SCI Flashback Friday – Tracking an Obsession

Safari MagazineEditors Note: This story originally appeared in the November/December 1985 issue of Safari Magazine.

I lay on the cot, staring at the canvas of the tent’s roof. Moonlight filtered down through the leaves of the overhanging trees and in through the open tent flaps.

A hippo grunted, elephants trumpeted down on the river and a hyena sent its eerie call into the night. Then I heard the one sound I had been listening for – lions calling. The soft moaning call of lionesses drifted in on the night air. Then, the harsher sound of a much bigger lion pierced the air from just behind our camp. Another male called from farther away.

I turned my head to pinpoint the direction of the big male’s call. He sounded close, awfully close. The females responded. It sounded as if lions were all around my tent. Listening, I broke into a sweat of anticipation. Lions had been such an obsession of mine for such a long time that I could hardly believe I was here in their territory, actually listening to their voices. Tomorrow, we would be hunting those magnificent cats whose calls were shattering the stillness of the night.

We had already tracked four lions without success. We caught up to the first one, but it turned out to be large in body but small in mane. The next three were wanderers that we were never able to catch up to. I drifted to sleep thinking about what the new day might bring.

I woke early. The cold orange dawn was just breaking over camp. I hurried into my clothes and jacket to escape the chill. My professional hunter met me in the dining hut to discuss the day’s strategy over breakfast. I was hunting on the Chobe River, Botswana, with Steve Liversage of Hunters Africa Ltd. Steve and our bushman trackers had heard the lion and had a good idea of its location. We would check for its track first thing that day. We got our gear together and left camp in the Land Cruiser.

The author and his lion.
The author and his lion.

Within an hour the bushman trackers had spotted the lion’s saucer-sized pad marks in the dust of the road. The track was not particularly large. However, it was definitely a mature lion. Steve explained that the size of a lion’s foot does not mean much – an average foot can belong to a big lion. Conversely a big foot does not guarantee a big mane. In fact, the first lion we tracked had a big foot and a small mane. We would follow in the Land Cruiser until the lion left the road. The trackers led the way by walking in front of the vehicle.

At first, the tracking went quickly and without incident. Then a herd of elephants began crossing the road in front of us. Steve stopped to allow them to pass. The herd hurried across, but three adolescent bulls became separated and milled about in confusion on our left as the others disappeared to our right.

Suddenly, a huge old cow elephant swung back from the departing 8yrquestbullelephanthnt4evr121713herd. She looked toward the young bulls and then, protectively, turned toward our vehicle, tossed her head and flared her ears menacingly. Steve yelled at the trackers to get in the vehicle. They sprinted to the back of the truck and jumped in.

It was a tense moment. The majestic matriarch was clearly agitated and seemed ready to charge. I raised my .375. She threw dust in the air and shook her head furiously. The continued confusion from the adolescents was causing the situation to deteriorate rapidly. Then, finally, the youngsters got their bearings and rushed back to the security of the herd. The old matriarch threw another puff of dust in the air, gave us one more threatening glare and strode away.

We all breathed a sigh of relief. I had not been looking forward to trying to stop a charging elephant – especially with the soft-point bullets loaded in my .375. We continued on. Shortly thereafter, the lion’s tracks left the road and headed into the bush. It now was time to begin tracking on foot.

I took off my jacket and put extra rounds of ammunition in my trouser pockets. Steve warned me to be ready because we could come upon the lion at any time – and at very close range. He said it was not unusual to be within 10 feet of a lion before seeing it! We proceeded carefully.

Lion track
Lion track

We followed the lion across the sandy soil for three hours. When we’d lose the track, we would fan out until one of us found it again. At times tracking was easy. Even my inexperienced eye had no trouble seeing the distinctive pug marks in the sand. At other times, the ground grew hard and grassy and the track would be lost, then found, only to be lost again. The sun grew hotter and the dust began to rise as we walked on.

On two occasions, we cautiously waited as elephants again came into view before winding us and moving off. Their trumpeting was a discouraging warning to our quarry.

Zebras also periodically crossed our tracks. We would wait them out, or cautiously try to bypass them. Nevertheless, they sometimes would storm off giving warning to all in the bush – including the lion we were approaching. It was frustrating to know that the lion’s very prey was working against us. We proceeded on into a patch of woods.

In the trees, the lion’s solitary tracks suddenly merged with the tracks of a pride of lionesses and cubs, a disturbing development. africanlionslocalhuntershuntforever011014Now there would be 16 pairs of eyes and ears and 16 noses to detect us. A lioness with a small cub also could be an extremely aggressive adversary.

Suddenly, the warm still air was broken by a low growl. We froze. Then there was another growl. The lions were directly ahead of us in a thicket. Steve saw a movement in the brush but we could not make out the lions. We stopped to whisper strategy. Our conference was soon ended however by the furious trumpeting and breaking of branches by enraged elephants. Steve yelled for me run behind a tree and get ready to fire over the heads of the charging elephants. I dashed to a tree and raised my rifle. My heart was pounding, but the sounds were disappearing, not approaching. The elephants were charging the lions, not us! I was both relieved and angry. What do we do now? I cursed the elephants for their constant (even if unintentional) interference. It was a glum group that entered the thicket to try to unravel the tracks and determine what had happened to our pride of lions.

The tracks showed the pride had run off as a group with but one exception – one marvelous exception. The big lion had gone off by itself, apparently leaving the pride prior to the rude entry of the elephants. Its tracks showed the slow meandering route we had grown accustomed to. We had another chance.

lion-headUnlike previous lions we had tracked, this lion seemed to have no particular destination in mind and merely wandered about in a seemingly mindless way. Further, it was traveling during the day. Then we found where it had bedded. Fifty yards further, we again found the marks in the sand where its great body had recently reclined. Steve reminded me to be ready. A bit farther on, we found deep rips in the bark of a tree where the lion had paused to sharpen his claws. I began to wonder if the lion was trying to tell us something.

We stayed on the track relentlessly, but I became increasingly tired from walking in sand with dust covering our sweating faces and necks. It was getting progressively hotter. We had been on the trail for 5 ½ hours now. Where was the lion? Where was it going? Would it kill something and make our job easier? Would it keep traveling and make our job impossible? Would we see it first at 100 yards or 10 feet? Would we see it at all?

We stopped for counsel. The bushmen were concerned that the lion continued to travel during the day and had paused for only the shortest of rests. Steve was concerned that we were getting so far from the vehicle that we wouldn’t be able to get back to it before dark. I was just plain tired and hot, but wasn’t ready to give up yet.

The trackers felt that any further tracking was a waste of time. Steve suggested that we compromise and go another half mile to the next line of trees and then turn back. I reluctantly concurred that it may be time to give it up. Heaving the .375 onto my shoulder, we pressed on.

Every step brought us closer to the next line of trees where we Lion-Initiativeshuntforever012214would end the hunt. The country in between was open and revealed no lion. It seemed obvious I was not to get a lion this day, and I began to wonder if I would ever get one at all. Then the tracker suddenly stopped and pointed. Steve knelt and pulled me down. “Did you see him?” he asked urgently.

I hadn’t seen anything. “Under the tree on the anthill,” Steve said. I could see a ginger colored fringe waving in the wind, but it didn’t look like a lion. “That’s his mane; he’s asleep and lying on his side, all you can see is the side of his head. He’s a beaut! Black mane. A terrific lion!”

Steve’s words made my heart race. This was it. My chance was at hand. But what a chance. The lion was facing its backtrack from a carefully concealed position and we were in plain view 100 yards away. If it woke up or even blinked, it would see us for sure. Futhermore, all I could see was its forehead and left eye. The rest of the lion was behind the anthill and a tree.

We hurriedly discussed our options. If we went to the left for a clear shot, it would pick up our scent. The anthill would also obscure our view. That was out. If we went to the right, there would be even more brush in the way. That was out. Our only approach was to proceed straight to a tree 40 yards in front of the sleeping cat.

Steve told the trackers to stay behind in the brush. He and I then crawled on our hands and knees for 60 yards to the tree. My heart was pounding so hard my chest felt as if it would burst.

We got to the tree and I looked through the 3X scope. Steve coached me carefully: “The tan vertical line is his left eye slit. The gray line is the top of his nose.” But where was I supposed to shoot? Steve looked at me exasperated. “Shoot him in the eye!” In the eye? I had been shooting well and Steve’s confidence was encouraging, but this was a different ball game. First of all, the target was tiny. Second, a misplaced shot could have dire consequences. Last and not least, I was so excited I was shaking like a leaf. In the eye indeed!

I slowly stood up and pushed my .375 against the tree. The crosshairs were bouncing all over the lion’s forehead. Now what? I was getting more excited by the second. I could wait and try to calm down, but what if the lion opened that eye? I had better shoot. The bellow of the .375 shook the nervousness out of my system. I looked through the scope. The lion was still lying there. A perfect brain shot! But no! The lion was suddenly gone and I had not seen it get up or move. It was just gone. But where was he?

Then I saw it moving to the right – it already had covered 50 yards. Its head was held high as it tried to locate us. Its mane rippled in the wind, and I could see its powerful shoulder muscles working. I was stunned by the magnificence of this lion.

I jammed another cartridge into the rifle and swung the crosshairs onto the shoulder. I fired but the lion loped on. It was almost to the thick brush when I fired again. A low growl came from the thicket.

I was excited at having seen such an animal, but dismayed at having missed my opportunity. However, Steve said I hit it with my third shot. Was he sure? Yes sure.

I wanted to run after the lion, my lion. I started into the brush. Steve stopped me. He explained the obvious – you don’t just walk up to a wounded lion hiding in the bush. We would proceed shoulder-to-shoulder, slowly circling the thicket before entering.

I refilled my rifle’s magazine and we began slowly moving around the spot where the lion had disappeared. Our trackers rejoined us, but were walking behind. I strained to see through the brush. There he was! No, just a bush. Steve climbed onto a fallen tree but could see nothing. He climbed down and we continued circling.

Finally, Steve spotted it, I shot and the lion was dead. We approached cautiously, but 300-grain Nosler partition bullet from my .375 had entered in front of the right hip and penetrated the lungs. It was perfectly expanded just under the hide on the left side.

To say I was jubilant would be an understatement. I had wanted a lion so badly it had become an obsession. I not only had a lion, but a beautiful, well maned lion that was so large it would go high in the record books. Steve and the bushman trackers, David and Jackson, had worked hard to make my dream come true. They may never know how much I appreciate it.—William F. Richardson

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