A good adventure story often involves a chase; a great nail-biting tale is when the hunter becomes the hunted. This is one of those stories, from a first-hand account by pilot Stewie Stewardson.
I recently got a call from my boss, Waal, who asked cryptically, “how many hours is it to Fraserburg?” After some Google and Air Nav Pro research, it turned out to be around a six-hour journey to this tiny town in the Northern Cape’s Namaqualand. As this part of the Northern Cape features miles and miles of sand, scrub, sheep and nothing much else – an arid, unforgiving land to the unprepared, a trip there would necessitate interesting fuel planning. Probably involving ground teams to run ahead with a 500 litre Avgas bowser and to set up make-shift landing zones (LZ) in the middle of the wilderness dust bowl.
We were heading there to help track down a rogue lion who’d escaped from the Karoo National Park.
Waal, after hearing about Mufasa, the 3-year-old, 200kg male lion who had broken out of the Karoo National Park near to Beaufort West, promptly offered Sanparks the assistance of our tactical team and chopper to help locate the feline fugitive. The offer was accepted, and Waal and I lifted off in RGP, our RH44, at 06h00 from Bidvest Protea Coin’s helipad on Friday, 8 March. We made good speed and covered the 505-nm trip from Centurion to Fraserburg, the last place Mufasa’s spoor was found, in seven hours.
In all, the winding, dogleg journey to the Fraserburg SAPS saw us stop in Welkom, Kimberley and Britstown (where our bowser was waiting for us). On arrival, we were thoroughly briefed about Mufasa’s movements since his escape three weeks earlier. He had wandered approximately 155km from home, with pursuers from the Karoo National Park trying in vain to follow his random meanderings.
In contrast to the inhospitable, parched surroundings, Phillip and Elrina Symington’s farm north-east of Fraserburg, where the task team was lodged, was a welcoming oasis. With only solar power and batteries for electricity, no cell phone reception (only satellite) and a wind pump providing water, the farm was far removed from civilization as we knew it. But, without exception, our every need was taken care of, from hot coffee and breakfast at 4.30 a.m., to lamb dishes of every conceivable kind, to fresh bread baked daily in the century-old Falkirk wood oven.
So amazing was the Symingtons’ hospitality on our first afternoon and evening with them, that we were tempted to simply abandon the task ahead, put our feet up and order another cold drink on the shady stoep. Sadly, duty intervened and we rose before dawn on our first morning to prepare the helicopter and equipment for the mission that day. We were airborne at first light and headed to the spot the lion’s last spoor had been found.
The trackers who had picked up the spoor had told us that we were at least two days behind him, so we had to move hard and fast to make up the time. Once the cat’s general direction of movement had been established, I would fly ahead (anywhere from three to ten kilometres) in order to find a line feature that possibly bisected the wily cat’s route. I would then return to pick up two of the trackers to drop on that line feature – usually a dirt road, fence line or riverbed. They would then walk along the line in both directions to try to pick up the spoor. Fortunately, this tracking tactic was mostly successful. Once the spoor was located, I would then ferry the whole team to the new location, before starting the entire process again.
Using these techniques had helped us close the gap on the fast-moving lion, who seemed to sense that he was being chased. Going by his scattered spoor, we deduced that he was spending most of his time at a fast gallop in order to elude pursuers.
By the end of the first day, our dedicated efforts had closed the gap to just under a day behind the fresh spoor. With sunset fast approaching, and after marking Mufasa’s last known spot, we returned to Phillip and Elrina’s, who laid on a much-needed, most generous braai for the exhausted horde.
At first light the next morning, after being woken rudely by the resident roosters and hundreds of bleating sheep, we set out to catch the dodgy cat. We picked up his spoor early and continued to use the same tactics as the day before, while also using a FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared) camera attached to our helicopter, in an attempt to pick up Mufasa’s heat signature. The camera was very useful in the early morning, as the rocky ground hadn’t had a chance to heat up after the sub-zero night-time temperatures. It became more challenging as the day wore on, however, because of the Karoo’s extreme day-time temperatures. For example, rocks can get close to 40° Celsius, perfectly camouflaging any body heat.
The trackers and local farmers, who had also joined in the exercise, were working well together. Also, with our helicopter they were able to cover much more ground than was possible by only moving on foot over the tough terrain. But our confidence was short-lived. Disaster struck on the second afternoon in the form of an isolated shower, which managed to wipe out the tracks that we were using to bear down on our prey. After waiting a good hour on the ground for the downpour to abate, we tried to scout ahead in the chopper, flying in the direction of the previous tracks.
Only later did we find out that Mufasa had made a ninety-degree deviation from his original path. Sneaky kitty.
While we were flying in ever-widening circles to pick up the cat with the FLIR, Waal managed to spot the half-eaten carcasses of a sheep and a lamb in the distance. After confirmation from Sam, the head tracker, I ferried the rest of the team to the site in order to start searching the new area as quickly as possible. Another four sheep were found two hundred meters away along a fence line heading towards a bend in the Riet River near the Spioenberg, the only feature for miles.
Waal and I again took to the sky to follow the river southwards, hoping Mustafa would cross it at some point, allowing us to pick up his tracks in the soft sand. It was at this point, out of the corner of my eye, that I saw something white under a small bush along the river bank.
Hovering the helicopter in for a closer look, I could see what looked to be a fresh kill, complete with drag marks. It looked to us as if the cat had been disturbed mid-meal, meaning he was probably nearby and possibly spooked by the helicopter. I quickly radioed the tracking team on the other side of the hill to make their way to our location. Again, it was confirmed to be a lion kill and, as I had hypothesised, it was fresh!
The trackers judged that we were no more than three hours behind him!
Unfortunately, the earlier rain threw us another curve ball. Despite our best efforts, we couldn’t find the location where he had crossed the river and we lost at least four hours in retracing our route. Fortunately a local farmer found some lion spoor along the road leading to his farm ten-km away, and radioed us the good news. I flew Shane, one of the trackers, there to confirm the prints. Mufasa’s trail seemed to be heading straight up into the 1000-foot-plus Bastersberg mountains. The entire tracking team started the sweltering climb to the top. We were close!
Half way up the face, Mufasa was spotted, startled out of hiding by the sound of the helicopter scouting the slopes. The team got within meters of his position before he made a break for the summit. The fading light of sunset closed in. We were now faced with the choice of continuing the search as light faded or trooping our team of trackers off the mountain. We erred on the side of safety as a night up in these mountains could be deadly as the cold set in. This meant that after the low light trooping was completed, we left the aircraft to overnight at the foot of the slopes and trekked back 86km by road as it was too dark to return to base.
And so, believe it or not, we returned to Phillip and Elrina’s for the night without our quarry, but happy in the knowledge that we had done all we could for Park manager Nico van der Walt’s team of trackers from Karoo National Park. They had closed in on Mufasa in just two days and it wouldn’t be long before he was safely inside the park fence.
Mufasa was darted and captured on 13 March in the capable hands of Ranger Riaan Nel. After spending the night in a holding cell (which seemed fitting after our chase) at Sutherland police station, he has been returned to the park from where he began his journey a month before. The young lion covered an impressive 260km in a mostly-waterless landscape, evading just about every effort of our determined task force.