In his blog post describing his best day of 2019 (so far), ranger Josh Attenborough hit the nail on the head describing the exhilaration of going out on a game drive with one of Londolozi’s veteran guides. But I can promise you, reader, that being on a drive with our rangers in training is a special privilege in its own right. With that, to borrow from Josh’s blog title, here’s the story of my most memorable game drive of 2019 (so far!).
The sun had just come up as we set out from camp. We were only four in the Land Rover: trainee ranger Dan in the hot seat; Josh in the tracker’s seat up front; Head Ranger James, already grilling Dan with rapid-fire bird questions; and me, just happy to be there and fizzing with excitement as we headed into the bush.
The training drive, I’ve come to learn, is a vital component of Londolozi’s ranger training course. A training drive’s purpose is multifold: it’s a wildlife knowledge exam-on-wheels (courtesy of James or whichever senior rangers happen to be on board), a chance for the trainees to hone their mental maps of the reserve’s roads and landmarks, and an opportunity to practice the art of storytelling, of crafting a narrative arc to both individual sightings and the drive as a whole. All this while driving a two-ton vehicle through the bush AND tracking astonishingly well-camouflaged animals: no small task!
After bumbling around the bush for a bit, we stopped under an enormous mahogany tree and climbed out of the Land Rover. Dan and Josh pulled out the requisite morning safari coffee and snacks while James readied his lesson plan for the morning: a deep dive into Londolozi’s prominent leopard lineages. For the next two hours, the four of us leaned against the hood of the Land Rover as James walked us through the complete history of Londolozi’s leopards, mapping out the full family tree, sharing stories about particularly memorable individuals, and explaining how to identify a leopard from the spot pattern on its face.
Once we’d made it through the lineages, the sun was getting strong and we were all ready for a bit of wind in our hair, so we packed up the coffee and fix-ins, piled back into the Land Rover, and started to head back to camp. To my surprise, Dan turned to me and said “let’s try to find you that cheetah you were asking about, Michael.” Considering our long odds, I guessed there was no chance we’d see this most elusive of Londolozi’s big cats. Little did I know, another ranger-tracker team had spotted a young female cheetah earlier that morning and radioed in its position, and Dan was bee-lining to that spot in the hopes that the cheetah had settled down for a nap under a tree to avoid the coming midday sun. It wasn’t even ten minutes before James said animatedly, “It should be… right… there!”
We pulled into the shade of the tree where the cheetah was resting and sat with her for half an hour, taking in the scene and trading cheetah facts (well, three of them trading cheetah facts). For instance: cheetahs use their tails like rudders to stabilize themselves when running at top speed (over 60 miles per hour). We all learned from James the art of presenting a sleepy animal with contagious excitement: how to weave one’s wildlife knowledge and bush stories together to paint a picture of that same animal in action, on the hunt, making full use of its astounding evolutionary adaptations.
By now, the sun was high in the sky and beating down on the bush, and there was little chance this cheetah would rouse herself for a demonstration of her hunting skills. But just to be in her presence was excitement enough; without saying a word, the four of us agreed to just to sit and take in the sight of this inspiring creature, marvelling at the privilege of sharing the same wild home.