This is my twelfth entry (L) for the Blogging from A to Z Challenge.
I have an affinity for cats. I have two at home, and I seriously can’t think of not having them around. Whenever a nature show comes on TV about any kind of wild cat, I have to watch it. I’ve even turned over during sports my addiction is so great. So with that in mind, I bring to you today’s post, all about my favourite cat I’ve seen in the wild – the leopard.
The leopard is included in Africa’s iconic Big 5 (I shouldn’t really use this name as they are trying to move away from it. The Big 5 were so called as they were the five animals that hunters most wanted to shoot – elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion, and leopard). Of all of those aforementioned animals, the leopard is without doubt the hardest one to find. They prefer to spend their time in trees, being a solitary cat when not with their young, so that just gives them more places to hide from prying eyes. Lions will happily lounge around all day wherever they feel like it – they have strength in numbers. And the only real threat to a lion that doesn’t have a gun is another bigger male lion, another group of lions that stumble across a solitary one and want to exert dominance, or they can get wounded while hunting at that could cause serious problems. So the leopard remains secretive and mysterious.
My first trip in 2008 rewarded me with no leopards. No lions either. One fleeting glimpse of a cheetah’s head though. And I was stoked by that. My next trip (I have done 6 in total), in 2011, rewarded me with a couple of lions right before our lunch stop in Kruger. And right after lunch, some of us saw a momentary glimpse of a leopard. We had to confirm it with our guide later to see if it was correct. I took a photo although, as you can see, it is barely distinguishable – but hey, I saw a leopard. Two days later I saw a leopard track. This photo is much better.
August 2014. I have a 6 night safari booked and know it will be different. I know I will be rewarded with some cats – and hopefully that elusive leopard photo I so desperately need. Unlike real wildlife photographers who can sit and wait in one spot for hours, usually by water, you can’t do that on a safari. You have to drive around. You need to cover as much ground as possible. And a lot of the time, it is all about timing. Five minutes after you pass a spot, the people behind you could be rewarded with something amazing. Turn left instead of right, as happened to us on one drive, and you miss the leopard sitting on a branch right next to the road. Completely visible too. I saw photos.
As we raced to see a pride of lions feasting on a giraffe, 100 metres ahead of us a leopard crossed the road. We knew right away what it was. We pulled up to where he was walking down a trail. We waited for him to turn, but he didn’t. The back of his head is lovely though. The next day we saw another leopard, but he was gone before we could take any photographs. My eyes saw his face, but my camera didn’t. My quest for that prime leopard photo had to continue.
August 2015 (are you sensing a theme yet?). My friend Kim and I have a total of 6 nights in prime safari territory. This is going to be the chance. Our second drive of the trip and we’re suddenly pulled away from what we are viewing. “You might want to wrap the blankets around you as we’ll be going pretty quickly.” Our guide Matt heads to the only concrete road in the area. The road separates the two private reserves – the Klaserie (where we are) and the Timbavati (next door). We are not allowed on the Timbavati and vice versa. The guides can contact each other should there be a sighting viewable from the road though. We go tearing off down the highway. We pass a big family herd of elephants. Many people want to stop but Matt says we’ll be back later to view them. My head tells me we’re off to see a cat or something rare. You wouldn’t drive past a herd of elephant like this for one rhino or something. I hear Matt on the radio mention the word “Ingwe.” Ingwe is Shangaan for leopard. My heart races. I tell him I know what Ingwe means. He asks me not to say it out loud as there is every chance that when we get there, the Ingwe may have gone.
There are several jeeps parked on the road, all turned sideways facing the brush on the Timbavati side of the highway. There is one jeep beside a bush, obviously Timbavati owned, and cameras are pointed down towards the base of a bush. Laying there, about 5 foot from this jeep, is the most comfortable leopard ever. We squeeze into our spot, facing the cat head on. Kim and I are in the back row of the jeep, so furthest away. The people in front of us position themselves so we can see and take photos. The leopard is facing sideways from us, but then he turns ever so slightly, and my finger goes mental. Thirty photos later, I’m sure I’ll have at least one good one of most of his face. It turns out I do.
When we finally head back to see the elephants, we all remark how fortunate we were. If that leopard had laid down on the other side of the bush, only 3 feet away, we would not have been able to see him at all. It was the only leopard we saw that trip.
On my most recent trip in July of last year, I was fortunate enough to see four leopards. I managed to get photos of three of them. The first two were from quite a distance away. One of them was laying on his back across a dried out river bed. If not for all the cars stopped to look at him, I would have missed him. The second one was buried in bushes. Those were the two we saw on day 3 of the safari.
On day 4, we saw a leopard in a tree with his kill. It was the first time I had seen a leopard in a tree. Some of the other guests saw his face as he turned, I never did. I have a photo of his back end though. Later in the day, as we were driving out of the park, we saw this same leopard, this time sitting down under the tree. He was catching a few last rays of sunshine. By that time though, I had already died and gone to leopard heaven.
We were in Kruger National Park, with an area the size of Belgium, viewing some elephants around a man-made water tank (Southern Africa has had terrible drought conditions the last few years so they’ve made wells for the animals to get water), when our driver said we should get going if we wanted to see the lions that she was told about when we stopped for lunch. We were driving along the dirt road when all of a sudden, right beside the jeep, a leopard wandered out from behind a bush. I yelled “leopard” as loud as I could. The guide stopped and the leopard circled back behind the bush. We were prepared to wait.
Less than 10 seconds later, the leopard walked out again, strolled right past the jeep, curled behind it, and paused briefly. I was sitting in the back so he was right behind me. He carried on across the road and behind another bush where he lay down. Fortunately there was a little clearing in the bush so people could still photograph him The guy sitting in the front of the car next to the guide got some excellent photos of the cat’s face. He didn’t get the great show of the leopard walking beside the jeep though. As I said earlier – timing and luck have a lot to do with great sightings.
The cat got up again and walked further away into the bush. All told, we stayed with the leopard for around 10 minutes, and in that time, no other car came by. In Kruger, this is practically unheard of. Our guide turned around and smiled, “we might be the only people in the park that see that leopard today.”
Just typing this out, my heart is still racing. Racing like it does every time I get a sniff that we might see a leopard. However fleeting, it is always a privilege. Damn I’ve been lucky.