Opening Pandora's Box - My First Leopard

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  1. Ron Thomson

    Ron Thomson CONTRIBUTOR AH Member

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    Opening Pandora's Box - My First Leopard

    I left school at the end of 1956 and immediately attested into the Royal Rhodesian Air Force on a short-service commission. I trained as a fighter pilot. After learning the hard way that aeroplanes are not designed to fly underground, I found myself at a loose end in civvy street by mid-1958. It had always been my ambition to join Rhodesia’s Department of National Parks as a game ranger but I was then too young. Government policy dictated that one had to be 22 years of age before joining the civil service. So I arranged employments that would take me into the bush and allow me to hunt.

    In the spring of 1958 I turned 19 years old. In those days my parents had a farm at Karoi, some 180 miles north of Salisbury (now Harare). There I kicked my heels for many months, doing odd jobs here and there for farmers in the district. Then an old friend of the family, Mike Reynolds, asked me if I would like to help him open-up his recently pegged copper claims on the Angwa River some 100 miles north-east of Karoi. The country was very rugged and one of my jobs was to shoot game to feed ourselves and to feed the black labour force – a job for which he had all the necessary game department permits. I nearly took his hand off!

    We drove the first forty miles to the last of the commercial farms in the Miami district. There we left Mike’s Land Rover. We then walked down the Deta Valley to the Angwa, with black porters carrying our equipment and supplies on their heads. The plan was that we spend two months working on Mike’s copper claims. It took us three days to walk the distance to where the claims were located and perhaps a week to set up camp.

    The terrain was very rugged with high razor-back ridges rising several hundreds of feet above the crystal clear rapids of the Angwa River. Between the ridges were deep gullies with heavy cover where I was to shoot lots of bushbuck over the next many weeks. Bushbuck and klipspringers became our stable diet - and fish blasted with dynamite in the river pools.

    Our first task was to set up a permanent campsite. This required that we cut two wide terraces out of the steep hillside that sloped down to the river some fifty feet below – one for our white man’s camp, the other for the compound that was to house the black staff. On our ledge we constructed a pole-walled hut with a thatched roof that housed all the camp supplies and in which Zook Nesbitt, Mike’s 70 year-old father-in-law – who had walked all the way down the Deta with us - slept. Mike and I elected to sleep on the open ledge next to the campfire.

    My bed comprised four empty maize sacks. I slit each one along the side-seam and sowed them together into one large bag – which I stuffed with straw. During the day my bed lay against the wall of the terrace. At night I dragged it closer to the fire which was situated in the middle of the earthen platform.

    No sooner had we established camp than Mike hiked off back to Karoi. It was my job to peg the claims and to start cutting a Land-Rover track out of the Angwa. It was Mike’s job to find the finance to open the copper mine. Zook – the camp’s keeper - and I were then left to our own devices.

    About a month after our arrival at the campsite, I was awakened one morning at first light by the raucous clatter of Natal francolins. They were my regular pre-dawn alarm clock.

    I sat up on my palliasse, stretched, and began thinking of an early morning cup of coffee. In the gorge below, the rapids of the Angwa River rumbled away gently. It was the lullaby that sent me to sleep every night.

    Then my eyes fell on the fresh pugmarks of a leopard. They were clear imprints in the powdery soil all around my bed. My heart missed a beat.

    I looked around the camp quickly to make sure the big cat was not still with us. I saw nothing. Only then did I relax. And, still sitting quietly on my makeshift bed, I examined the spoor in greater detail.

    The leopard had been attracted by the smell of the bushbuck carcass that I had hung on a single strand of 8 gauge wire from a high tree branch behind the camp’s thatched hut. I had shot the bushbuck late the previous evening and had hung it out harm’s way just before nightfall.

    The leopard’s footprints were all about the blood-drippings on the ground beneath the gutted carcass. But the meat was beyond its reach. It had then walked boldly into camp examining everything of interest. Its spoor was no more than a hand's breadth from the edge of my bed so it must have had a good sniff at my face as I slept.

    That was the only time we ever had a visitation from a leopard in the camp and, after I had got used to the idea, its close proximity to me that night exhilarated rather than alarmed me. In Africa one rarely hears of a leopard attacking an adult human so I knew, or rather felt, that I had been in no real danger from our close encounter.

    The following week I hunted the Nyashire valley behind the camp looking, as usual, for bushbuck. I had very quickly found out that all there was to kill in that rugged place were bushbuck and klipspringers – which I hunted every afternoon, silently and alone.

    That particular afternoon, I walked quietly and slowly up the Nyashire gorge – watching - waiting - listening - for bushbuck movement in the thick bush up ahead. That was the only way to successfully get a bushbuck in this kind of terrain. Move as slowly and as quietly as possible – stop – and listen. Listen more than anything else. And when you heard movement up ahead you stalked the quarry silently. Absolute silence was the key to success. But that afternoon there was no sign of them.

    I then moved up the hillside to a saddle in the hills that overlooked the adjacent drainage. I had walked this route many times.

    The saddle overlooked one of those rare gentle basins amidst the rugged hills that the bushbuck loved to frequent. The veld had been burnt clean so the aspect was wide open. There were patches of green grass emerging from the black stubble in the hollows and I knew that here, in the evenings, bushbuck liked to venture into the open to get some of the green bite.

    I approached the rim of the saddle cautiously. Without exposing myself I lay flat on my belly and crawled to the lip. Only the top of my head protruded amidst the rocks when I lifted my eyes, very slowly, to scan the vista below.

    From my left side a small dry streambed ran down to the middle of the basin creating a shallow vee in the topography. It fetched right down to the much bigger, but equally dry, water course below.

    Halfway down the smaller watercourse there was a waterfall – when it rained - that dropped vertically, perhaps ten feet, into a dry puddle of pebbles ensconced by a small rocky amphitheatre. There were some large trees in this hollow under which there grew a thicket of tall elephant grass and sundry brush that had not been burnt. It was a pocket of isolated heavy cover from which I had flushed many a bushbuck in previous hunts.

    I had learnt to be patient when still-hunting. So I lay quietly on the pebbly ground and slowly inspected the scene below me. On the stream bank at the bottom of the basin there grew three huge ebony trees and beyond them there was a heavy thicket of scrubby bushes. Bushbuck liked those thickets, too.

    The maximum range to any target was a hundred and fifty yards. So I knew that if a bushbuck came into the basin that evening it would be hanging in our camp larder come nightfall. All I had to do was wait and watch.

    There was no time left to begin another hunt elsewhere. So I had nothing to lose by just lying there and waiting out the rest of the day. There was only an hour of hunting-light left. So I lay there unobtrusively - waiting - watching - listening.

    I had been in position for perhaps fifteen minutes when I felt, rather than heard, subtle sounds coming from the direction of the waterfall. I focused my attention on that spot and I heard the same soft noises again. They were familiar yet strange for they seemed out of place in that environment. They sounded like a dog gnawing on a bone. I strained my ears - and heard a grunt.

    Bushpigs, I thought. There are bushpigs below the waterfall.

    The soft sounds became more obvious the harder I listened.

    I held my breath and shut my eyes. I focused all my senses on the sounds I was hearing. Bushpigs? No! It sounded more like a dog - but there were no dogs here. Then I heard a soft growl. It was a pleasant, contented, almost purring sound. The sound a dog or a cat makes when enjoying a meal. It was deeper, however, and much more resonant than that of a dog. It caused the hackles on the back of my neck to rise.

    It was a leopard. It could be nothing else. There was a leopard in the waterfall thicket feeding on a kill.

    The moment I understood what I was hearing the adrenaline began to pump. All over my body my nerves jangled. My hands began to shake. And all the other symptoms of juvenile buck fever became manifest. The excitement and the exhilaration that ran rife through my body at that moment was indescribable.

    I had never seen a wild leopard. Nevertheless, I had read all about how very dangerous they could be when wounded. There were lots of stories about the terrible maulings that hunters had suffered when they had approached a wounded leopard incautiously.

    All these thoughts and ideas ran round and round in my head as I lay there on the brink of the ridge and listened to the miniscule sounds of the leopard feeding. Most of the sounds were so soft that had I drawn my focused attention away from the waterfall I would not have heard them.

    A black-headed oriole flew across the open valley and perched on a treetop above where the leopard lay feeding. It gave vent to its strident, piping call. The bird’s calling went on and on and on. It totally swamped the gentle sounds I had been listening to. But the leopard was still in there. That I knew. And because I knew its whereabouts, and because the leopard had no idea that I was lying-up so close by, I understood implicitly that I held the hunting advantage.

    The bird flew off. Peace returned.

    My initial excitement had, by then, dissipated. The buck fever had subsided and my mind had begun to function constructively. I was conscious of the fact that I only had a .22 Hornet in my hands and that the calibre was totally unsuitable for leopard hunting. I also knew, however, that the tiny bullet was capable of killing a leopard if it hit a vital organ. There was little difference between the size of a leopard's body and that of a bushbuck, and I had killed many bushbucks with the rifle I held in my hands. To kill the leopard all I had to do was to place the bullet into a vital organ – the brain, the heart or the lungs. But how was I going to get close enough to do that without being detected?

    The leopard was lying somewhere below the rim of the waterfall - either on the edge of the dry pebble pool, or even in it. Wherever it was I knew that I would have to approach right to the edge of the rocky precipice if I was to have any chance of even seeing it. One thing was certain. If I could not see the leopard I could not shoot it.

    The ground between my position and the upper edge of the waterfall was bare dark-red earth. It was covered in small rocks and pebbles and the stubble of burnt elephant grass. I knew there was no way I was going to get to the edge of the waterfall without the leopard hearing me. One false move, one clink of a shifted pebble, one rasp of a foot on a stiff piece of burnt stubble, and the leopard would be instantly aware of my presence. Trying to approach the waterfall, therefore, was out of the question.

    There must be another solution!

    I could wait and hope the leopard would finish its meal and move out into the open. But I knew that was a pious hope. The leopard was feeding heavily and I just knew it would still be feeding there come nightfall. I had read somewhere that big cats with full bellies were inclined to just lie about and rest. I understood, therefore, that once the leopard had satisfied its hunger there was no reason for it to move out of the thicket. It would probably stay there, I surmised, until after dark before moving down to the Angwa to slake its thirst.

    The sun had already disappeared under the rim of the mountaintops in the west. Time was running out. If I was to kill this leopard I had to make a plan - fast. It did not take me too long to reach what seemed to me to be the obvious conclusion - my only chance of getting a shot at the leopard was to get him to move out of the thicket. But how was I going to achieve that? I racked my brain.

    Slowly an idea began to formulate. And the more I thought about it the more I realised it was the only answer to my problem. All I needed was the gumption to put it into action. I lay for a few more moments enjoying the comfort zone of knowing that my presence was still not known to the leopard - and building up my courage. I KNEW I could do what had to be done!

    Presently I rose to my feet and picked up a flattish rock from the ground at my feet. It was about the size of the palm of my hand. The leopard could not see me from where it was hidden below the waterfall precipice and I had to stand up to get the leverage I needed to hurl the rock. Gripping the projectile between my thumb and forefinger I sent it flying through the air down the slope. It travelled like a discus, floating on the air like an aerofoil, and it landed about a hundred yards away down the slope.

    I dropped back into my position behind the rim and was well hidden by the time the rock hit the ground. Rifle at shoulder I made ready to fire. My heart was pounding once again. My chest felt tight.

    The rock hit the ground with a soft clattering sound. I had hoped for a much bigger noise. I was disappointed but could not now change what I had done. All I could do now was prepare myself for when the leopard left the thicket.

    Nothing happened. I listened attentively. There were no feeding noises coming from the thicket now. Silence reigned. I remained ready to shoot the leopard if it moved. I imagined it slinking off up the open hillside on my left, stopping once to look back. That would be my chance - when it stopped to look back! In my mind I was already willing that leopard to run out of the thicket – and to stop and look back!

    I waited patiently. Nothing happened!

    A flock of francolins began their clattering calls in the thickets beyond the stream far below. They were answered by another covey higher up the gorge. These were all sounds that told me everything was quiet and peaceful in the valley. They weren't alarm calls. They were social calls. I reasoned that if I could interpret them as such so would the leopard. Still nothing happened.

    For fully five minutes there was neither sound nor movement from the waterfall. Then - suddenly - unexpectedly - silently - the leopard heaved itself up the trunk of one of the big trees. And there it stood, fully exposed, on a high lateral branch looking down towards the place where the stone had landed. Despite all the other homely sounds the leopard had been hearing it understood something else. Something large must have dislodged that stone. The leopard could not afford, therefore, to ignore either the presence of a new prey animal or a potential source of danger. It just had to know what had caused that rock to move.

    The leopard was a big tom. I could see the tight ball-bag under his tail clearly. And he was standing up there on the high branch, broadside on to me, in full view. The white tip of his tail swung gently to and fro like a flashing signal in the fading light. His head turned first to the left then to the right as he scanned the scene below him. He was looking down the valley and away from me. He was a beauty. And he was only fifty yards away!

    My body began to shake again – like a leaf in the wind - as I brought the iron sights to bear on that magnificent beast. My heart was pounding like a hammer mill. I set the tip of the front post just behind the leopard's shoulder and lifted the rear U-sight into position behind it. Taking up the first pressure on the trigger I drew a deep breath. This was my first real adventure into the realm of big game hunting.

    At that moment my mind was a whirl of conscious emotions. Would the tiny soft-nose bullet do its job? Was I being irresponsible in attempting to kill a leopard with such a small caliber bullet? But deep down inside me I knew none of this mattered. I was going to do it anyway come hell or high water! Ripples of goose pimples ran up and down my spine and the hairs on my forearms stood up like hedgehog quills.

    I squeezed off the second pressure of the trigger - gently.

    The rifle barked. The leopard's body jerked. The big cat turned on the branch as if to execute a controlled descent of the tree. Then it lifted its head high and tumbled backwards into the void. There followed the most terrifying growls and roars I had ever heard. The animal was clearly in a rage. I could hear its body thrashing about amongst the thick canes of the elephant grass in the thicket beneath the trees. Then - suddenly - complete silence returned to the waterfall thicket.

    I lay on my belly and did not move. I had already ejected the spent shell and had pushed another round into the breech. I was ready should the leopard emerge from the thicket. I lay frozen-still. I did not want to betray my location by either sound or movement.

    My body squirmed and my bowels moved, and the hairs on my body, all over, rose and fell – and rose and fell repeatedly - of their own volition. The goose pimples that covered my forearms were the only constant and visible sign of my physical exhilaration and anxiety. Every fibre of my being was quivering, softly, right down to the very depths of my soul. My eyes felt like huge saucers on the stiff fabric of my face.

    My eyes, in fact, were the only part of me that was mobile. They canvassed every nook and cranny around the waterfall. My ears were attuned to catch the slightest nuance of sound. Nothing! Nothing moved. There was not a sound.

    Down in the valley below me the francolins were now quiet. The crack of the rifle and the rumbling reverberations of the report that had run up and down the gorges of the hills all round had long since died away. Its message, however, conveying the hunter's presence, had been heard. Every animal and every bird within hearing distance of that shot was, at that moment, standing perfectly still and listening.

    The minutes dragged on - one following inexorably after the other. Still the silence reigned. I was reluctant to move for several reasons. Firstly I did not want to betray my whereabouts just in case the leopard was not dead. I did not relish being attacked by an irate wounded leopard with only a .22 Hornet in my hands. Secondly - and perhaps more importantly - I did not move because I was afraid. And, in those first few minutes after the shot, I was afraid to very core of my heart.

    It was only when darkness began creeping over the land – with my nerves now well under control - that I slipped quietly back into the Nyashire gorge behind me. And I made my way back to camp leaving the leopard to lick his wounds - or to die from them.

    I hardly slept a wink that night – reliving in my mind every moment of the hunt. I wondered if, had done anything different, the outcome would have been more satisfying. I could not fault my actions. I believed I had done everything in as near a perfect way as was possible under the circumstances.

    I was up before first light - before there was even a tweet from the local francolins. I slugged back a mug of sweet, hot coffee that both contently warmed my innards and settled my still highly excited nerves.

    Zook was awake and I took him a mug of hot coffee in his bed. He said very little except to tell me not to take any chances. Getting the skin of the leopard, he said, was not worth getting myself mauled! But Zook was not a hunter and he did not give me any instructions with regards to how I should conduct the second phase of the hunt. He was that kind of man. He was wise but not prescriptive. That was why we got along so well.

    It was time to make a choice. Was I going to look for the leopard with my .22 Hornet? Or should I be prudent and take Zook’s proffered double-barrelled shotgun? I took the shotgun, loading both barrels with AAA shot - and I packed a handful of extra cartridges into my jacket pocket.

    Then I press-ganged two ‘volunteers’ from the black labour force in the camp compound to come with me on the dangerous job of locating the leopard.

    The final moment of truth was at hand.

    The sun was rising by the time I walked out cautiously, alone and silent, onto the slab of rock above the waterfall. I moved to the edge with great trepidation and looked down into the well beneath me. My heart was beating loudly in my breast again – but it had no cause. The leopard was lying in full view, on its side, at the edge of the dry puddle of pebbles. It was stone dead. There was blood everywhere. This told me my bullet had found the lungs. The shot had been perfect. The leopard had been dead long before I had even left my position the evening before.

    That was my first leopard. There were many more to come. It was also the first success of my big game hunting career – a hunting career that was to absorb my life ever more greatly from that moment on.

    I had opened Pandora’s box!
     

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