The leopard hunt began in August 2003 when Carl Erasmus of Mbabala Safaris suggested that I apply for a leopard permit. Ron Anderson, owner of Barnum's Trading Post in Pendleton, also applied and we were both successful in obtaining permits.
Almost a year later we arrived in South Africa on June 15 after a 13,000 mile flight and following a four-hour drive arrived in our hunting area.
We first hunted warthogs and impala for use as leopard bait. The plan was to use bait hung in trees near areas where leopard sign had been located. In Africa, bait in a tree is almost always used. Due to a large number of hyenas, leopards hangs their kill in trees. Guides know to build a blind if signs indict a leopard has been chewing on the bait.
Five baits were eventually placed at locations called Newlin's Mountain, Leopard's Ledge, Lover's Lane and Kudu Canyon, all in the Waterberg Mountains. These baits easily covered a 100-mile radius and were checked daily. Because Anderson's hunt was 10 days long and mine was 30, I gave him first chance at a leopard. Anderson's second night in a blind at Kudu Canyon produced a large mature female leopard. The old cat, ears and fangs missing, was taken at midnight on Father's Day with one shot.
The leopard, while being one of the most beautiful cats, also is among the most lethal. Rarely does it exceed 200 pounds, but it is probably the strongest of the big predators. It can leap 40 feet and carry a load twice its weight into a tree. Its gold coat with its dark spots and rings provides near perfect camouflage. It walks on its toes, is a silent nocturnal hunter, cleaver as any animal and is a dangerous man killer if wounded or trapped.
This was Anderson's third trip to Africa, and the second for my wife, and the first for Anderson's wife, June.
Harder than it looks
We focused our energy on hunting leopard, but we kept our options open if other trophy animals showed themselves.
Leopard hunting isn't as easy as it may seem.
Jack O'Conner made three trips to Africa before shooting a leopard and Craig Boddington spent more than 60 hours in leopard blinds before he was successful.
Leopard hunting is a lonely, dangerous, time- consuming endeavor that is part art, part science and part luck.
Each night found us in the blind before dark and remaining there until midnight or later. These nights weren't without some degree of discomfort: No noise, no water and wrapped in blankets to keep warm were just a part of the routine.
Hyena's visited every night, trying to get to the bait.
I used a tick repellent spray, which Carl believed was unnecessary. However Erasmus was attacked by ticks one night and was bitten more than 200 times, while I had no bites. The next several days were painful for Erasmus as each bite burned and itched.
Setting up a blind and hanging a bait sounds simple, but it's not. The tree should have a branch where the leopard can lay and feed. The shooting spot should be located in a direction so as not to carry the human scent to the leopard, yet allow you a clear shot.
The leopard came to the bait at Newlin's Mountain on the sixth night, but didn't stop to feed. Instead it stalked our blind - coughing, snarling and growling.
It stopped its charge next to the blind, close enough that I could hear its breathing. For six hours, the leopard circled the blind. Sunrise brought relief as we had been trapped in the blind for more than 14 hours.
Undeterred, I wanted another chance at that leopard.
But each succeeding night passed with no leopard, however, one evening an 8-foot Black Mamba snake crawled across our legs. That experience is not for the faint of heart as bites from a black mamba allow you about an hour before death.
The 10th day arrived and Anderson and June packed their luggage for the return trip to the United States, wishing me luck as they departed.
Back to work
We relocated our blind further from the tree. The wind would blow our scent away from the leopard. A small opening in the blind provided a clear shot at the bait.
Late afternoon of the 12th day found us entering the blind before dusk. The big leopard had a new warthog to feed upon and we were hopeful this would be the night.
Erasmus moved the blankets, spotting a large African spider. He shook the blanket, giving the spider no more thought. Sometime after dark it bit me on the shoulder and neck. There was no way to check the bite, so we just continued to sit in the blind in total darkness.
I dozed off later, but snapped awake to the crack and snap of the warthog's bones as the leopard fed. Erasmus moved into position to turn on the light as I readied myself for a shot. The light illuminated the warthog, but there was no leopard. The cat had jumped 8 feet higher into the tree and was staring at us - snarling.
It gets dangerous
Only his head and hindquarters were visible as the tree obscured a heart shot.
The bullet struck the leopard high in the hip. The cat moved down the tree, and a second shot struck him in the front shoulders. He then disappeared. I reloaded as Erasmus readied his .458 Lott. The burning from my spider bite was replaced by my now damaged nerves as we faced a wounded leopard. Its charge would be lightning fast and would leave no time for mistakes.
Armed with rifles and flashlights we moved toward the wounded leopard.
The cat's charge was unbelievably fast. One second there was darkness and the next second there was a leopard. My third shot hit the leopard, slowing its charge. The big cat turned and vanished into the thorn brush.
We returned to our vehicle hoping to use its headlights to spot the cat. Shining the headlights into the bush, we spotted the leopard. We grabbed our flashlights and prepared for another charge. This time we would be in the thick brush with very few openings. But a few moments later - and two more shots - put an end to the hunt.
The hour-long trip back to camp passed quickly as we recalled the last several hours. Mary was waiting at the lodge, and I shared the hunt with her as we took measurements.
The male leopard weighed 220 pounds. It was 30 inches tall at the shoulder and 44 inches long. Its tail was thick and 34 inches in length. The leopard's neck was 24 inches in diameter. The skull measured 69/16 inches wide and 1012/16 inches long scoring 175/16 Safari Club International points.
My leopard will rank No. 16 in the SCI record book.
The spider bite is another story.