Dark Nights in the Kopje

By Joseph Crawford

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Zimbabwe: 2021

A DreamWorks storyline is the best way to describe this Midwestern kid’s hunting fantasies while lying back, reading a book,and picturing himself in the jungle, spotting and stalking the great cats of the world.  Sixty years later, the clouds clear – and finding spoor, hanging baits, building hides and crafting a plan with your PH is just as you pictured it.

I had made four previous trips to the Dark Continent without feline success – a few mistakes, bad luck and no excuses. My cat was rekindled when I saw my buddy’s massive leopard and heard his recommendation of outfitter Martin Pieters… “If you have the bug to kill a big leopard, then he is your guy.” So, after speaking to Martin I was hooked and ready to jump on a plane. Unfortunately, family obligations, a full surgery schedule, and then the Pandemic led to a frustrating two-year delay.

By the end of August 2021, I was invited, ticketed, COVID-vaccinated and tested, licensed, permitted and packed. I decided to take two rifles, my .416 REM and my .300 RUM with TSX and Accubond bullets. With a kiss for good luck and safety, my wife dropped me off, and I was on my way to Zimbabwe.

A day later, I stepped off the plane in Johannesburg to be greeted by representatives of the Afton Lodge where I would spend the night prior to leaving for Bulawayo. I was ready for the usual guns, ammo, license song-and-dance delay, but everything went as smooth as silk. Preparation and familiarity that the lodge’s personnel had with the people and processes at the Weapons Control made all the difference, and literally 40 minutes after landing, we were headed for the lodge and a cold beer. After the previous five African hunts, and 23 hours of flying on this one, I appreciated the efficiency. The lodge was full of hunters going on all sorts of hunts. Over drinks and dinner, we all shared opinions, stories and exaggerations. Slept soundly in a warm comfortable bed and woke ready to fly. A hearty breakfast and the mandatory two cups of Java and we were off to the airport. The staff’s previous bureaucratic efficiency was repeated, and I was soon in the air to Bulawayo.

At the Bulawayo airport all the permits and licensing paperwork was completed by hand with stenciled copies. With a quick thank you and gratuity given, I was off to meet Martin. We loaded up the truck, grabbed a soda for the five-hour drive to the Matetsi 5 hunting area which was near Hwange, south of Vic Falls. During the drive Martin said that there were several good leopards he had on camera, but there was one huge old wily cat that they had been hunting since April that was elusive and challenging. That was my boy, I thought.  Ah, ignorant bravado.

We pulled into camp and met the staff, and early next morning after a quick breakfast went out collecting baits. Our truck team was the best I had ever had. Stevie and London came from the same Batonga tribe and had hunted with Martin for many years. Stevie drove, tracked, hung bait and whatever was needed. Although African trackers are world-class, London’s eyesight, tracking and instincts were other-worldly. Daniel was our Appy PH who was to take his licensing exam at the end of my hunt, and our friendly game scout was Miriam.

Over the next four days we collected and hung baits of impala, waterbuck and zebra, and found leopard tracks. Cameras showed a large leopard on a bait at sunset, and we built a good hide in expectation, only to have to abandon it when two lionesses spoiled the spot.

On Day 5 we headed to a bait on an old riverbed ravine where our cagy old cat had been in previous months. He was on camera! A large cat with bite marks on his ears and face, he was obviously the king in the area, as no other leopards ever appeared on this camera. The only problem was his timing: he never got to the tree before 8:30 at night and was gone by first light in the morning. As leopard hunting in this area is daytime only, we would need make him get there earlier or stay later. Big task. But deciphering the why, when and how is what separated normal PHs from “cat guys”.  We rebaited the tree, taking into account his probable travel routes and the prevailing morning and evening winds, and built a blind 66 yards away (complete with gun rest). We cleared grass from our approach to the blind, removing stubble, thorn bushes and the innumerable rocks and stones right down to the dirt so we could walk on “silent cat’s paws.”  After 150 yards of clearing the carpet, we were left in an undulating ravine filled with rocks which were covered by dead grass and deadfall. Martin said we were taking no chances, and needed a route which would be another 1500 yards to the truck path.

Then the bombshell hit: We would probably have to kill him at first light, and enter the blind at night without flashlights! Now what! I immediately was worried. I had already fallen twice while stalking  and retrieving baits, and twisted my left knee and needed sutures on the right one to stop bleeding and prevent infection… I did not want to have to call Global Rescue to extricate me from something worse! So the idea of silently creeping in coalmine darkness uphill and downhill, over rocks covered by grass and deadfall, to approach a fearless member of the Big Five on his own turf was intimidating to say the least. But, as the 17th Century proverb states, “To win without risk is akin to triumph without glory”.

We soldiered on and cleared a path as best we could, tying the occasional strip of toilet paper as a trail marker, finally making it to the truck for more bait collection. That’s when Lady Luck smiled on us: there, on the side of the truck path, London pointed to a set of large leopard prints heading directly to our bait, which was now two kilometers away!  An intense discussion in Shona then ensued to confirm that indeed this was our mbada maguro and his range was much larger than we thought. Maybe 20 kilometers. The consensus of expert was that he had a very large territory which he traveled long distances to protect and get to our bait. This explained why he got there late, spent the day close by in the shade, and fed in the evening prior to returning to inspect the rest of the territory at night.

After a quick lunch, Martin decided we would sit in the blind for the evening hunt. He doubted we would see the cat in legal shooting light, but we would be able to confirm our setup, check the winds, and familiarize ourselves with my Death March trail to and from the hide. As predicted, we saw no activity that evening at the bait, and in darkness we left silently, squinting to see the path and trail markers, me backed up very close to Martin. Back at camp, Martin felt that the cat had been close by and if we were going to get a shot, our best shot was in the morning. So, a quick dinner, and then to bed for an early 2:15 wake-up.

Our morning was exciting as we heard the unmistakable sounds of crunching bones and tearing flesh, but could see nothing. Checking the trail cam, it showed that the leopard had fed at nine the previous night and at 4:45 that morning! We were in the right place, with the right cat. Now all we needed was for him to accept the invitation to dine at the right time.

Now, new plans and adjustments were needed. Morning would be our best bet, with fresh bait to entice him and to stay long enough to feed. That meant a new zebra bait to be hung early and no evening hunt. We would have a maximum hunt window of 10-15 minutes and that meant a change of guns. I loved the .300 but it had no red-light shooting dot, and with this low light I could not guarantee that my 67-year-old eyes could see the reticle lines. So it had to be the .416 with a bigger bullet and less shock impact than the Accubond, but with better targeting in low light – just another thing to be concerned about. So, back to camp and dinner, and a fitful night of semi-sleep.

In the early morning, we quietly left the truck in the pitch black, 2.5 km from the hide, and kept on the trail without mishap. Fifteen meters from the back of the hide, Martin froze, finger to his ear and then to the bait where we both realized the leopard was feeding! As we tried to enter the blind as noiselessly as possible, our prey must have heard us, as all eating sounds ceased from the bait site. Total quiet.  Motionless for seemly endless minutes, we waited. I wished I could meditate better: slower breathing, muscle relaxation, clearing the mind, immersing myself in the moment of the hunt. With dawn starting to lighten the night sky, we again heard the crunching of bones at the bait site. Martin leaned forward to peer through his binos as I kept low and prayed that the cat would want to eat slowly to allow for legal light. Minutes passed and suddenly I felt the pre-arranged tap on my leg and I was gestured forward to take aim.

Sometimes things happen that you can’t explain. No matter how much preparation and practice you have, shit happens. As I leaned forward to grasp the stock and forend of the .416, the front right leg of the plastic chair broke, pushing the gun off the rest, sending me into the side of the hide, only to be saved by the sutured right knee. The look on Martin’s face was priceless as we remained motionless in the hide. Suddenly we heard more crunching of bones! The cat must have thought it was some startled bushbuck or other game and continued eating. I leant forward, and balancing on three legs of the chair and my knee, took aim. Sure enough, I couldn’t see the reticle lines, but the red dot found its spot on the crouching leopard’s front leg crease. Clearly, he was ready to exit, and this was the shot I would have to make. Sometimes being old has its advantages: Sixty years of hunts train muscle memory, and the .416 goes off, surprising me.

The leopard leapt out of the tree and was gone. We maintained the prearranged silence to determine the condition, direction and distance of the cat. After 30 seconds, “Did you like the shot?” Martin whispered. My cocky affirmative had him out of the blind in a nanosecond, listening for telltale signs, leaving me hoping that the shot was as good as I thought it was. More doubts crept in my mind…  Did the TSX expand? Did I account for the downhill angle enough?  Without the cat in view, it wasn’t hard to wonder. Then we heard low growls, and finally, no sound.

“How do you feel?” asked Martin as he reentered the blind.

“How should I feel?” I said uncertainly.

“Just think that there is a 95% chance he is dead.” Tons of weight suddenly dropped off my shoulders, followed by hugs and handshakes. We threw rocks in the direction of the last growls. Nothing. Martin called for the truck which took 20 minutes to reach the bait site, so we could begin to track and trail the leopard.

We walked down the hill, across the riverbed to meet the Appy, trackers, and the scout at the bait tree, and exchanged weapons and positions for the track job. Daniel, London and Stevie were in front with a 12 gauge with 00 buckshot, Martin with the .470 double and me with the .416 with the safety off, as instructed. After spending years of reading, hearing campfire and watching traumatic videos of tracking wounded leopards, I knew that I would have two seconds or less to defend myself. Be prepared.

Fifteen meters from the tree we found blood; four more meters, more and heavier blood. We crossed the creekbed, came to a small rise, stopped and listened. Still nothing. More throwing of rocks, and then simultaneously London and Martin pointed to their noses. They smelt the leopard! We were close! We crept over the rise, and Stevie and London pumped fists in the air. There, 60 meters from the bait tree, lay the leopard. Celebratory shouts, handshakes and hugs! Then there was an unrehearsed, uniform, complete silence as we paid our respects and admiration for the beautiful adversary.

We examined him – an old warrior, probably older than 10 years. Worn teeth, with old scars on his hindquarters from battles of yesteryear, he was huge by Matetsi standards – we guessed 177 pounds – with fresh bite wounds on his muzzle, ears and the top of his head, probably from recent fights defending his extensive territory.

Martin and Daniel later explained that the successful hunt for this one would lead to more leopards in the territory. He had eliminated competition in a huge area that now two to three new leopards would be able to control, thus improving the leopard habitat and numbers.

He was transported to the bait tree to be celebrated and digitally immortalized. Everyone wanted an individual picture with the leopard, because this leopard, this safari and this tale was a lifetime moment. Stevie and London carefully put him on straw in the back of the Cruiser. Never in all my years of hunting had I ever experienced such honor and care displayed by a hunting team. Another lifetime memory.

As we approached camp, there was the obligatory shouting, singing, and honking of horns to announce our successful hunt. Again, rounds of pictures with all members of the team – skinners, cooks, and even their families! A celebration that culminated in a chair-elevation ceremony, and dancing. I usually don’t drink before noon, but on this day, I made an exception.

So why were we successful on this trip when we had not been on others. Wonderful area? Experienced PH and team? The luck of Diana, Goddess of the hunt? Persistence despite difficulties and failures? All these factors played a role. One thing that I am sure of: I am blessed to have had the opportunity to experience this hunt and to call these people my friends and comrades. My personal DreamWork.

BIO Dr. Joseph Crawford is a urologic surgeon from Vero Beach, Florida. Since an early age, he has been fascinated by hunting and fishing adventures. Over the past 60 years, he has been fortunate to have hunted the Americas, the Artic, Asia, Europe and Africa.

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