Leopard Spots

©Dean Torges/The Bowyer's Edge™

Tangala Camp lies along the southern border of Kruger National Park, South Africa. It is home to lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and Cape buffalo. Plains game gathered there in large numbers during my hunt, attracted to a lush crop of grasses and browse, the result of a burn and a summer of heavy rain. Several times lions roared close to camp through the night when they failed to make a kill, and sometimes after they killed.

We saw these lions up close when Eugene Potgieter, the ranch owner, drove us to them in his Land Rover. In the middle of the last century, Eugene's grandfather hunted this same family farm. That was before South Africa knew about fences, back when "white hunters" led posh safaris for celebrities, adventure writers and wealthy trophy hunters in search of Africa's Big Five.

Eugene stands between the old and the inevitable, between family beliefs and economic realities. Tangala's income derives primarily from eco-tourists who go on "drives" to photograph animals from the bench seats of Land Rovers. His is one of five adjoining farms that took down their interior fences for this purpose. Grandfather Potgieter's rifle, which accounted for 93 lions, cradles above his seat in the Land Rover. Sometimes when Eugene’s guests aren't around he uses it to kill impala or wildebeest for his native staff. It's also there because the twelve lions with full bellies we saw lolling in the afternoon shade no longer fear man. The night belongs to them. So does the day, if they care to take it.

Occasionally Eugene leases the farm to men like Henk DuPlessis and Jaco Wessels, my hosts. They'd invited me to South Africa to conduct a wooden bow-building class for them and their friends, including Eugene, in exchange for two weeks of hunting African plains animals at Tangala and also at Imbabala, a reserve to the West near Henk's home.

Henk is a farmer and Jaco earns his living building furniture. In another era, they might have been white hunters. Today they supplement their incomes by guiding hunters from Europe and America. Both have great stories to tell, keen wits to filter them through and the self-effacing disposition and matter-of-fact self-confidence that seem characteristic of all the truly dedicated hunters I have known. The fundamental difference between them and their grandfather's generation is that both men build and hunt with their own archery tackle. They cherish the wooden selfbow for its simplicity, dependability, and quietness.

Henk and Jaco provided backup at Tangala. Henk carried a scoped, custom .454 Casull, a howitzer of a handgun, chambered with huge blunt handloads. It stayed unholstered, cradled in both hands behind his back, all the while we hunted there. I had confidence in him, and in Jaco, too, who carried a little less gun but could run faster. Jaco usually covered my companion, Gordy Mickens.

We hunted Imbabala our second week, where Henk arrowed a blesbok. Imbabala held only one of the big five—leopards. The leopard is a furtive creature, not so dangerous unless cornered or wounded, so we felt safe to hunt there our four separate ways.

Lions and elephants lived on an adjacent farm behind a tall fence. It was neither tall enough nor tight enough to keep my neck hairs relaxed the evening I walked alone toward camp after a long day of hunting. When a lion roars in the gloaming, even in the distance, even when it's supposed to be on the other side of a fence, bows and arrows reduce to a puny assortment of feathers and sticks.

Big cat presence at both reserves made the plains animals wary beyond any game I'd ever encountered, especially at Tangala. I saw a leopard kill there—a full-grown impala ram dragged high into a tree, its rear half missing, eaten off. A leopard has so refined its skills that it can stalk to within a yard or two of its prey before bursting from its crouch. It is successful in about four out of ten attempts.

It's likely that I made over forty stalks of one duration or another, most of them through the same kinds of bunched grass and brush that concealed the leopard, but I found only a few animals inclined to come home with me. On those occasions, an error in judgment, a lapse in concentration, or simple clumsiness on my part restored the critters to their senses.

An impala that sees a scrap of suspicious movement will stand staring your way until you cramp up and keel over, or give up and make the retreating move that reinforces its defenses. Then it barks alerts to the neighborhood on its way out. A herd of 10 impala has eyes in every direction. Move only when the heads pointed your way are down, feeding? It can be done successfully, I guess. But if you try accounting for every pair of eyes before you make each deliberate movement, you will soon be skirting herded animals as quietly as possible, looking for the chance and the cover to crawl close to a solitary beast.

For these reasons, the image of half an impala hoisted into the tree stays with me as a wonder of the natural world. It provides the touchstone for my African adventure. I marvel over it in light of my own difficulties. What requirements of guile and strength placed the impala there, hanging from its horns and head, wedged between tree limbs like some territorial warning? What quickness overmatched its lightning reflexes, and what understanding stole past its cynical eyes, its fail-safe nose and its radar ears? What cunning bewitched this intensely alive animal? What desire trumped its robust energy? What outsized combinations of speed and muscle brought its spirit to earth and then carried its body aloft? A glimpse into the leopard comes from stalking this, his favorite food—the speed wraith, the gamboling, evasive impala. Try sneaking close and then gathering yourself from a crouch to pull back undetected the full weight of a strong bow, sending a silent arrow through its defenses.

I don't mind the animal beating me. If I prove a worthy adversary and the animal escapes a close call, then we've sharpened each other's senses and parted respectfully. The bitter pill is the one I feed myself after some unruly part of my system betrays me to my quarry, usually as a consequence of impatience.

Stalking requires that you enter another world on its terms, and that you move to its rhythms. It's a world different from tree stands and hides. To do so, you need to divest yourself of the workaday world by reminding yourself that you are in no hurry, that there is nowhere else you would rather be, nothing else you would rather be doing. It takes awhile sometimes to find this frame of mind, but living fully focused in the moment is the ultimate trophy of the part-time predator stalking up close to full-time prey.

You cannot smooth-talk your way through this world, or buy your way to results or prevail by going through rote motions. It will not permit you to bluff or intimidate your opponent, either, or to ignore, change or manipulate its rules and laws. The outcome depends nothing upon your social station, your connections in high or low places or the circumstances of your birth. In short, the coarse lessons taught by our workaday world hardly groom us to enter it.

For me, at least, the wooden bow—with my desire invested in its unhurried creation and my experience focused in its use—provides the key required to tumble its locks and participate in its mysteries. Building it is time spent in the sweat lodge.

If I go to Africa again, I'll employ a stylized plains quiver with the fletchings covered to keep them from rustling. It should have a quick means to loop or shorten the strap so the arrows tuck up against my breast when I begin crawling and bellysliding. Getting to arrows is not as important as keeping them quiet and unobtrusive. I need a better way to carry my primary arrow with the bow, too, rather than just clutched across the grip, so the barrel will not tick upon the bow limb when I'm crawling, or when I reach for the bow after clearing sticks and thorns from my path. I'll probably wear kneepads. My knees came home raw, pocked with a few yellow sores from thorns acquired upon futile stalks, their tips broken off and embedded too deep even for a good pair of splinter tweezers. I'll need moccasins, too. Rubber soles on gritty soil alert keen ears, and a boot toe searching to firm up a kneeling position betrays that position. It's a bother to shuck boots on each stalk and socks alone provide little foot protection.

These may be old lessons rediscovered, yet every time a hunting archer rediscovers ancient lore he revives the past. Every time an old quiver outperforms a modern one, or an old bow limb design makes new sense, or a primitive technique finds a translation in the modern world, a wall between the past and the present falls to the ground. When that happens, one can almost hear a bowstring hum as it makes friction fire, or glimpse dim ancestors huddled near fresh meat, near the very origins of civilization itself. Sometimes, for fleeting moments, they visit mountain campsites in the Denali Range where goat ribs roast on green willow sticks, or they come to bomas in South Africa after hunting companions have quit the Dutch ovens nestled in glowing coals and either turned silent or gone to bed. They come as reflections upon the starlit night. After embers cover up with clean ash. They tell of life played full contact, close to the bone.

Not to overlook my lone kill, I claimed a partridge. It floated down into a field of roof-thatching reed, and I might have lost it, except the flu-flu that hailed it stood propped up by the thick reeds like an orange parachute. Lucky shot, I said. And so did Henk, who was bird hunting alongside and witnessed it.

My great satisfaction lay in the stalks I'd done well, even though the quarry never played to my intentions. The range of classical archery equipment for accurate shots and swift kills lies inside the red alert zone of all wild ungulates, the zone within which survival reflexes are lightening quick and unpredictable. In order to kill an animal with this equipment within this zone while "in the open," the hunter has to do everything exactly right with equipment that is whisper quiet and then depend on the animal to make its mistake, or, from another point of view, to offer itself to the hunter. I never got that combination in place.

When I returned home, I told a bowhunting acquaintance about my adventures. He asked me to imagine him in my situation: what if I could shoot six inch groups out past 40 yards like he could with his compound bow? How many animals would I have killed then?

I counted the possibilities but didn't mention that none of these animals would have been in position when the arrow arrived from a noisy bow, regardless of its speed or accuracy, traditional or not.

Neither of us gained much from the exercise. He valued his equipment insofar as it factored human shortcomings from the equation. I valued mine because overcoming human shortcomings dignified the equation. The homemade wooden bow and arrow would have obstructed his path. They illuminated mine. If the leopard could kill from a distance, he would be a cheetah.

Driving through the bush veldt on the last afternoon of our hunt, we passed a water hole and counted six kudu bulls with several cows. It was the beginning of their rut. They stood about cautiously, surveying the hole for danger, waiting for assurances before coming in to drink. Magnificent creatures, kudu. Regal and aware, the double helix sculpted into their horns a sign writ large and carried proud of elemental life as they, its ambassadors, intend living it: full contact and close to the bone.

Almost every major water hole on African game leases, including this one, has a blind or "hide" constructed within bow range, and most of Africa's trophy animals are shot from hides near such inevitable places. Since no animal can drop its body in an arrow-dodging maneuver unless its head is up, water holes can provide the advantage that noisy bows or results-oriented hunters require.

We hadn't passed this water hole by much when Gordy decided to try for an eleventh hour bull there. Vehicle traffic frightens South African animals no more than tractors frighten our whitetail deer. Henk swung the bakkie back past the hide and Gordy baled out from the downhill side, screened to the kudu.

At supper that night, under a vaulted ceiling of starlight, while fire shadows flickered around the boma and blesbok loin strips sizzled in a Dutch oven, we told our stories and relived the day. Gordy admitted to second thoughts shortly after he concealed himself, so he quit the hide. No one asked why.