Back when I was a young warthog (and believe me that was only about 5 years ago), when I was a bright eyed and bushy tailed safari guide. I had the pleasure of working day in day out in the vast wilderness of the Timbavati which is part of the Greater Kruger National Park. What a dream it was!
Now, when you work day in and day out in the wilds of Africa, one does tend to become a bit complacent. You spend your days tracking big game to show your guests and to photograph and that’s one of the true joys of a Southern African safari – the tracking! If you’re a lucky guide you end up being paired with an amazing tracker and boy did I have the best, and no I’m not even being biased. Jack Ngomane is quite literally one of the most highly qualified trackers in the Kruger region and with around 25 years of experience to his name, he knows a thing or two. And even if that experience did lead to a few unsolicited lessons being directed my way when I happened to do something that was deemed a little too “Mafikizolo’ish” (the one that came yesterday), it was still an absolute joy to work with him. To say I learnt more in our 6-year partnership than any course or textbook has ever taught me would be an understatement.
Ah, but then there’s that complacency issue.
My story starts on a cold winter’s morning in the bush. Now for those of you from the northern hemisphere, you’d probably roll your eyes at me for me saying that sub 15 degrees C is cold but us South Africans are a little petrified of “cold” weather. Jack and I were out and about with our guests and man were we searching. Searching for one loan lioness that is, an older girl that is sadly no longer around, but when there is literally only one lion in the entire area that’s what you do! We knew she was somewhere around the Machaton River, but we just couldn’t locate her. We were driving around the southern section of the river on the western bank, when finally, Jack spotted some very fresh lioness tracks. That was it, his moment had come to shine and with that he hopped off the bonnet (hood for our American readers) and enthusiastically started to track. The tracks lead him towards the east and down into the riverine forest and then into the dry riverbed. As per usual, in these situations, I continued on with our guests as we all carried on searching for wildlife, lion or no lion.
After a while, Jacks voice crackled over the radio. He had found the old cat and started telling me where I needed to get to. As I was still on the western side of the Machaton River and fairly far south, I now had to head much further north to the nearest crossing point in order to get onto the eastern side where Jack was. With that, I turned around to my guests, cool as ice, and stated “we’ve got her!”. It had already been a long morning of tracking, so I was keen to get my guests to the sighting and so my foot got a little heavier.
As we were moving north parallel with the river at the blistering, yet legal, speed of 40km/h something caught my eye! We had driven this same road multiple times that morning and I hadn’t noticed it yet, so it had to be new. I quickly slowed down, excited and ready to prove my thoughts correct on what I had seen. I jumped out of the Landrover and started walking back along the road, as I walked past my guest, cool as a lolly, I said “sit tight guys and keep your voices down, I just want to check this drag mark out”. As I walked away, I heard their soft talking getting softer and softer until I couldn’t hear them anymore. And there it was, a brand new fresh as cut grass, drag mark. I could see exactly where this leopardess had come from and where she was going, and I could envisage her dragging her kill across the road and through the bush towards the riverine forest. Needless to say, I was chewing at the bit to be the hero of the day and find a leopard on a kill.
I was off, my hand out in front of me pointing in the direction of the drag mark, the other tucked behind my back (just like the pros). I slowly, then quickly, then slowly again followed the track. I criss-crossed the dry veld in full view of my guests. Looking up every once in a while, I noticed the track getting closer to a large Knobthorn Acacia, hmm no leopard or kill up there. However, past the knobthorn the bush did seem to get much thicker as the riverine forest began to take over. No worries, I thought, just a little bit further. I stepped past the acacia, turned right and looked into the relative darkness of the forest. Suddenly, something red and bright caught my eyes, they focused, my hair stood on end. Not more than 15 meters away from me was an open carcass, the meat of the intercostals on full display as the sun shone through, creating a fiery red. Awesome, I had found the kill! Now, where is the leopard?
I heard her first, then out of the corner of my left eye I saw her move. My gosh, she moved fast. She suddenly went from being on my left-hand side to being square in front of me, then she was to right of me and then back on the left. My footing faltered, as my instinct realized just what the hell was going on, I felt my right foot begin to turn. Then a thought shot through my mind, stand your ground Luke! My right foot turned back, I lifted my shoulders and then it happened… I screamed. She didn’t care all that much about that and roared back through her movements, she was louder. As she got to within about 3 or 4 meters of me, I felt the inner silverback (ok, maybe that’s a bit too inspired) within me and a bellow the like of which I had never produced before started to emanate from me. A dust cloud rolled past me as the leopard stopped in her tracks. She took one last look at me, we locked eyes, and with that she turned and took off into the thickets.
I didn’t turn around for a moment, I kept my eyes locked on the area where she headed in, as I slowly began my retreat. Walking backwards, I could hear my guests chittering. Then out of the blue, someone shouted “what the hell was that!?”. I didn’t really have it in me to start chit chat at that point, but I made progress across the open area and got closer and closer to the vehicle. Finally, I got there. Cool as Ice T himself, I lowered my sunglasses and said, “a leopard just tried to eat me, let's go find it with the vehicle!” followed by ooohs and aaahs. I jumped into the driver seat, started the Landrover and started to slowly drive towards the forest. It was only as we got to the point where I needed to start off roading and thus needed my clutch leg to operate the clutch, that I noticed I didn’t really have that ability right now. I almost stalled the vehicle my leg was shaking so much; the shock had arrived. With that, I turned to my guests and ethically proclaimed “Ag, you know what guys, lets actually leave this leopard alone for now. Let’s give her some space and rather go have a look at our lioness, then come back”. I didn’t really allow them to have any input and turned back onto the road. Clutched no longer needed, I drove off cool as a cucumber.
PS. We did indeed come back and enjoyed a great sighting of Thombela (Hide) leopardess that lasted a few days as she slowly finished her meal and then disappeared back into the wilderness. And despite her disdain for me she became one of my favorite leopards of all time over the years. She is still alive today and rules over a large territory within the central regions of the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve. Oh, and never ever be to “cool” in the bush.
Until next time,