The drag mark slashed the copper dust of the road with a two-foot wide swath that erased gemsbok, kudu and hartebeest tracks from one side to the other. Professional Hunter Allan Cilliers slid the Toyota Land Cruiser into park and casually said as both invitation and direction, “Let’s go for a walk in the woods.”
Allan’s woods are 60,000 acres of Kalahari Desert in northeast Namibia. It is winter here, with cool nights and warm days. The pitifully short rainy season ended six months ago, and the arid earth is Dust Bowl dry. For me, an African greenhorn, the guide to animal tracks in my daypack is worthless. The hoof prints defy description and spread out shapeless and generic in the loose sand. But a lifetime of game management and guiding allows Allan and the trackers to read the sign like I read the morning paper. And the sign says a female leopard killed here late yesterday afternoon. The spoor also says she has two cubs, big and hungry yearlings, who demand the leopardess kills often to feed their growing appetites.
Like an obedient but anxious puppy, I follow Allan and his trackers, John and Ernest, through the tangled maze of wait-a-bits and wild raisin bush. The wait-a-bits punish the unwary with torn clothes and skin for each careless step. I enviously watched the trackers move fluidly through the thorn brush. During the 10-day hunt, I never saw any of them get snagged. Allan stated the obvious, “The white man is clumsy.” I think he meant me.
We found the half-buried gut pile. The eviscerated mess of antelope entrails is inedible to a leopard. A 150-pound yearling kudu lies nearby. That kill, half again what the leopardess weighs, has been dragged some 300 yards from the ambush site. The neck is torn in a classic leopard hold, and the three cats have since sheared away the haunches. The size of the kill is a testament to the leopard’s prowess. I have traveled half a world away for something even bigger, preferably with horns. But for these leopards, this young kudu fit the menu perfectly.
Standing over this fresh kill I mused out loud over the proximity of our leopard trio. Allan confirmed the cats could be resting off the first course of their kudu feast nearby. They were probably quite aware that we were there, examining their handiwork as if participating in some half-baked Big Cat CSI.
Leopards jealously guard their kills, and with good reason. The local area abounds with other predators: Cape hunting dogs, cheetahs, spotted hyenas, jackals and that fierce lesser cat, the caracal. A big male caracal goes 40 pounds and is bold enough to directly compete with leopards, killing springbok and duiker. The big cats have little patience and tolerate no interference from their smaller cousin. In camp, a stuffed caracal stands guard over Allan’s library. It was found dead, the victim of a leopard’s temper.
“This is a guaranteed leopard hunt,” Allan said. The emphasis on leopard hunt, not kill. Allan and his son, Wayne, conduct their cat hunts in a far different manner than most safari operators. Traditionally, bait animals are killed and hung in a likely spot of high leopard traffic. A blind is then built on the bait. Here on the Cilliers’ land, an abundance of well-managed game leaves leopards with but a passing interest in scavenging. Fresh meat on the hoof is available 24/7, and leopard numbers are high. After several consecutive days of spotting pugmarks on the roads, I asked Wayne about the cat population. “We’ve got plenty of leopards,” he said. “Maybe too many.”
A tightly controlled management program for leopards is in place, and the Cilliers allow only a few big cat hunts each season. Their strategy calls for the trackers to locate a new leopard kill. After a Double Bull blind is set up, the wait begins over the cat’s own kill. Any mature cat, male or female, is considered a trophy. Conditions must be perfect just to get a shot, but connecting on an adult cat is a far different matter. One morning, as we settled into the blind, Wayne slipped a tape into his camcorder and showed me some of the cat hunts he has guided. The tape was an interesting blend of solid hits, inexplicable hesitation and spectacular misses. Leopards seem to have a way of unraveling even the most seasoned bowhunters.
The prospect of a leopard hunt was intriguing, but I came to hunt the cat’s food, not the cats.
‘A Game of Odds’
Wayne just blurted it out one afternoon. “All you guys want a kudu! They’re as common here as your whitetails back home!” And it’s true; kudu crossing signs litter the local roads.
So, why does the Greater Kudu, Africa’s “Gray Ghost,” top every visiting hunter’s wish list? Maybe our kudu lust is no more complex than our admiration of their spiraled horns’ majesty and our desire to hold those horns and trace their twisting curves. Or maybe it’s Hemingway’s fault and the whole Green Hills of Africa envy over the size of his companion’s kudu.
But my pathetic rationale was lost on Wayne and his dime a dozen kudu. He allows no more favor over a good kudu bull than over a good duiker ram. In Wayne’s world, size just doesn’t matter; every trophy animal gets equal billing on the plains game marquee.
So we hunted kudu, sometimes distracted by a good gemsbok or a good warthog. From chilly mornings to fiery orange sunsets, I learned more about kudu and their behavior than in all the hours I invested in natural history books or watching the bull kudu at my workplace, the Naples Zoo. I believed I unnerved the poor fellows, burning imaginary holes in their kill zones day after day.
Cows, calves, yearlings, young bulls; they approach the waterholes and salt blocks with a practiced nonchalance, s
eeming to understand their lack of sizeable headgear spares them from our appraisal. Although some hunters adorn their dens with kudu cow skins, I resisted it — the cows lure in the mature bulls. A big bull does not survive to be 10, 12 or 14 years old without exercising extreme caution at the waterholes. It’s as if they know what they are carrying atop their heads, and they want to keep those horns as badly as we want to take them.
Like any mature whitetail, the kudu bull is more than aware of his horns; they provide a firm but gentle nudge to move a subordinate animal from the salt block or as heavy artillery for territorial war. We witnessed sparring by the young bulls, harmless practice for later. The real thing must be bone-jarring, horn-cracking battles. We saw several bulls that had horns broken off near the base. And with antelope, broken is forever. Antlers regenerate. Horns don’t.
Avoiding leopard fangs or being eaten alive by hyenas is a full-time job. These ungulates live or die by their senses. Hunting plains game from elevated or pit blinds isn’t a big-game shopping spree. Visiting bowhunters don’t simply pick the animal they want, drop the string and radio the truck for a ride to camp. Not in the least. One ill-timed, shadowy reach across the shooting port or swirl of wind clears a waterhole in seconds. I crumpled and discarded my wish list on day one. These hunts are no slam-dunk. I saw hundreds of animals, but shooting opportunities were rare. Not long after meeting Wayne, he repeated the often heard but not always heeded advice, “Don’t pass up anything on the first day you wouldn’t pass up on the last.”
The Cilliers have a policy that a PH or tracker must accompany hunters. Their keen judging ability ensures only fully mature animals are taken. All concessions should adopt their management tactics. I met some rifle hunters from Texas on the flight over and again on the return trip. They got their kudu only because they moved to a new area, as the good bulls had been shot out at their first destination. During the course of the hunt, I had opportunities at some very nice kudu, but the shot never materialized. Bad shot scenarios like quartering to, facing on and other animals in the way, plus a fickle wind, kept my arrow on the string time after time.
By day 10, my arrows had put four animals in the skinning shed and by all rights, on my first African hunt, it was more than I deserved. I hadn’t drawn the string on a big kudu bull, but it gave me a reason to return. Still, I tried to keep a sliver of hope. But with only 13 blinds on 60,000 acres — and the prey’s ability to go days without water — this was a game of odds, and they were stacked in the kudu’s favor.
Wayne and I spent the last morning in “Springbok” blind. Each blind on the property bears the name of the first species seen from it. Other names include Cobra, Wild Dog and Wildebeest. We followed the daily ritual of preparing the blind for a day’s sit; hanging bows here, binoculars and camera there, lunch coolers behind our folding chairs, and laying down the sleeping mat for Chu-Chu, Wayne’s plucky Jack Russell.
We were watching a Kori Bustard, the world’s largest flighted bird, when a kudu bull appeared out of the brush. More and more followed until 10 bulls fanned out in front of the blind. They occupied themselves with drinking at the waterhole, nibbling the salt block and sparring with one another. Their horns smacked with attention grabbing thuds. Ten bulls in a bachelor herd are remarkable. The previous day at this blind, Wayne and another hunter did not see a single bull. Just like Allan and Wayne had been saying all week, “Right time, right place.” In other words, just get lucky. And all 10 of those bulls were lucky. There was not a shooter in the bunch.
Somewhere, outside each blind, Wayne ties a feather to a branch. The feather is the harbinger of opportunity or failure. When the feather blows away from us, excitement fades and hope is lost. I wasn’t watching the feather and didn’t need to when the herd blew out and all grew quiet. When the feather lifted again, several young springbok filed in, drank and stood off in the shade as the day began to warm.
A gray, curled mass of horns ghosted above the low brush out past the sandy clearing. We simultaneously raised our binoculars and that little voice in my head said, Shooter! I turned to Wayne for confirmation. His nod was all I needed to slowly reach over and pull my bow from its hook. Chu-Chu snapped out of a dead sleep. She knows by experience; when a hunter grabs the bow, a blood trail is soon to follow.
The big bull wove his way toward us. I clipped the release on the string as my pulse raced and my hand tightened on the riser. And then the feather fell and my spirit with it. The kudu took my hopes back into the bush.
Wayne hastily pulled out all the stops to make something happen. He grabbed a dollop of zebra dung purposely kept in the blind, struck a match and lit a chunk to mask our scent. He tossed another piece of burning dung through the shooting hole. It stunk, but if stink would trick a kudu, I could stand it.
The feather lifted again and cows and calves, our decoys, filtered into our setup. The bull appeared once more. He had been hovering out of sight, watching, waiting for other animals to come and take the risk, giving him an all clear. My palms perspired, my heart pounded and my adrenaline raged. A shot just might happen after all.
“I knew he’d do that,” Wayne said as the bull came to water but drank face on. He moved to the salt, shoved off two younger bulls and worked the block, quartering to us. I stole a glance at my watch. It had been half an hour since the bull appeared. Five minutes later, the salt got to him. He walked broadside to the water and made his first mistake of the day. I was ready.
When the arrow struck, the waterhole detonated in an explosion of kudu hides, horns and hooves. But the herd quickly regrouped as they followed the bull out of sight. We gave the trail a cautionary, but unnecessary, 30 minutes. The blood trail was wide, and we found him 200 yards from the blind. Wayne turned and offered a firm, congratulatory handshake. Together, we had pulled it off and I finally had my kudu.
Months after the trip, every detail o
f the hunt crowds my mind: the cold ride out each morning, the nightly jackal serenades, the warning bark of a kudu and the evening ritual of good food, drink, and conversation. These memories provide brief but welcome escapes from the daily stresses of life back here in the States. And as I ponder the possibilities of hunting another Gray Ghost, I wonder with envy if that leopardess is crouched in the Kalahari brush right now thinking the very same thing.
A first time contributor, David Tetzlaff is a past president of the Traditional Bowhunters of Florida and director of the Naples Zoo.