Crouching Lion, Hidden Hunters…
By Thomas Newcomb
I had always heard that you are never afraid when a lion charged you! It happens so fast, you react instinctively and won’t have time to get nervous. I had been charged by several Cape buffalo, and chased by more elephants than I can count, but never by a lion, so I had no reason to argue. In all previous encounters, the faster they happened, the less the stress. To me, there is nothing worse than waiting outside a hopeless tangle of vegetation for the buffalo you’d just shot to weaken or die before you go look for him. It’s the waiting that is hard.
My wife Vickie and I had traveled to Tanzania. There we met up with my old hunting partner Natie Oelofse. We had been on many safaris with Natie. We met him in 1990 on our second safari, a rhino hunt in South Africa, followed by an exploratory hunt to Mozambique in the Marromeu Delta. We were the first hunters to be allowed there after the war between the Frelimo and Renamo factions had finished killing each other. With all the excitement and danger we faced on that hunt, we became fast friends. When we weren’t hunting together, Natie and his wife Corné would spend time at our house in Tennessee, and we would visit at their home in Arusha.
I didn’t keep track, but we had probably been on at least 10 safaris together. We had killed the Big Five and many buffalo. Now we were on the track of what we hoped was a big bull elephant. Natie had bought the Wengert Windrose Safari Company. As the owner and the boss, he could do what we wanted as long as we obeyed the Tanzanian game laws. And what we wanted was a good adventure to spend with our wives, and both Corné and Vickie were accomplished big-game hunters and wing shots.
We set off in our Land Cruiser with our wives, Kariba, Natie’s fearless hawk-eyed tracker, a cook, and a skinner. We were traveling light and fast. Our Land Cruiser was full of fuel, a drum of water, rice, and cornmeal, beer and Scotch. We would shoot game for meat. Robert Ruark would be proud. My wife had a 21-day license. At that time you could shoot three buffalo, a leopard, a lion, and an elephant among all the usual plains game. We had hunted for 10 days or so, gradually getting used to the 10-15 miles a day you put in tracking and running from elephants. Anyone that has hunted elephants probably knows what I’m talking about.
My wife’s rifle of choice was a Winchester Model .70 African .375 H&H with which I have seen her shoot a running guinea fowl. My rifle and Natie’s were always the same. We each had .470 SxS from Austria, .416 Remington Mags from Conco Arms, and SxS Browning 20 gauge shotguns for sandgrouse. In the States we each carried a Glock 23. We thought if something went bump in the night we could grab whatever weapon was closest and know how it worked.
It was a typical day in the Selous, cold first thing in the morning. We got up from our fly camp, had a breakfast of ugali (a local porridge) and coffee, and headed off to find a big bull elephant. Riding in the back of the Land Cruiser we wore gloves, sweaters, and scarves. A couple of hours later we were down to T-shirts. We had stalked probably 10 bulls in the first 10 days, only to get in a good shooting position and decide they were too small, hence illegal. Very exciting, but very frustrating. When we very close to elephants, Natie made us take off our shoes, and stalk closer in just socks. My first thought was if I had to run I would get thorns in my feet. And I was right, but I never noticed them until I was safely seated back in the Land Cruiser, after running madly from enraged cow elephants.
It was while we were stalking what we hoped would be a good bull elephant that we saw a large lion dart off into the high grass about 100 yards from us. We were so intent on seeing the tusks on the elephant, we had not seen him until he ran. We made a mental note to check out the lion if the elephant turned out to not be a shooter – which he wasn’t – so we went back to where the lion was when we last saw him. And in the high grass we found a dead buffalo cow the lion had been feeding on.
“He’ll be back, we’ll wait,” said Natie. We backed up from the dead cow across a little clearing. We couldn’t see the buffalo, but we could see most of the angles the cat would have to approach from, so we sat in the shade under a tree to wait. Once we sat down, we couldn’t see anything – the grass was too high! What to do?
“I’ll climb the tree,” Natie said to me. “You wait at the bottom with the girls, and when the lion comes back you stand up, put up the shooting sticks, and Vic can shoot it.” OK, there was no other way. Natie’s .470 was at the base of the tree, with him squatting in the fork like a big baboon. Vic, Corné, Kariba, and I were lying in the grass at the base of the tree. We waited about an hour.
“Thomas, he’s back,” Natie hissed from above. I looked at my wife.
“Are you ready?” She nodded, her eyes shining with excitement. I have never seen her afraid. We stood, and I put up the shooting sticks. She rested the .375 on them.
“Can you see him?” I asked. The lion was facing broadside and tearing at the buffalo hide. She nodded. “Yes, should I shoot?” “Wait until he is still, then fire.”
She waited a few seconds. Then the lion had his two front paws on the side of the buffalo. We could see him clearly, his chest and shoulders fully exposed. He turned his head toward us and it seemed as if those yellow eyes looked right at us.
“Shoot him,” I said. The .375 boomed and the cat jumped straight up in the air like a frightened house cat. That’s when I made a mistake. I fired my .470 at the lion while he was in the air, and missed. When the cat hit the ground he knew where we were, and who had hurt him. He was now coming for us.
My wife’s first shot had broken his left shoulder. He hit the ground running straight to us, growling with every bound. Natie was in the tree yelling, “Wait Tom, wait!” He knew I only had one round left in my double and it would have to be our last chance when the lion was on us, but my wife’s .375 cracked again. The lion kept coming. He was charging toward us, but fortunately his left leg was flopping because his left shoulder was broken. Again the .375 went off while Natie was still yelling, “Wait, Tom, wait!” Vic had hit the lion, but he was still coming.
All our practice and experience was paying off. Vic never took the rifle from her shoulder and was working the bolt. Again the .375 went off and this time the cat faltered, turning on his side, and Vic hit him again. It was over. Natie jumped out of the tree and the three of us cautiously approached the now still lion. He was gone. We all heaved sighs of relief.
I remember reading a story once where at SCI an old PH was listening to new PHs discussing where you shoot a charging lion. One young boy said you aim at the bottom of his chest, while another said no, you aim at the black of the nose. The discussion went on and on, until the old PH, having heard all he could stand, walked over to the new guys and asked, “Have either of you ever seen a charging lion?” They both sheepishly said, “No.” The old PH smiled. “When the lion charges, you aim at the front and keep shooting,” he said.
I think he was right. We recreated the event from the tracks in the sand. Vic’s first shot was at 60 yards and she made a perfect shoulder shot, breaking the left shoulder. When I shot and missed, the lion came for us on three legs and covered 10 yards per bound. He made four leaps towards us and dropped at around 20 steps from us. Vic had hit him twice as he charged, the first around the edges of the hips, and the second was a good frontal chest shot. When he rolled over the final time, I had shot him through the spine for insurance.
The whole event may have taken 10 seconds, if that. Vic’s hands never shook until we started to take pictures. The adrenaline pump, was over and now she could relax. We all could. Natie summed it up: “The best day of your life you never want to do again.”
Crouching Lion, Hidden Hunters…