From the Archives: Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo

[From an old online journal of our trip to Kenya back in 1993 or so, before blogs existed]

Ridge Reynolds’ job, we were told, was to make sure that the animals around the game reserve were happy and healthy and didn’t eat anyone. We were a bit worried from the time that he suggested we go out to play with the cheetahs, and that he’d be out there to join us in “just a minute,” but that’s a different story. Ridge’s job description included keeping Devon and me from getting folded, spindled, mutilated or ingested by the local mammals, and by and large, we trusted him to do that job. Rather, we trusted him as much as one would trust anyone whose previous job was to be leapt upon by tigers and make it look as though they were eating him.

Life was never dull around Ridge. One morning, after we’d spent the night at his house on the edge of the reserve, he called Devon and me out to the front perimeter where the electric fence kept wayward oryx and rhinos from visiting us without an invitation.

“Man,” he said, “That’s one helluva mean looking cape buffalo.”

Sure, I thought, but he’s a bit far away for a good photo. If I’d known Ridge better, I would’ve known what was coming next:

“Let’s go out and take a look at him!”

We weren’t enthusiastic. We’d been told that of all the dangerous animals in Africa, the Cape Buffalo held a special place. The lion and leopard only kill if they’re hungry or if you threaten their young. The elephant and rhinoceros, being vegetarians, will only charge if you threaten their young, and are much more likely just to move away defensively. The cape buffalo, however, isn’t so clever. It is a reminder of the saying that “when your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” The only thing that a cape buffalo knows how to do is eat grass and trample anything that it doesn’t recognize or understand. With a running weight eclipsing many American cars, it is admirably suited to both tasks. We’d been repeatedly warned that the cape buffalo response to humans on foot was, “Hmmm, can’t tell what it is. Maybe I’d just better go trample it.”

“C’mon,” said Ridge, “you’ll never get a good photo of it if we don’t get closer!”

This was true, but might have been secondary to the more important goal of maintaining our own structural integrity. The buff was probably about 75 meters from the fence, and paying us only intermittent attention as Ridge opened the gate and went sauntering out after it. Still weighing the cheetah incident in our minds, Devon and I timidly followed, wondering how we could slow him down.

We caught up with him, still advancing empty-handed on the beast. He sensed our apprehension and reassured us that only last week he and the other caretaker been charged by a buffalo from about this range and had easily escaped by splitting up and diving over the electric fence with at least a couple of seconds to spare.

That was all we needed to hear. Devon and I reached an immediate consensus: we weren’t going a step farther. We were slightly less than halfway out to the buffalo, and that was all the advantage I was willing to concede. Ridge was disappointed, but relented and went no further.

I was grateful that our quarry wasn’t regarding us with that neck-stiffened, ears-back stance that is offered as the prepare-to-be-trampled indicator, and raised my camera to fire off a couple of frames. I should have realized that Ridge would have none of that.

“You can’t take a picture like that, he’s not even paying attention to us!”

“That’s just fine…”

“Hang on just a moment.”

And with that, he was off like a shot, charging at the cape buffalo with arms waving, making hissing and spitting noises like an enraged leopard. Head up, neck stiffened, ears back and we’ve got the undivided attention of the most dangerous animal in Africa. Oh, and about 25 meters of grassland and an electric fence to cross if we ever intend to see our pictures developed. Holy crap.

Ridge stopped running toward the buffalo, turned around, and sauntered back to us with the advisory that it was okay to take the picture now. This got my brain working again, and, in addition to signaling my fingers that they should take the photo, suggested to my lungs that I might want to start breathing again, just in case I have any plans to remain conscious, and perhaps flee back to the safety of the perimeter. I did. Both Devon and I did. The buffalo didn’t charge.

Ridge strolled back to the fence and shut it behind him. “Man,” he said in a satisfied voice, “is that ever a scary looking animal!”

I never got around to asking Ridge just what warped logic was responsible for the charge. Something about the leopard noises? Something about that particular buffalo? This was a man who made his living not getting killed by things that had evolved, it seemed, for the express purpose of killing him. He seemed to do very well at it, and Devon and I learned, as time went by to trust Ridge almost completely. Almost.

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