The Namibian Cave Leopard

Friday, July 11, 2008
The Namibian Cave Leopard

The fetid, rank air stunk of rotten meat and urine. I pushed myself deeper into the pitch black, dusty sandstone tunnel that was only slightly larger than my shoulders. Inside, the fearsome killing machine I was after, stared at me intently with evil green glowing eyes, and was armed with a gaping maw full of sharp bone-crushing teeth, and wicked, razor- sharp claws. The most frightening growl I could possibly imagine, worse than any horror movie--this was real-- greeted my arrival. I held my breath with my mouth open and, from only 3 meters, let this monster have a taste of lead square in the breast.

Expecting to have my ears blown in, I was surprised at the muffled report of the 12GA; however, I was also blinded by the explosion of dust in the confined space. All I could see from the illumination provided by the Surefire LED light taped to the gun barrel was a curtain of airborne sandstone particles. I could not breathe, see, or hear anything. Luckily I was promptly extricated from the tunnel by the fellow holding my feet, sparing me from being eaten, crushed, trapped, disemboweled or deafened.

Somewhat less exciting than the showdown was re-entering the stinking cavern penetrating twenty feet into the rough sandstone mountain and dragging out a very dead kitty after the air had cleared.

Being extremely allergic to cats, I was surprised at my lack of negative reaction to an hour-long photo shoot. Everyone from the Chaibis Brendenkamp Ranch was included in the session. It had been quite a spectacle to see this crazy white guy from America disappear into the earth and emerge unscathed. Upon relating this story to my wife, and despite my attempts to convince her and everyone else that I had everything well in hand, she seems to agree with the general consensus regarding my sanity.

I had hunted leopard before over bait in Zimbabwe many years earlier and we got a nice cat, but the way we got this 55kg tomcat was a whole lot more excitement and work! Each morning was filled with plenty of activity! Our team rose four hours before dawn, at 3AM, to check hundreds of kilometers of dry, sandy riverbeds, pasture roads, and strategically placed zebra baits around the 60,000 hectare ranch. We identified fresh tracks from seven different leopards, three cheetahs and several hyena. Where promising spoor was found, highly trained hounds were released at dawn to trail the stealthy cats to their hiding place.

I had wrongly assumed that we would be hunting in the bush country and that we would simply run the cat up a tree, and shoot it at our leisure. I had not expected these rugged mountains! There were no trees anywhere, only scrubby thorn covered bushes that tore through clothes and cut deep into flesh. Up and down the Gamsberg Range we trekked for days. Terribly uneven, loose sandstone boulders covered the ridges, hiding puff adders and cobras, while caves riddled the mountains--any of which could be the lair of a rosette-covered, night-stalking carnivore.

After kilometers and kilometers of trailing, the temperature rose from near freezing at dawn to 30C in the afternoon, causing the dogs to lose the scent trail. Then began the routine dejected trek back to the abused Toyota HiLux bakkie.

After a nap during the heat of the afternoon, my loyal PH Louw Van Zyl and good friend Charles Ballantyne of Ballantyne Trophy Safaris in Adelaide RSA, would humor me while I tried to stalk Kudu each evening with bow and arrow. The ground was rocky and uneven with very little cover. I assume that eventually this method could have been a success, but in nearly 20 attempts I was unable to get closer than a 95 yard shot at a nice Kudu bull, which, as luck would have it, I missed. I guess this is called humility! “If it was easy I would not be interested,� I kept telling myself.

Finally, after eight unsuccessful days and hundreds of kilometers of trailing our dogs, a big Tom made a bad mistake that would cost him his life. We stopped to check out a zebra bait that had been totally devoured two nights before. We had not gotten around to this site the previous morning because we were too busy seeing the sights from the top of a series of ridge-tops 20 kilometers to the North. It seems like we would have realized that the view would not change, but we just had to make sure. Well, the dogs lost the trail and that cat got away from us, but this morning the new activity was promising. A fully consumed bait meant that there was a stuffed kitty somewhere near. The scent was too old to chase, so we moved on to the next bait 500 meters further along a sandy dry stream bed. We were amazed to find that this bait had also been eaten, but very recently, only a few hours before our checking it. The tracks were smoking hot and the ten hound dogs were going absolutely wild.

Charles, Louw and I raced to follow John and Max and their pack. Sprinting for only 10 minutes over the rocky terrain and up a 200 meter ridge we immediately spotted the dogs howling madly at our quarry which was cornered under a rocky overhang. Terrible growling and roaring issued from the enfilade as the feline terror tried to hold his ground against his canine archenemies. I moved in closer to try for a shot and all of a sudden when I was 50 meters from the hiding place, a yellow, black-spotted blur erupted into the light, leaving the dogs behind in a flash. To estimate the speed is only speculative, but it must have been at least 75km per hour!

The cat had spotted me and was off again, but not far, having disappeared into the deep hole on the opposite ridge where I would later have the luxury of exploring. I raced behind the hounds, my heart pounding and traded my bow for a .30-06. I set up and covered the cave entrance, ready for any sign that the monster may be coming out. Being extremely careful to not shoot a dog, but with the safety off, I had my finger away from the trigger. In my mind, I was attempting to calculate whether I would have enough time to move my finger to pull the trigger before the murderous beast could cover the 10 meters between the cave and me to tear me to pieces.

While I stood on guard, I assumed that I was being backed up by my friends Louw and Charles. It seems, though, that if they were planning on coming to my aid, they should have been a little closer. John and Max, the dog handlers, stayed quite a long way off from the cave to make sure they had no chance of a tangle with an extremely angry kitty. John claimed later that he carried a set of floating bones from the throat of a leopard in his pocket to provide protection. He was absolutely convinced that this made him invisible to any cat. Despite this protection, he kept his distance. Obviously I did not yet have the advantage of this invisibility charm.

After what seemed like hours on high alert, but was probably only 30 minutes, I moved to the opposite ridge – a distance of 60 meters-- to have a more stable rifle rest. The melee continued with dogs yelping, howling, and rushing into and out of the inky blackness of the cave. All the while terrible growling issued from the depths of the mountain, making me shiver. It was decided that the cave should be securely blocked off with brush and rocks. The dogs were called off and the cat quieted down. Many more people began to appear from the ranch, summoned to witness the mayhem and brought sandwiches, drinks and shovels. We discussed various means to end this standoff. Flares, gas, fire and smoke grenades all were ruled out. Louw and John probed the rocky hillside to find a possible alternate entrance to the lair of this vicious beast.

Finally, we had exhausted all but two options. Would we construct a blind and wait for the cat to emerge from safety or would we, I guess they actually meant me, crawl in to do battle one-on-one with this awesome predator? I am not particularly patient, so I chose to end the battle. I used a spade to enlarge a small side tunnel so I could squeeze in. I could just make out the creature within when I shined a light on him, but had no possibility of a shot without going in deeper. So, I did. I assumed that I could use Louw’s shotgun to keep the monster off me if he charged, as the tunnel was so narrow, and I had 5 shots to knock him down if need be. If I had been wrong, this would have been a much more exciting story, possibly written by someone else while I was laid up in the hospital in Windhoek. Instead of disaster, now my wife is invisible to these creatures that stalk the night-- at least when she is wearing her new earrings made from the floating bones of this unlucky fellow.