By McKenzie Sims
As the plane taxied down the runway, I had one thought in my mind. I was leaving my home state of Wyoming, heading for the Dark Continent for another adventure, another great safari, and what would be my second hunt for one of the great cats of Africa – a leopard.
After a long layover in Dubai, I boarded a plane to Lusaka, Zambia, and after clearing my rifles and bags, I loaded onto a small commercial flight to Mfuwe airport where I was met by Leslie Long Sr. A short hour’s ride later in the dark, I was at the camp. My friend Mark Peterson and his father had been in camp for the first fourteen days of the season, and had already collect-ed some fine animals. His dad had hunted leopard for the entire two weeks but had spent most of the hunt waiting for a leopard he had wounded in the early days of his safari. Mark was scheduled to fly out on my first day, and spent that morning retrieving a bushbuck that got into the thickest of scrub the night before.
Meanwhile PH Jason Stone and I went out in search of zebra to get us four baits. We found zebra pretty early in the morning, but it took a little time of playing hide-and-seek to finally get a shot. We arrived back in camp in time to say goodbye to Mark and his father. After eating a great lunch made with puku, we loaded up the zebra and set off to start the baiting process. The first afternoon was spent traveling from spot to spot, dragging and setting baits. That night I went to bed, my head full of thoughts and questions. Would a cat hit that night? Or would we be spending lots of days checking baits, re-dragging, replenishing and setting up new ones? Only tomorrow would tell.
We woke early the next morning, had breakfast, loaded the truck and started our routine of checking baits. We had high hopes that a cat had hit one because of the number that had al-ready been on baits while Mark’s dad was hunting. When we arrived at the first one it was easy to see from the truck that nothing had hit, so we turned around and made the thirty-minute drive to bait number two. Again, no cat. It was the same for the others, so it was 0 out of 4 on the first day.
Back at camp for lunch. Because none of the four baits had been touched, we needed to start planning to set up more that afternoon, and Jason had picked out a big bull hippo out for me.
Its incredible body size and lumps that hid its tusks would produce up to ten baits. This bull would be perfect! But the hippo had other plans. In 18 days of Jason being in camp, this would be the first day that he would not see it.
However, we needed bait, so we went out in search of impala. We took one, and drove far in-to the concession to set up a fifth bait, and returned to our first lot to re-drag them before dark. As we refreshed our last one, just as darkness was falling, we could hear the faint but unmis-takable call of a leopard in the distance. This was a hopeful sound. But the excitement wasn’t over. Not 500 yards down the road, a large herd of buffalo crossed over in front of us. That was a cool sight! I really like seeing buffalo. Then 100 yards further on, a big male lion walked down the road straight in front of us in the headlights. Then he ambled off. As we passed the spot where he left, there was not only him, but another big male as well, standing at the edge of the road. What a way to end our second day!
Day 3 started the same as previously. The first three baits we checked showed no sign of an-ything feeding. But as we pulled up to bait #4, known as the “lucky tree” we could instantly see that it had been well hit! The entire zebra leg and back half of the ribs were gone. A cat had hit it, but it was the wrong cat… tracks around the tree showed that it was a lioness. So we decided to look for the hippo, and as we drove off, not 100 yards down the road and lying 50 yards away near a small pan were the two culprits that had enjoyed our zebra the night be-fore. After some photos and a video, back to camp we went.
Later, we found the hippo, but in the hour and a half of sitting, not once did his entire head come out of the water to present a shot. We needed more bait, but this hippo was not cooper-ating. As we had lunch and discussed the problem, the truck arrived from checking the last bait, and Usuf the driver walked in holding two small sticks, indicating the track size of two cats that had fed. One looked to be promising – a big cat. We quickly finished lunch, drove back to the tree, and Jason inspected the tracks.
“It looks like a worthwhile cat to sit for,” he said. “We must sit tonight.” We headed back to camp to gather all the stuff needed to be back in the blind by 3:30. The plan was to get dropped off at the blind and get the chairs and everything set up while the trackers did a re-drag.
We arrived at the blind to the sounds of alarmed baboons in treetops just down the creek bed – a given indication that a cat was close. We quickly and quietly got off the truck, set up in the blind, then the truck left us in silence. The sporadic alarm barks of baboons gave some reas-surance that maybe the truck had not spooked the cat. About thirty minutes passed, and apart from the baboons, all we could hear were birds and the occasional hippo from the river. Then we heard that distinctive grunting from the dark thick cover beyond the blind. The rough, saw-ing sound became louder and louder as the cat moved closer, until we could hear it just be-hind the base of the tree, below our line of sight because of the high bank of the creek. Ten minutes later, a leopard was in the tree.
It was a beautiful cat, but it wasn’t our cat. It was a female, and she began eating, and fed for what seemed to be hours. Meanwhile, the male was still grunting and calling from the thick brush. Thirty minutes later she turned and slipped out of the tree. Light was starting to fade and we had only 20 minutes of shooting light left. Suddenly Jason tapped my knee, indicating that the giant tom we had been waiting for had appeared in the tree. Then his hand applied pressure… shoot when ready. I wasted no time. I settled the crosshairs behind the leopard’s shoulder, squeezed the trigger, and the cat fell out of the tree. All was suddenly silent. Then 10 minutes later Jason called the truck to come in. It was already getting very dark when it ar-rived. Everyone was on high alert. Jason told me to stay back as they went to look under the tree. Armed with torches and weapons – a rifle and a panga from the truck – they headed in.
As I waited in the truck, the five seconds of the shot kept playing over and over in my mind. Was the shot as good as it felt? Would the cat be under the tree? The lights stopped moving and I heard faint talking. Then, the relief of a loud call from Jason: “McKenzie, come look at your cat!”
I quickly scrambled from the truck, turned on my phone flashlight (a tracker had borrowed my my Surefire) and ran down the bank and across the creek to find all the guys standing in a half-circle as the tracker Dickson was drawing a beast of a cat out of some brush below the tree. We all high-fived and hugged, exchanging smiles as Dickson and Festo carried the beautiful leopard across the creek for us to take pictures. After a few hundred photos, we loaded it and headed back to camp, stopping on the final stretch to decorate the truck with tree branches and toilet paper.
The guys also built me an awesome crown out of twigs and toilet paper. Then the singing be-gan, and grew louder and louder as we reached camp. The camp staff was already waiting and ready to celebrate! As we celebrated and continued to take photos well into the night I couldn’t believe of how lucky I was to take such a magnificent big leopard like this on only Day Three! For the rest of the 14-day safari we took several other great trophies, me having the time of my life.
I can’t wait to get back to the Dark Continent and enjoy everything it has to offer!
Until then I will have a short video of this safari on my Youtube channel (McKenzie Sims) for anyone who would like to see it.
McKenzie Sims (22) from Evanston Wyoming is passionate about the out-doors. Working for the family oil and gas construction company is second hand to spending every possible minute that he can in the outdoors. Africa is one of his favorite continents, and he always look forward to returning to enjoy the last great adventure known as safari.