South Africa: 2007
By Wade Gear
She heard the truck that first day. It seemed to crisscross through her home range, and although it was a constant droning sound it did not affect her rest under the shade of the mopane trees. Her home range was surrounded by thick mopane, and although it overlapped with two young males from her own bloodline, it offered the protection she needed as well as good hunting. She was alone, had not mated in several years, so she hunted only for herself.
It was a very hot July, and her thirst got the better of her early on the second day. The watering hole at Edmonsburg was close by and she knew the elephants would not be there that early. She drank in the muddy water and returned to the protection of the mopane to wait until dark when she could hunt again.
It was late in the afternoon when she first noticed it. Although faint, it was something she would never forget – the smell of humans. While the breeze only brought the slightest scent she knew they were in her territory and it immediately brought back memories from when she was a young adult – the odor, the burning sensation in her hindquarter, the collar on her when she woke. She needed to move to another area to put more distance between her and the humans, so as nightfall came she hunted to the north.
On the third day she noticed it again. It was mid-afternoon. First the distant sound of the truck, then the faint smell, then voices much too close for her liking. The area she had chosen was thick mopane about six feet high, and the ground underneath was sandy. As she lay there testing the air and listening, she realized that they were moving in her direction. When they drew near her she sprang up and growled viciously. As they hesitated, she slipped away, following a well-known path that led her away, slightly circling the humans. In the thick brush she was confident that she had not been seen.
But they were closing in. She moved off at a trot, now headed back to the west. As she crossed a road she saw the vehicle – the man in the back did not see her though she was only 75 yards away. She immediately kept to the thickest areas of brush, taking her pursuers through it and slowing them down in the process, but now she had lost the wind. She needed it in her favor, so once again she circled and headed east back to where she had been.
After several hours of trying to evade her pursuers, she was over-heated and thirsty and needed to head back to Edmonsburg for a drink. As she was about to move back to the south she scented a black rhino, and skirted it at 25 yards, slightly downwind. She heard the commotion, snorts, and the silence that followed as her followers were distracted by the rhino. When darkness fell she heard the drone of the engine fading in the distance, and approached Edmonsburg for a drink. Then it was time to hunt again.
Her territory was large, and as she hunted she once again moved farther south and east from where she had been. Her constant pursuit had taken its toll – the heat and lack of sleep and food was making it more difficult to hunt. And on the fourth day, just after sun-up there it was again – the unmistakable drone of the engine.
Her pursuers came fast. They followed her for miles, pushing and pushing, and by mid-day she needed that drink, and she headed for the stream. She did not know if the stream had any water left, but with the thick brush there was a good chance, and the cover would help conceal her. But the pools had dried up and the cover was too thick to allow her free movement. She was cornered between the mopane and the riverine brush which checked her stealth. At one point she was totally exposed, but with one bound she was hidden again. She moved almost towards her pursuers, looking for the chance to cross the small opening and get back into the thick mopane.
A bushbuck was bedded down close by – she moved so that it would get her scent. The bushbuck snorted and broke. That was her chance. Once again the commotion gave her just enough time to clear the opening on her belly without being seen. She was back in the mopane, but still they followed.
Finally, she was given a break. Her pursuers stopped, which gave her the time to find a shade tree that had a view of her back trail. Taking advantage of the breeze she waited and rested until once again she knew they were following. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity she broke and made for deeper cover, driven by fear, anger and thirst.
Shortly after sunrise on the fifth day she heard the vehicle again. She waited until they were close before she roared and headed off downwind to keep the rancid scent of the humans in her nostrils. This time she kept them close, only moving when it was necessary to remain hidden. But the humans pushed her hard, keeping her moving. She circled close by and behind them, continuing until at one point the scent of the humans was all around her as she walked over her own tracks and theirs. As the sun burned down still hotter she needed water, and broke from her pattern of endless circles and figures-of-eight, and headed towards the waters of Edmonsburg.
There she found a shady spot facing into the breeze, stretched out and slept peacefully the remainder of the day.
Dawn the sixth day found the cat in an area surrounded by mountains on three sides, more open, but almost devoid of roads. It was mid-morning when it happened. The wind had covered the sound of the approaching enemy till suddenly she heard the rustle of leaves and noticed movement: About 40 yards away, three figures looked intently in her direction.
She was frozen in the low grass and shade of the mopane, watching. If she moved now she would be exposed. She waited.
One figure knelt.
She stood to turn away, then heard it – the click of metal.
Nothing but the click.
There was no burning in her flank like before, no drugged awakening – only the sound of the click followed by voices, the voices of her pursuers, and then silence.
She had escaped. She moved once again into thick mopane to sleep the rest of the day. She would sleep all day without being pushed, and then she would hunt. It would be a good day for her.
This story is about one the most memorable hunts I have had. Hunting is not about the kill; it is about the pursuit. I had been given an opportunity to hunt a particularly old lioness that had been part of a lion study project. She was off on her own and had not had cubs for the past two seasons. I was hunting the Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve with Madubula Safaris in the Limpopo Province of South Africa, and since baiting was prohibited we tracked this particular cat for six days. The “click” was the sound of my double rifle as it misfired at the only good shot that we had during those six days! As I watched her disappear into the brush I could not help but think that it was just not meant to be, and almost a year later I got a call that once again she had had cubs.
My memorable “trophy” is proudly displayed in my trophy room: The bullet that misfired is mounted in a shadow box frame below a picture of one of her tracks in the sand.
Wade is a Texas native who has hunted Alaska, Arizona, New Mexico, Montana and Colorado, plus Africa 12 times, completing the Big Five. As well as being a writer, he believes in teaching his kids to respect the outdoors and wildlife, and that the most important aspect of the hunt is not the kill, but the hunt itself.