Long before the lion took to the Nuweveld mountains another outlaw hid out in these remote borderlands between the Northern and Western Cape.
His name was Stefaans Coetzee and he was responsible for the Worcester mall bombings in 1995.
According to local lore, Coetzee travelled barefoot, always
one step ahead of his trackers who kept losing his trail amongst the shale and shrubs of the Nuweveld, that rise high above the karoo plains.
But the Worcester mall bomber eventually made it easy for authorities-he gave himself up.
Today he sits in the Pretoria Central Prison.
Now two decades on, this other outlaw stalked the Nuweveld. Sylvester the lion, had evading his trackers for over three weeks. The media had called him Sylvester and he had escaped from the Karoo National Park after floods had washed away a section of fence.
In those weeks helicopters, some of southern Africa’s finest trackers and a pack of big cat hunting dogs had failed to catch the three-year-old lion.
One of those on his trail was Karel Pokkie Benadie, a master tracker. Pokkie, who grew up tracking on the same plains the lion now roamed, got the closest to catching the cat.
Twice on June 12, he sighted the lion.
That morning he knew he had got close when he smelt the strong odour of cat urine and noticed scent markings left on bushes. “I told them, the lion is here,” said Pokkie. Walking down a river bed, he spotted Sylvester. The lion ran off. He turned again to the pudgy paw marks left in the sand and joined the track.
“To find this lion, you need to realise that it basically walks in a straight line, and I tell trackers they need to keep on this line,” he said.
The fresh tracks led into thick bush, and Pokkie skirted around the brush, and when he couldn’t find any prints on the other side, he realised Sylvester was in there somewhere.
He and the other trackers formed a line and inched their way into the bush.
Ten meters away Pokkie saw two eyes watching him. Sylvester leaped up, roared and darted off. The line of trackers broke and ran.
Tracking Sylvester from that point on became harder. The lion always kept ahead of his pursuers. In two weeks he walked over 300 kilometres.
But like that other outlaw Stefaans Coetzee, Sylvester appeared to be
looking to end his days on the run. He kept heading towards the Karoo National Park.
“He realises that it is not safe, out here and he wants to make his way back to the safety of the Karoo National Park. And like all lions he has an inherent homing system that will take him back to his birthplace,” explained lion expert Kevin Richardson.
On Monday 29 June, shadows had began filling the kloofs of the Nuweveld as the trackers followed the faint trial higher up a mountain.
Above crows wheeled in the sky and a winter wind blew from the south.
Sylvester had not eaten in four days, and the day before he had crossed onto the farm Palmietfontein. Here, weeks earlier he had gone on a killing spree slaughtering 14 sheep. This time he didn’t hunt, he simply climbed higher and higher.
When the trackers spotted him on a rock, he was close to 6000 feet above sea level. Sylvester took off, but settled down about a 100 metres away. Twenty four days of being on the run, had sapped his energy.
The trackers called in a helicopter. The chopper had to get in close-shrub top level close, so that the vet sitting in the co pilot’s chair, could fire the dart.
Thirty meters from the lion, he fired. The dart found its mark.
The Park manager of the Karoo National Park, Nico van der Walt realised that at last luck was on their side, when a tree stopped the unconscious lion from rolling down a cliff.
With the lion down, they had to work fast.
Van der Walt said that the only way to get the lion quickly off the mountain was to use the helicopter. He watched anxiously as the chopper’s blades flashed just two metres from the side of the mountain as they hooked a cargo sling with the lion inside to the bottom of the helicopter.
With Sylvester secure, they flew him down onto the plains below to the waiting vehicles. Then a speeding drive along a network of farm roads to the Karoo National Park and a boma that for the next couple of weeks is likely to be the lion’s home.
And with the lion home, the Nuweveld had lost its most recent outlaw.