"the long way round"
Leopards are solitary animals by nature and to see two leopards together is a less than common experience. These moments occur mainly during their mating ceremony or while a female leopard is raising her cubs. The rangers and guests at Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve were privileged on several occasions to witness the daily routine of a female leopard with her male cub. We had a wonderful insight into their private lives during one afternoon game drive and my personal experience with them can only be described as "taking the long way round".
Going on an afternoon game drive with his guests might be just another part of his day for Jonas, a ranger, but for me it is like having the door of a cage opened. As with any new trainee it is imperative to learn everything about the bushveld and be initiated into your surroundings. As a trainee ranger you are taken through a long period of safari induction before you are permitted to conduct your own game drives. I was going on my first drive to "shadow" Jonas, to learn and observe the procedures to follow while on game drive. I was very excited to hear that Jonas's plan was to find the female leopard with her cub. However, even with the focus being on finding the female leopard and cub, there were a myriad of other bushveld animals and plants to find out about while on the way. Jonas augmented the game drive experience with his wealth of knowledge of trees, birds and smaller less conspicuous animals. Working together as a team, three Land Rovers quickly picked up the female leopard's spoor and began to track her. It was not long before we experienced the success of finding them. In general leopards are secretive, often hiding in the bush. As a ranger you need to know the "off-road" rules in order to follow and keep up with them without inflicting any damage on the environment. Little did we know that the mother and cub were not going to play by the rules, at least not for that day.
Our journey following the two leopards started in the eastern section of the Sabi Sabi reserve. Sluggish, and with full bellies they swayed along the road. The mother was leading the way and only looked over her shoulder when necessary to ensure the youngster was following in her footsteps. They passed zebras and blue wildebeest. She looked at them, acknowledging that they were too large for a meal. Crouching down she schooled the cub that the impalas on the open area would be a more worthy hunt. Their already full bellies discouraged them from going through with the instinctive chase and simultaneously the two leopards walked to a puddle of rainwater in the road to drink. Not wasting time the mother set off again on her dedicated walk. She was torn from her concentration when a francolin shot out of the grass, with the cub, testing his speed and agility, right behind it. We noticed how she left him to his opportunism because she knew that it would come in handy one day when he would be left to his own devices. She was heading closer to a riverbed and we began to accept that they were probably going to disappear into the thicket, choosing to continue their journey concealed.
The three giraffes on the other side of the riverbed were just as surprised as we were when the mother and her cub emerged out of the riverbed and strangely enough remained on the road. We had been following these two leopards for quite some time and they didn't seem to be deviating off their course. The highlight of our game drive was not only finding the two leopards but also watching the strange behaviour of the giraffes that unfolded. They immediately saw the two leopards and they had their sights fixed on the mother and cub. Strangely, their fixation with the leopards was not enough and instead of running away they came closer to investigate. The leopards were not at all concerned with the interest the giraffes showed in them. They just continued on the road determined to reach their destination. We were fascinated by the fact that the giraffes walked parallel to the leopards for thirty meters or so before they realised that the leopards posed no threat to them. It was quite a sight to see the giraffes and leopards walking alongside each other. This was something I had never expected.
The female's calm and relaxed demeanour manner immediately changed when she noticed a hyena lying in the long grass just off the road. Hyenas would be one of the many challenges the young cub would have to face in his future. The cub quickly picked up on his lesson and followed his mother into the thicket. We didn't manage to relocate the mother and her cub in the long grass and decided to take the long way round and continue on our exciting safari.