With a keen eye, intuition and experience, trackers really are like detectives when they attempt to decipher the course of events that took place overnight.
The major difference is that they only have the tracks and signs left by the animals to go by; I would imagine the trackers would relish the opportunity to pull in the Tortoise Pan male leopard and sit him down for questioning. They would ask things like, “Where were you on the night of the 23rd?”, or “Have you ever seen this woman?” while holding up a picture of the Ximungwe female. I think they would jump at the opportunity to ask a herd of zebra if they had seen a pride of lions pass though this area, how long ago and which direction did they go?
It was about 10:00am and we were roughly 15 minutes from camp when Tracker/Detective Judas Ngomane tapped the bonnet signalling me to stop. The sun was relatively high in the sky so tracks were becoming more difficult to see in the direct, bright light of the late autumn morning. He and I jumped out to assess the tracks. A lioness had passed through this area; I could work this much out on my own. But when I looked at Judas’ face I saw a twinkle in his eye and an expression I have grown to know and love. These tracks were fresh. Not only this; on closer inspection we saw the tracks of three young cubs dotted around the lioness’ comparatively oversize paw print.
We made our way back to the vehicle and explained what we had found to the guests. We told them that we thought it was definitely worthwhile having a crack at finding the lioness as the tracks looked so fresh, even though it was so late in the morning and we would normally already have been back for breakfast. It didn’t take much to get everyone on board with the plan and I quickly parked the vehicle in the shade of a big acacia tree before Judas and I headed off in the direction the track were heading.
Up out of the Sand River river they went onto a fairly open plain where a herd of impala grazed. A small dry tributary lay a couple of hundred meters to our right. I chucked to myself as I thought how willingly the impala would spill the beans when questioned as to the whereabouts of the lioness.
As we followed the tracks Judas noted another set of tracks of what we presumed to be the same lioness going in the opposite direction. In this case with no cubs. Now this might have been confusing for the inexperienced eye, but Judas quickly put worked out what had happened. Kneeling down over the tracks he explained it to me: the lioness, it seemed, had been off hunting, having stashed her cubs down in the river in the dense vegetation. She had most likely been successful, and having made a kill, would have hidden it somewhere and then made a bee-line back to where she had left the cubs. Having collected them she would most likely have walked directly back on the same path to where this kill was, with the three in tow, hence the two sets of tracks going in opposite directions.
We had walked some distance from the vehicle by now, so I quickly doubled back to bring the Land Rover closer to where Judas was still tracking. When I returned, Judas jumped back onto the tracker seat as the tracks had popped out onto the road, making following them a lot easier. We trailed them for a short while until Judas, this time, really started hitting the bonnet with his hand. His excitement filtered through the vehicle as he pointed a drag mark across the road going down into the small dry riverbed, a typical place where a lioness would stash a kill. It would have been a carcass of something that would have left this drag mark. Also heading into the gulley were the original tracks of her and the three cubs that we had been following.
The pieces of Judas’ hypothesis were falling into place.
Finding a drag mark left by a predator as it drags a kill into a well concealed area to devour it or – in the case of a leopard – to a suitable tree to hoist it into, is like finding gold. One doesn’t come across it very often and when one does the rewards can be extremely enriching. Drag marks are generally easy to follow as they leave a very obvious path. This one did exactly that as we squeezed the Land Rover through the thickening vegetation down towards the gulley. With the vehicle leaning over a steep bank Judas spotted something of a tawny colour lying under a bush. He looked back, signalling to everyone that there was something there while he, with remarkable agility for a half-centurion plus nine, clambered back over the bonnet into the passenger seat next to me. We edged slowly forward to get a better view and saw a barely eaten, full grown male impala. Amazing!
Great tracking Judas, but where were the lioness and her cubs? Scanning around for a few seconds, some movement on the opposite bank of the gulley caught my eye. Out of the long grass stood the lioness as she made her way straight toward the dead impala and towards us! Just behind her, struggling to see over the grass, the three cubs stumbled behind her down the bank.
The mother lioness placed incredible trust in us as she led her youngsters to within meters of the vehicle. We had parked fairly close to the kill as it was the only way of getting a view of it in the thick bush. We sat dead still and watched.
The lioness was extremely comfortable with our presence and soon started feeding. Her calmness quickly rubbed off on the cubs who at first, tentatively kept an eye on us. However, soon all three got stuck in, trying their best to tear off pieces of meat from what would have been one of the first kills they had been led to by their mother.
It was now very late morning and with our own stomachs grumbling but feeling elated after what we had witnessed, we headed back to camp for breakfast. Besides the excitement of reliving the experience of seeing the lioness and her cubs, much of the conversation on the way home revolved around how remarkable the track-and-find by Judas was. How he had not only followed the tracks with such accuracy but also read and predicted the lioness’ exact movement and actions over the last few hours by a few paw marks in the sand. I even heard one guests comment “I knew we were following the tracks but I never thought we would actually find the lioness! It felt like a needle in a haystack search.”
Judas had really been a true detective that morning.