Early one morning while waiting to meet guests in the Granite Camp car park, tracker Richard Mthabine and myself were coming up with a plan on what to search for on drive when we heard a leopard vocalizing from across the river. Rich and I looked at each other with big smiles on our faces as we both now knew exactly what we were going to be searching for that morning.
When the guests got to the vehicle we told them that there was no time to waste as the leopard we had heard sounded like it was coming from the northern bank of the Sand River just opposite Founders Camp, and if we wanted to find it we had to move quickly as it was most likely the Flat Rock Male, the dominant male of that area, and it was likely that he was moving and could already be a few hundred metres from where we heard him.
After crossing the river we stopped where we thought we heard the first call coming from, turned off the engine and listened out for any more vocalizing. We hadn’t stopped for long when we heard impalas alarming from the crest to the north of us; we immediately raced to where the alarming was coming from and found a very alert herd of impala but no leopard in sight.
We knew he had to be around somewhere so we drove slowly along the road parallel to the impala looking for any fresh tracks. We drove for about 800m with Rich carefully scanning the road and us carefully scanning the bush, when Rich’s hand signalled for me to stop. All our hearts started to race thinking that finally we might just have a clear direction of where exactly this leopard has walked. Rich hopped off to have a closer look at the tracks but unfortunately they were not fresh at all and were those of a female.
As Rich turned to jump back on the vehicle we heard that distinct saw-like rasping again but this time it sounded much closer and was coming from behind us on the road we had just driven. Rich didn’t even hop back on the trackers seat, he hopped into the passenger seat next to me because he knew from what we had just heard that the leopard was walking down the road straight towards us. And as sure as eggs are eggs as we turned around, there was the Flat Rock male walking in our direction. That moment of discovery is what keeps visitors coming back to the bush from all over the world, and what keeps rangers and trackers excited to get out of bed long before dawn each morning.
He then proceeded to walk right past the vehicle within reaching distance, close enough to make your heart stop beating and for you to feel the pressing need to hold your breath.
We followed him for a while, watching him scent mark very few hundred meters until we couldn’t anymore as he made his way into the Manyelethi River and crossed over the eastern boundary.
Although we didn’t get to spend too much time with him, the build-up to us finding him was just as exciting – if not more than – as the time spent with him.
I always find it such fun trying to find an animal just by their vocalizations; it reminds me of the game Marco Polo which we used to play in the swimming pool as kids. Using only your sense of hearing to find your target, making it just that much more rewarding when you are victorious.