Throughout the existence of man stories have been told around the campfire. These tales delight, excite, and warm cold hearts, but perhaps most importantly they teach. Hindsight can be a guide's best friend and worst enemy. But it's in the interests of teaching that I share with any young guides or trackers out there one of the most hair-raising encounters of my life.
We were up in the mountainous northern part of Kwandwe looking for leopard. It's always a bit hit-and-miss in that area: it's great habitat for these elusive cats but the bush is so thick it makes it very difficult to track or spot them. As luck would have it we saw the flash of a leopard's tail disappearing into a thicket just as we rounded a bend in the road. We spent about twenty minutes driving around the block (a block is a ranger term for an area of vegetation surrounded by roads) to see if this leopard would pop its head out and come onto the road where we might get a better view. However there was no further view of the cat so we went back to where we had last seen it and myself and my tracker Albert got off on foot to see if we could find the last direction of the tracks.
We went in and we'd walk two steps, stop, look around, walk two steps, stop, look around. It was that thick. We got ten metres into the bush and saw a male leopard looking back at us. It hissed at us once and then casually walked further into the thicket. Our hearts racing, we obeyed its warning, backed out, went back to the vehicle, explained to the guests what had happened, and bargained on the fact that it would keep walking in the same direction. We drove around the block a couple more times and still couldn't see anything. We stopped where I suspected the leopard would come out, from the path he had taken. There was a nice big open clearing probably thirty metres wide surrounded by a succulent thicket, a seemingly much safer area to try to find footprints. It was my guests' last morning and I said to them “I'm going to get off one more time and if we don't get anything, well, tough luck, we've done our best.” Again my tracker and I got off the vehicle and were halfway across this big 'lawn' still in full view of our guests who were about fifteen to twenty metres away. My tracker clicked his fingers and pointed to the edge of the thicket where we could just make out the head and ear of a kudu protruding from the grass. A dead kudu. And that cold rush washed over our bodies. ….Oh-oh. There's a kill here, and we disturbed the leopard half an hour ago, this could get ugly.....
So I very carefully lifted the binoculars to look at the kudu and a metre behind the deceased antelope I could just see the head and ears of a leopard behind the carcass. I had a sigh of relief and said to my tracker “I can see the leopard, it's there behind the carcass.” We started relaxing, all the tension leaving our bodies. …..we can see the kill, we're on the right side and we can just back up to the vehicle and drive in...... We hadn't even taken a step when we heard a hiss and a cough and then a big throaty growl as another leopard came charging out of the bush from the other side of us. It came tearing across the open area at a speed hard to imagine, right to within three metres of me. I didn't even have time to shoulder my rifle, and I was completely at its mercy.
All the training and drills we'd practiced kicked in like a reflex. I started shouting “ALBERT GRAB MY BELT!! GRAB MY BELT!!” hoping that Albert would avoid the instinct to run and could guide me back to the vehicle while I kept my eyes on the fuming creature, just like we'd practiced. But there was no familiar tug from behind on my belt. “ALBERT, ALBERT, GRAB THE BELT!” The leopard in the meantime was now eyeing both me, the carcass and the other leopard which I now realized was the female of a mating pair. It was the male snarling in front of us. Me, I should say, as I soon discovered that Albert had bolted and jumped back into the safety of the vehicle with the guests.
The leopard looked me up and down once more and then strutted arrogantly over to the meat and started wrestling the carcass, trying to drag it deeper into the thicket. He dragged it ten metres into the bush, where we got to watch the pair of them lying together for the rest of the morning. As for my tracker that was the second time Albert had ditched me with charging cats, and also the last time we drove together.
And as for the lessons that day provided: never let your guard down, and never trust anyone to behave the way you expect them to in an emergency!