By Professional Hunter Ross “Stix” Hoole
Stepping up two low stone terraces into camp for the first time, I looked up, an overwhelming sense of euphoria hit me, in front of me lay a vast river with Elephants drinking to a serenade of Hippo in a deep pool with a setting sun. This was the Luangwa River, we had arrived in Zambia.
Zambia was certainly a destination I had dreamed of visiting for many years. When the country closed hunting on all government concessions in 2012, I never dreamt that just two years later they would re-open. For me, it was an interesting safari destination since it boasts many game species that don’t occur – or are very uncommon in Southern Africa, and it has a revered reputation for great Cape Buffalo and Leopard hunting. Looking for a new destination to travel to with our many John X Safaris friends, Carl and I had sat together for many hours researching and following up on various hunting concessions and operators who would fit the profile for what we wanted our clients to experience on a concession dangerous game safari.
A good friend of ours and loyal supporter of John X Safaris, Sam Cunningham, and I decided that for his next safari we would pursue a Leopard – widely considered one of the toughest of the Big 5. With this being the priority specie, we settled on Zambia as our target destination. Apart from our Leopard, we would hunt opportunistically on the various plains game species available, as well as Cape Buffalo.
After landing on a remote strip in the Nyamvu hunting concession in the Luangwa Valley, we were immediately met but by a very jovial team of camp staff – singing, clapping and offering us cold pineapple juice and a refresher towel as we walked into camp. We relaxed for the afternoon absorbing the beauty, the good hospitality and warm weather, tomorrow would be our first hunting day.
The first order of business on any Leopard hunt is the hunting of bait animals.
We hung six baits over three days and harvested a fantastic Lichtenstein Hartebeest, as well as a Puku, along the way which gave us extra baits and much enjoyed camp meat.
Trail Cameras were set at each site and careful consideration was taken for blind placement at each should a big male start feeding. What was incredible for Sam and I was how well Werner and the trackers interacted with both the game scouts and the local villages. Every morning, the two scouts presiding over our safari would radio the scouts out on patrol in the concession gathering as much “intel” on Leopard and Buffalo sightings or any fresh activity. One such report came from the local village that regularly saw a big male track and had recently lost two dogs in the village. We responded to this call out, and were amazed at how close to the villages we found Leopard, Buffalo and Elephant tracks. The scouts explained the ongoing conflict between the wildlife and villages, especially now during their dry season. Elephants and Buffalo raid vegetable patches and the big cats look for easy prey, may that be domestic stock or human. We hung a bait at a nearby spring, a couple of hundred yards from the village.
By day five we had seen tons of game. We stalked various herds of Buffalo, one herd in particular exceeded 400 animals! Other small herds of “Dagga Boys” consisting of up to five old bulls were spotted and stalked regularly, but we continued on, passing them up. We saw Elephants daily and had some cows and calves charge the truck one morning. We added a magnificently colored Chobe Bushbuck to our list, harvesting a nice ram skulking along the river bank.
The experiences were mounting everyday, but so to the pressure to get a Leopard. Every evening arriving back in camp, we were heartily greeted by camp manager, Bester, with a warm face towel and cold fruit juice which we sipped gazing out over the 300 yard wide river.
The Elephant had the same plan as us, as they too would come in for their evening drink before heading out to feed for the night. One evening I jokingly asked Sam; “How long before this scene gets old?” “Never!” was his immediate response and the appropriate answer as every evening we ritually sat there and reflected in silence as the Elephant drank.
On the sixth day, many of our baits started being hit! The Leopard activity had kicked in just as Werner had predicted. Interestingly enough was the arrival of an acrobatic pride of Lions hitting the same bait as a nice looking Leopard Tom.
And with her, as if appearing out of thin air…. There he was. All attitude and raw power standing on our horizontal branch eating his ‘dessert’.
There was a huge amount of excitement and a sense of urgency. Werner and his team kicked into another gear as we rushed off gathering blind material and Sam shot a mature Impala as a refresher bait. Once we had the blind built to Werner’s satisfaction, we drove a few miles away and setup for lunch. Sam and Werner sat with the iPad onto which we had copied all the trail camera photos of the Leopard feeding. They discussed shot placement in great depth while I tended to lunch. We ate and then relaxed for a further two hours – which felt like an eternity – waiting until 15:45 before heading back to the blind to sit till dark.
When you first sit in the blind, you are on full alert. Knowing full well that nothing is going to come in immediately, you still look and listen carefully. After 30 minutes that ‘edge’ had worn off and we relaxed in silence listing to nature. 17:15 – “There is a cat climbing our tree”, Werner calmly whispered. The lazy, sleepy feeling shoots to high alert and full adrenaline immediately! Within seconds our big male Leopard is standing on the branch. He looks around to see if all is in order, “Don’t move” Werner whispered again. The Tom started feeding.
Werner started explaining to Sam once again where he wanted the shot placed, but every time he was about to squeeze the trigger, the cat would move. Our hearts sank when after five minutes of no shot opportunity, the Leopard jumped out of the tree. The frustration in that moment nearly left us in tears! The amount of hard work, early mornings, late evenings, hundreds of miles driven surely couldn’t result in this cat jumping and leaving? It felt like an hour, but two minutes later he was back on the branch. This time Sam did not hesitate and took the first opportunity he could.
There was complete silence after the shot which was a good sign. A wounded cat would certainly always growl while running off, and both Werner and I were positive we saw it drop off the branch. As with any Dangerous Game, we treated it with utmost respect and followed up as if it were possibly still alive. We crested a termite mound in front of the tree, rifles ready, when Werner shouted in a native dialect, “the Leopard is dead!” we all erupted in hugs and handshakes as it sunk in that we had harvested this beautiful animal. We examined it in every way and simply just absorbed its beauty, age, and size. We noticed the animal was down in condition, he had very sadly been a victim of poaching – he was missing a right paw. This could only have happened by being caught in a poachers Gin Trap. To go through the process of baiting, looking for fresh tracks, gathering intel from the local villages, the frustrations of baits not being hit, and then to harvest an old Leopard like this with an injury that was preventing him from hunting properly, was a privilege.
As we drove back to camp after dark, we could hear our camp staff singing from a mile off. We drove into camp met by traditional tribal hunting song and dance. More than just a trophy and hunting experience for Sam and I, to our trackers and the surrounding villages this Leopard was a gift from the hunting gods, an animal they had endured conflict with, and now with its harvesting much-needed income would be injecting into an isolated rural area, in so doing easing the tension between man and beast. A strict hunting quota would and could be tolerated with sustainable benefits, something so important in these remote concessions.
Spending my Birthday with Sam…..
A Cape Buffalo was still on our list. We had stalked various herds during the course of our safari, but were unable to get a shot. On the last day of the hunt, we celebrated my birthday. Is there any finer way for an outdoors-man to spend a birthday, but with good friends, world-class hunting, and in Africa?
Sam and I have hunted together so many times before, that neither of us would leave disappointed if we were not to find the type of Buffalo we were after. It was not that we were chasing inches, we were after a classic old bull with drop and spread. We had seen a bunch up to this point, but could never get onto the right one.
Once again, local intel was pivotal in finding a herd we had not yet looked over. We met up with the game scout that had seen the fresh tracks on his morning patrol. We tracked for about an hour before we caught up with the herd. The wind created a challenge since it kept swirling and just wouldn’t blow consistent. The herd soon broke cover and fled, while Werner and I carefully looked to see if we could see anything worth going after as the dust gathered in the stampede of hooves.
Werner was standing on a termite mound and frantically scurried over to Sam and I – “there is a Sod of a bull here, I think it may be like 44 inches”. I nearly fell over, but knew I must have heard wrong.
We frantically followed the herd as fast as possible, but careful not to bump them again, this was after all the last day and probably our last chance. We got onto the herd again, but this time the wind was in our faces and the herd was spread out feeding. We looked over the various bulls and then found the bull Werner had seen, he was feeding away from us and he was huge. His spread stretched outside his hind quarters and he stood a foot above the surrounding bulls. I started panicking deep inside as if it was getting away from us and this sinking feeling of it slipping away crept in over me.
Patiently we waited as the bull turned more broadside, but the shot would be a long one. We typically wouldn’t let anyone shoot a Buffalo at 150 yards, and certainly not quartering. Sam wasn’t anyone though, he is the finest marksman I have ever hunted with, and Werner agreed. We set up the sticks and then the years of diligent practice paid off when his shot rang home. The entire herd turned and ran toward us – they had no idea we were there. Sam had kept on the right animal all the way and hit him again on the run at 30 yards – this shot broke the shoulder and stopped the bull in his tracks. As it spun and crashed to the ground, the magnitude of the bull was in full view. We approached carefully and once again our little hunting party was engulfed in a wave of excited euphoria.
There is a saying in Africa – ‘When it rains it pours’. Well it poured on my birthday. We had just taken the biggest Buffalo ever harvested in the history of the concession – a whopping 45 incher!
We left Zambia having experienced a safari like no other, being enriched by different cultures, wildlife, and individuals. We forged new friendships through hunting experiences that transcended all language, age, or race barriers – coming away with an experience like no other.
We will be back.