Flashback Friday – When the Hunters Become the Hunted

safari-cvr-may-june-2003Editor’s Note: On Fridays we reach back into the extensive Safari archives and dust off a gem from one of our past issues. This week, we tag along on a hunt in Africa for Cape buffalo and a very dangerous encounter with a trophy of a lifetime. This article first appeared in the May/June 2003 issue of Safari Magazine.

The black tip of a lion’s tail lashed above the tall, dry grass 20 yards ahead of me. I stood waiting for a chance to shoot. Nearby, to our left, the lion’s twin crouched, roaring repeatedly.

“Shoot the one on the left!” my husband urged. “He’s going to come!”

I swung my barrel toward the lion on our left and fired a 400-grain Swift A-Frame into its chest. He roared and staggered forward.

“Shoot him again!” screamed our professional hunter, but lights were exploding in my head, and the world went red. Blood red.

My husband and I had hunted Africa many times, but I hadn’t taken a lion. In addition, Keith was fighting his decade-long “eland curse.” There was no doubt in our minds that Tanzania’s Selous Reserve was the place for us. Larger than Switzerland, the Selous is Africa’s largest protected pristine wilderness. Our 11-year-old daughter, Adri, hearing our plans, begged to go. She loves to hunt and had never been to Africa. Our adventure would begin the next day, and lions were on the menu.

Dugga Double

We spent our days looking for lion tracks and hanging bait. As our hunt progressed, we saw herds of hartebeest, wildebeest, impala, zebra and kudu. Adri was busy with the trackers, learning all their names in Swahili, when we spotted a group of “dugga boys” near a spring. They immediately bolted.

“Kuna mbogo wangapi?” (“How many buffalo are there?”) I asked. There were five.

Double Cape Buffalo
As the first bull dropped to the author’s bullets, a second “dugga boy” charged, so she dropped him too.

Tracker Rama, Jaspar and I loaded our guns as we ran toward the spring. Keith and Adri stayed behind. The spoor was clear in the muddy ground. After a kilometer, we approached a maze of burnt trees. Standing like naked sentinels, their branches tore at our skin and clothes as we worked through the eerie tangle.

Jaspar spotted two of the bulls waiting for us in thick brush. At 80 yards, he and I stepped into full view. Part of one bull’s shoulder was visible. I raised my rifle and fired. The ping of the bullet, ricocheting off that maze of trees, made me sick. I‘d missed!

With a thundering sound, the brush exploded in a mass of huge, brown bodies. My bull hesitated, so I fired repeatedly until the bull collapsed. Just then, another bull charged back to save him. Jaspar yelled at me to shoot, and once again, the bullets flew. The second bull went down not 40 yards from his buddy. I could hardly grasp what had just occurred – a double on dugga boys!

Demon Spring

Moving through new territory, we passed vast belts of impenetrable thicket. In the dappled shadows, we saw spotted red duikers and a leopard with her tiny twins.

Mopane bees were constant nuisances in the forest shade. They crawled in and out of our eyes and clothes, looking for moisture. Rama began calling Adri “hunyu mtoto wakike hanamatatizo” – the child who never complains. He even allowed a tsetse bite him so she could see how its transparent abdomen filled with blood.

Adri with white-bearded wildebeest.
The author’s daughter took this white-bearded wildebeest near Mount Lengai in Masailand.

Over the next few days, we saw groups of elephant and took many other animals, including my first Roosevelt sable and a buffalo for Keith. We sat swapping hunt stories at night, watching the fire’s dancing sparks throwing themselves skyward. During the day, we refreshed baits.

We’d driven the sand rivers repeatedly, looking for lions, when word came that large tracks had been found at a distant spring. We were off instantly to investigate. Half a mile from the spring, we loaded our rifles and walked in.

Keith spotted the male lion first. We all froze as he headed straight for us. I got ready to shoot, but the cat kept changing position. By then, my legs were shaking. I took aim when the lion lay down, facing us at 40 yards.

“Wait until he stands,” Jasper ordered.

I waited and waited. The cat turned and bolted for some brush.

Jaspar, Rama and I spent the afternoon in a blind we had built in a sausage tree directly over a bait. The lion never returned. Rama insisted this spring held demons and that we would never take that lion.

Bad Muti

Before we drove the Mswega River’s sandy bottom the next day, we deflated our tires for increased traction.

Rama spotted some elands. There were nice males in the group, so off went the guys. Adri and I stayed with the Land Rover. At last, Rama returned. He told us they had lost the eland in thick forest. We headed downriver to pick up Jaspar and Keith. When we arrived, they had an eland down.

The author's husband Keith ends his "eland curse".
The author’s husband Keith ends his “eland curse”.

Their story unfolded. After Rama returned to collect Adri and me, Keith and Jaspar had sat down on the riverbank. While they sat, a cerval cat crossed the river. It was too far to shoot, so they enjoyed its beauty through their binoculars. Following the cat led their eyes toward a group of eland bulls on the far bank, but there was no way to approach without being seen. The two men sat, completely frustrated.

Then, a whirlwind began dancing its way across the sandy river. It increased in intensity, fueled by the heat of a fire Rama had set to help control the thick underbrush. Both men, hidden by the swirling leaves and brush, stumbled across the river to just below the eland. After crawling up, they chose the best bull, and Keith’s curse was lifted as the eland dropped. As if that weren’t enough, we found lion tracks and hung another bait.

Jaspar, Rama and I went back into the sausage tree blind while Keith and Adri parked a few kilometers away. My legs and back began to ache as the hours ticked by. Ants were climbing all over us, biting furiously. My side of the blind was open, giving me a good view across the field to our right.

As evening settled in, baboons began barking. We glassed but saw nothing. I directed my attention back to the bait below, and a sickening feeling swept up the hair on the back of my neck. I held my breath as I turned slowly back to the right. I looked right into the lion’s eyes. His ears were laid back, and his tail lashed slowly.

“Don’t move,” Jaspar said. Any movement could mean another chance lost.

This fine Grant's gazelle fell to the author's daughter Adri in Namibia.
This fine Grant’s gazelle fell to the author’s daughter Adri in Namibia.

The lion finally got up and urinated, never taking his eyes off mine. Then, raking up the ground with his back paws, he walked into the brush behind our bait. I steadied my rifle, certain we had him. The lion lay down out of view and stayed there growling. We couldn’t believe our bad luck. Once it was dark, he moved in. I licked at my dry lips as I listened to the great cat cracking bones below us. We then heard lapping at the spring. The females had joined him.

I began worrying about Keith and Adri. They were scheduled to pick us up at any moment. We had no way to let them know they were driving into a deathtrap in an open vehicle.

However, as the Land Rover approached, Keith spotted the lions. Great roars ensued as Keith revved the engine, scaring them away. The male retreated a few yards into the thicket and kept growling. We climbed out of the tree, rifles loaded, facing complete blackness on one side as we backed our way to the car. Climbing onto the high back seat, I stepped on a shaking Adri, covered with jackets. Keith had tucked her down between two metal toolboxes. We decided that would be the last time we took Adri in after lions!

At 2 a.m., Jaspar, Rama and I left to try to catch the lion at first light. Our driver was given instructions to pick us up an hour after daylight. As we settled into the blind, the lionesses came and ate. A light breeze blew the sweet smell of sausage tree blossoms around us. I enjoyed the long, maroon trumpets, alive with hummingbirds. Except for the biting ants, it really was a lovely place.

The author killed her first Roosevelt sable in the Selous Reserve.
The author killed her first Roosevelt sable in the Selous Reserve.

As dawn broke above the distant mountains, I heard a vaguely familiar humming. Soon, the humming got louder. We realized that millions of bees were descending on our tree. We were engulfed in the swarm within two minutes. The bees were crawling in our hair and on our arms and legs. We were in big trouble! To make matters worse, the lionesses were napping a short distance away.

“We’ve got to get out of here!” Jaspar urged.

Once on the ground, we moved under a large tree, its massive trunk guarding our backs. The noise of the bees was deafening. We waited for our driver for 40 tense minutes. Rama was right – this place was cursed. We never went back there again.

Everyone was waiting for good news when we arrived at camp. Rama went into great detail with the others about our sobering experience.

“Guess what, Mom?” Adri said, trying to cheer me up. “While you were gone, our tent was attacked by army ants!” Slowly, but surely, Africa was exacting its price.

Last Chance Lion

“We’re going back to the Mswega today and see if there are any fresh lion tracks,” Jaspar announced determinedly. If there weren’t any, the plan was to complete my wildebeest slam with a Nyasa wildebeest.

Hundreds of animals, down for their morning drink, scattered in front of us as we drove along the river banks, scanning for any sign of simba. It was not to be. As we drove across the flood plain, I wasn’t sure whether I were relieved or disappointed.

Soon, Rama’s eagle eyes spotted a lone wildebeest far ahead through the thorny brush. We began our stalk. But no matter how hard we tried, he managed to stay just out of range. It was odd – the wildebeest would go only so far, stop, look back our way and wait.

“He is leading us,” Rama explained, as if having a wildebeest lead humans were normal.

Then he pointed upward. Vultures circled the distant wind currents. About 200 yards from a kill, the wildebeest headed off to our left in his bizarre, trotting gait.

We sneaked forward. There, beneath a giant baobab, twin male lions were eating a female eland they had just killed. Africa was giving me one last chance!

The lions immediately sensed something, stood up, growled and bolted across the plain. “Mimi nataka bunduki yangu kubwa sana,” (“I want my big gun.”) I said.

We tracked as we ran, Adri between Keith and me. Suddenly, I remembered Adri, her teeth clenched, but it was too late to turn back.

Half a mile away lay two tiny islands of thorny scrub about 30 yards apart. It was there the lions held their ground. As we approached, Jaspar told me to single out one lion while Keith and he covered the other.

The author (right) got her lion with a single shot to the chest.
The author (right) got her lion with a single shot to the chest.

I felt strangely calm as we advanced. I could see one lion 20 yards to our left but focused my attention on his twin in front of us. Warning growls issued as both lions vented their fury. The lion I chose had flattened himself in the tall grass 20 yards in front of us. All I could see through my scope was the black tip of his lashing tail.

“Shoot this one!” Keith hissed. “He’s going to come!”

In that split second, I swung my barrel back to the twin on my left. There was no time to settle my rifle into my shoulder. I fired, hitting the lion in the chest. The scope recoiled into my forehead, and blood poured into my eye.

I could hear Jaspar telling me to shoot, but his voice seemed far away as I desperately wiped blood from my eye.

“It’s OK. He’s dead,” Jaspar said.

Simultaneously, a roar engulfed us from the front. The other twin was ready to charge. All guns swiveled toward our newest problem.

“Hold! Hold!” Jaspar insisted.

In one bound, the lion came but then veered off and ran. We got to the Land Rover, quickly loaded up my lion and got the hell out of there.

We took the lion back to the kill site. The trackers, blowing off their tension, were laughing and mimicking the twin lions’ roars. Adri was jumping up and down with sheer excitement and adrenaline. I felt the same way.

I stood, licking the dried blood out of the corners of my mouth and watching the Africans skin the lion and remove his yellow fat for medicine. Suddenly, a whirlwind ripped through the middle of us, sending dirt and leaves flying in every direction. I felt as if the lion’s soul were being lifted up and carried away.

Driving out, we saw the wildebeest. Jaspar stopped the car. The wildebeest stared at us. It would have been an easy shot. Nevertheless, Jaspar started up the Land Rover. There was no need for words. Not one of us would have pulled the trigger. Africa had already given me my prize in her own mysterious way.

In the distance, I heard a lion call to his twin, but only the wind answered.–Niki Atcheson


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