A couple of weeks ago I was called upon at the last minute to guide for a small group of 3 guests. Little did I know then I was about to embark on the drive of my life! Earlier that morning one of the other guides had spotted a leopard with cubs on a kill in an area called Crook’s corner on our concession. To say I was a little jealous is an understatement! I’ve only seen leopard twice in the 4 months I’ve been here and both sightings were pretty poor. That afternoon, after some last minute rushing around to prepare sundowner snacks and drinks for my guests, I grabbed the three of them and hit the road with one destination in mind – Crook’s corner.
As it happened, we almost didn’t make it. Driving along a popular road, Rhino Boma, we encountered so much game that I was stopping every few minutes to take photos and soak up the wildlife on offer. Buffalo, elephant, antelope and some beautiful birds including the world’s heaviest flying bird – the Kori Bustard – trying to kill a mozambique spitting cobra! Unfortunately even an 18kg behemoth of a bird is no match for a cobra and he made a hasty retreat, blinking venom out of his eyes as he went. Getting dark now, I sped up to try to make our sundowner spot before the sun actually disappeared when, just a few hundred metres from Crook’s corner, I picked up the heady whiff of a rotten carcass. I slowed to a crawl, nose in the air, as we tried to determine where the smell was coming from.
Just then, the telltale buzzing of blowflies erupted to our left. “She’s in here!” one of my guests whispered
excitedly. We could barely see her as she had hidden deep beneath a thick woolly caper bush, but there was a flicker of movement and the faint sound of crunching as she tore the last scraps of flesh from bone. We’d found her! Engine off now, we waited with baited breath to see if she would come out in the now rapidly advancing night. After 10 minutes, our patience was rewarded. This beautiful creature stepped out from underneath her hiding place right into the road ahead!
Not wanting to scare her, we waited to see her next move. Even more luck! 50 metres ahead now, she suddenly came to a stop and lay down right next to the road. I started my engine, praying it wouldn’t startle her. It didn’t. Slowly we began creeping forwards, spotlight fixed on our prey. Just then, when we thought this sighting couldn’t possibly get any better, first one then two tiny fuzzy heads popped out of the grass behind our female. A leopard with cubs! Killing the engine just 15 metres away, we watched with incredulous joy as what had now become THREE tiny leopard cubs began playing in the road ahead of us. Chasing tails and play-fighting without a care in the world.
After what seemed like a lifetime but was probably only 20 minutes, the female got up to cross the road, taking her babies with her.
Thinking it was all over and having completely missed the sunset (no harm there), I edged ahead 100m to turn the car around. But this majestic queen of beasts wasn’t quite finished with her show just yet. As we reappeared round the corner she began walking back towards the road, towards us, once more.
I killed the engine again and we watched her curiously approach, only stopping when she was a mere 3 metres from the car. And there she stood. For 30 seconds, maybe more, she stared right into our eyes. Although considerably smaller than a lion, the leopard is truly a killing machine and, although completely hypnotised I couldn’t help but feel a few butterflies in my belly the way those eyes locked onto ours. One leap and she would be in the car. Finally, giving in to the sense of uneasy and not wanting to push this female to the point of running away, I started my car once more and headed back to camp for some celebratory drinks. What an incredible evening!
To find out more about where you can see leopards and other cats in the wild check out this awesome post.