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Kalahari Lion Hunt

The chartered Cessna’s twin engines throb smoothly and powerfully as the sunlit landscape below whizzes by. A patchwork quilt of farms and cultivations in myriad shades of browns and tans advances and then retreats behind us and below us. We’ve left Pretoria and  the terraced hills scarred with their endless suburban sprawl, behind. It’s good to get going and I’m loving where we’re going. The pilot sets a course to the northwest, which should take us to the Kalahari in a little over three hours. There my lion hunt will soon begin. It will be done the traditional way: locate a track ,follow it and with a final stalk, end it.That’s the script anyway!

The hills and ridges recede behind us and soon give way to increasingly flat expanses of semi-arid bushveld occasionally punctuated by dark green blobs  I’m told are called shepherd‘s trees. Understandably in this sun baked land a man might well seek out its dark cooling shade; whether shepherd or not.  In the cabin with me is Gordon Stark and Wayne Coetsee; the two professional hunters from Nhoro Safaris as well as Jonathan McMillan and Michael Cane who will videotape my hunt. The banter is light and easy laughter and optimism for the upcoming adventure, prevail.

Gosh it’s good to be coming home.  So where is home?  Is it thousands of miles away in the USA? Is it where economic imperatives or family ties bind us? Or is it; as a wise man said,” where the heart lives’? It’s been 40 plus years since I saw her, but the land of the Bushman has always been a very special place for me. The first time I set eyes on her I had what young people nowadays like to call an” epiphany”. Call it whatever you will, but as John Denver expressed in his song of Colorado and his Rocky Mountains, I was similarly moved by my first sight of that ancient, magical land; the old Kalahari. Like him ”I was born in the summer of my 27th year; coming home to a place I’d never been before.” For him, it was Colorado for me it happened just south of the Makarikari saltpan. It sure has been a long time and at 75 years of age I have to wonder if the years have not deteriorated my physical abilities and the sharpness of my shooting eye .The last thing I want to do is jeopardize the safety of the people around me. Now the orderly geometric patterns of cultivated fields give way to more open expanses of bushland bisected by impossibly straight and unwavering lines of sand tracks and roads that seemingly go nowhere and disappear into an endless blue haze to the horizon. 

   The good cheer in the cabin and the scenery below make pleasant, the passing of time and what might well have been a tedious flight is over..       We’re finally there and after a couple of low-level flyby’s to scatter the kudu and gemsbok off the sandy landing strip, we’re down .Our host Ivan Niewoudt is there to greet us and after transferring our gear to the waiting truck we start the half-hour ride to the lodge. Comfortable, rustic, well appointed,   to the point of being incongruously civilized in such a wild place. Yet just outside the circle of the compound; a mere feet away, the Kalahari chirps and barks and roars its wild song. I feel quite at home and look forward to tomorrow’s hunt.

Our gear is stowed in the comfortable thatch-roofed chalets that encircle the lapa/dining area/lounge and we decide to do some final equipment checks to ready ourselves for tomorrow’s hunt. The camera people do their camera things while Gordon and Wayne set up some targets for me. I check final zero on my two rifles, last fired 8000 miles and nameless baggage handlers ago, and discover that my spare rifle; the Ruger#1 in 450-400 cal is spot-on---good to go! The Chapuis double in 9.3x74R is another matter.

After several shots at 50 yards (the anticipated operating distance) it stubbornly refuses to behave with my reloads (which shot accurately in the USA) and reaffirms its preference for Norma factory loads with 285grain Oryx bullets. No matter, Gordon appreciates the gift of my reloads and his Merkel in that same caliber will probably digest that load very well. These pleasant tasks done, we find there’s time for a welcome nap before dinner is served. Especially welcome for me as I try to repair my bio-rhythms after the cruel assaults  they suffered during my recent 18-hour flight from “The States.” One by one, and slightly bleary eyed from our recent naps (speaking for myself especially) we filter out of our respective quarters and settle onto the easy-chairs of the lounge where the conversation heads to questions like; have the trackers spotted any promising “sign” in their preliminary scouting? Any lion come into the area from across the border in Botswana as they often do? Any sign to indicate if it was a male or female? Several considerations (not the least of which being financial) have dictated I direct my hunt to the acquisition of a lioness for my trophy. Not a bad compromise as we all know which gender of any species is the more deadly. This seems to be particularly true in the lion kingdom, as many people more expert than I, have emphasized to me. And so what is the best shot- placement on a broadside presentation? How about for a frontal shot? All these and dozens of other questions are posed and answered. Various and sundry scenarios are discussed only to be cut short by the welcome call to dinner. And what dinners; game- meat steaks , chops and sausages, fresh fruits and vegetables, scrumptious desserts like cakes and puddings ---and can you spell “crème-Brule`”?

The tiring activities of the day have us all retiring early to bed .But how can I sleep? In that dreamlike state of semi-consciousness, jumbled images of golden sand, endless thorn bush and roaring lion fill the ‘mind’s eye” ‘til the barest hint of dawn thankfully brightens the dark sky to the east. The next couple of days are an emotional roller coaster of bright promises and dark disappointments. We find tracks that are too old; tracks that lead out of the area, tracks that disappear in the hot sand. Fruitless walk abouts in the hot sun that sap the energy level. And now the old doubts come creeping back. Am I on another quest for lion, full of promise and adventure but destined for failure once more? No matter; to paraphrase the old fishing phrase about “a bad day fishing” similarly a bad day hunting the Kalahari is better than a good day=== {fill in your own blank}.

I’ve hunted Africa for lion off and on since 1966; Botswana (then called Bechuanaland), Zimbabwe (then called Rhodesia), Zambia, Namibia (then called Southwest Africa) but all with the same result---no Panthera Leo! Is this to be my personal version of the curse of “Moby Dick”? But hey there’s tomorrow, and the shining promise of life’s tomorrows has always made my intolerable disappointments of today—tolerable. Then we find it…there in the dew of morning, fresh as the new day, we find it.     The crisp edges of a track in the sand attesting to its freshness, and a sweet promise of success. By its size we judge it to be either a sub-adult male or a brutishly large female. In our optimism we choose the second alternative. The  hunt begins.! Less than twenty minutes into it and the trackers point to a dark shadow that turns into a tawny blur  scurrying out of view and into the shadows of a bushy screen without offering a chance for a clear shot. We’ve seen her size now and we definitely do not want her wounded and angry. We take up her spoor and once more ; she discovers our approach and runs off.

     As we track her we notice she’s doubling back to get behind us and she is not happy with her pursuers. At one point in her circling we return to our starting point and are a bit concerned to discover her pug mark directly on top of one of my boot- prints in the sand. Now attention is focused not only at every suspicious dark shadow ahead, but also to every likely hiding place to the sides as well as behind us .She may well be waiting for us under any one of a dozen or more thorn bushes or hidden by the shade of a dark –green shepherd’s tree.

At this point we must assume that her patience with us has evaporated with the increasing heat of the day. After an agonizingly slow, tension filled 50 yards of methodical progress on her track, she lies there waiting for us in her chosen ambush site. By the base of a dark thorn bush, screened by a tussock of golden grass blending perfectly with her blonde form, she waits no more than 20 yards away. Her violently swishing tail betrays her position and her emotional state. I’m reminded of Gordon’s admonition. “When that tail stops and stiffens she’ll be coming so you had better do what has to be done before then.”   He smoothly sets up the shooting sticks and as I rest the double rifle in their “V” and pick out the “sweet spot” at the level of her shoulder, I see her tail do just that. I never hear the shot or ferocious roars I’m later told that she utters when the bullet hits her. At the shot she leaps an impossibly high leap into the air, doing a full somersault and lands writhing and twisting on the ground. I follow up my shot as told to do, but her violent movements  means that shot barely hits her , breaking  her jaw but missing the brain. Gordon carefully directs my approach behind her and my shot between her shoulder blades finally ends the drama. The tension is relieved with congratulatory handshakes mutual backslapping and giddy laughter as we each find our own way of climbing down off our adrenaline high.

Now I have the luxury of studying her closely. She is massive. Her bulk and blocky mass more reminiscent of the powerful build of a big male than the normally lithe and streamlined lines of the typical lioness. By all accounts she is the largest female anyone remembers ever being shot in the area and she is stunning in her cruel and awesome beauty. We approximate her weight at 300 to 350 lbs. and I am thankful we made a clean kill .She is old and substantially past breeding age. Her teeth indicate she is in prime condition though definitely heading towards that inevitable decline that for her leads to an ignominious death from the snapping jaws of the conquering hyena.  In her life she was majestic, now in her death she is immortal. She lives forever in memory; lying there as the symbol of a dream long postponed and finally realized. Our lives and our destiny inseparably conjoined; now I finally understand: “the Queen is dead, long live the Queen.”

Sal De Sanctis-Sept.2010

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