Getting a cheetah may be one part pure luck, but getting the world record cheetah during a driving thunderstorm is something else entirely.
It was 5 a.m. and time to get up. After breakfast, we moved toward one of our concession areas. My hunter Johan’s, main trophy was the elusive cheetah. They are beautiful animals and plentiful in Namibia, but as I explained to him, “ It is pure luck, you cannot bait a cheetah. They do not eat rotten meat; you can only sit at a play tree and hope for the best, or spot them and then ambush them on foot. It is pure luck to take a cheetah trophy home.”
We had been driving the same area for five days, and three days ago saw where two mature male cheetahs had entered the area, but then lost the tracks. We stayed positive and wanted to drive the area one more time. The elements were working against us–with much rain and very tall grass, our chances of success were very slim…or so we thought!
We drove fence-line after fence-line looking for tracks, and eventually found where the two cheetahs went back into the neighboring concession, and then turned around and came right back into the area we were in. That meant that they might still be where we were hunting. We spent the entire morning looking for them, but had no luck. The vegetation was so thick that it was very difficult to see any animals and we returned home for lunch. I felt positive, though, and started telling my client what he could expect; that he would see only its head above the grass, and that we would then have to crawl in order to get close enough to make a good shot. He would have to figure out where the vitals on this animal were before taking his shot.
Thunderstorms were booming in the far north as we headed out again after lunch toward the same area. We started driving the by-now familiar bush tracks when my tracker, Martin, knocked on the roof for me to stop the hunting vehicle. There they were! Two huge male cheetahs sitting under a camel thorn tree with their backs toward us, about 400 yards away! We got off the hunting truck and started moving very low and very slowly through the bush in their direction. Soon the grass seeds irritated our eyes and it felt as though our heads were about to explode from the allergies. We had to go at least another 100 meters to give Johan a good shot. At that point, I could not see anymore as the tears were flowing and I badly wanted to sneeze. I touched him on his shoulder and whispered to him, “Either you take the shot, or I will just have to sneeze and then they will be gone.” He gave me a nervous look, but I smiled at him and assured him, “You can do it!” We were about 300 yards away when I set up the shooting sticks and let him get in position on his knees. The shot went off and the one male tumbled backward, got up and disappeared in the tall grass.
We walked to where they had been sitting and found blood on the bush the cheetah had tumbled into, so I sent Martin back to the hunting vehicle to get my tracker dog, Snippie. We were only about 50 meters on the blood trail when a really strong thunderstorm broke loose. The dog lost the blood and we could hardly see a meter ahead. The rain was pouring down and the lightning and thunder were striking on both sides of us. My hunter was worried while my adrenaline was pumping out of my ears, and I could hear every one of my heartbeats. “We have to find this animal,” I thought to myself. “If we give up now, he will die on his own and that would be unfair.” We were soaked to the bone, but we continued searching for the wounded cheetah. The only thing that was going through my mind was, “Please God, let us find this cat.”
Snippie was running up and down like he knew something. We went forward wiping the raindrops from our faces when Snippie all of a sudden started barking. Our legs could not carry us fast enough through the mud and puddles of water to the bush where Snippie was standing.
There, an enormous cheetah was snarling at us. The client finished him off. I could not help but wipe a tear from my eye in gratitude for finding this cat. “Thank you Lord,” I prayed loud and clear and everybody looked at each other with emotions you could only understand if you had been there. I grabbed Johan and hugged him tightly to congratulate him on his beautiful cheetah. The first shot was just a little high, but it did enough damage to slow the magnificent cat down for us to finish him off and go home feeling that we had truly earned him.
The rain was still coming down in buckets and by now we were walking in ankle deep water. We needed to get to the car quickly because it was getting dark and the storm getting worse. My faithful tracker put the cat on his shoulders and off we went. He started walking east when I told him that he was going the wrong way. We need to head west. We were looking at one another when I realized that we were completely lost! I did not have a clue where we had left the hunting track. The rainstorm had us all totally confused.
We started heading to where I thought was west when Martin again differed from me telling me that we were going the wrong way. This time he wanted to go north. “Great!” I thought to myself, here I am, a professional hunter with my highly skilled tracker and the assistant who was actually born in this area, with not one of us knowing where we were going! We decided to keep on heading west, “somebody must take the lead,” I mumbled.
After two hours of struggling through the mud and the water, we finally reached the road. I knew we had to start walking to the right along the fence line, and after another half hour we reached the hunting truck where we took one quick photo and started heading home. All were quiet and happy thinking about this awesome hunt in the most beautiful place on earth, the beautiful Namibia, with the most amazing lightning and thunder and feeling so vulnerable and realizing how small we actually are.
Everybody in camp had been worried and wondering what we were doing out in the rain–they probably thought we had been stuck in the mud. We all took hot showers, warmed up in front of the fireplace and told the rest of the party our story.
When we measured the skull two days later, we realized that this magnificent cat is likely the new world record cheetah. —By Johan Van Der Westhuizen hunting with PH Elaine Coetzee of CEC Safaris, Namibia.