Flashback Friday – Lions in the Darkness

safarimagMA1998Editor’s Note: On Friday we reach back into the Safari archives and dust off a gem from the past. Today we share the visceral excitement of a large pride of lions stalking the hunter and his PH in a reed blind in Zimbabwe. This article first appeared in the March/April 1998 issue of Safari Magazine.

It is in darkness, within a hunting blind, in a remote part of Zimbabwe, and an intense young man is rapidly repeating the same message into a radio handset: “Mahohra. Majohra. Come and fetch us now! Can you hear me? Come with the truck immediately. We have a dangerous situation here!”

Graham Hingeston, professional hunter and owner of H.H.K. Safaris, in terse whispered transmissions, repeated this same appeal over and over, but with no response. The experience of this last half hour was so intense, it has left my brain and composure in a state of temporary paralysis.

In 1993, a thrilling and sometime exasperating game with an exceptionally clever leopard ended with a personal goal fulfilled. Now I absolutely must have a lion! So here I am, rigid with tension and confined in a skimpy reed blind in the inky darkness of the African bush. My rifle, with the barrel still jutting from the shooting port, is virtually useless. Mentally considering our dismal options, I sorely wish I had included the four-inch .44 magnum in my hunting gear.

male-lion-at-night-061516Our hunting location is western Zimbabwe on communal land, flanking the southern border of Hwange National Park. The area, Tsholosho North, is renowned for the largest elephants that pass freely from the park onto the communal property – the border fence is not a barrier. Generally, in Zimbabwe a 40 pound ivory per side is about average for what is considered a shootable bull. However, at Tsholosho the prospect of getting a 50-pound plus bull is very real. In 1996 I had tried unsuccessfully for 15 days to collect a lion from the communal land along the border of Gornarezhou National Park. Lions occasionally make forays into agricultural areas, looking for cattle and other domestic stock. Unseasonable, torrential rain and extreme cold weather stopped most game movement while I was there. Ironically, a large male lion made off with my last bait a few days after my leaving. So much for hunters luck.

If a lion is taken in these border areas, it is not uncommon for it to be a very large specimen. At Tsholosho, one of the highest SCI scoring lions in recent years came from this concession. Leopards from here also are outstanding and are not hunted much because most clients concentrate on elephant.

We were driving 50 miles twice daily to check the baits, over rutted, sandy trails that made for a jolting, wrenching, body punishing masochistic ritual. Our lion experience began on the very second day of the 15-day hunt. It was dusk now; the golden hue of the now-waning African sky cast a magical, soft quality to the remaining light that filtered through the canopy of acacia and fever trees.

The entire carcass of a domestic cow hung where the half-eaten donkeys had been suspended and chained up just yesterday. The blind as positioned, was and uncomfortable 40 yards from our bait. Because the thornbrush was so dense, it required a major effort to clear an adequate shooting lane within the time allotted as we intended on sitting for the cats this same day.

This pride obviously has multiple males. The breeding dynamics of a pride with multiple males isn’t yet fully understood, but even though the lion on the right is a “keeper,” we now know that we have to steer clear of all pride males. (Photo by Danny Bartlett)
(Photo by Danny Bartlett)

The lioness came out of the bush suddenly, eyed the meat momentarily, and then turned to face our blind. The size of these cats needs to be seen in a wild setting to feel and assimilate the full impact of their presence.

Most beautiful to behold, with striking facial markings, and piercing, amber-colored eyes staring impassively at us. With no apparent interest in our bait, the lioness continued to study our blind for whatever she thought it was, and then actually began to stalk us.

Catlike, the full-grown lioness approached in silent, stealthy movements, more curious than threatening,

but obviously potentially deadly. I was transfixed. She came steadily and had closed the distance from the blind to a scant 20 yards. My PH had watched with his usual calm up until then. Quickly, he grasped his .458 Lott, audibly releasing the safety, and rose to a standing position. Instantly, the cat spun around and bounded back into the darkening bush. As blackness came, our senses shifted to sound for orientation. The deep, resonant cough of a male lion, most certainly close by, but yet unseen, was

what I had expected to hear, but the actuality of it is best described as intimidating. There were perhaps eight or nine cats in this pride, and they were out there, prowling around our perimeter. In total darkness, I felt isolated, which imbued me with a false sense of security, somewhat like a child feels when hiding under his blanket. Despite this detachment, I sensed an ominous presence. On private and also on communal land in Zimbabwe, it is legal to hunt at night using artificial light. On government safari areas, it is not permitted. This is an advantage when hunting “bulletproof” cats that have become totally noctumal in their feeding habits.

Hingeston had instructed his men to bring the truck back to the blind at midnight, unless we called them in sooner. The radio in the vehicle wasn’t receiving, but he continued to repeat the transmission. Oddly, for whatever reason,I wasn’t nervous as such. It was more like being detached from reality. Hingeston continued to stare into the darkness through a hole of the blind, using my Lietz binoculars. At one point, he reached over and pressed his hand to my chest in a gesture that warned me to be deathly still. Through this, I could hear very little, as I have a hearing loss, but my other senses told me otherwise. We had a deadly serious problem. The lions again were approaching the blind, but this time as a group. Decision time was approaching fast, and our prospects were not attractive in this situation. A lion at night is a fearless predator, and can see better than a human can in daylight. Will they tum away and go back to the bait? Is the maned male exposed, giving me an open shot? Should we allow them to. come any closer before attempting to scare them off with our rifles, the light, or both? And will they spook easily or will they turn into snarling killers – a possibility I shut out from my mind. With these thoughts racing through my head, I realized the PH would make the call. The safety margin was getting pretty thin, and our being in mortal danger was a definite possibility. And this on my very first lion hunt!

male-lion-drinkingOn the second morning, traveling west bordering the national park, we met up with park employees who excitedly told how they had – just minutes before – witnessed a pride of nine lions, including a large male, crossing a trail. So close … but yet so far. We hung two carcasses in the vicinity, and dragged entrails to lay the spoor. And the lions came that night. On examining the tracks and the bait tree the next day, long, dark mane hairs indicated that a large male indeed was in the pride. Later in the day, and within the park, we saw several lion resting in the brush and presumed that they were guarding a recent kill. Numerous Cape buffalo grazed unconcerned despite the lions being in close proximity. The following morning, these same lions still were in the general vicinity, and two stayed in the open fully exposed.

As we headed out that afternoon, jubilant in mood, with the likely prospect of a quick kill, my thoughts centered on my ability to perform under pressure. Hingeston and I have shared many blinds together, and he expressed complete confidence in my judgment and skill. But yet I had that nagging concern … this was a new experience. A single cat was not involved as when hunting leopard, but an entire pride of adult lions. We knew this for a fact because of the earlier sightings, and the ample evidence of pug marks around the bait. Suddenly, Hingeston sprang out of his chair and jammed the spotlight over the top of the blind, wildly waving the brilliant light back and forth directly in front of our shooting port. I was startled out of my intense concentration and my ears were filled with the sounds of heavy, padded feet pounding the turf of our shooting lane away from the blind, and back into the bush. After what seemed like an impossibly long vacuum of sound or sight this explosion of activity started my adrenaline rushing. I fully realized how close the lions had been before bolting from the light. But it wasn’t over.

It was too dangerous to leave the blind, and we had no choice but to wait for the trackers to return as instructed. We resumed our vigil and gave up on the radio.

The next six hours I will remember as a lesson in patience and self-control. Animal sounds periodically disturbed the absolute silence, including the deep, throaty cough of a male lion. Several times we illuminated the bait tree, and each time one or two lions were visible, not feeding on the meat, but just lying in the grass near the tree. We never did see the big male. The truck dutifully arrived at the prescribed hour, much to our relief. I immediately felt both physically and emotionally the effects of the past nine hours on mv bodv. No. This is not a success story with photographs. The pride did not return to the bait, no matter what we tried subsequent to our chilling encounter. No matter, I experienced an extraordinary hunting adventure that is permanent and lasting within my memory. Was this hunt a quality safari? You bet it was. I would revel in the experience again. Adding spice to this hunt, four leopards (male.and female pairs) fed on two of our baits. A shot at a very large leopard was rejected as too risky because of an intervening branch, but the thrill was savored again, and what an animal! Getting it on the bait was a story in itself. And a long-sought, record-book quality eland bull was taken in the low veld during a three-day break from the lion hunting.

lionsonroadblogA safari such as this is so specialized that it will not appeal to most hunters who want to collect multiple and diverse species. Most cat hunting typically is like this hunt. My failure to collect a lion had more to do with just bad luck and weather than opportunity. The thrill of the yellow-spotted cat appearing suddenly like an apparition, and gnawing on the bait, or hearing the distinctive sawing sounds voiced by the nervous male leopard, is the quintessence of pure wildness. And having lions within touching distance equaled anything involving personal risk in the world of hunting that I have known. I am hooked on Africa’s cat hunting, and within my soul the yearning for more burns fiercely. And that, my fellow hunters. is what Africa is aIl about!–Richard Kostakas

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