The day we got caught in a buffalo stampede and lived to tell the tale

A herd of buffalo pause their stampede to regard us

We were on our own this time. Aside from the little red car that had become our home for 14 hours a day for the past week, we had no protection. There was no Maasai guide to teach us the way of the bush, and no ranger to interpret the behaviour of wild animals for us. It was just us and the 7,523 square miles of Kruger National Park.

We’d become besotted with safaris after previous trips to Kenya, but this was our first self drive safari. After a week of successful journeys we nurtured a balance of anticipation and naïve bravery that had put us in various precarious situations, but we’d lived to tell our tales. That’s when it becomes dangerous – when success mixes with bravado and adrenaline you fail to notice circumstances emerging before your very eyes until it’s too late…

On a quiet and uneventful afternoon safari drive, we stumbled upon a small group of buffalo by the side of the road. They lacked the skittish nature others had displayed so we decided to spend some time photographing them. Pulling up alongside them, we were bewitched by their calmness; youths mingled silently with adults who hardly registered our presence. Surrounded by dense bush, they were framed by acacia thorn bushes and an endless African sky that we’d come to love and admire.

Leaping into the back seats of the car provided my husband and I with a window each from which to observe and photograph the group.  Working with a wide angle lens I began to lose perspective on the activity surrounding us. It wasn’t until I removed the camera from my eye that I noticed the group of buffalo had swollen in size until they surrounded the car in a silent semi-circle. Every single buffalo was transfixed on us. Their eyes locked with ours, their heads bowed and they stood in complete silence. Aside from the dust blowing as their breath hit the warm sand and the swarm of flies there was no movement. It was not until the bushes behind them began to shake that we realised the group we were interacting with were just the tip of the iceberg – we had pulled up alongside a herd of hundreds of buffalo and were blocking their path.

Our realisation came too late – buffalo blocked any route out and we were being approached by a huge male who was challenging the car face on.  Wishing we could move invisibly, we slid into the front seats of the car and clicked our seat-belts on, fearing an ambush. It was a stand off for 30 seconds or so, during which time we fought the urge to switch the car engine on to retaliate.

When we finally decided the buffalo were too close for comfort and reached for the ignition we saw that we were flanked either side by other tourists in their cars, blocking any exit route we could try to take. The buffalo seemingly became aware of their presence at the same time we did, sending them into a blind panic. The silence turned to thunder as they began to stampede.

We were temporarily blinded from the action as their hooves threw up the ground around our car, casting huge dust clouds and covering us and all our belongings in a layer of fine red sand. As the ground hardened under their hooves we regained visibility…. in every direction there were running buffalo. I cast my eyes from rear view mirror to window, praying that our tiny red car would not act like a red rag to a bull. Meanwhile buffalo clambered over each other, racing to cross the road and gallop into the bush beyond. The young switched from right to left, left to right to escape the crushing hooves of the adults. We were trapped. There was nothing to do but watch. The only soundtrack was the stomping hooves and the blood thumping in my ears as my heart pounded stronger and stronger. I couldn’t find the time or peace of mind to curse us for our stupidity – nothing mattered but watching and remembering to breathe.

The stampede lasted for 10 minutes before it started to thin and we saw an opportunity to roll the car forward to escape the centre of the stampede. Doing so threw the stampede into an immediate halt and triggered the silent stares from the buffalo once more.

There is something unique about receiving an intense stare from a group of wild animals – time stands still and the respect is palpable. You feel a sense of connection, one which no words can replace. It’s a privileged glimpse into another intriguing world from which we could learn so much.

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