Exploration and Hunting in Central Africa 1895-1896 An Armchair Safari with A. St. H. Gibbons

Gibbons cover

The map of the Zambesi between Kazungula and Manyekanza was far from correct. However, early the next morning I went out with my rifle. Following the river bank northwards for a few miles, I noticed a great deal of spoor: elephant, rhinoceros, buffalo and many of the larger antelope species. But these animals are seldom seen in the immediate neighborhood of the river. They come to water at night but by the time the sun rises they have already placed a considerable distance between the river and themselves. Nevertheless we continued at a steady pace for most of the day.

The sun had started to go down and I had already tramped about eight miles in fading light without the encouragement of seeing any spoor of game when suddenly I found myself about 45 yards from three eland. They were intent on their afternoon meal so did not notice me until I had almost halved the distance and aimed as best I could. I was not in a position to use my sights (it was too dark), at least at the biggest of the three. The bullet apparently struck high and he went away after his two companions, lame in front. For want of light it was impossible to follow for more than a short distance.

The wounded antelope had separated from the other two when I halted and camped for the night on his spoor. It was a beautiful, moonlit night spent in an opening in the African forest. The heat of the day was replaced by a cool freshness which allows for comfortable sleep and the clear dry atmosphere on the plateau permitted reflected moonlight to be so bright that one could almost read or write.

By sunrise we were again on the spoor of the eland, which now led in the direction of the river. We finally caught up with our quarry, but the bush was so thick that there was no chance of a shot. It was then that one of my boys pointed out a roan antelope standing broadside barely 100 yards to my left. A shot through the lungs got our men some meat. And I came to the conclusion that the eland had enough life left to be glad of abandoning eland spoor for a roan. And so it was. Within a half mile I delivered the final shot to the roan and collected a good pair of horns.

The eland had taken us in a sort of circle but I did not want to return to that camp so I sent the men off for water. Meanwhile the roan was cut up. When the boys returned with water I explained my intention to march southwest towards a watercourse not previously explored. Alas, the African native cannot conceive of why he should remain inactive and gourmandize as long as there is meat to be consumed. Like a hound, he hunts when hungry.

However there was enough low light available and I set off, followed by the men. Sooner than expected we reached water and the head man said, “Did I not tell you there was water here?” Not in the least abashed, for to lie is more natural to these men than to speak the truth. The head man agreed that I had been right. Half an hour later we stopped for the night. The next morning I set off to fresh hunting ground but saw nothing I wanted to shoot. It was then that three women appeared asking whether we had shot roan or sable antelope. Then they told us that lions had killed an eland during the night and one of the men following them stepped forward to show us eland meat.

gibbons portrait

I then asked the woman to show us where the lion killed the eland. It is a remarkable coincidence that the dead animal proved to be the eland that I had shot and followed the previous day. And it was likely that the eland had passed within 200 yards of where we spent the night and no more than six or seven miles from where I shot the roan. I questioned the local men who confirmed that lions killed this eland and I asked, “Where are the lions then? They must be sleeping close by.” A local boy then confirmed that the lions sleep in the forest nearby. It is not an easy thing to induce boys to take up spoor of a troop of lions until they have learnt that their master is equal to the occasion at the critical moment. Naturally, these unsophisticated hunters, who have only their assegais to depend upon for defense, look upon the king of cats with a very extreme respect. So I decided to try to bribe them.

At this prospect of wealth the squatting entanglement of black limbs unwrapped itself and in a moment the boys sprang to their feet with the alacrity of a jack-in-the-box. Most of the men were willing to work. While tracing back the spoor from the carcass, the events of the last moments of the wounded animal’s life were easy to read. A lion and lioness followed the unsuspecting eland until it suddenly tried to gallop off in spite of being lame. With three mighty bounds the lioness sprang on the eland and in 30 yards it was all but over.

One of the men requested that we wait while he went into the forest to reconnoiter. In less than five minutes he came running back screaming, “The lions are there! The lions are there!” Okay – lead me to them and you shall have the reward. We walked quietly through the forest for about a quarter of a mile. The native took up the spoor while I kept my eyes well to the front as we advanced.

The forest was admirably adapted to the purpose. Scarcely any undergrowth obstructed the view. Then I suddenly caught sight of a single lion, moving slowly, about 400 yards in front.  Calling the boys to attention, I increased the pace and had gained perhaps 100 yards when five lions appeared lobbing along slowly towards a strip of tall grass about 70  yards long by 30 wide. As I came into view they turned their heads towards me for a minute and then continued their course as before so that by the time they reached the grass only about 150 yards separated us. Whether they meant to take cover or continue their dignified retreat beyond the patch remained to be seen.

Somehow I suspected the latter course so I ran the rest of the way in hopes of heading them off. And I was just in time for I reached the farthest extremity of the grass just as five lions broke cover within 10 yards of me, without even deigning to turn their heads. Their bellies were distended with eland meat and they walked lazily in a direction about three-quarters to my left. I was even beginning to suspect that my present was unnoticed and waited until 30 yards separated us before commencing my attack.  But, 20 paces from me, the big lion stood, turned partly round, with head erect and what little mane he had electrified, looked steadfastly in my direction. I knelt and aimed well at the shoulder. I must admit that a thrill of admiration passed through me. The animal was full of all that dignity and bold magnificence which would disappear in later years.

As I fired he rolled over, but the other four neither turned their heads nor quickened their pace. Not being quite dead, and thinking that the wound might not have deprived him of the power of temporary recovery and its possible consequences, I finished him with a bullet from the left barrel. With this shot, a lioness turned round, galloped back and stood immediately behind her sire’s now motionless carcass, looking in the direction of his slaughterer. Aiming at the point of her shoulder (her body was only partly turned towards me), I fired. For the next few seconds the occasional outline of a lioness was all that could be seen of her, as she threw herself violently about in the dust, growling and tearing at her flank. I glanced at the remaining three as they continued their course with the same lazy gait. Anxious that they should not get too far away I took a snap shot at the struggling lioness, hoping to kill her and end this potential ordeal. But the bullet entered too far back and merely had the effect of resuscitating her, for she immediately rose and trotted away to cover.

lion attack

It was then that the boys returned and one man took up the spoor. In a few moments he stopped, pointing at what he said was spoor. But I looked in vain. Then the man said the lioness was close by. So I lowered my line of sight, having expected to see her retreating through the forest some 300 yards ahead. But instead only 35 yards separated me from a low, scrubby bush and just beyond this bush the lioness stood, broadside, eyeing me with a lowered head and looking very ugly indeed. I was in the act of moving off to the right so as to get a better shot when crash, she came through the bush and straight for me, uttering low deep growls. She had halved the distance when I fired the right barrel. As I feared the bullet again missed the chest, passing through the fleshy part of the right thigh, clearing the bone and not even making her lame.

There was nothing left but to make certain with the left barrel so I determined to hold my fire until she was close enough to make a miss all but impossible. She was four or five feet from the muzzle of my rifle when I pulled the trigger and sprang back immediately. It is fortunate that I did so for as I lighted the lioness fell dead at my feet, her right paw passing within a few inches of my left knee as she finished her final bound.

carrying the trophy home

The excitement over, I had time to absorb the situation. On looking round for the boys who a few seconds earlier were right behind me, I saw a few 30 yards away, leaning on their assegais and looking for all the world as if they had been in the same position for past 15 minutes. The main boy was in the act of crawling from underneath a large bush with the expression of horror written all over his black face. I asked the men what they would have done if the lioness had got me down and they all swore that they would have “assegaied” her. “You ran away so as to be ready, I suppose?”

“Oh, but we would have come back again,” they replied. The bad shot I had made at the lioness caused sufficient delay to increase the distance between the remaining three and myself. However, I caught sight of one of them walking through the forest about 400 yards away and called on the boys to follow. They said that two was enough and that the other lions would kill me (and maybe them) but I insisted. My mistake was leaving the spooring to the boys while I kept my eyes to the front as usual. But after following for 30 minutes and not even catching sight of the trio, it occurred to me to look back at the spoor. BUT THERE WAS NONE. The boys had deliberately led me off the track. When I berated them for their cowardice, they did not seem to mind. Their object had been attained. And the lions, before I could again come up with them, had reached a large plain of long grass from which it would have been impossible to evict them.

So I returned to my dead lion and lioness, measured them carefully, and supervised the skinning. They were both good specimens in coat and size and the men were right, my objectives had been attained.

Selected and Edited by Ellen Enzler Herring of Trophy Room Books

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