Tracking cheetah beneath the Sneeuberg
Suddenly, the cheetah cubs froze.
The four of them had been busily tearing into a slain springbok, looking up now and then, their faces blotched tomato juice red with fresh blood.
A telltale springbok ear, still beautifully elegant and intact, stuck up out of the tawny grass.
We stood 20m away from the kill, holding our breaths in wonder.
The afternoon was quite still except for a bokmakierie calling bok-mak-kik bok-mak-kik.
The cheetah mother was reclining nearby monitoring us.
At one point her eyes went hot and direct and she half rose when someone dropped something and moved too fast to pick it up.
Then she flopped back on her side and settled into a dozy gaze, only half looking at us and obviously happy we did not pose a threat.
Then all at once the cubs made like little statues, staring down at the kill.
We couldn’t see what was going on but our ranger Dumisani Nleya chuckled softly.
“When the mother cheetah makes a kill the first thing she does is tear open the skin to allow her cubs to get at the meat and then she lets them eat first.
“Now what you are seeing is because of the intestine.
“After the animal dies the intestine swells up and then, as it is pierced, it moves suddenly. They think it is a snake.”
The cubs held their comically suspicious pose for two minutes then resumed tucking in, emitting fierce chirrups and rattles.
They wouldn’t be caught out like that again, no sir.
With coronavirus travel regulations relaxed at last, two of my boys and I were at Samara Private Game Reserve southeast of Graaff-Reinet and I was out for the afternoon walking with Nleya, 49, and tracker Rowan Benadie, 30.
First Benadie used a telemetry scanning antenna linked to the cheetah matriarch Chili’s satellite tracking collar, to get us to the general area where she was.
Then we alighted and walked quickly in single file, keeping our eyes peeled.
Now and then our guides pointed out the faintest outline of a cheetah spoor on a bare hard patch of earth. I could hardly see anything, let alone that it was a cheetah and going this way.
Then we came to a flurry of scuff marks where it was explained to me the cubs had played.
Sure enough, five minutes later we spotted the outline of Chili’s head above the grass where she was lying in the lee of a bush 60m away.
Situated in the Great Karoo, at the nexus of the Apies, Melk and Plaat rivers, between the Sneeuberg mountains and the plains of Camdeboo, Samara spans 27000ha and comprises 11 farms which were bought about 20 years ago. Alien vegetation was removed and the land was gradually rehabilitated.
The cycle of life, death and rejuvenation is a recurring theme as you move around the reserve.
We spotted a kudu skull during a game drive and Nleya showed us how the spirals of its horns, each equivalent to about two years, could be used to gauge its age when it died.
Cut down in its prime the buck had nevertheless fed a pride of lions, a chain of scavengers and a multitude of decomposers, some of which we could see were still busy doing the cleaning-up job mother nature had given them.
Born in Zimbabwe into a family of soldiers, Nleya was on his way to become the same but, he recounted with a smile, he realised it was not for him.
A sympathetic sister helped spirit him away from training barracks and he found his way into the tourism industry at Victoria Falls.
From there he became a junior game ranger and, having found his passion, he moved to SA to work in Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal before joining Samara.
Benadie is the son of the legendary Pokkie Benadie — a founder member of The Tracker Academy, a national institution based at Samara — and together he and Nleya make a formidable team.
One morning we woke and there was snow on the peaks on the northern rim of the reserve. My boys had never been in real snow before and here was a chance. We spoke to our guides and they agreed, almost as excited as we were. We would drive up as high as we could and then hike to the top.
Up and up we lumbered, 4X4 fully engaged along the edge of a precipitous gorge ramparts of rock embroidered across the slopes. A steenbok looked at us with astonishment. Eventually we entered a high wild valley and our snowy peak was there before us.
But the snow was melting as the sun got higher and by the time we had hiked up there, we realised, most of it would be gone. So we turned back. But what a drive it had been.
We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring another section of the reserve and enjoyed some wonderful sightings of bat-eared fox, champion termite chewer of the Karoo whose jaws can open and close five times a second.
Returning after dark, the entrance road was flanked with the magical glow of dozens of paraffin lanterns and we dined that night on ostrich fillet and aubergine.
Snug in our beds, we heard the rain come down and at dawn I wrapped up and went out onto the veranda which was wreathed in mist. Invisibly, beyond it, the birds were starting to sing.
For our last excursion, after breakfast, when the rain stopped, we drove to see the shepherd’s tree at the bottom of Spekboom Kloof, which carbon dating tests have showed is about 800 years old.
Medium sized with a smooth white trunk, the species boasts the deepest roots of all trees, with the record system burrowing down 68m.
Which was perhaps why this one was still standing. When it was a sapling, Genghis Khan was on the march through Asia and Eastern Europe and, in this little corner of the planet, the Bushmen were hunting and gathering, and no doubt passed it by on their way up the kloof to Kondoa Plateau.
I photographed our guides and my sons beneath the tree — the middle-aged, the young and the very old — and somehow the circle of life seemed complete.
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