February 2022

Hiding in the long grass

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Hiding in the long grass

It was a warm summer evening, the air still thick with the scent of elephants. We had just passed a family of giant pachyderms slowly feeding down the Lebombo hills towards the mighty N’wanetsi River. Their presence has been enjoyed all month, which is not typically the case during this time of the year, as most move westwards in search of marula fruit that blanket the ground with yellow surgery treats for all to enjoy.

The long and lush grasses have enticed many herbivores onto our concession and following closely behind them, the opportunistic felines. Of all the African cats, there is one that evokes a sense of awe when I am lucky enough to catch a glimpse of it, the regal caracal. The raw power in this medium-sized cat is unmatched. They are the fastest of all the smaller African cats and have powerful legs enabling them to leap over three metres to catch birds mid-air. They are resourceful generalists, and will also feed on rodents, hyraxes, mongooses, and small monkeys.

The sharply pointed ears with long black and white tufts are distinguishing features of these cinnamon-coloured cats, and it was that which caught my attention, as we made our way back towards the lodge after the most beautiful sunset from a high point on the mountains overlooking the river. We had just reached the open plain below the gorge, and in a quick movement of the spotlight, an odd shape on the side of the road caught my eye. It turned to face our vehicle and my heart skipped a beat. It was a young caracal! Not quite a kitten anymore, I estimated her to have recently left the care of her mother. They mature comparatively quickly, being independent at 10 to 12 months. She was very interested in something scuffling away into the grass and gracefully pounced, but missed what was possibly a rodent of some sort.

I edged the vehicle forward to take a closer look and to our amazement she remained still, her amber eyes peering up in curiosity. I have never had the privilege of photographing a caracal, but tonight was different. We shared a magic moment in silence, and as if it had all been a dream, then she turned and slinked off leaving only the fireflies glittering in the long grass.

Monika Malewski
By Monika Malewski
Field Guide