Ask any Trails Guide about the weather conditions they least enjoy, and the majority of answers will involve wind.
Firstly, animals seem to vanish, seeking out dense cover and thick bush to avoid the blustery conditions. Most importantly though, our sense of hearing disappears, as the constant background noise of swishing grass and thrashing vegetation, drowns out tell-tale warning signs, such as ox-pecker calls or breaking branches, making bumping into animals at close quarters more likely. That being said, the blanket audio cover can also benefit the trails group, as the wind muffles the sound of our own approach. Consequently, every now and then a windy day can deliver a treat, and in April this year, for a small group of aspiring Trails Guides, it all came together!
As part of our Trails Guide Course in the central Timbavati, students are required to log a minimum of 50 walking hours and 10 Dangerous Game encounters under the supervision of a mentor. Each encounter or approach is thoroughly debriefed after the event, with a myriad of environmental variables being taken into account. After a week of walking, we had logged fantastic encounters with white rhino, elephant and lion, yet surprisingly for the area, buffalo had proven elusive, and un-surprisingly for any area, we hadn’t yet encountered a leopard. Striving to provide students with practical experience of approaching all potentially dangerous animals in our area, the search for Buff and Leopard became our focus.
The cold front had hit the night before. The sound of the wind preceded the onslaught, which smashed into our rustic canvas camp with aggression. In the morning, although thankfully not overcast, the wind was still pumping. I admit to starting the walk in a negative head space because of the conditions, but that quickly disappeared as we soon came across tracks of a big breeding herd of buffalo that had passed not too far from camp during the night. Jackpot, I thought. As far as tracking is concerned, there isn’t a much easier trail to follow than that made by a few hundred buffalo.
Although many hours old, we jumped on the tracks with enthusiasm, knowing that we could rapidly close the gap. Five-hundred meters later, I pulled up short, as the crisp track of a female leopard crossed over the cloven hooves we were following. What to do?
We decided that although fresh, due to the fact that the animal wasn’t walking on a path, but seemed to be meandering through the stunted mopane, the chances of successfully following and finding her, would be slim. We chose to stay on the buffalo tracks, as we had a much better chance of catching up to them. We continued, slightly regretfully, as it was a possible missed opportunity. Five minutes later, I picked up movement on our left flank, and after signaling with a closed fist for the group to freeze, I made out the shadowy form of a leopard gliding away from us at an angle, seemingly unaware of our presence.
As the animal disappeared into the mopane scrub, we picked up pace, trying to get into position to catch another glimpse. We rounded a Guarri bush, and froze. There she was, much closer than anticipated, maybe 30 meters away to our left and completely focused on something ahead. I couldn’t believe she had not picked us up. She continued moving forward, tense with concentration, focused on something invisible to us.
We filed in behind her as she began stalking, keeping a distance of about 30 meters, moving when she moved, and freezing when she froze. The strong, gusty wind drowned out any sounds we were making, allowing us the extremely rare privilege of viewing completely natural leopard behavior, with the cat unaware of our close proximity.
We couldn’t make out what she was stalking, but after a few minutes of following, she suddenly shot forward, flushing a sounder of warthog from a patch of long grass. The chase was short, and in a cloud of dust, she grabbed a sub-adult pig, just as the big sow lunged at her. With incredible agility and strength, the leopard jumped up, and backwards, with struggling pig in her jaws, into a rather spindly mopane, just out of reach of the big female warthog, who repeatedly lunged at her from the base of the tree. Realizing her efforts were in vain, she turned, and with remaining offspring in tow, trotted away from the scene, giving the cat the opportunity to jump back to earth and finally suffocate the still-struggling sub-adult warthog.
During the action, I had managed to get the group behind a fallen tree, which offered us some cover, yet as soon as the cat dropped her lifeless victim, she looked up and immediately spotted us. She stared for a second, before melting into the surrounding scrub.
We were in shock! We had followed a stalking leopard on foot, had witnessed the attack, the chase and the kill, at a distance of about 40 meters. Without the wind, it would’ve been impossible.
Elated, we decided to hastily vacate the scene, allowing the cat the space and peace of mind to return to claim her prize.