As Johnny and pilot, Craig, disappeared into the direction of Beira, I saw a dejected Temba crossing the runway in my direction. With that look of a beaten man he stared at me before uttering;” I’m sorry.” I stood there for a minute taking in what had just happened, then realizing that he had turned and was heading towards his sleeping quarters, I shouted after him;”I’m sorry too.”
Here was a man I respected more than most, a proud Zulu tracker, a dedicated team player – but most of all a fine man. A man whom could be relied on when starring danger in the eye while facing a charging Cape Buffalo, yet he possessed a deep sense of humanity, a quiet ear to listen, and an uncanny ability to offer advice in the most subtle manner. He had sat out on the hood night after night, determined to spot a track – his “want” for a successful hunt was as strong as all of ours, yet he felt the urge to apologize for his part he had played in the failure. It felt good knowing my team was as invested as I was in the drive for success – it gave me hope knowing my old buddy, Dave Kjelstrup, would be landing in a couple of hours.
Dave was back on his third trip with John X Safaris, and this time we were after a number of species he hadn’t hunted yet, including an all important Leopard.
Stix had met up with Dave in Johannesburg, escorting him all the way to camp in the Delta, joining us on our hunt to gain further experience in Mozambique. And what an experience it proved to be for both Stix and Dave – starting off with a truly world-class Litchenstein Hartebeest.
With our daily hunts going better than expected we turned our attention to Coenraad and Stix, whom had each formed their own teams’ for the night shift. Each crew would head out after sundown each evening patrolling their selected “clean” roads. Coenraad was determined in hunting down the now legendary Crocodile Pan cat, while Stix covered a heavily baited area which boasted good leopard activity.
Having pursued the same cat on and off for five consecutive nights, Coenraad felt he was catching up to the tom. He was figuring out a pattern. Our daily early morning get-togethers around the campfire with a steaming cup of coffee brought new information to the front, while our notes and pictures in the sand became more elaborate each morning. We were plotting his route, while trying to determine where his territorial boundaries lay. Natural boundaries such as rivers, old tracks in the forest, water holes, and dry pans, were important to consider. Past hunted cats were as important as the fresh signs of this tom, as Leopard often take over another cats territory if it suddenly disappears. Finding scratch posts were basically impossible with the vastness of the forest, but known posts were considered in our analysis. We were a team of guys banking on every ounce of experience to outwit the Crocodile Pan monster.
Having overcome the disappointment of chasing this exact same cat with Johnny, having lost it in a fresh burn during the final stages of that chase a mere 8 days earlier, Coenraad and Live, were zoning in on their quarry. It was night six of Dave’s hunt, and Coenraad had predicted the toms movements to a precise area that morning. He had made a big call the night before, having found a fairly “old” track, one from the early evening, then deciding there wasn’t enough dark hours left in the night to pursue the tom, he let him be. He did however leave the track in a favorable area and now was in hot pursuit.
Head dog Karrel was as frustrated as any, she too had done her job every evening, and at her age with a certainty of distinction too, she too knew she was close, the cat was no longer walking, he was running, they had finally put him up. At last! Soon the younger dogs would take over with their youthful spirits and enduring speed, before the packs “convincer”, Virgo, would use her size and temper to convince the tom to tree.
At one stage Coenraad felt the tom may have treed as the dogs were constant, remaining in the same area, intensifying their barking. Together with Live they slowly approached, cautious in every movement, a cat of this size and age would not be an easy customer in a tree. They say for every second a Leopard spends mauling you it’s responsible for an average of 140 stitches… There’s good reason for the cautious approach and respect.
With a mere three hundred yards to go the brewing storm that had been threatening overhead all day, opened its heavens and drenched all with a torrential downpour. Needless to say our hunt was over. In the dead of night the tom escaped yet again…. How many lives did this cat have?
For the next four days it rained. It felt like we were stuck in a Forest Gump movie with Tom Hanks, enduring every kind of rain imaginable to man.
From time to time the clouds would clear and the sun would come through for a couple of hours before closing in again. During these times we made the most of our opportunities, hunting what we could when we could without getting stuck.
Having done what we could, having made peace with the fact that we could not change the weather, we rose that last morning to a beautiful day. This would be it – tonight would be the night, surely any sane cat would head out hunting that evening? Having endured four wet nights we felt the cats had to walk.
Four enthusiastic crews left camp at sundown that last evening, hoping to make Dave’s hunt the success we hoped it would be by finding his elusive Leopard. Up to this stage we had enjoyed a hugely successful and enjoyable hunt, only coming up short on his Leopard. Throughout all this time Dave had stressed how much he appreciated the endless perseverance and effort by the team, and was happy with what would be, would be. He was an experienced hunter, knowing full well one cannot win every time one headed out on a hunt.
In the end we limped back to camp in dribs and drabs at sunup, having experienced one of the quietest nights of the entire three weeks spent in the Delta. All of us were back, with only Coenraad still out at sunup… There was still some hope. And then the familiar diesel drone came into earshot. As he rounded that last bend into camp it was final… No screeching tyres, excited hounds, or the adrenalin rush of a fresh Leopard track, just the look of a tired and disappointed man. Our hunt was over.
The heart break … When the gods are just not fair…
The day we left the Delta there were a couple of German hunters from Blaser in one of the other camps within the concession. They kindly asked our hounds man , Coenraad, if he’d give it one last go before he headed back to South Africa the following day , a long and tedious journey through Zimbabwe and finally into SA. Coenraad agreed half heartedly, he knew of old “Murphy” and its mysterious laws.
The next morning I received the following from Coenraad first, then Mark;” Sorry mate… We shot a big Leopard last night.” The heartbreak just about got the better of me, let alone my two great friends, Johnny and Dave, who had invested not only emotionally in the pursuit, but had spent a fair penny on the opportunity to pursue a Leopard.
It was not that we weren’t happy for the German hunter who hunted a beautiful Leopard in one of my favorite parts of Africa, but the reality that one never knows when it comes to hunting. We had given it our all and then some…. Who knows? Maybe next time the hunting gods may smile down on us more favorably and shower us in luck.
Appreciation of the crew… Giving credit where it’s due.
While every single hunt at John X Safaris is planned with meticulous precision, with every member of the team driven to ensure the desired success of any given hunt, one can never take success as a given. Over time I have learnt I can however control the odds of success by selecting and investing in the right areas, with the right clientele, and the right team. Each one of these three aspects going hand in hand to ensure the success of any given safari.
But sometimes when the going gets tough and the stakes are down one gets reminded of how important it is to surround oneself with good people, after all without them there would be no team at all. In this sense, more than just good people – good animals.
To the guys and girls whom I had the privilege to call my team in Mozambique over the past month – I cannot thank you all enough. Mark, Mike, Poen, Stix, Anton, “Donkey Kong Little Craig”, Temba, Staff, Zandre, Sarah, Roundy, Shorty, Nazoua, Gotchi, Albino, Mfana, Domingo, and Dagga Boy – thank you.
Then to Coenraad and Live, your endless perseverance and never say die attitude is what sets you apart from the many other houndsman out there. I don’t know how you do it night in and night out!
Lastly, but certainly not least, to our four-legged fury friends – Karrel, Botswana, Boesman, Virgo, Pepper, Daisy, Ice, and even Spotty – you girls are all in a league of your own. Your excited pants and echoing barks ringing out into the night air gives one goosebumps of excitement and anticipation. I can’t wait to join you ladies soon again!
So what if I told you I’d love a rematch tomorrow? I’d like to get out there again…right now. The critic in you may question my sanity in being so determined to pursue the Crocodile Pan cat again, after all we did fail miserably with a bunch of rotten luck. You may also question my claim of success being a 50/50, but consider our past success rate of 100% on Leopard, then taking into account the last two missed cats, the average is still very much in the high 80’s. But let’s not get caught up in the figures, what does a Leopard know about averages? It’s like my old mate Lou Hallimore always says;”Leopard hunting is a 50/50 – you either get a cat or you don’t….”