The Prince of Matetsi
The full moon was directly overhead, draping the landscape in a soft yellow gloom. My eyes were used to the semi darkness and I could see the bait clearly.
Not far from us, trees were being stripped of branches as a breading herd of Elephant were feeding. They were loud and every now and again one of them would rumble or scream as only they can. The bulls of the area do not like the constant noise of the herds and keep mostly to themselves.
We were after Elephant on this hunt. Our new concession was just 40km from Vic-Falls in Zimbabwe and the Matetsi River passed through it as the only water source for miles. It was late in the season, very late. September is great for hunting but the bull Elephants were not here. We were up before dawn every day to travel down the hot dusty roads to find a track worth following. The trees were bare of any leaves and the grass was dry and sparse. The bulls left the area less than 3 weeks ago and travelled south into the Hwange National Park to find better feeding.
The breading herds with the very young calves could not follow as water was scarce and great distances apart. Therefore the herds stayed close to the river. The few bulls that we did find were not worth it. To small or broken tusks was the letdown every time we came upon a bull after miles of tracking. We did not lose hope though. The area was big and sooner or later we would bump into one.
I decided to put some baits out for Leopard as this area is loaded with cats. We would hunt Jumbo until lunchtime every day. If we did not cross a big track by then, the chances were small that we would catch up wit a big bull if we start following the previous nights track when we find it in the afternoon. The only drawback was the lack of sleep and the aching muscles after a long days tracking. To hunt a Leopard successfully you need a clear mind. You must out-think the cat or he will just make a joke out of all your plans and efforts.
This was a cleaver cat. He only came in after midnight and he circled the bait area for hours before he finally climbed the tree to feed. This cat was hunted before. I was sure of it as the cats in this area were not normally known to be too educated. This only made me more determined to outsmart him.
The blind was only 25 yards from the bait. On a rifle hunt, I like to position the blind +-60 yards from the bait so as to prevent the cat from seeing the blind and deciding not to come in. They are highly tuned to their surroundings and the slightest change will alert them and spook them away. They do not survive undetected so close to and even inside major cities if they were stupid.
I erected the blind before I even set the bait. I baited a tree about 500 meters away and as soon as the cat hit it we already had this tree marked as our final bait tree. We waited until he fed regularly at the first tree and then moved the bait to the present location. When he then comes in, the blind and everything else is already in place and (hopefully) he will not detect us literally under his nose.
It was only 10 o'clock and the Elephant noises were coming closer. I surely hoped that they did not come and join this party. In the distance a Lion coughed a few times before he vented his lungs and roared. To complete the (magic of Africa) a Hyena laughed and chuckled after the Lion told everyone that he was king.
Suddenly there was a scratching sound from the bait and a soft cough. He was there. He came like a ghost amid all the noise and we never heard him climbing the tree. He stood on top of the bait and scanned the surrounding area. We sat like statues, to tense to even breathe. Even the millions of mosquitoes that sucked us dry were forgotten. He looked at the blind and stared for what felt like and hour. Feeling secure he lied down and commenced feeding. The snapping of the Impala,s ribs sounded like gunshots. He was perfectly silhouetted in the clear sky on the feeding branch. We cleared everything so as to be able to use every bit of natural light available.
I touched Yawan and he slowly got to his feet as it was close to impossible to draw the 90lb Hoyt Vectrix loaded with a 1050gr Easton Dangerous game 250 arrow, tipped with an 180gr Silver Flame broad head. It was an Elephant setup but I believed that it was perfect for a cat. No matter what angle he presents, the arrow would penetrate and smash through bone and pass through. The heavy arrow would also reduce any noise and even the slow speed of 224fps was plenty enough for the distance we were at.
What the cat heard I do not know. There was no way that he saw anything, that I am sure of. I did not hear a sound from Yawan. Maybe it was a sixth sense but the moment Yawan came to full draw he just vanished and I herd the soft flop as he landed on the ground. He did not move away though but stayed hidden behind the tree trunk. Yawan had to let down and it was very difficult to do that with no sound.
We were busted. The cat knew that we were there. He walked right up to the blind, keeping behind some scrub. We could hear him breathing less than 4 yards away. He uttered a cough and disappeared.
I could not believe that my carefully laid plans came to nothing in such a short time. Back in camp we debriefed and found nothing wrong with our actions. We had to do everything over again. A new tree and a new blind. After another fruitless morning looking for big Elephant tracks we went to the bait. He came back during the night and had a good feed. This was not normal. This cat was playing with us. We were the mouse. There was still enough of the Impala left not to top up.
That night we were back in the now familiar jail. At 8:30 we heard him climb the tree. Again we could clearly see him silluetted on the branch. Again he jumped off just as Yawan got ready. This was eerie. He did not even look up but just leapt. We decided to wait. 20 minutes later, he was back. He climbed and jumped of the branch 5 times that night. We were exhausted. As dawn broke we went to camp, had a big breakfast and hit the road looking for Jumbo. Again we got nothing worth following.
That night we were in the blind with new enthusiasm even though we were beyond tired. He came early. At 7,o clock he was feeding. At 7, 30 he jumped out again just as I opened the rheostat light. This was ridiculous. I asked Yawan if he could clearly see the cat without the light. He knew me so well after all these years that he just smiled and said that we were looking for big trouble but that he was game.
After the third time that the cat jumped out, Yawan never sat down again. He kept his release on the loop, resting the bottom cam of the bow on his thigh. 20 minutes later the cat climbed the tree for the fourth time that night. In the 3 seconds that it took him to get to the feeding branch, Yawan was already at full draw. The cat stood proudly facing us. I could see him clearly as the full moon lighted him up.
I jumped as Yawan released the arrow. The cat roared the moment I heard the dull thud as the arrow found its mark. This time he jumped out with a lot more noise and ran of growling. We stood silent and listened to him as he sped past the blind and into some thick bush 50 yards away. Why he ran towards us I shall never know as his entrance and exit path to the tree was in the other direction.
(How was the shot?) I asked Yawan as I was worried about what I had to do next. Yawan just smiled and nodded. I trust his judgement as we have hunted together countless times before. Normally I do not take a client with on the follow up of a Leopard if I am not sure that the shot was good. I do not want any distractions when a wounded cat is around. Yawan is not normal and he is not a client. He is my friend. He is also a bit crazy. He never swop his bow for a rifle on any follow up. I checked my .416 Rem Mag and made sure that the special light attached to the barrel was working. An extra flashlight was in its holster on my belt.
I never leave the follow up till the next morning. I made that mistake once and a Hyena ate half of the trophy. I also believe that it is safer to follow a cat at night because he can not hide his eyes from a strong light as he can during daylight. My light is such that I do not even need to aim the rifle. The barrel points to the centre of a small but very strong circle of light. It also ensures that my rifle barrel is pointed to where I am looking.
We followed the drops of blood very carefully one step at a time, scanning all around. This is usually the time when I realize that there must be better ways of making a living. In the bushes where we thought that we last heard the cat we inched ahead. We were on our hands and knees. Then I smelled him. I could not see him but anyone that hunts these cats regularly will recognise the smell immediately.
My eyes tried to look in all directions at once. Sweat was pouring out of my body. I was as tense as a bow at full draw. This was it. He was spitting distance from us but where? Then I saw a piece of fur deep under a bush less than 5 yards away and locked on to it with my finger on the trigger and taking up the slack.
Yawan was next to me. For a long while we just looked at it, trying to figure out what part of the cat we were seeing. Nothing moved. Yawan threw a stone at it. He was dead. After dragging him out we both sat down to catch our breath. He was beautiful. He was not a big cat. He was just past his prime.
Examining him we saw that his right back leg was crooked. He was caught in a gin trap a long time ago and the broken leg healed although half of his paw was missing and the leg healed at an odd angle.
That was why he was so cleaver. That was what made him a Leopard. He was disabled but he still survived. He was in great condition and did not seem to be hampered by his injury at all. This also made them very-very dangerous. We shook hands and smiled. It was a great hunt. Full of disappointments and with our tired bodies it was an ordeal but it was worth it. This cat was super special as they all are. They truly are the (Prince of predators) I love them for it.
Askari Adventures & Fritz Rabe Bow Hunting