Thursday, January 26, 2012
THE ALABAMA BOY'S THREE CAT ADVENTURE WITH LUWIRE SAFARIS
By DAVID LANGERMAN Professional Hunter
Early leopard success and a communications mix up
In October 2011, we had the pleasure of hosting four gentlemen from the American South. Joel Hanmer, Allan Rappuhn, Wade Gilchrist and Eugene Sak travelled from Alabama to hunt leopard and buffalo with us, LUWIRE Safaris, in the Niassa Reserve of Northern Mozambique. They were destined for a 10 day safari enjoying the very best Mozambican hunting has to offer – a million acres of unfenced, fair chase dangerous game hunting in ‘’miles and miles of bloody Africa’’.
The gentlemen were after a collection of plains game, Cape buffalo and a leopard. However, as those who have travelled to Africa know, the best laid plans can go awry at the drop of a hat. Right from the get go the buffalo decided they just didn’t want to play by the rules and subsequently gave us a hell of a time. During the course of the safari, many hot, thirsty, tiring miles were spent pursuing ‘Cape Fear’, only to get busted repeatedly by the wind or just plain bad luck. On about the second day, Derek (the senior PH and operator) asked me to hang some leopard baits for the group. Allan happened to be riding with me on that particular day, and as the buffalo had given us the slip, we agreed. I had scouted out the area a few days prior to the safaris start and I had a good feeling about an area an hour and a half to the south of camp. The area I had in mind is called ‘Marangamaranga’ and there is a huge granite inselberg range situated right up against our southern boundary. A small spring draws animals from miles around, and there was a small ‘donga’ or dry ravine nearby that I had set my sights on for baiting a big cat. I had not seen any tracks at this site, but it just felt real good. There was water nearby, good cover and habitat and prey species were plentiful in the vicinity. Sometimes going with a hunch can pay off. The second site I chose was nearer to camp and was at a cross road of two hunting tracks. There was an old waterhole with a large overhanging Kigelia Africana, or Sausage tree and a lot of Hyperrenia thatch grass that lined another small sandy stream that approached this dried up pan. Close investigation of the site revealed an old carcass. Further scouting around and we happened across fresh tracks - a cat had been busy here and he looked to be a good one.
We hung legs of waterbuck at the respective sites, and retreated to camp to escape the blistering October heat.
The following day saw us pursuing Buffalo yet again, only to get busted in the thick bush at 10 yards. Frustrating, I know, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. When you hunt buffalo, or for that matter any species in Africa, you must put in the miles of torturous, thirsty tracking, you must feel the intensity of the searing African sun and you must suffer the tsetse flies continual harassment to truly appreciate the hunt you are partaking. It is the small sacrifice you must give to honour the special species we are so privileged to hunt on this continent. It’s the way it should be! However, after who knows how many miles, I don’t think Allan was sharing this sentiment with me, so I decided we should take a time out and check our baits. The far site at Marangamaranga was hit on the first night, and the cat had taken a big chunk out of the bait and had scratched up the tree pretty good. Great! The trackers immediately set to blind building duties in silence. A friend of mine and highly experienced professional hunter John Sharp once told me that he happened across a leopard he was hunting a few hundred yards away from his bait. Since then I have always built the blind in silence and try to disturb the area around the bait and blind as little as possible. John’s lesson taught me that those cats could very well be close to the bait, even during the hottest hours of the day, listening and potentially checking out your building activities.
Whilst the trackers were constructing the blind, I got on to the VHF radio set and tried to contact the camp and Derek with the good news. Luwire professional hunters have a VHF (very high frequency) radio set on us at all times, and we are linked into the Niassa National Reserve repeater system. This effectively boosts our network coverage drastically and allows us to call outposts over 140km (Normal VHF system has a line of sight radius and at best 10km). In an area as remote as the Niassa Reserve, this is an absolute godsend. However we have to route all our calls through the Reserve headquarters and a designated radio set operator. On this particular day ‘Charlie Mike’, the reserve radio operator’s call sign, seemed to be in a daydream and totally messed up my message to Derek. Allan and I had decided to wait a way off from the blind until Derek showed up with Wade. As the afternoon dragged on and I hadn’t received a return call from Derek, I started to worry that they hadn’t got the message. Repeated attempts to raise Derek on the radio myself were unsuccessful, and the Operator assured me he had indeed passed on the initial message and not to worry. As any PH knows, when you have a good cat on bait, do not squander the opportunity. I think Allan sensed this, and he asked if we had a spare leopard tag over and above Wades. I responded that we did, and that if Derek wasn’t here by 1630hrs, the decision was his if he would like to sit for the cat.
Well Derek and Wade did get the call, but the radio operator told them we were at some place Derek or his trackers had never heard of! The frustrating part of it was that we were hunting near a road Derek himself had put in so he knew the area very well. They ended up tearing around the concession trying to find us to no avail, and eventually gave up in the late afternoon. Believe me that is the last time I observe Niassa Reserve radio protocol – next time I will be making the call direct! A classic case of ‘Chinese telephone’….
By 1645 we were seated in the blind. Late by normal standards, but we had been waiting for the ‘A team’ to pitch. The sun began its gradual descent into the western horizon and the cacophony of bird song, gave way to the buzz of crickets, the liquid call of Bubbling Kassina frogs and the occasional Rock Hyrax whistle from the nearby Marangamaranga Inselberg range. The last shards of peach and crimson sunlight pierced the smallest gaps of the grass blind, illuminating the inside of the structure with a soft light that made you appreciate the afternoon, the excitement of the task ahead and the pleasure of being on Safari with like-minded people. A noise pulled me out of my pleasant daydream. A fork tailed Drongo was kicking up a fuss behind the bait and i sneaked a peak through my viewing hole. 15 yards behind the bait, I saw a sooty black triangle twitch in the yellow grass. The back of the leopard’s ear! His large head and torso materialised out of the grass as he switched position to escape the nagging bird. He was a wary cat; he was searching the surrounding area intently. After a few minutes of scrutiny, he advanced cautiously to the foot of the bait tree and flopped down, waiting for darkness to fall so he could resume his feeding. I signalled to Allan that the cat was at the tree. I could see the adrenaline and his excitement take hold as his face lit up with the news. I cautioned him to have a look through the scope of his .375 and to orient himself. There was still enough light to plainly see the cat and Allan signalled he was positioned and happy. The cat sat up and looked to the right of the blind. I think he had seen something, but he didn’t get a chance to move. At my whispered command Allan placed a perfect frontal shot through his chest and out his back. He flipped over, tail thrashing and was still; sprawled under the bait tree and the bait he had come to dine on.
Whenever we take a cat there’s always that feeling of elation. And pride in getting the job done safely. However it’s also tempered with a twinge of remorse at taking one of Africa’s premier and most beautiful of trophies. I personally never take for granted the privilege of the line of work I get to call my vocation.
Joel’s unplanned Lion hunt
‘’You are going to have to shoot this lion real close, around 25 yards, and more than likely in some really thick stuff. He is not going to be happy with us that close to his meal’’ Derek explained. I could see Joel’s expression change, and I could only imagine what was running through his mind. Actually I had a pretty shrewd idea – ‘’ Lord what have I got myself into?!’’
The safari had been ticking along nicely so far. The southern boys were taking a nice variety of trophies. Derek and Wade had kicked the leopard baiting into overdrive and had festooned various trees with all manner of bait. A number of Toms had hit, but so far they just hadn’t sealed the deal. They had sat on baits on two occasions but the temperamental wind and a herd of elephants had scuppered their plans. One night on the way back from an unsuccessful attempt, Derek and Wade bumped into a big male Lion on an elephant carcass. The cat rushed the land cruiser pick up and in no uncertain terms voiced his displeasure at having been disturbed at dinner time. According to the hunters it was a scary but exhilarating sight. I can just imagine! Back at camp, the excitable talk was all about lion and what had just transpired. Derek mentioned that the lion looked old enough by the Niassa Reserve standards and that a tag was available, and would any one fancy a crack at a mature, full maned lion bright and early the next morning? Well, that got our southern gentlemen into a frenzied round of talks and deliberations! Over dinner that night, everyone was trying to talk each other into taking this unique opportunity – a mature lion on his own kill and on foot. A great opportunity indeed. For those of you who have hunted lion will know what I’m talking about – the time invested in safari days and the bait bill itself can be a small fortune! Eventually by evenings end Joel decided he was up for the challenge. That’s when Derek cautioned the group as a whole as to the lions’ temperament and how the hunt was more than likely going to be conducted and finished at very short range! But the decision had been made and we were lion hunting in the morning! Everyone finally drifted off to whatever sleep they could get after the excitement of that day’s events, and just before final goodnights, Derek asked me to back him up on the lion hunt in the morning. He reiterated that the lion was not a ‘happy camper’- he was trying to defend his kill- and that we were in for some serious sports the next morning. Well Derek is a vastly experienced hunter in his own right, so I knew if he was asking me for assistance in the morning, this lion was indeed a bad tempered old sod. It’s always reassuring to have another competent professional hunter with you if the proverbial ‘brown and smelly stuff hits the fan’, he explained.
The next morning saw everyone up and about with increased vigour in their step. Over breakfast, a strategy was devised and people were assigned their places in the forth coming hunt. Derek placed me on the right end of our little skirmish line, with Joel in the middle and himself on the left end. Tucked in right behind this was Allan. Wade and Eugene were instructed to hang back out of the way of the action at the rear with the trackers, and if possible Eugene was going to try and catch the action on film. The group departed camp in high spirits and arrived 200 yards short of the scene of the previous night’s encounter. Rifle magazines loaded, softnose bullets in chambers, slings detached, and last minute terse instructions were whispered by Derek, before we set off. We inched towards the spot where the lion was hunkered down. A small but densely over grown ditch ran perpendicular to our line of approach. Derek explained that the lion was skulking in this cover and that he had dragged the elephant into this hide out. Behind this ditch was a very thick and it vexed me to say it, a rather large patch of very tall thatch grass! As this troubled thought left my mind the overgrown ditch erupted in growls, snarls and the most audibly impressive demonstration I have ever heard from a lion. Derek was spot on with his assessment – this lion was not happy with our proximity to his meal! A tawny streak dashed to our right and was swallowed up in a sea of grass. A wave of disappointment washed over us – he had legged it. Bugger. However, the Niassa is full of surprises and we were all adrenaline jolted back into action and fear tainted, white knuckle excitement when the bush to the left of the original cat erupted into yet more snarls and guttural growling. There were two lions! This exciting yet dangerous realisation had only just dawned upon us when, in an instant, the ditch exploded and an unhappy male lion, came boiling out to meet us. Derek hollered at Joel to wait for him to stop, and he skidded to a halt at a very nerve rackingly close distance! He was clear of the brush, in the open and presenting a frontal target. Joel’s .375 boomed and that lion just simply disappeared! I could not credit the speed at which that cat turned and fled into that overgrown ditch. It was unbelievable.
‘’How did the shot feel Joel, think you hit him good?’’ Were the first words spoken. I could see the concern written all over Derek’s face. I realised instantly at the moment of the shot that if mortally hit that cat would have reacted far differently to the way it had. Instead it was swallowed up at the speed of light in that dreadful bloody thicket. The trackers came forward and exclaimed they had seen the hit – fur flying from the right side of the animal. Wonderful…. a wounded lion in that god awful grass. It was now my turn to wonder just what I had agreed to do! But that’s the job I guess. We wanted a good 20 minutes and then Derek asked the southern folks to stay back, and we entered rather gingerly into the area where the lion had pulled his Houdini act. There was no blood and the ground was very hard. What a nightmare – no visible sign on the ground and a wounded lion in thick cover. Just what you don’t want! Derek and I pressed on with extreme caution and slowly scrutinised every inch of cover and ground, our personal heavy calibre weapons poised and ready. Up ahead of us a troop of baboons started screaming and kicked upped a serious ruckus. While Derek and I pondered this in strained whispers, a small movement caught our attention to our left and all of a sudden a very large and handsome lion strolled out of cover 25 yards away from us and across our front like nothing had happened! We could see straight away that he wasn’t wounded, because if he was he would have been in our laps in a heartbeat. Instead, he ambled away indifferently into another thicket.
Derek and I pulled out of the thicket for a re-think. The situation was talked over and over again, with every one adding their two cents. The trackers then claimed that what we had seen after the shot wasn’t a hit but the bullet whisking off a section of mane hair as it flew high and wide of the intended mark. Nice of them to tell us that after we had been in that thicket, I thought. I guessed that explained the lack of blood, no fatal reaction to the shot and the fact that when we had seen him in the thick stuff, the lion had walked away from us, instead of bounding over to maul one of his pursuers. Joel was absolutely gutted. He was a worried man, I could see. Derek decided the best thing to do would be to anchor the bait in an opening, build a blind and come back that afternoon to see if the lion would return. It was the only sensible thing to do considering. Back at camp, everyone was in a sombre mood. Poor Joel was having a hard time. He couldn’t believe he missed. Despite our best efforts we didn’t cheer him up much. The rest of the day dragged by and eventually we made the journey back to the now newly built blind and bait set up. It was decided the original skirmish line would sit in the blind whilst the others could sit back in camp and make an early start on the cocktails. Derek and Joel sat upfront in the blind whilst Allan sat behind Derek and I sat behind Joel, keeping watch on the rear. We were all seated and reading magazines and Journals by 1600hrs. No more than half an hour went by and I noticed movement through Joel’s shooting porthole. The lion had returned in daylight and a mere 30 minutes after we had entered the blind! The afternoon sun caught him full on and he was a beauty. I could see he took offence to the fact that someone had moved his bait and he was grumbling and shifting his position a lot. He was uneasy, but he wasn’t going anywhere. Derek was studying him intently through his binos, Allan was grinning from ear to ear and Joel, the poor bugger, was shaking like a leaf! Derek very quickly made an assessment and told Joel to take him. Joel did nothing. Again Derek told him to go for it. Again nothing. Joel’s breathing was shallow and fast, and seated behind him, I could see he was having a hard time keeping his nerves and excitement under control. For those of you who haven’t hunted dangerous game, it’s not as easy as just aiming and pulling the trigger. Pure adrenaline is flooding through your veins and it’s a struggle to keep the excitement and nerves in check. The earlier miss wasn’t helping either. Derek looked puzzled and shot a quizzical glance over at Joel and me. I leaned forward and said, in as a politely forceful way as possible, ‘shoot the lion!’ Joels .375 thundered and this time it was plain to see the bullet strike home behind the cats shoulder. The Lion hunched up and took off growling. For the second time that day he disappeared into that same thicket. As he streaked away I popped my head over the blind and watched where he vanished into the tall grass. 40 yards or so beyond that I saw the second lion looking around in confusion. He slipped into the same section of bush that his mortally stricken brother had dashed into. We waited 15 minutes in the blind, and I called the trackers up on the radio. Joel and Allan (and for that matter Derek and myself) were all keyed up, ready to find the lion. It was evident that the cat had been hit hard. However in situations like this it’s important to be prudent and cautious. With the trackers in tow casting for blood and tracks, and ourselves looking into the grass where the lion disappeared, we edged forward to find the cat. Derek repeatedly warned to be wary of the other lion. Too often the wrong one is shot in the confusion of the moment by panicked hunters. At the edge of the thicket there was a bright scarlet smudge on tawny skin and suddenly a lion’s prostrate form came into focus. The cat had died at the edge of that damn grass, and I for one was glad we did not have to follow that cat in there for the second time that day! Shouts, backslaps and lots of hand shaking and laughter pierced the tense silence. Joel was one happy dude! We rolled the Lion over and examined his beautiful blonde mane, someone produced a bottle of Jack Daniels and I swear that bottle was finished in mere minutes. Joel was drinking that stuff like cola as he let off all that built up worry, earlier disappointment and pressure, and the relief came out in a flood of laughter and jokes. The amazing part of the story is that the lion was Joel’s first African trophy. What a way to start your safari experience!
Whilst all the excitement with the first leopard and lion was taking place, and unbeknownst to us, a large leopard had hit my second bait at the Sausage tree. Derek had assumed I was checking it and I assumed he was too (you know what they say about assumptions right?). Derek and I had been swapping the clients around, so some days I found myself with different members of the party than the day before. It just so happened that I was with Wade when we checked the second bait. When I checked the bait, I was mortified to see that it was almost gone and that we desperately needed more meat to keep the cat interested. Wade quickly did the honours and procured us an Impala ram to hang in place of the old bait. Again the trackers fashioned us a blind and very shortly we had a good well camouflaged hide out in some thick thatch grass with a nicely swept approach path, in case we had to walk in in the early hours of the following morning. By 1600hrs we were seated in the blind and waiting in great anticipation. The evening wind in our area normally blows to the west, but at this location the breeze was doing all sorts of crazy things. I was continually stressing that the cat was going to get our scent and bug out. Time dragged by, and ‘magic hour’ came and went. At one stage I thought I heard something at the base of the tree but it was too hard to accurately tell. I didn’t want to shine the light either unless I was certain that the leopard was in the tree. By 1900hrs I was starting to worry that the cat was not going to make an appearance. By 2000hrs I finally called it a night and suggested to Wade we go home and get some dinner. There was now more than enough meat in the tree if the cat did indeed decide to show up. However, I had my doubts. At that stage I thought I had blown it on a potentially good cat. Still, I thought it worthwhile to try for an early morning sit in case the cat did return. At 0330hrs the next morning we crawled from our beds, gulped down scalding cups of coffee and made our way to the blind. About a kilometre from the bait we stopped the hunting rig and made our way on foot, in silence and in the dark, to the blind. We nestled in to our chairs and prepared to see in the dawn, hoping like hell that the cat was eager for some early morning breakfast. Alas not a bloody thing stirred! However as it got lighter, and the more I could see through the binos, I realised that the cat had indeed returned. The fresh impala carcass was fed on heavily. He must have fed after our departure, more than likely watching us go, and had left before we had made our pre-dawn ambush.
That afternoon we returned to the blind. I was prepared to sit all night if I had to. I don’t think Wade was relishing the thought of sitting for hours on end in a plastic chair. But to his credit, he didn’t complain once and he was as quite as a church mouse. Again magic hour came and went and I became more and more anxious. At 1900hrs I heard a rustle in the leaves to the left of the bait tree. Faintly, but definitely a noise. Another 15 minutes elapsed in silence. The anticipation was killing me. Then I heard the unmistakeable sound of heavy claws going to work on rough tree bark. I peered through my viewing hole as the cat walked out onto the bait branch, perfectly silhouetted against the evening sky. Seeing or hearing a leopard in the tree is always a thrilling sight. All your hard work and planning has paid off. The leopard leant over the far side of the trunk and started swatting branches off the bait so he could feed. The dried branches and bait chain rattled every time he attacked the bait in gusto. In that evening calm it seemed awfully loud. As a result, every few seconds he would stop and cast around, looking for any potential threats. I let him feed for a few minutes and to get comfortable. I signalled to Wade to get ready, and that I was going to shine the light on him. I eased the light into position and switched it on. The cat turned to investigate the source of the disruption, and offered Wade his chance. I whispered the command to shoot. The words were hardly out of my mouth when Wade shattered the silence with his borrowed .30-06. The shot looked good and the cat sprang out of the tree very awkwardly. I could see the reflections of his eyes as he thrashed about under the tree, and then he disappeared from view, into a Buffalo thorn thicket off to the right.
I knew the cat was done for but I still waited for the trackers to come up so they could shine the light whilst I operated the artillery. Wade, the Trackers and I advanced slowly to the thicket where I saw the cat tumble into. Just like the lion, it was the splash of crimson on camouflaged spotted hide that showed us where our cat lay stretched out under the buffalo thorn. What a relief! Having thought I had blown a good opportunity to now seeing a magnificent cat lying next to an elated hunter, I was very relieved. My tracker Bilale, with a huge grin on his face, reminded me that we had taken three cats in eight days, and I thought we could justifiably be happy with that effort for this safari, even if we didn’t get the buffalo.
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- Just Another Savage!
- I’m a Southern Boy, just 56 last November, I get around here and there, Central America, Africa, Red Bay. I’m a Father, Grandfather, Husband, Artist and general flunky of sorts. Live in a little historic town in an old building I remodeled. Just wanted to hear myself think I guess, talk about the need of simplification, show some art, express an interest or two, brag on my dogs and see where it goes. That’s it!, That’s the deal, Thanks