The plan was perfect; we'd slipped into the blind during the pre-dawn darkness with minimal fuss and now all we had to do was wait for the sun to rise. The big male leopard had been showing up on the trail camera just before dawn and feeding well into the morning. It all seemed pretty easy. Perhaps too easy. Chui has a way of changing plans.
It was still an hour before legal light when we heard a thump on the ground in front of the blind. I looked over to Vanessa, and even in the near pitch-black, I could see her eyes get wide. It sounded like the leopard had just jumped out of the tree. Night hunting for leopards is illegal in Tanzania, so it really changes the game. We were filming the hunt for our television series, Outdoor Quest TV, and I was in the role of hunter and Vanessa was running camera. Capturing a leopard kill in broad daylight seemed a tall order, but our PHs Stephan Stamm and Paddy Curtis were confident we could get it done. They average around 90% success on leopards, and getting a daylight kill on film was going to be no problem according to them.
It was eerily quiet in the blind. The doves had yet to begin their morning serenade, and even with my gunshot ears, I could hear the soft sounds of an animal padding over the ground as it walked past us. We were right on a hippo trail, but this definitely wasn’t a hippo. I looked back at Paddy but his ears were worse than mine, and he sat blissfully unaware. Vanessa, however, was at full alert. The animal walked down the hippo trail toward the Rufiji River, and soon the sound was gone. Both Vanessa and I took a first breath in what seemed like several minutes. Had the leopard sensed our presence and vacated the tree? Was it just going down to the river for a drink? There were so many possibilities, and only when the sun peeked over the eastern horizon would we get our answers; or so we thought.
It was about 30 minutes later when we heard the raspy breathing. Vanessa was in the side of the blind closest to the trail, and through the thatched wall, I could see the broken outline of an animal. It was quite literally inches away from Vanessa, with only the branches and leaves of the crudely constructed blind separating them. I had no doubt it was chui. The next move was his. Each movement of the second hand on my watch seemed to take minutes. We were all frozen still, and no one even took a breath. I’m not sure who we thought we were fooling. The leopard knew exactly what we were, but all we could do was remain still and silent and pray.
We never heard the leopard move off, but a minute or so later he let out a number of guttural grunts a few yards in front of the blind. He continued to grunt as he moved up the dry wash, away from the tree. The leopard had let us know he was in control, and as the sun began to rise and the doves welcomed the morning, none of us were surprised that the tree was empty.
We were on a two-week safari with Heritage Safaris Tanzania in the famed Selous Game Reserve, and had hippo, buff, leopard and some plains game on our list. Buffalo was definitely at the top, but after walking about 20 miles the first couple of days and being outsmarted several times by big bulls, we ran into a good hippo bull in a postage-stamp-sized puddle, miles from the river. While hippo was on my list, I had reservations about how I’d feel taking one in the deep water, so when this one presented itself, basically on dry land, I wasn’t about to look a gift hippo in the mouth. We were able to stalk to within about 80 yards, but ran out of cover, so I had a decision to make. I set the .375 H&H up on the sticks and managed to lean my body against an adjacent tree. The crosshairs on the scope were rock-steady. I found the sweet spot just behind the big bull’s eye and, as the rifle recoiled I quickly regained my sight picture, but there was nothing there. Stephan urged me to shoot him again, and after seeing the bull had fallen right in his track, I put a second round into his spine for insurance. There was no need for it, but insurance on dangerous game is never a bad idea.
It was pretty amazing taking a hippo so far inland, and it was truly amazing seeing the impact they had on the habitat. I had no idea that hippos were such voracious grazers on land and how much they competed with other grazers like buffalo and plains game. Along most of the river, the grass was grazed right down to the dirt for several miles inland, entirely by the hippos. The Rufiji is home to thousands of hippos, and from what we saw, their management is critical to the long-term survival of all the grazers in the area. We saw dozens of hippo skeletons up on the plains during our hunt. Most had starved to death during a drought two years previously. We now had some camp meat and leopard bait as well. We’d been in short supply of both.
Vanessa was next up, and she had buffalo in her sights. While buffalo were plentiful, as were good-quality bulls, opportunity was not. We spent the bulk of our time in some dried-up river channels where the buffalo would come to lie in the cool sand in the afternoons, but they would spend the remainder of the day in the thick adjacent cover. We tracked numerous bulls and got to within 20 yards several times, but a shot opportunity just never presented itself. In the 100-degree heat and high humidity, it was hard to keep hydrated, but we kept up the pace, covering 15-20 miles a day.
It was on our fifth day that preparation and opportunity finally came together. We’d done yet another morning march through the thick cover and tall elephant grass, and got so close once that we could hear several bulls chewing – but again no opportunity for a shot was presented. It was as we were walking back to the Cruiser that we ran into three bulls in the riverbed. Our tracker, Karlos, quickly evaluated the bulls and got Vanessa on the sticks. She wasted no time sending a 250-grain bullet on its way, and the big bull reeled at the impact but spun hard and ran before Vanessa could get another shot into him. Karlos tapped his side and gave Vanessa a thumbs up. The shot had been good.
Blood was sparse but the trail was easy enough to follow, and of course it led into the thick stuff almost immediately. We could hear the bulls and see movement, but there was no way to tell which bull Vanessa’s was. Paddy suggested we wait a bit and let things settle down before following the blood trail any further. It was sage advice from a veteran PH who had followed up many bulls in the long grass.
Sweat stung our eyes as we inched through the heavy thorn brush. Paddy, Stephan and Vanessa all had their rifles at the ready. We had no doubt the big bull would not go far, but we also knew he would position himself to take on anything following his trail. About 20 minutes into the trail the blood stopped. Paddy took one of the trackers and headed right, and Vanessa and Stephan went left. The buff was running out of cover and we knew he was close. Whatever was going to happen, was going to happen soon. Then a shot rang out about 20 yards to our right. And a second. Then all was quiet. A million scenarios rushed through our minds until Paddy called out. They’d found the bull down in his bed and put a couple of insurance shots in him. Vanessa had her very hard-earned bull, and he was magnificent.
We spent the next four days searching for a bull for me. I came close many times, but either the bull just wasn’t what I was looking for or I just couldn’t seal the deal. And then, when Lady Luck did decide to grace us with her presence, it was in a most interesting way. We’d just stopped for mid-morning coffee under the shade of a big sausage tree when our game scout came running over, pointing to the south. We peeked around the tree and saw a herd of about 200 buffalo moving our way across an open plain. It was an amazing sight as they plodded along, a dust plume rising behind them. They were undoubtedly headed to the river to water, and Stephan urged us to grab our gear, so we could try to cut them off.
We worked through the heavy cover along a side channel of the river, but as we’d learned by now, the wind was anything but consistent, and as I felt a breeze caress the back of my neck, I knew the gig was up. We never heard them run off, but as we looked south, there was a huge dust cloud on the horizon. The buffalo had wasted no time getting out of Dodge. We returned to finish our coffee.
Before we could pack up after coffee, one of the trackers came running and indicated the buffalo were back, so we grabbed our rifles and headed off in their direction. The wind was swirling madly as it did every afternoon, but we had nothing to lose and soon we had managed to sneak right into the middle of the herd. We were surrounded by buffalo, but had only seen two good bulls in the group, and finding them in the heavy cover was going to be nearly impossible. My heart raced as buffalo moved all around us, many less than 15 yards away. It was exhilarating, but it was dangerous, too. If any of the buff took a dislike to us so close, someone was going to get hurt. Dangerous-game hunting is the ultimate adrenaline rush, and it makes otherwise rational people do irrational things. And, being right in the middle of 200 agitated buffalo was about as irrational as it gets.
Suddenly, the wind swirled hard and the buffalo bolted for the open. We followed. It was a mass of black bodies all moving as one, and I struggled to locate one of the bulls but then, as if on cue, the mass separated and a big bull emerged to challenge us. He stood facing us, his head held high in defiance. I asked Vanessa if she had him in the video camera. She did. I slipped the safety forward on the .375 and found the bull’s chest in the crosshairs. It literally felt like time stood still and that I was the only one in motion. I’m sure it was only a second or two, but it seemed to take minutes for the crosshairs to settle. If time did indeed stand still, the report of the .375 put it back in motion. The big bull humped up at the impact of the bullet and ran off with the herd. With so many buffalo running over its track, it was going to be difficult to follow up.
Much to my relief, we found blood in the first 20 yards, a sure sign the bull was badly injured and unable to keep up with the rest. The blood trail was heavy, and within 90 yards we found him down in the trees. A little insurance, and I too had my buffalo.
Time was growing short, and while we had plenty of leopards on bait, there were no big males coming during daylight hours. Stephan suggested we hunt some plains game for more bait for some new areas. I’d had my eye on a Nyassa wildebeest since we’d arrived, and after several botched attempts, I managed to take a nice bull. We wasted no time setting up four new baits, and by the next day three of them had been hit, including one by a nice male leopard, well after sunrise. With only two days remaining in the hunt, we decided to sit the next morning.
This time, however, we made plenty of noise as we approached the blind in the darkness. If the leopard was in the tree, we planned to scare it off, with the hopes it would return later after the Cruiser had left. Sneaking in definitely hadn’t worked earlier in the hunt. We still had about two hours before legal shooting time, but we wanted to be well settled and ready in case the leopard returned in the dark.
The doves had already begun their morning serenade when we heard a bushbuck bark in the riverbed below. It left little doubt in our minds the leopard was near, but as the sun continued to rise in the east, there was no sign of Mr. Spots. It looked as though it was going to be a no-show. Then, like an apparition, he jumped up on the trunk of the tree. I nudged Vanessa to push the record button on the camera. The leopard just stood there still, looking directly at the blind. None of us dared move. I had the rifle barrel supported by a rope but still needed to bring the stock to my shoulder. The leopard leapt up into the tree closer to the bait, but still showed no interest in it. He remained focused on our blind. It was as though he was looking directly into my eyes. Then he turned his head, and I slowly began to raise the rifle to my shoulder. But the leopard looked back, and I stopped. Sweat dripped into my eyes, but I dared not wipe them.
It was nearly five minutes before the leopard turned his head again. I was matching his patience, but my arm was now shaking from being frozen in one position so long. I lifted the rifle up, and found the familiar spot on my shoulder. I’d heard so many tales of missed and wounded leopards that I began to question my ability, despite the crosshairs being locked solidly on the leopard. There was no way I could screw this up, I thought to myself. But then I remembered that chui has a way of making his own rules. My finger tightened on the trigger. The crosshairs never wavered. At the shot, the leopard leaped high in the air and then hit the ground hard on his back. There was no way he was running off after taking that hit with the .375… but he did.
Paddy put his hand on my shoulder but we all knew this wasn’t over until it was over. Stephan radioed the trackers and they quickly showed up, shotguns in hand. There was no celebrating, no congratulations offered. They were all business. They’d all been on wounded leopard tracks and knew the gravity of the situation. I slipped another round in the .375 and we took up the track. The blood trail was massive, and within 20 yards we found the leopard… very dead!
Seasoned African hunters look at you differently when you tell them you’ve hunted Tanzania. Many say that you’ve got to experience real Africa. The truth is, all of Africa is real, it’s just in different states of development or political chaos. Tanzania, however, is raw Africa. While much has changed, much hasn’t. This is a place where things can and often do go wrong. It’s a place where insurance shots are a way of life…preserving life that is. I consider myself blessed to have experienced the Selous. With talk of hydro dams on the Rufiji River and settlements to go with them, it likely won’t be this raw forever. Hunting anywhere in Africa changes you, but hunting Tanzania lets you experience Africa in its most raw and untamed form. I suppose it’s a bit like experiencing old Africa – or at least as old as it can be in the 21st century.
TJ Schwanky is host of Canada’s longest-running television hunting series, Outdoor Quest TV and an award-winning author. He’s hunted on six continents and has been to Africa for 11 safaris, and will be returning again in 2019.
Vanessa Harrop with a great and very hard-earned buffalo
The author with a great bull hippo taken on land