This is an old story from senior tracker Judas Ngomane. It is a story about tracking lions.
It was 9am and the sun was beating down. It had been a morning of hard tracking following the spoor of the Sparta pride. Fourteen lions can leave quite a clear trail in soft powdery dust, however after a night of hunting their tracks had no linearity. Add patches of hard ground and rock where little to no trace of their passing was left and you have a serious challenge ahead. Keen skills and experience are key.
The ranger – Bruce – had a decision to make. The guests were departing that morning and needed to be back at camp, so time was running out. After a quick discussion Judas decided to take the radio and the rifle and continue to track alone. The plan was for Judas to radio to be fetched when he had found the lions.
So off went Bruce and the guests back to camp, and off went Judas after the lions.
Fortunately Judas managed to get back on the tracks pretty quickly, and soon enough he was squinting through the bush and spotted a lioness. She was sitting, leaning over slightly on her front paws, and Judas watched as she brought her back right paw up to her head and gave herself a satisfying scratch behind the ear. He had spotted them from far enough not to disturb them, and, more importantly far enough away that even if they had seen him, they probably would have felt comfortable enough to remain lazing about.
Another successful track and find; if only the guests had been here to see the lions, Judas thought.
Celebrating alone, Judas turned and started back towards the road which was about 200 metres away. As he crunched through the undergrowth with his throat now parched, his mind wandered. Then, with what some would call a sixth sense – that comes from years of experience out in the wilderness – Judas sensed something behind him, a presence. He stopped and slowly peered over his shoulder. Through the brush fourteen lions were coming. Not stalking, not running, but slowly following him about 50m behind.
If he walked, they walked.
If he stopped, they stopped.
The first thing he wanted to do was run but he knew that was the last thing he should do. To run would only entice the so-far inquisitive pride into chasing after him.
This stop/start walk continued for a while as the lions closed the gap ever so slightly with each passing minute.
Judas had to make a decision. Should he let off a warning shot to scare the lions away? He decided not to and instead started scanning around for a tree to climb. Lions are fairly poor climbers and he hoped to get high enough to be out of reach.
A big Marula tree stood not too far away and he made a bee-line for it, keeping one eye one the pride the whole time. In a hurry and perhaps a little flustered by this unusual behaviour from the lions he dropped the rifle and radio at the base of the tree.
As he made quick work of getting up into the top branches the lions kept closing in until eventually they were all at the base of the tree. One lioness looked up and made an attempt to climb up but as she did Judas shouted “Suka” (“Go away”) as he waved his hat in its direction. He may have shouted something slightly ruder.
This seemed to work, but before long all fourteen lions had decided to rest in the shade of the same tree Judas was in. Now, when lions decide that they like a shady spot as the day heats up they are quite likely to stay until the evening cools.
Judas was now wishing he had clipped the radio to his belt. Even if he had wanted to brave sneaking down to try and retrieve it, it wouldn’t help as the younger members of the pride had already found it in the long grass and destroyed it.
All he could do was wait…
Meanwhile back at camp, Bruce had dropped the guests off at the airstrip and was setting out to collect Judas.
“Judas do you copy, Judas?”… No response.
“Judas do you copy, Judas?”… No response.
After several more attempts on the radio with no response Bruce went back to camp to report this to the head ranger and asked another tracker to come out to help him look for Judas in a second vehicle. Luckily they knew roughly what area to start the search in.
Two hours had passed and Judas was still stuck in the tree; lions scattered liberally round the trunk. Suddenly to his delight he heard a vehicle! He saw it was one of the trackers driving past along the road about 100m away. Standing up on the branch he waved his hat in the air. At that distance any shouts would have been drowned out by the engine. The tracker whizzed by and Judas was left high and dry. Then ten minutes later he heard another vehicle and this time recognized Bruce in the driver’s seat. Again he jumped up waving his hat to catch the eye of his potential rescuer. To his joy he saw the vehicle come to an abrupt halt. Bruce lifted his binoculars and saw Judas sitting high up in the branches of the Marula. He turned on the ignition and drove straight through the bush toward the tree. As he got close to the tree he saw Judas motioning for him to look down. As he did so he saw with amazement the whole pride that they had been tracking that morning sleeping in the shade of the tree.
But before he could help Judas out of the tree ranger Bruce, never one to pass up an opportunity, radioed camp, “I have found Judas in a tree, I think you should all come have a look”. Word got out and soon Judas was surrounded by four vehicles filled with rangers, camp managers, chefs, butlers and house keepers, all there to see the spectacle.
After everyone had had a good laugh Bruce pulled up right next to the tree and Judas elegantly dropped down into the middle row of seats on the back of the Land Rover. The lions hardly deigned to open their eyes.
This was not the last time Judas and Bruce would see these lions on this day. They had more guests arriving and on the afternoon game drive, sure enough there were the Sparta pride, still sleeping in the shade of Judas’ Marula tree.
Needless to say, Judas had a great story with which to regale the new guests while they waited for the lions to get active!