger and topped with a GPO 1-6x24i optic on the hunt with Phillip Bronkhorst Safaris. That package, fueled by Hornady 300-grain DGX ammunition, was clearly up to the task.
"It’s not a buffalo hunt if they don’t kick your butt.”
So messaged Linda Powell, O.F. Mossberg & Sons Director of Media Relations after I sent her a “Day 3” account of my late June cape buffalo quest in South Africa.
My butt wasn’t exactly whupped, but it was dragging a little. Three consecutive mornings of several-mile excursions, following tracks in the sienna-colored sand, will do that my aging frame. Even though it is the African winter, temperatures routinely climbed 40-plus degrees following daybreak, typically reaching the upper 70s by 11 a.m. and the low 80s by afternoon. Acacias and the many other thorned tree and shrub varieties that dominate the bush occasionally tugged at my hat, sleeves, socks and boots.
One exhilarating experience came as a perfectly placed lengthy thorn from a “sickle bush” easily pierced the sole of my boot and jabbed the middle of my right foot. Fortunately, the offending thorn withdrew as easily as it entered. I didn’t need a little thing like that impeding a hunt I had anticipated for nearly 45 years.
Our hunt with Phillip Bronkhorst Safaris began like many South African hunts. Professional Hunter Pieter Taylor met me upon arrival at OR Tambo airport in Johannesburg. We cleared my Mossberg Patriot rifle through the South African police and received a temporary permit to possess and use the rifle in country, a process that took nearly an hour.
Except for certain excluded classes of operations, South Africans were under an 8 p.m. COVID-19-related curfew, meaning our nearly four-hour night ride north to Bronkhorst’s Bateleur Lodge near Ellisras/Lephalale in Limpopo Province’s Waterberg District encountered little traffic. There, Bronkhorst’s luxury, tented-lodge accommodations were like an old friend. We had previously hunted with him in 2015, taking a beautiful southern greater kudu, blue wildebeest and impala.
Bateleur Lodge was “glamping” (camping with amenities and comforts) before it was cool. Heating, air conditioning, indoor plumbing and attached outdoor showers where you can look up at the African moon and stars, refrigerators, microwaves, barbecue grills – it’s all there; although, with the sumptuous nightly dinners on the agenda, we wouldn’t be barbecuing at the tent (story coming soon...).
Day one was spent checking the rifle and scope on the range and then cruising Bronkhorst’s expansive property in late afternoon, checking out the variety of quality plains game resident there. Your professional hunter wants to see two things at the range. First, is your gun functional and accurate and, second, can you shoot?
My Mossberg Patriot is chambered in .375 Ruger, still a bit of an upstart for Africa, at least when compared to the old .375 H&H, a rifle common to most African camps. The .375 is the minimum caliber allowed when hunting dangerous game in South Africa. A 1-6x24 illuminated reticle GPO scope that can quickly zoom out to a wider field of view, something outfitters recommend when hunting dangerous game, topped my rifle.
African stalking usually employs some form of shooting sticks. I prefer the stability of a tripod configuration. Taylor’s Primos sticks, easily deployed and adjustable to a shooter’s height, were ideal. “Today, we will verify the gun is zeroed and then practice off the sticks,” Taylor said. “I want you to shoot once off the sticks and then move away and quickly take an offhand shot. That shot may be required if the bull charges.”
Taylor described what a charging buffalo looks like, its head bobbing as it thunders forward. I tightened my lips. Most cape buffalo hunts don’t end with a charging animal, but the situation can get squirrelly fast depending on a multitude of factors including how close you are when you shoot, the number of animals present, shot placement and the demeanor of the bull you’re targeting. They have, after all, individual personalities.
“It’s your hunt, sir. I will shoot only if there is imminent danger,” Taylor said. As a backup gun, Taylor toted a big-bore Krieghoff Classic double gun in .470 Nitro Express
Several shots off a bag at 100 meters showed the gun was on but hitting a couple inches low. We adjusted. We moved the sticks to approximately 60 yards from the target and practiced. The first sequence was acceptable. The second saw no bullets impacting anywhere on the paper. Something was wrong. Indeed, a scope mount had loosened. The rifle had probably seen 60 rounds fired from it since the scope was mounted and heavy magnum cartridges, such as the Hornady 300-grain DGX (Dangerous Game eXpanders) I was shooting delivered considerable recoil. Luckily, the only re-zeroing needed was for elevation. Windage remained perfect. A couple shots later, we were back in business. Taylor was satisfied. We were ready to hunt.
On the Track
The morning air was cold, in the upper 30s., as we entered the gate of a sprawling citrus farm and ranch an hour from Bronkhorst’s lodge. A beautiful African sunrise was in motion and I looked at the expansive, wild place before me, realizing I was finally doing something I had dreamt of for decades. I would be lying if I said it didn’t trigger a certain warm, damp feeling in the corner of my eyes.
Wearing an extra layer of clothing, we deployed in the bakkie, Taylor’s customized diesel safari truck with raised seats in the bed, winches and more.
A substantial buffalo herd inhabited the place, roaming tens of thousands of acres. Taylor knew of a bachelor group of bulls. His specific goal was an old “dugga boy” he saw on an earlier hunt. The property was sectioned into massive blocks, separated by sandy roads. With our tracker Juscias riding on the bakkie’s front bumper, we slowly moved along looking for buffalo tracks.
Plains game was abundant. Kudu, impala, gemsbok, ostrich, eland and more alternately froze or bolted as our vehicle rolled along. Eland, the largest antelope species, leave tracks remarkably similar to buffalo. Only skilled eyes discern the difference.
Buffalo often drag their hooves. Those drag marks indicate the animal’s direction. If we found fresh tracks heading into a block, plus other spoor such as fresh dung, and then didn’t see indications of tracks leaving the block, we parked the bakkie and followed the fresh track.
Day one saw several miles of tracking. We saw no buffalo, but we heard them take off at close range as they winded us. They had bedded beneath a shaded copse of trees, an oasis of sorts amid the head-high scrub. We likely surprised them. Wind was a constant challenge. The cool, early morning calm typically gave way to rising, shifting thermals by 9 a.m. By 11, all bets were off as the wind picked up and routinely swirled. After tracking for nearly six hours, it was determined the buffalo left the area.
“These buffalo,” Taylor said, “won’t just move a little ahead if pushed. They will often run many miles.”
Day two was a repeat, albeit in a block with considerably thicker habitat. To adapt to the range where a sudden shot might present itself, I began adjusting the scope’s magnification as we moved.
We encountered a ranch employee riding an ATV to inspect watering holes and wells. It was late morning and we asked if would ride the property’s perimeter and return some of our heavier, early morning clothing to the bakkie. He soon came roaring back to report that two bull buffalo had chased him! Full of excitement, he offered to bring us to their last location.
The spot wasn’t far from where we had taken up the track the first morning. Clearly, the buffalo preferred this area. Fresh sign was everywhere. Instead of parking on the perimeter road, we slowly ventured inward, moving a couple hundred yards toward a large drain. This proved to be a tactical mistake. Directly across the drain were two ornery dugga boys. Simply seeing them was exhilarating. They didn’t stick around as we dismounted. The following hours of tracking proved fruitless.
We almost had them on day three. I don’t know who was more surprised, us or the buffalo, when we suddenly appeared 30 yards apart from one another. In three seconds, I was “on the sticks.” Only one bull presented a shot, the rest obscured by thick vegetation.
“Young bull, sir. Young bull,” Taylor urgently whispered just before the herd burst from the thicket. Four or five scattered right, including the young bull in the crosshairs. The lone bull busting left was “the man,” the brute we were after.
It was an adrenaline-packed few seconds.
Following his track until early afternoon was unproductive. Juscias noted where the bull doubled back on occasion, zigzagged slowly while walking, and then decided to run again.
We were pushing hard. Elvis had left the building.
Many hunting concessions in South Africa are inaccessible on Sundays. This included the place we were hunting. Sleeping in followed by a leisurely boat and fishing trip on the Palala River, which drains into the Limpopo River on the Botswana and Zimbabwe borders, was a nice break.
Bronkhorst and Taylor decided to switch things up the next day and investigate another area, one where Bronkhorst successfully guided clients earlier in the season. I think Juscias and myself were keen on trying to again match wits and skills with the old bull we had been chasing but maybe giving him and his brethren bovines another day to settle down wasn’t a bad idea. It turns out, though, some other hunter will eventually get that opportunity. My buffalo hunt ended on day five.
The habitat was a little more open than our first location. Gently sloping land fed toward a line of hills not big enough to be called mountains. Dense thickets where buffalo liked to lounge in the midday warmth were more defined amid the scrub bushes. Juscias quickly picked up tracks. Beautiful nyala and sable antelope warily watched us as we quietly moved along.
The buffalo seemed to be pushing noses into the wind and then looping left, quartering into the breeze, possibly checking their backtrack.
Like a point man in a military unit on patrol, Juscias suddenly froze, throwing his fist up. Taylor raised his binoculars. There, 170 yards ahead, several buffalo were at the edge of a thicket.
A shot was possible but not desirable at that range. The buffalo gave us a second before moving on. The wind was in our favor and we moved quickly, using trees and brush for scant cover. We spied the same group minutes later, now 130 yards distant. We nudged forward. At 110 yards, Taylor whispered this was as good as we were going to manage. He set the sticks. I rested the Mossberg, dialing the scope to its highest magnification.Only one bull offered a shot. It wasn’t optimal, a mostly frontal look with an ever-so-slight quartering to the left. Interestingly, it was almost the same look I had with the kudu I took with Taylor six years earlier.
Time seems to somehow slow in moments like this. I aimed just above the point of the bull’s right front shoulder, edging slightly toward the center, let out a breath and squeezed the trigger.
Three bulls burst left from the thicket with “my” buffalo leading the way. I tried to get on him for a second shot, wondering if I had missed. Too much vegetation. Sixty yards into the run, I detected a slight falter. Seconds later, Juscias pointed ahead, whispering, “Bull down.”
We carefully moved forward, mindful that many “dead” buffalo resurrect to cause some final mayhem. The bull was still, but Taylor requested a second shot at 50 yards. The “insurance shot” was unnecessary. The first shot clearly took out the buffalo’s top lungs.
Pieter slapped my back and enthusiastically pumped my hand, saying one-shot kills on buffalo are rare but always welcome.
The skinners found the bullet from the first shot. It had penetrated back into the animal’s abdomen. The Hornady 300-grain DGX showed textbook weight retention and expansion, with perfect “mushrooming” to nearly 1.5 times the bullet’s original diameter.
Overall, the results with an economical rifle and scope paired with premium ammunition were impressive.
Moving the buffalo and positioning it for the obligatory safari photos took a few minutes, affording time for reflection after the curious calm that reigned the exact moment of the shot. It wasn’t that the moment was in any way anticlimactic, but there was this sense of it being over -- the ending of any quest comes a certain reckoning, solemnity and contemplation.
As I do with all game animals, I silently thanked the buffalo and apologized for being the one who ended its life.
My Africa cape buffalo pursuit was over, but there was still more of Africa to come.
Note: In the next Hunting Wire, the Mossberg Patriot and an array of Hornady ammunition prove their mettle with some incredible plains game.