Tracking Lions…On Foot

I spent a few days at Camp Hwange during my recent trip to Africa.  Camp Hwange is located on a private concession deep in the enormous Hwange National Park of Zimbabwe.  One of the highlights of my visit was spending time with my guide and tracker exploring the bush on foot.  We followed a group of lions but never did see them.  On Facebook recently Camp Hwange posted an excellent description of what it’s like to track lions on foot and with their permission I’m reposting it below. 

Zimbabwe is a spectacular safari destination offering huge game parks full of wildlife.  Hwange National Park allows guests to explore the bush on foot with an experienced guide.  Walking in the bush is more than tracking animals.  Your senses are heightened and you learn about bush ecology and the natural history of the animals, birds, insects, and plants.  Walking adds an entirely different perspective to a safari.  Zimbabwe guides are well known for their professionalism, extensive knowledge, and rigorous training.  Years of experience are required before guides are allowed to bring guests into the bush.  Most of our Zimbabwe itineraries include a bush walking activity, an experience not to be missed.

Here’s Camp Hwange’s post:

Tracking lions…on foot

Tracking lions on foot is something I love to do. I love the challenge of having to follow the spore and read the signs. The two words I always repeat to my guests when tracking are patience and persistence. There is often times when the ground gets hard or there is a lot of grass and that’s when its patience and persistence time. This time of year there is lots of dry grass around. When I got the radio call to say that there were fresh lions tracks at Mandavu at the bottom of the ridge, I smiled immediately. I was on a mission with my two guests to track some lions and it was now their last day on safari with me. I had just passed up on some fresh tracks in the Masuma area as it was tracks of four lionesses walking on the road for a bit then peeling off the road. The area they had gone into was an area that I knew this pride had small cubs in. Following those tracks had a high chance of you meeting those lionesses with those small cubs. Not a good idea.

When that radio call came through I told my guests to hold on and wrap up as we would be speeding up a bit to get there. I had tracked this Mandavu pride twice in the previous two weeks and had been beaten by “spirit lions”. This is the name I give to lions that somehow seem to be able to fly. When at some point during the tracking you just cannot find the tracks again no matter how hard you look and you have to admit defeat. I know that the Mandavu pride has a good number of cats, which is always good for tracking as you have more options to follow.

I see the tracks as soon as we come over the ridge on the road up ahead; they have been lying on the road. We stop and i get out, there are seven “wet patches” on the road. At least seven cats, the ground is still moist. It is still early in the day but I know these are super fresh tracks. My Tracker and I quickly start to look for the direction they have left in. We find their route out, they have followed an elephant path North East. I know that the direction they are going is fantastic for tracking. Good ground for holding a track. When lions are relaxed and just moving from one place to another they often walk in single file down these Hwange elephant paths. I explain to my guests that when you can draw two lines on the path roughly the distance apart of a lions stride and all of the path is covered with tracks we know there is a lot of lions! After briefing the guests of what to do and what no to do when we are tracking and hopefully catching up with the lions we head off. The tracking is easy as its clay soil with a decent powdery top. We are tracking lions of foot in Zimbabwe! I love it.

The direction we are heading In, I know that there is a naturals spring in a valley about three kilometers away. I have tracked these same cats to this spot three times in the last year and found them lying up on the ridge of the valley watching the spring below.

Tracking Cape Buffalo…on foot

We loose the tracks, a quick scan up ahead and we find them again. We continue, senses on high alert. I keep whispering to my guests to keep scanning up ahead as lions will often see you first and depending on the distance either walk, trot or run away from you. Generally this is what lions will do when they see humans on foot. It is not actually a common occurrence for lions to show aggression when on foot despite what a lot of people think or should I say imagine! The battle is for us to see them first. I had told my guests previously that if I suddenly crouch down they must do the same immediately. This is going to give you the best chance of not spooking the cats.

We go about another three two hundred meters and I see them. I drop down followed by my guests. I point out where the cats are ahead. They are lying in the shade of some tall mopane trees about sixty meters up ahead. We move forward at a crouch to our left to some cover. We are looking at them through a mopane that has been pushed over by an elephant and has now coppiced up from the trunk. We watch for about a minute or so when one of the sub adults spots us. It is just staring and hasn’t alerted the others yet. I can see at least fifteen cats lying together. The sub adults nerve breaks and it trots away. The rest of the pride is alert now and looking around. They spot us, some get up and walk away, some trot and some just stare. Nothing like looking at a lion eye to eye when on foot. They are now all moving off and my guests and I stand slowly to get a better view. They disappear over a small rise and are gone from view. My guest are super happy with the result. The had come to Camp Hwange to walk and experience the African bush on foot.

While walking in Hwange, we watched an elephant enjoy a mud bath while we had our morning tea

We have only been on the tracks about half an hour. I turn to my guests and suggest we continue onto the spring and see what is happening there, as it is still early and cool. Good walking time. We continue on and are heading past the area where the lions disappeared when I hear it and stop. My guests have not heard it, I motion for them to keep quiet, and there it is again. It’s the deep guttural growl of lions feeding. When all the lions moved off earlier I could see that they all had full bellies, I am thinking they have a kill and had gone to the dam to drink and when we found them they were on there way back to the kill and had stopped for a “rest”. I turn to my guests and ask if they are happy to go and have a look. They glance at each other, and then back at me. They are up for it.

Another quick brief on what I want them to do and we are off. We move slowly towards the sound. I can see a good open area up ahead in the mopane and aim for that. We get to the edge of it and I stop, and then slowly move forward. I hear them again, they seem further ahead now. We stand quietly and I hear them again, this time to my right. I stop and listen carefully. After about a minute of listening I am thinking that they have two kills here as I can hear them up ahead and to my right feeding. To my right is scrub mopane, still pretty thick but starting to drop dry leaves. Walking in there quietly will be very tough and visibility is not great. I decide to carry on forward and investigate the lions up ahead. We move forward about seventy meters along an ele path and then come to a small dry riverbed. As we stop we hear the feeding noise again and I see up ahead the rear end of a lion on the riverbank. Quickly I drop down and my guests do the same. I have a look through my binos, there are actually four cats. Two lioness and two sub adults, feeding on a buffalo kill. We watch for a few seconds and then one of the lionesses sees us. She stands up growling and staring in our direction. The two sub adults move off immediately into the grass and scrub mopane behind them. The second lioness is up now and staring at us, they are rumbling with that guttural base growl that only a lion can do, tails whipping from side to side.

I tell my guests to keep still. The two of them stare for a second longer then almost simultaneously turn and continue feeding while looking at us. As they do that a huge grin comes over my face. These two are more interested in feeding than In us. We stand and watch, we are about twenty meters from them. We are standing on the same side of the riverbed as them but because of the S shape of the river we have a section of riverbed in-between us. The two lionesses pause from feeding every couple of seconds and look in our direction with a flick of the tail and a growl but already I can see they are relaxing. We wait where we are for another couple of minutes. They are now hardly looking at us.

I turn to my guests and tell them we are moving forward. The plan is to move down into the riverbed and up the other side so we will be on opposite sides of the riverbed. I can see a spot where there is a good clear gap to watch them.

Our morning tea break Our morning tea break

“Move very slowly, if they growl we stop still they are feeding again and then move slowly forward again”

We do this and the lions stop occasionally and look up and growl at us but we move forward gradually. I tell my guests not to look straight at them, to have their head facing forward and look at them from the side. I have found that this gets them to relax quicker as you are not staring at them. It works and they let us move forward very slowly. We are now about twelve meters from them and have a clear line of sight to them. We slowly crouch down and the cats continue feeding. I tell my guests to sit as its more comfortable and like that I know no one is running if they decide to charge. I stay crouched so I can stand quickly if I need to. We sit for about ten minutes just taking this all in. We are on foot, sitting watching two wild lionesses feeding on a buffalo kill twelve meters from us. I see movement behind them, the two sub adults are moving back towards the kill. They are feeding off the two adults cats confidence and slowly move in, watching us closely. One starts to feed, the other is just staring at us. When the lionesses do look up, to have those yellow eyes focused on you is an amazing experience.

We just stay in that position for about half an hour and just take in the experience, of being at eye level with wild lions feeding. They have allowed us into their space. I can still hear the sound of the other cats feeding on the second kill and am constantly looking around to see if any of them are making their way to this kill. I decide we should pull out, I always think that the best sighting of any kind is to leave the animals as you found them if possible. I tell my guests to slowly stand but stay crouched. As we do this, one of the sub adults bolts away. The two lionesses spin round and charge to the edge of the riverbed and are rumbling with tails flicking from side to side. We stand still, not staring. They relax and move back to the kill. I take my guests video camera and film a short video to show the spot we are in. We then very slowly move back the way we have come. I remind my guests to stop still if I tell them. We are able to move back to where we were originally without any reaction from the cats. We move back down the elephant path and when they are out of view I turn to my guests and tell them…

“That is a walking safari!”

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