A Time to Die Tanzania
by PH Ernest Dyason
When we returned the next morning, we were met with another peculiar spectacle: sad natives with excited faces, lots of jabbering, and a game scout with only one shoe.
My old-time friend and client ‘Bobby from Mississippi’ and I flew together from Johannesburg to Dar es Salaam, then on to Tabora in south-western Tanzania - a region well known for its good lion. In Africa, we always prepare for the worst, so I was delighted when I saw the waiting safari team while we taxied closer.
We still had to purchase fresh vegetables and more beer, and to pick up Bobby’s 21-day hunting licence from the game department. We had lots of time - it was only just getting dark, and camp was only about seven hours away. No problem.
The night was beautifully clear and warm. It was time to relax, the town lights were fast disappearing and there were fewer cattle and donkeys - wilderness was within grasp – until we found that the Land Cruiser’s brakes were leaking fluid. Amazingly, we stumbled into a village around midnight where my crew knew someone with a welding service. While we enjoyed another cold frosty in the middle of the dirt highway, someone was busy welding the leaky pipe - this can only happen in Africa! We made camp somewhere in the early hours, a generator roared to life, and all of a sudden there were people everywhere. More cold beer and a tasty meal sent us to dreamland, with the promise of monster lions.
A scarlet sunrise greeted us with the smell of coffee and wood-smoke thick in the air. We were in the Itolo forest open area, about 200 miles south of Tabora – beautiful, but with tsetse flies as big as vultures and nowhere near as patient. The area is very dry and hot in September – good for hunting. I knew that the miombo woodland was going to send us home with memories and trophies most hunters only dream of all their lives.
Like any PH, my first stop was the skinning shed where, to my shock, the only lion skin was not very big and definitely not what we were looking for. At least there were good leopard, sable and roan.
PH Ernest Dyason was a first worried that the hunting area's skinning shed held only a single, not very big lion. But both Bobby and Ernest were satisfied with this 8- to 9-year-old, full-maned lion.
On Day 6 we drove up to one of our many baits about 5.00 p.m. There was our lion; but he ran off. With darkness due at around 7.30 p.m., we had enough time to construct a quick blind about 90 yards downwind, and settled in. A small leopard started feeding, alerting me to the lion’s presence. The sun was down, but its last golden glow glanced off his mane - a spectacular specimen. The rest is burned on film and will live on in the hunter’s trophy room.
Leopard is supposed to be easy here: “There are many chui, and they are not clever,” to quote our local guides. But we were now approaching Day 17 with only one very large track at the base of our bait tree that had obviously been used before as there was an old blind very close by. As I am used to the wily cats of South Africa and the Matopos range in Zimbabwe, I prefer to build my blinds far off, and built ours 78 yards away. It was comfortable in case we had to spend the night in order to get a shot at first light. But blinds are never really comfortable, and daybreak brought the first tsetse flies. Elephants, buffalo, and more visited the pan during the night, but the chui knew we were there.
My frustration was building so I decided to follow the streambed to see what was there. There were his tracks - clear and crisp in the early fly-infested morning air. I moved a fresh bait into a tree that unfortunately, was not very tall, and built a tree blind 85 yards away. I wasn’t really surprised to find the bait almost finished the next morning.
Then, just before dark, he was there. We had barely enough shooting light, but the cat seemed smaller than his tracks indicated, and he was balancing on the branch facing us, so I couldn’t make out his ‘you-know-what’ and told Bobby we’d better wait until morning to get a better look at him. He was feeding merrily when, much later, the almost full moon peeked over the treetops.
Suddenly I awoke to a growl. I rolled over to have a peek through my binos; the moon was still high with fair visibility. The cat's tail was clearly visible, and a huge hyena with an erect mane was prancing on stiff legs around the tree. One circle and a growl, then a nasty snarl from our cat… the scenario repeated itself throughout the night. The routine was only broken when another hyena joined the fun. They now alternated between walking towards us and urinating on the trees and shrubs. Daylight was approaching fast, and the leopard couldn’t feed with hyenas parading their witchdoctor act.
At daybreak the hyenas suddenly departed. I could almost see the relief in the leopard's tail, but in one fluid movement he was gone. “Bobby at least we didn’t spook him. He’ll be back.” Inspection showed that it was the large-footed male and no other cat. We were going to shoot this one, done deal.
Around 5.00 p.m. we were swatting our way back to our tree house when we spotted two lions, a fair-sized dark-maned male and a female, slowly walking into the wind following the scent of our low-hanging leopard bait. “Drop us at the blind, race back to camp, get an old bait, and bring dinner to these damn lions,” I told my driver. Thirty minutes later, the takeaways arrived for the party crashers.
Dozing in the blind, I was shocked into consciousness by a leaf cracking very close by. There were our uninvited guests, noses pointing into the air. I ran down the ladder shouting at them. Mrs. Lion did not approve and retaliated - I somehow found myself back at the top of our tree. I snuck down this time and managed to collect some heavy matter to hurl at them. Only from the safety of 25 feet above ground did I begin throwing it at them. This made them at least move slightly out of sight and lie down, but I was sure they were going to wait it out.
Just before night fell, the leopard was back in his tree. “Bobby, quickly, before the lions spoil it.” The deadly silence cracked with Bobby’s shot, but darkness enveloped the cat as he sprang from the tree. A deep rumble erupted, followed by coughing, the whole scene now lost in the night. I had visions of one big male lion running away with one big male leopard dangling from either side of his mouth.
I shouted, "We have to save your cat!" We scrambled down the tree as our vehicle approached, but we had to go it on foot with flashlights. I was frantic and nothing was going to stop me from retrieving our leopard from the lions.
My .458 Lott was ready. I saw the male in the light. No leopard. The female must have it. Another 50 yards showed her. No leopard. Even the lions were so flabbergasted that they didn’t know what else to do other than skulk away.
We and the four trackers were separated from the vehicle about 50 yards away by darkness and a wounded leopard. I hoped he was dead, but instructed our game scout to accompany Bobby and the trackers back to the car by the exact route we’d came in on. I was going to check out the area and find our leopard.
But where he should be lying dead between entwined tree roots, exposed by ancient torrential rains, was only emptiness. A flicker of light startled me. I took a snap shot with the open-sighted rifle, (I couldn’t see the sights), missed, and decided the leopard was alive, and the situation not safe for my skin.
The lions, as well as the hyenas from the night before, were near. Someone had to guard the scene until daybreak. The Africans got that faraway look when they want to be invisible. With much prompting and promise, the whole crew declared their willingness to stay, together with my cold box full of drinks, an AK-47, and a very large fire. As Bobby and I drove off to camp I could hear the low 'umph' of the two lions calling in the distance. It was going to be a very interesting night.
Although leopard eluded the hunters for the first 17 days of the safari, Bobby collected this very unique East Africa kudu on his hunt.
Dinner was a somber event. We discussed what could have gone wrong from different angles over and over again. Up till then Bobby’s shooting… well, could have been better, so anything could have happened.
We discussed possible outcomes for the next morning. Bobby was adamant that he was to help finish the situation. I could see his mood was low, so I decided to retire to my lonely tent. As I drifted off, I could hear his voice rumbling away on his satellite phone and could sympathize with his feelings.
At daybreak the Cruiser pulled into camp to fetch us for the follow-up. The driver's droopy eyes showed the crew's experience of the night - lions roared so close they could feel it, and elephants needed water and disapproved of the fire so near to their wallow. At the site we were met with another peculiar spectacle: sad natives with excited faces, lots of jabbering, and a game scout with only one shoe. Once we quieted them, the story unfolded. When the driver left to fetch us, the game scout armed with his AK-47, and one of the trackers decided to make an inspection about 50 yards away. This produced a very loud roar that left the game scout with only one shoe as he departed in haste in mid-air.
The very excited crowd urged us towards the tangle of roots, thorns, and I’m not sure what else. When I reached the lonely shoe, I realized we had arrived. Bobby was on my right; on our left was a wash leading into the tangle below, which would give us about 20 yards of open ground. Bobby and I repositioned ourselves at the mouth of this draw.
The tangle was totally black - whatever lurked inside could never make it out. The sun was starting to break the horizon, but instead of that nice warm feeling on my back, I had a tsetse fly stuck in my pants. The suspense was out of a horror movie: Something had to happen, but neither of us wanted to move.
We stepped forward, which prompted a deep rumble from inside the tangle. In a beautiful, slow motion picture like flowing water, the leopard appeared. But he was boiling toward us, airing his anguish of the night before.
We raised our rifle barrels in unison. My .458 Lott’s express sights barely reached their mark when the boom of Bobby’s scoped .375 reported. The cat fumbled, head under his chest, and lay motionless. Nobody moved. The tsetse fly was now long forgotten. The flowing water was still. Then just as suddenly as it had stopped, the leopard lifted his head, bared his teeth, and growled. This time both rifles reported in unison.
PH Ernest Dyason and 'Bobby of Mississippi' with the leopard "that was destined to die."
A great roar went up from behind us - our team had dared closer for a grandstand view of the action. The game scout, impressed by his bravery, claimed his shoe. The perfect end to the hunt.
Inspection revealed a reasonably well-placed shot; why it hadn’t instantly killed the cat, we’ll never know. We also found a very large tear in his back leg where the lions had gotten hold of him. How he had escaped from them, we’ll also never know. Only when he met our last three shots was it his time to die.
South African PH Ernest Dyason grew up on the family smallholding near Pretoria and on their unfenced game farm, Thornybush, in the Eastern Transvaal where he learned the interactions between wildlife and farming. For his 18th birthday he was allowed to hunt a lion and bagged a magnificent one. In 1989 he was granted his PH licence and started guiding. Since 1995, he and his wife, Marita, own and operate Spear Safaris, arranging and conducting safaris in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Tanzania.