I received an email from Johnny Vivier at Wintershoek Safaris (http://www.wintershoek.com) in August 2016 letting me know that they had a cancellation on a 14-day leopard safari in the Rifa area of Zimbabwe for the first of the season in April 2017. The actual outfitter and PF (Cliff Walker) was someone that they had worked with extensively before and the success rate was very good. To make the deal even better, he offered to have Yvan Niewoudt, (a Wintershoek PH that I had hunted with previously) go with me to help out, since a leopard hunt requires quite a bit of work and an extra pair of experienced hands would be welcome. Even though I had already booked a Tanzania safari for July 2017, I didn’t have to ponder the Zimbabwe opportunity for very long to decide to go for it. The Wintershoek team did their usual exceptional job of working the travel and permit logistics and the wheels were set in motion.
I took the Delta connection from San Diego to Atlanta and then on to Johannesburg where I did an overnight at the Afton House bed and breakfast. I had them prearrange my South Africa firearms permits, so getting my firearms through customs was a breeze. The next day I met up with Yvan at the airline gate for the flight to Harare, Zimbabwe and off we went. I paid $30 for my Zimbabwe visa when we arrived at the airport in Harare, got my firearms cleared through customs and received my Zimbabwe firearms permit. We then met our charter pilot who helped us switch airline terminals and boarded his Cessna 162 Skycatcher. We had decided to charter an aircraft rather than take the six hour drive to the Rifa camp because not only was it a long drive but there would undoubtedly be several checkpoints along the way with hassles guaranteed. With all of our gear, plus two passengers and the pilot, the airplane was completely loaded.
The flight to the Rifa camp was pretty smooth, as the pilot skillfully avoided some rather nasty looking thunderstorm clouds. After about 1 ½ hours we landed on a grassy airstrip near the Rifa camp where we were met by Cliff Walker, the lead PH for this safari adventure. As for credentials, Cliff is one of the very few PHs that has hunted in every African country, including Ethiopia where he experienced a nasty encounter in a cane field with a lion that his client had wounded. Both Cliff and the client got mauled by the lion before Cliff dispatched the beast with a point blank shot from his 755 Nitro Express double rifle, with the rifle’s muzzle pressed into the lion’s shoulder while lion was on top of him. Luckily, both Cliff and the client survived.
We loaded our gear into Cliff’s 2015 Toyota Land Cruiser that sported a totally awesome high rack that was without a doubt the most custom fabrication job that I’d ever seen. It had really deep rack space over the truck cab, so that you could not only have your cased firearms but also room for backpacks, snack boxes and much more. Under your feet was an ice box for cold drinks, a tool box and a water tank with a spigot for washing up while in the field. There was a winch for loading really big game into the truck bed, over a tailgate roller. That feature would really prove its worth later in this adventure.
We drove from the airstrip to the Rifa camp where I met Mark, our camp manager and our two tracker/skinner/bait hanger/blind builder/you-name-it guys, Patrick and Kourig. There was also someone that Cliff referred to as ‘Ranger’ who was wearing a Zimbabwe Wildlife and Parks green uniform and was carrying an AK-47 rifle with a sling on his back. I would soon learn that ‘Ranger’ would accompany us at all times while we were in the field. Cliff’s concession in Zimbabwe is owned by the Zimbabwe government and everything is strictly controlled. Poachers using dugout canoes to cross the bordering Zambezi River to illegally kill elephants for their ivory tusks is a real problem and the government’s anti-poaching team’s camp was adjacent to ours.
That afternoon I sighted in the two rifles that I had brought: a Browning A-Bolt in 300 Win. Mag. with a Swarovski Z6(i) 2.3-15×56 scope and a Heym Martini Express in 375 H&H Mag. with a Swarovski Z6(i) 1-6×24 scope. I had upgraded the Swarovski scope on my Browning to the illuminated reticle Z6(i) model at Yvan’s recommendation, since the most likely time to bag a leopard is at early dawn or dusk and while the leopard might be visibly silhouetted on a branch feeding on hanging bait and if you can’t see your scope’s crosshairs, you can’t make an accurate shot. Accuracy is essential for leopard hunting because you’re only going to get one shot and you definitely don’t want a wounded leopard situation to deal with.
In order to hunt leopard, you need to hang bait (game meat) in trees near water holes where leopards typically hunt their prey. On the first two days I took four Impala and a zebra which gave us eight baits which we hung at eight different, previously known to be productive blind locations. We also built blinds of tree branches and tall grass at each of those locations. A trail camera was set to watch each hanging bait, to tell us whether the bait was being eaten by a male or female leopard (only males can be taken) and to record the feeding time (you can only shoot ½ hour before sunrise and until ½ hour after sunset). Leopards that only show up in the middle of the night are very problematic.
If the baits are eaten or begin to spoil they need to be replaced. We needed more bait on day 3 and we luckily spotted a big bull hippo that I shot, so that gave us about six more baits, plus a nice trophy that I was looking to take anyway. We took the hippo late in the afternoon and hung half of it in a tree near the kill site to keep the hyenas and lions from getting to it that night. The other half of the hippo was winched into the back of the Toyota to be replacement baits that afternoon. We also setup a trail camera to keep track of the hippo hung in the tree, just in case a leopard decided to pay it an overnight visit.
On day 4 we went to retrieve the second half of the hippo and found that a lion (or lions) had tried to climb the tree that we hung it in and in doing so, completely destroyed the trail camera. Luckily, the climbing attempt failed and the hippo was still intact. We spent all that day replacing baits that have gone bad in the heat or that had been eaten. The trail cameras that we placed near the baits had only shown us a single female leopard so far. Of course, it’s a big male and not a female that we’re looking to take.
We spent days 5 and 6 taking impalas for bait, replacing eaten or spoiled baits, and checking trail cameras. The cameras showed male leopards hitting the baits at three different locations, but only during non-shooting hours. Each day, we picked what we thought was the most likely blind site and stayed in that blind until after shooting time and then returned in the morning to be in the blind before shooting time. That meant 15 hours in the field each day and only about 6 hours of sleep each night.
I had been shooting my 300 Win. Mag. exclusively for the bait animals, using the 375 H&H Mag. only on the hippo. On day 7 we spotted an impala and I brought the 300 Win Mag. to bear and squeezed the trigger only to hear a click, and then about a second later the gun went off. This hadn’t ever happen before and I swore at the ammunition, assuming that it was a bad primer used to load the cartridge. I shot a few more impala without incident, and then the hang-fire situation happened again. Now I was beginning to get really concerned, because I was shooting Federal Premium ammunition which has an excellent reputation for quality. I took a few more shots without incident, and then it happened a third time. That was it… I couldn’t trust that gun anymore to try to take a leopard, because I would only get a single chance. At that point I was so glad that I had brought my Heym 375 as a backup gun because it was now my only reliable gun. The Browning rifle would be going straight to the gunsmith for a thorough strip down and cleaning of everything in the firing mechanism, upon my return home.
This was day 8 and rain was forecast for the 9th day of hunting and we knew that if it really did rain it would basically reset everything regarding animal behavior and which baits were being hit. Cliff was convinced that the forecast was wrong “…because it never rains at this time of the year” but we still felt the pressure to try extra hard to pick the right blind to stake out in the morning and evening. When we made the rounds that morning, we found that we had three sites with feeding male leopards and that two of them were showing the leopard coming in during shooting hours. We were ecstatic, but we now had a problem, because we obviously had to choose which of the three sites to be at that evening and then, if required, for the next morning. We made our choice, hung additional fresh bait at the chosen site, refurbished the blind with fresh branches and setup the tripod bench type gun rest that would hold my big Heym rifle in position while we waited patiently behind the blind, with only Cliff peering carefully though a small hole to keep an eye on the hanging bait and hopefully seeing a feeding leopard. We also cleared a trail to be completely free of any branches or stones that could give us away as we would be tiptoeing to the blind that evening, staying low and completely concealed from the leopard bait tree.
It was still about two hours before sunset so we parked the Land Cruiser about ¼ mile away and tried to relax a bit. The pressure was being felt by all and it was an uncomfortably muggy afternoon and the eye gnats and flies were tormenting us mercilessly. Cliff finally made the call and he, Yvan and I set out for the blind, walking quickly at first but then slowing down and finally tiptoeing ever so carefully to the blind. Yvan and I hung back as Cliff sat down carefully in his chair and then barely moved the concealment camo handkerchief covering his peek hole. I was watching his face for a clue and saw his jaw drop as he carefully replaced the handkerchief and then turn to Yvan and me and mouthed the words “He’s already in the tree!” I carefully sat in my chair and got into shooting position. Yvan assisted me in getting my rifle placed in the tripod gun rest and carefully poking the barrel under the handkerchief that covered my peek hole. I turned to my left to get the signal from Cliff and he gave me the prearranged ‘thumbs-up’ that meant I had permission to shoot when I was ready. I had previously laser ranged the distance to the bait tree at 80 yards from the blind so I knew that setting the scope at 4x power would be plenty of magnification. I carefully put my cheek on the rifle buttstock, peered into the scope and slowly removed the concealment camo handkerchief. I could see the leopard half crouched on the tree branch that had the impala hanging below and in front of him. I carefully put the crosshairs on his left shoulder and squeezed the trigger. The big 375 bucked and I heard the 300 grain Trophy Bonded Bear Claw bullet impact. The leopard was dead before he hit the ground.
We radioed for the Land Cruiser and the rest of the team (Patrick, Kourig and ‘Ranger’). When they arrived there were high-fives, handshakes and hugs all around. It was a team-effort and everyone had done their job with enthusiasm and precision. There was still quite a bit of daylight so we took some pictures at the kill site and then loaded the leopard (referred to as ‘Mbada’ in Zimbabwe) into the back of the pickup and headed out for some more pictures on the banks of the Zambezi.
We finally headed back to camp just after sunset, with the team singing in the high rack of the Land Cruiser. When we reached camp we were greeted by singing and dancing, as evidenced by the attached video clip.
As I write this hunt report, I’m back in camp watching it rain… the forecast was correct after all. We’re taking the day off from hunting to recuperate and relax. There are still five more days of hunting starting tomorrow and I’ll be looking to take a bushbuck and perhaps a spotted hyena. What an adventure this has been, and it’s not over yet!