You rarely get an easy leopard hunt! But there is such a thing as a lucky leopard hunt.
It was one of those weeks...The typical non-stop back-to-back hunting safaris that so many full time Professional Hunters work. It started 10 days ago when I collected the clients in Johannesburg and drove straight through to the Kalahari for lion. A few days later we drove all the way past Johannesburg again to the Lowveldt close to Hoedspruit for hippo, then back just north of Johannesburg for plains game. I then dropped my clients off at Johannesburg late last night, from where I drove all the way to Zululand to spend the night with my friends Jess, Martin and Zirk. I then got up at 4 am and just made it in time to pick my next client up at Richards Bay airport.
But like we do time and time again, I was still smiling and ready for the next adventure - hunting a leopard in my favourite place on earth, Zululand. Unfortunately that was the last time having a 'great adventure' crossed my mind. For practical purposes, I will just call the hunter, Jim. Richards Bay airport is quite small and it was easy identifying my client who was hunting for the next 14 days. Like so many hunters that have hunted the world over, we both realised that each other's hearing is not too good and that we will have to wait to get outside where there is much less noise before we started a proper conversation. We loaded his bag and one big gun case and got in the truck. Jim's first words to me were, "I don't know if we will get our leopard. I have very bad luck with cats", in a tone that will even make Jack Norris cry. And that's how it started. Nothing I could do or say from here on in would cheer him up...that of all things on a leopard hunt!
So now Step 2 of a hunt after your client is settled in, is to take out his rifle and make sure all is still good, his rifle is sighted-in and that he can actually shoot. That's when I realised why Jim had such a big gun case. Out popped the longest, biggest .300 Weatherby Magnum with a monstrous muzzle brake and the biggest scope I have ever seen on a rifle....including my buddy's .50 Cal Browning Sniper rifle. I immediately thought to myself, I hope the farm is big enough to put the blind far enough from the bait so Jim can find the leopard in his scope. Well, I have to admit it was not all bad - the scope was a Night Force scope - a good scope indeed. Unfortunately this particular one was a long distance sniper type, with plenty of round circles in the reticule and very thin lines. Not the ideal scope for leopard hunting in very bad light, I thought. Then Jim took a shot, and to my amazement it hit smack centre in the bull. Not all bad at all, I thought.
Next morning we started hunting leopard hard. The concession holder had pre-baited for me some days before but we needed more meat out there. It did not take us long to find an impala and I put Jim on the sticks. We had some brush between us and the animal but it was so sparse that a hunter could easily pick a huge gap between the bushes and take the animal. But no, Jim could not. We went up, we went down, left, right, up again and back all over moving the shooting sticks all the time. I looked back at my trackers and game scout and they were like statues, eyes wide open as they just could not believe what was happening. I had my fingers in my ears because of that big muzzle brake on the front of the rifle. If Jim said anything to me there I would just not hear him and I was not going to lose the little bit of hearing I had left for an impala, let alone Jim. I then decided that I had to do something and asked Jim if he can find a gap in the brush. He replied, "No, I can't find the animal" and it was pretty much in the open out there at 80 paces away. After a while I realised this impala hunt will just not happen and I took my fingers out of my ears to tell Jim to leave it and we will make another plan, when the rifle went BOOM! Peeeeeeeeeep...I could see Jims lips move but could only hear peeeeeeeeeeeeep. I was not looking at the animal when he shot so I had no idea if he hit it but there was nothing out there, and looking back at the trackers, they just shook their heads. One pointed to the sky, the other held his hands 2 feet apart above each other and I knew...the shot was high, very high! But like the good hunters we are, we went forward looking for blood, because Jim told us repeatedly that he never misses. All we could find was nothing. Jim was now trying to say something else, but all I could hear was peeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep!
Well let's leave it there and just say somewhere along the hunt we did get an nyala and a zebra for bait. Yes, you know you are desperate when you start shooting nyala for bait but that will only happen in Zululand. We all have our favourites to use as bait and I have always had success with zebra. Cats love it and the meat lasts so much longer than most other game. It was now Day 10 and still no cat...nothing. We were grim, especially with Jim being such a positive fellow. It now got to the point where he would not even join me in the mornings to check baits. However, I preferred it that way, as at least I could try and keep myself positive. Day 10 still and one of the pre-baits from way back was hit. Hit is actually an understatement as the whole impala was gone! Not dragged away, but eaten to nothing. It looked good. I immediately put up my blind and hung a piece of the nyala that we had left.
I really wanted to get Jim a leopard, probably just to show him that being positive counts for something. But I was not too sure about this cat. I did not chose the site and to say the least, it was smack in the centre of a jungle. So unless that cat fell straight out the tree dead, it was going to be a nightmare for me to find him, let alone if he is wounded. Jim told me he can't sit for long and that by 18:00 he wanted to be out the blind. I was hoping to stay until at least 21:00. So I begged and pleaded until he agreed on 19:00. To be honest we could have just as well left at 17:30 because as soon as it started getting dark, Jim started to move about making noise. That cat never came back.
The next day I could see that Jim had given up on his leopard. This was his 4th trip to Africa for a leopard and he just believed he would never get one. Then a piece of zebra bait got hit on the night of Day 12. Now I have to use the word "hit" very carefully here. Maybe I should just say a leopard had visited the bait. There were fresh scratches on the tree and to me it looked like a genet had taken a bite out of the bait. However, the track in the sand said it was a big cat. I immediately started putting my blind up and removed any other baits in the area. Luckily we did that as the next bait down the river had the same happening to it. The cat was obviously not hungry but was marking his area. He had to be back tonight I thought. I made a point out of telling all the staff that in no way is Jim allowed to go close to the bait. I just knew if he saw how little was eaten he will not sit that night. The distance was 40 paces to the tree and I made Jim shoot at that distance just to double check his rifle. It was all good. What happened next I will describe and explain the best I can in the finest details. You might think, as most my friends told me later that night, "Jason don't lie to us, it cannot be true".
We were in the blind by 15:00 and the staff were told that once they hear a shot they must come with the truck. If nothing happens, we would walk out to them. So with 2 hunting days left, we were set and all was ready for the cat. All the leopard needed to do now was to come to dinner. One thing is for sure about leopard, you never see them approaching a bait...they just appear. Not this cat. It was about a full hour before dark 16:30 when I saw him in the back left of the tree coming through the grass, right in the open with the sun shining full on his golden coat. It was a sight to behold and I will never forget it. I now very gently tapped on Jim's leg pointing with my head, saying he is on his way and get ready. Then he was suddenly in front of the tree. I was planning for Jim to only shoot once he was in the tree but he just stood there broadside in front of the tree. Jim said he can take him. Why not, I thought and told him to take him. Of course I put my fingers tightly in my ears and the rifle went boom.
I was focussed on the cat at the shot. Believe it or not, he did not even move with the shot. He just calmly looked into the distance in the direction the bullet had gone and then looked back at us, as Jim was now frantically reloading his rifle. The leopard then walked off the way he came in. Jim just lowered his head into his hands. I pride myself on being a very professional, Professional Hunter and calmly told him, "Don't worry, it happens" while suppressing the urge to beat, strangle or drown anyone, crying and screaming. All Jim said was, "I used the wrong circle" and that's when I realised that the whole reticule is covered in circles for distance and windage. He used the first circle he saw and likely shot over the cat and did not wound him. I now heard the vehicle in the distance coming down the hill. They had heard the shot and were coming to fetch us as they were told. I now started scratching in my backpack looking for my cell phone, found it and switched it on. It all felt like it was taking forever. I quickly phoned the driver but his phone was busy. He was phoning the concession holder to tell him the good news. I could see the truck when he finally answered his phone. I told him to go back as the shot missed the leopard. His complete surprise and disappointment was obvious even on the phone. Fully in sight of us and the bait, the truck turned around and drove off.
Jim was now on even better behaviour than before, asking me what we were going to do now. The surprise on his face was quite something when I told him we were waiting for the cat to come back. "There is no way that cat will ever come back" he told me. Knowing I can't argue with this man, I just pointed out that we only have today and tomorrow left. What can we lose by trying? So we waited, and I would love to say, we waited again but we did not. No, unbelievably, by 17:00, thirty minutes after his first approach, I could see the leopard again, in the open, approaching the bait. This time though, he was not as confident as before. This time he ducked to the left and disappeared. I thought, that is it, he is gone after just coming to see what it was that disturbed him before.
Then 7 paces from the blind in the open, he leisurely walked past. I did not want to point him out to Jim as I knew the excitement would be to much for him. But how do you hide a full grown leopard in the open, 7 paces from anyone? As Jim saw the cat he did what I feared he would. He took his rifle and pointed it at the cat. This movement caused the cat immediately to see the huge rifle with it massive muzzle brake basically right next to his face. With that, the leopard immediately crouched down facing us. I was now trying in the best possible way to indicate to Jim to keep still. However, he was in his own world, moving the barrel all over the place looking for the cat at 7 paces with a sniper rifle scope. Luckily for Jim, I'm not a valiant person. Now every time the barrel moved, kitty quickly moved a step or two closer, all the time being flat on his belly, like a house cat playing with a hand in a blanket. At 3 paces our full grown leopard crouched down even more, pulling his feet in under him, making ready to pounce on the thing in front of him. That was when I grabbed Jim with all the strength in me and held him still! One hand on the rifle, the other on Jim. With that he looked past his scope and had such a fright, seeing the cat for the first time since he started playing 'let's find kitty' in a sniper scope.
All movements stopped, I could feel the sweat running down my face with the intense waiting to see what the cat might do next. If he jumped, we were in some serious trouble as my .458 Lott was behind me, not that there would be time to do anything else in any case. Now that is what you call an intense close moment for us. Not just because of the leopard being nearly in our laps but mainly for me being basically on Jim's lap. Man, was I glad we did not have a videographer with us. We would have made Romeo and Juliet look bad in our love grip. Anyway, then the cat just stood up and walked right past me to the back of the blind, giving me a second to let go of my new 'love' and get back on my seat. I could hear the leopard lie down with a thud, right there next to me but I could not see him. For the next 10 hours or 10 minutes, I'm not sure which, there was only the chattering of little birds not being happy with the cat's presence. I did not move a muscle. Then it got dark and very quiet. Eventually I gathered enough courage to move and pick my binoculars up to look at the bait as it was too dark now to see with the naked eye. It took me some time to adjust my eyes to the dark and find what I believed to be the bait. It's all one can do in the dark - pick your spot and keep it there hoping to pick up some type of movement. I was actually telling myself that when there was a movement in my binoculars. I remember saying to myself, "What? No! Yes! Can you believe it, something is moving out there on the bait. I got Jim's attention again and told him to get ready as I'm going to switch the light on. Once he was ready, I switched on the light and lo and behold, right on top of the bait the leopard was standing facing us. I could see it was the same cat and told Jim to take him. "OK, take him", "...take him", "...Jim, he is not going to be there for ever", "...take him" and all I could see out of the corner of my eye was Jim moving about - head forward, back, up and down. Jim was saying, "I can only see spots". Me replying, "Jim, it's a leopard, they are full of spots". Then the cat was out of the tree. Gone!
I was now praying for strength...strength to control my anger, disappointment and the shaking. Jim, was trying to say something when I told him to "shuuuuut it!" It was because I knew the cat was still somewhere about but mainly, the less Jim did or said, the better for him. I had never been in this type of situation before and did not know how it would turn out for both of us. It was a Crested Francolin to my left that gave the cat's movements away. He was again making his loop trying to find out what was going on. It did not take me long to calm down and whisper to Jim that the cat is still close by. Let's see, maybe he will come back.
"What's that?" Jim asked. I heard it at the same time he did. I told Jim "It's meat being torn. Let's wait a bit and get him to settle before we make a move". "OK" he said. All the past forgotten, the hunters are a team again. It's instinct - that's what we do. Once I could hear he was eating properly I told Jim to be ready then switched the light on. Now I'm not going to go into what happened next. All I can say is, you can believe it or not, as I still don't believe it and I was there. Exactly the same happened as before - the cat leaving the tree. I had just switched the light off when Jim said, "No, keep it on. I need to try and figure this out." Well I thought, what the hell and switched it back on. "I just can't see which spot to use" Jim said. By now I had had enough and stood up. I told Jim to hold the light on the bait and I looked through his scope. There in the scope all I could see was circles and more circles. No matter what I tried, I could not see a cross in a circle. Then it became obvious to me that this scope was definitely not designed for leopard hunting. Everything forgotten now, I was just glad Jim did not just take another shot not knowing which circle to use.
It was our second to last night and we had only one thing left to do. We gathered our gear and walked out of there. I never told the staff what had happened as I did not think they would be too happy about it. Next morning I took out my .375 H&H Winchester with its 1.5-5 Leopold scope and had Jim take a shot with it. It was still spot on. Then back to the blind by 15:00. But what were our chances? After four chances the night before, I did not know and I did not care - this was our very last chance. When we got there we could see that he had come back the night before after we had left. How bizarre. I had a bit more confidence now but this time it was just plain simple, the cat won't behave the same. Just before sunset a hyena came in and decided to lay down under the bait. I knew the cat wouldn't come in easily, being scared of the hyenas. Then as darkness fell, more and more hyenas came in. How he did it, I don't know, but the next minute I could see movement on the bait and the leopard was there.
After a while I told Jim to be ready and switched on the light. There was our cat! Same place, same spot, looking at us. All I said was "Yes!" and the rifle went boom...followed by a thud. The best sound for a Professional Hunter in a leopard blind - that thud. I could see the cat lying dead under the tree from the blind and gave it a couple of minutes before walking up to it to make sure it was dead. Jim joined me when the truck arrived with the trackers.
I know this will never happen again. Even sitting here writing this story I had to just sit back and shake my head. I had to double check the notes I had made on the night it happened to confirm that that cat actually did come back four times. If I had not taken notes that night I would probably not have believed myself. It really did happen and for that I am grateful, for it is another memory that will last a lifetime.