Prolog – by Jim Conrad
When thinking of a safari in Tanzania one typically thinks of the famous Selous Game Reserve, located in the south of Tanzania. This popular area, named after Englishman Sir Frederick Selous, a famous big game hunter and early conservationist, is noted for its diverse and plentiful wildlife. Josh Zigman (San Diego SCI Chapter Vice President) had been on a couple of safaris there previously and when he first invited me to join him on a safari to Tanzania, that’s where I assumed we planned to go. Instead however, he said that we should go to the Maasai Land area in the north of Tanzania in the Arusha Region. The reason being that there are several animals that can either only be found or hunted in that area and nowhere else in the world. On that list are: Lesser Kudu, Fringe Eared Oryx, Gerenuk, Kirk’s Dik-Dik, Grant’s gazelle, Coke’s Hartebeest and Patterson’s Eland. There’s also a long list of other animals available in the area, including Leopard, Greater Kudu and Cape buffalo.
We booked our 21-day safari with Tanganyika Wildlife Safaris and used our good friend Nick Frederick at Ameri-Cana Expeditions, Inc. as our booking agent. Our travel itinerary was to go from Los Angeles to Dubai, UAE (overnight there) and then to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (overnight again) and then take a charter flight to Ruvu Camp near the town of Simanjiro in Maasai Land. We flew Emirates Airlines between Los Angeles and Dar es Salaam and I definitely recommend them highly. The airfare was lower than most other carriers and the service (business class) was superb. They only fly Airbus A380 and Boeing 777 aircraft which are both incredibly comfortable aircraft. They even put us up in a hotel Dubai on both the outbound and inbound legs of the trip at no extra charge. We didn’t even have to claim or baggage for the overnight stays; it was checked all the way through to our destination. We used Steve Turner at Travel with Guns as our travel agent and he and his team did their usual superb job of handling all of the arrangements, including visas and firearms/ammunition permits.
Josh and I shared this adventure in terms of travel and camp accommodations. Each day we would embark on our own hunt, atop a Land Cruiser with our PH, three or four trackers, game scout (Tanzania Park Ranger) and driver. Each evening we would return to camp and sit around the fire with our PHs, cocktails in hand, sharing the day’s trials, successes and occasional failures. To chronical all 21 days for each of us is way more material than this brief article allows. Instead, what follows is a snippet of one or two more memorable moments for each of us. If you’d like to know more, then we invite you to track us down at one of the many San Diego SCI Chapter events. After all, it’s the camaraderie and sharing that the Chapter is all about.
I’d like to begin my telling of this tale by saying that while I tried mightily to take a Leopard on this trip, keeping fresh baits on eight separate trees for the entire trip, only once did a Leopard visit one of those sites, and that was a female with her cub. That was not a great disappointment for me though, because I was fortunate enough to have already taken a Leopard in Zimbabwe earlier in the year. To be lucky enough to take two Leopards in one year was more mojo than I deserved.
I’m also not going to launch into a self-deprecating diatribe regarding the two relatively easy 100-yard shots on eland that I missed, nor the many Dik-Dik struggles to see the tiny critters in the bush, when everyone else in our party could see them but I couldn’t. Instead, let me focus on Cape buffalo… the one that got away and the one that didn’t.
Early one morning my PH, Andre Roux and I had climbed a rocky hill to glass for game. We spotted several Lesser Kudu bulls at great distance but nothing that we were interested in of any specie was within range. Our three trackers were also with us on that hill and even though none of them had binoculars, their vision was so phenomenal that one of them spotted a ‘shooter’ Cape buffalo that was feeding alone nearly a mile away. Andre got out the spotting scope and after several agonizing minutes gave me a thumbs up. We first identified several landmarks near him because we knew that we would be going through thick brush in route and crossing a couple of dry creek beds and didn’t want to become confused as to his location. That done, we set out after him.
As we neared what we thought was the general vicinity of where we had seen him, our lead tracker picked up the bull’s fresh track and we began to follow it at a quick pace. The track led to patch of very heavy brush and we froze as we heard a snort. We could just barely make out a black patch deep within the brush. Andre and I used our binoculars to examine the black patch and silently agreed that it was the bull and that he was apparently sleeping or at least resting. We had absolutely no idea of his orientation so we could do nothing but stand there motionless and wait for him to make his move. The black flies seemed to know that we were now vulnerable to their torments and they showed us no mercy. We waited for nearly a full hour and then, without warning, the bull took off out the back side of the brush. We ran around the bush as quickly as we could but we were too late to get off a shot. We tracked him for about another half an hour, seeing glimpses of him as he would take off again. We decided to call off the pursuit rather than chase him out of the valley where we now knew he lived. We planned to come back tomorrow to see if we could again pick up his track. Unfortunately, we never were able to locate him again.
Several days later and after having successfully harvested quite a few animals that were on my list (Grant ’s gazelle, Coke’s Hartebeest, Impala, Lesser Kudu, Kirk’s Dik-Dik, and Fringe Eared Oryx) we were driving back to camp late in the afternoon and travelling through a particularly thick area of bush. Suddenly a keen-eyed tracker tapped Andre on the shoulder and pointed. Andre and I both immediately saw what he was so excited about… an absolutely huge Cape buffalo bull was looking right at us about 50 yards from the road. My Heym double rifle was still in its case but I set a speed record for getting it uncased and grabbed a handful of 450/400 cartridges. My PH did the same and we both got off the Land Cruiser, accompanied by our lead tracker. The bull had now moved off but didn’t seem to be in a big hurry to get away. Our tracker led the way, followed by my PH and then me. We moved through the thick brush as quickly and quietly as we could and caught up with the bull who was looking directly at us at about 15 yards. He turned to his right and presented me with a shoulder shot and Andre said ‘shoot him’. I had already put the red dot of my Doctor II sight on his shoulder so I pushed the safety forward and fired. He dropped immediately. Andre said ‘reload’, which I did. As we both stepped forward I put two more shots into his vitals, just to make sure.
Andre said that he figured the big bull was about 16 years old. At 35” his horns weren’t as wide as some others than I’ve seen but his bosses were old, cracked and well separated, indicating his maturity. Maasai Land isn’t a typical destination for Cape buffalo hunters because it doesn’t have the big herds that populate the Selous in the south. However, the buffalo that do reside there tend to get very big and old and are definitely trophy quality.
As Jim mentioned above, I had hunted the great Selous Game Reserve twice already but after reading up about East Africa’s Maasai Land I had a burning desire to make this journey. I am very fortunate that Jim Conrad could join me he and was as eager as I to make the 21-day safari commitment. Twenty-one days (24 four including travel) sounds like a long time but it is amazing to note that today’s 21-day safari used to take a lot longer back in the day. It was not uncommon for outfitters to organize safaris lasting 6 months back in the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. My grandfather used to tell me stories about his Indian and African Safari adventures back in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s in which he would be gone for three months! I don’t think my Grandma was too thrilled about him leaving her for that long and her pent-up hostility became evident when he passed away in 1988. Not even a week had gone by when I received a call from my grandmother not asking, but demanding that I come over and pack up all his stuff—his trophies, scrap albums, memorabilia, hunting gear and rifles– and get it out of her house! I did not hesitate for one second to do as she wished and I still have a good portion of his collection—but I digress.
Getting back to the subject of our hunt, the Maasai Land hunting area is a wonderfully diverse area with game in the flat lands at sea level and game up in the mountains. We booked the first safari of the season in July, which is wintertime over there. When the outfitter forewarned me to dress for very cold weather I acknowledged this but didn’t really take it too seriously, having hunted many times in extremely cold weather of North America and had experience hunting in Africa in the colder months of May a couple times. I knew it could get chilly at night and in the morning but cold for the native population is not that cold for me and nothing that a couple of layers and a light sweater couldn’t handle. Later, I would find out the hard way about the variable temperature swings of Maasai Land.
Our charter plane took us on a one-and-a-half-hour flight from Dar es Salaam north to the low land area of Maasai Land. We touched down at sea level on a dirt airstrip in the middle of a big valley and the outfitter met us there with three Land Cruisers to transport us and a bunch of supplies back to camp. In addition to the outfitter meeting us at the airstrip, from out of nowhere dozens of Maasai Villagers showed up to greet us. The Maasai were dressed in their traditional garb called Shukas, which were colorful rectangular cotton garments (which looked like table cloths) in blue, red, purple or black with white trim, draped around their bodies and tied off at the shoulder. The Maasai seemed as curious about us as we were about them and were very friendly. They all gathered together near the trucks and aircraft, captivated by what seemed to be the main event of the day, until the Land Cruisers were packed up and we set off for camp.
From the airstrip, we set off for the mountains which shot out of the flatlands like sky scrapers. The trip took about two hours. There is nothing quite like the optimistic energy that accompanies you on the drive into camp to start your African Safari—the feeling never diminishes no matter how many times you have done it! We arrived at camp late afternoon but in time to unpack and get organized for the start of the safari. Our camp was about 4,500 feet above sea level, tucked into the thick bush just off the main road. There were many small Maasai tent camps and Maasai Bomas (a horseshoe shaped coral made of thorn bush where they keep their cattle safe at night) all the way from the low land flats at the airstrip up to our camp in the mountains. It became very clear that we would be sharing our hunting block with the Maasai, which presented no big problem as the Maasai were only interested in herding cattle, goats and sheep and the game us hunters were interested in were unfazed by the noisy Maasai cattlemen and their herds of livestock.
The camp accommodations were very comfortable. We each had our own separate quarters which were heavy canvas tents built under tall thatched roof superstructures. The tents were spacious with canvas partitions which created separate rooms for sleeping, changing and for gear storage. The wash facilities were just outside the back of the tent and included a commode, sink and outdoor shower. There was a very nice mess hall where we ate breakfast and dinner, but most of our free time was spent at the campfire each evening after the day’s hunt.
As Jim mentioned above, we each had our own hunting party. Jim’s PH name was Andre Roux and mine was Nicolas Dubish. I had hunted with Nicolas and his trackers on two previous Safaris and we hunt very well together. On my first Tanzania Safari back in 2011, I also met Andre and knew he was a very experienced PH. What I didn’t know about Andre is that he knows just about everything there is to know about African hunting including game, arms, gear, country music—you name it and Andre can weigh in on it. It was a pleasure having such a great conversationalist in camp, especially after a couple sundowners. The daily hunting routine began early in the morning—alarm off at 4:00 am; get dressed; throw down a small breakfast; gulp down a cup of scalding tea or coffee and load up into the Land Cruiser. Jim wanted to concentrate on buffalo off the bat and I was interested in leopard, or Chui which they are called in Swahili. We both went our separate ways and did not cross paths.
On the first day, we cut a huge leopard track but we needed to hunt for bait (not just for the leopard but for camp meat as well). The first four days started off fast with me taking a nice Greater Kudu, Kirk’s Dik-Dik, Coke’s Hartebeest, Warthog and Impala. We strategically hung several tree-baits and kept tabs on the leopard tracks. The leopard was making his rounds at night on the roads and was covering a five-mile stretch but had not yet come to one of our baits.
On the fifth morning, we set out to hunt and check the baits. There was always a little contest amongst us to see which guy could correctly guess which bait the leopard would hit. Nicolas’s instincts proved up as he correctly guessed the leopard would hit the Wort hog bait. Nicolas and the trackers spent lots of time carefully examining the terrain, like cunning warriors setting a trap for their prey, to determine the best spot to erect the blind. We decided to build the blind about 15 yards off the road with the bait tree 55 yards from the blind on the other side of the road. After the blind was built and the tree was groomed to give us the clearest shot presentation, we broke off to have our field lunch and returned to settle into the blind at 4:30 pm. Nicolas went over the instructions for the blind as he always does. No talking. No moving around. Most importantly, for me to remember when the leopard goes up the tree Nicolas will tap me once on my leg. When it’s okay to shoot he will tap my leg two times. If he taps me three times that means something else—ha ha. I told him to cut the crap—two taps would be fine.
The first five days had come and gone and as I expected, the days were generally warm from 80 to 90 degrees and the nights cooled off to a very comfortable temperature of 60 to 70 degrees. This was my third leopard hunt and so I was expecting the hunt to go like the first two hunts–four to eight hours in the blind to kill the leopard. The blind was built about 8’ square with me sitting on the right, Nicolas on the left and Lidai, the Maasai cat specialist behind us. I guess none of us expected to be in the blind that long because we brought no food and I only had a T-shirt on with my ultra-thin Columbia nylon hunting pants. The first four hours in the blind were very uneventful. I past the time playing solitaire on my iPhone. As the sun went down the temperature started to cool off. There were no clouds and we were hunting in the full moon. As night fell the typical bird sounds of the day disappeared and were replaced by crickets and occasional barks and snorts from nervous Kudu and Impala that were milling around in the thick bush nearby.
By 9:00 pm my back and leg muscles started tightening up. I would try to adjust my position but every time I did the wooden fold out chair would creek and make a noise that under the circumstances sounded like the crack of thunder. Each time I would try to adjust I would get a very disapproving look from Nicolas so I had to suck up the pain and be still. Then about 10:00 pm I got a tap on my leg. I reached for my rifle and shouldered the weapon and made my scope adjustments. Because it was a full moon I had no problem getting a good look at the leopard—he was huge! He crept out onto the limb to the Warthog bait and took a whiff of it, then took a swipe at it with his paw and without any apparent reason retreated to the crotch of the tree and hunkered down at the intersection of the main trunk and the limb. At this point I didn’t have a good shot at him. I looked at Nicolas and he shook his head and hand signaled me to wait. After another five or ten minutes Chui jumped down and was gone. So, we waited. We could hear him walking up and down the dirt road right in front of us making that deep guttural growl as he breathed in and out. Then all went quiet.
About 45 minutes went by when I got another tap on the leg. I grabbed the rifle again. My cross hairs were on him and I was waiting for the “two taps” on my leg to signal to shoot. Lidai, behind us, was whispering “shoot-shoot”, but Nicolas was busy eyeballing the leopard with his binos and is not tapping me on the leg. Then Nicolas looks at me and whispered— “that’s not our leopard—it’s a big female!” The female leopard was also not interested in the bait. She sat down on the limb and did nothing for about 15 minutes. Then out of nowhere we saw two Leopards in the tree. The second leopard was her cub! The female just sat there while the little cub started to feed on the Warthog. That little cub tried his hardest but could not flip the Warthog bait–which was as big as he is–over the branch and had to instead feed upside-down. This feeding session lasted about an hour and then both the female and the cub jumped down off the tree and disappeared in the thick bush.
By 1:00 am we were freezing our butts off. We decided to call the truck in to pull an old Leopard trick. The ruse is to make Chui think that the truck came to pick us up and leave him to his privacy. The truck roars in and the Leopards clear out. We got out of the blind, relieved ourselves, started talking loudly, grabbed some hard candy I brought from San Diego and most importantly grabbed our sweaters. After about 15 minutes we snuck back into the blind while the trackers fired the truck up and drove off in the opposite direction. If it goes according to plan the leopard (or in this case, leopards), which were still very close by, will think the coast is clear and will climb back into the tree to feed in peace shortly after the truck departs. This trick worked like a charm two years ago when I killed a nice leopard in the Selous. Back then my Selous Leopard climbed the tree within 15 minutes after the truck departed. This time we only had to wait ten minutes for the trick to work except to our dismay, it was the female and cub that came back and not our Tom. The female and cub were up in the tree for another hour and then jumped down again, although we could hear the leopards in front of us they refused to climb the tree again. As the hours went by the temperature plummeted even more. Although I had my sweater on, my ultra- thin nylon convertibles offered no protection from cold. The cold descended on my legs like a frozen blanket—all of us were shivering and desperately trying to keep warm. It was practically freezing at daybreak when we called off the hunt. The trackers picked us up and took us to their camp fire where we warmed our freezing bones up before the long trip back to camp.
We dragged into camp about 8:00 am. Jim and Andre had already left to go hunting. We ate breakfast and then hit the sack. At noon, we met back in the dining room to discuss the leopard and preparations for another night in the blind. We were quite certain that if the female and cub were at the bait the big male would be there as well and since he didn’t feed the night before he would surely hammer the bait tonight. Also, learning from our previous night in that ice chest of a blind, we brought some heavy blankets and some snacks to take to the blind. At 3:00 pm we headed back out and got into the blind at 5:00 pm. Nicolas predicted we would have him by 8:00 pm. Nicolas is usually good at predicting animal behavior so I was cautiously optimistic but by 8:00 pm no Chui had shown up. Then at 10:00 pm a get the tap on the leg. My heart started pumping as I grabbed my rifle. I scoped up the leopard and had the cross hairs on it but knew instantly that it was the female. Her cub showed up a couple minutes later. Disgusted, I tossed my rifle aside and sat back in the chair. With our binoculars, we watched the female and cub put on a good tree show for us for a good two hours until around 12:00 when they vanished. After that, it got quiet.
We kept going in and out of consciousness waking up every 20 minutes or so to adjust our aching backs and legs and check the tree but nothing was doing. At three in the morning I started mentally preparing myself for yet a third night in the blind, a thought I was not so keen about. I must have dosed off again but Nicolas had at least one eye open and at four in the morning he started hitting me on the leg—not tapping! I guess the taps weren’t waking me up and he had to hit me pretty hard. At once I realized our Tom had treed. It was dark but I could still see him in my scope. He had flipped the Warthog bait over the branch and was laying down on the limb feeding. We waited impatiently for the leopard to stand up. After what seemed to be an eternity he finally got up. Although I couldn’t see the cross hairs of the reticle against the leopard I placed the vertical line in the middle of the front leg and the horizontal line across the middle of his shoulder and squeezed the shot off. The crack of the shot rocked the blind. I turned around to Nicolas and Lidai, our cat tracker expert for a report but unbelievably Lidai was still sound asleep! Nicolas woke up Lidai and called the truck in. Not knowing if the Leopard was dead or not, and for my “safety”, I was told to stay in the blind while Nicolas and the tracking crew risked their lives to go into the thick bush to recover him. I wasn’t too happy about this but my protests were rebuffed by Nico and off they went leaving me alone to watch. I can’t remember ever being so agitated and nerve racked watching them go after my leopard. I knew I had put a good shot on him but it was still dark and the thorn bush surrounding the bait tree was impenetrable by foot so it was not possible to be sure the leopard was dead. The guys got into the Land Cruiser and dutifully drove right into the thick bush with their flash lights beaming and darting around from bush to bush looking for the leopard and bracing themselves for my wounded Chui to leap out and attack them in the truck. I was pacing back and forth trying to guess where the leopard went and unable to do anything about it. After about 45 minutes it started to get light out and Elias, one of the Maasai trackers came running across the road to the blind. He was smiling from ear to ear and said “Good job boss—Chui is dead!” I let out a holler of relief!
I followed Elias across the road and into the thickest, thorniest bush to the leopard which had expired about 40 yards from the blind. How they ever found him is a mystery that only the Maasai Trackers could know. The Maasai got the Panga Machetes out and hacked a path out of the bush. We found a great big fallen tree to put the leopard on to take pictures. An amazing thing always seems to happen in Maasai Land, just like at the landing strip, within a few minutes we had several Maasai cattleman appear out of nowhere to see what just happened. They were very grateful I had killed the cattle killing Leopard and thanked me more times than I can remember. We all had a tremendous photo shoot and then headed back to the camp.
As we approached the camp I got my rifle out and fired several shots in the sky, an old tradition which alerts everyone back at camp of our success. A huge celebration erupted out of the camp with the entire camp staff escorting our truck into the compound while banging pans, blowing horns, dancing and chanting “Chui-Chui! Kunywa-Kunywa!” which means “drink to the dead Leopard”. They would not stop chanting until I put two fingers in the air signaling that the entire camp staff would get a couple drinks on me. I was only too happy to oblige as I had a desperate need to take a shower and go to bed.
Although the leopard hunt was the pinnacle of the safari we still had two weeks to go and I must say it just kept getting better and better. Both of us shot plenty of game and I even got my Buffalo on the last evening of the last day of the hunt which was the icing on the cake. After three Tanzanian safaris, I honestly can’t say which one I enjoyed the best. All I can say is that I hope Jim and I can go back again soon.
Jim is a Past President and Josh serves as current
Vice President of the San Diego Chapter of Safari Club International.
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