I’m feeling a bit under the weather today. I think I still have some lingering crud that I picked up at the SCI show. Compared to what some of my friends came down with at SHOT this year, I count myself lucky. But since I’ll be away from the blog for a few days next week while I attend some work training, I should probably get around to discussing that Boddington book to which I alluded earlier.
As I mentioned earlier, I first got interested in African hunting by reading Peter Capstick’s classic “Death in the Long Grass” when I was just a lad in short pants, as they say. Capstick’s wild tales and colorful turns of phrase riveted my attention in the way that no non-fiction could at that point. I tore through that book (and every other Capstick book in Dad’s library) like a starving leopard through a particularly pungent warthog bait. I think it helped that it worried my fairly liberal reading/English teacher at the time; I felt somewhat subversive.
So Capstick whetted my appetite, and I continued to read his stuff as it came out (or, more accurately, as Dad acquired them). When the Capstick Library editions of classic books came out, I started on them as well. I read Man-Eaters of Tsavo and enjoyed it, though I thought the writing wasn’t quite as elegant and readable as Capstick. I felt the same about Jim Corbett. In fact, I tended to measure every African safari book against “Death in the Long Grass”. But eventually I ran out of Capstick to read, and he is sadly no longer able to write more. So I branched out. I read some Hunter, some Cooper, some Hemingway. All had their merits.
The first time I read Boddington was a few years ago when I decided that an African safari was both within my reach and something I wanted to spend the time, effort and money to do. On the advice of several folks, my grandmother gave me a copy of “Safari Rifles II” for Christmas that year and Iwas impressed with the honesty and pragmatism tempering his appreciation for some of the odd-ball cartridges. He had a very real thing for the 8mm Remington Magnum and the .358 Winchester, the latter of which I had been looking at in a Browning BLR levergun to use on feral pigs.
So fast forward to the Safari Club International show earlier this month, where I saw Boddington autographing books. I already had a copy of Safari Rifles II, so what to get? Despite the fact that I won’t be going after one on this trip, I chose “Buffalo!” because it seemed to be one of his favorite game species, based on what I had read previously. I figured if a man is passionate about a thing, his writing will show it. In that assumption, I was correct.
Boddington’s passion shows from the start, as he describes why he hunts buffalo. The first chapter is dedicated to the reasons to hunt these big beasts, from his first encounter nearly three decades earlier to his pragmatic reasoning of cost, availability, and meat supply compared to the other members of the Big Five. Like Capstick before him, he cites Ruark’s immortal description that the buffalo “looks at you like you owe him money”, and he says it with reverence to both the animal and the writer. He openly expresses his admiration and cautious respect for the creatures, contrasted with the fear he feels towards lion, cow elephant and leopards.
That’s a theme to which Boddington returns time and again in this book: his respect for the game and the rules of fair chase. Like the great conservationists of old, he understands that there has to be a balance; that game must be protected and shepherded, and in order for that to happen, there must be a financial incentive to doing so. Boddington is very clear that the only way for game to survive in modern Africa is through the deliberate and measured use of sport hunting to generate sufficient value from the animals to both landowners and governments. This eye towards conservation continues in his self-imposed criteria for a ‘shootable’ bull. Several times in the course of the book, he states that he tries to shoot bulls that are past breeding age, even if their horns are less of a trophy than the younger bulls. I mentioned I got a signed copy; the inscription reads: “Matt – shoot old bulls!” That kind of commitment to ethical hunting is a far better representation of our people to the outside world than, say, Ted Nugent.
The book continues on with discussion on the various subspecies of African buffalo, from the well-known Cape buff to the smaller forest buffalo of Western Africa. The bulk of the book, however, consists of some very pragmatic advice regarding tracking, stalking, estimating horn size, shot placement, guns/cartridges/bullets (this chapter is basically a re-hash of part of “Safari Rifles II”, which is fine because this is a perfectly valid subject), and what happens when things go sideways. There is a lot of experience at work here, and yet Boddington remains humble and defers to both his PH’s and his trackers. One bit of advice struck home: make a set of shooting sticks and practice with them. A bit of research shows that Home Depot sells bamboo poles for very little money; three poles and some old bicycle inner tube can make a very useable set of shooting sticks. Given my lackluster performance on the sticks at the last safari match (the plains game stage was by far my weakest, and the only one where I shot from shooting sticks). Perhaps this could be a subject for a later post...
The book wraps up with a reasonably in-depth treatise on the other game buffalo of the world, focusing on the various types of water buffalo found in India, Asia and Australia. He then moves into a fitting coda: recounting the ‘perfect’ Cape buffalo hunt.
All in all, I found “Buffalo!” to be an enjoyable and satisfying read. I don’t think Boddington is the same level of wordsmith as Ruark or Capstick, but his advice is very down-to-earth and pragmatic without sacrificing an obvious passion for the animal and the hunt. He’s certainly got far more experience than Ruark (at least, Ruark at the time of “Horn of the Hunter”), and he is far less likely to sensationalize and embellish than Capstick. I intend to look into more of Boddington’s work, and I think he’ll have a place in my library for some time to come.