Time is a luxury on a safari. Time means that you’re relieved from pressure. Time means you can let your leopard baits hang for three, four, five days without gnawing your fingernails down to stubs. Time means you can take a morning to snap some photos of sunrise breaking on the horizon, silhouetting a wonderfully twisted old baobab in orange, red and yellow. Time means you can sip the dawn and nibble the stars, savor the sound of a fish eagle and delight in the bark of a bushbuck.
Even at 21-days as originally scheduled my hunt would have been moving at a fair clip, but not at a frantic pace. We planned to spend the entire time in the Kigosi Game Reserve which is in the far western part of Tanzania in the flood plains formed by the Ugalla, Kigosi, Moyowosi and Malagarasi Rivers.
The area boasts huge herds of buffalo (and where there are buffalo there are lion), plenty of elephant, heaps of leopard and good numbers of topi, kongoni, zebra, waterbuck, reedbuck, sable, roan and my primary goal, a uniquely adapted aquatic antelope called a sitatunga.
Even as I booked this safari two years ago, I debated whether to stay in one area or to transfer halfway through to a second area. I’d guess that half the people who book 21-day safaris transfer areas and half stay in one spot. The advantage to moving areas is that, because Tanzania is such a large country, you can hunt species that are unique to particular parts of the country, such as Thompson and Grant’s gazelles in Masailand, Roosevelt sable in Rungwa or the monster leopard that the Selous is famous for producing.
The downside to moving around is that you never truly settle into one area and if you run into some bad luck, especially on the cats or elephant, you don’t have time to ride it out. In my case, for example, we didn’t connect on the sitatunga until the morning of the 14th day. If we had scheduled to move camps after 10 days, it would have been a problem.
As it turned out, I did move areas after all, but it wasn’t planned. When we were hit with a two-week stretch of freakishly out-of-season rains that dispersed the game like a snow blower in a popcorn factory, my PH, Michel Mantheakis, made a command decision.
“I don’t have a safari booked after yours. If you can re-book your flight home, I’ll give you another week of hunting, no charge,” he said, leaving me stupefied. “I’m not one of these take-your-money PHs who send you on your way after your 21 days are up, telling you, ‘Oh bad luck, old chap, really haven’t seen rain like that ever. Oh well, that’s hunting.’”
“I like hunting with you, Hopkins, so we’ll just keep going,” Michel said with finality.
Now I was rich, wealthy with time. I didn’t mind struggling with the sitatunga— a story unto itself, so stay tuned— and I didn’t mind when the big leopard that had hit a bait near camp never came back to feed again. There would be others. I had time.
We could have had six months and it wouldn’t have made any difference in Kigosi, where the bizarre September rain caused fresh green grass to spout up literally overnight in the miombo woodlands that fringed the flood plains. The game isn’t stupid. It doesn’t choose to feed out on the plains where the lion and leopard have an easy go of hunting. They would much rather feed in the sanctuary of the surrounding woodlands, but with the grass burned and nothing to eat, the plains are the only source of food during the “dry” season.
However, the rain brought forth an early burst of lush green grass and the game hightailed it into the woods. It was obvious we were in a bad situation, so Michel volunteered to move us to Lunda, a new area he had just acquired in the south-central part of the country, adjacent to Ruaha National Park. A previous client who had hunted in Lunda in July had struck out on lion and passed on elephant, so Michel had a lion and an elephant left on his quota for the area. The decision to move was a no-brainer when Michel once again demonstrated his high degree of ethics by refusing to charge me for either the unshot lion or passed-up elephant.
“In a circumstance like this where one hunter either passes up or fails to connect, I’ll glady give it to a guy like you who had bad luck in another area but I won’t resell it. That’s not ethical."
I'll take you along on the hunt in the flood plains and then down to Lunda where the real excitement began. Check African Safari Hunting in the weeks to come for more.