January 2012 was a tough time for everyone at Londolozi. The 18th saw the Sand River come raging down in full spate as a succession of cyclones dumped half the region’s average annual rainfall in only 36 hours. Londolozi – and indeed most of the Sabi Sand Reserve – was turned into a bog literally overnight.
Luckily for us the camps were relatively unscathed, although some water damage did mean that Granite and Founders had to be refurbished. It was out in the field that things got tricky, with the sodden landscape sucking many, many Land Rovers in over the following couple of weeks, bogging them down so that no amount of digging, scraping or pushing could free them from the clutches of the ooze. Only the Londolozi tractors, forced to work overtime, could handle all the vehicle extractions that were needed. I recall one day in which five different vehicles were stuck at the same time in various parts of the reserve, and the tractor dispatched to rescue them was also stuck. A second tractor had to be mobilised to get things going again.
Getting stuck once or even twice in a few days can actually be quite a fun experience, and I wrote in a blog not too long ago about how the bush can sometimes reward you in unexpected ways if you take things in your stride. The incident I want to write about today was definitely not one of those times.
I did not get stuck only once or twice, but rather 11 times over the course of four days immediately after the 18th January cyclones. These 11 times do not include the ones in which we were able to self-extricate. Getting stuck in the Londolozi sense of the word means requiring assistance, often a tow. Anyway I remember 11 being my magic number – in fact I think it was probably just the number at which I stopped counting – and to be honest, senses of humour were starting to fail on the vehicle. Mine included. When approximately half of your time on safari has been spent disconsolately milling around your bogged down Landie, no animals are in sight, and the one bedraggled lion you did see was unapproachable due to it being 100m off-road where you were guaranteed to get stuck again (it might as well have been on the moon), it is understandable that your temper might start to wear thin.
So it was with misplaced optimism that I set out one morning with my guests, hoping to find a leopard close to the road so that we might actually view it. What I did not expect was to be 500m from camp and sink up to my axles in the road itself. Yet that was exactly what happened. We could still hear people on deck having early morning coffee and once again we were sunk. Thankfully (I thought) the other rangers were all leaving camp at the same time, so someone had to be close by to lend assistance. I radioed for the closest ranger to come and pull us out, and Helen Young who was less than a kilometre away said she’d come and help. We could hear her vehicle just over the hill, literally a minute from us, salvation on the way, when the most outrageous snarling, roaring and bellowing broke out somewhere close by. Helen’s voice came over the radio,” Uh…James I’m going to be a little longer coming to your assistance. The Marthly male has just treed the Tu-Tones male. I might be here for awhile…”! So Helen had bumped into two adult male leopards fighting, an unbelievable sight to see, and we were within earshot of the commotion, yet unable to do a thing.
“What was that noise?”, asked one of the guests. “Is someone coming to pull us out?”, enquired another. I scrabbled desperately around in my mind for something to say, some excuse, some olive branch I could offer up to in some way, any way, mitigate the situation, but I drew a complete blank. In halting, sheepish phrases I had to explain that yes, once again we were well and truly stuck, that yes, there was another vehicle coming to pull us out but no, they weren’t coming anymore because the noise we had just heard was two leopards fighting, the sighting of a lifetime, and the other vehicle has just found them and there was no way I could ask them to leave the sighting to come to our assistance. Well, that was the gist of it anyway. We could hear the camera shutters clicking crazily in the sighting, tantalizingly close, but we could do nothing.
We were not a happy vehicle that morning!
After a while the action up the hill died down and Helen was able to come and extract us. We could finally make our way to the leopards, and I managed to scrape together some semblance of a decent sighting, with a few growls passing back and forth between the cats and the Tu-tones male luckily still in the tree. We left with a few smiles and some decent pictures, although the knowledge of what we would probably have seen had we not got stuck when we did, or if I had tried to circumnavigate the muddy patch instead of chancing ploughing through it, I kept to myself. I played up the sighting for all I was worth, but I could tell from some of the looks I got that there were was an unspoken understanding between everyone that we had certainly missed the best of it, and I was solely responsible.
I can’t say I disagreed.
Written by James Tyrrell, Londolozi Ranger