One generally takes a subconscious pride in knowing one’s home turf pretty well.
I’m from Cape Town, and I would always scoff at reports of tourists getting lost on Table Mountain; I mean it isn’t exactly the Himalayas! You simply walk until you see the city beneath you, or the Southern Suburbs or the Atlantic ocean, and then you’re orientated and the descent should be simple.
Actually not so simple! Cloud can roll in extremely fast, reducing visibility to only a few metres in front of you, the temperature can plummet to almost freezing, and if you’re not prepared, you can be in serious trouble very quickly. I know, because it’s now happened to me three times!
I learnt from my dad to always go into the mountains with the right gear, just in case, so fortunately have emerged unscathed, but I certainly don’t chuckle anymore when I hear of people getting lost on the Mountain. I sympathise rather.
Having said this, it certainly never occurred to me that having worked at Londolozi for 8 years I could still become totally disorientated here. As a trainee ranger you walk the roads – solo – to learn them, and are expected to get lost a couple of times, but after the better part of a decade I figured that nothing could happen to confuse me that badly again. Least of all in daylight. The road network is firmly imprinted in my brain, I’ve walked almost all the drainage lines and riverbeds, and around every corner there’s a feature I will recognize, not matter what the season.
Yet still, after leaving a recent sighting of the Ndzanzeni female I spent a good few minutes getting more and more confused, not having the foggiest clue where I was or which direction I was going in, far too embarrassed to ask anyone!
It was a grey day of dense low clouds (my one sliver of an excuse). We had been following the leopard through what wasn’t even a particularly thick block, and she was turning in circles, scent-marking after the recent rain, investigating a smell here, showing interest in an impala herd there, and to keep in sight of her as she moved through a number of thickets and areas of long grass, we were also forced to turn in circles, navigating the Land Rovers around dense Gwarrie thickets and hidden dead logs in the grass. When you’re doing this, your only focus is keeping your eye on the leopard, which was particularly important in this case as the Ndzanzeni female is stashing a small cub somewhere, and we were hoping she would lead us to it.
While twisting and turning, your mind isn’t paying attention to your compass bearing, but subconsciously you are taking note of the surrounding features; the orientation of a drainage line, a prominent Tamboti tree that marks a road in the distance. Or at least you presume this is what’s happening in your subconscious.
After probably an hour with the leopard, she moved through a really dense area which we couldn’t get through with the Land Rovers, so I decided to loop around and wait for her up ahead. I drove straight for the nearest road (which I knew was only a hundred metres or so away), happy with a great sighting so far.
The first seeds of doubt should have been sown when it took a lot longer to reach the road than anticipated, but I figured I had simply miscalculated the distance, and turned north onto the track which I assumed was leading me towards camp. Humming quietly to myself I bounced along for a minute, before suddenly realising I should have hit the next junction by now. And the bends weren’t the ones I should have been driving through on the road my brain was telling me I was on.
It’s rather a distressing feeling for someone who prides themselves on their navigation to have their mental image of where they ought to be totally at odds with what’s actually in front of them!
I continued driving, getting more and more confused, seeing thickets and trees come past that were buried somewhere in my memory, but that were still contrasting sharply with the belief I was holding on to about my actual position, but that was swiftly starting to fade.
The worst thing to do in that situation (I now know), is cling to what you think you know. Rather toss all the suppositions out the window and go on the evidence of your own eyes. As soon as I re-calibrated I started to get a proper picture forming of where I actually was. Instead of heading north-west on the road I was meant to be on, I was heading south-east on the road on the opposite side of the block! Without the sun as a navigational aid, I had lost all sense of direction, and without realising it was going the complete opposite way to the one I had intended!
It was only a couple of minutes of being mentally thrown, thank goodness; I wasn’t in any danger of being forced to spend the night out, run out of water or fuel or anything dramatic like that. The worst I would face would be a ribbing from the rest of the team (which I will now get for having shared this story, and deservedly so), but it was a scary reminder of how easily it can happen, in a place I thought I knew like the back of my hand, when something as simple as the sun is hidden from view.
And to top it all off, we lost the leopard a few minutes later. She started stalking some impala rams, and we gave her space to let her hunt, and she clearly lost interest and simply melted away into the long grass. We didn’t manage to find her again.
I’m going to have to wait a little longer to be led to her cub…