I spy with my little eye, something beginning with ‘L’…

Senses. They are reasonably important to most of us on a daily basis – and by ‘reasonably’, I actually mean ‘extremely’. While I am sure that there are careers where good senses are more important than in the field guiding industry (take ‘sniffer dogs’ for instance), field guides are required to use all of their senses on a continuous basis, in order to be able to enhance their guests’ experiences’, and more importantly, to avoid being eaten.

A good sense of hearing is vitally important to any guide: it could allow you to pick up the chirping of nearby oxpeckers that may well indicate the presence on a buffalo or rhino hidden in the nearby bushes; hearing the distant alarm calls of impalas or kudus may help you to find a large predator in the area; and overhearing your guests excited chattering in the back rows may either notify you that you hit that last speed bump too hard, or that you have just driven past a herd of elephants!

I have also found the sense of smell to be very useful in the bush and have used it many times to my benefit. There was the time when my tracker and I followed the hideous smell of rotting meat to a random pile of fish in the middle of nowhere? Then there was the time we followed an even worse smell, convinced a buffalo had died, and managed to track down a dead terrapin…So, we can be forgiven for picking up on a similar smell a few months later, and joking that there must be another dead terrapin around, only to discover that for days we had been driving past a dead buffalo! More importantly, a good sense of smell is vital for distinguishing between single and double G&Ts when you forget which one is which!

Arguably though, for a game ‘viewing’ experience, it makes sense (sorry, bad pun) that one’s sight is quite valuable. This then begs the question as to how on earth I have lasted more than a decade in the bush with my horrible vision! I have bad eyesight, there is no getting away from that fact, but after some time in the bush, I had hoped that my eyes would get more attuned to the bush, but alas, I’m still as blind as a bat. I can count on one hand the number of times that I have made a ‘good spot’ before my tracker (or guests) so, some time ago when we were driving and I spotted a distant leopard in a tree, I was pretty chuffed with myself.

Tanda-Tula looking for a leopard, Timbavati

A lion had just stolen a kill from three leopards, sending them all running off in different directions; we managed to find the young male leopard in one tree, watched the lion feeding on the kill below him and then carried on north in the direction that the mother and daughter leopards had run. Knowing this, I fully expected to find one of them up a nearby tree, so it shouldn’t have surprised me when I saw a tail and a head poking off a distant branch.  I picked up my binoculars, and sure enough, I saw spots, so turned my Land Rover off and started heading in the direction of the leopard, discussing how, from the size, it must be the mother. I even radioed the other guides that I had relocated the mother leopard, still glowing from the fact I had spotted this leopard.

Sadly, this was a very short-lived experience, as I had no sooner rounded a large bush to bring the tree into view again when I looked up and saw that my ‘leopard’s’ tail and head had disintegrated into nothing more than a couple of maliciously placed branches that now no longer had any spots, nor looked remotely like any living thing. Bugger.

Needless to say, even the lion apparently stopped feeding to look in our direction when a hyena-esque fit of laughter erupted from my vehicle as the error of my ways became evident. A rather embarrassing radio call had to be made explaining that my leopard was in fact, a log; and this brings me to the last essential sense that a field guide requires, a damn good sense of humour.

Chad Cocking

Tanda-Tula leopard in a tree