Always carry the two-way radio, the poison bite extraction kit, two litres of water and you should be alright. That was the first piece of advice expedition leader Peter Schuette gave on day one of my leopard and cheetah conservation project in Namibia.
I had just joined a Biosphere Expeditions research team in central Namibia studying the home range of leopards and cheetahs. We’re tracking animals previously fitted with radio collars, trying to capture and collar new ones and counting their prey species, i.e. what they eat.
The absence of roads means that the dry sandy riverbeds are the best way of getting around but driving a Land Rover along them seems impossible as the wheels keep burrowing into the sand.
Use the low stick, never dip the clutch and keep the revs up, was Peter’s second piece of advice and if you get stuck use the diff lock.
This gobbledygook actually makes perfect sense – but you’ve got to be there to believe it. Driving in old sand ruts is like driving on ice and but on fresh sand it seems more like glue.
With the world’s largest population of cheetahs Namibia ought to be celebrating but the problem is that 90% of them live in farming areas and this can mean a death warrant from a cattle farmer. This conflict of interests with farmers means big cats are in real danger. The distribution and ecology of these magnificent beasts is poorly understood, which makes conservation difficult but this is what’s brought volunteers from around the world to central Namibia.
Our two Kalahari bushman trackers have incomparable tracking skills and can spot tracks from a moving vehicle. We decamp from the vehicle when Piet spots some leopard tracks and we warily trek after him into the bush. To the uninitiated, baboon tracks are easily mistaken for cheetah tracks, which I constantly did, invariably making Piet smile and shake his head as if to say – is he blind, how could anyone make a mistake like that?
I’m mesmerised by his tracking skill – following and then losing a track on rocky ground. Watching him circle around looking for clues – bent grass, fur or scat – then predicting the direction the leopard might have taken he eventually relocates the track and we continue on.
I didn't admit it at the time but it was with a sense of relief that we never actually came across a leopard while on foot in the middle of nowhere; its one thing to spot a big cat from the safe confines of the Land Rover but quite another when you’re on foot. Even so, I always had the sense that they could see us but we couldn’t see them, although that might just have been city boy paranoia.
In my two weeks we didn’t capture any new big cats but we did spot a leopard. It was just sitting on a rock watching us as we drove past, she never took her eyes from us and then, in a blink of an eye, she was gone.