Leopards of Otjiwarongo
by Berk Elliott
Throughout the safari we had often commented on how much the terrain of the Namibian high desert plains looked like parts of our brush country back in Texas. Each time, something exotic had stepped out of the bush to remind us how far we were from home. Now, it was a study in intensity, a stalking leopard oozing down the side of the draw which permanently sealed the deal on that subject.
That moment became one of the brightest highlights in a lifetime of hunting. To the few people who have ever been privileged to witness a stalking leopard in broad daylight, the point needs no further explanation. The dramatic event was the end result of a master plan put together by my son, BJ Elliott.
While not all Texas hunters dream of an African safari, BJ knew that I had spent my life fantasizing about such a trip. In the spring of 2004, he called from his home in Plano, Texas, “Dad, you’re not getting any younger and neither am I. Let’s go do that African safari.”
“Son, as much as I’d love to go, I don’t have the money to do it.”
He responded, “That wasn’t what I asked you. Get your bags packed.”
It developed that my son was being motivated by several things, not the least of which was that my beautiful daughter-in-law, Tracy had just informed him that my grandson, Alex was going to have a baby sister. That put our project on the fast track. Never mind that most people spend a year or two planning their hunt-of-a-lifetime, we promised to be back no later than Halloween. Starting from scratch, it was a daunting task.
An experienced traveler, BJ did all the heavy lifting. He contacted numerous safari companies and finally settled on Ozondjahe near Otjiwarongo in north central Namibia, just northwest of the great Kalahari. I wanted to take one of the “Big Five” and I had already purchased a Sako in .375 H&H Magnum for a lion gun, but most rates we were quoted for dangerous game were very high. Ozondjahe (www.AfricanHuntingSafaris.com
) offered a good chance for leopard at a reasonable price. BJ wanted kudu and gemsbok, I wanted an impala and we agreed to round things out with some wingshooting. They had an opening available in September, toward the end of the season.
The economies of many African countries are supported by safari hunting. Unlike the tent campaigns of old, many of today’s operations feature shorter hunts and are conducted on game ranches. For 200 years, Ozondjahe had been a working cattle ranch, converting to full-time game management about ten years ago. Our concession covered over 117 square miles and included a small mountain range. We would be hunting at 5,000 to 6,000 feet above sea level.
BJ and I both wrestled with such minutia as passports, tetanus shots, CITES permits, etc. He bought a beautifully stocked Browning White Gold Medallion chambered in .300 WSM and I purchased a pair of Zeiss Conquests to scope our guns. We might be novices, but we were going well-equipped.
Finally, on September 9th, we were met at the airport in the Namibian capital of Windhoek by our Professional Hunter, Andries Smit. During the long drive to our hunting concession, Andries proved to be a knowledgeable and jovial companion. He and BJ were trading barbs before we reached camp. He told us that a big leopard was coming to one of the three baits he had out.
Andries cautioned that we were entering the Namibian spring and snakes were already becoming active. One of the camp dogs, a rottweiler had died under mysterious circumstances a couple of weeks earlier and their pet cheetah had been killed under similar conditions early last spring. Andries suspected both were the work of a black mamba. He had our undivided attention when he added that both had expired near the camp compound!
Arriving well after dark, we were introduced to the camp staff, fed a sumptuous feast featuring gemsbok and homemade ice cream and shown to our respective bungalows.
The first morning of our hunt dawned clear and cool. A quick look around the compound was in order. The only hunters in camp, BJ and I each occupied one of three large cabanas. The main lodge housed numerous impressive trophies, including a full-body mount of the largest leopard I have ever seen. Out back there was a fully equipped processing plant for our animals. The landscaped courtyard featured an Olympic-sized pool.
After breakfast, Andries introduced our driver, Godfrey and our Bushman tracker, Ronnie as we clamored into the hunting truck. While both spoke limited English, most communications were conducted in Afrikaans. Rolling out the back gate, the scene appeared so much like South Texas, I was tempted to look for whitetail deer. But for Africa’s ever-present termite mounds, the terrain was your basic desert thorn. Then, a pair of ostriches ran across the trail.
Before beginning the hunt, we made a quick stop at a make-shift rifle range set up near the compound. A half dozen shots confirmed the guns were ready.
Andries chose to begin our first day by giving us a tour of the land and the abundant wildlife. Within a couple of hours, we saw a veritable parade of wildebeest, hartebeest, warthog, impala, kudu, gemsbok, blesbok, zebra, ostrich, baboon and more. It was fascinating to watch these animals navigate their own turf, a 600 pound kudu ghosting through the thick stuff as easily as a cottontail through a briar patch.
The trail ultimately led us into a large clearing. Andries, Godfrey and Ronnie began inspecting the ground, taking great care to not disturb the area. In the edge of the brush stood a tree where a leopard bait had been hanging. The bait was missing. The cat had been there and, judging from the tracks, Ronnie assured us it was a big one.
Again reminiscent of Texas ranch land, the clearing was worn by the hooves of countless cattle over countless years. A shallow ravine bordered one side. With the rainy season fast approaching, the small tributary would soon be brimming over, rescuing the parched land and its inhabitants from the annual drought. But now, it was hard to imagine that the powder dry conditions of the tortured prairie had ever been blessed by a drop of rain. The surrounding plains were sparsely carpeted by such vegetation as wait-a-bit, sweet thorn, shepherd’s tree and black hook thorn, each adorned in vicious inch-long thistles.
A check of the other baits revealed that we had a total of five leopards feeding in the three trees. So much for the contention that there is any shortage of these cats.
Anyone who has ever read Capstick or Ruark knows the drill for collecting a leopard hide. You just wire a large bait to the underside of the limb you want your cat to pose on. It should be secured so tightly that he must lay on top of the limb and reach down for his dinner. The theory is that if you make it difficult enough for the nocturnal predator, he will begin feeding before dark in order to have more time to secure a proper meal by dawn. This, in turn, provides you the opportunity to highlight your trophy in the fading light against the evening sky.
Our team didn’t do it that way. They were obviously leaving enough slack for the cat to get the bait on top of the limb. Andries explained that he liked to make it easy for them until they became accustomed to feeding there. Then, he began to make them work for it.
Next, Andries had our native crew erect a blind some 40 yards from the bait tree being visited by the large tom. Our stand consisted of a canvas-covered frame and stacked thorn brush.
The following days evolved into a routine of checking and replacing baits each morning, stalking plains game through the early afternoon and sweltering for hours in the sweatbox leopard blind each evening. While the cats proved elusive, we saw enormous numbers of plains animals each day. BJ scored a massive kudu and I shot a very good impala.
We took a one day side trip to the famous Etosha National Park to observe lions, elephants, rhino and more. Then on the sixth day of our hunt, as we approached our primary leopard bait, we found the remains of a black wildebeest. Our prey still didn’t mind working for his food.
The next morning, BJ tagged a gemsbok with remarkable, long horns. During the afternoon, we found another big bull. With horns worn short by age, my gemsbok featured huge bases. He was estimated to be 16-18 years old, as compared to the 10-12 years of BJ’s gold medal trophy. Getting our animals out of the heat and back to camp for processing ran us late for the leopard blind.
We usually parked about a half mile away and hiked into the blind, but pressed for time, we had Godfrey drive straight to our stand and drop us off. A check of the time as we settled in revealed it was exactly 5:00 P.M. The hide allowed a small opening for Andries to peer out on my right and another for BJ on my left. I eased the Sako into the rest and aligned the crosshairs of the Zeiss just above the bait limb. With the cat feeding, I would barely have to move the gun.
At 5:10, Andries put the binoculars to his eyes and quietly whispered, “There’s your leopard!”
After a week of picking on each other already, BJ wasn’t buying such an outrageous claim. He whispered back, “No way!”
“Really. He’s coming this way. Now he’s laying down by that big termite mound.”
I glared them both down.
With a view directly toward the bait tree, I couldn’t see the area they were watching. Andries carefully reached behind me and took BJ’s digital camera with the 400 mm lens. He took a picture through the small opening. One look at the camera screen revealed the truth. There, sitting in high grass perhaps 125-150 yards away, was one of the world’s most elusive and dangerous of apex predators.....an African leopard in the wild during broad daylight! This was my lifelong dream coming true.
BJ found an opening through which he could see the cat. As I sat staring at the empty tree before me, my hunting partners gleefully chronicled the animal’s every move. At one point he began a stalk on some unseen prey, bringing him closer to us. All unnecessary sound and movement ceased in the blind. Upon aborting that stalk, the leopard sat down and began to study the kudu which had moved into the clearing about 25 yards from the blind. We sat silently waiting.....and sweating.....and waiting.
The first look I got was when the big cat began to slither down the far side of the ravine, coming toward the kudu and us. Nothing in my years of reading had prepared me for the sight of this stalk. No picture can do justice to the fluid motion, the malevolent attitude or the intensity of purpose these animals exhibit when they are hunting. Until that point, I had remained calm.
With the gun aimed up in the tree, I waited for a chance to shoulder the rifle. When he walked behind the cover of some sweet thorn, I found it was necessary to ease up from the chair and lean forward at the waist to get lined up. It was awkward.
Clearly aware of the leopard’s presence, the kudu bolted for cover. Then the cat moved into the bottom of the draw, below our line of sight. Long minutes stretched into an eternity. The thought even crossed my mind that we might have become the prey. Mentally scolding myself, I reasoned that if I didn’t get my breathing back under control and my mind back in the game, I could miss whatever shot I might get. I had already promised Andries that I would go with him if I blew the shot and we had the hairy chore of following a wounded animal.
Andries whispered, “If he comes, don’t wait for him to get into the tree.”
Just when it looked as though the opportunity would be lost, the leopard appeared over the bank on our side of the ravine. At maybe 50 yards, I was sure he could hear me gasping for air. Then he was coming toward us, head on. It was obvious that he didn’t know we were there. As he began to quarter to our left at about 35 yards, the big gun bucked and he went ballistic.
Though the shot bowled him over, he came up running instantly. Clearly favoring a broken front leg, it was incredible how fast he moved. He seemed in a rage, looking to extract revenge from anything, or anyone, that moved. As he ran in a tight arc, it suddenly hit me that he could make the high grass, producing a scenario I desperately didn’t want!
As I slammed another round into the chamber, Andries grabbed my arm and shouted, “He’s dead!”
I responded, “He doesn’t know he’s dead yet!”
Then he went down to stay. Suddenly BJ and Andries exploded into yells and whoops, pounding me on the back again and again. My watch said 6:00 P.M. After so much tension for so long, it all came spilling out. I sagged back into the chair as they raced out to check the leopard.
I was surprised to learn that this wasn’t the big tom we had been hunting. Though measuring over six foot, this was a younger, smaller male. He clearly had missed a few meals and was obviously hungry. The best news about taking a younger leopard was the condition of his hide. The pelt was beautifully marked and in immaculate shape.
Over dinner that night, we speculated about the hunt. There were more questions than answers. We really didn’t know whether this was one of the original five leopards working our baits or whether this was cat number six. Did he know there was a bait in the tree or was he just there to stalk the kudu? Was he watching us when we drove into the blind.....and maybe associate the truck with a fresh bait in the tree? From his position, he probably couldn’t have seen us enter the back side of the blind. Or did he just happen into the wrong place at the wrong time?
When we pulled out the back gate the next morning, we were all in high spirits. Even the stoic Ronnie and Godfrey laughed and joined in the conversation more than usual. As we happened through the scene of so much excitement the night before, the festivities suddenly ceased. The bait was missing from the tree!