Seeing the unseen

The sun flared and sunk from the African sky like a spitfire descending to land, while the soft charcoal of twilight bled out to a darker ink. A spotted eagle owl gave its first cry of the night and I turned away from Pride Rock and winked at Hennie. The young professional hunter grinned and said, “Yes sir, a beauty… maybe tomorrow!”

‘Tomorrow’ found Hennie and me quartering the wind as we tacked in among the thorns and isolated clearings below Pride Rock. We’d finally got the lay of the old warthog’s territory the previous evening. He was a dominant boar and had given us the slip on a couple of occasions, but we now knew where his digs were so were on full alert. Warthogs are iconic, novel creatures and so ugly they are beautiful. Typically, they can be challenging to hunt, and this guy was commanding our full attention.

Sometimes luck is on your table and a flicker of brown indicated a sounder of warthogs, oblivious to our presence, scuffling quite quickly through the maze of thorns ahead. We had to rely on a combination of skill and intuition to keep up with them as we closed to 25m. There was no opportunity for a shot, so we kept shifting with the hogs. The atmosphere was tense: anticipation and anxiety fortified with a slug of adrenaline made for a heady cocktail.

Stalking so close to warthog in their natural habitat gets the adrenaline flowing

Then Hennie went right and I grabbed him and pulled him left. The warthogs had cut back and, masked by a wall of scrub, were on line to cut our wind. Flashes of brown and grey amid the dust and thorns were all that we could see of Phacochoerus africanus, so picking out the boar and making an accurate shot seemed impossible but, paradoxically, clarity comes in moments of chaos. I became so acutely aware of everything within the bubble of my focus and, in that split second, registered Hennie’s nod, the rust colour of the boar, the slight gap in the vegetation, and the brief opportunity.

Pigs exploded into a gallop at the shot and the boar raced off at a ridiculously fast clip, but we were not to worry – a ruby blood trail tethered us to the trophy, so we relaxed and autopsied the stalk. Hennie was shaking so badly he couldn’t light a smoke. We laughed to ease the tension and I shot a friendly barb at my PH, “Why the hell have you got buck fever? I was the one doing the shooting!”

Hennie grinned, “Blixem – I have never stalked so close to a warthog before, Crimpy!” It had indeed been a great stalk, culminating in me pulling the trigger five metres from the pig, and being rewarded with a first class trophy.

A tense stalk and a five-metre shot resulted in a first-class trophy

The bushveld is challenging to hunt, with plenty of cover and a multitude of factors to give the game away: shifting wind, a thousand eyes watching, satellite dish ears tuned to the slightest alien sound, and pure dumb luck. The really exceptional trophies are generally only seen by very good hunters; they don’t get big by being dumb and you have to utilise every skill just to get the chance to see them. Big kudu for example, and I mean BIG kudu, vanish like the ephemeral wisp of smoke before you even realise you need to go quiet: the ratchet of a handbrake being pulled on, the clink of a car door, a conversation above a micro-whisper, and heavy footfalls telegraph your intentions and leave you convinced these monsters simply don’t exist.

Later, Hennie stayed back with the bakkie, while Louis and I hunted in the evening. Louis and I seldom talk on the hunt; sign language with minimal movement is our currency of choice: slight nod of the head, raise of the eyebrow, roll of the eye, and ever-so-slight hand movements. On the stalk, I tuck right in behind him, Indian file, because this minimises movement, but when scouting I often hang back 10 metres. Being tail-end-Charlie occasionally allows me to pick up animals that have moved after Louis has gone through, but he doesn’t miss much. And, most importantly, when Louis calls the animal as a taker, I don’t ‘worry’ the shot but take it quickly and crisply, the moment it is on; canny old animals generally give you a three-second window and they are gone. The young and curious stand and give you all the time in the world to polish the shot and manicure your nails.

The sun was again on finals, sinking inexorably towards the gentle curve of Africa’s horizon. Mopani trees lit up in a blaze of colour as the giant orb dipped lower, then softened to a golden hue that reflected a counterfeit paradise; it was the time of chui, the leopard — its pug marks discernible in the sand ahead — so the animal kingdom remained in a relaxed state of alertness. With silent footfalls, the bulk that was Louis filtered through the forest like a fog creeping in over the moor. As he padded along the dry course of a forgotten river, he pointed out the marks of a rhino and where it had scattered its dung with its hind legs. He indicated various other signs, reading the forest like a paperback thriller, and I wondered if the leopard really was his totem; the perfect predator.

Hennie and Louis commence the hard work

My reverie was shattered when I collided with a stationary Louis.

“Wake up, Fat Boy,” he hissed without turning. His gaze was locked on the resting form of gemsbok, almost invisible in the open.

“Huge horns,” he mouthed, “42 inches!”

“Yes but female,” I whispered. I could distinctly make out the thin bases and corkscrew tips through my Swarovski 10×42 binoculars. The rangefinder pegged it at under 40m. Only a leopard could get that close. “There’s your bull,” Louis purred. He knew I liked old animals that had served the gene pool well and ‘dodged many bullets’. “Wait till it turns broadside.”

Somewhere in a blink, the old master bull had materialised and I now had the full measure of him through the scope. He was front on but turned to nibble his haunch – an itch perhaps. Then he turned side on… and stepped into the forest. Not even three seconds!

I pivoted off Louis’s shoulder and took a bead on a gap between two trees. As the gemsbok fed through it, I aimed at the base of the neck and touched off a shot. The forest erupted in gemsbok – oryx for Africa. Confident of the shot, I ejected the spent case but was horrified by Louis’s reaction.

“You missed!”

“Impossible.” The sight picture was still crisp in my mind. Louis ran after the scattering herd while I confidently walked over to where the fallen bull… wasn’t. I had missed.

“Nah, it’s worse, boet,” Louis said, “you gut shot it!”

“Impossible.” The sight picture was still fresh in my mind.

But he indicated a tiny speck of watery blood amidst the ‘sheep yard’ of dusty tracks in the sand. I cursed his leopard eyes and felt sick. I’d just spent a wad of US dollars; in Africa you pay when you draw blood. More importantly, we had a wounded animal we couldn’t leave to the hyenas, so recriminations would have to wait until later. It was time for ‘track and trace’, but I held little hope of ever seeing that bull again.

Louis radioed Hennie and what unfolded, I would have paid money for. Together they found another speck of blood amid a million grains of sand and isolated the prints belonging to my bull. Patiently, from the chaos of fleeing hoof prints, they teased the trajectory of the wounded gemsbok and set about tracking it. There was no more blood, just faint indentations in the sand, overturned leaves, bent grass, and intuition that comes with having a leopard as your totem.

The execution of the hunt might not have been perfect, but the result was the right one

I held back 10m so I had a different field of view, looking about while they looked down. Amazingly, the herd had not run far after the shot and had resumed grazing in an open glade 100 metres on. I whistled softly and indicated left, but Louis shook his head. The bull had split from the herd.

They resumed their hunched, unhurried gait, picking at the clues like hens on the feed. Then something caught my eye; perfectly melded with the shadows just 30m away was the hunched shape of the veteran warrior. I whistled, Louis followed my gaze, nodded, and for the second time that day, the gemsbok was unaware of our presence.

At the sound of thunder, the master bull collapsed and we three spontaneously celebrated the post hunt euphoria: shouts, hugs, high fives, congratulations all round, and head-shakes of utter relief and disbelief. While the execution of the hunt was less than perfect, the outcome was the right one.

A later autopsy revealed that my bullet had hit an unseen branch and deflected. While I berated myself for the poor shot, I was equally thrilled to have experienced a touch of African witchcraft; these guys see the unseen. I looked at Louis and realised what a privilege it was to have hunted in the shadow of the leopard.

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