Imagine looking out at a field of golden grass. Three foot tall grass as far as the eye can see. You’re in a jeep and your guide is tracking lions by following soft prints on the sandy road. He stops to get a better look at something in the distance. And lo’, you look down at the lovely yellow grass next to the vehicle only to spot two gorgeous golden eyes starting at you from behind a very hunched, possibly ready to pounce, leopard. Leopard in the grass sitting right next to the vehicle tire. Leopard in the grass moving so quietly you never heard him (or her) come close to the vehicle. No sound of the tail swishing in the of air, no foot steps through the reeds, no sound thanks to his stealthy walk and quiet tail.
You gasp (and so does your guide for that matter, only his gasp comes out sounding like he sighted the cat.) Look there, he says proudly. And everyone marvels at the gorgeous creature a few feet away.
How would you notice a leopard in the abundant soft yellow grasses throughout the savannah? They blend in beautifully. The best signs to look for are the white tip of the tail, the rounded shape of the ear, and the movement through the grass- all signs that take patience and attention to discern.
But you were tracking lion prints, you remind the guide. So, much as you have enjoyed the leopard sighting, you move on. The guide continues along the sandy road one arm draped around the right side of the steering wheel his head looking down for tracks and out across the plain presumably searching for tail tips (black for lions), round ears, an odd movement or perhaps the alarm calls of prey that have spotted threatening predators. You look out into the vast seemingly monotonous landscape- soft, muted yellows and greys, dull green bushes, dusty soil – the winter palette that drives animals to watering holes for lack of foliage and flowering morsels, the subtley hued landscape that is easy on the eyes while providing ample camouflage for everything from zebras and giraffes to lions and leopards. Nature is remarkable that way. Humans are the ones that stick out like a sore thumb. It’s a wonder we survive.
But pay attention, wake from your reverie gazing out at the soft expanse! The guide has spotted not one but three huge lions including a 500 pound male with a fabulous mane all of them nested in the high grass. He found them primarily by tracking and likely by having knowledge of animal behavior. Seeing them so completely enveloped in the grass gave me pause: I will never, ever walk alone in a grassy area in Africa, not unless I am with a guide.
How to prepare for safari?! My advice: hire a guide. But until them, develop your observation skills. Practice looking for contrasts in the landscape whether shapes, color, movement, sound, or tracks. Slow down and pay attention.