In mid-August, 2006, on the shores of Lake Cabora Bassa in central Mozambique, professional hunter (PH) Wayne Williamson was relaxing in camp, sipping on a cold beer and watching the sun set. Step-son of the late Basil Williamson (an elephant expert and a legendary figure in the Rhodesian, then the Zimbabwean Game Department), Wayne had been in the bush all his life. He’d done his old man proud, and was (is) one of the most highly regarded PH’s out of the Zimbabwean school. On this day he’d just finished leading a safari in a section of land known as the Bower Concession. Outdoor Life Online Editor
About three miles distant, a leopard circled a baited tree while French PH Yann Le Bouvier and his client watched from a blind 45 meters away. As the sun slipped down, the hunters heard the rustle of leaves, then the rasping sound of claws on bark, and in a flash the cat was aloft, standing side-on atop the bait and surveying the area. Satisfied the coast was clear, beautifully silhouetted, it looked down at the meat and made ready to feed. Yann raised his binoculars and checked to see if it was a male, then called for the shot. The client hunkered down behind his scope and drew a bead in the gathering gloom. The rifle roared. There was a brief, frenzied flurry, the blurred form of the cat leaping out the tree, the soft thud of its feet hitting the ground, then silence, and the leopard was gone. Yann and his trackers rushed to the base of the tree, hoping to find the leopard dead nearby. Studying the ground, the hunting party picked up spoor and followed until a little after dark. The search revealed blood but no body. Suspecting that the shot had gone high, the PH left the scene a little forlorn, now almost certain his client had blown the shot and that testing times lay ahead. Outdoor Life Online Editor
Back at the camp the hunters decided that, because of a scarcity of hyenas in the area, the body would be spared the unwanted attentions of scavengers if the animal died in the night, and therefore that a doubly-dangerous night-time follow-up was unnecessary. All agreed to hit the spoor first thing in the morning. That’s when Wayne offered to lend a hand. Here’s the story of what happened next, as told by Wayne to writer Hannes Wessels. Outdoor Life Online Editor
“I knew it was going to be tough going,” said Williamson. “The bush is mixed woodland with combretum thorn thickets – very tough conditions for chasing wounded cats in. For some added protection I bound my left arm with a towel and pulled on a glove, then grabbed my shotgun, loaded up with 3-inch, double-aught copper buckshot and headed out. Two of the trackers carried rifles. “We were on spoor at first light, but we were disappointed to see how little blood there was. Fortunately, soft sand underfoot made for fairly easy tracking, but it was still bloody hot and very hard going. Making it tougher, the wind was behind us, so the leopard knew we were coming well in advance and could keep his distance. Outdoor Life Online Editor
“We found some of his lay-ups along the way, but no actual sighting, and at 3.30 in the afternoon we were damn tired so we took a break in the shade. I was not optimistic; the baboons, which had been making a lot of noise most of the time, had gone very quiet. With them relaxed it was a strong signal the wounded animal was lost to us. “With not a lot of hope, we decided to give it one last go and would call it a day at five if nothing came of it. Amazingly, no sooner had we gotten to our feet than the baboons went wild, so I was pretty certain the cat had been lying up not far from where we had stopped. Not wanting to miss the opportunity of closing in and killing him, I told Yann to run with me into the thicket in the hope of nailing him while he was distracted by the baboons screaming all around us. Outdoor Life Online Editor
“We charged in but we were slowed by thorns tearing into us. I kept an eye on where the terrified baboons were jumping into the trees as an indicator of where the leopard had run to. All of a sudden I saw the cat, low to the ground, streaking towards us. I stopped, trigger-finger firm, and waited for him. Then I heard him growling angrily and realized that he, too, was snagged up in the thicket, and that it had brought his charge to an end and stopped him getting to us. Then, as suddenly as he had appeared, he was gone. I barely caught a glimpse as he ran away from us, but now knew the chips were definitely down and the pressure was on. “A little further on, stopping to listen, my tracker, Connie, said he could hear the leopard moving in a ravine below, so Yann and I ran quickly to try to cut it off. Very dense in there. The two of us moved shoulder to shoulder, sweeping towards him, when we heard him running at us again. Not a nice feeling. I knew he was coming, but I couldn’t see him, so I decided to look low and crouched under a bush to try and get a better view while Yann moved up to higher ground. “I heard him loose off a shot when, all in a flash and a spotted blur, the cat was on to me. I fired and was sent reeling backwards as the leopard charged into me. I struggled to regain my footing and my senses. Somewhat bewildered I lost sight of the cat for a second. I reloaded rapidly, then was whirling around looking to see where he was when, with incredible speed and terrific force, he was on to me again and swatted the gun from my hands. Outdoor Life Online Editor
“Now helpless, I stuck my arm out to keep his jaws at bay. I felt his claws sink into the back of my neck behind my right ear and I could hear the skin tearing. The cat was on his back legs, so, using my right hand, I hauled one of them off the ground so he couldn’t rake me with both rear paws. “With his jaws gaping and his huge incisors gleaming inches away from tearing my face apart, I shoved my arm right into his mouth, forcing his head away from mine. Under the circumstances I was quite happy to let him chew on it and buy a little time. By this stage, blood was pumping into my eyes and down my back. I was effectively scalped, and skin from the back of my head was hanging in my eyes. Desperate, I found enough strength to heave the cat away from me. Quick as a flash Yann seized the chance and fired, knocking the leopard down, then he fired another shot that killed it. Outdoor Life Online Editor
“Blood was pumping out of my head, but I got my vision back when I took the skin out of my eyes. I was very relieved to see the leopard lying still. Yann handled himself well; if he’d shot any earlier there was a good chance he’s have hit me in the process. What was clear was that the buck-shot I was using, apart from a few pellets in the shoulder and side, had had little effect. A lesson learned on shotguns and their ineffectiveness against wounded leopards.
“Blood was all over the place, but I was pleased to note my ears and other appendages were intact and still attached to the main-frame. I covered the wound with a trauma dressing, staunching the flow as best I could, then headed off at a brisk pace on a GPS bearing that took me straight to the road. Yann went to collect the car. I left the trackers to recover the leopard. Once in the car I radioed camp and told them to get treatment and dressings ready and a message was flashed to Zimbabwe to arrange my evacuation. Outdoor Life Online Editor
“Simon Rodger, who I work for, received the message, got airborne almost immediately and flew to Kanyemba (on the Mozambique border). At camp I got my head over a bucket and soaked my wounds in a strong antiseptic, then, having wrapped my head in a towel, jumped in a boat for the hour-long ride up the lake to Kanyemba on the border. Outdoor Life Online Editor
“It was a hell of a relief to see Simon there. From Kanyemba we flew to Kariba to re-fuel but by then it was dark, so we landed on a runway illuminated with little oil-fires. Tanks filled, we took off for Bulawayo where there was an ambulance waiting. I was in hospital by 8:30 that night and in good hands.” Editor’s Note: Wayne is alive and well, and still guiding. If you’re interested in retaining his services, email him at: email@example.com Outdoor Life Online Editor
Ask any professional hunter and he’ll doubtless tell you that the wild country south of Lake Cabora Bassa in central Mozambique is not a clever place to wound a leopard. Even so, PH Wayne Williamson volunteered to help a fellow guide track one down last summer. Here is his story.