Africa Safari With Georgia Outfitters
Leopard and sable hunts highlight this trip.
Gathering around the campfire at Camp Isilwane (lion) in Matetsi, Zimbabwe we look out at the vlei, which is a prehistoric river bed. The buffalo come into the dying waterhole for that last drink as the day succumbs to darkness. It is the end of the dry season, the last of the water before the summer rains come to replenish this dry, thirsty land. As the buffalo herd off into the brush, clouds of dust from the stampede billow through the dusk as the fiery, red sun seems to be consumed by the earth.
My husband Paul and I have booked this safari at a Safari Club convention through Marty Woods of BTC Safaris out of Thomasville. We have come here for Paul to hopefully take a leopard and I a sable. As we chat around the campfire while introducing our palates to grilled buffalo hearts, we get acquainted with our PH, Ross Johnston. Ross would ultimately lead us into the heart and soul of the African bush and on adventures that sometimes took guts and other times left us breathless and humbled at the beauty and awe of the spectacular abundance of avian species and the herds of gregarious animals all with a backdrop of breathtaking sunrises and sunsets. First on the agenda was to hunt impala and other plains game for bait for the leopard hunt.
We climb into the Land Rover with our trackers, James and Roger. Lovemore is our game scout and will accompany us throughout the hunt with his Chinese copy of the Russian AK-7.62 in case back-up is needed should we get charged by dangerous animals. With such large numbers of impala, Paul soon has bait to hang for his leopard. Ross, James and Roger have already scouted for leopard tracks, which determine where to hang the bait. So far, only female tracks have been seen. However, they decide to hang the bait, hoping a male will eventually follow the female.
After skinning the impala, Roger climbs a tree while James ties a rope to the impala to facilitate hoisting it onto the limb. After securing it with wire, they cut leafy limbs to cover the bait so vultures will not find it. While checking the bait the next morning, we find a leopard had found it during the night, moving the impala to a tree of its liking. We soon were on a mission to find where the cat had put it, which was over the next ridge in another tree. Here is where Ross decides to build a blind, which is made of broomstraw grass using sticks as braces. There is only one peep hole, which is curtained with a camo net. This is where Paul will position his rifle barrel, which Ross has also covered with the camo net. This afternoon they will wait patiently for the Tom to show.
As the afternoon dwindled, suddenly a female climbed the tree and began eating the bait. Paul said this alone was a successful hunt, just having the thrill of watching this sleek, stately cat.
The next day we all went to check the bait. To our dismay, hyenas had destroyed the blind, even taking the chairs from it. We formed a search party and found the chair which was shredded and crushed. With a vengeance, Ross decided we would hunt the hyenas. Back in the Land Rover, we spotted a nice male giraffe devouring the top of a tree. Ross said the giraffe would make excellent hyena bait and also a trophy mount, so Paul took him. We all participated in building a homemade wall blind from grass and limbs near the giraffe carcass. Roger cleared a trail of rocks, leaves and sticks so we could walk to the blind without any crackling of leaves and sticks, avoiding spooking the hyenas.
The next morning before daylight, Ross informed us we would have to walk barefoot 200 yards or more down the pointed rock road. This in itself was an endurance test; therefore, reaching the smooth trail Roger had made was a luxury. As we walked in the darkness, we heard the eerie roar of a big lion. Reaching the blind, Ross peeped through our lookout hole. He whispered to us that a huge male lion was eating the giraffe carcass. A lioness lay nearby. We took turns looking through the peephole at this once-in-a lifetime scene. Fearing this king of beast, the hyenas would not come and compete for the giraffe. Lion hunting has been banned here until 2009 since many of the male lion fathers were being killed. The remaining males tended to kill the young cubs since the father was not around for protection.
After this experience, Ross decided we would look for my sable. We spent the majority of the afternoon watching herds of kudu and zebra. Finally, we spotted a herd of sable with a dominant male nearby. As I scoped him, the stately bull stood staring back at me. Just his size and beauty alone took my breath away. I was in such awe of this masterful beast of the antelope world as I watched him stand out from his herd.
I listened to Ross whisper, “Take him.” I pulled off a shot, hitting the bull. As I watched him running away, Ross, Paul, Roger, James, Lovemore and I gave chase. Each time he stopped, I shot again. The sable takes hit after hit but continues on the run. Darkness is almost upon us as we are about to give up. Suddenly we come to a worn, grassy trail and Ross hears something in the brush. This is where with tears in my eyes, I approach my prey—a man-against-beast moment that I will never forget. The bull had a great will to live, refusing to give up and as I watched his body grow still with the last beat of his heart, a great sadness prevailed within. Even with Paul, Ross and the others congratulating me on having taken such a beautiful trophy, I still felt a connection with this animal. Maybe it was because I had dreamed of this moment for years, and as it came together, the dream of the chase had ended. I suppose this is part of hunting. I am not sure how to explain that moment.
The next few days were spent with me trying to outsmart a male baboon. I nicknamed him and his family “the hairy people.” Back at camp, I had observed a family at the waterhole at the vlei. They appeared to have an organized family. The father usually led the mother to the waterhole where he would sit with his elbows on his knees and his chin cupped in his hands as if deep in thought. The mother usually had a baby clinging haphazardly to her back as she walked with a distinct sway of her hips. They appeared to have many similarities to us, including hands and feet much like ours, thus the name, “hairy people.” Each time we spotted a trophy male, a sentry poised in a tree began squealing, warning the others of approaching danger. I did take aim several times but the “hairy person” always seemed to allude me. Finally, we stopped on a hill by twin giant baobab trees, which the bush people call spirit trees. Down in the valley is a group of smaller baobab trees and Ross spots an old male baboon in the fork of one of them. I take my shot and finally have my “hairy person” trophy. Ross has named him “Bob Jones.” Little did he know this is my brother-in-law’s name.
Another animal on my list was a trophy wart hog. Since there was really no particular place to hunt them, we depended on a stroke of luck to find a mature male. With a quick eye, Ross spotted one running through a thicket of thorny brush. Waiting for a clear shot, I took my warthog. This will also be used for leopard bait, so nothing is wasted.
As we continue on with our hunt, we spot a waterbuck. Paul goes after him, along with James and Lovemore. Roger and I stay around the Land Rover. To pass time while we waited to hear Paul’s shot, Roger proceeds to sharpen his homemade axes on a concrete bridge near the Land Rover. I take one and join him in putting an edge on the primitive ax. He and I became good friends after that, even though he spoke very few words in English. Language becomes no barrier with good friends. We will use the ax to cut a road to get closer to Paul’s waterbuck. The waterbuck will also be used for leopard bait.
As we neared the end of our hunt, the chances of a male leopard grew slim. Nothing was hitting our bait and we did find a fresh warthog kill and a big male impala kill, indicating the leopards were on their own hunt. Paul did get male and female hyenas, which are nice trophies. The female is the larger of the two since she has to protect her babies from the cannibalism of the male. He also took a jackal, a nice steenbuck and a rare trophy grysbuck.
We had many unexpected experiences, such as stalking and sneaking up on a herd of trophy bull elephants as they made their way to a water hole. This was a heart-pounding experience, especially since they could charge at any moment if they sensed a threat. We felt like characters from Land of the Giants as we peered up at these mammoths. We also learned that elephants have six sets of teeth during their lifetime since they twist and chew trees for food which wear the teeth away.
Lastly, Jacques, our camp host, took us on a fishing trip on the Zambezi River. This was truly a picturesque “African Queen” river. Many hippos hovered underneath the surface of the water blowing fiercely as they surfaced. Elephants and zebras dotted the shoreline. Huge baobab, mahogany and other trees held the shoreline together. It is aptly called the River of Life. We caught tiger fish, which have a fierce set of teeth similar to piranha. We also visited Victoria Falls, which is one of the largest water falls in the world. The base of the gorge contains a whirlpool known as the Boiling Pot. Locals call the falls Mosi-oa-Tunya, which means smoke that thunders.
After arriving back at camp, the staff of the lodge, Ross and all of us went fishing in just a ditch that held rain water. We caught 63 barbels, or walking catfish as they are commonly called. Paul had shot guinea fowl with a shotgun so we used guinea gizzards for bait. The trackers use porcupine quills for corks or bobbers. Roger and James kept the catfish for food, sharing with the other local trackers. The local trackers hung most of their fish and meat on a rope to dry or cure it with the sun. We considered this fishing trip a grand finale to our hunt.
We had been here 21 days and met great friends who became our family. Paul did not get his leopard, but nonetheless we are content that we had a successful hunt. Zimbabwe is a land that appears to be untouched by development. It has beauty that has yet to be spoiled by humans and industrialism. We hope and pray that it stays that way so others can experience what Paul and I have.