For as long as I can remember, the leopard has always been my favourite animal. There is something so mysterious about them, I think that is the characteristic that draws the interest that always seems to follow them. They’re different to the other big cats, they do not possess the obvious strength and confidence of a lion, their power is hidden, secretive; is that not more powerful?
Leopard sightings occur due to one of two reasons; an extreme sense of understanding in the bush that allows you to see things that the ordinary person would not; the flick of an ear in the long grass, those unmistakable spots high in a fig tree or under a dense thicket. This only comes with experience, you have to have eyes that know what to look for. The other reason is simply luck. The week that I was in the Kruger National Park, we got lucky. We had five leopard sightings so I’m talking SERIOUS LUCK.
The first was the luckiest of all. We spent our first few days in the park at Letaba Camp. It’s quite far north and for those who know the park this means Mopani, lots of it! The bush is thick and the game viewing can become tedious which it definitely was for us, we literally saw Mopani and Impala for three days. Oh, and a leopard. LUCK. Our campsite was right on the fence and third from the end, this was awesome as it was quiet. The lovely Afrikaans couple in a caravan next to us have spent three months in the park every year for fifteen years. I thought I spend a lot of time in the bush, they were the real deal! In their fifteen years of travelling to the park for three months at a time (some perspective: that’s 45 months, that’s almost 4 years they’ve spent in the park) they had never witnessed what we were about to see. LUCK. The resident hyenas always prowl the fences of the camps at night looking for scraps, they were there that night but something seemed off. I’ve never seen hyenas act so skittish for no reason. But of course there was a reason. My other half was looking around with the torch while cooking on the fire and caught a pair of eyes just beyond the bright focus of the light. I knew instantly that I had never been so lucky, there he was, watching, waiting in the dark. Even though there was a fence between us, I have never been on foot and looked a leopard in the eye, it was almost surreal and for a moment I felt like there was no fence and it was just the two of us. Those moments that we spent watching each other are moments I will never forget.
On our fourth day we headed south to Olifants Camp for one night and everything changed as it always does when moving from north to south in the park. The game viewing becomes significantly better and the traffic, significantly worse. We drove past a tree that inhabited evidence of a recent leopard kill (a dead, hanging impala) but the leopard was no where to be seen so off we went on our afternoon drive. On our way back to camp in the evening we drove back past this same tree and noticed something different, the dead impala had moved to a different branch in the tree. It definitely didn’t come back to life and jump across the tree, we knew what this meant so we looked a little harder and there, in the tree in front of the dead-impala tree was a young leopard. All we could see was her tail so I quickly grabbed my camera to get a shot of the tail as proof because it was getting late, we would soon have to get back to camp and I was sure that tail was all we would see of her. I was wrong. She graced us with her gorgeous presence as she climbed out of her tree and back to her kill where she fed. She moved the impala around with such ease, it was truly amazing to watch. So graceful in her movements yet still showing such strength and when she looked at me I could truly feel the heat of her eyes. We did eventually have to get back to camp so we left her behind in the sunset, what a memory!
I wasn’t ready to let her go when we left and I was sure I would never see this leopard again but again, I was wrong. Just moments before the sun came up the next morning we were in the car and off to explore, we drove past the same tree. There she was. Still there. I couldn’t believe my eyes. There was a difference though, she was agitated, surrounded by cackling hyenas, this is a sound that rattles me to my core, the cackle of a hyena instantly turns my blood cold. Eerie doesn’t begin to describe this noise.
I was so distracted by the hyenas that I didn’t even notice the leopard climbing down the tree. In a matter of seconds the hyenas vanished, terrified and that’s when I saw it. A shot I have always dreamed of getting, I still don’t know how it happened because she did this once, once was enough.
We must be done now right? Our leopard luck had surely run out. But it hadn’t, on our last day, even further south in the park (around the Satara area) we saw yet another leopard on our evening drive. A young male I think, he was exactly how I always expect to see a leopard. Lounging in a beautiful big tree, one paw just hanging lazily off the broad branch. This leopard was different to the others though, he was shy and really not a fan of people (I can’t blame him, it made me respect him even more). His facial expression told a story; for a few seconds after he realized that he was being watched he looked straight at the cars parked beneath him, gave them a look of disgust and climbed so high into that tree that he completely disappeared from sight. It didn’t matter to me, sitting there knowing that a leopard was there is just as exciting seeing him.
We got lucky.