The Niassa Special Reserve is one of the last true wildernesses left to explore in sub Saharan Africa. At 42 000 square kilometres, the potential for adventure is as vast as the area is remote. To put it into perspective it is about the same size as Denmark, and almost twice the size of the state of Massachusetts.
Famous personalities such as Major P. J. Pretorius and German General Paul Von Lettow Vorbeck roamed these areas over a century ago, albeit for different reasons. Von Lettow Vorbeck was pursued by allied forces during the First World War, fighting a brilliant rear guard action and frustrating the British with his tactical genius. Pretorius explored and hunted the Lugenda river after big tuskers and endless adventure. I have hunted this wilderness for 17 years and I have been privileged to explore the same haunts that Pretorius and Von Lettow Vorbeck did. I like to think little has changed since theses nimrods of Africana hunted and fought in the miombo of this area. At the SCI show in 2019, I impressed upon Marcus, a doctor from Nevada, just how authentic the adventure is here and that a safari to this destination is a throwback to yesteryear. It wasn’t long before he decided that we would do a 21 day leopard, double buffalo and plains game hunt out of L7’s Lucinge camp. L7 is the largest area in the Niassa Special Reserve and I have been fortunate to call this concession a second home.
August 2021 saw Marcus and me, along with Andy McDonald our camera man, settled into Lucinge and on the quest to get bait down for the leopard. The first day saw us driving a drainage line in a ‘pantanal’ or ‘vlei’ system looking for a zebra. Around midday, I saw two wet warthogs dash out of an unseen seep and I stopped the car to investigate this unknown water source. I was glad I did. The pond was only about twice the size of a large dinner table, but it was still quite deep and the water of decent quality, despite the warthogs having a good wallow moments earlier. However what immediately grabbed my attention was the big Tom leopard track that was frequenting this waterhole on what seemed a daily basis. The last evenings track was freshly imprinted in the mud at the water’s edge and I called the team over to marvel at our luck at finding a great track. Beyond the waterhole there was a large four leaved Bushwillow, about 5 metres high and with a suitable limb to hang a bait. At the base of this tree and surrounding it, there was ample thick grass and low shrubbery – a perfect stealthy avenue of approach for a hungry cat. I selected a site for the blind about 35 yards away to the west, across the drainage line. I think Marcus was a bit concerned at having the blind so close to the bait, but I assured him that these Niassa cats have not experienced the hunting pressure of their southern African counterparts and that they are normally quite comfortable feeding during the day. The site I chose was nestled up against a stunted grove of palm trees; it would require natural camouflage to satisfy a wary cat’s studious inspection. Our quest for bait now took on a new urgency, and I decided to get an impala into the tree as soon as possible to take advantage of this cat’s nightly visit to drink at this little pond. By days end we had secured an impala ram in the Bushwillow and quietly left the bait site. Bilale, my long time tracker, seemed assured success would be not long in coming.
Day two saw us back on the hunt for more bait and we struck gold in the early afternoon, with Marcus killing a solitary zebra stallion. Our success was compounded on the way back to the skinning shed, when Marcus bowled over a nice fat warthog boar. Our baiting program was in fine form now. Day three saw us hanging 5 baits, strategizing blind placements, trimming shooting lanes and setting trail cameras – essential tasks to securing a quality cat. The ‘Bushwillow’ bait had not been touched; Bilale just smiled in his interminable away and said ‘Espera, ele esta vir’ (wait he is coming)
The morning of day four was clear and cool. We decided to hunt south from camp, down the scenic Lucinge river and check on a bait I had placed the day before in a large Sausage tree that was in full leaf. It’s beautiful, full crimson blossoms hung on pendulous strands. The limb where I had wired the zebra leg was ‘Hemingway-esque’ in its design – a large horizontal branch with a perfect silhouette of the eastern sky. As we rounded the bend on the bumpy two track, we could see the Sausage tree jutting out of the riverine where two dry stream beds converged, and excitedly I could see the coverings of leafy branches had been swatted off the bait. As we coasted to a stop I could see the zebra leg had been hauled up, heavily fed on and left resting on the tree limb. Instructing the team to maintain silence I scampered up the sausage tree, excitement hauling me upwards effortlessly, and retrieved the SD card from the Stealth trail camera. It was an excited hunting party that crowded around the Samsung tablet to discuss the findings in hushed tones. A big mature tom had found the bait and gorged himself on the zebra. He had climbed the tree shortly after dark and had spent a considerable amount of time in the tree feeding on and off until the wee hours of the morning. Exciting stuff, and after double checking our blind placement and that there was no obstructions growing in the shooting lane, we retired to camp to fetch blind building materials and to discuss the evenings potential proceedings. It was still early in the day and I had a nagging feeling that we needed to check the other baits before commencing blind building duties. The first meat we checked on our resumed bait rounds just happened to be the Bushwillow bait, and to our elation we discovered it too had been hit and heavily fed on. The cat had hauled the impala carcass up and made short work of the ribs, crunching through bone. The rump had also disappeared. This cat had an appetite. Again I pulled my best monkey impression and scampered up the tree to retrieve the SD card, hardly believing our good fortune. The Primos camera pictures were a sight for sore eyes. A big Tom had found the bait just that morning and had gone to work on the carcass like a buzz saw. The cats face was scarred up, his ears appearing small on a big, blocky head and he had a noticeable dewlap, a sure sign of age. In the one picture, he was gazing off into the distance, ever alert to his surroundings, his sagging jaws revealing his left canine had broken off and the right was showing considerably wear. What a lovely predicament to be in - to have to choose between two lovely mature cats. However the Bushwillow cat’s overall size, age and worn dentistry made the decision for me. This was an old cat and the one we needed to sit for. Furthermore he was a daylight feeder and had only just found the bait; I was certain he would return. Without a doubt he was still in the vicinity and I hustled everyone back to the land cruiser like a fussing mother hen. On the way back to camp, I explained my choice to Marcus. We had two shooters on bait, but aged trumped all. He agreed and I could sense the excitement in the team bubbling. As we chugged along back for an early lunch and to gather our things, we recapped our day so far. We had checked two baits, both of which had good cats on them, and it was only day four. Who knew what was happening on our other baits? (A lot as it turned out)
We returned at 1300hrs, in the heat of the day to build our blind in silence. The trackers set to work with silent determination, the sweat beading their brows. We had cut bundles of thick, rank thatching grass, bleached a drab brown and yellow in the August winter sun. It grows in profusion in Niassa, and before long our blind looked like just another inconspicuous clump of grass and foliage nestled expertly within the palm grove I had chosen.
Cats in Niassa are prone to feeding in daylight, especially in the winter months. For this reason I had the team quietly ensconced in our grassy ambush hide by 1530hr. Last minute fidgets, scratching and gear rearrangement and then the trackers were on their way leaving us for what we hoped would be a short sit. Time passed slowly. I dozed. Every now and then I slowly lifted my binos and glassed the surrounds of the bait tree, hoping to discover our quarry sneaking in for dinner. As the sun dipped towards the western horizon, ‘magic hour’ arrived, and I could sense Andy and Marcus kick their vigilance into overdrive. I did likewise. As the shadows lengthened and the spurfowls called their last, I strained my ears to listen for any betraying sound. Nothing. Then, in the distance, a heavy sawing and repetitive grunt, echoed through the drainage line. A leopard calling a ways off to our right, further south down the ‘vlei’ system. I wondered if maybe we had been busted and this was the cat signalling his displeasure as he exited the ambush we had laid for him. No sooner had I thought this when, in the half light of dusk, I caught an almost imperceptible movement through my small viewing hole in the blind. Our cat materialised like a wraith on the bait branch as they so often do; suddenly, swiftly and ever so silently. His intent gaze settled on the blind but hovered over us for what seemed a remarkably short scrutiny. Our blind had gone unnoticed. As he padded to the now refreshed bait with the agililty that the species is renowned for, I could see the cat’s testicles sticking out from under his tail. Even without this vital identifier I knew this was our cat. His head was blocky, his ears small and the dewlap which so excited me in the trail camera pictures were all evident. The leopard promptly leant over the branch and started eating. The sound of rustling leaves and his swatting of branches were magnified in the twilight, but that didn’t stop him feeding with gusto. I signalled to the crew to ready themselves and whispered to Marcus to do the deed when the Tom stood broadside and when he had stopped moving. Eventually the cat complied, maybe sensing something was amiss in his surroundings. He looked our way, dipping his head to try better understand what had caught his attention. Marcus did not waste time. At the shot the cat sprung up awkwardly as if electrified, tumbling heavily to the ground. I leapt to my chair and watched the mortally stricken cat over the top of the blind streaking left, burbling frightening growls every time he bounded forward. I lost sight of him as he dashed into a thicket of reeds in the centre of a narrow depression just off the edge of our shooting lane. A fallen down Buffalo thorn had formed a thorny cap over the depression and it was under this timber, amongst the reeds that I lost sight of him. However we could hear his growling and grumbling fading away. Within a minute there was silence. As the landcruiser and trackers pulled up, expectant looks on their faces, excited but whispered banter flowed bank and forth with in the blind. I saw the hit behind the shoulder on the cat and knew that he was done. However, as we exited the blind, caution took command and we edged slowly to where the reeds had swallowed the cat. Our rifle butts were snug in shoulders and Andy’s camera caught every moment. We found him without fuss against the side of the depression, the verdant green of the reeds a stark contrast to his yellow hide and black rosettes. The overhanging buffalo thorn meant it took a bit of (jubilant) work to extricate him but before long we had him stretched out, all 7ft of his spotted golden elegance. He was beautiful, but more importantly he was old. The bridge of his nose and face were scarred up, testament to the many fights he must have endured. When we prised open his maw his teeth were yellow and worn. His lower canines were a shadow of their former razor sharp self. An old cat and the right one to take, I estimated him to be around 8 years old – a fine testament to a fine area.
After the obligatory photos, the drive home was jovial and light hearted. Even the uncharacteristic downpour of rain did nothing to dampen the joy and sense of accomplishment that we felt as we sipped cold 2M beer. The camp staff were waiting for us, excited by our success, dancing in the rain. It will be a scene I will remember for a long time; trackers and skinners singing, clapping and gyrating happily to a song only they knew, whilst the heavens poured down drenching us all.