Yesterday, during our morning drive, we stopped the game viewer at the sight of a drag mark in the middle of the road, from which we could clearly see that a prey had been dragged, in what seemed to be fairly recently. Excitedly, we jumped off and evaluated the track, assessing in which side of the road the kill had occurred, from the way the sand had been moved. We followed the tracks, footprints, disturbed grass and sand, to where the animal had been killed, until we saw a blood stain in the soil, surrounded by hair patches and messy footprints. There had been a fight! I reflected on how so amazing it was to be able to replay last night’s events just with signs. Footprints, drag marks, blood, hair patches. You could see exactly where the leopard had killed, that the prey had fought back before finally succumbing. We could even see it was most probably a zebra that was killed, from the hoofs on the ground and the white and black hair patches. The bush was alive!
After analysing all visible marks, we crossed the road to where the body had been dragged to see if we could find anything else. Somehow, it felt like the general ambience had changed, almost like there was this mysterious and heavy atmosphere as we silently walked around. Sander silently asked us to return to the game viewer while he’d try to find the kill on his own, as he feared we might unexpectedly find a leopard feasting, and wanted to make sure we were safe and wouldn’t be surprised. Atze and myself waited while we embraced the heavy atmosphere of our surrounding, excitedly. After a few minutes, Sander returned with a disappointed look on his face while announcing “I can’t find it, there’s a point there after that tree where I get stuck. Let’s go back to camp and get Solomon!”. And so we did.
Solomon is a 68 year-old expert tracker and, in my humble opinion, the best tracker there is around. He always greets everyone with an enthusiastic “How are you ma friend” and then laughs out loud, as if the fact that “you’re fine, thanks” is hilarious. He always tells stories in the present tense, such as “Now the leopard is killing; now the leopard is dragging; now the prey tries to get away”, which somehow ends up contributing to our imagination tricking us into believing we are actually witnessing the events as they happen. Solomon, in the past, has saved us from surprisingly bumping into a herd of elephants just by smelling that they were close-by, and has worriedly told us to stop the car, as a trail of ants was crossing the road.
So, we returned to camp, and quickly explained to Solomon what we had seen. He promptly jumped in the front seat of the game viewer, where the most experience tracker usually looks for signs during drives. As we arrived back to the site, he proficiently examined the track and explained what he saw. He showed us how he knew that it was a female leopard, by looking at the size of the footprints and how far apart these were from the next. He then guided us through the direction where the leopard had taken its kill.
As we walked silently behind him, he pointed at footprints, sand marks, bent grass, and signs that I couldn’t have possibly noticed, as hard as I might’ve tried. To me, all tracks were almost invisible, and I blindly trusted this “Mdala” and wherever he told us to go. Behind him followed Sander, who kept an eye out and was as in the zone as was Solomon, with the difference that one of them looked to the ground attentively, while the other examined the bush from afar, the trees, any distant sounds – in a perfect mutualist collaboration. Behind him was Atze, excitedly holding his camera while trying to imitate what he saw the two guides doing. Behind, I followed silently, with all my senses as sharp as ever, with a mix of fear, excitement and mindfulness.
After walking for about 30 to 40 metres off the road, Sander pointed up to a tree and whispered “Shhh”, while holding back his hand as a sign for us to stop. My heart skipped a beat as I looked up and saw a large patterned body laying in the tree, thinking it was a leopard that we had noticed a little too late, and was now a little too close to us for our safety. After a second, I realized the pattern belonged instead to a half-eaten zebra calf, expertly placed between the branches as a snack saved for later.
As we got closer and examined the tree, we awed at the fact that such a weight could have been dragged by one animal alone, mainly relying on its jaw strength, through tens of metres, including climbing a tree and placing it in such a way that it would not fall and be lost to the eventual roaming scavenger or competing leopards. Across the trunk of the tree we could see claw marks as a sign of the climbing, and blood dripping from the carcass to the ground. Solomon asked us not to get too close to the tree, as it may repel the leopard on his next visit, by disturbing the natural scents. At some point during our examination procedure, Solomon stopped as a reaction to a kudu alarm call, and told us “the leopard is still close, it’s there” while he moved his hand vaguely to a direction. It was our cue. We left a camera trap active to see what movement was going on later, when the leopard and perhaps some hyenas came back to the carcass, and silently left the scene.
It’s so amazing to realize the things we can see and find when we just notice. It makes me think of what I do (or don’t) when I’m back in the rat race that is the urban life, and how unaware I become of my own surroundings. Marks on the ground or subtle sounds just don’t tell us much in the city. Here, we reconnect with our senses in such a deep unexplainable way. At sunset, we returned to the track and sat on the roof of our game viewer, to see if we could see some movements. We enjoyed some beers as it was Saturday, while patiently watching a tree that, later, we realized was the wrong one! All good though, as the view was still amazing.