Cape Buffaloes in the Night

You haven’t really heard your heart beating out of your chest until you’ve driven into a herd of wild, ornery Cape buffalo at twilight in the back of an uncovered game vehicle. As the truck lights went dim, we were left with a single spotlight, aimed upward, over the herd of 150 or so silently grazing animals. The indirect light caught the eyes of the dark beasts and while we watched, they wandered within 10 feet and blinked back with glowing eyes. I held my breath.

Using a zoom, from far, far away, I saw my first Cape buffalo.

It was our second night drive into the South African bush at Sabi Sand Game Reserve. We’d already spotted the Big 5 (leopard, lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo), so every new encounter felt like icing on a heavily frosted cake. We’d finished our sun downer drinks while facing a rhino and her baby across a watering hole, when our tracker got a call on the radio saying the Cape buffalo had been spotted. And so off we sped through the dwindling light, all 10 of us tourists happily bouncing in the back of a Land Cruiser, waiting to see what we might encounter.

The rangers and trackers usually kept mum as to what animal we were headed toward. The radio conversation was conducted in a combination of Afrikaans and Tsonga, so tourists weren’t disappointed if an interesting animal wandered out of bounds for their lodge. After six game drives and some pointed questions to our guides, we quickly learned to understand the words for lion and leopard. Or so we thought – picking them out of an actual sentence was really just dumb luck, given the jargon and multiple languages.

As we continued our high-speed chase, I could feel the humid, fragrant air permeate my skin and blow through my hair. I exhaled.  It felt good to be ingesting that much clean oxygen and breathing in part of this place that was so far from my home. I giggled at the sheer fun of the ride and how few worries I had about anything at that moment.

We rounded a final bend and our ranger tapped the brakes and turned off the headlights. Straight in front of us, across one of the few open areas in this part of the bushveld, was standing a herd of the deadly Cape buffalo. Of course, we drove right into the middle of them all. I held my breath. The tracker, whose seat was welded onto the hood of the vehicle, kept his spotlight directly out of the eyes of the mildly curious animals, but illuminated them enough for us to see them as they wandered past.

We were told we could take pictures with a flash, but my hands were so unsteady from the rush of being this close to an animal whose head was literally bullet proof, I didn’t bother to try for a shot. And honestly I wanted to kill the Englishman in front of me who took shot after shot with his two foot lens and flash. That didn’t seem to be a good idea AT ALL. Despite the reputation of the Cape buffalo, not one animal looked even remotely interested in testing the nerve of the vehicle before it. Eventually the flashes stopped and we all sat in silence while the grazing animals moved around our vehicle. It’s that silence that I began to welcome on each of the successive game drives. When everyone has shot all the photos they can, and we just sit for a moment, taking in the wild of where we are while animals go about their business of survival. I exhaled.

After a few more minutes watching the herd move around us, our ranger turned back to ask us the same question he did after every animal encounter. “Shall we leave them in peace?”