By McKenzie Sims
Departing from my home state of Wyoming on May 15th to start my adventure to the dark continent for yet another great safari and what would be my second hunt for one of the great cats that call Africa home. After a long layover in Dubai, I boarded a plane to Lusaka, Zambia. After clearing my rifles and bags, I loaded on a small commercial flight to Mfuwe. In Mfuwe, I was met at the airport by Lesle Long Sr. A short hour ride in the dark later I was at camp. My friend Mark Peterson and his father had been in camp for the first fourteen days of the season and had already collected an excellent collection of animals. His dad had hunted leopard for the entire fourteen days but had spent most of the hunt waiting for a leopard he wounded in the early days of his safari. Mark was scheduled to fly out on my first day and spent that morning retrieving a bushbuck that got into the thick of thickest them the night before.
Meanwhile I and Ph Jason Stone went out in search of Zebra to get us four solid baits. We found Zebra pretty early in the morning, but it took a little time of playing hide and seek to get a shot finally. We arrived back in camp in time to say goodbye to Mark and his father. After eating a great lunch made with Puku, we loaded up the four big baits provided by the Zebra and headed out to start the baiting process. That first afternoon was consumed with setting baits dragging and traveling to from spot to spot repeating the process. That night I went to bed with thoughts and questions in my head. Would a cat hit that night? Or would we be spending lots of days playing the mental game of checking baits, re dragging, replenishing and setting up new baits? Tomorrow would only tell. Early the next morning we woke up at 5 am, had breakfast, loaded the truck and started our routine of checking baits. We had high hopes that a cat had hit due to the number of cats that had been on baits while Mark’s dad was hunting.
When we arrived at the first bait, it was easy to see from the truck that nothing had hit, so we turned around and made the thirty-minute drive to bait number two. That bait showed the same result no cat. The next two baits would produce the same result. Day one of checking baits we batted 0 and 4. Back at camp for lunch, we started looking for the big bull hippo Jason had picked out for me due to his incredible body size and lumps that hid his tusk and the fact that he would produce up to ten baits for a cat. Since none of the four baits had been hit, we need to start planning to set up more bait that afternoon, and this bull would be perfect! The hippo had other plans. In 18 days of Jason being in camp, this would be the first day that he would not see the bull. Go figure.
After lunch we needed bait, so we went out in search of Impala. After taking an impala and traveling far back in the concession to set up bait number five. We returned to our first baits to re-drag them before dark. As we refreshed our last bait, just as darkness was falling, we could hear the faint but unmistakable call of a leopard in the distant. This was a hopeful sound. But the excitement wasn't over 500 yards down the road from the bait we had a big heard of buffalo cross over in front of us. That was a refreshing sight! I really like seeing buffalo, but not only 100 yards later we had a big male lion walking down the road straight in front of us in the headlights. He turned and bolted off the road. As we passed the spot, he left the road not only him, but another big male stood off the edge of the road. What a way to end day two.
Day three started the same as day two, yet again the first three baits we checked showed no sign of anything feeding. But as we pulled up to bait #4 known as the “lucky tree”, we could instantly see that this bait had been smashed! The entire Zebra leg and back half of the ribs were gone… A cat had hit the bait, but it was the wrong cat, tracks of a lioness around the tree showed that. We had planned to go back to camp to look for the hippo and send the trackers to check the last bait, however, as we drove away from the finished bait not 100 yards down the road laying 50 yards away next to a small lagoon were the two culprits that had enjoyed our leopard bait the night before. After some photos and video back to camp we went. The hippo was there but in the hour and a half of sitting not once did his entire head come out of the water to present a shot. We needed more bait, but this bait was not cooperating. As we sat for lunch and began to discuss going for more bait after lunch, the truck turned from the last bait and Usuf the driver walked into the dining area with two small sticks in his hand indicating the track size of the two cats that had fed one was a big promising cat. We quickly ate lunch drove back to the tree, and Jason inspected the tracks for himself. Jason said it looked like a cat worthy of us sitting for him and we must sit that night. It was already 1pm, and we headed back to camp to gather all the stuff needed to be back in the blind by 3:30. The plan was to get dropped off at the blind get the chairs, and everything set up while the trackers did a re-drag. But we arrived at the bait with the sounds of alarmed baboons just down the creek bed in the treetops. A given indication that a cat was close. We quickly and quietly got off the truck and set up in the blind, and the truck left us in silence. With the baboons still alarming from time to time that gave reassurance that maybe the truck had not spooked the cat but about thirty minutes went by all we could hear were birds and the occasional hippo from back behind at the river. Then the unmistaken grunting from the dark, thick cover beyond the blind pierced the near silence, the calling became louder and louder as the cat moved closer. Then the calling was just behind the base of the tree below our line of sight due to the high bank of the creek. Ten minutes later a cat was in the tree, it was a beautiful cat but wasn't our cat. It was a female she began feeding and fed for what seemed to be hours.
Meanwhile, the male still grunting and calling from the thick brush. Thirty minutes later she turned and vanished out of the tree. Light was starting to fade with only 20 minutes of shooting light, Jason tapped on my knee indicating the large tom we had been waiting for appeared in the tree, without any question Jason put his had on my knee indicating shoot when ready. I wasted no time settled the crosshairs behind the shoulder and squeezed the trigger. The cat fell out of the tree like he had been hit by Mike Tyson himself. It was suddenly silent! Then 10 minutes later Jason called the truck to come in. When the truck arrived, it was already getting very dark. Everyone was on high alert. Jason told me to stay back as they went to look under the tree. Armed with torches & some sort of weapon whether a rifle or a punga from the truck they headed in. Sitting at the truck the 5 seconds of the shot kept playing over and over in my mind. Was the shot as good as it felt? Would the cat be under the tree? The lights stopped moving, there was some faint talking.
Then Jason loudly said, “McKenzie, Come look at your cat!” I quickly scrambled from the truck turned on my phone flashlight due to letting a tracker use my surefire and ran down the bank and across the creek to find all the guys standing in a half circle as Dickson the tracker was drawing the beast of a cat out of a small brushy bluff below the tree. We all high five, hugged and exchanged smiles Dickson and Festo carried the cat across the creek, and we began taking more pictures of the beautiful cat. After a few hundred photos, we loaded the cat and headed back to camp stopping on the final stretch to decorate the truck with tree limbs and toilet paper. The guys also built me a awesome crown out of limbs and toilet paper. Then the singing began and grew louder and louder as we reached camp. The camp staff was already waiting and ready to celebrate! As we celebrated and continued to taking photos well into the night, I couldn't believe how lucky I was to take such a big beautiful cat like this on only day three! We continued the rest of the 14-day safari taking several other great trophies and having the time of my life. I can’t wait to get back over to the dark continent and enjoy everything it has to offer! Until then I will have a short video of this safari on my Youtube channel ( McKenzie Sims ) for anyone that would enjoy watching it.