LEOPARD CAMP

I hike up into the Klein Rivier Mountains and camp overnight in the hope of spotting the elusive and endangered Cape Leopard – estimated at less than 1,000 left in the wild.

Scattered stones litter the narrow footpath in front of me. As I take a step, a few rocks roll out from underneath my foot, unbalancing me, and go tumbling down the sheer slope to my right, ricocheting into the river ravine below me with a clatter. My palms tingle and my nerves jangle; one wrong step and I could join them. What doesn’t help with my balance is the backpack strapped to my back containing a sleeping bag, water bottles, some nuts and biltong, quick-dry towels and a change of clothing. My German hiking companion has the added weight of the heavier food, extra water and a bottle of merlot to slow down his journey but he’s still striding on ahead in his ostrich-skin army boots like a man on a mission.

For years, I’ve been hiking in the private Vogelgat Nature Reserve behind my family’s holiday home on the Hermanus lagoon. The reserve maintains a number of huts strategically placed in secluded areas of immense beauty high up in the mountains. Considering their remote locations, they’re surprisingly well equipped: gas cookers and paraffin lanterns; bunk beds with mattresses, pillows and blankets; plus a surprisingly well-stocked kitchen area. From past experience, we’ve even packed some coffee granules for the plunger. The first time I slept overnight on the mountain, I mounted the steep ascent to Maanskyn hut, which sucks the breath out of you with its stunning vistas over the Hermanus lagoon where my family has a holiday home.

This time, we’re ascending the formidable mountain façade at speed towards the aptly named Leopard Camp, situated at 648 metres above sea level in the neighbouring Maanschynkop Reserve. It’s no small feat. The hut lies into the mountain from Maanschynkop Peak, which stands sentinel over the lagoon at a dominating 963 metres – 100 metres lower than the world-famous Table Mountain. I’ve hiked Table Mountain several times from both the cable station and Kirstenbosch Gardens but the difference here is that we started from the base camp, which lies not much higher than sea level. And that’s exactly where I was when I learned that the remote-controlled camera stationed just 20 metres away from Leopard Camp was triggered by a Cape Leopard. We dusted Clifton’s beach sand from our legs, headed home to shower and pack our bags, and drove the one-and-half-hour drive to Hermanus that same day.

Leopards are largely nomadic and don’t stay in the same area for long, so we have to get up to Leopard Hut as soon as possible. The Cape Leopard is also mostly nocturnal, hunting under the cover of dark, so we need to spend the night up on the mountain to increase our chances of spotting it. Fortunately, we have a permit to hike in the privately owned Vogelgat Nature Reserve superbly run by Giorgio, the reserve’s infinitely exuberant warden. He meets us as we’re signing in at base camp with his usual enthusiasm and takes us into his office to show us the exciting footage. Triggered by motion and heat, the infrared camera has captured the ghostly outline of a Cape Leopard, illuminating its spotted fur and fireball eyes in the darkness. In addition to the stills, Giorgio shows us a video clip of a female with her two cubs that was taken on the reserve a little while ago. Considering that there are only 1,000 animals left in the wild, the footage is pure magic, and I can’t wait to get up the mountain to see if we’re able to capture our own images of this highly endangered species.

“It’s a two and a half hour hike, but you guys are fit,”  says Giorgio eyeing the Adonis 6ft5 proportions of my companion, “so you should do it in two hours.” From base camp, we can see the jagged scar that the footpath cuts up the mountainside as it ascends and snakes back on itself relentlessly. It’s enough to make the most intrepid hiker feel a bit apprehensive. But what I wasn’t prepared for was how precipitously the slope below me drops away, so I have to focus on keeping my balance on the rocky contour path instead of marvelling at the magnificent scenery. Every once in a while, I steal a glance towards the swirling greens, greys and blues that form the marshes and channels of the Hermanus lagoon below us, punctuated with the pink elongated figures of filtering flamingos. As we climb, the views expand to reveal the dark green of the centuries-old melkbos (milk bush) that anchors the dunes on the far side of the lagoon. Then, after a while, the arcing sweep of Walker Bay’s pristine white beaches comes into view, fringed with a lacework of foaming waves. It’s breath-taking countryside.

Rewind a few hundred years and the southern most tip of Africa, now known as the Western Cape, was home to the Big Five: lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and Cape buffalo roamed its hills and valleys. Today, there’s no evidence of their existence from its nostalgic seaside towns to its semi-desert interior spotted with sheep. Africa’s most powerful and fearsome animals have been hunted and chased off the land that was once rightfully theirs to the point that they have disappeared altogether. Owing to its solitary and secretive nature, there’s only one captivating creature that still remains. High up in the region’s formidable fold mountains, like the one we are ascending, lives the last remaining survivor of the Big Five: the Cape Leopard.

Although they are the ‘apex’ predators in the mountainous regions of the Eastern and Western Cape, the Cape Leopard is a much smaller species than the better-known Savannah Leopard. The average male weighs in at just 35kgs, while females are a more dainty 21kgs. At this size, they thankfully won’t see us as their dinner and target smaller prey such as small antelope, porcupine and rodents. Their favourite foods are klipspringer and dassie, accounting for almost 80% of their diet. The Cape Leopard, or panthera pardus, as we learned from our visit to the nearby big cat sanctuary, Panthera Africa, plays an essential role in the ecosystem. By ensuring their survival as the apex predators in the trophic pyramid, other animal and plant species below them are automatically conserved.

Before we reach the summit, we need to conquer Lex’s Gully, a lung-bursting zigzag which scales 60 metres in only five turns. We take a drink of water while we inhale the spellbinding views for only a minute or two before we task our legs to the final ascent. We have limited time before sunset, so we need to crack on. Once we arrive triumphant at the top, our victory is short-lived as we see another footpath heading evenly uphill into the mountain’s folds. We still need to dominate Moonshine Pass before we arrive at Leopard Camp. I follow in the German’s giant footsteps as we march up into the heavens. It feels like I can literally put my arm up and touch the clouds which roll silently across the giant sky. We haven’t seen a soul during our ascent, and now that we’re over the mountain’s façade, the only sign of humanity is the footpath descending towards a natural stonewall that surrounds the hut.

I keep an eye out for leopard spoor or any other signs of life as we approach, sweeping my gaze across the hectares of rolling fynbos, littered with hardy evergreen white flowers. With nearly 8,500 species, over 80% of which are endemic, the fynbos biome is the smallest but richest of the six floral kingdoms in the world. New studies show that in a fynbos area like this, a male’s territory is around 250km2 while in the more desert-like landscape of the Karoo, it’s estimated to be around 600 km2. In each territory, there will be only one male and about two to three females. This means that the average male’s territory is as much as ten times bigger than originally estimated, so there are actually far fewer leopard left in the wild than originally estimated. Why is the species so endangered? Each female only has two to three cubs in a litter and only half of these survive to adulthood. But the biggest threat to these elusive felines is loss of habitat and contact with humans, especially farmers.

Directly addressing the leopard/farmer conflict in the Western and Eastern Cape, The Landmark Foundation has set up the Leopard and Predator project to help protect the remaining members of the species. Since their inception twelve years, the foundation has saved the lives of 48 Cape Leopards from certain death and has fitted GPS collars on 25 rescue leopard. The data from the collars can be used to match a leopard with any livestock losses in an area. If there’s a match, the foundation can offer the farmer compensation. But it’s a bittersweet battle they’re fighting, as 43 animals have also been lost through farmers using lethal controls such as poisons, gin traps and hunting. The most inhumane method of control is through the use of barbaric gin traps, which have steel jaws that snap shut around the victim’s head or legs. These are often not checked for days on end, so the victim dies a slow and painful death through starvation and dehydration.

We set such a blazing pace up the mountain that we arrive at the hut in just over an hour and a half. I offload my backpack inside the French doors, which offer sweeping views over the valley, and head straight back out to have a look for the remote-controlled camera. It’s positioned alongside the path that runs from the hut down towards the little outhouse and then off into the mountains. My eyes scour the rough and rocky path in front of it as I tread daintily, careful not to spoil any spoor. Then, in a small sandy patch, I see the outline of a paw print showing the distinctive two indentations on the back of the main pad. The front four pads are not as clearly visible, but the front toe to the back pad measures around six to seven centimetres, which would be a more likely fit for a female leopard. Maybe the same one in the video we saw? Or one of her young male offspring?

We follow the track in the direction it’s headed – the opposite direction to our arrival – keeping our eyes peeled for any other spoor. But the path is so strewn with rocks that we’re unable to get any other sightings. We’re also heading downhill and what goes down must come up. My right glut muscle was cramping (I have a metal rod in the middle of my left femur from a horse-riding accident) and the sun is starting to slip towards the endless horizon, so we decide to head back to the hut.

Back at camp, we bring a large pot of water to the boil on the gas burner, combine it with cold water from the rainwater tank and pour it over us, using biodegradable body wash to clean off the sweat from our climb. Then, we dress up warmly and start to prepare dinner. I fry up some sausages to accompany our potato- and three-bean salad. After the day’s activities, we’re both ravenous. We shrug on our outdoor coats, light a paraffin lamp, and sit outside at the rustic wooden table to eat our feast. As we sip our merlot, the bank of clouds that rolls across the sky like giant waves takes on a surreal quality that makes our setting seem otherworldly.

To increase our chances of spotting a Cape Leopard, we need to have a good understanding of their behaviour. These elusive felines are both solitary and nomadic. They live and hunt within their territory – a well-defined, staked-out range. Despite original belief, leopard do not overnight in a single cave, but rather find sheltered spots to sleep while they’re on the move hunting in their territory. This means that we can’t track its spoor to its place of residence, cameras at the ready, in the hope that someone’s home. So instead, we remain at the outdoor table, downwind from the remote-controlled camera. We’re just far enough away not to scare any solitary felines off and close enough to see if anything triggers camera’s flash. Armed with a torch and camera, we begin our night-time vigil.

Less than 20% of South Africa’s landscape is protected (by the state or privately) which means that over 80% of the country’s biodiversity is privately owned. The Landmark Foundation works with private landowners to ensure that the Cape Leopard and other species have enough habitat available to ensure their future survival. After conducting extensive research in prime leopard country, from Hermanus all the way to Cape Infanta, covering an area of almost 3,000km2, the foundation discovered that leopard populations have become isolated to small groupings in protected ‘islands’. The numbers in these groupings are too low to sustain a genetically viable population. This means that the species is facing a genetic bottleneck and their survival is dependent on conservation efforts to link up these protected areas by forming corridors that allow interbreeding between isolated populations. This goal is the cornerstone of the foundation’s activities. Due to its geographical position between two other conservation areas, Vogelgat and Maanschynkop reserves provide an important corridor along the Klein River mountains in which leopard can roam and expand their genetic biodiversity.

We need a landmark change in thinking and behaviour,” says Dr Bool Smuts, director of the Landmark Foundation, “where conservation and biodiversity provides investment returns and benefits to people. This will, in turn, incentivise private landowners to conserve the landscape.

Apart from the soft rustle of the waxy fynbos in the wind, the mountaintop is eerily quiet. The surreal clouds have parted, as if they were the giant curtains to a silent movie, to reveal an inky heaven festooned with stars. Their glittering clusters seem to flex over our heads in every direction. Together with the pale half moon, their ethereal light etches swaying shadows on the earth. There are no signs of life. After the exertion of the day’s activities, my eyelids start to droop and I drift off, but the bark of a baboon in the distance brings me back to our dreamlike hinterland. Maybe the baboons have been unsettled by a bigger predator? So we continue our leopard stakeout a little while longer. When the temperature drops further, we head back into the hut to de-thaw and get some proper sleep.

The next morning, sun streams through the French doors sounding nature’s alarm clock. After carefully cleaning the hut and removing any evidence of our stay, we enjoy an outdoor breakfast of dried mango, nuts and energy bars. Then, we shrug on our significantly lighter backpacks and set off. Our search is not over. We’ve decided to hike in the direction of the paw print, traversing the mountain range into the neighbouring Vogelgat reserve. Soon we reach a split in the path with a sign to Guy’s Pool. Even though it’s in the opposite direction, having a morning dip in the much-talked-about mountain pool is enough motivation to hike another three kilometres either way.

The journey along a river gulley, filled with lush green vegetation and flitting butterflies, makes the detour worthwhile. And that’s before we even arrive at the scenic mountain pool. Listening to Giorgio’s instructions, we cross over the first pool fed by the stream we’ve been following and head over a rocky outcrop. Below us, Mother Nature has architected the most perfect rim-flow rock pool with spectacular views over the Caledon valley. The soft amber water, stained by plant tannins, washes over my skin like velvet. I swim to the other side of the pool where the stream cascades over a sheer drop down to the farmland below. It’s here that the leopards living in the surrounding mountains come into conflict with humans.

A farmer’s livestock is their livelihood, so it’s understandable that they need to protect it. That’s why the Landmark Foundation works with farmers to remove lethal controls, such as poisons and traps. In addition to catching and killing leopard, these indiscriminate methods also unselectively kill other species, including duiker, porcupine, jackal and honey badger. Much of the foundation’s work involves replacing these lethal controls with solutions that enable the survival of all these species including leopard, which are protected. Livestock guardian dogs, donkeys and South American alpacas – a territorially aggressive animal similar to a lama – have all proved effective in protecting livestock from the predators. As leopard almost always go for livestock around the jugular, protective metal collars have also been supplied to farmers to help prevent their sheep from being fatally attacked.

Alpacas are very gregarious animals,” says Dr Bool Smuts, director of the Landmark Foundation. “They spit and kick. They are ideal guardian animals because they stick with their adopted herd and protect them as their own.

After we’ve traversed the mountain range into the neighbouring reserve, we descend over the perilously steep Washington Ridge, which plunges us from the hardy mountaintop into the damp, verdant ravine below. This is prime leopard country and, on a hot day like today, it’s just the place a leopard would be seeking some refuge from the sunshine. I’ve hiked the gorge many times before. It’s a wonderland of raised wooden walkways over tranquil rock pools and paths linked with ropes, ladders and balancing poles to help guide you over slippery rocks and the ravine river. The Holy Grail at the end is the main falls, a two-story high cascade of glistening water.

It’s as we descend into the ravine that we hear agitated barking from a troop of baboons. What could be causing the commotion? Is it our presence or that of a predator? The fact that baboons are a leopard’s favourite food is something of a myth. The aggressive omnivores are generally off the menu as they’re too dangerous to hunt in a troop, especially for the smaller Cape Leopard. Further down the path, I’m using the help of my behind to descend over a particularly steep section, when the deep, gruff bark of a big male baboon almost sends me shooting off the precipice. It’s alarmingly close. We can hear movement in the bushes but we can’t see them anywhere. Baboons can be dangerous if cornered and, with the ravine’s confined path we’re descending, we have no escape route. My formidable companion claps his hands and makes an impressively primal noise to tell the troop to clear off. We hear another bark and movement in the thick vegetation to our left. He picks up a sizeable rock in case our instruction has not been received.

Rock in hand, we manage to avoid any hostile confrontation and reach the ravine floor in one piece. We reward our success and the efforts of our four-hour hike with a swim in a rock pool, luxuriating in the gurgling mountain water like we’re lounging in the jacuzzi of a luxury hotel. Looking around at the splashing waterfall, acid-green ferns and soaring mountains, it’s indeed as if we’re sitting in nature’s very own five-star spa. Even though our primary mission was unsuccessful, being out on the mountain alone always offers its own unique sort of therapy. We return to our holiday home empty handed but feeling like we’ve just spent a weekend at a health farm or yoga retreat.

There has to be a special kind of hell for people who use gin traps,” says Dave Morrison, our farm manager, over a cup of coffee that afternoon. “There’s no legislation against using them… They even stock them down the road here at the co-op.

Dave, who’s good friends with Giorgio and often hikes in the reserve himself, is the person who alerted me to the camera footage of the leopard. He’s also a keen conservationist and has come to the house to check how we fared on our mission. I almost wish I hadn’t followed his advice to have a look at the Landmark Foundation’s Facebook page. As I click play on a video, I see the tormented eyes of leopard, which struggles in vain against the barbaric teeth of a gin trap. The steel jaws have severed its paw in half, leaving it connected by a couple of sinews and tendons. It’s not for the fainthearted. But it does strengthen my resolve to bring this unpalatable form of persecution to the public’s attention. If enough people know and care, we can slowly start to shift to a culture where consumers are driving demand for ethical produce like the Landmark Foundation’s brand, Fair Game. This will, in turn, change farmers’ methods of rearing their livestock. In the end, everyone wins, and the captivating Cape Leopard has a chance of survival.