Over many years the wonderful book The Leopards of Londolozi, that we had purchased in a Johannesburg bookshop, had been staring at us from our coffee table in Paris, France. In 2008 we decided to visit Londolozi’s Tree camp on one of our regular Africa visits.
That visit has been become subsequently one of our most memorable experiences during an African safari, to say the least. Apart from the incredible hospitality and warm reception everywhere in the camp, we were blessed to have been assigned a fantastic Ranger Alfie Mathebula and Tracker, Bennet Mathonsi or “Bennet on the Bonnet” as we would call him during our stay. More on that later.
During our stay at Londolozi, these two gentlemen showed us how close they are to nature, how they can communicate with their environment and indeed with wildlife itself. It was a humbling, educative, emotional experience, which taught us that humans can still be an integral part of their natural environment if they so desire. And the Londolozi staff is doing just that.
On our first early morning drive, we left Tree camp and drove at sunrise quietly in the fresh morning air on the look-out for our first encounters. Seemingly out of nowhere, we were surrounded by a large herd of elephants. Elephants can be the quietest animals in Africa and their act of “now you see them, now you don’t” is a wonder to me every time when on a safari. How these enormous, wonderfully intelligent animals can appear/disappear in their surroundings is a miracle in itself.
But here we were: our car on a narrow dirt road, surrounded by elephants. Although this is in itself not necessarily a problem, our predicament was different.
A mother elephant was on one side of the road, and her tiny calf was on the other side … and our Land Rover was right in the middle!
Alfie was fast to react and backed up his vehicle up into the bushes to show the mother we were no danger to her young one. But it was too late: the mother did not appreciate the threat she had perceived and started coming towards us aggressively with her ears flapping.
Alfie had backed up his vehicle as far as possible, but was now blocked by bushes and a large tree stump, preventing further backwards movement. We had no escape!
And then a miracle happened. As the angry mother approached, pretty determined as well, Bennet – who was still sitting on the bonnet – stood up in his seat, raised his arms to make himself look taller and started talking to the mother elephant, in low rumbling voice, almost chanting!
His voice got the mother’s attention and his communication and gesture quietened her down. She stopped in her tracks, looked inquisitively at us and decided we were no threat and then moved off to join her calf,without paying us further attention. We all let out a sigh of relief, as we had just escaped what could have been a disastrous situation. But Bennet was able to communicate in completely the right way to calm this angry elephant down.
He had resolved an extremely tricky situation, and we felt very lucky to have Bennet on the bonnet!
The evening before the elephant incident, we had run into a kill of a buffalo by a lion pride. It was a large pride, with many cubs.
We were trying to find them the following morning but after a couple of hours of driving around and not finding them, despite the size of the pride, Bennet and Alfie decided to split up; Bennet went on foot – “As the lions are nearby” – whilst Alfie drove us in the Land Rover to scout a larger area.
After quite some time, driving through the bushes and crisscrossing dirt roads, we all started to laugh nervously in the car. We wondered: how was Alfie going to re-connect with Bennet? They had no radio that we could see and the bushes and the trees looked all alike (at least for the uninitiated) and we had been driving a good 15-20 minutes. Alfie told us not to worry. He would find Bennet again, no problem.
We stopped the Land Rover in the middle of a beautiful African clearing surrounded by dense bush and waited. And waited. After a long and nervous time in the car, Bennet sudden showed up, walking quietly towards the car. He apologised: “Had to stay in hiding in the bushes; had to avoid and walk around a herd of buffalo,” he told us matter of factly. We were awestruck as buffalo are known to be the most dangerous of the big Five.
“I saw fresh tracks of the lion pride, but did not see the lions; they must be very close by”, he managed to add and pointed us in the direction before hopping back on the car.
With Bennet back on the bonnet, we drove not even two minutes further, when we ran into the pride of four mothers and at least 10 cubs,quietly making their way to a quiet spot where they could groom and feed the young.
We realised then that not only had Bennet just walked around a dangerous buffalo herd, he also walked very close to a lion pride with many cubs.
He and Alfie had shown us again how close they were to nature and their land:
They could find their way around and find each other in what looked to us an African landscape that all looked alike.
They understood danger and how to deal with it, best of all buffalos or lions, and avoid confrontation;
They accomplished their morning mission and through determined tracking found the lion pride we were looking for.
It was further proof of their remarkable skills and respect for nature and it has stayed with us ever since.
During our stay at Tree Camp, we managed to se the Big Five up close and personal, including many of the famous Leopards of Londolozi, through the amazing tracking skills of the trackers and rangers of Londolozi.
We had a tremendous time, not just because we saw the Big Five, but we were treated to some amazing interaction of Rangers and Trackers and their environment. Lessons never to be forgotten.
And through this very blog, we have been keeping track, ever since, of the welfare and ups and downs of the lion prides as well as the Leopards of Londolozi.
Needless to say, we will be coming back!