The year was 1958.  I was 18 years old and not long out of school, and I was working for an old friend of the family. My job was to supervise the opening of a new copper mine on the Angwa River in the northern part of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). One of my jobs was to shoot bush-meat for the 20-man labour force that we employed. My weapon was an old .303 SMLE that had been converted to a .22 Hornet. Bushbuck were my regular quarry, but not this time…

One afternoon I hunted the valley behind our camp. I walked up the dry Nyashire gorge and then moved up the southern hillside to a saddle in the hills that overlooked the adjacent drainage. My position overlooked one of those rare gentle basins amidst the rugged hills. The veld had been burnt clean and there were patches of green grass sprouting from the black stubble in the hollows.

I approached the rim of the saddle cautiously. Lying down flat on my belly, I crawled to the lip of the basin, lifting my head slowly to scan the vista below.

A scenic still-hunt

On my left was a small dry stream, which ran diagonally down the slope to the middle of the basin. There was a dry waterfall 50 yards away, encased by a curved wall of sheer rock that formed a horseshoe amphitheatre. I could only see the top of the closest wall.

There were a number of large trees growing inside this secluded hollow, together with tall elephant grass and sundry brush that had not been burnt. This meant that is was a pocket of heavy cover that was not available anywhere else within the burnt surrounds.

I had learnt to be patient when enganged in this kind of still-hunting. I lay there quietly on the pebbly ground, slowly, gently and quietly removing several uncomfortable rocks and sticks from under my body.

At the bottom of the basin there were three huge ebony trees and, beyond, a thicket of the infamous Zambezi jesse. Bushbuck often emerged from the jesse at last light to feed on the regenerating green grass in the basin. The maximum range to any possible target was a 150 yards. I knew that if a bushbuck ventured into the open, its carcass would be hanging in our camp larder come nightfall. All I had to do was to wait and to watch.

I loved being alone like this in the late evening so whatever happened I knew I would enjoy the experience. I had been lying there for perhaps 15 minutes when I felt rather than heard subtle sounds coming from the dry waterfall on my left front. I focused my attention in that direction and confirmed the soft noises I had detected. They were familiar yet out of place in that wild environment. What I had heard sounded just like a dog gnawing on a bone.

Then I heard a grunt. Bushpigs! There were bushpigs in the little thicket at the waterfall! A bushpig would do! I imagined, in a flash of frivolity, a cooked bushpig lying on the camp’s bush-pole table with an apple in its mouth. I held my breath and shut my eyes. I focused all my senses on the sounds I was hearing. Bushpigs? No! It sounded much more like a dog. But there were no dogs here on the Angwa.

 Big surprise

I heard a soft growl. It was a pleasurable, contented sound. It was the sound a dog or a cat makes when unhurriedly enjoying a meal. It was deeper and much more resonant, however, than the growl of a dog. The sound instantly raised the hair on the back of my neck.

It was a leopard! It could be nothing else. There was a leopard in the waterfall thicket feeding on a kill!

The moment I was sure what it was I was hearing, the adrenaline began to pump. All over my body my nerves were suddenly aquiver. My hands began to sweat and to shake and all the other familiar symptoms of juvenile buck fever became immediately manifest. The excitement, the adrenaline high that ran rife through my body was indescribable.

At that stage in my life I had never seen a leopard. Nevertheless, I had read all about how terribly dangerous these big cats can be when wounded. I had read many tales about the terrible maulings that hunters have suffered after they had incautiously approached a leopard they believed they had killed. All these thoughts ran round and round in my head as I lay there on the brink of the ridge and listened to the muted sounds of the leopard feeding. Most were so soft and faint that had I drawn my attention away from the dry waterfall, I would not have heard them.

A black-headed oriole flew across the valley and perched on a treetop above where the leopard lay feeding. The bird’s golden breast shone brightly in the sunlight. No sooner had it landed than it sounded its strident, piping call. Its loud voice totally swamped the gentle sounds the leopard was making.

It didn’t matter! I now knew the leopard’s whereabouts and because it did not know mine, I understood implicitly that I held the hunting advantage.

After a while the bird flew away.

Long night ahead?

Slowly my buck fever subsided and my mind began to function more constructively. I was very conscious of the fact that I had only a .22 Hornet in my hands. The calibre was totally unsuitable for leopard hunting but the tiny bullet was quite capable of killing a leopard. But how was I going to get close enough to place the .22 Hornet bullet into one of its vital organs?

The leopard was somewhere below the rim of the waterfall. Wherever it was, I was going to have to approach right to the edge of the rocky precipice to see it. And one thing was certain – if I could not see the leopard, I would not be able to shoot it.

I pondered the possibilities. There was no way I was going to get to the edge of the waterfall without the leopard hearing me. One false move, one snick of a shifted pebble, one rasp of a foot on a stiff piece of burnt stubble, and the leopard would be instantly aware of my presence. Trying to approach the waterfall, therefore, was out of the question.

I could wait and hope the leopard would finish its meal and move out. But I knew instinctively that the animal would not emerge from the thicket before nightfall.

The sun disappeared behind the mountain ridge. Time was running out. If I was to kill this leopard I had to make a plan – and fast. I racked my brain. The vegetation had been burnt bare all around the waterfall. If I could contrive a way to get the leopard to move out of the thicket I would be able to shoot it as it moved across the open veld. That was the only solution I could think of. It was my only chance.

I levered a flat stone out of the soil in front of my face. Slowly, quietly, I rose to my feet. I was confident the leopard would not be able to see me from where it was hidden below the waterfall. I needed to stand up to get the leverage I required to hurl the rock. Gripping the projectile between thumb and forefinger I sent it flying through the air down the slope. It travelled like a discus floating on the air and landed about a hundred yards away down the hillside.

I dropped back into my supine position and was well hidden again by the time the rock hit the ground. I pulled up my rifle, flipped off the safety catch and made ready to fire my shot.

The rock hit the ground with a soft clattering sound.  I was ready to shoot the leopard when it left the waterfall thicket. Nothing happened. There were no longer any feeding noises coming from the thicket. All I could hear was silence! All I could sense was stillness!

I did not know what to expect but was ready for anything. I imagined the leopard slinking off up the hillside, stopping once to look back. That would be my best chance – when it stopped. In my mind I just knew it would stop. I waited patiently. Nothing happened.

A flock of Natal francolins began their clattering calls in the jesse thicket beyond the bottom stream. They were answered by another covey higher up the gorge. A purple-crested lourie churred intermittently from a tangle of creepers growing in the canopy of  the ebonies. A flock of crowned hornbills flew by, voicing their piping calls. There were other more subtle noises coming from the bush all around.

These were all messages that indicated everything was quiet and peaceful in the valley below. None of them were alarm calls. They were social calls. I believed that if I could interpret them as being innocuous, so would the leopard. Still nothing happened. Still silence reigned.

I began to think I would have to throw another rock. Maybe I should lob a stone directly into the waterfall thicket itself? No!  Intuitively I knew that would not do. Patience. I had to have patience. I discarded the idea of a second missile.

One minute led into the next. For a full five minutes there was neither sound nor movement from the waterfall thicket. Then suddenly, unexpectedly, the leopard heaved itself silently up the trunk of one of the big trees.

I still have a very clear impression of the leopard’s movement. There was a primary sense of the animal’s immense power. The big cat moved with such lack of effort. It was full of grace. It leapt straight up the tall trunk of the tree as though it was running over a flat piece of ground. What impressed me the most was the absolute silence that accompanied this movement. There was not even a whisper of sound. Not one single tearing scratch of a claw. Not even the suspicion of dislodged bark pieces hitting the ground. Nothing! The leopard’s leap had been executed with no audible noise whatsoever.

My quarry was now up the tree. It stood on a lateral branch looking down into the valley below. Despite all the other homely sounds it was hearing, the leopard had understood one thing: something quite large must have dislodged the stone. It could not afford to ignore the possibilities of another predator nearby or a potential source of danger.

The leopard was a big tom. I could clearly see his testicles standing out under his tail. He was perched up there on the lateral branch, broadside on to me, in full view. The white tip of his tail swung gently to and fro. His head turned first to the left then to the right. He was looking down the valley towards where the stone had landed. And he was only fifty yards away!

I was shaking imperceptibly, quivering softly inside, as I brought my iron sights to bear on that beautiful body. I set the tip of the front post just behind the leopard’s right shoulder and I brought the flat top of the rear U-sight up until it was in line with the tip of the post. The foresight was snug in the rear sight’s U.

Enough gun … ?
Suddenly my body started shaking like a leaf in the wind. My mind was awhirl. Doubts there were aplenty. Would the tiny .22 Hornet soft-nose bullet do its job? Was I being irresponsible in attempting to kill a leopard with such a small calibre bullet? None of these doubts really mattered because I knew I was going to do it. I was going to shoot this leopard come hell or high water. He was mine! Ever so gently I squeezed off the second pressure on the trigger.The rifle barked. The leopard’s body jerked. The big cat turned. It seemed as if it was going to attempt a controlled descent of the tree. Then it lifted its head high and tumbled backwards off the branch. There followed a most terrifying period of growls and roars that I had ever heard. The animal was clearly in a rage. I could hear its body thrashing about amongst the canes of the elephant grass in the thicket beneath the trees. Then, just as suddenly as the angry noises had begun began, complete silence returned to the veld.

I lay on my belly and did not move. I had already ejected the spent shell and pushed another round into the chamber. I was ready should the leopard emerge from the thicket and come in my direction. I was ready to shoot it again if it ran in any other direction.

I lay as if frozen. I did not want to betray my location by either sound or movement.

My eyes were the only part of me that moved. They scanned every nook and cranny around the waterfall. My ears were attuned to catch the slightest vestige of sound – even just a whisper! Nothing! There was not a sound.

Down in the valley below me the francolins were now quiet. The crack of the rifle and the reverberations of the report up and down the gorges had long since died away. Its message conveying the hunter’s presence had been heard. Every animal and every bird within hearing distance of that shot was at that very moment, like me, standing or sitting or lying perfectly still. They were all listening with great attention.

The minutes dragged on. Still silence reigned. I was reluctant to move for several reasons. First, I did not want to betray my whereabouts just in case the leopard was not dead. I had no desire to be attacked by an irate, wounded leopard with only a .22 Hornet in my hands. Second, and perhaps more importantly, I did not move because I was deeply afraid.

I thought of slipping down into the Nyashire gorge behind me and making my way back to camp leaving the leopard to lick his wound or to die from it if he was not already dead. There was a double-barrelled 12-gauge shotgun in the camp. I could come back with a weapon that much more appropriate. By then the sun was long gone. There was not enough light left to get to camp and back before it was dark.

What to do? Five minutes dragged into ten. Already the whole valley below me was in the shadow of the mountains. Soon it would be too dark to see my sights. I did not relish the thought of lying there when total darkness came. If I was going to do anything at all, I was going to have to do it soon.

It was with great trepidation that I rose from my supine position on the rim of the basin. I stood there on the high edge of the valley, sticking out like a sore thumb. I looked down towards the waterfall thicket. I was racked with indecision. There was still not a sound from the thicket and I began to believe the leopard was dead. I hoped and prayed with great fervour that it was dead. I felt confident that my tiny bullet had found its mark. I was sure the projectile had flown true. Still I was afraid to venture any closer to the waterfall.

Steeling my nerves, I slowly picked my way over the stony ground moving ever closer to the top edge of the waterfall. Each step rang loudly in my ears. If the leopard was still alive I knew it would be listening to my every footfall. Fear gathered in my throat. It threatened to choke me but now I was on my way I was not going to stop.

I reached the waterfall and carefully looked over the top edge of the precipice. Nothing moved down below. I could see nothing. I could hear nothing. I inched closer, leaning forward, my rifle ready. Down in the dry pebble-filled bowl below me I saw the carcass of a young bushbuck. I moved closer to the cliff edge and looked down at its spotted red coat. I examined it carefully. A large part had been eaten.

I looked up at the tree locating the branch on which the leopard had been standing when I shot it. I looked down beneath the branch to the place where the leopard had fallen. Here the grass and the bushes were thick. The shadows were now very dark. I could see nothing even from my elevated position. There was no dead leopard. There was no live leopard. I still did not know the fate of my quarry!

There was one consolation. If the leopard was still alive it would have trouble getting to me up the small cliff that separated me from the thicket below. That fact gave me some confidence.

The leopard was a big tom. He was looking down the valley to where the stone had landed. He was only fifty yards away…Sketch by Joleen Coetzee.

I picked up a rock and lobbed it into the thicket. It crashed through the brush and hit the ground. Nothing moved. There was not a sound. I picked up another and threw it into the bushes, too. Still nothing moved. Either the leopard was dead or it was stoically hiding.

The coming darkness worried me but I did not know what to do. I would have been a fool to venture into the thicket at this time of day on my own. Should the leopard attack me and should I be badly mauled, there was nobody to help me. Furthermore, nobody knew where I was except that I was somewhere in the labyrinth of gorges that lay behind the copper claims. I was also acutely conscious that I was armed only with a .22 Hornet.

Discretion proved the greater part of valour. I decided to wait until morning. I would then come back with a gang of labourers and with the shotgun in my hands. Buckshot would be a safer bet than the Hornet bullet.

I backed off from the waterfall. Edging my way slowly and cautiously I walked backwards all the way to the rim of the Nyashire gorge. I retreated quietly over the saddle and hurried down the ravine back to camp. Once out of the danger zone a huge feeling of relief flooded through me. I felt as though I had been given a new lease on life.

I did not sleep much that night. I worried about my leopard. I did not know if it was dead or just wounded. And I was anxious about the morrow. I faced the prospect of going into that thicket to look for the leopard I had shot. The thought filled me with terror.

Early the next morning I press-ganged four men from the labour team and armed them with pick-axe handles. I took the shotgun and I loaded it with SSG.

I looked down into the thicket from the top edge of the waterfall precipice. In the clear morning light I could see everything so much better. But I could still not see my leopard, dead or alive. I lobbed rocks into every conceivable position that I thought might conceal my quarry. I got no reaction.

Was the leopard dead? Was it lying down there wounded? Had it slipped away sometime during the hours of darkness to lick its wound in some hidden retreat far away? I had no answer to these questions. I could do nothing but go down into the thicket and search the underbrush at close quarters.

We walked down the slope to the bottom-edge of the amphitheater. None of my companions was prepared to come into the thicket with me. They stood their ground outside, their pick-axe handles ready. That was as far as their support would go. I must say I couldn’t blame them.

My heart was in my mouth and racing fast when slowly, and with great trepidation, I stepped into the peripheral edge of the thicket. Once I was through that mental barrier I stood still for several long minutes and I stared into the heavy brush. My inexperience was playing games with my imagination. All I could hear was the sound of my heartbeat.

I walked deeper, ever so slowly, ever so quietly into the thicket. Each step was an agony of precision. Ahead of me was the tree which the leopard had climbed the evening before. My eyes flicked into the upper branches. They returned immediately to the ground. The leopard would be on the ground! I probed every nook and cranny that I thought might hide a leopard.

I reached the base of the tree. The bush here was much thicker than I remembered it. My eyes probed the surrounding undergrowth. Nothing! I stood perfectly still. I remained like that for a long time and quietly looked around. Then, just as I was about to turn away to check the base of the cliff, I saw him.

The big cat was lying on its side on the bank of the stream. Its body was so obvious I wondered why I had not seen it before. The second I recognised one small patch of the spotted skin the whole body was exposed to me as clear as daylight. Up to that moment the black rosettes on the golden hide had melded completely with the sun-dappled patterns of the surrounding bush.

The leopard was dead. I could see that at a glance. I realised that it must have been dead inside half a minute from the time it hit the ground. It was not more than ten yards from the base of the tree from which it had fallen.