A concern for many first-time visitors to the bush and a commonly asked question is whether or not there will be bathroom facilities when out on game drive. Whilst the concept of quickly nipping behind a tree is foreign to many, the combination of some strong morning coffee and a bumpy Land Rover ride usually means that most people are converted in no time at all.
Before heading into a sighting that I know may be a long one, I’ll usually check with my guests to see if anyone needs to nip into the bush. Far better to speak up than be in discomfort 30 minutes later when you can’t go anywhere because the lions have stalked to within 15 metres of the zebras! I used to be far more self-conscious when I first started guiding; if I asked everyone whether they needed to stop quickly and I got no takers, I’d bite my tongue if I needed to go myself, not wanting to be the one to slow down the momentum of the drive.
I eventually learnt the hard way that a 45 second break and the negligible possibility of disapproving looks from the rest of the vehicle was a far better way to go than risking the self-enforced discomfort of having no opportunity to go for a couple of hours.
Here’s what happened…
It was the last day of the guest’s three-night stay at Londolozi and I had been trying to save the best for last. The Nanga female leopard had been on a kill with her two cubs in the north of the property for a couple of days, but we had been prowling around the southern areas focusing on lions, and so hadn’t had a chance to see her or her litter. At dinner on the last evening, my guests asked about this female leopard and cubs they had been hearing about, and I told them that the plan was indeed to go and look for them in the morning. In retrospect it was a bit of a risky strategy only allowing one drive to try and find them, but I felt fairly sure that a few other rangers would be looking as well, thereby increasing the chances of success.
After crossing the Sand River at dawn the next day and heading towards where the leopards had last been seen (the previous morning), tracker Mike Sithole and I were slightly concerned when it transpired that no other rangers were coming to help in the search. It seems like everyone had already viewed the cubs over the previous 48 hours and we were the only vehicle working north of the river, so were going to be all on our own. All things considered, it’s not a bad thing to have over 2000ha of prime big five habitat to yourself, but we were already feeling quite isolated in our attempt to track down the Nanga female and cubs, and we hadn’t even begun to look properly yet!
We knew almost for certain that she would have led the cubs away from the kill site of the day before (they had finished off the carcass in the morning), but exactly where she would take them we had no idea. We figured the best strategy would be to head back to where they were last seen, try find their tracks to get a rough estimate of direction, and go from there.
Easier said than done.
It was clear that the leopards had spent quite a bit of time in the area, as Mike found a number of distinct sets of tracks moving back and forth, but after a significant amount of time spent on foot all we had was a rough idea that the leopards had headed west. Nothing more.
With time ticking away, we decided to change our tactics slightly and also head much further west towards the Manyelethi River, where the cubs had been stashed on at least three previous occasions, and we wanted to gamble on maybe finding some signs of them on the far side of the female’s territory. Getting ahead of the game so to speak, rather than taking our time to follow track-for-track.
We had been searching for around two hours by now, and the day was warming up quite quickly. After having had at least two coffees on deck before leaving camp and drinking quite a bit of water during the drive, Nature was calling, rather loudly. I decided to bite my tongue for awhile, but finally reasoned that a short stop was in order during which Mike and I could make the guests some tea or coffee, those who needed a bathroom break could take one, and we could reassess the tracking situation and decide on a plan from there. The chances of us finding the Nanga female and her cubs were evaporating rapidly, but hope had not yet been entirely extinguished.
As with many things in life, timing is everything, and it was with us on that morning. Immediately upon switching off the engine to stop for coffee (by this time I was already looking around for a suitable tree to scuttle behind!), Mike suddenly raised his hand for quiet in the vehicle. The unmistakable sound of impalas alarming was coming from a thicket line close by, so we were sure there was a predator of some kind in there. We had stopped at a junction, and the alarm calls were coming from the bushes in the vee between the roads, so we checked up one road first, didn’t find anything, so turned quickly back to look up the second one.
I’m deeply ashamed to admit that so badly did I need to pee by now, I was secretly hoping that we wouldn’t find anything! I was not looking forward to a prolonged sighting with no chance of immediate relief.
Clearly someone was having a laugh at me that day, because as we rounded the corner onto the second road, with the impala calls sounding more and more frantic, there in front of us were the Nanga female and her two cubs.
Excitement levels skyrocketed and high fives were exchanged as we took in our first view of the three leopards together. The mother was walking down the middle of the track, while the cubs were dashing in and out of the bushes on either side, coming back to the female to swat her tail occasionally, clearly in a playful mood. My own mood was anything but playful, and I was desperately trying to formulate some kind of plan in which we could stop briefly for thirty seconds, I could run behind a bush, do my thing, and then we’d catch up to the leopards again, but I knew in my heart there was no way we could let them out of our sight and risk losing them. The guests would never forgive me!
Judging from the female’s behaviour, Mike Sithole thought that she was leading the cubs to a kill, so my fervent wish was that wherever she had stashed the carcass, it was somewhere close at hand. Now, if there had been another vehicle with us in the sighting it would have been ok, as we could have let them stay with the leopards while we (I) went for a speedy bathroom break, returning in a minute or two. Remember though, we were all alone in over 2000 hectares. The closest vehicle was kilometres away and no one was coming. After I had called in the sighting on the radio, ranger Tom Imrie radioed back to say he was very eager to view the leopards that afternoon, so if the female was leading the cubs to a kill, we needed to stay with them all the way to mark the position. There was no getting out of it now. We were committed.
Following them down the road was one thing, but pretty soon they turned off to move through the rocky thicket, and the bumping and jarring became almost unbearable! Any hopes I had had of a short sighting were dispelled as the Nanga female led the cubs on and on through the bush. Wearing a very fixed smile to cover what would otherwise have been a very uncomfortable grimace, there was no choice but to follow in their wake.
Over 2 1/2 kilometres later (measured on Google Earth), the female finally stopped her relentless marching and moved down into a drainage line to sniff around. The cubs’ excitement also ramped up at this point, as they could clearly smell the carcass in the vicinity. By now my discomfort levels were extreme, but we stayed there for a short while until after what seemed like forever, (for me) one of the cubs scratched around under a bushwillow thicket and began feeding on a carefully concealed duiker carcass. The Nanga female meanwhile leapt up into a Weeping Boer Bean tree and went to sleep.
Spotting my gap to wrap up the sighting – and thankfully we actually did need to head back to camp as the guests had a ‘plane to catch – I quickly informed everyone that the leopards were here to stay, we’d had an amazing drive and it was now time to leave, and off we went in what was not quite a cloud of dust but was certainly not quite as slowly as I should have gone. Getting a safe enough distance away from the leopards so as not to disturb them, I was able to race behind a nearby marula tree and end the self-inflicted torture I had imposed myself more than two hours before.
Suffering in silence, I concluded, was NOT the way forward. If you need to go, say so then and there. I guarantee the drive will be infinitely more enjoyable!