Tanzania: 1990s
Unparalleled Luck on Lion
By PH Erik van Eckhardt

Early in the 1990s, I was hunting in the Moyowosi Game Reserve in western Tanzania when my Norwegian friend and client, Harold, flew into this paradise on earth, carrying a brand-new Sako Safari rifle, chambered in .375 H&H Magnum.

The rifle was so new that he hadn’t even fired it! Then and there on the landing strip, we set up a target on one of the numerous termite mounds that seemed to spring from the earth on a daily basis. After he fired several rounds without even coming close to hitting the target, we decided that he should probably practice a bit before actually firing at any game.

Harold’s main objective was to try for a fully maned lion, and since lions have a deep aversion to people shooting them in the guts or the like, I told him there would no talk whatsoever of hunting these beasts until I was reasonably sure that he was going kill the animal we found. Thankfully, I had an apprentice PH who also was a gifted hand-loader and who’d brought all the necessary paraphernalia with him to reload his own .375, so he was busy re-activating Harold’s empty shells.

After some days of intensive tuition, which included dry-firing several thousand times, Harold was finally ready to go hunting. We soon found a huge topi standing characteristically on an old termite mound surveying his domains. By using a patch of long grass, we managed to get within some 60 metres of our quarry, and as Harold fired from my shoulder, I felt great satisfaction that there was no jerking of the trigger. As the topi crumpled in its tracks, I turned to Harold and congratulated him, saying that we would go cat hunting the very next day.

The soft “Jambo, Bwana Mkubwa,” spoken by my long-time companion and right hand, Hamisi, woke me at once, and soon after I heard mighty roars from the other side of the swamp. I’d promised a small remuneration to the first of my staff to hear lions roaring, and I suppose that several of them spent the night listening.

After a hasty cup of tea, we headed out in the Cruiser. We had to drive around the end of the swamp, over the landing strip, and then dump the vehicle and walk the rest, which we did in less than half an hour. Walking along the edge of the swamp, we came into an area of partly burnt grass, when a baboon suddenly sounded the alarm somewhere in front of us. We hadn’t heard any sounds from lions, so I asked my tracker to climb a small tree to see if there was any sign of the cats.

He’d hardly gotten more than a couple of metres into the tree before he came sliding down again, his eyes wide with fright: “They are right in front of us, Bwana, two of them – huge,” was all he said! I asked whether they were males or not, but he just said that they were huge lions standing behind a large, old termite mound. As quietly as possible, Harold and I sneaked up behind the mound, and I peeked cautiously through the sparse grass growing on its side. There, no farther than 15 metres away, stood one of the most magnificent lions I’ve ever seen!

I told Harold in a whisper that he should carefully sneak up and take a rest on the mound and fire away. He did so while I peeped over his shoulder with my fingers in my ears. The man just lay there looking through his scope with the beast looking back with a bewildered expression in its eyes. I whispered to him to shoot, but all he did was to adjust his position somewhat, which made the lion turn and saunter off a few metres. It then turned around and sat down on its haunches like a huge domestic cat.

There it was, an enormous, dark-maned lion, the trophy of a lifetime, just sitting there at a distance of no more than 30 metres, and my client just kept on aiming! I whispered desperately for him to shoot, but the only thing that happened was that he carefully removed a blade of grass in front of his sight! This went on for longer than I care to remember until, finally, the cat got up and walked off in the surrounding grass.

Before I exploded, an almost identical male walked out into the same burned area that the first had just left, and stopped dead, presenting the same kind of easy target.

Did Harold fire? Of course not. He just looked at it through the scope and fiddled around on top of his mound until this second lion also strolled off. We watched them loping leisurely along the floodplains to disappear in the distance.

I sat there with my head in my hands, trying desperately not to say something I might later regret, when the man stood up from his prone position and said, “That was rather silly, wasn’t it?” That did it; I just could not contain myself and exploded into a stream of words, most of which I am ashamed of to this day.

On our way back to camp, I told Harold that I doubted whether he would ever see anything like it again or ever get such a chance a second time. I did not then consider that he was unparalleled lucky.

A couple of days later, we went into an area of low-growing palm trees, a locality favoured by lions for the shade. We parked the vehicle for us to enter the trees on foot, and I told my tracker to drive the car to the other end of the area to save us a long walk back.

We’d not gone more than a 100 metres when out from beneath a palm tree walked one of the largest male lions I’d ever come across! It unhurriedly walked a short distance, only to stop and urinate on a tree trunk, blatantly showing us mere humans that this was his domain.

Before I could get my fingers in my ears, Harold laid his gun on my shoulder, but I pushed it off. The cat was standing not more than 20 metres away – he didn’t need a rest for that kind of shot!

Before he had time to start aiming again the lion walked off, and I began feeling desperate. How many chances were we going to get? Poachers had recently burned the whole area, so it was easy to follow the dinner plate-sized tracks. After walking a very short distance, I suddenly made eye contact with the cat sitting, hiding under yet another low palm. As the animal saw that it was discovered, its eyes widened and it came for us, tail whipping the air, ears up, roaring at a volume that could split eardrums and curdle your blood.

Since I know from experience that lions with tails waving and ears pricked do not drive home the attack, I took the whole thing rather calmly and told Harold to shoot. But he froze in fright. When the animal was about three or four metres from us, I grabbed Harold’s fancy safari hat and hurled it at the lion, which made it turn and run off into the bushes, all the time giving voice to its annoyance. As I turned to my client, I found him standing there, petrified, hair on end, quietly saying, “Bloody Hell,” to himself over and over again.

He asked me why I hadn’t fired, and only then discovered that I was unarmed! I had not brought my shotgun, my preferred arm for close-up work on cats, since we were only going for a short walk and I could always get it from the car if need be. However, I lost another Norwegian lion client because of the narrative Harold gave upon his return home, as he’d spread the word that a lion would surely eat me before long.

The days went by without us finding any lion worth shooting, because I will not allow the taking of males in prides, never mind the size or appearance. To do so is despicable behaviour, all too common today, as this leads to an ever-decreasing lion population. Most hunters nowadays are aware of infanticide amongst lions, where the removal of the dominant male in a pride unfailingly leads to the new male killing all the offspring up to the age of two!

In the middle of the last night of Harold’s 21-day safari, Hamisi once again woke me. “Simba, Bwana Mkubwa, Simba,” he softly whispered and I jumped out of bed and woke Harold. The roars had come from the surrounding forest, and I steered the Cruiser towards the only clearing for miles around, a beautiful “meadow” with a small waterhole. We parked the vehicle and approached on foot.

On arriving in the clearing, I felt utterly dejected – there was a dense mist over the whole area! I climbed an old abandoned and overgrown termite mound to try to look through my binoculars, and nearly fell off my lofty perch.

There were two, huge-maned lions lying out there, their heads just visible over the mist! We ran through the trees surrounding the clearing, heading for another termite mound situated some 100 metres from the cats – I thought Harold would easily be able to hit one from the top.

As we climbed the little hill, we immediately saw they were lying closer than I’d estimated, not more than 60 metres away. As we lay there and tried to catch our breath, the sun started to rise and the mist disappeared magically. The morning was gorgeous. The moisture of the night made every blade of grass and every leaf glisten like so many jewels in the rosy dawn. The many different birds awoke one by one and started serenading the slowly rising sun.

Suddenly, three Lichtenstein’s hartebeest appeared on the opposite side of the clearing, a very nice bull followed by a cow and a calf. Slowly they fed ever closer to the two predators. Harold and I had already decided not to disturb the scene with a shot before the cats got up, so we just lay there enjoying ourselves. Surely someone wonders just how calmly one could lie there, with the trophy of a lifetime a short distance out front.

The answer is quite simple: Both Harold and I were very fussy about ethics and we did not feel right about shooting a resting animal, if there was an alternative. We knew the lions were not going to tear out of there and would surely present an easy target when standing, so why hurry? Harold’s charter was not due for another five hours at least.

The hartebeests kept feeding nearer and nearer to the two cats who barely glanced at them – they’d obviously recently eaten their fill. Then, all of a sudden, something happened that I’d never even heard of. The larger of the cats got leisurely to its feet and let out a mighty roar. The intention was to make the antelope aware of his presence – and he certainly succeeded. They wasted no time dawdling around but fled like so many three flashes.

I told Harold to shoot the standing lion – it was by far the bigger of the two, and he immediately started aiming. The roar of the .375 followed very quickly, but I saw the bullet pass harmlessly just over the back of the target. The big fellow never even flinched. He did not even turn his head, but started to follow his partner who’d gotten up, stretched leisurely, and started walking parallel to us, heading for the distant woods. I told Harold to shoot again, and this time the lion reacted to the shot by turning and biting towards his midriff, a lousy sign of a stomach shot.

Grabbing my .458 I got up and raced after the two cats that had by now disappeared behind a huge termite mound. As I rounded the hill, I saw one of the lions standing some 100 yards farther on and naturally assumed that this was the wounded one, so I increased my speed.

Suddenly there was a roar just to my left, and there lay the wounded lion not five metres distant! I fired quite instinctively and ran like I’ve never run before or after, never looking back, all the time expecting to feel claws grabbing me and long fangs sinking into my body. I stopped running after a bit, without anything happening, and turned to see the big fellow lying on his side, dead as a doornail! My heavy bullet had caught him right were it should, although we discovered later that Harold’s bullet would have sufficed. It had entered a bit far back but, since the cat had been quartering slightly away from us, it had carried on through both lungs and out just behind the opposing shoulder.

I really hate hugging men, but made an exception here. Harold was ecstatic and so was I. Singing away, we loaded our prey in the Cruiser and headed for camp where everybody danced for joy. Two hours later, we waved goodbye to Harold as his charter plane winged its way over the majestic swamps.

Swedish PH Erik von Eckhardt was born in 1939 and has been hunting professionally since 1961, in Tanzania, Zambia and Tunisia.

20.3TanzaniaLionEckhardt 2250 words

“The days went by without us finding any lion worth shooting, because I will not allow the taking of males in prides, never mind the size or appearance. To do so is despicable behaviour, all too common today, as this leads to an ever-decreasing lion population.”