When the Hunter Becomes the Hunted

 by Lavon Winkler 

Over my right shoulder, I heard Casper’s urgent voice: “You must shoot now.” Simultaneously out of the corner of my eye, I saw Manuel drop to one knee and position his .416 Rigby for a back-up shot. After seven hours and five miles of tracking on foot, the lioness had stopped and crouched to pounce, with only a two-second gap between us. She had made it clear she’d had enough, and was ready to face me and end the pursuit one way or another – it was time for the hunter to become the hunted.

This safari in May 2015 was my second.  The previous year I had “cut my safari teeth” with a plains-game hunt to Northern Limpopo, South Africa where I took nine animals.  It was then I met and hunted with PH Manuel Van Rooyen of MVR Pro Hunt (mvrprohunt.com), a true professional in all aspects.  All of my hunting was with him, a great teacher who always kept my best interests and hunting abilities at the forefront of his instruction.  I knew I would return to hunt with Manuel again.

As with many hunts, the planning took months, my thoughts running in so many different directions, from anxiety to excited anticipation.  Finally the day of departure arrived, and as I boarded the plane in Kansas City, Missouri I thought, “Wow, I am actually going to Africa to hunt a lion.”

The flight gave me much time to think, reflect, and, dream. When one dreams of that special hunt, many different scenarios, situations, and endings are imagined.  Like so many who travel to Africa to hunt, I most hoped for the chance to have a challenging and exciting experience that would test my hunting skills and provide a lifetime of memories.   In the end, I received so much more.

The hunt began in the North West Province, close to Ventersdorp, hunting the wide-open plains for springbok and black wildebeest.  Manuel decided it was extremely important that first I made the time zone adjustment and hunt a couple of animals with my new Browning X-Bolt Medallion .375 H&H.  We then traveled to the lion camp near Zeerust, in the Marico valley, also in the North West Province and about 60km from Gaborone and the Botswana border.

As we arrived at Pamaenons (the combined Afrikaans words for “mom, dad, and all of us”) we were warmly greeted by PH Casper van der Merwe and his wife Anika who are part owners and operators of the family-owned lion concession, and I knew immediately this would be a very special experience.  After settling in, we had a quaint and wonderful dinner filled with stories of lion hunts of the past.

One was about a lioness that charged the hunter. She’d been tracked for several hours, and the hunter shot the animal at 10 meters as she charged.  It was then I was asked if I had ever seen a lion in the wild.  “I have only seen lions in zoos,” I answered. There was a moment of awkward silence. Then I was assured the team would work diligently to keep everyone safe, and the conversation quickly moved to other topics!

After dinner we retired to our sleeping quarters.  At 3.00 a.m., as I lay in bed staring at the ceiling in the darkness, I heard a lion roaring in the distance.  In some disbelief I thought, “I am actually in South Africa and will hunt a lioness in few hours,” and the reality began to register.

After breakfast Casper explained the hunting approach we would use – find relatively fresh lioness spoor and then stalk her on foot.  We headed quickly to the bush and started driving the roads looking for fresh spoor.  After about an hour we found our first clue, relatively new lioness tracks.  It was soon obvious the tracking would be difficult.  Due to four years of drought there was very little grass, and the density of the bush varied greatly with sight distances from two to 100 yards – mostly nearer the former.  To add to the challenge, in many areas the ground was exceedingly hard and in parts, rocky.

With two PHs and two trackers, the morning was filled with finding, losing, and finding the track again.  It was a slow and tedious process.  Because some tracks were overprinted by other animals, we felt certain the lioness was a considerable distance ahead.   Assuming she had not detected our pursuit, we expected to close the gap as she rested in the mid-day heat.  Around noon we took a quick break for lunch.  The good news was we were certain we were following a fresh track.  The not so good news was it appeared the lioness was headed into the extremely thick bush and possibly over the mountain.  This could result in losing the track and perhaps starting from the beginning.

After lunch, as we continued to track, we began to suspect she was now aware of our pursuit.  As we feared, she had headed into the dense rocky bush on the side of the mountain.  Early afternoon we found ourselves cautiously working our way through the tall, thick bush with visibility less than two yards. This made everyone very nervous as we were now certain she knew we were near. Our main concern now was she could easily wait to ambush, and we would have no warning.  It was then I wondered if the hunted would become the hunter – us being the prey.  We called for a vehicle and drove a short distance to the mountaintop so we could have a better and safer view of the bush, and the trackers soon caught a glimpse of the cat.  She had crossed the mountain and gone down the other side.

Not wanting to lose her, Casper radioed two other trackers and sent them to stay with the track where the lioness had been spotted, and we would quickly follow.  When we caught up with the second pair of trackers, they pointed to where she had entered the heavy bush.  It was at that moment I caught my first glimpse of the big cat.  At 50 yards I saw her hindquarters and tail for just an instant as she disappeared into the thick bush.  We were no longer just following footprints in the soil – this was for real. A lioness hunt, and we were closing the gap on our prey.

The pace of the track quickened.  After 200 yards of brisk tracking we heard her disapproval.   Two quick roars echoed through the bush, and Manuel turned to me with a piece of firm counsel: “No matter what happens from this point on, do not run.”  My nervous smile made him repeat the command: “Do not run.”

It was at this point I could feel my pulse accelerate, but we did not break stride as we worked to close the separation between the hunter and the hunted.  I imagined when we would see her again and what might happen.

We continued to track briskly, checking the spoor and looking ahead.  It was at that moment we rounded some dense bushes, looked up from the track, and there she stood on a natural mound some 40 yards away.  She was quartering away, but immediately turned toward us and lowered her body and chin to the ground, as if to prepare to pounce.  Quickly Casper set up the sticks, and I immediately positioned my rifle for the shot.

This next moment I will never forget.  As I lowered my head to the stock and peered through the scope, her amber eyes fixed on me with amazing intensity.  She then roared loudly with unmistakable disapproval, and hissed.  Clearly she’d had enough and was ready to settle this now.

Certain a charge was imminent, Manuel lowered to one knee and set his .416 Rigby dead on the cat for a back-up shot.  Casper urged, “Shoot!” But there was a problem.  With her being up on the mound, her chin on the ground, she was at my eye level and there was no frontal shot.  There was very little of her body showing. “Shoot just left of her right cheek,” Casper instructed. The bullet should enter on her right front and carry through to her left hindquarter.  I steadied the rifle, found the target spot, and pulled the trigger.  The .375 H&H hit the precise point intended, and the cat rolled, tossed, growled, and rolled again off the back of the mound and out of sight.  Then silence.

While there was some celebration of a well-placed shot and confidence that the animal was ours, Casper said an insurance shot would be necessary.  Rather than walk straight to the mound and peek around the corner, we circled around so we could observe from a safe distance of 45 yards.  When we spotted her, to my disbelief, she was again in a prone position hiding under a bush.  She was ready to pounce.  The only angle that provided adequate visibility resulted in the same difficult shot, only into the opposite front quarter.  I went down on the sticks and placed the second Hornady Dangerous Game DGX 300-grain bullet right past her cheek and into her neck.  The battle was over.

With relief, I spent some time alone giving thanks for the life of this great cat, then we rolled her over to inspect the result of the first shot.  To our surprise, the bullet had entered at the intended point but had hit a bone and exited on the same side without hitting the vitals.  While it was less than an ideal shooting situation, the threat of a likely charge had forced me to alter.  It seems in hunting we rarely have the perfect situation, and most of the time the hunter must adapt and adjust to a multitude of variables.  This hunt was no different.

When I planned this safari, my wife, Lora, asked why I would want to hunt such a dangerous animal.  I told her that after fifty years of hunting, I wanted to hunt an animal that could hunt me back.  That wish came true, as I will never forget when I looked through the scope into the lioness’s angry eyes and realized that, at that moment, the hunter had become the hunted.

Hunter Biography – Lavon Winkler

Lavon Winkler loves the outdoors and the challenges of hunting and fishing for a variety of species mostly in North America.  Lavon started hunting at age 10 with his dad and brother.  While most of his hunting has been for small game and whitetail deer in the Midwest, he developed a passion for hunting the broad variety of animal species in South Africa.   In two safaris, he achieved the SCI “African 15” Continental Award and has ten entries in the SCI Record Book, including a Gold Level Sable.

After seven hours and five miles of tracking on foot, PH Casper van der Merwe, PH Manuel van Rooyen, and hunter Lavon Winkler celebrate with a mature lioness taken in the North West Province of South Africa.

PH Manuel van Rooyen of MVR Pro Hunt and hunter Lavon Winkler relied on a Browning X-Bolt 375 H&H with a 300-gr Hornady DGX to stop the angry lion at 40 yards.

In addition to the lioness, PH Manuel van Rooyen and Lavon Winkler pursued several plains game and were successful in taking this beautiful nyala in the Limpopo Province of South Africa.

Another high point in Lavon Winkler’s safari was this 44” sable also taken with the dependable .375 H&H cartridge.  While hunting in northern Limpopo, other mature sable were passed before finding this majestic animal.