I recently came across a quote by Carl Sagan, an American astrophysicist, who stated that “every aspect of nature reveals a deep mystery and touches our sense of wonder and awe.” No quote could have better summed up Ted Swindon’s most recent visit to Londolozi. Ted has visited Londolozi several times a year for the last ten years, during which he has photographed and passionately followed the lives of the Leopards of Londolozi, their dynamics and their stories. This is his happy place, his home, and he brings those closest to him to Londolozi to share his passion with them. On this particular trip, Ted brought his son-in-law Richard out with him from New Zealand.
Richard had heard stories about the Leopards of Londolozi from Ted, and prior to his arrival Ted had given Richard a crash course in photography. Ted had planted the seed and he knew it. On Richard’s first afternoon, we spent time with the Piva male leopard while he was resting amongst lush green grass in golden afternoon light. “Ted, how many images will fit on my card?” said Richard rather subtly, before receiving reassurance that he should take as many pictures as he wanted to. The naturalist inside Richard had been awoken and from that moment on, he was captivated by the leopards and wildlife of Londolozi. We spent all of our time out tracking leopards, which sometimes took most of the day. When not with leopards, we found ways to pass the time. We photographed tortoises and lions and had meaningful conversations over croissants and coffee in the shade of a Jackalberry tree alongside the Sand River. Londolozi had made a profound impact on Richard, giving Ted great joy. “He acted in a way I had never expected. I knew he would be excited to see the bush and the animals, but it was really wonderful to see the same reaction in him that I remember having during my very first visit to Londolozi”, says Ted.
For Ted, there is little more exciting than to see and photograph a leopard he has never seen before. He has seen most of the leopards that have roamed Londolozi over the last ten years, but in typical leopard fashion, many have eluded him. Over the last four years, Ted has been chasing a ghost – the Anderson male and on this particular trip, we were committed to finding him. Richard was on board.
Unofficially the biggest leopard in the Sabi Sands, the Anderson male is an absolutely enormous individual in north western Londolozi.
After three days, we found the largest tracks of any male leopard we had ever seen, confirming that the Anderson male was indeed around. Ted and Richard were in disbelief when they saw the size of the pug marks in the soft mud and Ted had come closer to his mystery than ever before. It was time to go to work. Anticipating a long and difficult trail, tracker Elmon Mhlongo took a bottle of water and a radio and began to track the male while Ted, Richard and myself attempted to check all of the male’s usual haunts. For me, the most amazing part of tracking this male was that Ted and Richard made me feel as though it didn’t even matter whether we found him or not, which only made me more determined. Elmon stayed on the leopard’s tracks for nearly five hours before he lost the trail. We picked him up and headed back to camp. I could tell he was frustrated when he said, “I’ve missed something, somewhere, and I need to know where.”
Sadly, that day Richard was due to leave for Johannesburg and after dropping him off at the airstrip and bidding him farewell, we set out in search of the male once again. Elmon had asked one of Londolozi’s other senior trackers, Richard Siwela, to join us and to say that it was a privilege to watch these two great trackers work together would be a huge understatement. Ted and I dropped the trackers off on foot close to a drainage line and after twenty minutes they had found where the male had killed an impala ewe and her lamb. We returned to pick up the trackers and after searching the drainage line, we found him. There he was, the biggest leopard any of us had ever seen. This was the leopard that had eluded Ted for years and when I turned around, he could barely speak. What then proceeded to happen was one of the most incredible things that I have ever seen. The male dragged the carcass to a nearby Marula tree and attempted to hoist it into the upper reaches. However, just before he reached the top he lost his footing and plummeted from the tree down to the ground. He landed with a large thud and I was convinced that he had hurt himself. I was in disbelief when he got back up, growled in annoyance, and then hoisted the carcass back up into the tree, successfully this time.
There was something truly satisfying about this particular sighting. We had worked so hard, for so long and we were rewarded for our efforts. I asked Ted what had gone through his mind when he had seen the male he had searched for, for so long and his response was captivating; “I was in disbelief at the incredible size of this leopard. I have wanted to see him for so long and when I did, I understood why he is spoken about so much.” There is something about the mystery of leopards that captivates us all. The fact that they can pass by and remain undetected makes them fascinating animals to try and follow. Although we had found this male, there will be many more to come, and the search will continue, for both Ted and Richard.