A few weeks ago we witnessed an unusual event in the current lion dynamics here at Londolozi. The two Northern Avoca males marched all the way from their territory in the northern parts of Londolozi right into the territory of the Birmingham males.
The Avoca pair crossed through the Sand River early one night and spent the evening roaring from our airstrip. The following day they were found resting under a torchwood tree south of the river – well behind enemy lines so to speak!
That night the two lions continued calling close to camp and it was then that a small group of us decided that the next day we would set out bright and early to try and track them.
Early the next day we set out on foot to examine the tracks left behind by the roving coalition.
The pair’s footprints suggested that they had decided to head back north and our suspicions were confirmed when Ranger Shaun D’Araujo called us on the radio with news of, “Tracks going north over Sasekile Ingwe crest”. We quickly got back to camp, drove across the Sand River to the open clearings where the tracks had been found and continued our search on foot.
There is something very special about following the tracks of an animal, especially lions. Walking through the same areas that they walked, studying their tracks and knowing that at any moment you might catch a glimpse of the animal you have been trailing provides a thrill like no other.
As we followed the trail we felt our senses heightening and we started to feel more in tune with nature. The path the lions had walked the night before was littered with tiny clues that could easily be overlooked; we could not allow our focus to wane.
The tracks lead us over an open grassy crest towards the dry Manyelethi River. The tracks left behind in the river’s soft sand were clear and we were able to track quickly. A short while later the tracks veered off and took aim at a game trail that leads to a small waterhole not far from the river. The recent summer rains have left small pools of water scattered around the bush – perfect drinking points for a thirsty lion. The thick, shoulder-high grass slowed our progress as we cautiously approached the pool. Then the tracks we were following vanished.
We searched the area for any further signs but we came up with nothing. It is moments like these where a tracker’s intuition comes into play. With no physical evidence to suggest a direction, the tracker has to follow a hunch. Based on the direction that the two Avoca brothers had been travelling in, ranger Tayla Brown suggested that we continue upstream in the dry river to see if we could find the tracks again in the soft sand. At this point we decided it was also a good time to regroup and refocus. In other words, it was time for a coffee break.
The aroma of fresh coffee wafted through the air as the percolator bubbled away. We sat in the sand of the river while the shade of a huge Jackalberry tree gave us shelter from an already hot early-morning sun. A sense of camaraderie had taken hold of our small tracking party and I could tell that this tracking experience – while not yet complete – had already given us immense fulfilment. With our extended coffee break drawing to a close I stood up to stretch my legs and noticed something up ahead. Lo and behold, Tayla’s hunch was right – two sets of male lion tracks crossed the dry riverbed in front of us.
Immediately we snapped back into tracking mode, we knew these tracks were fresh. The tracks cut out of the river and up a grassy bank. We could see the how grass where the lions had walked was still lying flat, suggesting that they had passed by fairly recently. We slowly ascended the bank, hearts racing.
By now it was getting hot and as the ground beneath us flattened out we began checking any shady spot for a pair of weary lions looking to rest after a busy night of trekking. Still the flattened grass trail pulled us along. We edged slowly towards a clearing adjacent to the river. Something moved in the thicket on the far side of the clearing.
A quick scan with the binoculars confirmed our suspicions – we had found the lions.
Lying in the shade of a grove of tamboti trees were the two Avoca males. Elation flooded over us; we had achieved our goal. After the obligatory triumphant announcement on the radio we slunk away and began the long trudge home, smiling as walked.
The act of tracking and finding an animal provides a deep satisfaction that seems to reawaken something inside us that we inherited from our ancestors. The lessons and memories garnered from an experience such as this will not be soon be forgotten and I am already looking forward to the next time I get to walk in the tracks of Africa’s amazing wild animals.