When the 'Cecil' story broke, Trigger and I were in Tanzania. Despite the western media's obsession with named animals, dangerous game hunting is exactly that. Africa can mess-up your day very quickly if you are in the wrong company without the right equipment. Given the chance, Cecil will eat you.
I was fortunate to be included in a hunting party destined for one of the least spoilt areas of remote bush on the continent. Part of our preparation, naturally, involved a trip to Westley Richards, for kit. I grabbed a Bushveld Safari jacket, which has proven a great travel staple. It works as a top layer on cool mornings but is also good with just a T-shirt underneath and the sleeves rolled-up. It washes and dries fast and has become a summer favourite. In Tanzania it actually saw some proper action!
We also packed a brand new Westley Richards .577 nitro express, ordered especially for the trip by Michael, our host. The design dates back to Leslie Taylor’s 1897 ‘drop-lock’ version of the Anson & Deeley’ action, which also originated here. Built as a hunting rifle, this was not as ornate as many of the double-rifles which leave Pritchett Street these days. Nevertheless, it was spectacular, with beautifully-carved game scenes and deep scrollwork. The balance between beauty and functionality was, to my eye, perfectly met. This style of engraving actually camouflages the metal parts in use; the light reflecting at different angles, throwing shade more than glare. The case colours enhance this trait.
The .577 throws a 750 grain Woodleigh bullet, either soft-nose or solid, at around 2,050 feet per second. It was sighted-in at 50 yards at Westley Richards' underground range but the forte of these big, open-sighted double rifles is closer. As close as you can get. The idea is to stalk-in until you can hear the animal’s snorts and grunts before engaging him. If he winds you and comes, you have the power in your hands to put him down in his tracks. If your nerve holds.
This may all seem rather unnecessary. Why not shoot a buffalo off sticks with a ‘scoped .375? The answer is that a buffalo is not dangerous at 80 yards; unless of course, you wound him and have to follow him into the long grass! To my mind, if you want to hunt dangerous game, let it be dangerous, otherwise you may as well just shoot rabbits. We were in Tanzania to experience the risks and rewards of getting up-close in the long grass and that is exactly what we went about.
The first opportunity to test the new rifle came on our first day in camp. We put some shots down range at cardboard boxes to remind ourselves what we were there for and to instil that confidence that comes with having tested the kit in the actual environment you are hunting, after a long flight. Trigger and I went to scope-out the country and see if we could spot any likely quarry, when we caught sight of a pair of old buffalo bulls edging into the long grass. We got on their trail fast, our Maasai trackers leading the way. This was grass-burning season and a grass fire cut-off their retreat, holding the animals up in a section of thick, unburnt bush, as the fire passed by. They seemed totally disinterested in the burning vegetation, common as fires are here. They also showed no interest in breaking out into open ground. So, we went in.
Trailing these huge black shapes into the grass tunnels certainly gets the heart beating. Buff weigh 1,000 lbs plus and are famous for their German sense of humour.
A lively imagination would be your undoing at these moments. Visibility is laughable and a charge from an unseen buffalo favours him more than you. Fortunately, a termite mound provided some elevation, ultimately providing a partial view down onto one grazing bull, perhaps fifteen yards away. Without hesitation, Trigger levelled the Westley .577 and fired; the buff stepped forward half a yard before the second bullet slammed home, then dropped on his face in the grass. His companion glared at us. Would he come? Trigger watched and waited. After a brief stand-off, the old buff thought better of it and moved quietly away . We approached his fallen comrade. No drama, no fuss, dead as the big, black rock he resembled.
As the trackers got to work skinning and butchering the old boy, we realised that the bush fire was getting a bit close for comfort. Grass cracked and spat and sizzled as the wind gently blew it towards us. Occasionally this goes badly wrong; a guide had been killed when fire caught up to his Land Cruiser before he could out run it, only a couple of seasons earlier. The charred remains bore grizzly testament to the casual nature of death in wild places. Despite my mild alarm, our Professional Hunter, Danny McCallum, remained unruffled. When the time came to move, he simply drove back through previously burnt ground and sat us behind the fire as it progressed forward out of our way. Thereafter, butchering continued.
Ten days later, shortly after breakfast, we encountered a single old ‘dagga boy’, as he crossed a patch of low scrub, heading for thicker cover.
This was promising and we had to focus quickly. The stalk began from 500 yards, using the steady, morning south-easterly breeze to our advantage. The buff was moving with the wind at his back and we headed towards him. It, thankfully, stayed in our faces. This was crucial, we had spent long days tracking buff in swirling mid-day gusts, seemingly changing direction at will, and time and again alerting the quarry to our presence. Today, the old buff had no idea we were there, allowing me to stalk-in, quietly, to thirty yards, then twenty, then ten. He stood in the long grass, head down, grazing. I had pushed my luck but this was close; certainly close enough!
Then the Gods started their own (not very funny) shenanigans! Just as I turned, with purpose, and resolve steeled, to raise the .577 and unleash the fury of that fearsome load nestled within, a spear of grass lanced into my right eye, blinding me for an instant, as I recoiled. Then it filed with fluid, blurring the vision in my dominant eye.
I rubbed it hard to try and clear it, while trying harder not to alert a ton of angry muscle and horn, mere paces away, that some fool from England with a big rifle and delusions of adequacy was due a stomping. Blinking the pain away, I cleared eye and mind sufficiently to home-in on his ‘boiler room’. Moments like this create a time of their own. It slows to a frame-by-frame living film reel in your mind and remains with you forever. Senses closed out everything unnecessary, mind, muscle, focus, training; all combined to deliver the first soft-nose into his heart and lungs. What then? Would all Hell break loose or would it be silence then panic as he disappears? We prepare for the worst.
The reality was a sweet anti-climax. The big bullet probably hit his spine as it traversed the huge body. He dropped on the spot, legs collapsing and head rearing upwards as the body crashed into the red dirt. I had just enough of a sight picture to put a solid from the left barrel under his ear as he did so. He never twitched. It had been a couple of seconds yet played in my mind as if each fraction was half a minute. I had been operating on instinct once the decision was made to engage. Fortunately, those instincts served me well on this occasion. All those thousands of times I had brought a rifle or shotgun to shoulder from my earliest forays for rabbits with an air rifle to snap shots at roosting pigeons with a twelve bore or tumbling rats from the rafters with a 9mm shotgun by torchlight, all had taught me to trust my ability to focus and connect.
Recoil? I felt none. The big Westley came to the shoulder as would a shotgun, recoil was no worse, the memory was merely of intense focus and everything doing its job.
I spent the next three days prostrate in camp, as we tried different (mostly out of date) antibiotics to kill the infection in my torn cornea, which remains scarred to this day. That old buff didn't get me but his death came with consequences.
Many writers dismiss the .577 as a cumbersome, unnecessarily powerful beast of a rifle. I beg to differ. A properly made rifle in this calibre, weighing enough to absorb recoil, with 24” barrels and perfectly balanced, is the best medicine when you are up-close and personal with dangerous game.
The security you feel with a proper stopping rifle in your hands is multiples of what you get with, more common, .375s or .416s. They will do the job. They are superb calibres, but there is no substitute for horsepower when you can smell their breath.
Our Professional Hunter, Danny, reflected wistfully, as he lit a cigarette and admired the big double, sun glinting off its case-hardened action, while the skinners got to work; “She certainly speaks with authority”.
She does indeed!