The art of tracking an animal through the wilderness is an ancient skill that people used to depend on for their very survival. Sadly, the knowledge of tracking has largely been lost in this modern world, and exists as a necessary skill only in a very few tribes.
Fortunately, there are still some places in the world where this fine craft is still practiced and passed down from generation to generation and Londolozi is one such place. We have a phenomenal team of trackers here, and it is their knowledge of tracking and their many years of experience in the bush that allow us to access all kinds of amazing sightings that would otherwise go unseen. The trackers perform an invaluable task and without their presence on the Land Rover, game drives would simply not have the same depth and authenticity. Walking with a tracker as he follows tracks through the bush is one of the most special things to witness and a great deal of wisdom can be gleaned in the process.
The morning started like many others at this time of year; it wasn’t even half past five and the sun was already heating things up. I chatted to tracker and teammate Life Sibuyi, about a plan for the morning. We knew that there were a couple of leopards that had been spending a lot of time in the Sand River which had run dry, and Life suggested that we go and search the road around the river for any tracks.
Not even five minutes after leaving camp, Life spotted tracks of a male leopard heading in the direction of the River. A quick assessment suggested that the tracks were from earlier in the morning and the leopard might still be nearby. We drove down towards the river and the search was on. We drove up and down the various winding channels that the river had slowly carved into the earth over the millenia, but to our dismay, the fresh tracks seemed to have completely evaporated. Rather than get despondent, we re-evaluated our plan and pressed on. This was the first pearl of wisdom that I gained from my tracking experience that day:
Keep trying even when things become difficult.
No tracker worth his salt will give up when the tracks seem to vanish and in fact probably the most crucial characteristic of a truly great tracker is dogged persistence; the ability to concentrate for long periods of time when others – who may even possess better skill – have given up the hunt.
After checking the road for further tracks and finding nothing, we decided to change our approach – we had to leave the Land Rover behind and go and search on foot if we were to have a realistic chance of finding this leopard. This was my second lesson of the day:
Learning to be flexible will greatly improve one’s chances of success.
At this stage another ranger and tracker team offered to join in the search so after I had parked my guests in the pleasant shade of a huge Jackalberry tree that overlooks the river, I went to join Life, as well as Andrea Sithole and Sersant Sibuyi. All three of these men are amazing trackers and their understanding of the wilderness and wildlife is truly incredible. As we walked silently through the thick riverine vegetation and soft sand it became apparent to me how vulnerable a human is once removed from the safety of the vehicle. My mind was put at ease once we found the leopard’s tracks again and I was able to watch a tracking masterclass unfold in front of me.
Moving in silence, we would navigate our way through the narrow channels of the river as the leopard’s tracks seemed to pull us along. While one or two of us were looking for the tracks, the others were scanning the banks and trees for any sign of the leopard or other potentially dangerous animals. At one point during our search, we came across a huge bull elephant. Andrea gave off a small whistle and we all knew to stop. Completely unaware of our presence, the elephant slowly wandered off downstream and without saying a word we returned to our individual jobs as part of the collective goal of finding the leopard.
By now, the leopard’s trail had lead us into a rocky section of the river surrounded by big trees and due to the heat, we thought that he would choose to rest there for a while. A quick inspection of the area revealed that if the leopard was found, we would be able to get the vehicles into the river – a difficult task, but not impossible. Andrea and I went back to our respective guests and brought the Land Rovers round to the place where we could enter the river safely. The anticipation was building rapidly as we began closing in on the leopard. I could tell we were close and just as we rounded a bend in the road that leads to the river, Life called me on the radio to inform me that he and Sersant had found the cat we were after. I was overjoyed! After a few minutes of intense off-roading we managed to negotiate our way into the river. We came around the corner and low and behold, there he was; the Flat Rock male in all his splendour.
He was lying on a small sandy island amongst the dark boulders in the river underneath a large Matumi tree. To him, lying in the dappled light on this hot morning was nothing out of the ordinary but to us it was the culmination of hours of hard work. To be able to sit peacefully alongside the animal that we had tracked for kilometres was incredibly rewarding. As we sat there, I realised that we had been able to find this leopard by working together, united by a common purpose and fully trusting each other. Although I had learnt many things during course of the morning, the overarching lesson for me was that trust and teamwork are vital for success, regardless of what the goal is.
A leopard who took advantage of the death of the 4:4 male in 2016 to grab territory to the west of the Londolozi camps.
What I learned from tracking the Flat Rock male that morning provides a mere glimpse into what we can learn from tracking and apply to our own lives. The longer I spend at Londolozi, the more I come to admire the job the trackers perform, and working in this environment daily helps you to understand how lessons learned from the ancient art of tracking can be applied to life. Things like persistence, flexibility, teamwork and trust represent just a fraction of the things one can learn from tracking and the most exciting thing is each time you follow tracks, there is something new to learn.