Here are a few stories among the hundreds chosen pretty much at random

Fantasy meets fact in a patchwork park with a wild forest heart

With almost no fanfare, the Garden Route National Park was proclaimed on the 06 March 2009, protecting ancient forest, fynbos and sea. Saul Barnard, the hero of Daleen Matthee’s commanding novel, Circles in a Forest, would have approved. By Don Pinnock.

 

‘Saul Barnard was born near here under a white alder,’ said forest guide Hynie Trudeau as his Suzuki jeep whined up Krisjan’s Nek. Earlier, on a trail named Circles in a Forest, Hynie had pointed out a quar tree. ‘See how they grow, with those holes in the trunk? Saul climbed one to sleep in when he was chasing Old Foot. Easy to climb when there’s an elephant around.

The brooding presence of the novelist Daleen Matthee is everywhere in the newly-proclaimed Garden Route National Park. There’s Jubilee Creek where, in Circles in a Forest, Saul panned for gold; the remains of Millwood village where his beloved Kate taught scruffy miners’ kids, the fynbos island where woodcutters forced Benjamin to live in Feila’s Child.

It’s as if fiction is informing fact as the park unfolds to a public steeped in Matthee’s extraordinary novels. Partly, this is because she found a rich history lying around, unused, and simply picked up names, places and events and stitched them into her books.

Fiction collided with reality at Goudveld Forest gate when I came across two brothers straight out of the 19th century. Hendrik and Michael Zeelie were gentle souls, but had the wild, tangled appearance of deep-forest woodcutters. And, sure enough, ‘Old Zeelie’ appears on the first page of Dreamforest, cautioning about irritable elephants.

Anyone reading Matthee will be able to make more sense out of this sprawling park that incorporates impenetrable swaths of forest, mountain ranges, a colourful history, secretive elephants, the entire town of Nature’s Valley, the Knysna estuary and a marine park stretching out into the Indian Ocean.

The forest she writes about once extended west past Storms River and, in that section, there’s still enough in which to get lost (and people regularly do). A road winds down from the N2 through towering trees to a SANparks   seaside camp site, which also has chalets and a restaurant. There I hit the waves in the park’s 100-horsepower inflatable, which headed out to sea, then dived into the mysterious canyon cut by the river through layers of black and orange sandstone.

Upstream from Storms River’s trademark suspension bridge, the boat nosed through inky-black water. People gaped and cameras clicked, fruitlessly attempting to capture the mood of towering cliffs and an eerie bat cave. It was like sailing down a gullet between enormous jaws about to go snap.

Accommodation and camping facilities at the mouth are really good, which locals know well, so book early. I had a meal at the restaurant, with its views of forest and crashing surf. Maybe the chef was having an off day, though, because the food resisted improvement even from dollops of tomato sauce.

 

Swinging from the trees

Up in the forest near Storms River Village is an adventure that beats scrambling up a quar tree to escape an elephant: you can flit from tree to tree like a Narina trogon. Tsitsikamma Canopy Tours has rigged stout steel cables between towering trees on soft rubber pads so no damage is done to the forest. Mary Funeka hitched my harness to a pully, showed me how to put on the brakes and sent me hurtling between platforms in the canopy. Often you can’t even see the ground it’s so far below.

This section of the park has two world-class trails – Tsitsikamma (where you can slack-pack between mountain huts carrying almost nothing) and the Otter Trail (where you have to carry the lot).  The first is a six-day trail from Storms River Bridge to Nature’s Valley, the second you hike for five days along the coast between the same start and end points (See Getaway, March 2010).

Further west, the park gets more patchy, with a southern and coastal section of mainly forest and a mountain arm of mostly fynbos. Between the two, like the ham in a green sandwich, live more than 1#000 farmers and freeholders. Sections of the park are cut up by plantations, some of which are in the process of being felled to allow natural regrowth, others rather more disputed. Logic says it should all be integrated into one connected unit, but life doesn’t work that easily. Negotiations, according to the General Manager for the GRNP Mvusy Songelwa, are ongoing and tricky.

 

 

 

‘We’re in the business of conservation without boundaries, she said. ‘We have the largest continuous indigenous forest in the country – 43000 hectares of it. But we also have 80000 hectares of fynbos, over 3400 hectares of lakes and a marine protected area of 27500 hectares. Talk about diversity! And no fences. That makes this a pretty unique place – and a tough management proposition. We have to get buy-in from our diverse stakeholders or the park just won’t work.’

 

Into the deep forest

It’s a busy, winding road from Storms River past Plettenberg Bay to Knysna, the last part dotted with interesting curio and food stalls tucked into the forest, an elephant  and raptor sanctuary and even a retirement camp for displaced wolves. Near a site named Garden of Eden, where you can wander, bemused, among forest giants or mountain bike to your heart’s content, you can put your feet up in the total luxury of Forest Lodge.

Rumour has it that it was built for a cabinet minister who liked to be in the canopy. It’s on a steep slope, perched on long gumpoles and is, indeed, at treetop level. You can hire it from SANparks and be spoiled. It even has a spa-bath. All you need is food – and Champagne.

Diepwalle (Deep Walls) is about 22 kilometres north of the N2 near Knysna. That’s where a stonechat perched on the arm of Matthee’s delightful hero of Dreamforest,  Karoliena Kapp, as she sat with her back to a tree, and where she led tourists arriving on the coffee-pot timber train who wanted to see elephants.

Today the train is a memory, but there are still stonechats and (they say) elephants. Diepwalle has a forester’s station as well as cottages, platforms among the trees for tents, a tearoom and a quirky guesthouse in an old forester’s house built in 1893. The night I slept there the rain pattered down and teased rich, peaty smells out of the surrounding forest. In the morning sun-kissed mist swirled among the trees.

There are trails radiating from Diepwalle, some official and marked, others made by elephants or woodcutters. As the mist began to lift, the forest captured me like an enchantress. Ancient kalander, stinkwood and quar tree bowls were as black as a fork-tailed drongo. Between them, seeking light in the gloom, were wild irises, carrot ferns, paintbrush lilies and black witch hazel. Higher up, rays dappled the soaring trunks like a francolin’s breast and overhead the canopy gleamed lourie green. Dewdrops touched by the sun glittered like fine glass. It conjured up a line from Matthee: ‘The forest conceals so many things, so much old wisdom.’

Later that day I joined Joey Jones and his team of huge percheron dray horses hauling logs out of the forest, which they do with massive strength and startling speed. The trees are evidently cut in a sustainable way, but it was sad to see forest giants felled and plucked out of their habitat.

That afternoon, on the advice of Diepwalle’s head ranger, Klaas Havenga, I drove north through the forest and turned off into the Ysternek Nature Reserve to a viewpoint atop Spitskop (don’t try the final few kilometres in a sedan). All around was gallery forest, to the north the Outeniqua Mountains and far south the Knysna Heads. The sunset from there was magnificent.

The Outeniqua Trail winds through that wild terrain – six days and heavy packs – only for the fit and intrepid. It was tempting, but discretion kicked in and I opted for cooler canyoning instead. That involved Eden Adventures.

 

Daring the dark gorge

Chris Leggatt started, and has been running, the adventure outfit for years. He’s based inside the park at the Wilderness section of the GRNP and has canoes for wandering the lakes and rivers and guides who will take you boulder hopping, swimming and abseiling down spectacular canyons.

To pluck up courage for kloofing, I checked into a neat A-frame cottage at SANparks Ebb and Flow Camp, borrowed a canoe and paddled up the Touw River. Beyond the tents and huts, the only sound was the splash of my paddles. Forest trees clung to steep cliff faces and trailed leafy dreadlocks in the mirror-calm water. A giant kingfisher lured me deeper, like a honeyguide to a comb, until evening led me back downriver.

Kloofing required instruction, wetsuits, lifejackets, sandwiches, a hike into the Kaaimans River and courage for the first plunge into the night-black stream. Guide Steven Seiler was encouraging, taught us about the environment we were whooping and doggy paddling through and had a keen sense of the almost magical sentience of our surroundings. Icy water, hot boulders, golden cliffs, hallucinogenic forest – words can’t cope. Just go do it.

 

Matters big and small

The custodians of the GRNP ecological integrity are a bunch of dedicated scientists housed in a barn-like research station at Rondevlei offices. Led by Rod Randall (PhD) they study, set parameters, offer advice and worry about fish stocks, timber harvesting, avian viability, resource use, flood levels, fires, fynbos health, seahorses, alien invasion, when to open or shut estuary mouths and much more.

‘What people first see and like, they wish would stay the same,’ said aquatic scientist Ian Russel (PhD). ‘But life’s fabric is constantly changing. We’re conservators of systems and managers of change.  We look at relationships within the fabric.’

For fynbos ecologist Tineke Kraaij, the problem was what humans have changed to the park’s disadvantage. ‘Seeds have dispersed from the plantations and now pines have invaded the fynbos,’ she said, spreading a huge map and pointing to light green bits. ‘It’s going to be a long, hard road to clear those areas of aliens.’

There was one last matter to settle – elephants. The park says there’s at least one, and stops right there. Ask park people and the answers vary from official (one) to maybe three (according to elly tracker Wilfred Oraai). But some years ago, naturalist Gareth Patterson switched from lion research to elephantising and moved into the area.

He found droppings, dissected them to see what was being eaten and took DNA samples, measured marks on trees made by muddy pachyderm rumps and came up with an astounding six females and a possible three bulls. If he’s correct, they’re the most secretive elephants on earth.

‘It’s a small, vulnerable herd, but they’re fine,’ he said when I tracked him down in a wooden cottage on the forest edge. ‘They’re a living heritage and should be declared a national treasure.’

Like Daleen Matthee’s books, the presence of elephants adds mystery and excitement to the new park. ‘I wish I could see an elephant,’ Kate says to Saul in Circles in a Forest, ‘do you often see them?’ He nodded. ‘Big ones?’

‘Yes,’ he whispered.

Like thousands of visitors to the GRNP, I had the same wish as Kate. Gareth wasn’t about to take me elephant hunting – he doesn’t want them disturbed – but up above Krisjan’s Nek, Hynie Trudeau found the next best thing: elephant droppings.

‘It came down here, see the flattened fynbos,’ he pointed. ‘They may be called forest elephants, but they feed in the fynbos. It was probably heading down to Gouna Forest. That’s where Saul….’

Right then, the presence of Saul Barnard was as tangible as the kok-kok of a Knysna lourie. Anything could still be hiding down there, a tribe of wild woodcutters, a herd of elephants – or the entrancing spirit of Daleen Matthee. ‘Go well Old Foot,’ I said, staring at the vast tousled forest.



Botswana’s magical

Waterworld

 An Angolan river that goes nowhere, forests in the desert, countless wild animals, thousands of islands and Stone Age dugouts for transport that’s Botswana’s Okavango Delta, one of the continent’s greatest natural wonders. It’s a pulsing, living thing in the middle of nowhere. By Don Pinnock

T

he silence had the tension of a tightly coiled spring. As we slipped away from the human world into the vast, claw-shaped Okavango Delta, the only sound was the soft ripple of water against the stubby prows of the mokoro dugout canoes. The slender boats were piled with an inordinate amount of gear.

Ahead, the muscles of a poler’s arm bunched momentarily then relaxed in the hypnotic and effortless-seeming action of propelling the heavy, five-metre craft through the clear, lily-dappled water. Hungry crocodiles undoubtedly watched the passing of potential protein overhead and quick-tempered bull hippos were out there ready to explode from their private pools, should our sudden intrusion disturb them. The polers, standing in the stern of each boat, remained watchful.

As we pushed deeper into this water world inhabited by more wild animals than almost anywhere else in Africa, my admiration grew for these men and women who ply the Delta’s myriad channels and seasonally flooded rivers. Their craft – dating back to the origins of human water travel – seemed in perfect harmony with the 50 000 islands and uncountable channels of the world’s biggest inland delta.

Our party consisted of polers and their chief, Julius Mpontshang, plus some fellow adventurers and Safari and Guide Services guys Peter, Frank, Joseph, Jeremiah and Shaka, the chef. We’d met an hour out of Maun at the buffalo-proof fence. It’s to keep cows from buffs or the other way around, this being cattle country where foot and mouth disease invokes serious paranoia.

Getting poled means lounging like a colonial dignitary watching beauty drift by. Bumps on the reeds proved to be small, speckled painted reed frogs catching the sun. They were unfazed enough to sit on our fingers if we urged them to. Later that day we made camp on an island and ate chicken legs, roast potatoes, patty pans and salad plus fried bananas in custard, courtesy of chef Shaka. Oh, and red wine. The hardship of camping….

T

he Okavango is a beguiling place. In summer, tropical storms rumble and flash across the high Benguela Plateau in central Angola. Water pours off steep slopes, gathering sand, leeching salts from the sodden earth and picking up speed as it gutters down long, straight valleys. By the time it reaches the northern border of Botswana it has become Southern Africa’s third largest river.

Here it channels into the Panhandle on a wide, meandering journey towards the Gumare Fault, a tectonic extension of East Africa’s Great Rift Valley. It’s thought that the Okavango, together with the Chobe and Zambezi, once flowed into a vast lake covering what is now the dry Makgadikgadi Pans.

Geological faulting gradually tilted and lifted the earth’s surface, diverting two of the rivers northwards to their present courses and causing a great trough, which absorbed the flow of the Okavango. Over time this filled with silt, windswept sand and organic debris, becoming a delta which today looks like the leg and claws of an eagle – or, as someone suggested while peering at the map – a great green cannabis leaf.

The Kalahari, a huge semi-desert covering most of Botswana, is exceptionally flat: across 250 kilometres of the Delta the elevation drops a mere 61 metres. Water that falls in the Angolan highlands in December, and which pours into the Panhandle at a staggering 11 cubic kilometres a year, takes six months to fill the Okavango’s furthermost channels and, on good years, reach Maun.

Once in the Delta, the only place for the waters to go is up: swallowed each year by the atmosphere through evaporation and plant transpiration. That’s 16 000 square kilometres of vanishing water.

W

e set off again early next morning into a delicious dawn. This was how it was supposed to be. We poled slowly up the Boro River as the sun rose behind us, bathing the reeds, trees and us in golden light. Fish eagles threw back their heads and greeted the day, a honeyguide offered to show us a hive, jacanas padded over lily leaves and herons pondered the shallows for unsuspecting frogs. It was an eerily isolated beauty in no urgent need of beholders – an invitation to commit poetry or philosophy or any number of higher or contemplative crimes.

‘That’s mukwa kiaat,’ said Julius, pointing at a soaring tree on a passing island, ‘it’s good for making mokoro. Also sausage trees, but big ones are hard to find now.’

Dugouts are the oldest boats ever found. Nobody really knows if any other types of boat came first in human aquatic technology, but dugouts were around in the early Stone Age and a surviving African canoe has been dated at 8000 BC. Mekoro were first used in the Delta by the Bayei people, who migrated from further north in the 18th century, followed by the Mbukushu who also took to the water.

To prove their manhood, a young Bayei had to harpoon a hippo from his mokoro with the spear attached to the dugout by rope and then literally water ski behind the creature as it took flight. There was no guarantee that the hippo would not turn and fight.

In Botswana today poling is the highest-paying ‘unskilled’ employment and highly sought after. But with increased tourism and higher population density along the Delta fringe, mekoro are increasingly being made of fiberglass to protect mukwa and sausage trees. These look just like the traditional ones but are straighter and easier to pole. The initiative was started by Geoff Randal in Guma in western Okavango and, after his death, was carried on by Dan Rawson in Maun.

‘They cost 6000 pula,’ Julius explained. ‘That’s a lot of money, but they last forever if you look after them.’

That night spotted hyena’s started snickering and whooping. There’s no shortage of them in the Delta. A few years previously a group of us were chatting round an evening fire on one of the islands and marveling at the silence of the night. When we doused the fire and turned away from the steam, flicking on our head torches, we discovered we were encircled by yellow eyes only metres from what had been our unguarded backs. Later the hyenas raided the kitchen and prowled between the tents as we tried to sleep. Fortunately, this time, they kept their distance. 

The following day, after a hot walk exploring the island, we all eyed the cool waters with longing.

‘Could we swim here?’ we asked Julius. ‘Oh yes,’ he said, ‘as long as it’s on white sand. Crocs don’t cross white sand in daylight.’ Could he find white sand? ‘Sure, in the Boro River.’

After much humming and hawing we all got in the mekoro and poled over to see. Sure enough, there was a clear patch between dark walls of croc-concealing aquatic plants. Who’d be first bait? The bravest leaped overboard with a splash and we were soon all in, keeping a watch for logs with eyes. An hour later we were still there, all uneaten.

Could we have a night swim, I asked. ‘You wouldn’t last three minutes,’ said Julius. After that it seemed a good idea to get back into the mekoro.

Later we pushed through pragmites reeds, which rained spiders on my lap. ‘Why aren’t you poling on the Boro?’ I asked Julius.

‘Here, hippos own it,” he said. ‘They eat mekoro.’ 

E

ven among the reeds, the water was sweet and diamond clear. A bit of later research explained why: Delta water gets involved in some really complex chemistry. Unlike most rivers, the Okavango carries very little mud, salts and nutrients. Most of the sediment is sand.

Because the river has no outlet, however, salt accumulates at the rate of about 450 000 tonnes a year. This should have killed the Delta ages ago, but it hasn’t. The reason is that swamp trees quarantine it.

Papyrus and hippo grass dominate the channels of the upper swamp, allowing water to escape slowly into back-swamp areas but confining the sandy sediment. These areas – communities of grasses, sedges and other aquatic species – transpire water into the atmosphere and produce peat, while bacteria fix dissolved salts.

On islands lower downstream trees transpire so rapidly they cause the water table beneath the islands to fall below the level of the surrounding swamp.

As a result, ground water from beneath flooded areas where most of the salts congregate flows under the islands, accumulating in the centre.

Eventually the toxic salts destroy all plants on the island. At this point the floodwaters should erode it and release salts into the swamp. But, with perfect timing, papyrus and hippo grass upstream will have encroached into their channels, causing sand levels to rise and blocking their flow. The water is diverted elsewhere and the old islands dry out.

Then, mysteriously, the peat in these dry areas catches fire from lightning strikes and summer rains flush saline poisons deep into the ground. Nutrients from the fires combine with sand to form fertile soils, which produce lush grasslands.

Because the area is so flat, the loss of peat causes the level of the land to drop, and swamp water gradually reclaims the grasslands. In this way Delta renews itself and its waters stay sweet and pure. If a living organism is something which undergoes metabolism, maintains homeostasis, has a capacity to grow, responds to stimuli, reproduces and, through natural selection, adapts to its environment in successive generations, then the Okavango is a living thing.

B

y the third day poling looked easy. We wanted to try. The temperature was up around 37ºC so being near water was attractive. We threaded through the long grass to where the dugouts lay and the brave among us stepped into the narrow, wobbly craft. Once committed and trying to balance with an unwieldy pole in our hands, the plan seemed to have fewer merits. The greatest inducement to succeed was the strong possibility that failure would land us in the jaws of a large Okavango crocodile. Lesson one was not an edifying sight, but nobody fell in. After that, though, we had renewed respect for our polers.

As we headed back downstream towards the buffalo-proof fence, a giraffe peered down at our passing, lechwe splashed in the reed beds and a saddle-billed stork slowly beat its wings overhead. The still water perfectly reflected a pale blue sky, giving us the dizzying feeling of floating empty space divided by airborne lily pads and egret-white flowers. The rhythmic movement of the poler ahead was so soothing and the stillness so profound that I fell asleep. When I woke up we were at the fence. We were back in the human world.

 

Smarter

than you think

 

If you wonder what a baboon’s thinking, it’s always far more than it can explain.

Do baboons talk about things? The impression that they do is compelling. I was watching a couple who were gazing over the Cape Flats and the vineyards of Tokai towards their natural hinterland, the purple Hottentot’s Holland mountains. They would mutter quietly to each other then stare – dare I say wistfully – at the desirable distant peaks rendered unattainable by human settlement.

As anyone who has observed a baboon will tell you, they’re thoughtful creatures and almost uncomfortably human. And they’re smart.

There’s the well-documented story from the late 1800s of railway signalman James Wide and his baboon Jack. James lost his legs in an accident in Uitenhage and took a job at a small siding where he enlisted the help of his tame baboon. Each day – for years and at exactly the right time – Jack would switch signals, divert trains and push James around on a trolly when necessary.

There’s also the story of Ahla, a baboon on a Namibian farm who was employed as a goatherd. Her ability to recognise kinship relations was remarkable and lost kids were immediately scooped up and returned to their mothers. And as we know, baboons have learned to open car doors at Cape Point and scare the hell out of tourists.

But can they talk about things? The answer I got, after a bit of digging in current primate studies, made humans more interesting – but was rather sad for baboons.

Around 30 million years ago all apes had a common ancestor. Some 20 million years ago chimps and orang utans were still on our limb of the family tree, but between five and seven million years ago we branched off. On our solitary evolutionary path to here and now we learned to communicate through sounds, worked out tool usage, massively altered our environment to our advantage (unfortunately for many other species) and developed a large cerebral cortex. Those were survival skills and language was primary among them.

After closely observing baboons in the Okavango Delta for many years, behavioural scientists Dorothy Cheyney and Robert Seyfarth discovered that they (the baboons) spent much of their time gossiping and eavesdropping on others of their troop. While they found baboons had only about 14 types of vocalising, their responses to these ‘words’ and the activities of the troop indicated that they held in their minds many concepts for which they had no words.

They clearly had what the researchers termed a ‘language of mind’. They were able to derive a large amount of information from very few sounds, but no ability to structure those sounds into a communicable language.

But what do they mean by language of mind? If you think of, say, a cat, the image of it is nested in the idea of cats, which in turn is nested in the context within which the cat is being observed.

Now you may notice that this construction could be a way of describing sentence construction in spoken language, with nouns, verbs, prepositions and all the rest. Cheyney and Seyfarth suggest the reason is that language was constructed on the framework of a preliterate language of mind, which baboons have.

A language of mind also requires that the thinker have a sense of self and of their separation from others and the world. Baboons have this too, which makes them such fun to watch. So why can’t they speak?

There’s much debate among primatologists about this, but it’s probably because the root of constructed language is empathy, a mental conception of what’s on another’s mind. And empathy favours a desire to communicate. Baboons don’t have this conception.

A female baboon, hearing its offspring yelling in fright, more often than not completely ignores it. It would be like a mother in a supermarket ignoring her child howling in the next aisle.  Empathy requires introspection which baboons are seemingly not good at.

Humans, possibly uniquely among all species, can sense what another is feeling. This sense – and I’m quoting researchers Julia Pradel and Detlef  Fetchenhauer here ­– also gives rise to altruism, our ability to give without expecting personal benefit from it. We’re actually hard-wired to be nice.

So can baboons speak? The answer is no, though they may be on the brink and need only a few more million years to work it out. Although they have a structure of mind capable of formulating the rules of language, they have not developed the need or curiosity to anticipate what the next baboon has on its mind. Their life must be full of little surprises.

But don’t be fooled into thinking that a creature limited to grunts, barks or squeals is in any way stupid. In a troop of maybe 80 baboons, a single member recognises the individual calls of every one. In laboratory situations baboons and other primates (as well as dogs, dolphins and parrots) have learned to respond to hundreds of words and whole sentences, recognise colours and work out complex problems – none of which would be possible without an ordered conceptual language. They’re all much smarter than they sound. It must be very frustrating not to be able to say what they can clearly think.

I’ve always detected in the gaze of a baboon a certain pleading to be understood edged with puzzled desperation. I’m beginning to understand why.

 

Leopard

The speckled cat that walks alone

 

Powerful, silent and supple as silk, leopards are the most secretive of Africa’s large cats. Adored by tourists lucky enough to see one, unable to be contained by fences, hunted for their beautiful skins and declared vermin in many countries, their continued wild presence in a human-dominated world is an enigma and a delight. By Don Pinnock.

 

 

L

eopards don’t want to be seen. They’ve spent millions of years getting that right. If they had spots they’d be more visible, but they don’t. Cheetahs do.

Leopards have rosettes framing a yellow patch on a pale background. You’d think this would make them stand out like a neon sign, but it doesn’t. Strangely their day-glo colours render them almost invisible in grassland, rocky outcrops or dappled forest light. At night they fade to black.

They’re the most elusive of the Big Five and bestow bragging rights if you see one flashing across a road or disappearing into the underbrush. Their coats are more subtle and striking than those of a tiger and they’re as lithe and powerful as dolphins. They are arguably the most beautiful animals on earth.

For millions of years, our species and theirs – both top predators ­– have been in competition for food and many of our ancestors fetched up down their gullets. So when we got to rule the neighbourhood, they were bound to be in trouble.

But despite massive persecution and being declared vermin in many countries, including South Africa, leopards have prevailed and, relative to lions and cheetahs, are evidently doing relatively well. They’re the most widely distributed and successful of the world’s big cats and occupy more diverse habitats than any animal other than humans and some associated rodents like rats. They’re survivors, but their range is declining and they are listed as near-threatened.

My goal was to find out how they were doing in Southern Africa and where they could be found. I wanted to look into their golden eyes and not be eaten. The obsession began in a small, thatched cottage in the Cederberg presently occupied by Quinton Martins and his wife, Elizabeth, who run the Cape Leopard Trust, dedicated to leopard protection. Their information wasn’t too encouraging.

‘They’re here,’ Quinton said, ‘but even farmers who’ve lived in these mountains most of their lives have never seen one. Existing around humans, they’ve learned to keep a low profile.’

The Trust uses movement-activated camera traps to photograph leopards and assess their size and condition. Every now and again Quinton captures and collars one with a small radio transmitter to plot its territory. And he’s talked most of the farmers out of shooting them and into cherishing their noble presence. It’s been a long, hard road.

‘You should visit Andrei Snyman,’ Quinton said. ‘He traps, collars and follows leopards in Mashatu. You have more chance of seeing them there.’

 

                       

‘L

eopards have to let you into their world,’ said Andrei when I tracked him down in Botswana’s Northern Tuli Game Reserve. ‘You’re lucky to come across one. If they don’t want to be seen you won’t see them, even if they’re a few metres away from you in the grass. It’s awesome. They live among people on farms, in koppies and near towns. Maybe you notice their tracks and a dog goes missing, but you never spot them. They’re the freest, most amazing carnivore in Africa.’

Getting to Mashatu had been interesting and required being ferried over the flooded Limpopo River in a squeaky cable car, possibly the most novel way to enter a country. There, for the past six years, Andrei has been collaring and following leopards as part of his research into the cats’ territorial patterns, habitat use and food preference. They evidently eat almost anything, including sheep, cattle, dogs, cats, mice, lizards, birds and the occasional human.

Before dawn the next morning Andrei, his driver Fish Maila and I were on a koppie looking over endless mopane woodland. With a blue tracking aerial aloft and receiver to his ear, Andrei was listening intently for the pip, pip, pip of a leopard’s radio collar. Finally he pointed, we leapt into the Land Cruiser and Fish took off through the bush with a skill that would make a 4x4 enthusiast weep with envy. ‘Don’t worry about the trees,’ he said over his shoulder, ‘they pop up behind after we’ve driven over them.’

After 20 minutes of wild tracking we stopped and Andrei whispered: ‘He’s right here,’ pointing the aerial down at a steep angle. All I saw was grass, but slowly, as if materialising from another dimension, it took on the form of a leopard. ‘It’s Bogale,’ whispered Fish.

The magnificent creature glanced at us, his eyes flashing, and continued stalking an impala. To his obvious disgust the antelope spotted him before he could pounce and bounded away. His coat rippling like golden silk in a breeze and his outrageous tail flicking with irritation, Bogale strode into a river course and was gone. 

‘We don’t know how many leopards there are in Africa,’ said Andrei as we made our way back to the lodge. They’re hard to count. They aren’t endangered – yet. But they’re getting isolated in a sea of humanity and are being hammered. Hunters lay bait traps along the borders of reserves and we can’t keep the leopards in.’

 

                

M

y next stop was Punda Maria camp in northern Kruger National Park from where researcher Nakedi Maputla also counts leopards with camera traps. He’s got 90 cameras all over the northern part of the park .His previous research was counting mice. ‘Much the same process,’ he confided, ‘only leopards are bigger so the camera has to be higher.’

I asked him what he was going to study after leopards. He looked surprised at my question. ‘I want to do this for the rest of my life!’ he said – clearly another captive of the speckled cats.

I tagged along on his daily rounds of setting up cameras or downloading data. We followed a shallow watercourse for several kilometres through lion and buffalo country, a gun-toting ranger in front and Nakedi with pockets of cameras and armfuls of battery packs. For a period of about 30 days the traps photograph anything that moves in front of them.

He downloaded one of the camera memory cards and flipped through the photos: genets, elephant legs, impala legs, rhino legs, spurfowls, windblown grass until, finally, a leopard – then another. ‘Phew!” exclaimed Nakedi, ‘I thought I’d have nothing to show you.’

Kruger’s large-mammal specialist, Sam Ferreira, was up north with Nakedi to see how the research was going. I asked him how best to see a leopard without the aid of radio collars or camera traps.

‘Seeing leopards depends on you and the leopard being in the same place at the same time.’ It was so obvious I checked to see if he was kidding me. ‘No, I’m serious. Think about it,’ he said. ‘You need to know how a leopard uses the landscape. Leopards are mainly nocturnal so the best time in Kruger is closest to gate opening and closing times. Go to rivers with big trees where they’d have felt comfortable to rest during the day. And use the animal sighting boards in the camps.

‘Leopards are creatures of habit. Where you see them once you’re likely to see them again. They use cover to catch things so look in rocky outcrops or places with big trees. Don’t bother with grassland or times like the middle of the day. People actually see leopards in the park very often.’ But, as luck would have it, we didn’t see any.

 

                

 

I

 had a final stop on my quest – very expensive but probably the best place in Africa for leopards: MalaMala in the Sabi Sands area adjoining central Kruger. There are several elegant camps in the large reserve which all have a colonial air and first-class cuisine. When a lady enters the room the rangers all stand up and offer her a chair. It’s all delightfully olde-worlde.

Importantly, though, they’ve been tracking leopards since the 1960s and they know every one by name, region, koppie and favourite tree. MalaMala’s regional manager is Nils Kure, whose book, Living with Leopards, is a big-cat bible. He set about dispelling some myths: ‘They’re thought to be nocturnal, but in fact they’re pretty active during the day as well though they can see in what we consider pitch dark. Baboons aren’t their favourite food, they don’t spend most of the day sleeping in trees and they almost never drop on prey from trees.

‘At night, though, they undergo a complete personality change. Then they’re far more confident. Females are the best hunters,’ he added, ‘but young males spend a lot of time with impractical ambition or wishful thinking. Like their fascination for buffaloes which they seldom catch but can follow around all day. Oh, and they pluck fur from a carcass before they eat.’

Ranger Andrew Batchelor proved that he was as good a man of the bush as sophisticated host pouring wine and patiently answering questions. Within 15 minutes of setting out he’d found the Kikilezi, Female, a beautiful young leopard that paid us not the least attention as she sashayed through the underbrush. ‘She’s got three cubs,’ said Andrew, ‘her brother was killed by a croc.’

The next day we found two more leopards, one of which was a large, battle-scarred male scent-marking down a track. He roared his importance as we stopped near him in the open game-drive vehicle. It was a breathtaking experience.

‘He’s big,’ whispered Andrew. ‘Much bigger than the leopards down south. They used to think those were a different sub-species.’ I looked at his rippling muscles and huge paws as he yawned, stretched and rolled languidly onto his back. My distant ancestors once huddled in caves while a creature like that prowled the night. Leopards may have provoked our first steps to cooperation as a species. Alone, we stood no chance. An Oom Schalk Lourens comment came to mind.

‘When you meet a leopard in the veld unexpectedly,’ he says in Charles Herman Bosman’s story In the Withaak’s Shade, ‘you seldom trouble to count his spots to see what kind he belongs to. That is unnecessary. Because, whatever kind of leopard it is you come across in this way, you only do one kind of running. And that is the fastest kind.’

As the leopard sat up and stared at me fixedly for a spine-chilling moment, I was inclined to agree. If you were to be its meal, you wouldn’t see what hit you.

 

BOXES

 

The far-flung cat

 

According to leopard specialist Anthony Hall-Martin, leopards hold their own in rainforests, frigid mountains and burning deserts, a range extending 16#000 kilometres from Mauritania in the west, clear across Africa, Arabia and Asia to Manchuria and Siberia in the east.

They’re found as far north as eastern Russia and as far south as the coastal mountains of the Cape of Good Hope. They hunt from sea level to around 4#000 metres in the Mountains of the Moon and the upper slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. But, year by year, their range is being decreased by human encroachment.

 

 

Leopard facts

 

The big cat species are lion, leopard, cheetah, tiger, jaguar, snow leopard and puma. Leopards, Panthera pardus:

·         Have the broadest diet of the larger predators with 92 prey species recorded in sub-Saharan Africa.

·         Can haul prey up a tree that is twice its own weight.

·         Can see in one sixth of the light needed by humans.

·         Dislike fur, hair and feathers and pluck their prey before eating.

·         Have the largest global feline distribution other than the domestic cat.

·         Have been unchanged for over three million years.

·         Can mate almost continuously for up to five days.

·         Throttle their prey by clamping their windpipe.

·         Are always closer to you than you imagine.

·         Spend most of their time dozing.

·         Are hated by lions, which chase them on sight.

·         Never hunt in short grassland – about 90 per cent of leopard kills in Kruger occur in dense vegetation.

·         In an attack, are so fast it defies the eye. Yet prey animals are extremely difficult to catch, even for skilled adult leopards, and most of their attempts fail.

·         Are generally so fleetingly seen that it’s better to simply observe the cats than try to photograph them.

·         Are so highly regarded among the Zulu and Shangaan people that only royalty may wear a leopard skin.

·         Can be shot on sight by farmers with Destruction Permits.

 

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