A Matetsi Lion Tale
Above: I went onto the Matetsi concession some days before Takao's arrival from Japan and pre-baited for lion using zebra haunches. In this photo we've married up three baits after the original one had been eaten by a lion I strongly suspected it was the same lion Takao ultimately shot. We dropped two of the baits from other bait sites and brought them to the above site. Our intention being to try and keep the lion at one bait site. It never worked because he found the remains of the giraffe and never returned to this site. After the baits are hung we always camouflage them with leafy branches to hide them from vultures.
As we sat quietly watching from inside the hastily built blind, the lion suddenly appeared from deep in the shadows and walked purposefully back to where he’d previously been disturbed at daybreak. When originally disturbed, he’d been busy feeding on the remains of a giraffe carcass. A carcass left by us, after we were through with skinning my Japanese client Takao’s old giraffe ‘stink’ bull shot the previous day. During the course of the night the vagrant nomadic male lion had found this plentiful bounty, and having eaten his fill had been lying behind it jealously guarding it from any scavenger interlopers.
It was two of my skinners from camp who’d chanced upon him when they casually walked up to the remains of the giraffe. I’d dispatched them to check the carcass surrounds for any possible visitations by lion, a trophy ranked top of Takao’s want list. After arriving at the dead giraffe, the skinners with their concentration at the task in hand having wandered, were still holding a typically animated and loud African conversation. They were also intrigued to observe some rather fresh lion tracks near the giraffe but paid little heed to the freshness of them.
However, when a male lion growling threateningly suddenly loomed large on the opposite side of the carcass, noisily expressing his displeasure at being disturbed while resting. His loud grumbling growls intimated in no uncertain terms that the trackers depart post haste. Paying immediate heed to the lion’s annoyance, the two trackers earlier intrigue turned to unbridled panic. They fled the scene with long ground covering strides, their stomachs gurgling as they fought off their fear induced involuntary bowel movements with clenched sphincters.
Some distance away, and while the skinners were still undergoing their lion encouraged survival sprint, we’d just spent time unsuccessfully trying to flush another fairly vocal lion from inside a dense reed-bed. We’d homed in on his roaring at first light, having initially heard him from camp. Some rather determined crocodiles had earlier robbed him of his female waterbuck kill, and then dragged it into the river. Upon our arrival, portion of the head and neck skin from the luckless waterbuck, still floated aimlessly on the surface of a stagnant Bembe River pool.
My trackers keen eyesight hadn’t taken long to unravel the story of what’d transpired during the hours of darkness. A story temporarily sculpted in the sand on the riverbank. Drag marks into the water framed by crocodile spoor, with lion spoor pulling in the opposite direction. Determined, enraged, and indignant. It was obvious to all of us studying the sand sculpted story that Leo had lost the tug of war. And yet, once the humid heat of the day made its presence felt and the wind picked up, so too, would the night’s story, still freshly imprinted in the sand disappear forever. Obliterated by wind, blowing grass, animal and bird tracks. The sand written script nothing more than a fleeting, visual poetic statement, on the parched canvas of Africa.
After we’d finally exited the reedbed, a far off and unusual hullabaloo had us look towards the track down which we’d previously driven. Hurtling downhill towards us was a Landcruiser with the skinners standing on the back and hysterically shouting, ‘Isilwane…Isilwane!’ (Lion…Lion).
Above: Final checks on a camouflaged lion bait.
Arriving in a cloud of dust, they poured out their story of woe in isiNdebele and without further ado we clambered aboard my rig and headed back towards what still remained of the slain giraffe. As we topped the high ground some distance from the giraffe carcass, the eagle-eyed trackers excitedly shouted that the lion was decamping into the virtually impenetrable shoulder high scrub mopane beyond the giraffe. Due to Takao’s newness to African hunting, and a mediocre performance with his rifle thus far, I decided against any attempted follow up by tracking, in case we chased the lion off altogether.
Instead, and using the rig we dragged the giraffe closer to the base of a mopane tree and secured it with some hefty chain. We also hung a rather odoriferous zebra haunch that we had in the truck (from previous bait) in the tree above the giraffe. To hide the baits from the prying eyes of vultures, we covered the zebra haunch with green leafy branches and buried the giraffe under layers of dry grass. About forty paces away we quickly built a flimsy blind out of local bush material bound together with bush string made from the inner bark of certain types of acacia. This string is colloquially referred to as gusu tambo (bush string). The right-hand side of the blind was about fifteen paces from where the giraffe had originally fallen after being shot. Due to the lion having already fed on the giraffe at this position, the proximity to the blind certainly wasn’t the ideal; however, there was little we could do about it.
Above: A tracker makes gusu tambo to bind the support poles cut from saplings for our hastily built lion blind.
With the blind complete we went back to camp, knowing that due to the hot dry wind, the five-hour time lapse before we returned to the blind would allow ample time for our human scent to dissipate. Back in camp we rechecked Takao’s rifle for zero, at the exact distance from blind to bait. His choice of weapon was a Blaser with interchangeable .375 H&H and 30-06 calibre barrels. Being a conservative and somewhat traditionalist, PH, I’ve always been leery of the Blaser system’s ‘straight-pull’ bolt, and prefer my Mauser actions. However, if sale figures are anything to go by the straight-pull bolt works for a lot of hunters. And sales continue to steadily improve year in and year out. Surely the sign of a good product.
Because we’d already taken a number of other trophies, including an elephant bull and a buffalo, plus the giraffe, using the .375 H&H calibre barrel, I’d noticed my client starting to flinch slightly, plus there was a distinct bruise on his shoulder so I got him to switch to the 30-06 calibre barrel for the lion. A wounded lion in thick cover is a nasty adversary, and it only takes a slight flinch at time of shooting to cause a wounding.
Above: Gusu tambo bindings secure the horizontal poles of the blind to a mopane sapling used as a corner upright; this was the corner closest to where the lion had been lying next to the giraffe carcass.
Thus, it was some hours later I found myself holding my breath while watching the lion from about 15m away through a tiny slit in the grass on the right-hand side of the blind. He’d confidently and very boldly returned to where earlier in the day he’d been blissfully guarding his giraffe, but with it no longer there, the lion seemed to take on a somewhat confused if not irritated demeanor, before raising his head and with his nose twitching tried to scent where the giraffe had gone. It seemed to work because he suddenly spun around and strode purposefully across our front towards where the bait was anchored.
It was at this point I quietly nudged a tense, yet totally unawares Takao, by then the lion was standing 40m in front of us staring down at the grass under which his prize was hidden. Suddenly, he belted the giraffe shoulder with an almighty and noisy downward blow of his right paw, sending a shower of grass and dust in all directions. He then strode off to our left, and was lost to view in the thick brush. Holding my breath, I willed him to come back before shooting light faded. As if he’d heard my silent plea he suddenly moved determinedly across our front, behind the bait tree from left to right, and was again lost to sight. And then he appeared again. A brief tawny blur, wraith like, and silent, a grey-tan smoke swirl in the woods…a tense muscle bound 470lb fleeting shadow.
After stepping out of the thick cover he stood near the giraffe, perfectly presented broadside on, as if cast in bronze, while looking up quizzically at the suspended zebra haunch. In that brief moment, my client’s 30-06 Blaser shattered the fading late afternoon stillness, the bullet entering just behind the lion’s shoulder. Rearing up with a bellow of rage, the lion attempted to bite the bullet’s point of entry, and then crashed blindly into the brush. A good sign.
Above: The blind with its cut grass and mopane branch camouflage nears completion.
As I forced the rear blind door open, noise from the direction of the lion’s disappearance had quieted, but we could hear the hunting rig heading rapidly towards us from where we’d left it with the crew. By then it was nearly dark and required the lights from the truck to help us locate the lion, which we found lying dead about 30m into the scrub. A fine and noble trophy, and a fitting end to a great safari. A 21-day safari that due to my client’s business commitments had to be squeezed into 7 days. Diana, that fickle Goddess of hunting had certainly been kind to us.
Above: Takao poses with his lion on the morning after.
Above: Takao also shot a buffalo, which took a bit of killing, it was lying as if stone dead until I got a tracker to throw a stick at it, causing it to leap to its feet and display extreme annoyance.
Above: His elephant bull was huge bodied although not big in the ivory department. However, to have achieved what he had over 7 days of hard hunting was sheer luck. Shortened safari time can become a PH's nightmare. Long duration safari time is in place for a purpose, that being to have time to hunt properly and selectively. Trying to squeeze multi-species dangerous game hunts into 7-days smacks of commercialisation in the extreme. Sadly, freelance contract PHs don't have any say in a company's marketing strategy.