Much as I would love to recount the entire weekend from beginning to end, I will restrain myself to write about some personal highlights. A teacher at heart, my highlights are often those moments where something shifts in a person, where a new thought, realization or experience takes hold of someone. There were many such moments, some shared by the whole group, others more personal.
We walked up the mountain behind Rietgat, the group’s accommodation near Sanddrift. Following a rough path through the rocks, much like a leopard would, we came to a huge boulder where we took shelter in the shade. After Quinton had explained the workings of a GPS, we all sat still and simply listened. In the stillness we suddenly became aware of the slighter sounds – the whisper of wings carving the air as a swallow soared by; the helicopter whizzing of a spider wasp; and the flurry of feathers as a Cape bunting flew from branch to branch, the slight tap as it scraped its beak on the bark – it was as if it didn’t notice the 24 people silently watching it. We were part of, not apart from.
To shrieks of horror, Quinton caught a rock agama and held it for people to touch. Most of the group had grown up learning that lizards were poisonous and therefore best killed. The women in particular couldn’t bear the thought of touching it, saying that they never would. However, with lots of encouragement, one woman dared. That was a moment worth witnessing.
On the shale band above the cliffs, the vegetation changed, as did the signs of animals. We stopped. Quinton had something in his hands; two piles of droppings, one duiker, the other hare. Imagine the astonishment and initial revulsion when Quinton casually informed us that the hares eat their own droppings - over and over again. The lighter the colour of the dropping, the more recycled! In the end, taking into consideration Quinton’s explanation that they were able to gain more nutrition this way as they did not use it all the first time, the general consensus was that if it was their own, perhaps that was alright, but if it was another hare’s… ugh!
After lunch and a good rest, Willem and I took the group out to ‘Lot se Vrou’. Now, asking a group of adults, who probably haven’t drawn since they were ten year olds, to pick up a pencil and draw a plant, was perhaps as daunting for me as the prospect was for them. I know that it works though; that you can understand so much about a plant just from really observing it, and that an excellent way to observe something is to draw it. After a demonstration, everyone went off and found a plant that appealed to them. I was amazed to find that every single person settled down instantly, observing and drawing in quiet concentration without hesitation. Not only were the plants all individually recognizable when they were done, they were also beautiful drawings. When we returned to the camp each person spoke about their plant: “What is unique about my plant is…”; “It has sharp leaves to protect itself”; “I have never noticed the patterns before”; “I chose this plant because it is soft, like a woman” (and her drawing showed its softness).
On Sunday morning we went out to track leopards. We picked up the signal for ‘Spot’. The signal was extremely strong and when Quinton forced a GPS fix, we were surprised to find that she was only about 300m from us, in the open, grassy valley. We proceeded on foot. The signal came from off to the left. Quinton and I moved off the track through the grass. The signal led us to a river bed, parallel to the track. We stopped and listened, alert, eyes searching. With absolute authority Quinton whispered, “She’s there, under that tree”. He gestured for the group to advance. The only sound was the rustling of grass against 20 pairs of legs. We all stood there, not 30m from the tree, hearts pounding, eyes straining. Quinton moved around in an arc to the opposite bank. As he did so the direction of the signal shifted - she was gone, off up the valley. Not one of us had seen her go. We found her tracks though, and just as Quinton had said, she had been under the tree. The tracks showed how she had slipped down the gulley, then up and away through the grass. If one of us had been looking down the riverbed, not at the tree or at Quinton, we surely would have seen her … and yet, to have been within 30m of a Cape mountain leopard, what an unforgettable experience and a privilege.
We ended the weekend with a discussion. Most of the comments suggested that people’s mindsets needed to be changed. Previously, the participants had not understood how important it was to maintain a balance in nature, and that many of the problems with wild animals that they were experiencing on the farms were either caused or exacerbated by an unbalanced eco system. What were needed were facts and practical alternatives to destroying wildlife. The Cape Leopard Trust has, consequently, found a whole new area that needs work and, at the same time, found a whole new network of people who will be able to help to make changes happen.