by Hannes Wessels
Shaun Reeve sat in the blind, huddled against the cold night air. Fourteen hard days and long nights had taken their toll. The lion had drained him, he was tired and he slept lightly. Next to him sat Juan his Spanish client. The air was thick with the fetid stench of rotting hippo meat. Suddenly Juan shook his hunter’s shoulder.
“They’re here,” he hissed.
The Luangwa Valley was not new to Shaun. Born in central Zambia at a mission-station in the bush, son of the late Tom Reeve, respected farmer and avid hunter he’d been stalking game in the Valley since he was a boy. His first buffalo was bagged having just turned 16. Now 20 years on he needed all his experience to bring his quarry to bear.
“My client had been led to believe shooting a lion in the Luangwa was going to be easy,” he recalls. “We’d shot a big leopard earlier which had pleased him but lion was his priority and he wanted to get home soon as possible. The pressure to produce the goods was really on me.
“The lion we were after was well known for his aggression in the area and he’d been scaring the hell out of the game-scouts for a while. On a couple of occasions he’d stalked their camp at night while they sat around the fire forcing them to shoot in self-defense. They were very anxious that we get him.
“I too had had several close-encounters with him and he made no secret of the fact we were not welcome in his territory. On one occasion while sitting in the blind he must have known we were there because he waited for the moon to rise, came close and growled giving us quite a fright.
“Carousing with a female, most days we picked up their tracks near the little lagoons along the Carimberi River so we knew their moves but much of the activity was in the dense combretum thickets making hunting in there hard and dangerous.
“Not helping us was the fact the cat was busy with his girl-friend and passion was higher on his list than eating so the pair were coming very close to the bait on a regular basis but not feeding. Frustration setting in, I nearly managed to offer Juan a shot on one occasion as the cat moved near the meat but that time of year the grass being long, the target was obscured and I decided against it.
“When, after all the disappointments, Juan shook my shoulder I snapped awake, instantly saw the silhouettes ahead and knew it was them. They had come from behind us and while the male held back the female was tucking in to the meat with gusto. Juan, understandably, was very excited. I told him to calm down and wait for the light to improve with the sunrise. Throughout the hunt I’d been bringing my scoped 30.06 to the blind to supplement my .404 and give me a long-range back-up option. This time I’d left it at camp and cursed myself.
“The horizon started to glow red and as the light arrived so did the lion present itself to us perfectly side-on. I told Juan to shoot. I watched him take aim. The crack was followed by a thud, the bullet hit, the lion cramped, bolted upwards then hit the ground head-first thrashing in a swirl of dust and debris while bellowing blue-murder. I told Juan to shoot again but he fumbled, missed the chance to hit him again on the ground and loosed one off as the animal disappeared from view. Open sights on my .404 I didn’t have much of a chance. As fast as it happened it was all over. We sat and listened. Suddenly all quiet then the female growled angrily nearby. Clearly she was not impressed.
“Approaching the bait carefully I was cheered to see there was a large pool of blood but being a dark almost brownish red I was alert to the realities and aware I may well have a very angry wounded lion on my hands. We decided to light a fire, have a smoke and wait a while. Again we heard the female and knew she was not far away. Looking out at the thicket it took on a very threatening look.
“Hoping, if not dead he’d had time to stiffen we set off after 30 minutes and followed the blood trail but the vegetation was extremely dense and every step was taken after great deliberation. Perfect country for the lion to hide I knew if he had some fight in him I was in trouble. I was also worried about the angry female who kept calling her mate and snarling when we closed. About 90 nerve-wracking minutes later I saw a clearing ahead and bet on the pair moving through it giving me a clear shot so we waited again. Listening for the guinea-fowl, waiting for their chattering to go quiet we heard the lioness move out the thicket and hoping the male was following we slunk closer.
“Creeping carefully, I heard what I thought was the slightest sigh, sensed it was the lion and turned to the trackers who have such excellent hearing but they signaled they had heard nothing. Unconvinced, I took several careful steps forward then there was a beige blur and I saw yellow eyes that were for me only as this huge mass of muscle, hair and bone launched itself at me from behind a bush. The client fired then a split-second before he hit me I shot him in the chest but teeth bared, claws outstretched he was on me smashing into my torso breaking my ribs. Amazingly, despite his size, weight and forward energy I managed to keep my footing but then, poised on his hind-legs he had my left arm in his jaws and in one incredible bite he tore into my arm and shoulder clamping the two together as his jaws slammed shut just below my neck. Bone crunched, flesh tore while I tried frantically to hit him on the head and gouge his eyes with my other hand but it had absolutely no effect and I felt I was on my way to the happy hunting grounds in the sky when his body sagged. My raking shot taking its toll, he loosed his grip while I rammed my injured hand into his mouth to let him gnaw, keeping the jaws away from my neck and head. But thankfully he was dying and I collapsed backwards with him smothering me when my trackers ran in, grabbed my ankles and wrenched me out from under him before they went at him with their axes and hacked him to death.
“Soaked in saliva, trying to gather my wits I was immediately despondent about my future when I looked at the volume of blood pumping out the wounds and thought I would surely bleed to death. With the shoulder muscle torn away my carotid artery could be seen pumping blood to my brain. The cat’s canines had missed inflicting virtually instant death by a slither.
“Suddenly worried about the female I reached for my weapon but quickly realized I was incapacitated. Looking at my hand I was a little taken aback to see my thumb hanging by a thread of skin, the bone sliced through clean as if cut by a razor. The stench from the saliva was sickening. Needing to raise the alarm I spoke to my group about getting help but got quite a shock when the entire entourage suddenly moved to charge off for the vehicle leaving me to fend for myself alone with the female growling nearby. I told my tracker to stay with me and the rest ran off to the car.
“Knowing where the vehicle would have to cross a muddy river-bed I came painfully to my feet and walked slowly to meet them. Arriving at the pick-up point I was gutted when I saw that in trying to cross, the Cruiser was bogged down in the mire and well and truly stuck. Overwhelmed with a sense of despair, I looked at all the blood pumping out and sat down. Suddenly it struck me that events suggested I was going to die and I let my mind wander into the unknown while giving thought to what I should do in my final moments. On reflection, realizing I needed to rise to the challenges I bucked myself up and gave myself 20 minutes. If I lived another 20 I decided I would make it. While the crew heaved and pushed the car I looked on hopefully. Glancing at my watch twenty minutes later I was struck with renewed resolve, picked myself up and staggered forward but made little distance. Feeling faint and weak I sat again and waited. My spirits soared when finally the vehicle was out and coming towards me The trackers made an impromptu bed of grass in the back upon which I lay and prepared for my trip to camp.
“This would prove to be a new ordeal. My driver, a new fellow on his first bush-trip ever was in worse shock than me and shaking so badly I asked Juan to drive. Having never driven in the bush before he struggled to control the car and we were all over the place careening into trees, on and off the road and into bushes while every bump and jolt sent waves of excruciating pain shooting though my rib-cage. In terrible agony I despaired and told my driver to take the wheel but he was no better and it was with a huge dollop of luck we ran into my brother in law hunting buffalo. After getting over the surprise of seeing me in such a state he leaped into the driver’s seat and took us back to camp.
“On our return we immediately radioed Lusaka and at 1.30 p.m. a King Air landed with my pal Bill, an excellent local medic aboard who quickly killed the pain with morphine before opening saline drips and soaking my wounds. Back in Lusaka we waited for a Lear-Jet from Johannesburg which duly arrived and that night I was in theatre for a four-hour operation which I was told was little more than a thorough cleansing procedure to get rid of as much bacteria as possible while they filled me up with antibiotics. The wounds were left open and two days later I was back in for another session followed soon after by a third when they cut the rotten flesh away and inserted over 200 stitches.
“Feeling human again I was advised not to tell the nursing-staff the exact nature of my business. All were very anti-hunting so I told them I had been darting lions for translocation and this seemed to be well received. There were smiles all round.”
His thumb reattached Shaun is back on his farm in Mazabuka with almost full use of arm and hand. He’s dug deep and bought himself a .500.