Trying to unravel the secrets of the Namibian leopard
January 7, 2019
On the spoor of a wily old roan
January 9, 2019

My first Namibian Experience with Bow and Arrow

When his arrow flew and found its fatal mark in the forward muscle of a trophy waterbuck, I could feel the energy, the thrill of the hunt radiating from my husband in waves. Without hesitation, the desire to take up the bow and join the hunt flooded through me. I could not stop trembling… With the earthy scents of the bush blanketing me, I spent that first safari as an observer in a pit blind, constructed of sticks, dirt and buffalo dung, for 10 invigorating days. Upon my return home, the Dark Continent haunted my thoughts daily until I purchased my first bow and began to practice in earnest. Never having experienced even the most minute desire to hunt, that 2014 South African safari sparked a fire in my soul that would not find full flame until a trip to Namibia.

Paula Stephenson

Our two-day journey from Texas to Damara Dik-Dik Safaris in Namibia’s central north took three jets and two different land vehicles. As we neared our final destination, we watched our first Namibian sunset as the sun dipped below the peak of one of the many mountainous ranges that surrounded our hunting area. African sunsets are indescribably vivid. As that massive glowing orange ball dwindled to a sliver and then faded to a luminescent sheen, darkness blew in on a crisp chill that tickled my senses.

My husband and I woke every morning to a rooster crowing in the distance. It was not an annoyance as it gave us extra time in the day – you don’t want to sleep Africa away! I always watched the sunrise from the private balcony of our chalet, often wrapped in a starched white duvet while enjoying the day’s first cup of coffee. Charged by the sounds of Africa, we then took a short stroll over to the main lodge for more coffee, breakfast and that day’s planning meeting. I love piano music, strong coffee with real cream, and a room with a view. So, every day, with piano music playing in the background, I poured a fresh cup of creamed coffee and sat down on the end of a brown leather couch next to a huge picture window to soak it all in.

Located on the side of a mountain, the lodge was surrounded by outcrops of massive boulders and luscious flower beds dotted with colour. But, where the mountain gave way to flat land, Namibia turned wild! As I escaped into the shadows as they grew shorter and shorter across the open bush, my mind drifted to the hunt ahead and my desire to harvest a springbok.

Who would ride inside when you could ride topside? The high seat mounted in the bed of the range vehicle is always my perch of choice as the jaunt to and from the hide each day is one of my favourite experiences of the hunt. It’s like one of those big bags of mixed candy: you don’t know what you will pull out of the bag, but you know it’s going to be something your senses will delight in. As the vehicle approached, female warthogs often darted from their holes with frantic piglets trailing behind enveloped in a billowing cloud of dust. One afternoon two ostriches bolted from the bush and scurried clumsily to and fro in front of the vehicle for what seemed like a mile before slowing and craning their long necks with attitude as we eased by. We often traversed trails so heavily littered with rocks that the grinding orbs seemed to reach out and tug at the tyres. During these treks, I often spotted massive herds of springbok pronking coquettishly in the distance.

You’ve got to remember that I’m not all that experienced a huntress. So, when I asked my husband why PH Julio Lopes, was always going around kicking his feet in the dirt, he dipped his chin to better see over the top edge of his sunglasses and gave me that “my little rocket scientist” look that I’ve become accustomed to over the last 27 years. A most informative lesson on hunting mountainous areas, rising thermals during the heat of the day and the challenges of swirling wind ensued. It seems Julio, with his German hunting terrier Jessie obediently at heel, was constantly checking the wind direction.

Zebra hunt, HuntiNamibia 2017.
Bow and arrow hunt, Springbuck, HuntiNamibia 2017.
Bow and arrow hunt, Gemsbok, HuntiNamibia 2017.

Weighing 113 pounds, my 5’1” frame is considered petite by most standards. It is a constant struggle for me to maintain enough upper body muscle mass to effectively handle the 45-pound draw of my Bowtech Carbon Rose bow. Lifting small hand weights daily has been a game changer with this challenge.

However, my heart still beats so wildly at the sight of game and the rush of adrenaline is so forceful that I find myself extremely weak and often can’t break my bow over. Yes, I was afraid the perfect springbok would present and find me incapable of making the shot. But as the hours spent at several different waterholes increased, I gained valuable mental training. Would it be enough?

Each waterhole has its own personality. A 15-foot ladder ascent into the spacious Kudu stand on our first hunting day was par to the course. Constructed of metal, the stand was stable and sported a low pile carpet to assist with noise reduction. Since we’d enjoyed an informative video session that morning on shot placement for the African species and spent time target shooting to make sure our bows hadn’t sustained any damage during the trip, we were near the heat of the day when we finally settled into the stand. It didn’t take long for me to peel away my outerwear; sweat trickled down my back. With a low moan, the breath of Namibia sporadically blew in our faces, akin to a temptress.

This was my husband’s third trip to Africa in search of gemsbok, so when several fine specimens made a stealthy approach to the waterhole we gave each other a hopeful eye. I was surprised when Julio whispered, “All young males.” Then, exploding from the bush, the indisputable herd bull entered the scene. What a sight! The striations of his bulging neck muscles, the heavy bases of his horns and his “get out of my way” attitude towards the other males made it obvious he knew he was “the man”. As young males scattered, Julio gave my husband the go-ahead. I love watching my husband shoot! He is confident, fast and accurate. With my binoculars zeroed in on the vitals, I didn’t have to wait long for a flash of Lumenok as the arrow passed through the gemsbok. The Ramcat broadhead that Julio had suggested my husband try performed perfectly as the blood trail lay like a red ribbon. One down – maybe my springbok would be next.

My heart had not yet slowed its pace when Julio tapped my arm and motioned for me to make ready. “Good springbok,” was all I heard. You guessed it, my heart began to beat a wild cadence and I could not slow
it! A hushed conversation guided my shot placement. Thankfully able to pull my bow back, I took aim only to have that grand springbok gently turn and slip away. The same scenario repeated itself on two other occasions that afternoon. Frustrated as I was by the third encounter I came to realise that the repeated attempts had spawned in me a new level of control. Though still excited, I had risen above the rushing adrenalin and could now ease into the flow.

“The bow is our weapon of choice as it allows us to get “up close and personal” with the game we seek.”

Though the animals provide a constant parade of activity, there are a lot of tranquil moments in the stand that lead to interesting conversation and the occasional nap. Afraid I wouldn’t pull enough poundage to make a humane kill, I had never allowed myself to dream that big. It didn’t take long for Julio to convince me that I was up to the task. If the opportunity presented itself, I would take the shot.

We headed for an afternoon at the Leopard Waterhole. It also had a spacious elevated stand which overlooked the mountain zebra’s habitat of choice. Its three shooting windows offered a magnificent mountain view: powdery sand gave way to a rocky path that crooked and crawled upward. With my binoculars focused on the path, I was the first to see him as he crossed at the head of the trail and then meandered down through the bush. He picked his steps through the outcrops of boulders with care, the clicking of his hooves a gentle cadence. When he finally halted his advance he stood some 50 yards away to the left of the stand – if I stretched forward and craned my neck I could catch a glimpse of him silhouetted against the setting sun. Julio had a full-on view at right; my husband was completely blinded at back-centre, having already moved his chair back in preparation for the shot. As he pawed and postured, his two broodmares preened in the distance. His bobbed black and white mane jutted upward atop his head and flared down the peak of his thick neck, reminiscent of a plumed Roman centurion’s helmet. I mouthed to my husband, “He is grand!”

The bow is our weapon of choice as it allows us to get “up close and personal” with the game we seek. Often they are near enough to see, smell, hear, sense… you. At times these intuitive animals just know something isn’t right and retreat to the safety of the bush. That is what this grand old stud did.

On two consecutive mornings before sunrise, the men revisited the Leopard hide to no avail. My husband’s only vision of that zebra comes from my telling him about it. That zebra was never seen again.

Following one of those morning zebra hunts, we switched gears and headed back to the Warthog Waterhole to continue my quest for springbok. Game flooded from cover so quickly we barely had a chance to settle in. Two brazen kudu bulls locked horns in mock combat some 30 yards away at the edge of the brush. Focused on the kudu, I didn’t notice an approaching group of springbok. At Julio’s urging, I quickly prepared in case a shot opportunity presented itself. It did! A mature male drank from the waterhole and then turned to the salt lick. He presented quartering away with his head down at the lick. I was to shoot just behind the front leg in the crease. I aimed a little low, taking my slower arrow speed into consideration and the possibility that the springbok most probably would jump my string. Confident in my aim, I gently squeezed my release. For some strange reason, the springbok did not react as expected. My arrow passed between the two front legs and under the belly. It was a clean miss. The group stirred for a moment then settled with the dust, detecting no further threat.

A second equally impressive male immediately presented a broadside shot opportunity at the same salt lick. Aiming my pin straight up the front leg at the muscle where the light and dark brown intersect, I squeezed my release. My arrow grazed his back resulting in a non- fatal flesh wound. The only thing down at this waterhole was my confidence.

Julio captures each shot opportunity on video. When we returned to the lodge that evening, we reviewed the film from the day’s hunt on the wall-mounted big screen television. It was most helpful! I was able to see the missed shots unfold in slow motion. The first Springbok never moved, therefore the adjustment did not work in my favour. The second springbok jumped my string big time.

A few days later, we were at the Eland Waterhole on an elevated stand. Hoping for zebra or springbok, we settled in and waited. Julio lowered his binoculars. “Here comes your gemsbok,” he encouraged me.
He approached so quickly it seemed I just had time to pick up my bow and the shot was upon us. A big breath is drawn through my nose, a calming exhalation through my lips and I let my arrow fly. The broadside shot was perfect! I had taken a trophy I never dreamed possible. My gemsbok dropped only 18 yards away. Upon close inspection, it was easy to see why the regal gemsbok serves as the national animal of Namibia.

The next morning we chose a ground-level stand overlooking an elongated waterhole named after the petite duiker antelope. Thousands of giddy Red-billed Quelea birds perched in the nearby trees. Sporadically they formed a chirping vortex that hovered above the waterhole as they drank and preened in wave after wave. It was hypnotic in both sight and sound.

Plains zebra, a group of 50-plus impala and several warthogs cleared the way for a group of male and female springbok. There are times during the hunt that events sometimes collide and the result is perplexing. Had my earlier misses prepared me for success on this day?

The Duiker Waterhole is skirted by two salt licks. When Julio pointed out the shooter males in this group of springbok, I was very comfortable taking aim through the opening of the centre shooting window which was 7 inch wide by 20 inch high. As the dust kicked up, offering visual proof of the perfect wind direction, it was clear the time was right. As he slightly quartered towards me at the right-hand salt lick, I finally claimed my springbok. He circled and slumped only 10 yards away. As he breathed his last breath, the cottony white hair on his back (unique to the springbok) flared to wave a sweet-scented goodbye.

When we reached the Leopard hide that afternoon, the sun was already heavy in the western sky. The conditions were a polar opposite to the morning’s hunt: it was still and quiet. The group of Gemsbok moved in with a purpose, straight down the mountain path. He wasn’t the regal stud from the earlier days of our safari, but he was old, stately, proud… It was quick! He circled to the right of the waterhole at about 22 yards and quartered towards my husband’s sights. In the wake of the arrow’s penetration, he torqued powerfully. By sheer strength alone he made his way to the tree line 75 yards away where he gently succumbed. Our wish list was complete!

As our final Namibian sunset made its farewells, we sat perched on a mountainside precipice with sundowners in hand. Julio and his lovely wife Dollie savoured that pristine moment alongside us as we said silent goodbyes to the rare gem that is Namibia.

This article was first published in HuntiNamibia 2018.