The Prince of the River. By Malcolm McDonald

Chobe bushbuck

The content of this story has been generously provided by our partners and friends at Wild & Jag.

Have you ever had one of those childhood hunting experiences that haunt you to this day? One of those moments that happened in a blur and cannot be explained – you messed up the hunt/shot and that experience in itself has driven you to win against that animal/species every time you get the opportunity? I personally had one such experience during a hunt for a Chobe bushbuck ram.

Having grown up in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, and being fortunate enough to have had family farms situated only an hour from town, my family and I tried to spend at least two weekends a month there. You can imagine that, as a young boy, Fridays could not come fast enough for me to slip into my camo and hunting gear and hit the dirt road.
One such weekend was spent at the farm my father and I visited most frequently. In a way this was like our second home. I believe I was no more than 10 years old at the time. The two days spent out there were a childhood dream that sadly came to an end as we had to head back to town, with school starting the next day. As my dad always had a way of throwing curveballs into the mix, he said, “Let’s just take a drive past the big dam on our way out.” Then he winked at me.

The Land Cruiser idled along the narrowing trail as we approached the opening to the dam, which easily stretched 600 m to the opposite side. Parking in the shade of an ancient sausage tree, the old faithful Brno 8x60S was loaded with RWS H-Mantel factory ammunition and slung over my shoulder, the recoil pad almost touching the ground. Our eyes were glued to the relatively small pool of water as we cautiously walked out into the open while also scanning the tree line on the opposite side for any movement of game taking refuge from the scorching heat.

Totally exposed in the open now, and believing there was no activity, we about-turned to head back to the vehicle and pack the rifle away for the trip home. At that moment there was a loud hiss from my dad as he frantically pointed out a monster bushbuck ram no more than 50 m away. The buck was standing in the long yellow grass to my dad’s immediate right, just in front of the dam wall. To this day it is a sight I will never forget – the ram was nothing short of breathtaking, with a thick neck, long brown shaggy coat, and crisp white markings. While flinging the rifle from my back as quickly as I could, the ram turned and ran directly away from us towards the wall, slowing down just before the base.

Bushbuck trophy

Kneeling down with the rifle over my dad’s shoulder, I picked up the ram in the Tasco telescope just as he crested the wall. I snatched the trigger before he could disappear over the opposite side, but my heart immediately sank as I heard the undeniable echo of the bullet travelling into the distance. We both looked at each other in disbelief as to what had just happened, for farms in this area were not known to hold any bushbuck. And yet the thick riverine bush surrounding the dam had obviously hidden this old ram for a number of years. A patient follow-up revealed that I had indeed missed the ram and he was never seen again! And so the seed of self-redemption was planted.

Sadly, due to the land-reform programme that took place in Zimbabwe, thousands of farms were destroyed and game numbers obliterated. It would therefore be several years before I got the chance to hunt these animals again. My first chance came a few years later when I received an invitation from my cousin, living in Lusaka, Zambia, to join him and a friend on a hunt in the Lower Lupande Region bordering the famed South Luangwa National Park. This would be an end-of-season hunt to try our luck on impala, bushbuck and buffalo that had been left at the close of that season.

As soon as I completed my exams at the University of Pretoria, I was off to Lusaka. The long drive to the Lower Lupande Game Management Area (GMA) was exciting as the anticipation was building for our one-week stay along the river. Game abounded in this area and it would surely be a perfect “conservation-through-hunting model” to illustrate to the respective authorities outside the borders of Africa why responsible hunting is the only tool that will save this continent and its wild places!

The focus would be on plains game until our mutual friend arrived, whereupon we would focus on buffalo. Late one afternoon, we were traversing a small path that wound its way along the impenetrable riverine thickets of the Luangwa River. The smell of adventure was undeniable, so were the butterflies of excitement as the “golden hour” approached. Passing through a small gully, the Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) game scout pointed out a bushbuck that bounded off into the next thicket. We disembarked from the hunting seat and instructed the driver to carry on and wait further down the path.

Quietly I chambered a 300 gr Federal Premium soft into the chamber of the .375 Sauer 90 and slid the shotgun-type safety on. We backtracked to where we had last seen the bushbuck, not sure whether it was a ram or not, and then checked the wind before slowly entering the dense vegetation. The dry November leaves crackled like cornflakes with each step we took, trying to be as cautious as possible. Then, as if the stage had been preset, there he was – a fantastic ram in his prime with a crisp, clean coat that lit up against the orange rays of the setting sun.

The ram was feeding from our right to left in a small opening that spanned a mere 5 m in width. It felt as if my heart had stopped and I found it hard to swallow as the spotlight was on me. The moment of truth had arrived; this was my time after so many years and I was ready. I slowly raised the rifle to my shoulder as the safety catch was released. The ram, possibly hearing the vehicle down the path, stopped and raised his head as the crosshair settled tightly behind his shoulder while I exhaled half my breath.

At the shot the ram jumped into the air, twisting and turning, and then disappeared from sight in a flash. The scout and I moved forward as quickly as possible to the place we had last spotted the animal. The grass and brush were covered in frothy pink blood and I immediately uttered a sigh of relief as this was a good indication of a lung shot. A short follow-up into the river found this truly great specimen lying on his side, still just as breathtaking in death. He was mine after so many years, taken in one of the truly great and wild game areas left in Africa to date.

An African landscape

The following account that took place was based on a family farm we had in the north-west region of Zimbabwe, along the Shangani River. This area was undeniably beautiful and consisted of vast expanses of mopane woodland, thick jesse bush that the once-abundant herds of buffalo used to love, and then of course the winding sand river beds of the Shangani itself. The hunt happened purely by being in the right place at the right time. We were on a long, slogging walk back to the vehicle after having followed a small group of buffalo for the better part of the day. Being unsuccessful thus far, we decided to call it a day.

We entered the river bed at around 17:00 and planned to walk downriver for the remaining hour of light in the hope of catching a bushbuck or bushpig feeding along the banks. My dad, who accompanied me, was carrying my Mannlicher .375 H&H, while I had the Brno .458 Lott in hand. Walking in big-game country, we always carried calibres of .375 or bigger, even if we were only after smaller species, as you never know what you might bump into.

We had not been in the river bed for more than 15 minutes when the tracker knelt to the ground and, with eyes the size of saucers, pointed to a once-in-a-lifetime bushbuck ram. The ram was not even 100 m away, feeding on the pods that had fallen to the ground in the shade of a cluster of trees. Immediately I turned to my dad, telling him to shoot the ram and to take dead rest on my shoulder while I sat in the sand. Getting settled behind the rifle, he took aim with the .375 while I blocked my ears in anticipation of the bang. The report of the rifle did not come, but rather a whisper from my dad that he could not see the ram anymore as it had disappeared from view. I could not believe what I was hearing and advised him that the ram was still in the same place, happily feeding away. However, my dad insisted that it had gone.

Worried that we would miss this shooting opportunity, I took the rifle from my dad and slid off the safety catch, waiting for a broadside shot. Seconds dragged by until the ram turned to our right, staring intently in our direction. This was what I had been waiting for and I gently squeezed the trigger. The shot boomed down the river, sounding like a cannon that had been discharged. The 300 gr Barnes TSX bullet struck home on the ram’s right shoulder and whistled through the opposite side, collapsing him in his tracks. I was met by a blank stare from the tracker and my dad, who said I had missed as they had seen the ram bound off from behind a small sand mound.

The epitomy of a big bushbuck ram

Approaching the downed ram, the trackers were laughing as both they and my dad had been looking at a totally different ram a mere 20 m further than the one I had spotted! During this whole episode, I had not seen their ram and they had not seen mine. What were the odds of that? To say I was ecstatic would be an understatement as this ram was the epitome of a world-class bushbuck, with horns measuring 17″ in length.

Subsequent to these two fantastic trophies, I have been fortunate to take a few other beautiful rams, one being on a small island in the middle of the Shangani River within the last hour of daylight, with the flowing river as the backdrop for the entire hunt. This ram was taken off-hand with my Ruger .416 Rigby rifle, loaded with 400 gr Barnes TSX hand-loads, at approximately 60 m. The ram was in his prime and the entire experience will be etched on my memory forever.

I guess it is safe to say that every hunter, during his lifetime of hunting adventures, will face a particular species and have a similar experience. In my particular situation I would say that I was lucky rather than good, and that I was in the right place at the right time. I have certainly been most fortunate to have taken some spectacular specimens. Taking the Chobe bushbuck still remains a challenging hunt and an exhilarating experience for me, as this animal truly is “the prince of the river”.

The Prince of the River” by Malcolm McDonald originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of the Game & Hunt (Wild & Jag) magazine. Reproduced with consent of the copyright holder.

Enjoyed this story? Subscribe to Game & Hunt!  

Leave a Reply