The White Lions had not been seen over the last couple days, usually when this occurs they are sitting on a kill tucked away deep in the bush somewhere not needing to move much. This partnered with the weather being somewhat wet was not conducive to successful tracking. Maybe this would be a good time to briefly let you know how we follow up on the tracks we find. Once finding the tracks on the road and we ascertain that they are fresh and worth following up, we follow the tracks till they leave the road, we then check that the tracks don’t rejoin or cross over the road. The properties are divided into smaller blocks by the many game viewing roads, once we have the general direction we check the remaining roads of the block to make sure that the animal being tracked has not crossed out. If it has, we follow up by checking the roads of the adjoining block. Should we not find any tracks, there is a pretty good chance that the animal is still in the block and this is when the tracker goes on foot. It’s not a foolproof system, as often the animal will cross into another block without any trace, by walking across hard or rocky ground for instance. We all work as a team calling in help from other guides and trackers to check roads in the immediate area so we can close the distance between us and the tracked animal, it’s literally a game of hide and seek.
Finding the tracks of the White Lions one morning drive I was keen to continue my education in the art of tracking. Jacky had already taught me the most important lesson about tracking on a previous trip: It’s to always look up and watch what’s in front of you, easy, you would think. Often you are so busy looking down at the tracks that before you know it you have walked straight into what you are looking for, something you really don’t want to do unless you are into the habit of tracking impala. On this particular occasion we had found the tracks of the White Lions and knew we were not far behind because it had rained heavily earlier that morning and these prints had occurred after the rain. Setting off down the road on foot, it was not long before the tracks left the road, this is where things get a little tricky, it’s now to ascertain in which direction they headed. What we do, if we are unsure of which direction they headed, or we lose the tracks, is to walk in a wide circle round the last tracks. On this particular occasion we were half way through our circle when Jacky said, " we thona them," meaning, "we found them." Thinking he meant we found the tracks, I kept my nose buried to the ground trying to find these supposed tracks not looking up, thereby ignoring the golden rule. Jacky then mentioned that I may want to look up, there in front of me, not more than 40m away, was mom and cub. Their heads up watching us with a look on their face that could only be interpreted as, "this must be the dumbest creature ever, he’s going to walk straight into us!" I was overcome with the strangest feeling, somewhere between awe and fear, on second thoughts it was a mixture of the two! Backing away slowly we headed for the safety of the vehicle and to share our discovery with everyone, on the way back Jacky did have himself a good laugh, think it may have had something to do with the expression on my face on looking up, consider it, LESSON LEARNED!
Back to the story at hand. On this occasion I again joined Jacky on foot. The going was tough as the ground was extremely hard and rocky, it also didn’t help that it was a combination of hills interspersed by thickly vegetated drainage lines running into the nearby Sohobele riverbed, this made things that much slower. It was here that I learnt my next valuable lesson and what the true art of tracking really is. Jacky was following the tracks pointing them out, again I was struggling to see anything even after he pointed out where the pad and toes were imprinted on the ground, it looked more like a little scuff here and there to me. Pressing on and getting further and further away from the vehicle, so much so I wondered if I would find my own way back. I asked Jacky if he could still see the tracks, at which he pointed out that although he could not see the physical track we were surrounded by signs which we were now following, and that we didn’t need a track. With a little intuition, a broken piece of scrub here and a brushed piece of grass there, all tell a story of where they had rested, when and what they were hunting and what direction they were heading. At one stage he pointed out a fallen mopani leaf that the lions had stepped on, leaving only a trace of small grains of damp sand from the nights dew as the only evidence of their presence, truly amazing. Leaving Jacky to find his pride, I set about tracking where I had parked the vehicle. Not long after I returned to the car I got the call to say that he had found them in amongst a mopani thicket resting.
We find half the fun is in trying to predict where they have moved from the night before and where we will find the tracks in the morning. It has become almost a ritual before drive that Jacky and I discuss where we think they would have moved to, in what direction and where we should begin our search. The previous day it was the furthest North I had seen them and it was going to be interesting to see where we would find them that day. It was not long before we picked up on the tracks as they had moved onto Motswari property, this meant they had traveled further North during the night before heading to the South East where we started to follow up. By the tracks we were not far behind, heading East we found where they had left the road. Following up on foot we lost the tracks in the block, instead of our usual perimeter search, Jacky, on a hunch, suggested we return to the vehicle and check a road further to the South, to see if they had crossed over. True to form he was right, leaving the vehicle once again to follow up, it appeared that they had indeed crossed to the Southern side. We started to head South when Jacky hesitated, something was amiss, he turned and headed North again crossing the road, at this point there came this muffled whispered scream from the vehicle, "LION", looking up there they were in all their splendor, watching us. The mother gave the cubs a look that must have translated to, "don’t eat them, their stupidity may be contagious!"
Having survived the previous day’s adventures but apparently not learning much from it, we set off the following morning in search our little white friends. The guests we had that morning work at Sabie Sands and they were particularly interested in the White Lions, and therefore did not mind dedicating the entire morning’s drive to finding them. Being a Murphy, I expected that when you want to find something it would be nowhere to be found. This was not helped by the fact that we had again had rain the previous night. Slowly checking areas that we believed they might have moved to, we came across their tracks further to the South than they had been the day before and also a little more to the East. Having found the tracks early I never entertained the thought that we would not find them. With Jacky on foot and myself checking the surrounding area it could only be a matter of time, or would it! While checking the area I came across three Ostriches in the middle of the road, I mention this because it is only the second time I have seen Ostriches in the Timbavati and the first time was on my way to the White Lions five and a half months earlier. This could be taken as a sign but being part Irish that would simply be foolish. After taking many a photograph of this rare sighting with the thought that I could share them with you on the blog, I returned to the task at hand, as time was starting to become of the essence and there still had been no word from Jacky. Eventually I had to take a coffee break and discussed the possibility of an extended drive to give us that little bit more time to find them, which everybody quite willingly agreed to. Even with the extra time we came up empty handed and eventually had to call it a morning. On our way to fetch Jacky the mood on the vehicle was somewhat despondent, to say the least. Luckily this was not long lived as Jacky radioed in with the good news that he had found them. As he gave me the directions, they started to sound more and more familiar. They were to be found on the same road as the day before. What was more surprising was that it was not only the same road but literally across the road in a small riverbed, not seventy-five meters away from where we had found them the day before. They had walked in one massive circle! Back to the reason I mentioned the Ostrich oh so long ago, was while we were at the Lion sighting, our guests asked if they could borrow my camera, which was no problem. I immediately thought I must format my card for them, and without giving it a second thought, did so! Hence no Ostrich pics, guess we’ll have to wait another five and a half months, barring any Irish moments!
At this stage I think you can safely say if you had not automatically presumed it already, that we had become addicted to tracking the White Lions. It was as if we had to know where they moved to and what had they been up to the previous night. There was also a good chance that we would find them with a kill, as the tracks from the previous days had indicated they were on the hunt. With this in mind we set about finding them the next morning. Once again finding tracks earlyish we set about following them, this morning though they proved elusive, like the kudu they had attempted to catch that evening, deduced from the tracks. Like them we came up empty handed but we had a good idea where they were and that we were not far behind. After breakfast and during the guys resting period, Jacky, Petros, Jacky’s brother, and Morris went out to follow up. Come that afternoon drive they all arrived back with big smiles on their faces to let us know they had found them.
That evening we once again visited them late, get a heads up on the direction of their movement but we found them sound asleep, with no immediate intention of moving.
The next morning it didn’t come as a surprise that they had headed back to the South East but it did surprise us how far they had moved. Following the tracks it took us the better part of the morning to catch up and when we finally did they were still moving intently to the North, which came as a surprise. Seeing how intently they moved and with such purpose the first thought of them returning home entered my head. There was something about them that morning, so determined, the cubs were even battling to keep up and at every chance would try move into the shade and get some rest before being summonsed to push on. I eventually lost them after getting stuck in a riverbed, but it would not be that hard to find them in the afternoon as it was getting very warm and they would not venture far from the riverbed and its pools of water.
Getting all the Motswari trackers together that afternoon it was not long before they found them resting in the riverbed a little further North from where we had lost them that morning. Having responded to a leopard kill first, I was the last station to respond to the White Lions. While sitting there watching them the thought of them returning home re-entered my mind, what a great loss it would be! So we spent the rest of the evening enjoying the tranquility of our surroundings and the marvel of the White Lions.
Dawn of a new day, and one of the first days in a while that we have not tried following up on the White Lions. Today I was after zebra and rhino, I could always justify looking for the White Lions as there was always the chance that we would get to see them with a zebra, giraffe or buffalo, the fact that they weren’t alive was a mere technicality. I thought I may be pushing my luck with a rhino, although, those females are pretty big! The guys did pick up tracks for them though and as we feared they were heading at first to the East and the Kruger Park and then later turned to the NorthWest in the direction of home.
Not finding them the day before and addicted to how this would all play out, Jacky and I needed to know where they got to, as this was our last drive of the session, we needed closure. So starting from where they left off the day before we tracked their movements, where they had rested and how they had spent the previous day. Slowly catching up to their tracks from the night before, we were unfortunately still heading in a NorthWesterly direction. We finally ran out of time and had to leave the tracks in a block that we thought they might be resting in, on our Northern border. I passed this information on to Johannes, a fellow guide at Motswari, who promised he would follow up that afternoon. The following morning I got the heartbreaking news that he had found tracks crossing out of our traversing area.
Looking back, it was ever since the White Lions had their run in with The Timbavati Males and Machaton Females at the giraffe kill, that they started to push further and further North. Being so close to their former territory the familiarity of the area may have urged them to return home. It’s not the first time they have left our traversing area and they returned. Lest we not forget they will now be faced with the Magalatine Males once again, as they are still highly active in the area, and the original reason why they moved out of the North. They may be attracted back to the area by the available territory that the Sohobele pride left behind. There are a number of possibilities and once again we are at a very interesting time in our Lion population. Who knows what will happen next? What we do know, is there is an open territory in our area and who better to fill that gap than two beautiful lionesses, and their two tawny male, and two white female cubs, who have become known to us as, The Xaku basa Ngala, The White Lions!
We end off with the picture storyboard to stretch your imaginations to what else occurred on drive!