Being charged is one thing, but being hit and living to tell about it is another
Updated: Jun 21, 2022
Biggles the Little Sparrowhawk was at hack and to find her I had to go listen for drongos, sunbirds and paradise flycatchers. They mobbed her and made her life miserable but in time they would get used to her and leave her alone. It often happens that a new hawk is not liked for good reason but after a while the level of threat is understood and everyone claims down. I had lost her completely the day before and there was a night time rain storm that must have drenched her. I heard Spotted Eagle Owls near the house and worried all night. I’m sure she hadn’t slept at all either.
Picking up the adult female Black Sparrowhawk for a careful walk around in the direction of the alarm calls, I hoped that she would spot Biggles first. She is very keen sighted and would certainly see her before I would. I didn’t fly her for she would most probably dash after Biggles to eat her, such is the way of hawks.
As I have said many times before I have lions, leopards, buffalos and such around and sometimes inside the house. So it’s no dawdle wandering around, but there is one particular patch, “that bottom of the garden” retreat patch, that is spooky. It’s only some 200m from the house, but the bush there can be very intimidating especially as we have had crazy buffalo, high on fresh green toxic shoots just after the rain, chasing us. So much so that the builders who come from my neighbouring village on bicycles are now under strict orders to phone and be picked up each day to be driven the rest of the way. Even the cars get charged. Normally the buffalo are chilled and grazing like cattle but recently a number had gotten very violent and they would launch attacks from as far as 500m.
I thought the buffalos had bloat and dared once to stick a regular cattle cannula in the rumen of a still living one to see if it would help. It didn’t have that much gas and I am convinced the new shoots that grow before the grasses are genuinely hallucinogenic to buffalo.
The Black Sparrowhawk and I failed to find Biggles but felt I was getting very close. I went back to get the other Black Sparrowhawk, Toad, and we returned to where I thought Biggles was. This area has thin oleleshwa thickets every 10m or so, robust smooth barked Papea capensis about every 60m and rare Cape Olives every 150m. Short scrubby dense Rhus always looks buffalo-like here and I would hold my breath a beat before being sure. The scent of all these trees I knew well and you could track the movements of something big and heavy that had moved among them just with your nose. Since I had gone to collect the new sparrowhawk there were no fresh smells of broken stems but the sunbirds and flycatchers were going barmy, noisily shouting at something in a Papea some 70m away. I felt poor, lost Biggles was sure to be there.
Toad had suddenly stopped feeding and was bent over, looking hard at something I couldn’t see low to the ground to our right. Suddenly there was a snap, she baited, her bells jangling and the immediate thundering of hooves. I looked up at a buffalo face staring straight at me going as fast as a train, smashing everything in its way. This was no bluff. It had anger and deadly intent and his eyes fixed on me. I had 3 seconds at most to step backwards and to the left, still with the frantic dangling hawk on my glove, and grab onto a leleshwa with my right hand, kick off my flip-flops and just as I was pulling myself up, the buffalo hit my back and backside which propelled me much higher up the tree than I had anticipated.
Because my gloved hand has a missing finger and a gamy little finger, I always tie the distal tip of the hawk’s leash to the metal ring on the glove. So if I do that inexcusable falconer’s mistake of opening the gloved hand the hawk cannot fly away dangling the swivel and leash. On this occasion necessity required me to open my gloved hand, and the baiting hawk flew to the end of the leash and hung 4 feet from that hand. It was this flurry of jangling bells and screaming terrified hawk that momentarily got the full attention of the buffalo. It immediately went down on its forelegs for my ankles and the hawk. The buffalo had evidently thought it had hit me and was working on me on the ground. The hawk dropped right into the face of the buffalo, just off the ground, and it was this mad thrashing screaming thing the buffalo was focused upon goring.
Somehow the sparrowhawk had been jammed in the cradle of 3 or 4 large stems that shielded her from direct impact. As the seconds ticked by I was dangling one arm just above the buffalo and felt its body heat. I was getting lower because the tree was bending. I was looking down at this thing so large and so heavy, and mean as hell that was bent on killing me. Here my brain parted company briefly to what was right for my own survival and what was right for the survival of the hawk. I was for a moment reprieved from a terrible goring by the hawk dangling in the buffalo’s face. I realised that had I pulled the hawk up to me then the buffalo would have followed it up and seen I was dangling above it and all would have been lost for the hawk and I. At some point I had put my right foot on the buffalo’s back to hoist myself further up the tree for there was no other way to get higher. Even now I think that was a pretty “cool” move, one to tell the lads when they boast of their buffalo stories.
They say your life goes through your mind at such moments of peril. Not true. Either that or my life has been so uneventful that I forgot most of it or what I fear is approaching amnesia is truly a fact. But the present moment did slow down. It went from 24 frames a second to 1000 frames a second. I saw with clarity that the hawk dangling at leash length was the focus of the buffalo. And this gave me a peculiar edge, a distraction that was for the time being saving my skin. At the same time my concern was growing for the hawk, and yet another deeper survival instinct was saying don’t pull the hawk up just yet because the buffalo would follow its movement and focus on me. Awful to think, but I did. I reproach myself still, but that’s the truth of it.
The hawk was screaming so loudly and in sheer terror that I was unable to watch her continue without doing something. She even put her feet into the buffalo's nose and muzzle as it ground its boss deeper into the hollow created by the tree stems. That’s one heck of a gutsy hawk to try to fight off a buffalo. I thought to let her go. That would solve a lot of problems but how I had no idea. Perhaps tear her leash off with my teeth? Could I pull her up and then tear the jesses off? But that would only break her legs and she’d tear my face to bits too. And the buffalo would turn its attention to me. Odd that saving her life seemed a growing concern considering the alternative. I couldn’t get my body down to her as I would be pulverised. The rate of the buffalo’s head swinging, trying to hook the bird and my ankles, was like a terrier shaking a rat. My lower calves got twisted around each other like a wrapper on a toffee and just where it meets the toffee (my pelvis) there was briefly great pain of things parting company where they really should remain in a straight line.
The seconds continued to tick on and all this I observed calmly within some rational part of my brain trying to think of a sensible solution. I climbed a little higher pulling her up with me. The stems of the branches were no larger than an inch and I knew that the branches would soon break. Then, seeing that very soon the sparrowhawk would be killed, I yanked her up hard next to me. Her baiting was causing the attack, prolonging it. I have seen people scream when a buffalo went for a group and they would always go for the one who screamed, or for the dog that barked. I grabbed her cruelly by the legs to stop the incessant bell ringing. How I didn’t fall, with one gloved hand holding the tree and the bare hand with a hawk in it, I don’t know. My legs were spread wide apart and my right leg began to shake. My body was about to shake too but I quelled that with a conscious effort as the buffalo was directly below me smashing the tree at a now silent, still and absent antagonist. Had the buffalo got up from a kneeling position it would easily have met my legs again for I could climb no higher. I was out of ideas and thought that it would soon knock me out and set upon me. It just had to raise its head and I’d be done for.
The Sparrowhawk was panting and terrified and now tried to ladder up the tree and cause yet more problems. Her incessant bell was still ringing, calling out to the buffalo to return. I thought to tie her to the tree, jump down and run to a stronger tree. But that would mean that the buffalo would certainly return and I’d have to come back for her somehow. So I threw the glove to the ground and she went down with it. I then clambered down, grabbed her and ran for a large tree that proved to have smooth bark and no foothold. I was just trying to undo her jesses to let her go when I heard the buffalo move towards us. Fortunately the hawk was so exhausted I just clasped her to my chest and ran barefoot from good tree to good tree until I felt in the clear and ran the last 100m to the house thinking he was still behind us.
I went to find Mwanzia, sitting next to his fire enjoying a late afternoon cup of tea. I appeared with Toad patting on hand and me perspiring and talking too fast. Adrenaline was fast leaving me and my body was beginning to feel weak and sick. Between sips Mwanzia exclaimed that he too had a buffalo go after him earlier that day, and perhaps it was the same one? Two days ago I had driven out to meet him on his way back from the public holiday to see a buffalo trot some 500m towards him as he was walking home. Mwanzia wisely changed his course to the trees and there I had to pick him up. Was it the same one? I doubted it and our stories were not really relatable. I had been hit as had the sparrowhawk. We hadn’t just been chased, we’d been hit! Mwanzia shook his head, clicked his tongue as he examined my bleeding ankle and calf, sipped his tea again and we started to joke. A sure sign of adrenalin playing mind games. I returned to put Toad in her enclosure, she was extremely tired, and set about putting all the others to bed. They had yet again been left out that little bit too late, a matter that under the circumstances was excusable.
Only when I took my shirt off to shower an hour later did I notice the back of it was missing, and there were deep bruised scratches down my back. Mwanzia never thought to tell me my clothes were half off my body! Slowly I became aware that my hips were hurting, especially my coccyx and my legs felt as though they had been wrestled and twisted. It was that toffee twisting move no doubt. It didn’t help an old hip injury either which now began to ache badly. I couldn’t sit down. I couldn’t turn over when lying down without an intense pain on my left hip. It didn’t cross my mind to ask for help as that would be more of a chore than worth the pain and expense. No medical or wildlife service could get to me, and I’d have to get to them. They’d over-react, make a mess of things and cause extra pain and ordeal. Instead I took a lot of paracetamol, some spare valium and retired early to bed to wake up with chest pain and an aching rear end and a slight limp. But boy was life good! Toad too, though one wing hanging low, looked happy to be alive and the sun was out, extra bright with extra colour in the grasses, leaves and sky.
Later in the day I went out, this time with no hawk, very carefully with a slight limp to find Biggles the Little Sparrowhawk. Biggles came home and she too had had her fair share of adventures. She dozed all day, ate like a pig and looked happy to be home. Normally tough to put to bed, she jumped into her box in the wall and went to sleep immediately. I felt much the same and had no wish to work. I’d rather go to bed next to a log fire and read Paddington Bear or some non life-threatening recipe cookbook, but I couldn’t. All my electricity had died. All three inverters had blown. The rain had reached them and all the wiring in the house and blew every fuse and transistor. I had a backlog of banal accounts to do but some greater being was telling me to slow down. All I wanted to do was to go to bed for a week. Meanwhile somewhere outside lurked the demented buffalo and the last thing I wanted was for him to be shot. He’ll soon recover his senses and so shall I.
Simon telling the story, showing Toad, her bells and the buffalo bush.
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