In Lion Country

Outdoor Life's shooting editor shares his best stories from hunting Africa's most unpredictable game animal.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

From the moment I climbed out of the bush plane somewhere in Central Africa, Jorge didn't like me. There's a lot about me not to like, I'm sure, but professional hunters are in the business of having to get along with their clients on a more or less friendly basis, and Jorge (not his real name) didn't bother to hide his instant hostility. Perhaps he considered me some sort of threat. Whatever the reason, after eyeing me for a long moment he got in my face and commenced to whittle me down to size.

"You ever hunt lions?" he asked in Spanish-accented English.

"Sure, a few times," I answered, wondering what he was getting at.

"Are you afraid of lions?"

"Of course I am. Isn't everybody?"

"I am not afraid of lions," he almost shouted, his nose inches from mine.

"Well, good for you, you're made of better stuff than I am," I said, or something to that effect, trying to put a lighter touch on the conversation and get our safari started on a more cordial basis. After all, I'd be hunting with this character for the better part of three weeks.

Usually I get along well with professional hunters.

Several have become lifelong pals and a half-dozen routinely stay with me when visiting the States. But it was pretty clear that this guy and I weren't going to be friends. And to be honest, I didn't like his looks all that much, either. Elephant hair bracelets went halfway up to the elbows of both his arms, a string of lion claws hung from his neck and his picture-book safari hat (complete with zebra band) looked all too new.

Still, when the outfitter who booked this safari for me and a couple of pals ended up dividing our group at the last minute and putting me and Jorge in a separate camp, it seemed like a great idea because I'd have a full-time P.H. Now I wasn't so sure.

"We will hunt lions today," he declared. "Are you afraid to hunt lions my way?"

By then I'd had enough of his attitude and got right back in his face.

"Mister, just as soon as I unpack my rifle we'll hunt lions any damn way you want to." And thus began one of the most bizarre experiences I've ever had in Africa or anywhere else.

After a short drive by Land Cruiser, Jorge and I came to an area where the brush-speckled landscape gave way to denser foliage and high trees, with dry land ending at the edge of a black-water swamp. Tall reeds and vine-covered brush grew out of the brackish water in dense clumps with their tops laced together so tightly that the water seemed to be flowing through semi-dark tunnels.

"This is where the lions are," Jorge announced, braking the Land Cruiser at the water's edge.

"Where?" I asked incredulously.

"In there," he answered, pointing to a spot where the water narrowed and disappeared into a tangle of vine-choked weeds and brush.

"Well, let's go get 'em," I said, taking my rifle from the hands of a tracker and making a macho show of working the bolt open and slamming it home on a shiny .338 cartridge. "Ready when you are."

I hadn't come to hunt lions. The outfitter hadn't said anything about lions being in this part of Africa and that dark swamp sure as heck didn't look like lion country. But whatever Jorge's game was, I was ready to play it to the bitter end.

No lion could possibly be in there because there was no solid ground, only water and a tangle of vegetation. As we waded further into the stinking morass the water rose to our knees, then up to our belts, and finally we were in so deep that I had to carry my rifle over my head. If by chance a lion had come roaring out of the tangled vines we would have been helpless, but it wasn't lions that worried me. My more immediate concerns were for blood-sucking leeches, poisonous snakes, stinging insects and waterborne parasites such as the dreaded bilharzia. What were we doing?
**
From Samson to Tarzan to Jorge, men have viewed hand-to-claw combat with the King of Beasts as a universal symbol of courage. Throughout history, from England's Richard the Lion Hearted to the Lion King of Hollywood fame, Panthera leo has represented unrivaled bravery. Few are the royal crests of Europe that do not portray a lion as a symbol of courage. Among Masai warriors the killing of a lion with a spear declares unquestioned manhood. And in the journals of a 19th-century British explorer there is an account of an African king who walked about on his toes so that his subjects would consider him a lion. The image of a king with a crown of exotic bird feathers waving around his head and a leopard skin dangling about his loins, strutting around on his toes, somewhat challenges the imagination.

If I had to name the event that set me on the rocky and uneven trail I've followed, it would have to be my boyhood reading of J.A. Hunter's Hunter, an absorbing account of the author's life and adventures in Africa as a professional hunter. One of the young Hunter's first employments upon arriving in Africa from his native Scotland was shooting marauding lions that terrorized workers building a railroad. Apparently lions were as thick as taxicabs on Fifth Avenue and had developed a fondness for railroad laborers. Lions were considered vermin back then and Hunter shot them by the dozen. (It's an interesting parallel, is it not, that young Bill Cody was hired to shoot buffalo to feed railway workers whereas young John Hunter was hired to keep railway workers from feeding the lions?)

In my youthful imaginings, Hunter's occupation of killing lions was the dream job of all time. Even today my daydreams find me working my way to Mombasa on a tramp steamer, hiring on as a lion hunter for a railroad, then chugging across Africa perched on the cowcatcher of a steam locomotive, busting snarling lions left and right with my worn-but-faithful .425 Westley Richards.

My first real encounter with lions was less romantic. It was the second or third day of my first safari and we were camped in northern Botswana on a grassy game-rich plain between the autumn-colored drylands and the endless green of the Okavango Swamp. It was June, winter there, and I was huddled by an early morning fire sipping a mug of black tea and counting heads of game in the early light. About a quarter-mile away I caught sight of two lions casually loping around the edge of a stand of tall trees. When the lions spotted our camp they came to a stop, looked us over for a long moment and then wheeled about and ducked into the trees. My guide Lew Games was busy attending camp chores and no one saw the lions but me, so I made a dash for my tent and grabbed my .458 and a handful of soft-nosed cartridges, all the while yelling at Lew that there were lions nearby. Lew figured the lions would be long gone by the time we got there, but it was worth a look anyhow and a few minutes later we entered the trees where I'd last seen them.

As it so happened the treetops were filled with a large troop of baboons and even before I saw them I could hear their outraged screeching and my nose was assaulted by one of the most unpleasant fragrances on earth. You see, when baboons feel their territory is being invaded they have the uncivilized habit of pelting intruders with pawfuls of their fresh feces. Apparently the lions had put them in a state of high anxiety and my arrival under their trees was perfectly timed to find them fully armed and inhospitable. I don't know what happened to the lions, but for me it was a quick trip back to the shower and a change of clothes. Ever since that aromatic encounter I've blazed away at baboons at every opportunity.

When I first hunted Africa, lions were on the general license in most countries and you could shoot an extra one or two if the chance presented itself. During those idyllic days a safari typically lasted a month or more and progressed at a leisurely pace. (During the 1970s there were years when I'd be in Africa for three months at a stretch, to the acute anxiety and annoyance of wife, editors and creditors.) During those years I made several attempts to bait lions, but never with any success. Once I shot a wildebeest for lion bait and we dragged its carcass in a wide circle to leave a scent trail, then lashed it to a tree with stout nylon rope. Next morning the bait was gone and nothing was left but a few strands of shredded rope, the remains of which currently hang over my office door as a constant reminder that lions are tremendously powerful critters.

Most of my lion adventures have resulted from a hunting technique I call the "sneak-and-peek" method. It's a fun way to hunt lions, but not one I'd recommend for everyone, even if you can find a professional hunter willing to play the game. As with most days on safari, we'd start out early with a posse of trackers and gunbearers loaded in a safari truck. Driving slowly through game country we'd keep our eyes on the ground, searching for game tracks of appealing size, species and freshness. Whenever a promising track was discovered we'd set out on foot to see if it led to something shootable.

Typically, lions kill and feed at night and then sleep off a heavy meal during the day. Fresh tracks found early are thus likely to lead to where lions have found shade and cover for a nap. So the trick is simply to follow the tracks until they lead into a likely rest area, which is usually denser than surrounding vegetation. Then the trackers are sent out to circle the suspected rest area. If tracks are found leading onward the hunt is resumed, but if no tracks are discovered it's a certainty that a lion or lions are close at hand. That's when the fun begins.

The next phase of "sneak-and-peek" hunting is to move closer with the greatest caution -- all rifles ready to fire -- and, hopefullyd the treetops were filled with a large troop of baboons and even before I saw them I could hear their outraged screeching and my nose was assaulted by one of the most unpleasant fragrances on earth. You see, when baboons feel their territory is being invaded they have the uncivilized habit of pelting intruders with pawfuls of their fresh feces. Apparently the lions had put them in a state of high anxiety and my arrival under their trees was perfectly timed to find them fully armed and inhospitable. I don't know what happened to the lions, but for me it was a quick trip back to the shower and a change of clothes. Ever since that aromatic encounter I've blazed away at baboons at every opportunity.

When I first hunted Africa, lions were on the general license in most countries and you could shoot an extra one or two if the chance presented itself. During those idyllic days a safari typically lasted a month or more and progressed at a leisurely pace. (During the 1970s there were years when I'd be in Africa for three months at a stretch, to the acute anxiety and annoyance of wife, editors and creditors.) During those years I made several attempts to bait lions, but never with any success. Once I shot a wildebeest for lion bait and we dragged its carcass in a wide circle to leave a scent trail, then lashed it to a tree with stout nylon rope. Next morning the bait was gone and nothing was left but a few strands of shredded rope, the remains of which currently hang over my office door as a constant reminder that lions are tremendously powerful critters.

Most of my lion adventures have resulted from a hunting technique I call the "sneak-and-peek" method. It's a fun way to hunt lions, but not one I'd recommend for everyone, even if you can find a professional hunter willing to play the game. As with most days on safari, we'd start out early with a posse of trackers and gunbearers loaded in a safari truck. Driving slowly through game country we'd keep our eyes on the ground, searching for game tracks of appealing size, species and freshness. Whenever a promising track was discovered we'd set out on foot to see if it led to something shootable.

Typically, lions kill and feed at night and then sleep off a heavy meal during the day. Fresh tracks found early are thus likely to lead to where lions have found shade and cover for a nap. So the trick is simply to follow the tracks until they lead into a likely rest area, which is usually denser than surrounding vegetation. Then the trackers are sent out to circle the suspected rest area. If tracks are found leading onward the hunt is resumed, but if no tracks are discovered it's a certainty that a lion or lions are close at hand. That's when the fun begins.

The next phase of "sneak-and-peek" hunting is to move closer with the greatest caution -- all rifles ready to fire -- and, hopefully