sabi sabi ranger stories

leopard encounter

The sun was scorching hot! One could see heat waves being radiated from the dusty dirt roads. I was returning from Skukuza Airport after dropping off guests for their return flight to Johhanesburg. I can distinctly remember thinking that the air was so hot that it felt like holding a hair dryer to my mouth.

When I was about ten minutes from Bush Lodge a set of fresh leopard tracks caught my eye. The tracks were on top of my vehicle tracks which had been made only twenty minutes earlier! On closer inspection the tracks proved to be those of a female leopard. As many reference books, trackers and people with a passion for the bush will attest, leopard are extremely difficult to track and find on foot. These fresh tracks were an opportunity not to be missed! I hurridly returned to the lodge to inform my work mates about the tracks and collect my trusty rifle. With a sense of anticipation and excitement, I eagerly headed back to the tracks to do battle with the African sun and the remote possibility of actually obtaining a glimpse of this magnificent cat!

After twenty minutes of following the leopard spoor, my vision blurred by the sweat streaming down my face, I entered a deeply eroded drainage line. At this point the tracks miraculously dissapeared. Leopards are well known for their admirable, yet frustrating, ability to totally confuse even the best of trackers! Walking a circle in the immediate area, I was unable to find any more spoor or establish the direction of the dissapearing act! Feeling a bit disheartened and very hot, I decided to sit down in a shady spot and listen. The presence of many a predator is revealed by other animals through alarm calls and mobbing behaviour. After sitting motionless for about ten minutes nothing had stirred, only the constant screeching of cicadas and an occasional woe full call from an emerald spotted dove challenged the intense heat.

I could bear the heat no longer and decided to return to my landrover. Just then a francolin flew out of the drainage line, thirty metres from me, shrieking its distinctive alarm call! Slowly I edged forward, my eyes intensely scanning the drainage line ahead and the dense bush on either side of it. Nothing! I continued to approach the francolin, now shrieking its alarm from the safety of a dead tree. I knew this cat was very close, I could not see it, but the hairs on the back of my neck could definitely sense its presence! I stopped and once again scanned the moist soil of the drainage line for tracks.

In front of my right foot a fresh paw print was visible. I knelt down for a closer look, water was just starting to seep from the soil back into the print. The leopard had been here only seconds ago! Instinctively I froze and slowly lifted my head in the direction the track was pointing. My eyes met the cold green eyes of the leopardess, staring straight back at me from four metres away. Too close for comfort! She sat there motionless and majestic, her eyes unblinking. I shifted my eyes to the tips of her ears, avoiding eye contact.

The thought of even chambering a round, not to mention shooting this beautiful animal, never crossed my mind. I was totally dumbstruck and so terrified that I battled to move a single muscle in my body, swallowing to wet my mouth was almost impossible. Still kneeling down, it dawned on me that this leopard's patience was probably wearing thin. I had to retreat and move away, now! Very slowly and cautiously I started to stand up. She was stationary for now, but I could feel her eyes burning holes into my body. With her impenetrable stare following my every move, I started retreating, one small backward step at a time. After what seemed like an eternity, in reality only about ten steps, I noticed for the first time the tiny cub peering at me from between its mother's powerful front legs. I exited the drainage line and returned shakily to my Landrover realising how extremely lucky I was to be alive and to be able to tell the tale.

Certainly an experience I will never forget!!

By: André van Zyl

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