Defeated sighs echoed in the drainage line as we watched a male leopard leap from the branches and into a thicket near Suite 18 at Bush Lodge.
As short and sweet as this sighting was, we were grateful to see this particular male. As short and sweet as the sighting was, as he has a penchant for concealing himself in thick vegetation.
The dinner table bustled with conversations and hopes of finding leopard again in the morning.
Bundled in blankets and beanies, behind me, chattering teeth met the bitterly cold morning.
And we’re off……
Possibly one of my favourite times of the day – sunrise – reminds me that each day is new, and each day is different, taking in this moment as though we have never before witnessed such glory. The crackled call over the radio reports a female leopard on Lisbon as kids still struggle to wake up behind their bundled snowman appearance.
Change of plan. Heading South.
Dappled in sunlight she sits, almost completely concealed in the wind-swept grass. Remains of a kill lay scattered around her.
Hearing the familiar sounds of a camera shutter behind me, I smile knowing that this is what my guests have been anticipating.
The light is beautiful, golden almost and this female poses, lifting her head high to take in the scent sweeping past her. A remnant of her “leftovers” lay strewn at her feet. Hyenas definitely had the upper hand.
But she remains undefeated.
Ferocious canines ever so gently pick up the remains of the impala and she prances proudly toward a tree allowing us to witness the grace with which she moves. Advancing upward towards the highest branches with little effort, placing her prize possession securely in the fork of the tree.
Camouflaged by foliage once again, I thought to myself, what are the chances of this sighting being so brief. Little did we know what waited ahead.
Her unique rosettes, a disruptive coat pattern, allow her to blend into the dense tree canopy.
Circling to find the best angle, we eventually find a spot framing her perfectly in the vegetation. Awestruck we watch as she cleans herself, licking the paw and rubbing against her face in an effort to conceal any scent that may not be reached by the tongue.
Once more I hear the frantic sound of the camera shutters from behind me, capturing every move as she makes her way down to the ground, gracefully.
It’s here where the morning takes a massive turn, a turn that would not only be a first for my guests, but a first for me too.
Scanning her surrounds, with a determined posture, she picks up a large piece of meat that had been tucked away.
She starts moving, setting the pace.
As guides, intrigued by her behaviour, we look at each other and knew the possibility that lay before us. We knew this female had a cub, we just didn’t know where and we had a burning suspicion that the remains of her impala kill she was carrying… was for her cub.
With any luck she will allow us to follow her towards her secret hiding place, allowing us access to the best kept secret of all time. A leopard cub.
The familiar sounds of snapping branches raise her ears to attention. She stops, we stop.
Elephants. An entire herd bumbling about their own business completely oblivious of her presence. But she, aware of theirs.
A quick change in direction leads us through some dense vegetation, heading towards a clearing just north of a dry pan. A clear sign of winter in the veld.
As if checking the road left and right before she crosses, she pauses. Tail flicking in thought, then she heads towards a rocky outcrop ahead.
Vehicles roll to a gentle and silent stop and we sit, say nothing.
Any guide will tell you how difficult it can be to follow a leopard sometimes, especially one who has a young cub. They are secretive and so they should be.
Cubs’ mortality rate is extremely high. The solitude of their existence placing them under pressure from prying enemies. They are exceptional mothers, doing all they can to conceal and protect their young. However, when the female leaves to hunt, she leaves her cubs unattended in the hope she has done a good enough job hiding them.
Larger carnivores are always nosing about. The opportunity to eliminate competition will coincide with their inquisitive nature.
Back on the rocky track.
I hear our trackers, Doctor and Richard, exchange words in the local tongue, Shangaan. Silence returns. Worry set in. Was this it? Was this as far as we could go and no further?
Doctor looks back at me, with nothing but a smile and the familiar hand gesture that indicates direction. We beam with excitement… and slowly start moving…
We would have to move carefully as the route in would be difficult, but Doctor and Richard knew a way.
Stopping on the Northern bank, there is no sign of my colleague, Shaun. I call over the radio.
What feels like minutes pass by, but it was a mere second or two before Shaun’s response comes through.
And in that exact moment I look back at my guests, who have their binoculars securely attached to their faces, they murmur… “I see her…”
Bringing up my binoculars, I too have a look, darting around like a flash of lighting into a thicket just below the female, a speckled cotton ball bumbled down the rock!
My guest’s silence behind me affirms that they saw the same thing I did!
I spot Shaun just opposite the rock where the female lay, we give it a few minutes and Shaun tells me to make my way. We are aware, so aware of the magic happening right now. We approach slowly. Doctor’s guiding hand helps me manoeuvre the vehicle over the rocky outcrop and steep inclines.
I turn back to brief my little humans, they are so well behaved. Quiet, patient and excited. Eyes as wide as saucers beam with anticipation back at me. I think to myself, “what an experience this must be!”
In position, cameras ready. Is this really happening? Shaun’s words travel back towards my vehicle, “Ally, be ready. It will pop out behind mom, don’t miss it.”
These words now ring in my head. What if I miss it!? I’m thinking of so many things right now.
Are my guests ready?
What are they thinking? Is this as magical for them as it is for me?
Are his camera settings right?
Why is there so much wind?
The sun is literally obliterating my very concentrated face right now… I forgot sunblock! Grrr.
What if we miss this tiny spotted forehead peak over the rock because of the angle?
Nervousness courses through me.
I hear Shaun say, “Now Ally, now”
And as time seems to come screeching to a halt, gasps of relief and accomplishment fills the air, the timid little spotted cotton ball peered over the rock for a mere 5 seconds, allowing for my guests to capture the oversized ears and mottled forehead pop up.
I turn back overjoyed, saying, “this is AMAZING, even if this is as good as it gets. We are so privileged to be able to set foot into her secret world.”
It gets better!
The cub shoots around mom so fast we have no time to capture it with a camera, instead sitting in absolute awe. Flying around to the safety of mom’s hind legs, the cub suckles for a few short moments.
Shaun’s engine starts, we wave goodbye, re-position.
Turning to my guests and ask them what they would like to do.
Naive. Do I really need to ask?
The response comes in grins, ear meeting ear, the request to stay a little longer. We stayed an extra two hours… and rewarded we were. For some time after Shaun left all was still. The mother sat grooming herself, while her cub… well we didn’t really know where it had gone.
Soaking up winters’ sun we spoke quietly about the phenomenal sighting that had played out before us. We were content that, should the cub not return, we were still ecstatic with our experience.
She grooms herself in a way that seems so carefree. She is not fazed by our presence, she is comfortable.
I turn to Doctor, “Have you any idea where the cub is?”
Doctor replies with his ever-friendly smile, “I can’t see it, but I can hear it, feeding on the meat the mother brought.”
Doctor’s ears are so sharp. I am in constant awe of his bush skills, his heightened senses and his ability to track and interpret. Forever absorbing the knowledge he has to share.
Discussing the leopard’s feeding habits and cub development, I hear a chuff I have only ever read about.
She continued to chuff and make a low bird-like call, as though she was encouraging her cub to come out.
She paces for a moment or two on the rock, we sit in anticipation. Will we see the cub again?
She descends from the rock and into the long grass where we soon lose sight of her dappled coat. The urgent chuff continues.
From the corner of our eyes her cub shoots out from the grass and with less grace that its mother, perches itself on the ledge in front of us. Our jaws drop. It shoots into the small crevices that has concealed this cub for some time.
Those larger than life ears appear over the other side, peaking out to scan the surrounding area. The cub’s animated and curious movements take over and it becomes a “show”!
Slowly but surely this little cub makes its ways towards the rock behind mom. We can’t contain the excitement.
The cub’s bravado and curiosity take over, becoming larger than life. Flopping itself all over mom, darting around with excitement. She licks and grooms and the cub squeaks and squeals with bird-like songs.
This moment is magical, it is beautiful and heart-felt and we, well we are privileged. We sit enjoying every tender moment the pair shared.
Studying the cub’s playful antics, we discuss its importance. Developing co-ordination skills, hunting techniques, and physical prowess. These are vital for the success of this species. Here we witness the affirmation of the individual bond between mother and cub.
The cub’s paw meets the mom’s cheek in a swoop of excitement. We laugh while I explain that this movement contains purpose, the fore paw being used from a young age as an investigative and response inducing tool.
I’m in awe of the contrasts and juxtapositions of this animal. Her power and strength, sharp claws, teeth and jaws, hunting down an impala only hours earlier in order to not only feed herself but for the survival of her cub. I now watch as she uses these same tools to gently groom and nurture her youngster.
A game of hide and seek rounds out our sighting. Peering inquisitively over mom’s head, then concealing itself against her chest. Our giggles tickle the morning air with the overwhelming gift.
A gift you may ask.
Yes, a gift. Leopards are elusive and top visitor’s list of sighting desires when in Africa.
But don’t be fooled by this experience. It’s not an everyday occurrence. A leopard won’t show itself if it doesn’t want to, evidenced by the extensive tracking required to locate these special creatures. Solitary animals, covering large distances in order to maintain territories, often absent for some days before returning to a section that may spill over onto our land.
We are blessed to be in an environment where these individuals have been given the respect they deserve and generations have come to call Sabi Sabi home, making our time spent in the field with them, valuable.