We were the first vehicle out on that game drive and even today, closing my eyes, I can still see, hear and smell that morning. As we drove I tilted my head to the right away from the constant flow of winter wind, in order to focus on the Land Rover's tyres engraving the soft sandy road. The sun was at an angle that complimented every tracks' shape and line stencilled on the road. The abundance of animal spoor visible on the road boldly attested to last night's animal activities. That morning's tracking was any trackers delight.
We had had superb sightings over the last couple of drives but had no luck in finding that majestic solitary hunter, the leopard. Their teasing tracks spoke of their presence yet they stayed one step ahead of us. Rondy (my tracker) and I were on a mission and with our guests fully supporting our game drive plan we headed out not just to track; we were determined to find ourselves a leopard.
As expected it wasn't long before we found those beautiful leopard footprints on the road. Finding the tracks were the easy part but assessing and intercepting the leopard was where the fun and challenge lay. I stopped, and before I could switch off the vehicle to join Rondy he smiled, looked over his shoulder and gave me a single wave to follow him. He walked, following the leopard footprint by footprint. With an abrupt call of my name Rondy tore me out of my protective scanning mode while following him in the vehicle. I brought the vehicle to a halt and with a few smooth movements I was right next to him with my rifle in my hand. Reading all the signs it was clear that the tracks were fresh and definitely from this morning but it wasn't the freshness of the tracks that had got Rondy so adamant. Rondy lifted my focus away from the single track to point at the story written in the sand in front of us. Track by track Rondy explained the story to us; the leopard spoor stopped, changed direction off the road - no leopard tracks; a few steps further the signs of impala bearing evidence of running. The assessment reached its climax when Rondy pointed to the unmistakeable sign of a drag-mark cupped between the leopard tracks. It was a female leopard and she had been successful in her hunt.
We followed the spoor off the road and it was clear that the flattened grass was caused by the leopard dragging the impala. The drag marks pointed us to a drainage line. Carefully, with all our senses activated, we moved as a unit. At one point Rondy and I froze and listened, thinking we heard something growling. It had to be our imagination that was running wild, with us being exposed, vulnerable and on the same level as the animals. We continued and came to the edge, looking down into the riverbed. We waited and listened but once again there were no extraordinary sounds. The bush was thick in and around the riverbed and we decided to slowly work our way down the steep embankment to check the riverbed for tracks.
They led us through the riverbed up and out onto the other side. A few steps out of the riverbed we lost the trail. Confused we searched but no new tracks could be found. We were baffled by the circumstances we found ourselves in. Rondy had a feeling that the leopard was behind us and made a suggestion that we circle the area and return to check inside the riverbed once again. Senses heightened we returned to the riverbed. Shocked, we found fresh leopard tracks on top of ours. All of a sudden the tracks were not as important to me as they were for Rondy. I scanned the area and now knowing that the leopard was very close everything in the riverbed became a large obstacle. Tall grass, the corners created by the riverbed snaking through the bush not to mention the puddle of water I had to leap over. The new tracks were visible on the other side of the puddle of water. Shaken but brave I offered to leap across the puddle of water first. I took a step back and launched myself over the water.
What followed happened all within a split second: Rondy shouted "stop" and two leopard heads popped up and out of the tall grass. I shouted and stood my ground. The leopard cub was tense behind his growling mother as I slowly started my retreat through the ice cold water. I reached Rondy and felt his hand of assurance land on my shoulder, assisting me in my step by step retreat away from the leopards. We assessed the danger and decided to leave via the riverbed instead of going back up the embankment. It worked well and it wasn't long before the leopards were out of sight and we carefully made our way back to our guests.
During the time spent getting to the vehicle and making our way back into the riverbed, the leopards decided to move their kill out of the drainage line and into a Marula tree. We watched the leopards feed and play for quite some time before we headed back to Bush Lodge. On our way back Rondy looked over his shoulder at me, and with his smile I knew that he had enjoyed tracking and finding the leopards just as much as I had.