Wild Encounters

On the 6th of February this year, a trail running story just about broke the internet. A runner in Colorado fought and killed an 80-pound mountain lion that attacked him on a nature trail in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, wildlife officials said.

Officials with Colorado Parks and Wildlife said the man was mauled by a “juvenile” mountain lion as he was running Monday on the West Ridge Trail at Horsetooth Mountain Open Space, a 2,700-acre park with hiking and biking trails. The man, who was not named, was bitten on his face and wrist but fought free from the lion, suffocating the animal with his hands in self-defence.

The story held all the elements of a dramatic documentary detailing the conflict between man and beast, when man enters the natural habitat of wild life. It also had many of us questioning our choice of action when faced with a similar scenario.

We asked the local trail community to share their wildlife encounters with us.

Kim van Kets (Eastern Cape)

“I was running with my mate, TJ, on the coastal section of my RSA border circumnavigation and we were approaching Cape Vidal in the late afternoon. We saw an animal sitting very upright on the edge of the sea bush gazing out towards the horizon.  We stopped in our tracks maybe 15m from it and stared in astonishment at the leopard, unable to believe our eyes. We gaped at it for a few seconds before it registered our presence, turned and in one graceful powerful fluid motion leaped back into the undergrowth leaving nothing but its claw prints in the sand and its regal image indelibly printed in my memory bank. I had always hoped I would see a leopard in the wild on a run one day but I imagined it would be in the Baviaanskloof or similar. I never imagined I would have my leopard encounter with the cat having a sundowner and gazing out to see on the Natal Coast. 

 It was around about Arniston / Heidelberg on the same trip that I discovered that ostriches are uncommonly drawn to me. There are ostrich enclosures aplenty in this part of South Africa, large ones the size of rugby fields.  As I trotted along the fence, all the ostriches would become very alert, stop their foraging or socializing, look at me with obvious admiration, and immediately sprint over to the fence and follow me along it until they got to the perpendicular fence which prevented them from going any further.  They would then all begin to do their weird mating dances with frenzied enthusiasm, begging me to stay. (I think.) As I disappeared over the horizon, they would huddle in the corner looking gloomy and bereft. After the identical thing happening at every ostrich field over a period of 3 or 4 days it slowly dawned on me:  I am completely irresistible to ostriches!  I couldn’t help being flattered. Worrying, that. And indicative to some extent of my state of mind. (I was devastated and my self-esteem definitely took a knock when a couple of months later my running mate, Laura, told me that ostriches are aroused by the presence of people.  All people, she emphasized.  I was shattered.  So they did that dance thing for all the girls, then?)”.

 

Leopard prints near St Lucia. Image by Kim van Kets.

 

Steven Lancaster (Port Elizabeth)

“Unfortunately no photos, but a year or so ago we were doing our local parkrun one Saturday, my 2 year old and I. Holding hands we were walking down the fence line chatting at about 900m into the event before winding our way up and down the hill back to the start. There were a good few people also walking down the stretch a little way behind us... and they all complained they didn't have their cameras rolling. They had the best view in the house... Out of the bushes the local impala bolted. One step, two step... And it pronked over my son, almost brushing my right ear with a whoosh, a land and a light leap into the bushes off to the left of us it disappeared. Said bokkie has since been relocated to a quieter property for his retirement. We miss him, but still love our parkrun.”

Connor O’Sullivan (Cape Town) had a recent encounter with a Caracal and her cubs on the trails above Camps Bay. He captured the moment from a respectful distance on video. The Caracal (or Rooikat) is a medium-sized wild cat, native to Africa. It is easily recognisable by its long tufted ears. It preys on small mammals and birds.

Karoline Hanks, an environmental activist, avid runner and the passion and energy behind many of the anti-single use plastic campaigns at present describes a moment with a Leatherback turtle on the beaches of Maputaland in the north-eastern corner of KwaZulu-Natal. The region – which nudges up against the border of Mozambique – is relatively unpopulated and the coastline boasts some of the more pristine and undeveloped beaches, dunes and sub-tropical forests in the country.

Karoline Hanks (Cape Town)

As soon as we hit the sand, we would start running – easy going, hard-packed, low-tide sand. The circle of torchlight would bob up and down and pink ghost crabs would scuttle away and dive into the foaming surf to our right.
Mission Turtle.
We would run for up to four kilometres, perhaps more, before any reward. I would usually be ahead, just trotting along, crunch, crunch, crunch….
Then! The sheer joy at coming across the ruffled sand, the tell-tale tractor-like grooves that leave the surf and head straight up to the dunes. See one, inch a little further. If you see another a short distance on, you sigh quietly and move on.
Two tracks – you’re too late. One track – bingo!
Heart races, torch is switched off immediately. You follow it quietly up the beach….and then you stop. And listen.
Swish, swish, swish.
In the pre-dusk gloom you can just make out a massive shape on the sand and if you listen very carefully, you can hear breathing, and puffing.
We had two such encounters this year. Two beautiful, massive Leatherback female turtles, both at the end of their laying, both covering up the nest and then moving a little further up to disguise and make a “fake nest” to confuse any potential predator. The work is exhausting, her flippers work hard – front and back: scoop and flick, scoop, scrape, dig, flick, smooth over. She sighs with the effort of it all. The lack of buoyancy, the effort of having to work against something solid, as opposed to the ease of moving in water. She is exhausted. Mucus mixed with sand pours from her eyes and mouth. She gasps, sighs deep, flicks, scoops. Driven by a magnetic instinct, so powerful, so brilliant.
I take a moment to reach out and touch her shell. A light touch. I stroke this barnacle-encrusted soul, and whisper: “You clever thing you”.
Eventually we watch her manoeuvre her massive shape and face the surf. She inches rhythmically back down towards the waves – almost parallel to her track out of the sea.

I love watching her as the first ripple hits her. The sense of relief must be enormous.
I touch her one last time. It’s emotional. I almost want to pull her back – tell her not to venture there.
Not in there. It’s bad in there. It’s getting worse.
Because of me.
Because of us.
“Go well, be safe beautiful”, I say quietly – my words whisked away in the wind.
She inches further and then a wave pounds down and covers her completely. It retreats, and she has moved, sunk into the sand – an incredible, prehistoric, ancient shape, again enveloped in meringue-white surf. We watch as she starts moving with greater ease into the pounding surf and beyond into the flatter stuff. Her little head pops up – once or twice….and then she’s gone.
Gone.
Why do I feel so heart-sore every time I see these magnificent animals re-enter their ocean home?
I have visited this beach for three years in a row now. Each time I find more and more ocean-borne plastic being spat out. I can no longer holiday here without the overwhelming compulsion and need to pick everything up. In the five days that we were there, we collected ten large hessian bags of plastic waste from approximately two kilometres of beach.

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Image by Karoline Hanks

 

Image may contain: one or more people, child, outdoor and nature

In Africa, we do the Running of the Bulls a little differently… Captured expertly by the lens of Bruce Viaene, Chris Walley and Mazu Ndandani being chased by a grumpy Buffalo during the save the rhino run in Mabalingwe.

 

Hein Wandrag would prefer the location of this encounter not to be shared – for all the right reasons!

“I spend a lot of time running in the adjacent reserve as it allows me to just clear the head after a day’s work and the fact that it’s a closed reserve allows one to get away from people, while being in nature and working up some endorphins. My standard running partner is a border collie named Juno. Whether it’s a short 5 or a lengthy mountain bike, she is always keen to come with. We have come across a fair amount of puffies and Cape Cobras on the trails. She was made snake savvy early on in life and has always stayed away when we did encounter any.

On this day about 7 months ago, we were still climbing the first major hill into the reserve when she started barking into the bushes about 30m ahead of me. I immediately thought snake or baboon (her self-proclaimed mission in life is to catch one). I screamed at her to back off and she did retreat a meter or so, but still barked non-stop. I raced forward to chase away the baboon or at least get her away from the snake if that happened to be the case.

About 8-10m away from her a beautiful Cape leopard suddenly dropped into the trail between Juno and I. The night before I had started re-reading A Story Like the Wind by Laurens Van Der Post. In the first couple of chapters he happens to describe the hate there has always been between leopard and dog and that dog tended to be on the losing side of every encounter.

Admittedly this was not the first thought that went through my mind. It was an utterance that may not be published. The leopard seemed not to be bothered by either of us and showed almost no aggression. I managed to get the leopard looking my way by making a hell of a lot of noise (I admit that very little of the noises were voluntary) and Juno took the gap to run past and join me on the “closer to home side” of the leopard. We backed off slowly and after what felt like ages, the leopard jumped back onto and rock and watched us retreat.

Yes I did have a camera on my phone tucked away in my running vest, No I never thought of taking it out and capturing the moment. The reserve has captured the leopard on trail cams several times now. I do look around a hell of a lot more when running in the reserve, and I guess Juno stays a bit closer when we go running.”

A safe and guided animal encounter during Mapungubwe: Safari on the Run – a Wildrun® Africa event.

The take out for any runner is that we may well be privileged to encounter wildlife during our adventures. We should remain completely respectful of their environments, and remember that the reaction of a wild animal, when startled by a trail runner in galloping in to their personal space, is unpredictable. We are there with their kind permission, and no the other way around.

Words Kim Stephens