In 1974 I had a memorable safari with a close friend, the late Darrell Higgins. We were both employed by Zambia Safaris as professional hunters in the Luangwa Valley. The game management area where we were based was called Nyampala and was situated between the North and South National Game Parks.

The thatched huts of my camp were built out of grass and blended in with the natural surroundings. One side of the camp was bordered by a wall of elephant grass; the other was open and overlooked a park-like setting of tall winter thorn trees that stood on the bank of an oxbow lagoon with a resident pod of hippo at one end.

On this occasion Darrell was my second hunter and we were on a 21-day hunt with Mark, who hunted with me, and Steve who was accompanied by Darrell. These two American clients were the Ford brothers, and twins at that. In the beginning of the hunt all went well, but then Darrell’s Land Cruiser broke down.

After a hard, fourhour slog on foot, they finally reached my camp. We ordered spares over the two-way radio and towed Darrell’s truck back to camp.

Early rising

The next morning, well before sunrise, we all crammed on board my Land Cruiser and left camp. My crew was whittled down to skinner Labkin, tracker Wireless and the gun-bearer, old man White. Cradled in the gun racks were the twin’s Winchester .375 rifles.

Darrell had appointed himself as our team driver. Uppermost on Mark and Steve’s wish list was one lion and then plains game. As we followed the Luangwa River, White rapped on the roof. Darrell brought the vehicle to a halt. Labkin and Wireless pointed out a hippo deep inside the mopane forest.

Mark disembarked from the vehicle and slung his rifle over his back, while Wireless took the shooting sticks. Darrell drove out of sight, then stopped and cut the engine to wait and listen for the sound of a shot. We hurried along a hippo trail that snaked between the tree trunks of the mopane forest and took cover behind some low bushes.

Wireless set up the shooting sticks and Mark rested his rifle on top. We waited for the hippo to come within range. Slowly it plodded towards us and I saw that it was a bull, its body badly scarred by territorial fights. Mark aimed between its eyes. Shot through the brain, the huge animal slumped to the ground. Darrell drove the truck up to us.

With an axe we chopped off the heavy head of the hippo and loaded it onto the Cruiser. We proceeded to cover the carcass with grass and leafy branches, completing our lion bait. By late afternoon our party returned to camp.

Taking the bait

The next morning, with timing of the essence, we left camp before sunrise. There was a cold nip in the air and we were dress ed in warm jackets. The truck rocked violently over elephant tracks made during the rains and baked hard by the sun in the dry season.

Then, a spring broke! We all jumped down while Darrell cursed loudly. We worked quickly in the glow of the lights to replace it, before motoring on. A while later we stopped and continued on foot, walking in single file. Not far from our lion bait Labkin suddenly halted and pointed out a big male lion track moulded into the dust.

Wireless scuffed the ground with his boot to check the wind. It was in our favour. As we carried on in the meagre light of dawn, a colossal anthill loomed up and we took cover behind it. Darrell beckoned the crew and Steve to sit at the anthill’s base while Mark and I climbed to the top where we took cover behind a cluster of low palm fronds.

Quietly we bent them down and set up the shooting sticks with my binoculars resting on top. I had a perfect view down onto the hippo’s carcass. I saw that the grass and branches had been removed and that a lion had fed on the bait. With the binoculars glued to my eyes, I searched the clumps of waist-high grass and in the shade of the odd tree, but saw nothing.

However, the timing of our arrival was perfect and we did not have to wait long! The first vultures arrived. They landed awkwardly, hopped over to the hippo and began to feed. There was a low murmur of excited voices from below us. Darrell whistled softly and pointed.

There, walking towards us was a lioness. Traces of blood smeared on her jaws and front legs. She passed within yards of the crew who kept still as statues, then bellied down right in front of us! Her gut was full of hippo meat and her tail lashed the grass. At first she ignored the vultures, then looked up as others spiralled down to land.

Suddenly fed up, she charged with a deep-throated growl and scattered them. The clumsy birds took flight to land on the nearby trees. Darrell and Steve climbed up the anthill to stand with us. Blessed with a good sense of humour, Darrell plucked a pesky, blood-sucking tsetse fly off of Mark’s arm. He broke its wings off and whispered to it, “walk!” and cursed badly as he tossed it to the ground.

We smiled and continued to wait for the male lion to appear. The morning warmed and we sat down on the anthill. Every so often, one of us rose to glass the bait. The lioness remained on guard. Later she moved into the grass and was difficult to see in her natural surroundings.

Then suddenly, there was an audible sigh. Careful not to make a noise, I rose very slowly to my full height just in time to see the male pad away. He was big-bodied and darker-skinned than the lioness. I could just see his back above the grass before he vanished into the tree line. We made our way down and regrouped. There was no sign of the lioness so we moved cautiously to examine the bait.

As the vultures took flight, the lioness suddenly charged out of the grass! She stopped and growled with menace. We stood still, holding our ground. Our rifles were raised, ready to shoot as she backed away, her eyes locked onto us. She then turned, retreated and vanished from sight.

Staying safe

From a safe distance, Labkin threw pieces of termite mound in her direction. As they landed on target, the grass shook violently. She gave a gut-wrenching growl, charged out again and bellied down. Her ears were flat against her head, lips drawn back in a vicious snarl. We quickly widened the gap between us and then watched her tail lash from side to side.

Frustrated, Darrell turned his back. “To hell with this!” he snapped as he hurried away into the mopane, his .458 over his shoulder. We backed further away, sat down and looked up. Vultures circled above. In a battle of wills, the lioness stared at us and we stared back.

Thankfully the sound of an engine broke the tense silence. A face framed in the windscreen of my Land Cruiser, it was Darrell driving towards us. The lioness rose, skulked away from the bait to vanish into the grass. We all climbed into the rear of the pick-up and Darrell drove slowly into the greenery and stopped.

Suddenly the surroundings came alive as a pride of eight, sleepy lionesses rose out of the grass! Fortunately they just stared and then padded away. Darrell kept the engine running as he shouted instructions. Careful not to stray too far from the truck, we hacked more leafy branches to cover the carcass.

Thereafter, we drove away and stopped under a tree for lunch. Labkin rummaged in his knap-sack and handed out some sandwiches. Mouths full of bread, we glassed the sky over the bait. Only a few vultures remained – we felt satisfied with our morning’s work.

Looking for buffalo

Next, it was Steve’s turn to shoot. With luck we cut the tracks of a dagha boy. The old buffalo bull had wallowed in a muddy, shaded hollow. With a view over a waterhole, Mark, a keen bird photographer, volunteered to stay behind with old man White. Darrell checked his .458 and Steve loaded his .375 with softnose and solid rounds. Labkin and Wireless carried the canvas water bags.

I trailed behind them, my .375 H&H slung over my shoulder, shooting sticks in one hand. Within a few minutes we found fresh buffalo dung. Darrell stabbed his finger into it. It was warm. The dagha boy was not too far ahead! I glassed over a sea of head-high mopane shrubs and spotted a white egret perched on the dry branch of an ancient tree.

I whistled to Darrell and pointed in its direction. Labkin checked the wind with a handful of sand. The breeze was good and in our favour. We followed Wireless in single file, careful not to step on dry twigs. Quietly we made our way towards the egret and stopped just short of the tree.

Our leading man’s view was blocked by mopane shrubs and he parted the branches cautiously. The wind suddenly changed and we heard a loud snort. Darrell and the crew shouted chipbemberrie! (rhino, in the local Chewa language). They spun round and rushed past me!

I turned and bolted after them. Branches slapped our faces. In our haste the water-bags and shooting sticks were tossed aside! Like a massive locomotive the rhino huffed and puffed behind us as his stump-like feet thundered against the ground! Luckily Lady Diana, the Goddess of Hunting, smiled down on us. The beast suddenly veered off track and crashed away from us through the mopane.

Nerves shredded, our lungs sucked in air, as we huddled together and composed ourselves. Then, in total relief, we all shook with laughter. After a while, we collected our equipment and returned to the truck. Around the camp fire that night, our animated conversation was dominated by the lion and rhino incidents. We enjoyed cold beers and later turned in for the night.

Back again

The next morning we headed back to the bait. In the half-light of dawn we stalked towards the anthill. At the base, Mark and the crew sat on the ground. With Steve behind me and Darrell in front, we climbed to the top, set up the shooting sticks and began to glass.

The grass on the bait had been removed! There was no movement and we waited for better light to filter in. The bush came alive with morning birdsong. As my eyes slowly adjusted to the light, a lion morphed into view. It lay on the ground, a dark ring of mane around its neck.

Steve rested his rifle on the sticks and waited. Half an hour passed before it sat up to offer the perfect shot! Steve’s soft point broke both shoulders. The lion slumped down heavily. Then the grass rustled and twigs snapped as, like magic, more lions appeared.

The pride trotted out of the tangled vegetation at a fast pace. Some stopped to look back, but then moved on to melt away in the undergrowth. We approached with caution. Someone touched the lion’s eye with the shooting sticks – no reaction. Steve was in awe, he thanked us quietly as we congratulated him. He stroked his lion softly as if not to disturb him.

- Geoff Wainwright