The male lion tracks are fresh from this morning; they lay on top of the rain that came during the night. Before we leave Alex gathers us into a group.
“Ok guys, do you know what to do if you encounter a lion? When it growls at you or when it charges you?”
The students remain quite while Alex explains the appropriate response to a lion encounter.
“Never run… Running from a lion will trigger its predatory response and it will be more likely to chase you and attack. No matter how close that animal gets you must stand your ground. When the time is right, you can start backing up, still facing the animal, very slowly.”
Alex tells us that Renias, who has the most experience, will let us know when to do this, we must move as a team. We talk about potential animal encounters often. A person can never know how they will react in a situation like this until it happens to them. The more we talk about it, the more the students think about it, and the more likely they will be to remain calm.
Renias, Alex, 3 students and I start down the road in the direction the lion was walking. Following the tracks here is relatively easy and we are able to move at a decent pace. The tracks stick out quite well in the soft sand/dirt in the road. After 15 minutes or so the tracks cut off into the tall grass and we continue on the path, the students in the lead. Tracking in the tall grass is a little more difficult and we look to see where the grass has been pushed down and the morning dew shaken/wiped off. In the right light, the grass the lion has walked through almost looks different in colour to the surrounding grass. The tracks here are more difficult to see and Renias marks a line behind a track here and there to mark where it is, in case we have to come back to it and restart. Alex stops and points to a bush that the lion has walked by and scent marked on;
“Male lions will often move to lone bushes in the tall grass like this and scent mark as they walk, especially after a rain – keep that in mind as you think about where this animal may move and why.”
As we move the bush starts to get thicker and thicker. Now the tracking has become quite difficult and a little more dangerous as well. In the tall grass we are less likely to have a surprise encounter; our field of vision is larger and we can see much further. The thick bushes and trees make it more difficult to see what lies ahead. We start to move a little slower. A hippo calls in the background and one of the students jumps. Sometimes it can be hard to keep your cool.
No longer able to always find a full track, we look for scuff marks in the dirt, trampled vegetation, and even places where a little bit of fresh dirt has been left on top of a low growing grass. We lose the tracks a few more times. The students are still learning and this is part of the process. They have been walking without actually seeing the tracks, and even though it was only for a short time, it is now more difficult to go back and find where we lost them; we have walked over the tracks and made them more difficult to see. We stop and move back to the last place we saw spoor and start again. I would be easy to split up here and each go separate ways to look for spoor, but we stay together as a group.
Remaining silent is key and we communicate through body language and low whistles. The tracks are found again and we continue on, moving into a very small clearing. Alex stops the students.
“What happened here?” he asks in a low whisper.
The lion had been bedded down in the small clearing and he can see the evidence. We all look closely and see where the lion had been lying. Just a few steps further on there are more tracks; we can see by the way the tracks lay that the animal was running.
“The lion must have heard us coming and moved away” say one of the students.
He is correct.
We decide to continue following, maybe we can still have another chance to sneak up to him. The tracking is not getting any easier, however, and we still move slowly. We follow the spoor, ducking under low branches, moving through bushes, down into dongas and up the other side; avoiding spider webs and getting stuck on thorny branches. It is starting to get hot and we have now been walking for 2 hours. Thirst is starting to set in a little bit but no one complains, there is nothing we can do about it. We push on. It is late in the morning when we pop out onto a road. We have to get back to camp so we must abandon the chase for today. We will try again tomorrow.
Written & photographed by: Aimee Tallian