There are four basic ways to hunt lions and, at one time or another, I have used them all, and more than once. By far the most popular way today is to bait the animal, build a blind and wait for the lion to come to the meat. At the other end of the spectrum, you can take advantage of a chance encounter or, my own personal favourites – tracking on foot or locating a lion by sound.
In my first book, Heart of an African Hunter, I dealt at length with the different ways of how to bait a lion. Secondly, chance encounters are just that – chance – and, to my mind, are more about wandering around areas well populated with cats than real hunting. A bit like exploring for gold by picking up the odd rock in the Archean belts of West Africa, as opposed to detailed, disciplined geological exploration.
Tracking, on the other hand, is probably the purest form of cat hunting. It is, however, limited by two factors – terrain and trackers. I mention terrain first because, in certain areas, which are characterised by hard or rocky ground or, conversely, heavily grassed soft soil or sand, no matter how good the tracker, it is virtually impossible to track the soft, broad pads of panthera leo leo or, if you can, it is so time consuming that you cannot catch up with them.
The trackers themselves, those who have the necessary skill and courage, are as rare today as a one legged man in an arse-kicking competition – as one of my Texan friends once put it. As such, if this is the one and only way that you want to hunt lions, I guess your best bet in Africa today is to engage the Bushmen of Namibia and hunt in the area named after them – Bushmanland.
I would previously have included Botswana in my list of top tracking spots. In fact, it would have been first on my list but lions, along with all game other than elephants and that found on the few game ranches, can no longer be hunted in this country as from 2014 as the animal rightists, particularly those in the photographic safari business (who have bragged for years that they had the ear of General Ian Khama, son of Sir Seretse Khama, late President of Botswana), have been instrumental in establishing the ban, along with allowing the president to own shares in one of their photographic safari businesses.
Although locating a lion by sound, or rather its roaring, seems quite simple, there are at least two major complications. First, lions roar mainly at night and, secondly, to calculate the precise position of these indeterminate, non-directional, deep base sounds is notoriously difficult.
One of the best hunters I knew at this game was the veteran East African pro, Nicky Blunt, who has an enviable record of tracking down these cacophonous, caterwauling tom cats. In fact, while I will not say that he made a fetish of it, Nicky clearly loved this type of hunting and, if lions started roaring at night, it was not unusual for him to wake, get up and take compass bearings from three different spots around camp to try and triangulate the position, regardless of whether cats were on the menu or not.
The best lions to try for are those who start calling in the early morning hours after a kill. They often seem to call longer into the daylight hours and will often hang around the kill long after they have stopped roaring. So, it pays to persevere, even if the roaring has stopped, particularly if it has been a cold, clear night as sound travels so much further in these conditions and can easily fool even an experienced ear. As G.L. (Butch) Smuts wrote in the best research work on the subject which I have read, simply entitled, Lion, "If lions vocalized frequently from the same general area, especially in the morning, they would often remain there the next day. "
I first hunted in this way nearly 30 years ago in the South African Lowveld with a remarkable man when lions were plentiful and considered pests by the local domestic livestock farmers. If I have I to sum up Fred (not his real name) in one phrase, he was larger than life. Although smallish in stature, he was very powerful. A pocket battleship of a man. So powerful that, when at the age of 18, he had a serious altercation with his father, the older man ended up in hospital and Fred fled to Mocambique believing he had killed his dad.
He did not return for nearly ten years and spent most of that time in the bush poaching elephant and, when I met him, he was the most complete white bushman I have ever met. Unfortunately, as calm, relaxed, peaceful and skillful as he was in the wild, as irritable, impatient, rude and volatile he was in "civilization."
I was introduced to him by a friend who specialized in developing leisure properties. Tony (also not his real name) was working with Fred to develop the property over which Fred’s mother held a right of use. As Tony explained the problem to me, Fred had beaten up two policemen who had arrested and thrashed an old family retainer they had caught poaching guinea fowl. Would I help? As a young corporate lawyer, this was way outside my field but I had acted for Tony in a number of his property deals and agreed to at least hear what Fred had to say.
"I’m going to tell the magistrate that those two bastards made suggestive remarks to my wife," Fred’s voice boomed down the party line from the South African Lowveld. "What is your wife’s name? " I timidly enquired. "Oh, I’m not married" he breezily replied. "But the magistrate won’t know that" he concluded. I never found out who represented Fred in the end but he was never convicted and, as Tony’s deal made head way, I began to see more and more of Fred.
His property was not large but occupied a prime spot virtually on the borders of Kruger National Park and was bisected by two large rivers. On occasions I would stay over to complete my legal work the next day and so I gradually entered Fred’s strange world.
He had a fantastic way with animals. Bulla, a "tame" leopard followed Fred around like a dog. He had two "semi-tame" cheetah who lived in the bush but would come to his call and eat chicken off the bonnet of his battered, dark green, Second World War vintage Landrover. To crown it all, Miss Piggy, the largest warthog sow I have ever seen, would join us in his little pub in the evenings and drink whiskey from Fred’s mouth. The idiot who tried to duplicate the trick to impress his girlfriend ended up in the Phalaborwa hospital with his throat slashed to shreds.
At the time, I was desperate to learn how to hunt cats and also to learn all I could from Fred (who was a fountain of knowledge at which I readily drank – along with some fine malt whiskey on special occasions) and soon I was arranging my trips so that I could spend my weekends with him in the bush
On one of these trips I woke to the sound of hammering on the wooden door of my thatched rondavel. It was pitch dark inside and, for a moment or two, I was completely disorientated. Fred’s disembodied voice rose above the persistent hammering. "Can you hear them? " he repeated.
As I listened in the crisp, cold, pre-dawn winter’s air, from far, far away, I heard the unmistakable "oooooohuh-huh-huh-huh" of a dominant male lion. The skin on my forearms goose-pimpled as the realisation of Fred’s urgent next words penetrated the quickly clearing cob-webs in my head. "Come on. Bring the .375. Let’s go! "
Outside, the setting gibbous moon greyed the dark. As my eyes became accustomed to the accountant’s charcoal grey of the pre-dawn, I picked my way behind Fred as he led down the river bank from our camp to the washing powder white sand of the broad, dry river bed. The sand crunched loudly under my running shoes and the shorts, T-shirt and baseball cap I wore were no defence against the cold. I knew, however, that with dawn would come warmth and, in the meantime, I consoled myself with the fact that what I wore would allow me to move as quietly as possible through the surrounding vegetation.
The precise direction and distance of deep base lion roars are almost impossible to determine with any real degree of accuracy but Fred never hesitated. We followed the dry river bed as it turned, ox-bowed and twisted and, with every footstep, the serenade grew steadily louder and louder and louder.
Every now and then Fred would stop and listen carefully. Once he turned to me and said, "There are two males roaring and, every now and then, a female joins in. Can you hear?" No, I couldn’t but I said nothing. On we trudged. I lost track of time. Dawn was fast approaching. Charcoal turned to paler and paler shades of turtle dove grey.
Walking through the thick sand was hard work and I no longer felt the cold. My breathing and heartbeat had steadied, however, and I no longer hyper-ventilated in an adrenalin induced heart thumping daze at every roar.
All that changed as Fred suddenly stopped, grabbed my right bicep with his left hand, turned me half round and pointed up the river bank diagonally to my right. "There he is! Shoot! "
On top of the bank I took in the fuzzy, football face of a lion with round teddy bear ears staring down at me through a stand of river bed reeds about 20 paces away. Without taking my eyes off the cat and without conscious thought, the butt of the .375 notched itself into the nook of my right shoulder. The fixed four power scope lined up with my right eye and the lion was there, the cross hairs stapled to his chest! I do not remember thumbing back the safety catch or curling my forefinger around the two and a half pound Timney trigger. The rifle roared into life of its own accord. Recovering from the recoil I was left with the impression of a lion rearing on its hind legs and then nothing.
Before I could collect myself, Fred (who was unarmed), was off through the reeds fringing the river and up the steeply sloping, sparsely grassed, soft, sandy bank. Without a moment’s thought or hesitation I followed hot on his heels and could hear Ephraim, Fred’s tracker and general factotum, bringing up the rear.
As we reached the top of the bank we entered a horse-shoe of flat, open scrub surrounded by thin, closely spaced mopane trees almost devoid of leaves. Pacing backwards and forwards, now on the edge of the small 40 x 20 yard clearing, now just inside the tree line, were a pride of four, five, no seven lions.
Suddenly a strong black hand gripped my left shoulder and spun me through 180 degrees! Two lionesses crouched to my front not 15 paces away! Like the frightened novice I was, I tried to eject the spent cartridge and reload another at the same time. The action jammed. I ripped the bolt back, shoved my hand into the magazine, snatched out the skewed cartridge and rammed a fresh one into the breach. I looked up. No lionesses.
Now it was Fred’s turn. With his fingers digging painfully into my right shoulder in a vice-like grip, he pulled me two or three steps further in that direction. "That one" he pointed. "Shoot that one! " Almost on remote control, the shot unfolded like an action reply of the first one. There was a blur of movement around me and then complete and perfect silence. Nothing moved. Not a bird twittered. Not an insect buzzed or burred. Even the gentle early morning breeze had died down. If this was my first lion hunt, I had just had it.
We found the first lion, a very young male, lying stretched out on his side where he had stood. The .270 grain Winchester Power Point had penetrated the exact center point of his chest and blown his heart away.
The big lioness was a different story. We tracked her blood sprinkled spoor. We lost the tracks. We brought dogs to help and all but one cowered away, tail between the legs, on catching a whiff of the cat’s odour. The remaining dog led us to the low cattle fence boundary and a few, straggly, yellow blonde hairs told of her passage through a warthog hole beneath it. The neighbour was away and, by the time we notified Nature Conservation and obtained permission to enter the property, it was dark. She died not far from the fence and hyenas had a field day with her carcass.
I was depressed for months afterwards. Even now, after nearly a third of a century, I can still feel the deep disappointment and I am reminded of the old Bushman who, when asked how old he was, replied "I am as old as all my disappointments in life and as young as my naughtiest thought." I was deeply disappointed in myself, firstly, for being panicked into shooting the young male and, secondly, for first wounding and then not finding the big, old lioness.
Although this had been the fairest of fair chase lion hunts, it does point out the advantage of shooting lions from a blind over bait as, I would guess, over 90 per cent of all lion hunts are currently conducted. At least in these situations it is possible to judge the lions carefully to ensure, in the first instance, that only fully mature, non pride, male lions over the age of six are shot and, secondly, by constructing the blind properly, ensuring that the hunter has a good, steady rest for accurate shooting. And all the other lions I have subsequently shot – in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Tanzania – have been hunted in this way. Not nearly as exciting but infinitely safer and more certain.
And Fred? He must have been disappointed as well, although he didn’t say anything. He took his feelings out on six guests that his dear, old, forgetful mom had inadvertently booked into the lodge on the property, despite Fred’s express instructions to the contrary.
When we returned at midday to pick up the dogs we found them enjoying pre-lunch drinks in the bar. One very large, comfortably padded, young man took strong exception to being told to leave by Fred and gave every indication that he was going to take the matter further, at least from a physical perspective. I have the clearest memory of his chubby backside wobbling rapidly from side to side, like two bulldog puppies fighting one another in a closed hessian sack, as he crawled as fast as his big fat knees would carry him across the flagstone floor and out through the pub door as Fred blasted round after round through the roof of the pub from the big, seven inch barreled, .44 Ruger Redhawk that he had pulled from where it normally resided on dangerous big game hunts – in the shoulder holster under my left armpit. As I said before – larger than life.
Today, of course, due to increasing populations, decreasing habitats, increasing poaching for bones and to protect encroaching livestock and people as well as improved scientific research, we know that lion hunting, while still vital to secure the future of these grand cats, needs to be done on a much more carefully controlled and scientific basis to ensure the survival and growth in numbers of Africa’s most iconic voice. Still, there is a part of me that will always hanker for those simple days of yesteryear.