Editor’s note: Every Friday we feature a story from the Safari Magazine archives. This exciting account of a leopard hunt in Zambia was originally printed in the July/August 1992 issue of Safari Magazine. The skull of the leopard in this story measured nearly 17 inches and was the Zambian record for 1990. Enjoy the adventure.
Bordering the South Luangwa National Park on the southwestern side lies a stretch of land known as the Chisomo hunting area. The Luangwa, one of the major Zambian rivers, runs through this wild, unspoiled area of ancient Africa. It is one of those places of which the African dream consists. Our camp, on the banks of the Luangwa, offered a spectacular view of the river and the setting of the Africa sun beyond the craggy horizon. It is here, in pristine paradise that you will find a sand river meandering though the bush, known as the Musansara.
The Musansara seemed haunted, an eerie place that vibrated with mystery. It was lined on both banks with thick bush and it was here in the thickets that the monster lived. Word of the ghost leopard came to us through the little Tonga tracker, Adani. “B’wana, none of us have ever seen him,” he told us. “Only the signs are there.”
We left early in the morning in search of those signs. The only water near the area was the Luangwa, and it was here on the banks of the river that we found the first sign. My blood turned cold and I felt the hair on the back of my neck prickle in excitement, for the track in the sand was as big as a man’s fist. The tracks were few and difficult to follow, but according to Adani – an excellent tracker – the leopard had come to drink that very morning, perhaps just one and a half hours before we arrived. It truly was a spirit, elusive and powerful, a creature of darkness and a king of its kind.
The hunt for baits began that afternoon and after having killed and quartered a hippo we began hanging bait, which was not an easy task considering the weight of a hippo quarter. We finally succeeded in hanging one of the quarters on one of the trees that lined the banks of the Musansara. After having completed this task we started building a blind in the soft sand about 30 meters from the bait. The blind was constructed rapidly with dry grass. Twilight was softly descending on the world when it was finally time for us to return to camp. I was eager to spend the night waiting for the leopard, but my knowledge of the bush kept me from doing so. Our scent still hung heaving in the air and the wind was too calm. It was highly unlikely that it would come to feed this night, perhaps only in two days.
My sleep was restless. Hyenas had come into camp, drawn by the smell of blood on the three hippo quarters that still hung in the skinning sheds. The hyenas screeched and giggled throughout the night, keeping us all awake with their spine-chilling calls. It was a sound that I loved, – the call of Africa – and whenever I heard hyenas at night, I was remind of the superstitions and the important role the hyena played in African witchcraft and folklore. Besides the commotion in the camp, my thoughts of the leopard and my eagerness for daybreak kept me from sleep.
The next morning passed much the same as the previous afternoon, we hung the remaining baits for lion and constructed blinds for every bait. My wife, also a keen hunter, was excited at the possibility of shooting a lion. Having hunted many years in Africa and having already taken several lions, I was enthusiastic that she should have the opportunity. My real interest lay elsewhere. My thoughts kept retuning to the Musansara and the leopard that dwelled there. Having finished the baits, we decided to return to camp via the Musansara to see if the hyena had disturbed the leopard bait, and to see if by any chance the cat had been feeding. As we approached the bait we were astounded by what we saw.
The bait hung in shreds, bones exposed and cracked. Unmistakable claw marks shredded the bark of the tree. On closer inspection, we found tracks at the base of the tree and I recognized them immediately as those for the leopard we sought. The damage it had done while feeding was incredible. “I have never seen this happen before, B’wana,” Adani told us, shaking his head in disbelief.
We decided to wait behind the blind that night, although we doubted the leopard would come. Obviously, it had satisfied its hunger and it seemed unlikely that a return would come so soon. Nevertheless, after lunch at camp, we started preparing for a long wait – possibly the entire night – behind the blind.
We arrived at our spot less than two hours before sunset and settled down for the wait. We had installed peepholes in the blind to help us keep watch. In turn, Adani was first to keep watch and he was standing silently by my side watching the bait. Franz and I sat with our backs to the blind, ad from here we had a view of Musansara and the opposite bank.
The sky was full of promise for rain. The clouds were low and thick with their heavy burden and the world was still in suspense for the storm that threatened to arrive. Two giraffes, startled earlier by our arrival had wandered back to feed on the sweet acacia that dotted the riverbed. It was a pretty sight, two lovely creatures standing tall and graceful in the soft sand with the stormy sky, stretching out behind them. The sheer elegance of those beautiful animals helped to relax the tightness of excitement in my muscles.
The sun sank swiftly, weak before the power of the clouds, and twilight descended softly on the world. The coming darkness and unusual silence made me shiver in anticipation. There was a sudden disturbance in the peace, and it startled me. A flock of guineafowl, feeding near the bait flew up in a flurry, screeching and beating their wings in alarm. The giraffe also took off toward the river, and I knew instinctively what had alarmed them. Adani softly tapped my shoulder, as I knew he would, but he surprised me with what he said. “Simba,” he mouthed to me, the Tonga word for lion. Franz had already risen and was looking through the peephole. “No,” he motioned to Adani. “It’s the leopard.” Franz had once been charged by a leopard, and I noticed now that he was pale and his hands shook.) Franz was the type of professional hunter who never takes a rifle with him on a hunt with a client, and I understood his nervousness.
I rose slowly and the moment I saw it I froze.
“Get ready, shoot him,” said Franz. “Can you see him, he’s there in the grass!”
At the same time, Adani was shaking his head and saying “like samba, B’wana,” and although their voices were barley audible, it seemed to me as if they were shouting at the top of their lungs. The leopard was in the grass about 70 meters behind the bait, only its head and twitching tail were visible and the sight of it was truly breathtaking. The head was indeed the size of a mature lioness.
“Shoot,” whispered Franz, “hurry!”
I positioned the barrel of my rifle through the peephole, and found the leopard’s head in my sights. I moved the crosshairs to where I guessed the heart would be and fired. The shot echoed through the brush, the leopard rose and darted into the thickets in a matter of a split second.
“I missed” I told Franz.
“No, I have seen you shoot before and that’s not possible,” Franz answered. But there was no blood, no trace at all, just as I knew there would not be.
We left the blind in silence and my heart was heavy as we returned to camp. The leopard had broken my confidence, just as it had broken the bones on the hippo carcass. My mind could not leave it, the sight of it was imprinted on my memory.
The ghost cat truly did weave a spell of mystery and power with the immense natural aura it wore like a mantle.
Franz and I did not speak of the animal again. The next morning we left to check the lion baits, which we found untouched. The clouds had dissolved during the night, breaking the promise for rain, as so often happens in Africa. The day was hot and clear. We drove around the bush, searching perhaps for what we had lost, our conversations distant and uninteresting. By chance, or perhaps destiny, we found ourselves on the road to the Musansara.
Sullen and quiet, we drove through the haunted sand river and none of us could bring ourselves to look at the bait that hung forgotten in the tree on the bank. When we reached the opposite bank and started the climb to the top, Adani shouted. “Stop, B’wana, please!”
Franz stopped the LandRover reluctantly and before he could ask Adani what was wrong, the little man had jumped out of the LandRover and was running toward the bait. “He was here, B’wana!” he shouted at us.
We were astounded by what Adani said, and we went to see what had excited him so. Adani was indeed correct. To our surprise, the leopard had come to feed after I had shot at him. The tracks we found were clear and fresh, and we found that the leopard had actually come up to the blind.
I was filled with new enthusiasm for I was perhaps to be granted that very rare second chance that few hunters ever get.
We decided to build a new and more complete blind behind one of the acacia trees that stood in the middle of the sand river. The new blind was build farther away from the bait in a more hidden place. Franz and I went off alone to look for an impala to freshen the bait because the remains of the hippo quarter was in a state of advanced decay. We managed to shoot an old impala ram that was walking alone and we carried it back to the site and strung it up beside the old bait.
When we had completed everything, we returned to camp to prepare once again for a night behind the blind. We returned to the bait well in advance that afternoon while the sun still burned and settled in as we had done the evening before. As we waited for twilight, my thoughts wandered to the leopard and the glorious sight of it. I thought of the second chance I had been granted. I thought of Africa, of the unpredictability and mystery of this wonderful place. I was never bored or lonely in the African wilderness, the pulse that beats here is too strong and it often leaves one breathless with its power.
Sunset came swiftly as it always did in Africa. The colors with which it painted the sky were both passionate glorious and it never ceased to captivate me. The sun was still fighting to stay above the horizon and the full moon was rising in the east as twilight began its descent. It was amazing, how one’s senses became magnified at this time of day.
Strange sounds coming from the bait broke into my thoughts. It was the unmistakable sawing sound and deep-throated growls of a leopard feeding. The sounds were clear, of tearing flesh and cracking bones, and we sat in complete silence, captivated by the sounds coming from the bait.
For the first time in my life I was afraid of my own prey.
I thought again of the size of the leopard and I imagined it wounded. I put these thoughts quickly out of my mind. I had to be strong, to fight my own fear. A scared hunter can be a dangerous one. I could not take the risk of fear with this leopard. I had to be calm and force myself to stop trembling.
The darkness was coming fast. It was the time of day when the fish eagle sings its last song and the nightjar its first.
I rose slowly to my feet and positioned my rifle. I forced peaceful thoughts into my mind where they played like a movie in slow motion on the screen of my consciousness…a dream of graceful giraffe…the ghost cat was on the bait…the soft sound of the wind…it turned a huge head to look at me…tbe sunset…it was in my sights…the song of the eagle…I fired!
This time I did not miss.
The bullet was true and it struck the heart. The leopard dropped where it stood, the great ghost departed as it should have. It was correct.—J. Van Doren