Tracking Caracal in the Winterberg

I felt the bones in my hand being crushed as I reached out and introduced myself as Max. The farmer, with his vice-grip handshake, told me his name was Roan and showed Emma and myself into his house. As he walked through the door, I quickly shook my hand out of view as if the pain would magically go away. We followed him to the sun-room, the only corner in 150 year-old farmhouse with enough windows to provide natural lighting, and any sort of warmth for that matter. At 1,500 meters elevation and tucked away in the mountains of the Winterberg, the cement walls surrounding us have little effect in keeping out the cold so we bask in the sunlight in this beautifully old room. Ceramic plates and bowls from the first settlers are scattered on ancient wooden tables and cupboards, tools from the early days are hung up on the walls, and pictures of relatives stare back at you from their displays as I stepped into the past.

Entering the Winterberg

After a cup of tea and a quick chat with the farmer, Emma and I set out to check the traps that had been set a few days earlier. Caracal run freely around these hills, and our task for the next two weeks is to catch them and fit them with radio-collars. The cages are baited with Caracal urine, a known attractant for the cats, and are scattered around the rocky canyons that make up the farm. With only a few hours of daylight left after the four hour drive and meeting with the farmer, we decided to check six of the twelve cages on the farm. These animals are extremely difficult to catch, and over the last three months of trapping, Emma has only been able to collar one individual. Knowing the chances would be slim that there were any Caracal in the cages, we remained hopeful as we scrambled over the loose terrain for several kilometers to check each cage. As we expected, nothing was waiting for us in the cages, but the next morning when we went back out we found a large-spotted genet in one of the cages – a rare find and definitely an exciting one for me. Still no caracal though, so after the morning of checking the remainder of traps on this farm, we visited another nearby farm where another six traps are set.

Caracal country

Baiting the traps - using urine covered fur as an attractant

The trap once it's baited and covered

Large-spotted genet jumping to freedom!

Amazingly, the nearby farm has drastically different landscape despite being less than 30 kilometers down the road. The land changes from rolling, grassy hills to tall rocky cliffs with plenty of nearby trees. The elevation must be slightly different as well because this farm is nearly always covered in a cloud of mist while the other farm is often sunny. Despite another set of empty traps, it was neat to see a change in scenery as we toured around this other farm. And we also stumbled upon some bush-man paintings on a nearby cliff when we were walking to the traps. These drawings are about 350 years old, what a neat find!

350 year-old bushman paintings

The weather up here in the Winterberg nothing like the rest of South Africa. It rains constantly, and is much cooler for most of the year than the lowlands. In fact, the entire time I spent on the farms I was bundled up in my down jacket and still chilly because of the icy wind that blows through the hills. Nearly half the time we spent in the mountains was under heavy clouds or rain, and one night in particular we were struck by an incredible thunder storm. The farmers had invited Emma and I over to their main house where they cooked mutton for dinner (delicious!) and during the meal we heard intense rainfall starting to pick up as it hammered on the roof. After dinner, however, the real storm picked up. I remember lying in my bed and watching as my room would light up for seconds as a time as massive lightning bolts lit up the sky. Twice that night lightning struck within a few hundred meters of the farmhouse, the freightening blast shaking the ancient farmhouse and even knocking over some furniture. For a few minutes there I was wondering just how safe it was to stay in these buildings with their metal roofs, but I guess I was slightly comforted by the fact that they have been around for a hundred years, so must have endured worse in their time.

The rain smashed against the roof with all its might with brief bouts of hail to add to the commotion, successfully keeping me awake for the majority of the night, but nevertheless it was one of those exciting experiences I won’t forget – what a night it was! The next day we carried on with baiting and checking traps, still with no success. We would spend the chilly evenings huddled around the fire, gossip about the other strange farmers we ran into (one guy practically had a petting zoo at his farmhouse – seven dogs, a meerkat, parrots, pigeons, other strange birds, a piglet, cats any practically anything else you could image) and basically living the farm life.

One day the farmer took me up to his upper ranch while Emma checked the traps in the morning. The upper ranch is another farm he owns where he keeps a number of his cattle, but it is about 75 kilometers up the road on the peak of one of the nearby mountains. There is one tiny farmhouse where one of his workers lives year round to keep an eye on the cattle – a small 10 foot by 10 foot square brick house with no electricity and no running water – yes this place is in the boonies! The temperature is significantly colder up here with daily rain or snow coming around noon, and a constant wind that makes the crisp, cool air practically unbearable. We spent a few hours up there ear-tagging some of the cattle, and that’s all it took for me to freeze and look forward to the drive back down to the main farmhouse where a warm fire awaited. I couldn’t believe somebody lived up there in those conditions year round though, and apparently it’s not uncommon for snow to pile up to five feet in the winter! Yikes, that sounds like rough living. And to think that this worker is alone up there is even more incredible… I don’t know how he does it.

The workers house in the upper farm, tiny! Can you imagine spending about 15 hours each day in this tiny one-room house? Surviving winters with 5+ feet of snow and temperatures below freezing, or summers when it gets to 115 degrees? Not sure I would make it...

Well, despite the lack of Caracal, it was still a very interesting trip. I learned a lot about the research Emma is conducting and the methods/procedures she uses for collecting her data, and I also learned a lot about the farm life up here in the mountains. What a beautiful place to do field work - I made sure to emphasize this to Emma as I reminded her how many people spend their days in the lab while she is out here in these stunningly beautiful mountains catching Caracal. What a neat trip it was, one that I would love to do again sometime. But I must move on, life’s short and so I’ve got to keep the ball rolling. Next stop: Botswana!

A caracal peers through the bushes.

Looking out the back window of the farmhouse

Panoramic shot of the farmers land