The woman had been taken at the top of a small slide. From there the tiger had moved her a mile down-slope into dense jungle. But the tracks were now four days old. “The climb back to the ridge was a very steep one….”
Jim Corbett’s hunts for man-eating tigers and leopards didn’t all succeed. Vast tracts of jungle hid the cats. Silent, secretive and superbly camouflaged, they could move great distances, prowl only at night, kill in places they’d not revisit.
Complicating Corbett’s missions was vegetation so thick that shots came at mere feet. “When you go out looking for a lion, be quite sure you want to see him.” He recalled that Punch cartoon when, on the track of a tiger, he came upon a huge fallen tree blocking a ledge on a jungle slope. Ever alert, he spied “a black-and-yellow object about 3 inches long” beyond the tree. He stared. “The tip of the tail was 20 feet from me, and allowing 8 feet for the tiger’s length … his head would be 12 feet away. But I should have to approach much nearer [to see enough for a shot.] The safety catch of my .450/400 makes a very distinct click when thrown off, and to make any sound now [could well] bring the tiger right on top of me….”
But this was Corbett’s chance. “Inch by inch I again started to creep forward, until the whole of the tail, and after it the hind quarters [then his belly], came into view….” The regular rise and fall of the animal’s ribs showed it to be asleep. Corbett edged closer, until the shoulder, then the head was exposed.
“Aligning the sights … on his forehead I pressed the trigger and, while maintaining a steady pressure on it, pushed up the safety catch. I had no idea how this reversal of the usual method of firing would work, but it did work: and when the heavy bullet at that short range crashed into his forehead not so much as a quiver went through his body.”
The shot had happened at 5 feet. “I do not know how the close proximity of a tiger reacts on others, but me it always leaves with a breathless feeling…,” Corbett wrote with unassuming candor. He minded details in the jungle – a constant effort, given the enduring persistence required on many hunts. Mostly, they started as canvassings: long walks, patient waiting, talks with villagers who put him in touch with other villagers. The shot came as a period at the end of a sentence, an instant in time belying the preceding marathon.
Tiger hunts are no more; but the pursuit of lesser game can follow Corbett’s habit. The results of any hunt hinge largely on the risk you assume. The lower the risk, the better your odds for a kill. On the other hand, the greatest satisfaction follows long odds. Firing from distance, for example, you forego the failure that often attends close approach. You also relinquish that “breathless feeling.”
While the variety of game on the Kalahari doesn’t match that of bush to the north, the desert has outstanding gemsbok and eland, my focus this trip. My rifle: a borrowed 9.3×62 Mauser with open sights.
Long ago, traveling to Alaska for a crack at moose and Dall’s sheep, I’d made what some amigos considered a crazy decision. Passing over a bevy of scoped rifles in my rack, I chose an iron-sighted 1903 Springfield. “You’re nuts!” They knew I’d lived on beans and rice to make this hunt. “Good grief! Don’t bet it all on an ought-six with pre-Depression sights!”
But I did. After a long climb, and on open scree, I surprised a group of rams hidden by a fold in the mountain. The shot came at 65 yards, and the biggest animal collapsed. Later, on the broad, willowed apron of an ice-fringed river, I spied moose antlers far away. By great good luck, the bull stayed where he was as I closed to 300 yards. Then a cow appeared! She caught my wind and ran toward the bull, hustling him away. I scurried forward, sat, snugged my sling and fired as the bull swung side-to. At 160 yards, my Nosler drove home.
Both animals could have been taken sooner, and more easily, with a scoped rifle. But I remember that hunt for its demands on my patience and sneaking skills – also for dashed hopes when game left me no shot. In my teens, hunting whitetails with a war-weary SMLE, I couldn’t wait to get a “better rifle with a scope.” But there I was, prowling Alaska with iron sights while scoped magnums languished at home!
On my first safari, I carried a Model 70 in .375 with a Redfield receiver sight. It proved lethal up close on buffalo, but also took a bushbuck and a waterbuck, and, at 170 yards, a fine warthog. It dawned on me the game I shot with my scoped .300 H&H on that trip wasn’t any farther off than animals toppling to the .375. Maybe irons weren’t always a handicap!
But as my eyes aged, I leaned more heavily on binoculars to spot game, and relied on scopes to place bullets precisely. Deer I’d clobbered with the .303 and a .30-30, the elk I got with a .32 Special, the kudu with a .470 – all with irons – were gifts. Scopes delivered game I couldn’t have taken without glass.
From another perspective, though, optical sights ended hunts prematurely. They permitted killing from outside the “alert zone” of game. Shots came just as I should have been tested. The product of these hunts came more surely, at the expense of the process that had once defined hunting.
Choosing the open-sighted Mauser for the Kalahari, I’d gone back to what had intrigued me about hunting in the first place. Wrapping my hand around that nine-three felt good.
Jamy Traut has earned plenty of press in hunting publications. His camps in northern and central Namibia have hosted many SCI members, as well as my High Country Adventures safaris for women. “If you don’t find magic in the Kalahari,” he told me on the half-day drive from his Panorama property, “you can finish the week in a mall in Windhoek.”
No danger of that.
The red dunes crest like blunted surf to horizons gray in the cold dawn of Namibia’s winter. Tufts of coarse grass and wind-wrenched trees dot the humps and hollows. Streets – shallow, serpentine clefts that clutch cold and shadow into mid-morning – shelter us, hill to hill. Prone, to hide from sharp gemsbok eyes, we glass carefully from the hilltops, he with his Swarovski EL, me with an 8x Leica. Spotting game here demands persistence; each post shows another slope, another slice of the endless labyrinth of streets.
“There!” It’s the third day. We’ve declined immature gemsbok, short-horned gemsbok, gemsbok a tad too far for open sights. We’ve tripped over gemsbok we should have seen, bungled stalks on bulls we might have shot. This group is loafing, half a mile away. Jamy leads on a dash downslope, swinging wide to get the wind. We churn through the sand, pop over a ridge and find … nothing.
Silently, we ease forward on elbows, glassing not for animals but horn-tips over the curve of the hill, a glint of eye in shadow. Jamy spots it first. “They’re right below us!” Inching forward, we spy a fine bull. But to get a shot, I’ll expose myself to the rest of the herd. We deliberate; the animals move; a cow spies – what? My hat? Jamy’s? I can’t say. The animals string out at a trot. Then, in a saddle, they stop.
Prone, I’ve steadied the bead. It’s an ambitious poke for irons. “One forty,” hisses Jamy. I guess 120, aim carefully and squeeze. The bull drops in the blur of recoil, a solid “thwuck” following the rifle’s roar. It is a very big bull with long horns. I cycle the bolt. But the ribs are soon still.
It’s enough, one fine gemsbok with irons. The lion sighting later is a bonus. We see the change in the eyes as we approach, from dismissive to curious to alert. Then the laser focus of the predator. “Best back off,” says Jamy. One evening, returning to camp with an antelope, we photograph a pride coming to investigate the smell of fresh meat. Staff and hunters in the back of the Cruiser suddenly pile into the cab.
“We’ve a day left. You’ve not shot an eland.” Well, I have. Several. But not on the Kalahari, and not with irons. So we rise early, motor into the desert under a pink wash of dawn. By great good luck, we spy a gang of bulls right away. They’re in the company of gemsbok, “multiplying eyes and ears,” Jamy nods. We sweep wide, peek over a dune at 200 yards. Too far. We wait, my fingers stiff with cold. Eland and gemsbok sift apart. We lose track of some. The wind fishtails. The four eland trot over a ridge. One lingers, a rear guard. Still, we wait, unable to move on the others, certainly crossing a broad street beyond.
“Now!” the rear bull has slipped over the crest. We sprint across the sand, scramble up the slope, skirt a gemsbok that nonetheless gallops off to the side. Time’s up! I scoot to a bush and spot two eland. “Bull on the left!” Jamy hisses. There’s no shot from prone. I kneel, catch the shoulder with the bead and fire. The 285-grain softpoint lands hard. The bull collapses. Another shot, and he rolls over.
There’s something special about eland, something that saddens me when my bullet claims one. I walk the 90 yards slowly, watch the breathing subside. It is a very big bull, with a prominent tuft.
“We got him fairly,” says Jamy quietly. He understands. “Close, without glass.” It may, I think, be the only way I will ever again hunt on the Kalahari.–Wayne Van Zwoll