It was late afternoon. Suddenly the baboons started jabbering, and a young giraffe near the bait vanished. Hassanali Ladak, my PH whispered to me, “The lion is very near.
At the 2010 SCI Convention in Reno, Hilary of Hilary Daffi Safaris, informed me he was in the process of acquiring a new concession in the Selous and that I needed to hunt his new area as soon as possible. This particular concession had not been hunted for a while, and I would be one of only a few hunters going on a pioneering adventure. I had had such a good time on my previous hunt that I found myself booking for the following September.
A month before I was scheduled to leave, I started having chest pains. Several weeks later I was rushed to the hospital and admitted to the emergency room with a serious blockage in one of my main heart arteries.
On the operating table about to have a stent put in the artery, I told the doctor I was scheduled to go hunting in Africa in less than a month and was wondering whether he thought I would still be able to go on the trip. He gave me a bit of a strange look.
“If there are no complications,” he said, “and if you’re careful you can probably still go.
”My wife and family were also concerned about me going on a dangerous game safari so soon after my operation, and my travel agent thought I was crazy. A few days before my scheduled departure, I had a checkup with another doctor and asked the same question. When I told him I would be hunting several species of dangerous game and would be shooting an elephant gun, I received a really strange look. He told me I better be “damned careful” or I could come home in a pine box.
My bags were packed and with a lot of help dragging my luggage around, I boarded the plane to Tanzania, along with my new Savage rifle chambered in .300 WM and my CZ 550 chambered in .416 Rigby, topped with a1.5-4X Trijicon scope. I also had several trail timers.
After staying the night in Arusha, I boarded a charter flight to Ruaha National Park where I met Hilary. We then headed to the Lunda Concession where we planned to hunt lion for one week then go to the Selous.
My right leg, where the doctor made the incision to do the heart procedure, was still quite sore. I had been told not to put too much pressure on my leg or I might tear open the incision or worse yet break open the healing artery in my leg.
The first day, while getting down from the high rack on the Land Cruiser, I jumped down on my left leg, landed wrong and threw my back out of place. Now I was in pain and had to walk like a duck to try to reduce the pain. No doubt my duck walk provided comic relief to the safari crew even though they knew I was hurting.
Two lions hit our baits the first night. Based on the tracks and hair left behind in the thorn bush one lion appeared to be a young male, the other had huge tracks and long curly hair. He looked like the one we wanted. We spent several mornings and evenings at the bait, but the big boy never came back. During the week we continued to put more baits up and had several lions hitting them, but nothing as big as we wanted.
Several leopards also hit our baits. The trail timers worked well, letting us know when the big cats were hitting the baits. They saved a lot of time by letting us determine which ones were night feeders.
At daylight on the sixth morning we were checking baits and discovered a huge lion had fed on a bait and had eaten virtually all the tasty meat. This tree was the same one that fellow SCI Board Member, Nick White, had taken his lion from the previous year, and it was nicknamed “Nick’s Tree.”
Hair snagged in the thorn bush was long, soft and curly, indicating this was our boy, a heavy-maned lion. He had left huge tracks in the dirt and deep claw marks on the tree. Thinking about this lion kept me awake all night.
We added more bait and mid after-noon climbed into the blind hoping the big simba would come back. The minutes ticked away slowly, but after an hour, I thought I saw a flick of a tail in the thick brush a few yards behind the bait. Then there was nothing. I continued to stare in the direction of the tail movement for 20 or 30 minutes before I saw movement again. There was definitely something in the brush.
I was then on full alert and hoped this was our lion. I had tsetse flies and ants crawling on me, but for the first time it didn’t seem to bother me. My hands were starting to sweat, and my pulse quickened. I kept running through my mind what I would need to do to make a good shot. Several more minutes ticked by before I saw movement again. This time I could start to see the outline of an animal.
My heart was racing as I continued to see a little bit more of the body. Yes, it was the right color, but as the movement continued, and as the form took shape I noticed it was getting taller by the second.
I couldn’t believe it. The animal I had been watching the last hour was a young giraffe. I was embarrassed. How could I imagine that a giraffe was a lion? Suddenly, the baboons started jabbering, and the young giraffe vanished.
“The lion is very near,” Hasanalli whispered.
My pulse skyrocketed again. The minutes went by slowly. It was like watching a glacier melt. I fidgeted, my imagination in overdrive. I feared the lion might have seen or sensed something and left. I must have been fidgeting too much because Hassanali tapped me on the shoulder and said, “The lion is coming, be very still.”
I could not see the lion from my position. He was down several feet to the right of the bait where my vision was blocked by the branches of the mashon.“Do you see the lion?” Hassanali said. “No.” I whispered. “He is lying down a few feet to right of the bait.” He said.
“I still can’t see him,” I replied. The clouds were heavy, and as the sun started to fade in the distance the shadows of sunset were darker than normal. I was increasingly more concerned that my chances to take the big cat would fade with the sunset.
Hassanali had warned me many times over the last couple years that big cats are very smart and will most often watch the surrounding area a long time before they actually go to the bait. My heart pounded as I held my breath. I slid over so that my field of view was better, realizing that any movement could spook the lion.
“Do you see the lion? Hassanali whispered again. “Shoot him!”
I had to blink a couple of times. The lion blended in perfectly with the tall grass and his surroundings.
When I finally saw the lion, I wondered why I hadn’t seen him come in. I slowly moved my rifle until the illuminated dot from the scope found his shoulder. I pressed the trigger, and the 400-grain Barnes bullet slammed into his shoulder.
The lion erupted, roaring so loud it seemed to shake the mashon. The lion spun around, trying to bite the sting I had just inflicted on him. Not wanting to look for a wounded lion as I had the year before, I kept shooting until we were sure the lion was down for good. Adrenaline shock left me light-headed. I didn’t fully realize how magnificent this full-maned lion was until we saw him up-close. The lion was huge, his mane heavy, his feet nearly as big as dinner plates. There was no ground shrinkage here.
Hassanali estimated the lion’s age at 13 years old, and he measured just short of 11 feet, 6 inches long. This was one of the best lions they had ever taken. He easily made the SCI Record Book with a skull size of 253/16 inches, so we named him the “MGM Lion.”
In keeping with African tradition, there was a huge celebration at camp. I was exhausted and at peace for the first time in weeks. As the celebration continued, I savored every moment.
Now that I had my lion, I was eager to head for the Selous. I knew that the Selous was a legendary hunting destination. Hilary’s concession was everything I had hoped for and more. It was one of the best hunts I have ever been on. This hunt was particularly exciting and included a close encounter with a charging hippo, but that is another story.–Gary Christensen