On a recent hunt to the Luangwa Valley in Zambia I enjoyed a wonderful trip down memory lane that I’ve meant to pen for a few years now.
On that particular safari, not much different to my last trip to the valley we were in pursuit of the aquatics, namely Hippo and Crocodile, as well as a few Cape Buffalo.
Both Hippo and Crocodile numbers in the Luangwa River are nothing short of impressive to somewhat overwhelming. I doubt there’s anywhere else in Africa with Hippo numbers to match that of the Luangwa. On any given day one could expect to see as many as 200-300 along the various stretches of the river together with sandbars filled with sun basking Crocodiles which makes it a prime location for Africa’s aquatics.
Puku elegantly scatter the sandbars along the river while Baboons, Zebra, Giraffe and Warthog work the edges keeping their distance from the waters edge where danger lurks just beneath the surface. As one moves away from the river you can expect to encounter the secretive Chobe Bushbuck and ever impressive Kudu. Cape Buffalo herds meander the wooded regions daily in a train of dust and destruction while the weary old Dagga Boys patrol the flanks of the herds. These old Buffalo bulls are not concerned to be bothered by the masses, but more often than not to afraid to miss a cow in season. They’re never too far behind.
Huge numbers of Elephant and Impala work the pans and open savanna, and while their numbers are by far the greatest they do not reign supreme to the Lion of the region. From dawn until dusk they rule the valley with their echoing roars filling the air warning both man and beast of their brutal presence.
And while the Lion is rightfully the king of the valley, he does not own the deepest and darkest forests where the Leopard exists with ease.. and that is where our story begins.
As with many of my previous Leopard hunts to the Luangwa I had my hunter start off with a Hippo, as one cannot pursue Leopard without bait.
By the third day we had hung ten different baits, keeping our last two spare baits from the Hippo carcass as backup in the event of a cat with a greater appetite than most which may need topping up.
By the 4th day we started seeing some action. Six of the ten baits had been hit and we had a good looking Tom together with a female at a bait site called Joram. We immediately set to work building a blind and then vacated the area as to have things settle before the evening wait.
By 15:30 that afternoon we were in the blind waiting on full alert for our cat to appear. Not even 30 mins had passed when my Hunter woke both Werner and myself from a deep sleep. As is custom, the first hour in the blind can be the most tedious with little to no action, making it the prime nap time as one catches up on the many early mornings and late evenings. Needless to say we were dazed and somewhat amazed to see a beautiful Leopard female settling in on the bait by 4pm that afternoon. Things were looking up! Her boyfriend couldn’t be too far behind.
We sat staring in agony for the remainder of the afternoon out of our peep holes waiting for the cocksure male to make his appearance, but alas the shooting light ran out and Josuf our driver arrived to collect us for the evening. Tomorrow would be another day.
The following morning we headed out in high spirits to check on the trail camera as to determine when the Joram male had made his appearance. Lone and behold he had made his appearance five minutes after we had left the blind.
So we had a cat that wanted to play games and we were up for it, but we also had a few other baits to check. By midday we had checked seven of our baits and now had three big Toms feeding. It was decision time. Would we head back to Joram for the afternoon sit or build a second blind where a cat was coming in early each afternoon. We decided to stick to Joram and freshen up the new Tom’s bait in the event of us needing it the following day.
We headed back to Joram and waited patiently once again. Again the majestic female made her appearance, but only briefly on this occasion as a young Lion made an unwelcome appearance signalling the end of our afternoon hunt. We sat it out until nightfall, knowing full well the chances of our Leopard appearing was fairly slim.
With two failed attempts on our list of experiences we were ready to make a move for a change of fortune. We checked the Joram trail camera after 9am as not to disturb our cat away from the general vicinity if he was around making the most of an early morning feed, before heading south to check our other baits. As before he had made his appearance in the presence of a Lion 5 mins after we had left. We felt somewhat despondent, but left there with a renewed hope of greener pastures and the knowledge of two other big cats on bait.
Checking up on the various baits we were treated to scenes like few seen before. From bait sites with as many as three cats feeding at the same time to actually finding cats on two of the baits, still sitting in the tree guarding their find upon our arrival. The Luangwa has one of the highest concentration of cats, but even this was rare to see in a place such as this.
By 1pm we finally arrived at a particular bait site that looked very “catty” from the moment we saw it and decided to hang a bait there on the first day. A natural fountain had been dug out by elephant over the years, making for a perfect waterhole, and above it were a range of hills covered by forests running down towards the Luangwa River in veins of thickets.
This particular bait site looked promising from the moment we first found it and now the trail camera was confirming the hunch we had. An ancient Tom was on bait.
What was strange was that we were not able to check or scent drag this particular bait site in the previous days as the Joram cat had us pre-occupied up to this point. Here we had a sod of a cat at the bait where the least effort had gone into.
On any given day Leopard hunting, much of one’s day entails checking baits and cameras as well as re-dragging bait sites with fermenting Hippo intestines and blood from the “soup bucket”. The soup bucket plays an integral part in the success of a cat finding a bait or not. The stronger the scent from the fermented soup bucket the better the results.
What was even stranger was the cat had first found the bait and fed at midday. Thereafter he had frequently visited the bait site at short intervals. We believed him to be an old cat unable to eat large amounts at any given time. We immediately set out building a blind and then got settled in for the afternoon session.
We had spotted Lions mating a mere 800 yards below our blind earlier in the day and now was hoping they wouldn’t make an unwanted appearance. As we entered the golden hour of cat hunting, the very last day light hour of the day, the lions started roaring in earnest, like they usually do at this time of day reminding the world of their standing on the food chain and the insignificance of you the hunter.
It signalled what was the end of an exciting day and we headed into camp to rest and recoup for the following morning. It was to be an early one as our old Tom was making the most of a morning feed which saw us up at 03:30 am and headed back to the blind.
We had hardly sat down when Werner heard a Leopard off in the distance and then a strange “sneeze-like” sound below our bait tree. We were convinced the cat was under the tree and would show himself at any minute as the world began to wake to a chorus of the most beautiful birds in full song.
By 07:45 we had not seen a thing and then to our disgust a couple of Lionesses pulled in and lay down right next to our blind. A mere few paces away lay one of the super predators of this world and all we had between us and them was a flimsy screen of reeds, dried grass and tree branches for camouflage. Needless to say the situation was not perfect. To our relief they soon got up and then annoyingly started heading towards our bait tree. Things went quiet for a while and we knew the gig was up.
We called in the truck and made our way to the bait tree to see if we could scare off the Lions and save the remainder of our precious bait. Upon arriving under the tree the Lions were nowhere to be seen, but to our amazement our Leopard jumped out of the tall grass ahead of us and strolled through the rocky riverbed and out on the other side stopping for a brief moment to stare back at us before vanishing into thin air once again. It was a sight to behold.
With the sighting of our Tom we were now more determined than ever before. Our bait was now our priority. Good bait is a commodity on any cat hunt, may that be Lion or Leopard, and we were starting to run low. We couldn’t afford to miss an opportunity due to a lack of fresh bait so we hung a Puku from a previous days hunt.
Together with the fresh Puku we quickly adjusted the baits’ skirt which had been eaten on the night before by our Leopard as to ensure the ever present Vultures would not spot our prized bait from the air. We then turned away from the tree and while heading out my hunter suggested that we remain behind in the blind instead of checking a few further baits.
The idea was to let our crew continue on to see what further activity our baits had attracted while we waited patiently in the blind at 08:40 in the morning. Any experienced Leopard hunter would have declared the move as a pointless and fruitless exercise, but we had nothing to lose. By 08:55, with the faint hum of the trucks engine disappearing in the distance, our Tom made his appearance.
He effortlessly made his way up and into the tree and then quietly stared at the bait. He sensed something was amiss from the way in which he had last left it and paused for a few seconds on the spot before sitting down behind the only branch that could possibly obscure a shot.
From my angle in the blind, sitting on my hunters left, I could see the cats shoulder, but he had no clear shot. Our only hope was for him to edge forward to the bait. And then just as he had arrived without warning he disappeared again. We were gutted as the wind had been knocked out of our sails for a second time that morning. Twice had we seen our Tom and not once did we have an opportunity of a shot. We sat quietly feeling pretty low as the emotional roller coaster started taking its toll.
A few minutes passed while our emotions started regathering in the hope that if our cat could show himself twice in a morning then he could do so for a third time too. We once again turned our attention to the bait and stared anxiously out of our peep holes willing the cat back into the tree.
And then to our amazement a huge Lioness made an appearance in the top of the tree. How she managed to climb was beyond us, but there she was. We had all seen this before, but in trees much lower and climbs a lot easier than this specific scenario. We just stared at her in utter amazement which soon turned to frustrated anger.
By this stage we had endured our fair share of Lion activity and had, had enough of their presence. Werner quietly exited the blind and hurled a couple of stones and a few “explicit insults” in her direction. She immediately turned and made her way down from the upper limbs of the tree and out of our sight.
We decided the hunt was over for the morning as not only had we endured a bout of rotten luck, but no self-respecting Leopard would wait around in the presence of Lion let alone a human making a racket in an effort to scare off Lions.
We quietly left the blind and seeing as our crew were still busy checking a few of our other baits we headed away from the blind and a potential situation with a pride of Lions that now knew where we were and weren’t exactly excited to see us either. We walked down about a kilometre from the blind and then settled in the shade of a great old Baobab tree casting a shadow with its massive trunk.
When the men finally arrived we shared with them what had happened while they were away and then headed back to our bait tree to see what plan we could devise to take the Lion out of play.
We would move the bait even higher into a precarious position that we hoped the Lioness wouldn’t scale while we knew our Leopard would navigate with ease. The trick was to leave the blind untouched and readjust the bait in the existing tree.. it would prove more complicated than it sounds.
After about an hour we had completed this task and then headed away from the area, but not before collecting the SD card from the trail camera. This would prove the difference by the end of the day.
With the ongoing activity it was anonymously decided that we would let our Leopard be for the afternoon and evening as he needed to find the new bait position and gain confidence in the setup.
With time always being of the essence on any given cat hunt we decided to make the most of an afternoon and returned to Joram and our first cat. We planned to sit that afternoon as we had nothing to lose. He would either show or not.
We devised a “bluff strategy” after our trackers John and Custom felt the cat was watching and waiting for the truck to arrive and leave. Thus far he had pitched at the bait within 5 minutes of us leaving on each previous occasion. They wanted us in the blind as usual at 15:30, but then wanted to drive in at 17:45 as if coming to collect us. They would chat away, all within ear shot of the waiting Tom, then stop at the blind for a brief period before leaving again. All this time we’d stay behind never leaving and in so doing call the cats bluff. We had a plan and headed in for lunch quietly confident that we’d catch him out at his own game.
As per usual lunch was enjoyed overlooking the breath-taking Luangwa River and then all settled in for a quick power nap before the afternoons hunt.
We had barely dozed off when Werner shouted from his office. “ Get your stuff! Let’s go! You won’t believe what’s on the SD card.”
Driving back to our Upper Mwembezi bait he explained that after we had chased off the Lion and while we had walked out to the giant Baobab tree and the time it took for us to return to move the bait out of Lions reach our Tom had returned to feed once again at 10 am in the morning. This was unheard of behaviour.
As before we were back in the blind by 15:30. Our day had been an eventful and long one thus far and didn’t take us long to start dozing off in the boredom of the blind.
At precisely 17:21 Werner quietly squeezed my shoulder from behind. Without turning to look at him I knew our Tom was back. My hunter settled into his 300 win mag and within seconds the cat disappeared out of sight with a well-placed shot.
An eventful Leopard hunt had come to an end, but the emotions will live on with us for many years to come. We had experienced it all. From the highs to the lows, the self-doubt and the many new plans which provided hope when the odds were stacked against us. We had gained invaluable experience and dared to challenge the traditional beliefs of cat hunting. Sometimes we must change our habits to evolve. But most of all we had earned an old Tom that challenged us to the very end.
Contact us today for more information on our hunts and feel free to mail Carl directly on firstname.lastname@example.org with your specific safari requests or quotes. We look forward to hearing from you and sharing a campfire in Africa.