• Mammoth Safaris - tracking in Africa

    by Gareth Hardres-Williams

Mammoth Safaris – tracking in Africa

by Gareth Hardres-Williams, 13th March 2018

The view is quite exceptional, a gorgeous leopard has just hoisted her kill – an impala – into the twisted branches of a large Marula tree.  The tree itself is in a clearing in the middle of a vast thicket, far from any road and the passing view of any game drive vehicle.  Casting a quick eye around, it is immediately clear that finding a leopard in this maize of tree and shrub would be quite simply impossible were it not for the skill of our tracking team that lead us here…

There can be few sights more impressive than a leopard hoisting its kill into a tree – sheer power and ultimate agility.  These sights would not be witnessed nearly as often were it not for the skill and artistry of the tracker

Tracking on game drive, a short story…

Our discovery of the leopard is a tale of generations-old skill, team work and interpretation of the sights and sounds of the bush.  It began even before we left the lodge that morning as the Chacma Baboon alarm calls competed impressively with the quiet twittering of the waking birds.  Baboons often alarm when something displeases them, it could be a snake, a bird of prey or in this case, a leopard returning past the baboon’s roost to her stashed kill.

Our tracker, Richard, hurried our early morning tea along and his enthusiasm was infectious.  Our guide, another Richard as luck would have it, joined his tracker partner in an excited discussion as we drove out of the camp, the distant baboon alarm calls now being joined by a group of also agitated Vervet Monkey’s.  We drove a short distance in the direction of the loud “barking” and “chattering” before Richard pulled the vehicle quickly to one side of the road and switched the engine off.  Excitedly he explained what he and tracker Richard were surmising.  Firstly, they had established a scenario based on where the alarm calls appeared to be coming from – the area was the established territory of a female leopard who had not been seen for some time and it was possible that she had returned to further stake her claim on the space.  Assuming this was true, we would head across the river, constantly checking the roads (leopards are sensible cats and often take the most comfortable route available – often sandy and comfortable jeep tracks) in the hope that we might find some sign of her presence.

Gavin has taken up the tracker seat.  It is from the front mounted seat that much of the tracking is done in many South African game reserves.  This is a game drive vehicle at Phinda Private Game Reserve in Kwazulu Natal

Image credit © Abri Kruger

It wasn’t too long before we were driving again, we had crossed the river in the incredible Land Rover and were now slowly picking our way along one of the sandy tracks on the northern bank of the river.  Suddenly Richard (tracker) raised his hand and Richard (guide) responded by bringing the vehicle to an immediate stop.  Both Richards dismounted and studied the road intently.  The pair took a lengthy stroll up the road, often stopping to stoop low and read the signs.  Richard the guide had his rifle with him – an ominous sign perhaps?  Once both Richards had returned to the vehicle, we continued our journey along the sandy road at a snails pace, with Richard’s tracker eye’s dancing up from the road to the dense surrounding trees and shrub.  Richard (guide) had explained that Richard (tracker) had found the distinctive pug mark of a female leopard (discerned by the spoor of the female being smaller than that of the male).  The hand of Richard our tracker shot up again and the vehicle came to a gentle but nonetheless abrupt stop.  Another “off vehicle” conference by the two Richards was followed by an explanation and examination of what looked like a slight scuff in the sand running parallel to the direction of the road.  No mere scuff it was revealed – this was a drag mark! 

Here is a lovely example of a leopard track, the pug mark perfectly preserved in the soft sea sand off the Southern Cape coast in South Africa’s De Hoop Nature Reserve.  Tracks are often not as clear and obvious this, and it is then that the true skill of the tracker comes to the fore

The journey continues…

Richard (guide) excitedly takes stock… (1) Alarming baboons (2) Alarming monkeys (3) a female leopard territory (4) fresh tracks of a female leopard (5) a drag mark.

The “drag mark” is pointed out and explained as the evidence left behind as leopard drags its kill to a place of cover, a rather “obvious” scuff on the road is now part of the emerging story.  Explaining the risks and the subsequent precautions they will take, the two Richards disappear on foot in the last known direction the leopard was headed, gingerly and quietly they pick their way through the dense scrub.  As per our instructions, we stay firmly put in the vehicle – anxious but excited.

The Vervet Monkey is another of the primates that is very useful when predators are around.  They chatter loudly and make quite a fuss, using up to 30 acoustically distinct calls to identify different threats

The grand finale…

The tracking team are away from the vehicle for no more than 10 minutes and the “thumbs up” from Richard (guide) and the beaming grin from Richard (tracker) as they reemerge from the bush are two sure fire signs that we are going to be in luck.  Richard (guide) returns his rifle to the front of the vehicle and turns to us all and enthusiastically explains how the signs told the remainder of the story and led the two to the female leopard.  A small tuft of impala hair stuck to a fallen branch, a drop of blood, a few more “almost hidden” pug marks and then the eagle eyes of Richard (tracker) spotting the rosetted cat resting on the branch of tree.

Our vehicle picks an unthinkable path through the densest of bush until we pop out into a tiny clearing with a large Marula tree as the centre piece – it is here that we eventually find our lady, quietly resting on the branch.  Even though we all know what to look for, it takes some time to find her such is the genius of her camouflage.  From this find we are able to enjoy further sightings of the this same leopard moving her kill around the tree in reaction to the arrival of a pair of spotted hyena, who sniff around the base of the tree for scraps.  This would all have gone entirely unnoticed were it not for the skill of our tracking team.

This is but one example of how tracking makes game drives come alive and live long in our memories.  Tracking in Africa takes many forms and can reveal the majesty of a leopard or unlock the morning antics of a dung beetle – it is story telling at its most authentic.  A reading of the bush newspaper as Richard (tracker) put it…

Animals such as this Olive Baboon in the Akagera National Park in Rwanda can be wonderful announcers of predatory activity.  Most prey species have an indicative and warning response to the presence of a predator – the Olive Baboon announces the sight of a predator with a loud “wa-hoo”

The signs are everywhere and some “reading” can get a little messy.  Here Gavin has a look at some recently deposited dung in a rhino midden.  Middens can be wonderfully active “storybooks” indicating the activity of large animals such as rhino, whilst also being home to a host of fascinating insects and other little things

Tracking is an incredibly exciting, informative and fun activity for a bush walk.  There are a number of areas that specialise in walking safaris and some superb trackers who make this experience burst into life

The ultimate tracker – the hyena.  Here a Spotted Hyena makes off with an impala – stolen from a leopard in the Sabi Sands of South Africa.  Hyena are exceptional trackers, using incredible senses to track down food – they have amazing hearing and eyesight, as well as a wonderfully advanced sense of smell.  This much-maligned creature is also an incredible parent and highly sociable mammal

One fellow best avoided when on foot – the African Buffalo bull.  These grumpy old men tend to be predictably unpredictable – the last thing you need from an agile, horned animal weighing well in excess of 1000 pounds.  Interestingly though, large breeding herds can be safely viewed from a distance – not much threatens a herd of buffalo and they tend to be quite non-plussed when respectfully and viewed

Africa offers so many wonderful walking safari and tracking experiences that vary from intense trekking to track down Mountain Gorillas in the foothills of Rwandan mountain ranges, to gentle strolls along the beach to search for Leatherback turtle nesting sites.  Whatever your desire and level of fitness, Mammoth Safaris will find the right walking safari for you and ensure that you experience the walking and tracking safari of a lifetime.

Here is what we love about walking safaris…

  • RECONNECT with the planet
  • ENGAGE all your senses
  • RECHARGE your spirit with an unrivaled closeness to nature
  • SAFELY experience true wilderness with expert guides
Leopard game drive

Certain animals will be deliberately avoided as much as is possible when on foot, including the predators such as lion and leopard.  These cats are best viewed where both you and the animal feel safe – typically, the comfort of a game viewer is the best place for this

A different angle on the clearly defined spoor of a Cape Leopard

Animals such as elephant bulls can also be safely viewed on foot and following their spoor can make for an incredible tracking adventure with such a spectacular outcome.  We work exclusively with lodges and companies that adhere to the same strict guidelines we follow as guides when on foot in Africa – absolutely every precaution is taken to ensure the safety of the guests and the animals

Image credit © andBeyond Ngala

How to make this journey of a lifetime a reality…
For more information on how to book your Mammoth Safari to search for wilderness, adventure and experiencing the ancient art of tracking, contact a member of our sales team via email at info@mammothsafaris.com and visit www.mammothsafaris.com for more destinations and journeys.