Londolozi is a family place, for staff and guests alike. The sense of community to be found here is hard to match anywhere. One of the things that makes life most special for the staff are the close ties that the Londolozi Alumni maintain with each other after they have left the bush to pursue careers elsewhere. I love knowing that should I be in Cape Town or Johannesburg or any big centre in South Africa, there will be a number of ex-Londolozi staff members I can meet up with for a beer, some who worked here many years ago and some who have only just left. Sitting at a pub or even round another campfire in some far distant corner of the country, the talk will always turn to the wildlife, the time spent out in the field, and the privilege of experiencing some of the best wildlife viewing in Africa.
I’ve found that the single thing rangers miss the most after they leave Londolozi is the tracking. Being out on foot with an experienced Shangaan tracker, following the spoor of one of the big cats, can be one of the most rewarding pursuits. Witnessing the ancient art of tracking performed first hand can actually be a frustrating thing for someone like me, who was raised in the city. The best trackers are able to follow the signs so easily, without pause, that for me to keep stopping them to ask exactly what clue they have seen and read would be a serious hamper to the tracking effort, and my inexperienced eyes have to keep struggling to keep up with the pace.
Be that as it may, a long track-and-find is, at least for me, infinitely better than simply coming round a corner and bumping into an animal (metaphorically, not physically). Gathering all the information that the bush is giving you and piecing it together to eventually find where the lion pride has moved to or where the leopard has stashed its kill can define a stay for a guest, and as a ranger/tracker team, establishes your credentials beyond any other display of knowledge or skill. The sighting of the animal at the end of the track doesn’t even need to be particularly memorable. As T.S. Eliot said, “The journey, not the arrival matters.”
Which brings me to my story. One of the most exciting tracking efforts I’ve ever been lucky enough to be involved in. We tracked far. We tracked for a long time. We were following lions.
The young Selati males were pushing into Mapogo territory. Numerous incursions had seen them repulsed each time, yet they were persistent, sensing the fact that the battle-hardened Mapogo were ageing. We had seen their tracks crossing West of Londolozi the evening before, and a terrible conflict must have taken place during the night, as the tracks that Solly Mhlongo found the following morning were of lions in headlong flight, heading south and east. Deep gouges where their toes had dug in for purchase showed the speed at which they had been running. The tracks were not as big as those of the Mapogo, so we knew that it was the Selati males we were following, on the run after yet another defeat under the paws and claws of the older coalition.
At the same time that Solly and ranger Adam Bannister were following tracks to the North of the Sand River, Eckson Sithole, the tracker I was working with, found more tracks to the west of the Londolozi camps, also of young male lions on the run. It wasn’t long before we realised that we were tracking the same lions, allowing Adam to come to where we were, bypassing the middle ground and saving time.
To speed up the tracking process, we will often get more than one ranger/tracker team involved. While one team stays on the tracks, the others are casting their nets up ahead and to the flanks. If they find tracks further down the line, the trackers can leap ahead to the fresher footprints, skipping out the in-between section. If no tracks are found further ahead, it is safe to assume that the animal(s) must be between where the team is on the tracks and where the other team(s) has checked. Tracking can be just as much about finding where an animal is not as finding out where it is.
Realising which lions we were tracking, ranger Talley Smith and tracker Freddy Ngobeni joined in the hunt, but as the morning wore on and the three teams entered territory that was more and more difficult to track on, we summoned more help in the form of tracking legend Renias Mhlongo and his team of tracking students.
We now had four teams instead of the usual maximum of three searching for the male lions, and their tracks were still heading relentlessly into the south. We were confident we would find them as long as they didn’t cross out of Londolozi, but how far were they going to walk?
By 9:30 am things were starting to warm up, although being winter it wasn’t too hot yet. It was likely that the lions, wherever they were, had begun looking for a shady spot to spend the day.
The tracks had come a long way and now headed into the densely vegetated area around Bateleur road. Acacia and sickle-bush thickets dominate this part of the reserve, and the tracking became measurably slower, both because it was hard to see the tracks and because visibility was poor; the lions could be sleeping in the grass and we’d trip over them before we knew they were there.
Renias was on the tracks, and Eckson decided it was a good idea to make a long cast out to the south, just to see if the lions had crossed our boundary. We headed right down to our south eastern corner, and still had nothing. Coming up our eastern boundary, our hopes were growing, as we’d had no sign of the lions crossing out, and if they were still on our side, we’d get them! I remember turning to my guests and saying “Ok guys, we have about another 200 m of road to check. If we don’t have their tracks by then, we can be pretty sure they’re still on Londolozi.”
50 m further on and the road was still clear. Another 50 m and still nothing. With the final 50 m of our border check approaching, Ecskon’s hand went up from his seat on the bonnet, indicating me to stop. My heart sunk. There on the road, clear for all to see, where the tracks of four young male lions, crossing over our boundary. The time was 10:16 am. We had been on the tracks for almost four hours. And the lions were gone.
I turned to the guests to announce the bad news, expecting groans of disappointment and maybe the odd expletive, but instead I was greeted with genuine smiles and laughter. The guests didn’t care if we hadn’t seen the lions. The tracking was what they loved. Because Eckson and I had been excited, they were excited. The morning had been punctuated by highs and lows, as we found the tracks then lost them, only to find them again 20 mins later. Ups and downs and the uncertainty of it all, and the thrill of being on the hunt was what they found the most memorable. No lions, but a thrilling morning of following the clues and piecing together the puzzle. It wasn’t like we had seen nothing, either. During the course of the tracking we had bumped into all sorts of other creatures along the way. Giraffes and zebras had stared at us with bemusement, wondering what we were doing walking around bent over, looking down at the ground. Tawny eagles had soared high above and the distant whoop of hyenas had sounded during the early hours. Following the journey that the lions had taken whilst being exposed to the magic of the bush, being able to put ourselves in their footsteps, and the possibility of discovery around the next corner, had made it a very memorable morning.
We returned to camp for a late breakfast, and although we had not succeeded in our mission to find the lions, we couldn’t help feeling that we had won.
24 hours later, when all four Majingilane male lions came roaring back onto Londolozi, we tracked and found them instead, an experience made even more exciting because of the build-up of the day before.
Written by James Tyrrell
Photographed by Adam Bannister and Aimee Tallian