African Hunting Among the Thongas

George Chamberlain

armchairsafariChamberlainFrom the very inception of our trip, lion rumors, lion stories, lion lore, and lion alarms had enlivened our days and nights. Reviewing the graduated steps that led up to a single successful encounter with the King of Beasts it is amazing to find out how much of the thrill of shooting dangerous game lied in the process of cumulative anticipation. I believe that nine out of 10 men are incapable of fear at the actual moment of danger but that the same proportion is consistently scared at the thought of peril. The pinnacle of the unexpected is a lion leaping in an instant from the basest cowardice to over the top peak of roaring valor.

It was at the ’Npunanyane on the banks of the ‘Nyasume that lion talk began in earnest. The report that came to us said that a number of farm animals had been slaughtered at a kraal not far away. My partner and I then told the tracker that we would pay two pounds of gold for a shot at a lion plus a gift for whoever brought in the first news of spoor. This gets the trackers excited.

As the spoor freshens we come across the kill, a muskrat, as the smell of lion cloys the atmosphere. A new atmosphere permeates, the trackers casting their eyes to the side and ahead searching for some telltale movement. The oldest tracker carries his assegai as lightly as a wand, dividing the grass with its polished shaft and silently examines each new discovery. His calm and faith help slow the hunter’s beating pulse.

The spoor became more faint but when we look toward where one scout had been sent we see him standing in the middle of a vast strip of sand that divides the basin from a rise dotted with clumps of bush and a sparse forest of temba trees. He holds one hand high, a signal that he found the spoor. He stood so still at our approach that we feared bad news, but we soon learned that he was standing quietly because he knew that a lion might be watching from the nearest thicket.

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)

The trail was very fresh and there in the sand the story was written: a family frolic including a giant pawed feline playing tag in the sand. Given the time of day it was likely that the lions were lying up in the shade in the nearest patch of jungle. We started up the slope. After we had gone some distance, we sent back to have the horses placed in the shelter of two great trees. Had we not taken this precaution, the horse boys, ten minutes later, would have had full view of five lions galloping across the open at a range of only a few hundred yards.

Lions were with us, in our hearts at least, almost every day on this safari. I suddenly felt that these lions in Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique) must have some unique characteristics. The most significant to us was that they were heard and their spoor found, but they were almost never seen. A few days later we purchase, for 43 cents, a full grown male goat to use as bait. Night after night he was tethered a short distance from camp. In vain we hoped. The longer we kept the goat tethered the farther from camp we had to go for spoor. A few weeks later we decided the goat had worked hard and pensioned him off to a local.

We were now in an area where it was believed that some natives with certain “powers” actually “owned” certain lions and these we could not hunt. How to tell the difference? They did not know. So we moved on, successfully hunted eland and let the word out that we were after lion. Within 48 hours the number of those with information rose from a dozen to almost 300, including men, women and children. Among these was a woman who claimed that a local elephant was chasing lions from her kraal but that the lion was always coming back.

In 10 minutes we were off, 30 strong, at a surprisingly fast pace. It was the first time in my hunting career that a woman LED the expedition, and at a good pace. Then men traveling behind her seemed suddenly very “heavy.” When we reached her miserable abode, she retraced the lion’s movements, led us into the bush and put us on the spoor of its last get-away. We left horses and beaters behind and I won the toss for first shot so my trackers and I led the way. It was rolling almost open country dotted with clumps of vines and thorn trees. Fortunately the grass was dry and barely knee high. For two miles we walked rapidly on the easy to follow spoor. Suddenly the tracker halted, thinking this was a good place for a lion to take a nap. From that point on, the trackers moved cautiously and the blood started pounding in my temples. Every hunter, having once missed a shot, believes that the shot will come again and that the next time he will act faster, better. It never happens that way. I recalled the occasion when I had seen a lion in the bush, shot where his shoulder ought to be and by the guidance of a merciful spirit, hit a tree. What if that happened again today?

ArmchairsafariChamberlainmapThe tracker suddenly stepped aside and pushed me ahead whispering loudly, “Tsutsuma!” What did that word mean? Was the lion lying down, running, or worse, preparing to charge. For a ghastly moment I was rattled. I was still standing in an agony of indecision when the tracker moved forward to briskly pick up the spoor again. Later I found out the word meant “he is trotting off.” We moved swiftly to the point where the tracker last saw the quarry. Then a tracker in the rear pointed out the lion to my hunting partner as they were in a position to see the lion a second of two before I could. Resisting a monster temptation, my partner hurried to my side and a moment later the great beast came into full sight, broadside at about 80 yards.

If fervent prayer can guide a bullet, mine traveled in a groove. The lion’s long body seemed to telescope and arch into the air. As it came down my partner followed with a raking shot. “Chahile,” cried the boys, as they usually did when game was hard hit. Throwing caution to the wind, we rushed after the wounded beast, saw him at a distance, fired wildly and then came slowly to our senses. We should have known by his silence and actions, he was hard hit and very sick. We took up the blood spoor, holding back any feeling of exultations.

Finally we came upon the lion, lying between two trees. He did not turn to look at us and made no noise. For all intents and purposes he was dead, but somehow visions of a charge went through my brain. In the grip of excitement, we finished him off. That last 10 minutes gave us more thrills than can be imagined. Alas, our pictures did not do him justice. The men trussed the trophy on two poles and headed for camp at such a swift pace that even the pack horses were forced to trot. Throughout the entire journey the crowd roared and sung a song of victory.

Back at camp we handed out the tips (gold or cash or some desired beads) and that night a great ball was staged in which men and women participated and which lasted well into the night. The next day we would rest and the day after that we would go out after elephant.– Ellen Enzler-Herring of Trophy Room Books