Londolozi has a vast network of roads that meander through open crests and dense riverine thickets, each of which have a name to assist rangers in finding animals. As the newest member of Londolozi’s ranger team, it was one of my primary responsibilities to learn all of these roads. During my training, certain road names intrigued me, particularly those named after iconic individuals who played an integral role in the establishment of Londolozi. Arguably one of the most beautiful roads is Lex’s Road, named after Lex Hes – one of Londolozi’s first rangers.
Elmon Mhlongo, a tracker here for the past 45 years, remembers a particularly hair-raising encounter he shared with Lex;
Lex first arrived at Londolozi in 1976 with a craving for adventure and a great love of the natural environment. Using battered old Land Rovers, Lex and the other rangers would take their guests out to view game that included lion, buffalo and hyena. To find these animals, rangers would make use of the skills of local Shangaan trackers (a vital part of game drive that continues to this day), whose skill in tracking animals is beyond belief.
Whilst driving a group of guests who wanted to see lions, Elmon Mhlongo raised his hand from a customised seat on the bonnet of the Land Rover, signalling that he had seen lion tracks in the road. The tracks were made by a large male lion referred to as Big Black, who roamed Londolozi during the late seventies and early eighties, and who was notoriously aggressive. With this in mind, Lex and Elmon instructed their guests to remain seated in the Land Rover whilst they tracked cautiously on foot.
Elmon recalls a cold bead of sweat running down his nose as he followed the lion’s tracks, which headed into a thicket. As Lex and Elmon rounded the thicket, Big Black, who had been watching them the entire time from the depths of the thicket, had now stood up and walked behind Lex and Elmon, essentially tracking them. Watching in horror from the Land Rover, one of the guests shouted out to get Elmon’s attention. As Elmon and Lex turned around, Big Black charged at them, producing growls that made the earth tremble. Lex and Elmon stood their ground and Big Black stopped a few meters from their feet, growling and lashing his tail from side to side. Not well known for their Olympic high jumping skills, Elmon and Lex had no way to get back to the Land Rover and called out to their guests to drive the vehicle toward them. Their calls were not answered as at this point the guests had buried themselves under the seats in panic. Knowing that they had no other choice, Lex and Elmon stood their ground for some very dragged-out minutes (which must have felt like a lifetime), before the lion moved off. Upon returning to the Land Rover Lex asked the guests why they had not driven towards them. Their only response was that they thought that once the lion had finished Lex and Elmon, he would return to the vehicle and finish off the six of them.
Lex remained at Londolozi for just over 16 years. During this time Lex, Dave and John Varty, as well as the other rangers at Londolozi, were some of the few people privileged enough to see the elusive leopard on a regular basis and spend time observing their behaviour. Initially, these sightings were brief and usually comprised of a fleeting glimpse of a spotted cat disappearing into a thicket. In 1979, things changed when Ken Maggs and Kimbini Mnisi spotted two young leopard cubs in a tree while driving back to camp late one evening. The following morning, they returned to find the two cubs, who were now with their mother (affectionately known as “the mother leopard”). Initially, the mother was unrelaxed with the presence of vehicles, but soon relaxed with their presence, peeling back the curtain of her secretive life. Being somewhat of a naturalist, Lex began to carry a note pad to document the time he spent following the mother leopard. This gradually evolved from a few notes to a library spanning many bookshelves documenting interactions between the mother leopard and her litters of cubs, her hunts, her territorial disputes and mating behaviour. Using these notes and photographs of leopards he and others had acquired at Londolozi over 13 years, Lex published a book titled The Leopards of Londolozi. Due to the dedication of the rangers and many sleepless nights spent following leopards, Londolozi now has some of the best leopard viewing in the world.
Lex is one of many iconic characters to work at Londolozi. Over the next few weeks, I look forward to sharing more of the stories I have been learning about the various characters that have added so much to its history.
Written by Sean D’Araujo, Londolozi Ranger